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It was still. Flies droned in great thunderhead clouds about the air, nettling the hot basking haze with their fervor. Silence softened the continuous, reedy trill of cicadas scattered in the brush. No mockingbird jeered. No frog lullabyed the bog with his dull, drumming croax. The shaggy cypress trees, the filmy waters, all seemed to wait. A ripple pulsed across the water’s surface. A single ripple. Something waited.
A scattered prism of light, a gleam, milked across the ground. Bright green fans rustling against her icy sides, the luminous hoof of a unicorn pawed through the thicket of saw-edged palms. She tossed her light silver mane, whickering softly as she approached the water, ears pressed back in fear. The dull murky water seared with a flash of white as her image danced on the surface. Her ivory horn, spiraled like an ornate wand, spangled as she shuffled uneasily, blue eyes radiating perturbation. Another ripple. The unicorn cast a gaze of assurance about, before bending down at the waterside to drink.
The waiting ended.
Two enormous jaws shot out of the water. They sunk into the fair neck, as the unicorn squealed in agony, a fountain of blood streaming beneath her jaw. The bog hummed with commotion. Waters flared and churned. The unicorn struggled, hooves gyrating. Leaping out like an arc of death, a great tail thrashed. The white horse disappeared into black waters. Red foam burbled at the surface. A single ripple. Then, the unicorn was gone.
Silence. Moments scuttled by like fearful insects before a creature crawled out from the waters. But it was not the unicorn.
With a squelch, stumpy, hooked claws carved great furrows into the waterside, as the beast heaved himself onto the bank. Viced in a pair of pincer-like jaws lay the motionless unicorn, its blood-soaked head dangling by a fleshy cord from a shredded throat. With a twist of his crushing jaws he tossed the prey aside, like a sack of dung. He grumbled. Cursing fitfully, he dragged himself onto the bank.
They called him many names. The mockingbirds, with their harsh grating jeers and flashing white wings, their tipping tails and dawn-grey bodies, ridiculed him. They called him Lumpy Snaggletooth, lightly dancing from his aimless lashings. The great blue herons, most sagacious of the birds, carefully chuckled only amongst themselves, and only out of his presence. They called him old Gamba Whiskey. The hogs and the cougars were more fearful still, whispering things of Unseen Death in dark corners of the bogs. But most of all, the gryphons, the dragons, the unicorns, and the countless other denizens of the nearby Fair Forests feared him, because he was once one of their own. They called him the Lindorm.
Lindorms are strange things, more earthly beast than fancy, unlike their cousins the dragons. Some say the beasts originated from a crossbreed between dragons and crocodiles, executed long, long ago. Somehow, two legs were lost in the evolutionary process: the Lindorms is now a serpent with only two forelegs, and no hindquarters, save for a long, sinewy tail. But old Gamba differed from most of his wriggly counterparts: he had grown great and girthy, powerful and cunning, with gleaming teeth and wicked claws. He preyed upon anything that sought the bog’s water for sustenance. And that was almost anything.
The Lindorm wearily heaved his massive bank, sliding in his own furrows of mud. The sun waded past a sea of pale white cloud, illuminating the gloomy swamp. It settled at noon with white-gold rays clearer than the notes of a harp, and spilled forth an arm of yellow brilliance. The beast rolled half on his side, basking in the heat. He left the unicorn to gather flies; there was no hurry for him to devour it. None would dare pilfer his feasts. And Gamba was growing old, and exhausted by the underwater thrashings and battles that so often took a toll upon his aging body. No, there was time yet to savor his feast.
Sliding beyond the frond of a cypress, a finger-thin beam of sunlight delved into the Lindorm’s eyes. One dull eyelid flashed, exposing a gem taken from the mines of darkness and exposed to coruscate for the world. Although his body had grown old and fat, his eyes remained ever intense: enormous optics of amber, with hungry dark slits for pupils; black fangs incased in orbs of fire. The expression of those large, angled eyes remained ever unchanged by age: the same indignant, piercing glare, reptilian and defiant. A filmy yellow, inner lid passed across his eye, blinking at the ray of the sun. Gamba rolled aside with a rustle and a lurch, displaying his megaton coils.
He was long, the length of two horses from snout to tail, and nearly half as wide. The Lindorm has a massive head, pouchy and mottled with goblinish lumps, with a pair of mutilating jaws overhung with crooked fangs jagged as horns. His two forearms were those of a crocodile’s: short and dumply, but enduring and powerful as they would knead the bank side, heaving forth his colossal girth. Wagging lazily in the water, his long, saw-edged tail was broad and flat as a paddle. Capable of delivering a tremendous swat, the Lindorm’s tail could easily knock the head of a doe clean off. Down his back tumbled a ridge of iguana-like flaky spines. The sun, reaching high noon, gleamed upon Gamba Whiskey’s endless sides; they were slabbed with slimy scales that unwound in a checkerboard pattern of muddy brown and creamy yellow.
A shower of acorns rattled off his scales. The needle-thin, grating voices of squirrels jeered from above.
“ Nyeer nyerr, chicker chicker! Fatty Scales, come and chase us in the tree! Come and chase, come and chase, you who dance so free!”
The squirrels nearly tumbled off the boughs, chittering with laughter. The Lindorm’s claws twitched, as a croaking growl thundered from his throat.
“Damn vermin, ah could lash that tree in two, and tear off yer mangy heads with a swing! Ah could soak this pool in your blood, and rend ye by your tails! Mock the monster of hell, do ye?”
It was futile. The squirrels has scampered away high into the slash pines. Faintly their taunts wheeled back.
“ Nyeer nyeer, chicker chicker…”
Gamba snorted contemptuously. A knot of mangled curses tumbled from his throat as he rolled onto his other side. He had become accustomed to such occurrences now as a daily ritual. The only variation in the schedule of mockery was who did the mocking: squirrels, mockingbirds, crows, and the cardinals all took their turn. Sometimes he heard a distant chuckle of an owl, or a heron, but the larger birds wisely avoided the wrath of his jaws. Gamba grumbled, recalling his days in the Fair Forests, living on a vast blue lake.
As a hatchling, he had liked to think his father was a dragon, or maybe the Lambtom Worm, the most infamous Lindorm of all. In reality he had no clue as to the identity of his parents, for he had been raised by an alligator mother, and learned to live by her ways. He had become savage, brutal, devouring his own foster mother in a stream of sudden anger as he, with dragon-blood in his veins, outgrew his brethren tenfold. The unicorns, the centaurs, and the fairies drove him out of the forest, out into the distant Green Bogs, where he had lived countless years preying upon the beasts who wandered aimlessly into the swamps. The reek of the fly-mottled corpse brought the Lindorm away from his contemplations. Gamba now cooled his temper, turning back to the dead unicorn by his side.
Nudging the white hide with a lumpy snout to disturb the flies, the Lindorm was about to commence rending the old flesh, when his old water-clogged ears heard something. Something that was not the endless tweedle of the cicadas, nor the piping croaks of small frogs, not even the taunts of mockingbirds. No, this was something different, something from beyond his recollection. A light, prancing trip top, trip top, trip top echoed from behind the overhang of brambled slash pines and cypress trees. The sound resembled the clatter of hooves, but not the innocent, timid footfalls of a pure-hearted unicorn; no, these were bold, merry, expectant. Gamba Whiskey had seen and heard many, many things, but it had been long since he had heard anything like this. Some distant, bittersweet memory stirred in the murky recesses of his mind. With peaked curiosity he focused his glistening amber eyes into the next glade. An amiable creature trotted into view.
At first, Gamba thought a unicorn approached, so terribly did his eyes wince at the white searing image of the sunny creature. But quickly, with wonder, he perceived that this was no unicorn, but rather a creature far more elusive. The Lindorm’s swollen black tongue slathered across the forest of fangs that lined his cragged lips. This was a Yale, and more importantly, an extreme delicacy he had yet to taste.
The Yale cantered down a lane of trodden gray moss, light golden hooves pealing like merry bells. Its figure was light and taut, with short crisp fur, and seemed more like a gazelle than a great shag-maned unicorn. The Yale capered into the glade, hooves rising and falling with a proud, affable march. This elk-like creature’s hide was piercingly white, like the noon sun upon fresh snow. The Yale proudly held its head to the sky, displaying a pair of long, sloping horns that cascaded down its neck, hedged by two large, donkeyish ears. Unlike the innocent, deep blue eyes of the unicorn, this creature had small silver eyes that twinkled with wit and bliss. A fixed, smug grin was imprinted upon its face, made more noticeable by its square jaws and slightly creased, boar-like snout. Its tufted tail swung merrily in the breeze.
The Lindorm shuffled into the shadows and greedily watched the creature approach. A light, crisp voice sang:
“ Hey now, hey ho
The voice suddenly cut short, as the Yale entered the glade, and gazed agreeable about. Gamba crept forward, stealthily lugging his body forth with powerful forearms. The Yale scanned the glade with oblivious approval, until his silver gaze tripped upon the bloody unicorn. The creature leapt back with a cry of (it almost sound like) pleasant surprise, but then his snout rumpled, and his square jaw twisted into a grim scowl.
“Hey now, a filly downed upon the ground. Poor creature, pitiful creature, what could I have done for ye! But alas, none can stop the night coming over all, eh? I would most certainly think that one of Druggo’s brood be about! Nasty serpents, slimy serpents! I must take heed of this poor filly’s warning, and keep my wits about!”
The Yale’s pig-like nose quivered as he sniffed the noisome air, recoiling at the musk. He turned directly to the Lindorm, emerging from the shadows.
“What, may, how I say, what have I found here?! The very culprit, no doubt. Think ye to have dessert from this Yale’s hide, do ye? Well, I’d knock you about, no doubt, first!”
To the Lindorm’s surprise, one of the long, golden horns swiveled forward, as though turning on a pivot, and sloped directly toward his left eye. The Yale then winked one eye, and with it stared intensely at the crouching beast, as though sighting down the length of his horn.
“Ay, ay, now do ye recoil! Take a gander at this horn, hey? Why, I’d be trounced, hey now, if it couldn’t pierce your scum-scaled hide, Mr. Gator sir!”
The Lindorm, glaring warily at the horn, croaked contemptuously at this remark, his amber eyes flashing.
“Damn impudent foal! Do ye know to whom ye speak? Ah am the Lindorm, the beast of the Green Bogs! But you can simply call me… your death!”
The massive Lindorm lunged forward, jaws cracking with power. The Yale danced backward, the Lindorm’s jaws snatching only empty air. The elk-like creature shook his tufted tail and laughed merrily in jest.
“Too slow, too slow, if I may! Indeedy do, my death? Why you’re naught but my folly, Mr. Lindorm sir! Nasty beasts of the bogs! But if I do so say, it is indeed the reason I capered here, so merrily about! So merrily!”
Gamba snarled, croaking growls tumbling from his jaws. He stayed, knowing that would not be able to take the Yale by surprise. Taking a different approach, the Lindorm decided to question the Yale.
“Oh, be it so,” drawled the crocodilian dragon, keenly glaring at the Yale. “Indeed, why is such a fine creature as yerself skipping about?”
The Yale, lifting his pig-nosed snout smugly, answered as though flattered by an esteemed friend.
“Why, may, do I say! How very kindly you speak, Mr. Crocodile! Why yes, a very interesting story t’was, that I came her. If you hadn’t such the most toothy grin, or such the most brown and fearsome tail, why, I’d ask you to dine with me, and we could chat over nice gilmweed tea and fairy-flower nectar in the Fair Forests.
“Yes indeedy, a most interesting story t’was. My good chums Canterwaul and Frilly were one day gossiping with the other Yales about the affairs of the centaurs and the unicorns and the hippocampi, or so they told me: would you very well believe the low voices they used! And the snickers they sent in my direction!” the Yale chuckled, turning to a half-amused Gamba. “And so, tiddly dee, they came trotting over with big smirks on their boar-ish faces, ay ay, and asked me to a little challenge. ”
“Now we Yales love a good challenge, whether it be jumping over the Farmer’s fence, or chasing fairies through the fields, and other such very nice little party games. And so, Frilly goes and says to me, if I would enjoy a little challenge. And of course I says, ’Why, indeedy do!’ And so says Frilly, if I would like to go to the Green Bogs, and bring back a great dragon, Druggo’s long lost second cousin, by the name of Sir Hookscales? And I says, ’Why, diddly do! It’ll be sure as done! Poor old Druggo, without a cousin!’ If he weren’t so very mean and nasty a little… or big thing, I suppose, don’cha know…. I would invite the poor dear fellow to play fairy-chase with my brothers and sisters. And anyway, I’ve come looking for this Sir HookScales. Now Mr. Gator sir, if you are past your silly little ideas about eating my poor old self would you kindly tell me where I might find this Sir HookScales?”
For a moment, the Yale gazed beseechingly down into the Lindorm’s cold reptilian eyes. A low, rusty croak, and then a flood of them, came drumming from the old Lindorm’s throat. He was laughing.
“ What a blasted STUPID creature! ” he thought, chuckling. “ If the others found him as annoying as I do, they probably sent him away, hoping he’d be killed by myself in the Bogs! HookScales, indeed! If such a HookScales existed, it’d be only in my stomach. Heh, but perhaps I can turn this prissy’s gullibility to my favor. After all, they say Yale is the sweetest flesh a Lindorm can tear! ”
Lifting his wart-hilled snout to the Yale, the Lindorm spoke.
“Ah yes, Sir HookScales, ye say? Why, I am Sir HookScales, at yer service. My poor cousin Druggo, a fine Lindorm ta miss!”
“Correction: dragon,” the Yale admonished, the tiniest glint of suspicion entering his silver eyes.
“Dragon, ay, ay,” waved Gamba impatiently aside with a flick of his tail. “Oi, ah’ll be glad ter accompany ye to mah home in the Fair Forests. Ah got lost, ye see, in these filthy Bogs. Ye wouldn’t know the way back, would ye, Mr…?”
“Mr. Leepinns,” the Yale offered proudly. “And yes, if I didn’t know the way, trounce me! Sir HookScales, my kindest compliments! And now, if you may, would you accompany me back to the Fair Forests?”
“Why, mos’ cert’n’y,” growled the Lindorm, keeping up the pretense of a gentlemen mistaken for a ruffian as best he could. The Yale capered about, doing a quadrupedal jig, as a clear ripple of laughter came from his grinning rumpled snout.
“Oh my, oh may! Now Canterwaul and Blissten and Frilly and Jiggrin will all be so amazed at my bravery! Ay, a more valorous Yale never did dance so, don’cha know! And poor old Druggo will be reunited once again with his long lost cousin (thrice removed, I bet) Sir HookScales!”
This declaration sent a small pang of pity jolting through Gamba, who felt almost awkward preying upon such a dismally idiotic creature. Nevertheless, he quickly dashed the seed of sympathy aside with thoughts of sweet Yale flesh soaked in marsh waters, herbed with lily flowers. Dragging himself slowly behind the dancing golden hooves, the Lindorm began once again the distraction of conversation.
“So, tell me… How’s mah old cousin Druggo doing? Keeping his scales bright and green, and his fangs filed?”
The Yale smiled, pleased to continue the engrossing topic. Nevertheless, he gave Gamba a queer look of thought, before bursting into rebuking laughter.
“Ye really must have been separated from Druggo for some time, my friend,” Leepinns chortled, staring ahead. “It’s been ages since he did any of those things, if I know the crafty old fellow. Why, don’cha know, the poor fellow’s teeth have all fallen out, and he’s got no scales.”
“No… no scales?” stammered Gamba, astonished that dragons could suffer such a fate. The Yale nodded sadly.
“Ay, tis true on me mother’s horns! Poor old Druggo, his scales have all flaked off: he’s got nothing but gray leathery skin, the poor fellow. Has to be careful not to sneeze; he might burn himself!”
The Lindorm nodded, eyes wide with horror as he tried to imagine a dragon with no scales. The Yale gazed sympathetically back at the Lindorm, before laughing once more.
“Ay, ye may find that many things are not the same in the Fair Forests these days, my friend HookScales!”
“How so?” croaked Gamba, asking in earnest. His thoughts abandoned his long, cruel life at the Bogs, remembering softer days with his old mother when he was but a hatchling.
“Why, if I didn’t know, twould be sure as I dance before ye that I’d be trounced. Yes, indeedy! Many things have changed in the Fair Forests, but only for the better, if it could possibly get any better! The Fair Forests are as fair as they have ever been.”
The Yale’s voice took on a different note, of wonder and solemn reverence. “Across the tumbling prairies, dotted with pinelands, where the centaurs herds stampede (don’cha know) the fingers of the sunset set the fields afire like blazing fronds of vermillion, while the stars shine like dewdrops on morning glory petals of indigo! And the deep green woodlands in the summer are warm and clear, and the air basking in sunshine and everything like burnished gold and emerald! Certainly makes one’s wink, don’cha know! And the winters are cool, and the air like breezes of melted crystal and the great mountains ivory as unicorns in their solemn white robes of snow!”
“Yes, yes, ah’ve seen all of that,” grumbled the Lindorm impatiently, unwilling to appreciate such beauty. “But what of the fairies, and the dragons, and of those?”
“Ah, now they have changed,” nodded the Yale. “The centaurs roam into the prairies, but are as forbidding and elusive as ever. The dragons have stopped their village raids, and hunt woodland beasts like any other decent creature, while the fairies have settled down and grown wiser: no more pestering tricks from them! And would you know, I once had the nastiest little row with one—”
“Go on, go on,” rumbled Gamba, broiling to impatience again. “But what of the crocodiles?”
“Crocodiles?” the Yale turned to look with mild surprise at the Lindorm, who was steadily dragging his heavy girth, a road of trampled shrubbery and teetering trees behind him. “Why, no one questions their affairs these days. The dragons didn’t like them, I think, saying they were bad, slimy impersonators, like those great wiggly serpents down in the Western Seas. They’ve all been driven out, out into the great untamed Wilderness. And do you know,” Leepinns murmured, gazing with wonder out into the sky, clear as an underground spring, “I sometimes wonder myself what can be found there.”
There was silence, as the Yale’s hooves pealed, and the Lindorm grunted, his tail sliding heavily through the muck. Both seemed to be engulfed in thought. Then, Leepinns spoke.
“Well, I suppose I never will find out,” he sighed. His face lifted in remembrance of happier things. “But you know, I’ve got the greatest, most loyal pals there can be back home! Yes, my dear chums Jiggrin and Canterwaul, and the whole herd, they’ll look out for me! They’d never abandon this Yale, no ho!”
Gamba’s crusty heart, small though it was, faltered at this statement with pity for the poor moron. Hmmmph, how can ah feel nothing for the ending of this Yale’s life? Cert’n’y, ta see ’is face as I tear ’im in two would be too much. Even this old Lindorm cannot take pleasure from deceiving so helpless a Yale, even if ’e does taste good… Nor c’n ah allow him to go back to ’is “friends” who would abandon him ta death.
“He’s just like me: cast away, mocked, the shame of his own kind. No one would ever listen ta our stories, would they? We’ve got no one ta respect us in the world. Ah’m getting too old ta be sitting here alone, and he’s too young ta be traveling alone. Nay, maybe there’s a better way for both of us.
The Lindorm wagged his head to the Yale.
“Ah believe ah have a confession ta make, Leepinns. My name isn’t Sir HookScales. There ain’t any HookScales around these parts, or anywhere. Yer friends deceived ya, sending ye ta the bogs so ah could devour ye. Ya can’t go back to ’em.”
The Yale, eyes no longer sparkling with mirth, filled with sudden sorrow. His face somewhat unbelieving, he returned his attention to the Lindorm.
“No, they’re not yer friends,” insisted the Lindorm, growling. “Ya can’t go back there. If ya don’t believe me, then fine, go back ta yer friends that would kill ya fer fun. But, ya know, you’ll never get ta see the Wilderness if ya don’t come with me. Tis wild out there… ye’ll never survive. And ya know, this old Lindorm’s grown tired of sitting in an old mud hole. ’E wants to see the world, before his time comes: ta see all dem things ye described. And ’e’s not going alone.”
The Yale stared grimly at the massive brown beast sprawling before him. His eyes pricked with mistrust at the toothy jaws, the stumpy hooked claws, the saw-edged tail. Yet there was something in the beast’s eyes, something that hadn’t been there before. Turning away, Leepinns gazed softly beyond into the great rolling green forests, into the Wilderness. Then he smiled.
“Well, my chum, maybe you’re right. Maybe my friends really don’t appreciate such a most valorous Yale, indeed! I’m too good for them! Yes, let us wonder into the forests, together! Away from old Druggo and those grim centaurs. But might I be so very bold to ask ye a question, my friend? If Sir HookScales isn’t your name, what is?”
The Lindorm was surprised at the suddenness of this question, and was more surprised at his inability to answer. His names were from those who feared or mocked him; he had no name that came from a friend. However, his memory suddenly reached far, far back, when he was a hatchling, listening to his mother’s tales about mighty crocodiles who were acknowledged as heroes all around.
“Ay, just… call me Galgorn,” he said after an awkward pause. “Tis what me mother called me. Ay, Mr. Leepinns, just call me… Galgorn.”
And thus, the two struck off into the green forests, the dapper white figure of the Yale trotting alongside the great dragging mass of the Lindorm. As their voices faded into the distance, silence winged back like a solemn bird unto the Bogs.
It was still. Far off, the wheeerrrr of a cicada sounded harsh and shrill. Waves of heat rippled like molten air, as earthly fumes permeated from the Bogs. Flies mottled the untouched unicorn’s hide. The squirrels, their dark eyes dancing with wonder, watched the tiny white and brown figures in the distance. Their long-time enemy, the great fearsome Lindorm, was off with a prancing giddy of a Yale. Their eyes flicked down to the water, as if believing that it was all an illusion, a diversion to draw their attention away from some great dark beast now settling in the depths. They all looked for it. The ripple. The tell-tale heralding of the chilling fear that would envelop them all, no matter how much they liked to mock the Lindorm. They looked for the ripple.
But there was none.