Captain Futvoye Halfnight, VC, DDS, regarded an irregular blemish of smut on one freshly brushed puttee. His puttees were a fine suede, unborn eland, skinned alive in its mother’s womb. This was a native practice which the captain deplored, but it did produce a grand puttee of that optimistic fawn color otherwise achieved only by the questionable fungus from the stumps of defunct elms. The puttees’ extreme softness was achieved by a vigorous rubbing with placental blood. A fleet eland had given its all and Captain Halfnight was happy with his feet.
Futvoye had been his grandmother’s maiden name. But despite the ancient and, as far as Burke’s Peerage could ascertain, honorable Scots ancestry, at school his classmates nicknamed him “Foot-boy.”
Young Futvoye, before his attendance at Macclesfield Dental Academy, thus not yet a captain, would have been content with “Painted Pict,” the usual opprobrium attached to underclassmen of Caledonian heritage. “Painted Pict” suggested doughtiness against overwhelming odds, or at least the rowdy crowds of hooligans who upchucked their lagers at football matches. Futvoye Halfnight did not attend games, but threw up anyway.
“Foot-boy, here. Stand to,” a particularly bothersome upperclassman said. “Hmmm. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. We’ll have to do something about those feet, won’t we, Foot-boy?” Ten-year-old Futvoye Halfnight fled in tears to the buttery where he hid in an onion closet. To this day, thirty years after the fact, the mere mention of onions or football would bring tears to his eyes. Untidy footwear trudged through his dreams, the boyhood fever dreams of girl gymnasts and early waking to wet sheets.
“And now I am lost in the woods,” he said as he whistled up his missing left eye. “Here, Claudia.” Claudia was the name of the missing eye. “Pweet! Here girl.”
The original eye, which had been hazel, had been lost chucking quoits with the dervishes of the Taklamakan Desert. A native healer grafted on a replacement eye from a pile of battlefield offal. It was of perhaps human origin.
“Please...” pleaded the captain. Claudia had a tendency to wander and wheedling was a regular practice. The eye came rolling toward him across the forest floor where she had been investigating the nest of a spotted vole. “Pretty please... with sugar on it.”
The eye left off its pursuit of voles and rolled over to the puttees. “There’s a good Claudia,” said the captain. The eye appreciated a kind word. There was an agitated chattering from beneath a mound of blue-green lichen the eye had pushed aside to further her studies. He picked her up and wiped away a blotch of ergot and birdlime, polishing the eye with his shirtfront after the manner of a middle-aged librarian with spectacles on a string.
The captain popped his eye into its socket. “Ahh.” What he saw was not reassuring. “Ohh...” A great gnarly man was leaning against a tree and staring at him. He was naked but for the skin of a tiger which he wore nonchalantly over one shoulder. Said gnarly man approached with the side-saddle gait of a cripple. One hip socket had been dislocated and poorly healed.
“How do?” said the gnarly man as he stooped to re-cover the vole’s nest with a pile of moldy leaves. The chattering subsided. “They’re Her critters you know, the voles. Mustn’t let one’s eye go poking about unsupervised. There’s a world of hurt a-waiting for those as disrespect the Lady. Unless you have True Grit,” added the gnarly man. He gave the captain a speculative look. “Hello, there, Claudia.”
The eye winked.
“How did you know my eye’s name?”
“Easy enough. You were yowling it all through the sacred wood. And that’s a mighty handsome eye ye got there, sagebrush, if’n ye don’t mind me saying. Useter be mine.”
“Easy, girl.” Captain Halfnight poked his eye with the ear spoon attachment of his clasp knife. Claudia was trying to screw herself deeper into his head. “Your speech... it is moist,” said the captain, “If you don’t mind what might be construed as an uncourteous observation.”
“Lateral emission,” offered the gnarly man. The man’s vocalizations cast a spray of spittle that had wet Halfnight’s khaki. “It makes us sufferers sound like Daffy Duck or Sylvester Pussycat. We slobber all over the place. I’ve got some teeth missing, a strange situation for a King of the Wood to find himself in. King of the Wood—that’s me,” said the gnarly man. “You’ll get used to the flying spit. But as I was saying, that’s a mighty handsome eye.”
“You are a king.” Halfnight found himself wishing he had packed the ceremonial sword presented to graduates of the Macclesfield Dental Academy. He had likewise noticed the gnarly man slipped in and out of dialect. He chalked this up to noblesse oblige.
“The King of the Wood, I am,” said the gnarly man. “You know, all that Golden Bough mumbo-jumbo. You haven’t commented on my limp. That is polite of you.” The man in the tiger skin had again lost his colorfully accented speech. “I have been ritually lamed; we all are. Soon it will be your turn. See, my time is approaching and if I don’t come up with a surrogate, well... there will be a fight to the death for my fiefdom—a fight with the next comer, which I gather to be you. It’s all upper body strength. I work out with dumbbells. A good calcium supplement, and I eat fish three times a week when I can escape the oat pudding with butter and jam.”
“I am an army surgeon... well, dentist. I became separated from my unit in a dust storm in the Taklamakan Desert. Now I am here.”
“An eventful life,” said the King of the Wood. “I myself have had many callings. I was a gatherer of misplaced eyes, a fancier if you will, and a wanderer of the world. On previous hiking tours, before Thessaly, I followed the trail of penitents as they dragged their pathetic bodies up the rocky shale to the shrine of St. James of Compostella. Pilgrims should carry rearview mirrors. They left an inventory of lost lesions and dropped appendages all over the landscape. I picked up the fallen eyes, always had a weakness for eyes, I did—part of what I call my recycling program. I am an authority on lost eyes.”
“Odd you should mention that,” said Halfnight. “I am at this moment missing an eye. I have a handsome replacement.” He scratched Claudia. The eye quivered rapturously in its socket.
“I’m missing most teeth as well as an eye,” offered the gnarly man evasively. “Poor dental hygiene—the basic diet of a sacred king is oatcakes, butter and refined sugar—hogsheads, puncheons, barrels, firkins, rundlets and tuns of butter, the fatter the better. I keep on the run so’s not to fatten up. The girls haven’t yet started sizing me up for the stewpot. But I can’t leave off answering the dinner chime. And that, me laddy-buck, is where you come in.”
“Odd you should mention dentistry. I am a diplomate of Macclesfield Dental Academy. Teeth were my bread and butter. I had a flourishing practice in Derbyshire—genuine replacement teeth, wed inextricably to the jawbone. You would be an excellent candidate.”
The gnarly man responded with palpable boredom to Halfnight’s recitation of his dental credentials. His remaining eye was unimpressed. “A winsome smile won’t save yer brisket here, laddie. There’s a ghost in the machine needs excising. Some says...” He drew closer. “It’s the Basilisk.” The gnarly man shuddered, composed himself and, with a greenish-black smile consisting mainly of rotten stumps, held out his hand. “Rex Nemorensis, king of these woods, formerly Charley Blackwell. And you?”
“Futvoye Halfnight, VC. The VC stands for Very Careful. If your machine needs exercise as you say, I’ll be only too glad to join in with your fitness regime. And what exactly is a Basilisk?”
“A big chicken with the tail of a serpent. Very big—spits poison draughts into the eye of an adversary. You will have to be prudent on your quest. And if you are so careful, Halfnight VC, how come you lost your first eye? Twice, I might add. Phweet! Here, Claudia.” Whereupon Halfnight’s battlefield eye leapt from his head and snuffled puppy-happy at the very large feet of Rex Nemorensis.
“Hey...” said Halfnight.
“We’ll have to see the Lady, that’s all,” said the Rex Nemorensis. “She’ll sort things out. Be brisk about it. Come along.” The gnarly man thrust aside an elderberry thicket with a single swipe of one massive arm. With a crunching of dry tussocks and a snapping of distressed vegetation he plunged into the woods.
“Follow me and put some back into it. Getting lost in the Lady’s purlieu is a dangerous pastime. Keep a weather eye now, Claudia. Been a long time, eh girlie?” The Rex Nemorensis’ voice grew faint in the distance.
“Ow!” Navigating with his one remaining eye, Halfnight had bumped into an ornamental shrubbery, driving a twig under the lid. “Wait up; I’m blind.” He lifted the eyelid, extracted the twig, and partial vision returned. Beyond the hedge a pathway became visible through a milky halo, its course delineated by two rows of squared-off granite blocks. “I say, statues...” The parallel lines of stone figures diminished in perspective to where a shrine of toppled pillars rose in a misty distance. He was alone and lost. The King of the Wood arrived in answer to Halfnight’s cry of pain.
“Ooo,” said a mellifluous female voice. “Hello there. Are you waiting for the execution? We shall have a lovely party. Tomorrow night. Don’t be late. You are not lost by any chance?” The voice sighed, also mellifluously. “You are early but I am certain we can find you a place in the line.”
“Uh... line?” Halfnight was rubbing at his afflicted eye. Through the tears a female form coalesced.
“The line of succession, silly. I’m named Dryope, by-the-bye.”
The lissome Dryope skipped off, humming a lilting tune through the forest undergrowth. She was carrying an armload of knotted net bags full of a white substance. The young woman stopped at a larch sapling where a net bag hung from a low-lying branch. She lifted the bag and held it to her nose. “Ugh! Quite ripe. The Lady loves to feed the birds but it has been unseasonably warm this past ennead.” She tucked the smelly bag into her waistband and replaced it with a fresh one.
“Suet bags,” said Rex Nemorensis, the gnarly man, who had doubled back at Halfnight’s cry of pain. “My predecessor. Tried in a cauldron and seeded with millet. For the wild birds of the sacred wood. His leftovers now line the paunches of chickadees and nesting wrens. The wren is a sacred bird. Hiya, Dryope.”
“Hello again,” said the lissome nymph. She gave the gnarly man’s midsection a poke and pouted. “We’re going to have to fatten you up, Rex. Can’t have the Lady’s wrens dropping from famine now can we?”
“Dryope, old cupcake, meet Futvoye Halfnight, VC, DDS. He’s here to fit me out with an exercise regime.”
The nymph gave the dentist a look that signaled disapproval. “Humph. We’ll see about that.” And with a twirl of her skirts and a toss of her head, Dryope marched away.
“What was that all about?” asked Halfnight as he admired the play of Dryope’s retreating hips.
“Pretty little thing, isn’t she?” said the gnarly man. “The girls treat me like royalty; which I am. Flat as a failed omelet, most of them. But frisky lasses, one and all. Hee-hee, ho-ho, harrumph, hack, whack wawarrgh...”
Halfnight pounded the King of the Wood on the back till his spasms passed.
“Thank ‘ee, lad. Now where was I? Dryads lapping blood from a sacrificial stone bowl and all that claptrap. It’s nonsense, if you ask me, but I am not inclined to wait around to find out. I now see that to keep me alive I am now committed to keeping you alive. Can’t have you bumping into every bibble and bobble in front of you, falling into stray holes, neither. You veer to the right and bump into things like a drunken woodpecker. Here, take me old eyepatch, it won’t make you see any better but you’ll be presentable at the least. Yer unsightly to meet the Lady.”
“The Lady.” Halfnight was taking up the slack in the sling from Rex’s eyepatch with a hastily tied slipknot. “Ah... there.” He squinted with his remaining eye.
“This, ahh... Lady, she is in trouble?”
“Aye. The Basilisk has been devouring the candidates.”
* * *
To follow Halfnight and the Rex Nemorensis on their Quest, the battle with the Basilisk, and the ultimate playing out of who gets to be king for the duration of the next Sacred Year, read more »