This post is Part 4 of a serialised short story. In Chapter One, we met Dale Truscott, a teenage boy in a medieval fantasy world destined to play a vital role in the grand cosmic narrative. Unfortunately, that role is ‘Stock Henchman Killed by Heroes in Combat, Dubbed Over with Wilhelm Scream.’
In Chapter Two, destiny kicked down the front door and dragged Dale off to work for the Dark Lord Gilbert of Mortis Valley. His father’s hot tip for surviving in the fantasy world’s most dangerous occupation is: be strategically lazy, cowardly and stupid, and hope like hell that luck is on your side.
In Chapter Three, faced with the massacre of his comrades, Dale began to question the wisdom of his father’s strategy and found a loophole in the storytelling conventions that allowed him to cheat his inevitable death. Instead of firing him, or taking his concerns on board, Captain Truscott called his son a disgrace to henchmanity. Dale is now consigned to guarding the gloomy dungeons until he can conform to the crony code of honour – that is, resigns himself to dying in incompetent service of the Dark Lord.
All his life, Dale has believed he was destined for the noble but stupid death of an underling. He believed the universe to be governed by incontrovertible cosmic laws. He believed his father would always be proud of him, and love him no matter what.
Now those beliefs have been shaken to their foundations. What will he build in their place?
Dale’s second-hand uniform was full of stitches. They were independent of the seams. Stitches over the heart, across the belly, down the spine. Stitches puckering and criss-crossing the fabric. The awkwardly-sized armour he’d foraged from Lost Property was too tight in some places, too loose in others. The smaller plates pressed the stitches against his flesh, the ghosts of other men’s wounds.
So his father cared more about abstract concepts than he did about Dale. Duty and honour were more valuable than a human life. Rules and narrative conventions were mightier than imagination or kindness or using your damn head. The world didn’t just expect Dale to die – it hoped he would.
He glanced at the fusty skeleton in the corner cell. It was still shackled to the wall, despite having no tendons to keep all its wrist and ankle bones in place. Not much risk of that one escaping. In the adjoining cell was an emaciated old man with a knee-length beard. He couldn’t be sure whether this one was asleep, or dead. He could have gone into the cell to check, but to feel for breathing or a pulse would have required him to move the matted beard, and he was pretty sure that only forty per cent of it was growing from the old man’s face.
That settled it, then. Really, the only difference between Dale and his wards was that the latter didn’t have to be dragged home and humiliated in front of their families when the shift was over.
What else is there for you, Dale? What else could you possibly do?
‘I guess it’s better that I know what he really thinks,’ he muttered aloud, to drown out the dreadful internal echo with a meagre bright side. ‘Knowledge is power, right?’
‘I wouldn’t know,’ replied the skeleton. ‘I haven’t had a brain in decades.’
Dale was surprised in a flattened sort of way, like a man finding that his yoghurt has gone mouldy well before its use-by date. ‘Rotted away with the rest of your face, did it?’
‘Sure did!’ said the skeleton.
‘But you can talk just fine without lips or a tongue?’
‘Of course.’ It shrugged. ‘Everyone knows voices are psychic. Haven’t you ever been in a body-swap storyline?’
This information took some time for the waters of Dale’s mind to engulf. ‘You mean, those ones where people’s souls swap places?’ Magic – he’d need magic. He wondered if Agatha Bindleweed still lived in his village. He could swap with his father and teach him a lesson. Or with the Dark Lord. Or perhaps with the King. Knowing all the internal workings of Mortis Keep, he could succeed where the Forces of Light had failed, and wipe his workplace off the face of the world.
‘It never lasts. One of them always learns a valuable lesson about empathy, and they end up back in their original bodies.’ The skeleton sighed and glanced down at its ribcage, which, without lungs or eyes, was easier said than done. ‘What I wouldn’t give to be that elf princess for one more day… frolicking in the woods, naked as a popinjay…’
Dale stared it in the sockets. ‘You’re naked now.’
The skeleton looked down, and shrieked until its jaw fell off. Continue reading