Struglend Tales sample chapter: A Messenger in White

Written By: Jan Jacob Mekes

It had been a day since Alric walked out of Death’s castle, on a mission to get killed. He was at a complete loss. As a soldier, he had always been extremely good at not getting killed. This was something new for him. He decided to go to the one place in Struglend where he could be alone and gather his thoughts, the place where he had so many lovely memories of playing among the trees:WoodlandForest.

It seemed as if the forest hadn’t changed a bit since the last time he was there, more than a dozen years ago. The pines, elms, and chestnuts were still growing tall and stately as ever. Butterflies and bumblebees were flying from flower to flower, pollinating as they went. The twittering of birds filled the air around Alric. This pleasant symphony of nature was abruptly disturbed by the sound of one of the rarer birds of the forest.

“Hoo hoo.”

Seeing an owl was generally considered to be a sign of good fortune by the Struglenders, so this was indeed a welcome sound for Alric, whose thoughts immediately trailed off into his innermost fantasies of living in paradise. Just as another virtual grape was being lowered into his mouth by a comely lady, his thoughts were violently dragged away from her and back into reality by the owl.

“Hoo hoo!”

Alric looked up to see if he couldn’t see the culprit, but he quickly gave up. He had more important things to do than looking for an owl. Like dying. That was his top priority now, and he couldn’t use some silly bird hoo-hooing at him right now, so he walked off decidedly.

“Hoo hoo, you stupid twit!”

A talking silly bird hoo-hooing at him was another matter.

“What did you say?” our hero asked.

The bird came flying down to a branch near Alric’s face.

“I said ‘hoo hoo’, you stupid twit. You know, you really shouldn’t just walk away from an owl. We are considered to be a sign of good fortune, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” said Alric with a heavy heart.

“Good. Now then. I’ve got a mission for you.”

Alric shrugged. “I can’t go on any mission. I have other things to do.”

“Other things? Other things that are more important than going on a mission given to you by a talking owl? What could possibly be more important than that?”

“Dying.”

The owl blinked. “I’m sorry? What was that?”

“I need to die.”

“Oh, I’m sure things aren’t that bad. Have you tried counselling?”

“No, I mean really, I am in a predicament with Death. You know, that guy living at that castle over there, sunken cheeks, bony fingers, dressed in black and all that?”

“Oh, I see. Well, that’s none of my business anyway. I am just here to tell you that further down the road you will meet a divine messenger, who brings word from the gods—”

“Wait, what? What are gods?”

“Wha— What?!” the owl spluttered. “You mean you don’t know what gods are? You’re supposed to fear them! Don’t you fear the gods?”

“Well, I used to fear only Death, until I had a cup of tea with him. Quite likeable chap when you get to know him. Likes football.”

“Yes, only when the players die,” the owl said, under his breath.

“But you were saying?”

“Oh, yes, er…” the owl was momentarily distracted by this little intermezzo. “Just walk along this path, and if you encounter a talking bird, tell him your name. That’s all.”

“But why?”

“You ask too many questions. Gods don’t like that. Just go already.”

The owl watched Alric walk down the beaten path and flew off. “Tough customer,” he said to himself. “I like that.”

 

* * *

 

His spirits lifted by the sight of the bringer of good luck, Alric went deeper into the forest. He followed along the path, towards a white light, which got ever brighter as he came nearer. When he was so close that he was nearly blinded by the light, he heard a sound.

“Coo.”

“Huh? Coo?”

“Coo coo!”

“Show yourself! I’ll cut you down, you fiendish… fiend!”

The light disappeared, and there was only a white dove now. It tilted its head slightly, looking at Alric.

“Coo?”

“Oh, you’re just a dove.”

The dove shook its head.

“You’re not? Well, you certainly look like one. What are you then?”

“Coo coo coo.”

“Well, I don’t have time for this, I’ve got a divine messenger to meet. Whatever that is. Talking birds…” Alric said, shaking his head. “Well, bye now.”

The dove flapped its wings furiously, making quite a fuss.

“COO COO COO COO COO COO COO!”

“What’s wrong with you, little guy?”

“COOOOOOOOO! COO COO!”

“Wait… you’re not this messenger I’m supposed to meet, are you?”

The dove nodded. “Coo.”

“But you don’t talk!”

“Coo coo coo!”

“Hmm… well, I’m supposed to tell you my name then… I guess… I’m Alric.”

“Coo.”

The dove flew off, heading towards Death’s castle. It had not gotten far, however, when it encountered a jackdaw. Being no match for the black brute, the dove was quickly killed. And the jackdaw ate its brain.

Now, you must know that jackdaws are very clever birds. Struglend scholars have observed jackdaws in captivity pick up bits of wire, bend them around something round, like a beer bottle, and use this tool to open the beer bottle and obtain a snack that was dropped into it by the researchers. Then the jackdaws proceeded to eat the snack and drink the beer, while appearing to be reading the list of ingredients. Some scholars have even published papers arguing that they saw the jackdaws shake their head disapprovingly when they found that monosodium glutamate was missing from the list, but there was continuing disagreement over that. Struglend scholars were a strange lot, and most of them not particularly clever.

Just like this jackdaw, who did not share the intellectual prowess of his bird brethren. Jack had always been rather stupid. His name wasn’t even Jack. He was named Horatio Boniface the Third, after his late grandfather, but he’d just assumed his name was Jack Daw. The white dove had been nothing but another treat to him. He didn’t quite feel the same though, after eating its brain. It was like his mind was going in and out of focus. Then the owl showed up.

“Hullo, Jack. Oh my gods, you ate it! You ruined the plan! The guy was supposed to meet with this dove, lifting his spirits and sending him on his mission! Jack, you numbskull!”

The jackdaw cawed hesitantly at first. Then, for the first time ever, he spoke.

Actually, the name is Horatio Boniface the Third,” he said, with an accent so posh that it would make the royal family sound like inhabitants of a trailer park next to the city dump.

The owl opened its mouth. And shut it again. And opened. And shut. “Come ‘ere… we need to talk,” he finally managed.

When the avian duo had retreated into the darker regions of the forest, a hunter appeared who had just been hunting pheasants. He wasn’t very good at it, but at least it gave him an excuse to be away from home. He liked the forest a lot more than his home. His wife had often warned him of evil witches he might encounter, but it was a chance he just took. After all, being married to his wife could hardly be as bad as meeting an evil witch. It was all the same to him.

But here was something that wasn’t quite the same. An unusually bright light radiated from the feathers and flesh that had once been a dove. It was actually the light of destiny, which pulled the hunter towards it. The light was not actually there, but the colour of the divine ex-dove’s fabric shifted in such a way that the hunter picked up on the importance of this thing. He felt compelled to do something with it. And not just anything. He felt compelled to make an arrow out of it. And while the hunter was terrible at shooting things, he was amazing at making things to shoot things with.

In just half an hour—a record speed, even by non-Struglend standards—he had crafted the most beautiful arrow ever created. The arrow shaft was beautifully smooth and white. The hunter never realized there was so much bone in a dove. And the beak had seemed to magically grow to the size of an arrowhead when he put it on the arrow. The white feathers were a nice touch too. Very brilliant and radiating. Now he just needed a target.

 

* * *

 

“Well, thanks, Jack,” said the owl.

“Horatio.”

“Yes, Horatio. Now that you’ve eaten our little divine pick-me-up, I need to convince that fellow all over again.”

“Well, then go do it!”

The owl sighed. “I’ll be right back.”

Ten minutes later, he returned.

“And?” Horatio asked.

“Alric—that’s the guy’s name—agrees to go on the mission, but only if we help him die. And here’s the kicker: he needs to die at the hands of Niall. I have a little plan, but I’m going to need your help. Can I count on you?”

“I don’t understand half of what you’re going on about, but I do consider you to be a friend of sorts…”

“I’m touched, Jack. I mean Horatio. Okay, here’s what you do…”

After whispering his plan into Horatio’s ear, the owl looked at his fellow conspirator.

“So, you understand?”

“Yes, yes, I’m not daft,” the jackdaw answered the owl.

“Well, you used to be. But anyway, let’s go over this once more, just to be sure.”

“If you insist.”

“You’ll go to the castle, explain how it works to Niall and lure him here. Got that?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Then I’ll distract the hunter and we all make our moves. All right?”

“All right already! I am a nobleman, not a layman.”

“Bird.”

“What?”

“Laybird.”

“Oh, shut up.”

And with that, Horatio Boniface the Third headed to Death’s castle.

 

* * *

 

Toc toc toc.

Niall went to the window of Death’s castle, the place where all dead souls gathered from time to time when they needed something (like contracts, chains to rattle, or lavatory paper to make festive decorations). He opened it. It wasn’t hard once you figured out how to do it without hands, and Niall had had plenty of time to figure it out, having been dead for quite a few years.

“My good sir, my name is Horatio Boniface the Third, earl of thecountyDaw.”

“So? What’s that to do with me?”

“My good man, don’t you recognize a sign from the gods when you see one?”

“No?”

“Oh. Well then. I’m a messenger from the gods. Er.”

“And?”

“And I come to tell you about how you can do all sorts of fantastic things, such as commanding the wind. Now that you’re dead, and all.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, many people cannot access these hidden powers even when they’re dead, until they have received a revelation from the gods. So, I’m your revelation.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You’re supposed to come with me now.”

“Ah.”

And with that, Niall left through the open window, which was not much larger than the jackdaw. He was a fast learner.

 

* * *

 

“So, you see, we’ve got it all worked out,” the owl told Alric.

“I see… Will it really work?”

“Trust me, I’m good at this sort of thing.”

“Well, if you say so…”

And before Alric could hesitate any further, a string of events occurred that would ultimately kill him. The owl took off into the sky. The hunter, seeing the owl, pulled back the string of his bow. Before he could release it, he saw the arrow take off of its own accord, at times seemingly shifting into the shape of a dove. The arrow headed towards the owl, but was caught by the wind. The hunter found this rather odd, since it was the windless season, and in Struglend that really meant no wind. He quickly pieced things together though, when he saw a transparent man orchestrating an infernal wind he had just conjured up.

“This is really fantastic!” Niall exclaimed.

“WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU IN THIS INFERNAL WIND,” the owl shouted back.

“I SAID THIS IS REALLY FANTASTIC!”

“WHAT WOULD YOU NEED FRILLY PLASTIC FOR?”

“OH, NEVER YOU MIND!”

“WHAT? I’VE GOT A CLEVER BEHIND?”

After this rather anticlimactic conversation, the arrow, guided by Niall’s little storm, entered through Alric’s back and nearly came out the other side.

“Ow! That hurt!”

“Nobody ever said it was going to be painless, kid,” the owl remarked.

The hunter’s amazement, which had shot up a level or twenty, poked right through the ceiling of his mind and stopped somewhere in outer space, upon the following sight. A horse approached Alric’s dead body, spurred on by a jackdaw, which was sitting on the horse’s head, shouting commands in its ear.

“Left. Left! Your other left, you stupid piece of horsemeat!”

Horses in Struglend were used to being steered by reigns, not by language. The vocabulary of a horse generally consisted of nothing more than a few variations in pitch and tone when neighing and whinnying.

“I suppose it would be too much to ask for you to bend down and pick up the guy?”

Horatio Boniface the Third waited a few seconds. Nothing happened.

“Thought so. Hey, you,” he said, turning to the hunter.

“Me, sir bird?”

“Yes, who else?”

“Well, I thought maybe that man over there… that you can sort of see what’s on the other side of him, on account of him being… see-through.” He looked at where Niall had just been directing the winds, but Niall had left for Death’s castle. “Oh…”

“Yes, ‘oh’ indeed. Now come help me out. Pick the guy up and put him on the horse’s back. Please.”

The hunter quickly obliged. He had never encountered a talking bird before, but figured it would not be wise to disobey talking birds.

“Thankee, kind sir.”

The hunter managed a feeble “You’re welcome,” and decided that it wasn’t so bad at home after all. The rolling pin held by his wife had, for the first time in his life, been a welcome sight upon returning home. At least it didn’t speak.

A while later, the horse arrived at Death’s castle. Alric fell off, barely alive. He was held up by the jackdaw and the owl, who had each grabbed him by a shoulder.

“Now, knock.”

With his last strength, Alric managed to make a fist, lift up his hand, and touch the door with it, with just enough force to produce a sound. The door opened, and Alric fell down, a bony, white-feathered arrow sticking out from his back.

“Horatio?” the owl said uncertainly, as he watched this spectacle unfold. “I just thought of something…”

“What?”

“Alric can’t go on this mission he was supposed to go on now…”

“Why not?”

“Oh, it’s just a small complication. He’s dead.”

“Oh. Yes.”

“We messed up royally, my friend.”

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