This takes place before the events of Dragon Removal Service.
A Song of Pork and Butter
© Eric Stever 2023
Hubward was a boy weighted with shadows. They pulled at him like an undertow; they whined like a mosquito in his ear. Though only ten years old, Hubward already had seven extra shadows, each of which stumbled over the tangled vines near the fenced-in spring where he’d led them. It was safe enough for them here. While Hubward rested in the shade, the shadows milled about; clanking into fenceposts, splashing through the muck They muttered ceaselessly about pumpkins. One of his shadows squealed when she saw a speckled grasshopper. She crammed it into her mouth, making it disappear with a meaty crunch.
Hubward lay on his back near the springhead, breathing in sharply, his arms splayed wide. He was a pudgy boy, not one to miss a free cup of butter, and the extra weight had slowed him. Each breath felt like sharp knives stabbing into his lungs. How far had he run to get here? Too far, his heart answered. And much too fast. But he only had three days. Time was fleeting.
At last his heartbeat slowed and the pounding in his temples lessened. The soil here was soft and fragrant. It was nearing mid-summer. A few early pumpkins had started greening out in the sun dappled soil, their seeds tossed here by birds or fortune.
Water. Food. A fence. Hubward sat up. If ever there was a place to rid himself—divest himself temporarily—of the weight of these shadows, it was here. His shadows could survive on their own for three days. Couldn’t they? Hubward wiped the mud off of the back of his hands. He dusted off his worn, patched cloak, then wrapped it over his shoulders.
“Eat?” one of his shadows croaked. To an outsider, it would sound like the creak of an aspen branch in the summer wind.
“Eat,” Hubward replied. He tossed a green pumpkinette to the shadow, and it ate greedily at first, slowing down once the pumpkin was half-consumed. The shadow broke the remaining half-pumpkin into pieces and handed the pulp and stringy seeds to the other six shadows. They calmed, their agitated steps lessened.
“Pumkinnnnnn,” gurgled the thinnest shadow, appreciatively. She belched. To an outsider, it would sound like a flatulent mouse.
“I need you to stay here,” Hubward instructed them. “Drink when you’re thirsty. Eat one pumpkin when the sun is high.” He breathed in, strengthening his resolve. He couldn’t take them into town. Not like this. But he couldn’t avenge them if he didn’t catch the monster. And the monster was close. He had run so far to catch it.
The monster always rested for three days. Hubward knew this, for he had pursued it across Baltica and elsewhere. The day before last, Hubward had seen the monster flying above him. It was no more than a smudge in the fluffy white clouds to the east, but Hubward knew it on sight. He took off running without another thought. Then, this morning, on the opposite side of the river, he’d seen a blip across the sun as the creature swooped down to the crumbling round tower of the nearest town. A decrepit place called Valga (though the ferryman had called it Val-ka) near the unprotected southern border of Baltica. The town was rumored to be thick with gold and treachery, the perfect place for a monster to hide.
Valga. That was where his quarry waited for him. If he caught it—if he dared to kill it—perhaps he’d find the cure to restore his seven shadowed companions. Maybe he would. Possibly. To be entirely honest, Hubward wasn’t sure what the avenging would accomplish.
But he had sworn to do it, so Hubward had three days to find out. He couldn’t drag the shadows along. They were—
“PumPumPum—” muttered a shadow. This fat one was chewing on an angled limestone rock that looked absolutely nothing like a pumpkin.
—They were eating rocks. It would be difficult to pretend to be a normal ten-year-old boy, if Hubward had rock-eating shadows. Yes, absolutely better to leave them here. Hubward’s mind was made up.
“I’ll come back for you,” Hubward said. His voice broke, though not from puberty or strain, just the weight of emotion on his narrow pudgy shoulders. He hadn’t left them since . . . since they were attacked. Since they were turned. “I swore I would avenge you, and I will. But I have to go, I have to go and catch the monster.”
* * *
Free of shadows, save one, Hubward hurried to Valga. His original shadow danced at his command. It did not linger. It did not eat rocks.
He felt light. Hubward jogged, then ran in the sunshine, feeling free, feeling the unusual wobble of his stomach against his wasitband. His patched, multi-colored cloak streamed behind him. How odd to be heavy now, and feel so light. He tired quickly. Hubward stopped, jogged again, then stopped once more, hands over his knees, feeling the warm air in his throat, the sweat trickling down his back. He was husky again, he had to remember that. Husky and affable and supremely non-dangerous. Until he got close enough to kill. It was the perfect disguise.
The forest footpath gave way to a narrow cart road, wet and rutted. The air was fragrant with leaves, and here and there were berries—serviceberries he thought—still white and unripe and disgusting anyway because berries were a cousin of vegetables, and vegetables were yuck. No—berries were worse than vegetables, now that he thought about it. If candy and vegetables got together and had a baby, that’s where berries would come from. Berries were double yuck.
Hubward hurried down the cart road, passed a swampy open field with unfinished fortifications, and then joined the line to enter the walled town of Valga. Each step caked more and more muck underneath his boots, raising his height by two inches. The town’s walls were wood, daubed with mud to prevent fire. Yet here and there the mud had sloughed off, and the walls had started to sink into the swampy ground. A large cracked stone slab leaning near the front gate claimed that magic was outlawed here, as it was in the rest of Baltica. Of course it was.
Hubward straightened his multi-colored cloak, and arranged his face into a dull open-mouthed grin. There. That should be enough to fool the town guards.
After all: Who would expect a ten-year-old orphan to have magic?
The young boys came late to the parade. Hubward stood among them, cleaning a dirty ear with his pinky, looking every bit the street urchin in his patched cloak and unwashed face. He’d befriended the gang of boys after their leader had tried to rob him, about five minutes after entering Valga. But Hubward had nothing of value, and besides, he could fight like a blue badger, so he had been allowed to join the ‘Norks (as the gang of boys called themselves). They’d even given him a sash and a tin cup of sour milk, because, “We takes care of our own,” they had said solemnly. Hubward had his doubts about their loyalty. But they were a good cover.
He and the other boys cruised the parade crowd, looking for an easy mark. Hubward squinted into the afternoon sun. His pink threadbare sash flapped in the wind, identifying him as a “Newb” thief. The people of Valga were gathered in drips and drabs on either side of the main paved causeway, some holding flags of purple, others flags of yellow. They awaited the parade with the sullen enthusiasm of a cat waiting for its bath. Along the causeway most of the shop doors were kicked in, reduced to splinters. Many of the stone walled shops were entirely abandoned, their signs faded and unreadable, their corners sinking into the sodden ground. A few tenuous businesses held on with bricked up windows and wood slats across the front entrances. Suspicious old women peered out from behind these slats, ready to make a deal or cut your throat as it suited them.
One of the grimy ‘Nork boys shoved Hubward from behind, and he stumbled into the family in front of him, a press of sweaty hair and moldy tunics. He heard the gurgle of an empty belly, saw a flash of bright blue eyes. Everywhere he looked, Hubward saw gaunt faces, suspicious gazes. The old man in front him had a purse swaying on his belt like an udder, easily cut, easily stolen. Yet Hubward stayed his hand. These people needed what little gold they had. They were starving. Everyone in this town was starving.
The ‘Nork boy who had shoved Hubward hissed through his teeth, exasperated. Hubward shrugged and showed the other boy his empty hands. Nothing. The family had nothing worth stealing. The old patriarch of the family rapped Hubward on the back of his head with a gnarled cane, then turned back to the parade in exaggerated slowness. A soft lump swelled on the back of Hubward’s head. A reward for his gallantry, he supposed. Hubward moved on, walking down the causeway.
The main causeway terminated at the largest structure in the town. The black rounded stone tower was shaped like an hour-glass: thin waisted, and bulbous at the top and bottom. It loomed over the rest of Valga, suffocating it with shadow. The tower listed badly to one side, giving way to the swampy soil beneath it. That tower would be almost impossible to climb, unless one had a hundred-foot high ladder and a bellyful of brave. Unfortunately, that crooked stone tower was exactly where Hubward needed to go. The monster was in there.
Only the highest tower windows remained open to the sultry summer air, the rest had been walled off long ago to keep out the thieves. Even from this distance, Hubward could see that many of the stones near the tower windows had fallen out, giving it the gape of a madman’s smile. The monster—the one Hubward chased—had flown into that highest window. He knew the monster’s ways. It would rest for three days, no more, no less. Like most monsters, it was drawn to high places, and to gold, and to villainy. The king of Valga lived in this tower; it likely held all three.
The Valga parade began. It was the usual type of celebration: the first group to amble down the paved causeway were a mass of bored soldiers, tired and rowdy, and probably drunk. They wore mismatched leather armor and walked in a mob, joking and cursing and spitting to punctuate their remarks. Next came the carts of statesmen in all their fineries, some dressed entirely in purple robes, some entirely in yellow, and all with their noses up in the air, as if they had smelled something foul. Perhaps it was the dirty soldiers. They sat in creaking carts pulled by oxen and were covered by long narrow Oestrian umbrellas. The overlapping white feathers of the umbrellas fluttered in the wind.
A line of ragged men followed, cleaning up after the oxen of the statesmen, shoveling their dung into burlap sacks. And then, finally, came the king himself. The King of Valga walked in the parade, plodding along on a leash, stopping to nibble at weeds in the gutter. The King did not ride on a chariot, nor a cart. For the king was, unfortunately, a pig.
Forgetting his need for anonymity, Hubward inquired about this in his usual way—by cursing loudly and then saying, “What the WHAT?”
The nearest gossipy old woman was more than grateful to oblige. The king hadn’t been turned into a pig by a spell. Nor was he a magical pig, unless you considered his pig mother giving birth to him to be magical in the traditional sense. Even the fairest maiden in the land could smooch the king to her heart’s content, and he would remain ever more a pig. In fact, many a maiden had attempted this, for the king was very rich and so his looks could be safely ignored. But alas, the king remained entirely disinterested; unless the fair maiden had delicious flowers in her hair. Many a fair maiden had a bald patch to prove she had courted with the king.
Hubward kept waiting for someone to let him in on the joke. The king was grossly fat, pink, and had a sloping belly that ran around his midsection to his squiggly tail. Hubward’s mouth watered when the king waddled by. He was massive. A mobile bacon depository. Now that was something Hubward would rob.
The king passed by and the small dribble of excitement left the crowd. Hubward got the impression that no one wanted to be here any longer than necessary. The king was followed by the joyless clowns, their faces dressed with just a thin daub of paint here and there. The candy they threw was wrapped in cloth and hard as gravel. Despite the gaunt faces of the crowd, the candy remained uneaten. Hubward saw the ‘Nork boys trying to stone a scrawny chicken with the wrapped taffies. As good a use for candy as he could imagine. The only thing worse than candy was vegetables.
The crowd flowed toward the crooked black tower at the end of the paved causeway. Hubward followed. Could it be this easy to get inside? Up ahead, there was a brief struggle for space as the purple and yellow robed statesmen vied to stand outside of the hot afternoon sun. But the proceedings were otherwise subdued.
Someone made a speech. Hubward couldn’t see who was speaking, yet a few townsfolk clapped loudly when it was over. Then someone else made a speech which contradicted the first speech. The same townspeople clapped loudly. Perhaps they were paid to do so.
Finally the King made his grand entrance. He was unceremoniously shoved from behind onto a wooden platform the size of a gallows. Huh-rah. A low halfhearted cheer echoed across the causeway. The king, at last the king. Someone had removed the king’s leash, and attached a crown to the small of his back.
Would he speak?
Hubward was suddenly transfixed. A pig that could speak would have to be magical, wouldn’t it? But magic was outlawed here. What if all pigs spoke? Had he been eating bacon from a speaking non-magical creature every morning of his young ten-year-old life? His stomach soured. And if bacon came from an intelligent creature, would he have to stop? Not bacon, surely. He couldn’t live without it.
But no, the king did not speak. A government functionary of the usual type—threadbare brown robes, large worried forehead, balding— joined the king on the platform in front of the crooked tower. He explained that the king wished everyone a good day, and that parade taxes “would be lowered”, starting “in the near future”, assuming “all went as planned”. This word salad sounded as filling as the wrapped stones pretending to be candy.
But the crowd went wild. Genuine joy flickered across the lined faces of the starving townsfolk. Then the king was yanked from the stage, the purple and yellow robed statesmen retreated into the crooked tower, and the parade was over. The crowd dispersed.
Hubward felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned.
Sky blue eyes, large as pumpkinettes, twinkled at him from beneath a coif of neatly braided blond hair. The girl was about his age and Hubward recognized her as a member of the the poor family he had stumbled into during the parade. Her eyes—even her eyelids were faintly blue as if the brilliance of her eyes continued to shine through them even when closed. The girl was painfully thin beneath her pink overtunic, yet her smile was firm and brave. Her chin was pointed, her forehead wide, giving her head a triangular shape. She introduced herself as Anna.
Anna said, “I uhm, just wanted to thank you Hubward for not robbing us earlier. We’ve barely enough to pay our parade taxes these days.” She smiled again, then looked away. Hubward felt a jolt of cold air, as if the sun had suddenly gone behind a mountain. But he warmed again when she looked back at him. “Grandfather insists on openly carrying his taxes. Says it proves how safe we are.”
Hubward realized he was smiling. And she was waiting. Was she . . . Yes, when someone said something to you . . . Yes, you made noises with your . . . mouth . . . Didn’t you? Yes, that was what he was supposed to do . . . Make noises with his mouth called . . . what exactly? Wods? Waldds? No, that wasn’t right.
“Ullllgh. Yes, losing taxes, that would be a shame,” Hubward said. He looked around the falling down town, the collapsing tower, the holes in the causeway. He didn’t look at Anna, because if he did, he’d forget how to make mouth noises again. “But wh-what do your taxes pay for, exactly? Pig slop?” His joke did not land well.
Anna fiddled with her gauzy pink overtunic and adjusted the waist of the drab undertunic beneath it. “Our taxes pay for the parades.” She said it as if explaining that a fire is hot-hot-no-touch to a small child.
Hubward stumbled on, “But why not just cancel the parade, save the money?”
Anna laughed. It was a honking, nasal, almost obnoxious sound. She fiddled with a braid, and Hubward’s knees stop functioning. He melted. A girl was talking to him. On purpose!
Anna said, “Then how would we celebrate the lowering of taxes?”
Hubward pressed his lips together. Best not to fall into that pit of logic. He smiled and gawped and tried to think of something interesting to say. Should he talk about the parade? The weather? His quest to avenge?
Luckily, Anna had no problem filling the conversation. “So Hubward . . . Judging from the way you’re hanging around the tower, I suspect you have some governmental business here. Eh? Perhaps as a courtier. Or a secret prince?” She batted her eyelashes at him.
Hubward blushed. Did she think he was a secret prince? He didn’t know what a courtier was, but if she wanted him to be one, he could pretend. Perhaps he’d go to courtier school, somewhere far away. He’d have to find enough money to buy pantaloons of the finest silk, and . . . didn’t they play the harp or something? He’d find out. If that’s what Anna wanted, he would definitely find out.
Anna straightened up, smiled as if she were in on some secret joke. “Yes, parades and low taxes. That’s just good governance. I’m glad I voted for the king.”
Voted? For a king? She was obviously proud of what she had just told him. But it was utter nonsense.
“You don’t vote for kings,” Hubward said, stupidly. “They just appear. They show up and say things like ‘I am in charge, I have a sword.’ And if you disagree, they chop something off of you.”
“Oh no, not here, this is Valka. We are progressive, we elect our kings.”
“But your king is a pig!” Hubward said with a guffaw. He regretted his guffaw.
Anna looked genuinely insulted. “Oh, come on. He’s not that bad.” She crossed her arms and looked away. Her smile disappeared into the gutter.
Hubward nearly fell over trying to agree with her. “No! I mean he isn’t! I mean, he is, but he’s not. I mean . . .” What did he mean? He meant: Please, please, please keep talking to me like I’m an interesting person. Please! I’ve been talking to dirty shadows for months!
Anna unwrapped her arms. She cuffed him on the chin, a hummingbird’s peck. “It’s ok, I know you’re new here, Hubward. I’m sure whatever business you have with the king is of the utmost secrecy.” She smiled at him, and his heart leapt out of his patched cloak. Her large sparkling pool-sized eyes drew him towards her. Hubward could smell the fried fish she’d had for lunch. He stumbled closer as she whispered, “I wanted to return this to you, and invite you to dinner tonight. I live above the tannery, the good one on Bryant lane. My mother thought you could use something to eat besides sour milk.” She winked, then held something out.
A gift? Did girls usually offer secret princes a gift? Hubward looked at her hands. She held a pink sash, threadbare, marked with a backwards word. His sash! The “Newb” thief sash. He stupidly patted his chest.
“I stole it off you,” Anna said with a laugh. She tossed it to him gaily, then turned and walked down the causeway. Her pink overtunic trailed behind her. She turned and looked back over her shoulder. “We eat at sunset, don’t be late your majesty.”
Hubward tried to think of some witty remark, something a really interesting fellow might say, but by the time he came up with, “I wouldn’t miss it for all the sour milk in Valga,” she was already gone.
The ‘Norks were gone too, which was fine with Hubward. He tossed his sash in the gutter. Who needed a gang of smelly boys, when a smelly girl—who didn’t even smell that bad to be honest—wanted to make him dinner? He sniffed his cloak. Who needed smelly boys, indeed? He might do with a wash.
But first he had to find a way into the crooked tower. Hubward only had three days.