Outcasts of the Fair Forest
It was the monster’s feeding time, and the forest waited and watched in silence. Cypresses bent their moss-bearded limbs to the pond below, where the last curls of mist were just beginning to unravel. Flies formed dark, droning clouds above the water’s surface. The reedy trill of cicadas was softened by distance. Here, nothing made a sound except for the aimless flies. No mockingbird jeered. No frog drummed the air with his dull croaks. The cypress trees, the filmy waters, and the motionless birds above all seemed to wait. A single ripple pulsed across the water’s surface.
Just outside the clearing, something caught the light and flashed. A unicorn was parting the ferns, her head and neck sailing over them like the figurehead of a ship. As she tilted her head, her horn, which was spiraled like an ornate wand, sparked in the light once again. With saw-edged palms rustling against her sides, she steered her way towards the pond.
The unicorn was suddenly uneasy. She whickered softly and tossed her mane, which fell silkily back into place. As she approached, the water’s depths were seared with the whiteness of her reflection. Another ripple made her image shudder. The unicorn cast her eyes about. Then, her neck curving in a graceful arc, she bent down to drink.
The waiting ended.
Two huge jaws exploded out of the water. They clamped onto the unicorn’s neck and she squealed in agony. At once, the bog was alive, its waters leaping and churning. The unicorn’s hooves sent the mud scattering as she thrashed. A long tail cut through the water and swung out, reeds dangling from its dark length. Still screaming, until she choked through her own blood, the unicorn felt herself being dragged into the water. Soon even her brightness was dissolved into its gloom.
The forest was silent once again. The trees, the frogs, and the birds waited to watch the victor emerge.
A beast heaved himself onto the bank, his claws carving furrows into the waterside. In his jaws lay what was once a unicorn. Its blood-and-mud-mottled head dangled by one fleshy cord from its throat. The monster tossed his prey aside and it fell, limbs splaying like a doll with its strings cut, head wobbling. He grumbled under his breath.
They called him many names. The mockingbirds, with their flashing white wings, their tipping tails and dawn-grey bodies, ridiculed him. They called him Lumpy Snaggletooth and danced away from his lashing tail. The great blue herons, most sagacious of the birds, were more careful. They chuckled amongst themselves out of his earshot, and called him old Gamba Whiskey. The hogs and the cougars were more fearful still, whispering things of an Unseen Death in the dark bogs. But most of all, the gryphons, the dragons, the unicorns, and all the denizens of the Fair Forests feared him, because he was once one of their own. They called him the Lindworm.
Some say the first Lindworm was the spawn of a dragon and a crocodile. Somehow, the progeny lost two legs in the process: Lindworms have long, sinewy bodies, like their cousins the Sea Serpents, but also sport two forelegs, with which they drag themselves through the brush. But old Gamba was different from most of his wriggly counterparts. He had grown great and girthy, thick-bodied and many-toothed. He ate anything that braved a drink from his bog.
He left the unicorn to gather flies—there was no hurry for him to eat it now. None would dare to pilfer his feasts. And Gamba was growing old, increasingly exhausted by the underwater wrangling that characterized his hunts.
As the branches above shifted in the breeze, a finger-thin ray of sunlight hit his open eye. In the light his eyes became balls of amber, with dark slits for pupils, like black teeth incased in fire. An inner lid passed across his eye, blinking at the sun. Gamba then rolled onto his other side, his megaton coils rolling with him. The sun, having reached high noon, gleamed upon Gamba’s endless sides: the broad scales that slabbed his body were a checkerboard of muddy brown and creamy yellow.
Suddenly a shower of acorns rattled off his scales. From above came the needle-thin voices of squirrels.
“Nyeer nyeer, chicker chicker! Fatty Scales, come and chase us up the tree! Come and chase, come and chase, you who dance so free!” The squirrels nearly tumbled off the boughs as they doubled up with laughter. Below them the Lindworm gave a croaking growl from deep in his throat, his claws twitching.
“Damn vermin, Ah could split that tree in two, and pop yer heads between my teeth!” he told them, lifting his lips to expose yards of fangs. “Ah could soak this pool in yer blood, and make a nest o’ yer tails! Mock the monster of hell, do ye?”
His threats were useless. The squirrels had scampered away high into the slash pines. Faintly their taunts wheeled back.
“Nyeer nyeer, chicker chicker…”
Gamba snorted. He was used to the mockery of lesser creatures. The squirrels, the mockingbirds, the crows and the cardinals all took their turn. Sometimes he heard the chuckle of an owl, or a deer, but the larger creatures wisely kept their distance. Cursing under his breath, the Lindworm turned his thoughts to better days, when he lived on a vast blue lake in the Fair Forests.
As a hatchling, he had liked to imagine that his father was a dragon. Or that maybe he was the son of the Lambtom Worm, the most famous Lindworm of all. In truth he knew nothing of his parents. He was raised by an alligator mother, and learned to live by her ways. As he grew, he turned savage, devouring his foster mother in a burst in blind anger. With dragon blood in his veins he outgrew the other hatchlings tenfold. The unicorns, the centaurs, and the fairies drove him out of the forest and into the Green Bogs, where he lived out his years preying on the lost souls who stumbled into his swamp. Those years had been long for Gamba, and lonely.
Beside him, the reek of the unicorn corpse brought him back to the present. Gamba’s temper cooled, and he turned to feast.
Nudging its hide with his snout to disturb the flies, the Lindworm was just about to take a bite when his old water-clogged ears heard something. A light trip top, trip top, trip top sounded just beyond the slash pines and cypresses. To Gamba, it sounded far too merry, far too crisp a footfall for the dank paths of the bogs. This was not the soft footfall of a unicorn; no, this sound was bold and winsome. He flicked his amber eyes upward as the creature trotted into view.
At first, Gamba thought he was looking at a unicorn—so terribly did his eyes wince at the whiteness of the sunny creature. But then he saw that this was no unicorn, but a creature even rarer. The Lindworm slid his fat black tongue across the teeth that lined his cragged lips. This was a Yale. More importantly, it was a rare flesh he had yet to taste.
The Yale trotted down a lane of dried mud, his golden hooves pealing like bells. His figure, more like a gazelle than a horse, was slender and tight-muscled. As he proudly lifted his head to the sky, a pair of long gold horns sloped down from the back of his crown, hedged by two donkeyish ears. Unlike the deep blue eyes of the unicorn, this creature had small silver eyes that winked in the light, creased as if the Yale was always smiling at some private joke. A smug grin was imprinted under his piggish snout, while behind him a tufted tail swung in the breeze.
Gamba began to creep forward. The Yale scanned the pond with oblivious approval. Then his silver gaze tripped upon the fallen unicorn. Leaping into the air, he gave a cry: as soon as he touched the ground his snout rumpled, and his jaw clenched tight. Gamba cursed himself for the unlucky positioning of the corpse.
“Hey now, a filly downed upon the ground,” said the Yale, making no effort to lower his voice in the silence. “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 nose quivered. He turned directly to the Lindworm, who crouched in the saw-edged palms that lined the pond.
“And what have we here? The very culprit, I should wonder. Think ye will make a dessert of this Yale’s hide, do ye? Well, I’d knock you about, no doubt!” To Gamba’s surprise, one of the Yale’s horns swiveled forward, as though turning on a pivot. The Yale then squinted one eye at him, sighting down the length of his horn. Gamba was mildly impressed—he didn’t think the Yale would spot him in the underbrush. “Yes, now do ye recoil! Take a gander at this horn, hey? Why, I’d be trounced if it couldn’t pierce even your scum-scaled hide, Mr. Gator sir!”
The Lindworm croaked dismissively in his throat.
“A brave little bag o’ skin and bones, aren’t ye? Ah am afraid that horn of yer’s, long and pointy as it is, is no contest for me fangs and coils. But enough prattle—Ah’ll make a quick end of this!”
Gamba lunged forward. The Yale danced away from him, and Gamba’s jaws cracked over empty air. His tufted tail wagging, the Yale gave a merry laugh. The horn that had been turned forward swung just as smoothly back into place.
“Too slow, simply too slow!” he taunted, not a hair misplaced on him. “Make an end of me, you say? Nasty beast of the bogs! But the bogs are what I seek… Why else would I set hoof here, when I could be capering in the Fair Forests?” Gamba snarled. But he stayed where he was. The Yale could out-speed him, no doubt. If he wanted to pull this off successfully, he would have to try a different tactic. The bold creature wasn’t going anywhere—perhaps, if Gamba humored him with conversation, he could catch him unawares.
“So ye hail from the Fair Forests,” he drawled. “And why is such a fine creature as yerself gracing my lowly bogs?” Gamba wondered if he poured on the praise a bit too thick. But the Yale lapped it up. Lifting his snout, the Yale answered,
“Why, may, do I say! How very kindly you speak, Mr. Crocodile! 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 gilmweed tea and fairy-flower nectar in my old home. Yes, a very interesting story t’was, of how I came here.
“One day I came upon my good chums Canterwaul and Frilly gossiping about the affairs of the centaurs and the unicorns and the hippocampi. Or so, that is what they told me: I hadn’t caught a word of their gossip. Would you very well believe the low voices they were using! And the snickers they sent in my direction!” The Yale chuckled, turning to the bemused Gamba. “And so, they came trotting over, grinning from ear to ear, and asked me if I was up to a little challenge.
“Now we Yales love a good challenge, whether it be jumping over the castle wall, or chasing fairies through the fields, and other such very nice little party games. And so, Frilly says to me, if I would enjoy a little challenge. And of course I say, ‘Why, indeedy do!’ And so says Frilly, if I would like to go to the Green Bogs, and bring back a dragon, Druggo’s long lost 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!’ Now I went and asked Druggo, is this true? You have a relative in the Bogs? And he said yes, but we are not on good terms. Bosh that! I’ll have the two reconciled, or I’m not a Yale!”
Shaking his head, the Yale paused for a moment, before putting his jaw to work again. “Anyway, I’ve come looking for this Sir HookScales. Now Mr. Gator sir, if you have put those silly ideas about eating me out of your head, would you kindly tell me where I might find him?”
A low, rusty wheeze echoed from the old Lindworm’s throat. He was laughing. The poor, stupid creature! he thought, unable to suppress his mirth. If the others found him as maddening as I do, they probably sent him away, hoping he’d be killed by yours truly. HookScales, indeed! No dragon remains here, now that I’ve set up shop. Heh, but perhaps I can turn this prissy’s gullibility to my favor.
Lifting his warty snout, the Lindworm spoke.
“Ay, Sir HookScales, ye say? Why, I am Sir HookScales, at yer service. My poor cousin Druggo, a fine Lindworm t’ miss!”
“Correction: dragon,” the Yale admonished, the tiniest glint of suspicion entering his eyes.
“Dragon, yes, yes,” waved Gamba impatiently aside with a flick of his tail. “Ah’ll be glad ter accompany ye to my 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, most cert’n’y,” returned the Lindworm, keeping up the pretense of a gentleman mistaken for a ruffian as best he could. The Yale capered about, doing a quadrupedal jig, and gave a clear ripple of laughter.
“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, Sir HookScales!”
This declaration sent a small pang of pity through Gamba. For the first time, he had met a creature so delusional, so naive, that he felt almost embarrassed to be preying on him. Still, he quickly dashed the seed of sympathy aside with thoughts of sweet Yale flesh. Pulling himself farther into the clearing, the Lindworm began to distract Mr. Leepinns with polite conversation.
“So, tell me… How’s my old cousin Druggo doing? Keeping his scales bright, and his fangs filed?”
The Yale smiled. A moment later, he gave Gamba a queer look, before bursting into laughter.
“Ye must have been separated from Druggo for some time, my friend." He watched Gamba out of the corner of one eye. “It’s been ages since he did any of those things, if I know the crafty old fellow. Why, don’cha know, his 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 leathery skin now. Has to be careful not to sneeze—he might burn himself!”
The Lindworm nodded, eyes wide with horror as he tried to imagine a dragon with no scales. The Yale gazed thoughtfully back at him before speaking again.
“Ay, ye may find that many things are not the same in the Fair Forests these days, my friend HookScales!”
“How so?” croaked Gamba, curious now. The Yale’s voice took on a different note as he began, solemn and quietly reverent.
“Across the tumbling prairies, where the centaur herds stampede, the fingers of the sunset set the fields ablaze. And the stars against the dark night shine like drops of dew on morning glory petals. Certainly makes one wink, don’cha know! The woodlands in the summer are filled with the voices of fairies. Every cave has its dragon, and every dragon, its hoard of shining gold. Adventurers from the far lands come for that gold—but the fairies fill their heads with nonsense and send them away, on quests for even farther lands. In the winter the air is as clear as melted crystal, and the great mountains as white as unicorns in their solemn robes of snow!”
“Yes, yes, Ah’ve seen all of that,” grumbled the Lindworm. “But what has changed with the fairies, and the dragons, and the other magic beasts?”
“Now they have changed,” said the Yale. “The centaurs will speak with us from time to time, 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 elder 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,” said Gamba impatiently. “But what of the crocodiles?”
“Crocodiles?” Leepinns turned to look with surprise at the Lindworm, who was dragging himself closer, a furrow of flattened shrubbery behind him. “Why, no one questions their affairs these days. The dragons didn’t like them, I think, saying they were impersonators, like those serpents down in the Western Seas. They’ve all been driven out into the untamed Wilderness. And do you know,” Leepinns murmured, gazing out into the sky, where the sun shone in a white haze, “I sometimes wonder myself what can be found there.”
There was silence, as the Lindworm watched his prey, and the Yale remained standing with his face lifted. Leepinns' words sank into Gamba’s mind like pebbles toward a river bottom. No more crocodiles in the Fair Forests? he wondered. How strange… I suppose my brothers and sisters must be scattered to the winds now, off into the Wilderness.
For a moment, the old Lindworm felt strangely envious. They weren’t monsters like me. They didn’t need to be driven out. But now that they’re out there I’m sure they’re happier, exploring the world. Unlike me. I found this swamp and stayed put. Just like those damn fairies wanted.
Leepinns suddenly spoke. “Well, I suppose I never will find out,” he sighed. “I’ve never been on a grand quest. These Bogs are as far as I’ve ventured! No Yale would be caught dead outside the Fair Forests—too unfashionable, the outside world.” His face lifted in remembrance of happier things. “But you know, I’ve got the greatest pals that 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 the poor moron’s words. He and Leepinns were completely different, but they did have one thing in common: both of them were pushed out of paradise against their will. Leepinns hadn’t realized it yet, but he was an outcast.
For a moment, Gamba pictured himself rearing up, and breaking the Yale’s back between his jaws—but for what? Somehow, in his imagination, the Yale’s flesh tasted bitter, not sweet. To his surprise the Lindworm found himself losing his appetite. How can I make a meal of him now? he thought, hesitating. Certainly, to see his face as I tear him in two would be too much. Even this old Lindworm cannot take pleasure from deceiving such a poor fool… Nor can I allow him to go back to the “chums” who sent him to his death.
The Lindworm’s next thoughts surprised even himself. He’s just like me: cast away, mocked, the shame of his own kind. No one would ever listen to our stories, would they? We’ve got no one to respect us in the world. I’m getting too old to be sitting here alone, and he’s too young to be traveling alone.
Gamba saw the blue lake of his childhood once more in his mind’s eye. In the distance it blended into the aquamarine of the sky, an indefinite horizon that promised far-off lands and undiscovered wonders. Nay, maybe there’s a better way for both of us.
Breaking out of his gloom, Gamba tilted his head up at Leepinns.
“Ah believe Ah have a confession t’ make, Mr. Leepinns. My name isn’t Sir HookScales. There is no HookScales here, or anywhere. Yer friends deceived ye, sending ye t’ the bogs so Ah could make a quick end o’ ye. Ye can’t go back to ‘em.”
For the first time, the Yale’s face grew grave. His eyes lost their mirth, his ears drooped, and his smile faded. He stared directly into Gamba’s eyes.
“But… my friends…”
“No, they’re not yer friends,” the Lindworm growled. “Ye can’t go back there. If ye don’t believe me, then fine, go back t’ those friends that would make a game of yer murder. But listen well. Ye shall never see the Wilderness unless ye come with me. ‘Tis dangerous out there… ye’ll never survive alone. And ye know, this old Lindworm has grown tired of sitting in a mud hole. ‘E wants to see the world, before 'is time comes: t’ see all those things ye described. And ‘e’s not going alone.”
The Yale pawed at the ground, uncertain. He stared at the massive beast sprawled before him, eyes pricking with mistrust at the hooked claws, the saw-edged tail and twitching muscles. Yet now there was something new in the Lindworm’s eyes, something that hadn’t been there before. Snorting, Leepinns turned away and began to pace back and forth across the clearing, his tail swinging.
“And I can trust you, Mr. Gator, not to gobble me up in my sleep?” he asked, head held high as he paced.
“Please, if Ah wanted t’ eat ye, Ah could have made mince meat of ye before ye even had time t’ finish yer story. No offense, but yer horns never scared me.” Pausing, the Yale appeared to wrack his brain for more questions.
“Then how do I know this isn’t some elaborate Yalenapping plot?” he declared, rounding on Gamba with his horn pointing forward as if he were interrogating a suspect. “Mayhaps you intend to lead me to a place where you can hold me! And then, and then… Ah, but surely you have cronies around, Mr. Gator sir, who could run to the Fair Forests, to demand a ransom from my poor chums!” At this, the Lindworm sighed and scratched the side of his jaw with a claw.
“Even if that were true… Do ye really think Ah could get a ransom out o’ those boys? The same “friends” who sent ye on a death errand, chuckling all the while?” At last, the Yale seemed to accept that the Lindworm’s offer, strange as it was, was genuine. He stepped back, looking forlorn, and his pointing horn swiveled back into place with a click.
“Well, Mr. Crocodile, maybe you’re right. Maybe my friends really don’t appreciate such a valorous Yale as myself, indeed! I’m too good for them! Yes, let us wander into the Wilderness, together! Away from old Druggo and those grim centaurs. But might I be so very bold as to ask you a question, my friend?” The Yale came closer, his head lowered. “If Sir HookScales isn’t your name, what is?”
The Lindworm was startled by the question, and was even more startled at his inability to answer. All his names came from those who feared or mocked him. He had no name that came from a friend. Suddenly his memory reached far, far back, to when he was a hatchling, listening to his mother’s tales about mighty crocodiles who were acknowledged as heroes all around.
“Just… call me Galgorn,” he said after a long pause. “’Tis what me mother called me.”
With that, Mr. Leepinns immediately demanded to know Galgorn’s life history, and how he came to dwell in the Green Bogs; and, somewhat embarrassed, Galgorn told him, interrupted frequently by the Yale’s own enthusiastic additions. The two struck off into the green forests, the dapper figure of the Yale trotting alongside the great dragging mass of the Lindworm. Gradually their silhouettes faded into the trees. Their voices lingered for a while longer; but those too were swallowed up in the distance.
Silence returned like a solemn bird to the Bogs. Far off, the wheeerrrr of a cicada sounded harsh and shrill. Waves of heat rippled like molten air, as the sun left its zenith in the sky. A dark scarf of flies settled on the unicorn’s throat. The squirrels, their eyes wide with wonder, watched the tiny white and brown figures in the distance. Their eyes flicked down to the water, as if believing that this was all an illusion, a diversion to draw their attention away from some great beast now settling in the depths. They all looked for it. The ripple. The emblem of the darkness that lurked in the water, the monster that terrified them even as they mocked it.
But there was none.