the monster looked out the window of his castle at the threatening sky.
perhaps , he thought. some weary travelers will seek shelter from the storm, and i will thereby have someone to talk to, and even listen to one of my stories.
and as he looked, a flash of lightning lit up the sky, and he saw two figures coming up the road.
they were betty and buddy.
the monster thought they looked familiar, as if he had known them in some previous life.
he hoped they would knock on the door of the castle.
as his last servant had left him just a few days ago, he went down the long staircases to the ground floor, so that he could open the door himself if they knocked.
when he reached the door and looked through the peephole, he saw that the boy and girl had come within a couple of hundred feet of the castle and were standing in the road arguing, and looking up at the sky.
he assumed they were arguing about whether to approach the castle, but who was taking which side of the argument he had no way of telling.
the girl seemed to be doing most of the talking and winning the argument, as the boy was slowly nodding his head to her torrent of words.
just then, another flash of lightning lit up the sky, accompanied by a tremendous blast of thunder, and the skies opened up and began pouring down dark rain.
abandoning the argument, the boy raced toward the castle door, and after a moment’s hesitation, the girl followed.
the monster happily flung the door open , and buddy stumbled in past him, followed by a gust of rain and betty.
“welcome to these humble lodgings,” the monster smiled with the best grace he could. he looked around at the dark cavernous hall of the castle’s ground floor, unlit by fire and barren of ornament. “i realize the furnishings leave something to be desired, but if you care to follow me, i will do my best to build a fire.”
betty looked suspiciously up at the monster’s bent hulking frame. “you must be the butler. where is your master? take us to him.”
“i beg your pardon, miss, but i am the master, and at present i am my own servant, as i have no other.”
“i see. so you make your own fire, and answer your own door. are you then your own cook?”
“at least for the moment, miss. are you looking for a situation?”
“um - no, thank you. we are just poor travelers, seeking shelter from the proverbial storm.”
“i thought as much. follow me, please, and i will do my best to provide the hospitality that custom dictates.”
betty and buddy followed the monster across the bare hall and down a long passageway lit by a few smoky torches.
the passageway was lined with pictures.
there were a few portraits, of ferocious and stern looking individuals, but most of the pictures portrayed stirring and dramatic and grisly scenes, under stormy skies and on windswept shores and battlefields.
“are these all your ancestors?” buddy asked the monster as he led them down the passage.
“indeed they are, young man.”
buddy stopped in front of a particularly large and detailed portrait, one which was located at some distance from the nearest torch, so that its particulars were somewhat obscured in the gloom of the passage.
“including this one?” buddy asked. betty exhibited some impatience at buddy’s curiosity but the monster seemed in no way put out, and looked back curiously at the picture buddy was enquiring about.
the picture portrayed a very busy scene on a beach, with a stormy sea and sky in the left background. along the beach were evidences of a shipwreck, but this was not the most striking feature. in the right background was a gallows, from which hung some dozen unfortunates.
the gallows was guarded by a line of soldiers in dark blue uniforms with muskets at the ready, and the tallest and straightest of the soldiers was being addressed in a wide eyed imploring manner by a young woman
with a partially bared breast and wearing a red gown which was the only spot of bright color in the composition.
“and which of the actors in this drama is your ancestor?” buddy asked the monster with a smile. ”the young woman in the red dress? one of the soldiers? one of the gallows birds?”
betty rolled her eyes at buddy’s impertinent questions, but the monster replied with a smile of his own,
“they all are, young sir. after all, we are all one, and everybody is everybody else’s ancestor.”
“yes of course,” buddy nodded.
“if you like, i will tell you the story of the picture, when we have made ourselves comfortable before the fireplace. would that suit you?”
a squad of imperial dragoons was making merry in the courtyard in front of the inn.
nothing had to be said. it was an opportunity for hero to display her tricks, and try to add to the precarious funds of the little band.
jen had been riding just ahead of the wagon, which was making a leisurely pace since entering the streets of the town.
an occasional street urchin would shout at the wagon, usually something humorously deragotary about the inhabitants of the steppes and mountains, but they were ignored, and pythias and bucephalus plodded along to their placid rhythm.
it was a warm evening, just growing dark, and hero and leander had been walking beside the wagon, preferring the night air to the somewhat stifling interior of the wagon.
with a nod to hero, and to the mug the driver, jen rode away ahead into the interior of the town.
the wagon stopped. before proceeding, hero beckoned to leander.
“listen,” she said to him, in a milder tone than he was used to from her, “we have a good chance to get a good haul from these drunken boobies. we will try the punch and judy, and betty and buddy routines i have taught you. now look here, goat boy, i am going to try something a little different to get you up to snuff, as jen has forbidden me to use stern measures. can you guess what that is?”
“no,” the bewildered leander replied.
“if you do a good job, or even if you do not foul things up completely, do you know what i will do?”
“i will let you kiss me. what do you think of that, eh?”
leander would not have been half so amazed if hero had turned into a dove or a dragon and flown away into the sky.
“i - that sounds good me,” he managed to say.
“good. then let us proceed.” and with that she turned, did a couple of somersaults and sprang back on her feet in front of four dragoons seated around a table covered with emptied glasses and bottles.
“here is a fine group of bold fellows!” she cried. “preparing themselves in the time honored way to enter the hell of battle and carry away glory! ready to go swirl to sword with corak himself and carry his head to the emperor!”
“get away with you, you little bumpkin, you little dung beetle from the steppes,” growled what seemed to be the drunkest of the four, “ do you take us for shepherds or mountain men, new to the city? get back, you shall not get close enough to pick this soldier’s pocket.”
“oh, you wrong me, captain, you do me wrong in truth!” cried hero, in no way put out by his words and doing a pirouette, “ i only wish to entertain you - to bring a smile to the lips of a bold soldier about to give his all to save the empire!”
“entertain us?” exclaimed one of his companions, who had the appearance of a grizzled veteran. “you look a chick a bit too young to fry, miss. if you have an older sister, send her our way, that we may be properly entertained.” and he laughed, banged his glass on the table and looked around at his fellows for their approval of his words.
“and enough,” added a third member of the party, seemingly younger and more sober than his companions, “ of your twaddling efforts to flatter us. we are about as likely to fight the dread corak as you are - if he even exists and s not a phantom. no, we have sat here in garrison since moloch was a chimneysweep -“
“by god, he speaks truth!” cried the final member of the quartet, a huge red faced fat fellow, “how we - or at least i, ha ha, long for the thunder of battle! to clash with the foe in the manner of our heroic forefathers! too long have we grown soft -“ but his peroration was cut short by a fit of coughing and a belch that shook the table.
nothing daunted, hero persisted. “i am sure all you brave fellows will acquit yourself nobly when glory calls! in the mean time, why not enjoy a good laugh? i am sure you all know the stories of betty and buddy - well, we are here to present a brand new one - an imperial premier, just for you! if you enjoy it, throw us a shekel, or a lousy kopeck! it is entirely up to you!” and she turned to leander, who had been standing dumbly behind her the whole time.
“are we ready - for ‘betty and buddy - in the castle of the monster’?”
the wagon traveled over deserts, mountains, rivers, and plains.
sometimes the woman calling herself queen jen rode alongside the wagon on her tall horse. more often she rode ahead by herself, then waited for the wagon to catch up.
always they kept behind the edge of the vast army of corak son of the lightning, who was gathering a whole vast continent together for an assault on the empire.
the empire of the vultures.
but although queen jen and her little band stayed behind the line of corak’s army, they gradually circled it and in doing so crossed through endless hidden little kingdoms and outposts of abandoned empires, small forbidden cities, and the camps of unconquerable tribes and mad sects.
all the while coming ever closer to their goal - the heavily defended capital of the empire of the vultures - the gold and sapphire city of za.
after a few of his innocent questions had been brushed aside, leander gave up on trying to understand queen jen’s purpose in reaching za , and he got through each day one at a time with his new companions.
his new companions - the girl named hero, the faceless man, whose name was legion, the old witch woman whose name was perdition, and the shapeless driver, who name was mug.
the two yaks who pulled the wagon were called pythias and bucephalus, and it was with them that leander got on with best.
queen jen had what seemed to leander an endless supply of coins - of gold? - with which she could purchase provisions for the group when absolutely necessary, but she preferred to hoard them, and the group foraged when they could.
and, when they passed through any kind of city or settlement, hero would attempt to earn some coins by performing in the streets or dusty roadways, singing, dancing , and performing magic and acrobatic tricks.
leander was assigned to assist her in these endeavors,. it was quickly apparent that he was useless to her, except as a butt or foil. but he was not very good even at that, and hero was wont to berate him, savagely and endlessly, for his clumsinesses.
the other members of the crew found her abuse of leander highly amusing, and encouraged her in it.
only the two beasts of burden, pythias and bucephalus, showed the boy any sympathy. but he had a thick hide, and much preferred his new life, with its constant change of scenery, to his old one as a goatherd.
hero took her complaints to jen whenever she had the opportunity.
“he is useless. why can i not have a snake instead? i could train a snake to some really good tricks. and get some good coin.”
“i do not care for snakes,” jen would reply. “he is what you have. make do with him.”
“then at least let me train him properly. by beating him!” this got a good laugh from the others, especially the old woman perdition.
hero continued. “how can i train anybody properly when i can not put a stick to them?”
“i think he is used to beatings,” jen answered. “and if there is any beating to be done, i will do it.”
“but he is useless!”
“i have my plans for him. he will be useful to me.” thus jen ended the discussion.
in this way the group continued, until they finally reached the outskirts of the empire proper.
they began to pass through towns of some size, but were still many miles from za.
one night, as the sun was setting, they came to an inn outside the city of uo-path.
a squad of imperial dragoons was making merry in the courtyard in front of the inn.
“wait here. a wagon will come by to pick you up,“ the woman in red had told leander.
the young goatherd did not have long to wait. a wagon drawn by two hulking yaks and driven by a shapeless creature covered by a green blanket appeared on the horizon.
leander stepped up boldly to meet it. “are you from the lady in red?” he shouted as soon as he thought the wagon was in hearing distance.
“we are here for you,” a voice announced, though leander could not be sure if it issued from the blanketed driver or from the interior of the wagon.
“get in,” the voice commanded as the wagon grew level with the boy, “and be quick about it.”
leander scrambled into the back of the wagon easily enough.
it was not too dark inside the wagon and he quickly noticed that it was piled with boxes and baskets and that there were three other occupants.
a really old woman, almost surely a witch, huddled between two piles of boxes and paying leander no mind.
a man with no face was leaning back against a bare spot on the side of the wagon. he had no eyes or nose, but a mouth in which a short pipe was clenched. despite his lack of eyes, the boy felt the man was staring at him intently.
and a young girl - his own age! the first one the young goatherd had ever seen. he gaped at her in astonishment, ignoring the witch and the faceless man.
“what is your name?” he asked the girl.
“my name is hero,” she replied in no friendly matter.
“that is a strange name for a girl.”
“what do you know about names? or about girls? i am probably the first one you have ever seen.”
“that may be,” leander replied with a smile.
“you were a goatherd,” the girl continued.
“yes, i was. and may still be, if that is what i am told to do.”
the man with no face took his pipe out of his mouth and laughed.
“i do not think queen jen needs you to chase any goats” said the girl. “you are to be a monkey.”
“if you say so,” leander replied. he remembered the woman in red saying something about a monkey being what she wanted.
“but i am the number one monkey - even though you look like a monkey and i do not. you are only to be kept in reserve in case i fail, which i will not do.”
“so be it,” the boy agreed. he had no idea what the girl was talking about, but his brief lifetime of chasing after goats had left him with a philosophical cast of mind, and not inclined to argue about trifles, or that which he did not understand.
“this queen jen you refer to you - is that the lady in the long red cloak?” he asked the girl.
“yes, of course.”
“she told me she was not a queen.”
“we call her that,” said the man wth no face. “even though she does not presently have a kingdom to call her own.” he gestured with his pipe. “but have a seat, young fellow, and make yourself comfortable. we have a long journey ahead of us.”
“a very long journey,” added the girl.
“and you,” the faceless man addressed the girl, “a little silence would become you. you talk too much. jen can tell the boy what he is to do, if she pleases.”
the girl scowled but did not reply.
leander took a seat not quite directly opposite the girl.
they all lapsed into silence as the wagon trudged along.
the gargoyle looked down on the three wretched quivering schoolboys, huddled just inside the gate of the forbidden city, which they at least had had the gumption to cross.
and felt the tiniest twinge of pity, remembering himself when he was just an innocent lad.
for he had not always been a gargoyle, chained by a curse to a stone tower in an abandoned city in the middle of nowhere…
no, he had been a goatherd, little more than a slave, a camp follower on the fringes of the mighty army of corak son of the lightning, who had been massing his followers for almost a decade for a mighty assault on the empire of…
on the empire of…
in his long aeons on the wall of the stone city, the gargoyle had forgotten the name of the emperor - and the name of the empire he ruled - who had been the target of the mighty corak…
but he remembered being a goatherd. and little more than a slave, but a slave under the blue sky of heaven…
treated like a dog and a slave, but “free” to run away if there had been anywhere to run to…
free to run away across the empty desert or to the icy mountains… his master would never bother to chase after him..
most of all, free to dream…
and the master’s voice, a cross between a bear’s and a dragon’s, calling him…
“leander! leander! you little wretch! where are you now? “
for leander , as near as the gargoyle could remember, had been his name in those faraway days on the steppes…
“i am here, master," leander replied, "what is the problem? i have my goats in a group as tight as the lock on the door to paradise. has alexander lost a goat again, and must i retrieve it?”
alexander was the master’s other goatherd, a comelier youth - a much comelier youth than leander the future gargoyle - and the master’s favorite.
the master came up from behind the unsuspecting leander and gave him a stout box on the ear, knocking him to the ground.
leander was used to such treatment and jumped up quickly.
to his astonishment, he looked up and beheld not only the scowling master standing over him with a scowl and a clenched fist, but a figure behind him…
a figure clad in a long red robe, astride the tallest horse the young goatherd had ever seen.
leander looked closer and his astonishment grew when he realized the rider in the red robe was a woman!
a crone of about thirty years, but a woman for all that!
the vast army of corak was strictly disciplined, even on its fringes, and men and women were mostly kept separate. leander had hardly ever seen a woman in his life.
now the woman came closer, and leander guessed from her strange dress that she must be from one of the distant kingdoms in the ice mountains.
“stand up straighter,” the master told the boy, “this woman wishes to get a better look at you. she might wish to purchase you, what do you think of that, eh?”
the master turned and looked up at the woman, who had come closer and now towered over both the master and the boy on her tall steed.
“i told you he was not much to look at,” the master told the woman.
“yes, he looks like a monkey,” the woman replied, “but a monkey is just what i am looking for. i will take him, at the price you named.”
and she tossed a coin to the master. leander wondered where he thought he would get a chance to spend it, but said nothing.
the master took a step toward the boy, as if to give him one last smack, but the woman stopped him. “he is mine now, do not touch him.”
the master withdrew, calling for the other goatherd. “alexander, alexander, you lazy little devil!”
leander thought, perhaps he will now get the thrashings i got.
he felt the woman in red looking down at him.
“am i to follow you?” he asked her. “i do not know if i can keep up with your horse.”
“wait here. a wagon will come by to pick you up. i think i hear it now.”
leander nodded. “are you a queen?” he asked the woman.