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Gentle reader, by now you will have doubtless heard of the misdeeds of the evil Lord Grippando.
Numerous versions of the strange events surrounding his dark realm may still be heard, with tales told in common taprooms or songs performed most elegantly in the mighty courts of our land. Who knows but some news of these events may have even by now reached the farthest shore of exotic lands? Much of what is told is pure fantasy, and a little impure fantasy, I blush to record is sometimes heard. My motives, character and actions bear little resemblance to these fables. While I am, I trust, as brave as the next man, I singularly lack any superhuman qualities. Many times, as the events I am about to recount occurred, I was literally quaking in my shoes, as any sensible person would be battling a powerful fiend like Grippando.
My name as you have probably guessed by now is Lars Nordstrom. The events of which I write were important. Indeed, it is horrible to imagine the world today if Grippando had been left to prosper. Having waited impatiently for a historian to write a fitting account of the events of thirty years ago, I am forced to take up my pen and write a simple but truthful account.
I was in those days barely older than a stripling, but a keen and increasingly able knight who had seen several successful actions in the service of the Master, whose name must never be spoken but before whom all good and wise men pay homage.
It was he who instructed me to travel to the Land of B---- and there seek out a grain merchant by the name of Silas Greenbrass, though for what purpose I was not told and dared not inquire.
Merchant Greenbrass was a short, plump man whose jovial face was belied by shrewd eyes. He was a widower, outrageously spoiled by his five comely daughters. In those days, I was as green as a sapling. A serious young man used only to rough soldier's ways, I would have more readily bearded a monster in his cave than be the sport of these teasing jades. In answer to their gentle but persistent questions at dinner, I could only blushingly stutter that the Master told me that he had heard of the troubles faced by the village and had sent me to assist them.
When his giggling daughters were finally sent to bed, Greenbrass refilled my glass and settled back, eyeing me speculatively.
'You're most welcome, young knight though I'm surprised that the Master sent one so young to engage such a powerful enemy.'
He studied me for some time, then shrugged and smiled. 'Yet who am I to question the wisdom of the Master? You've won your spurs at an early age and if he thinks you capable of the task, then you are. In fairness however I must warn you that Lord Grippando is a fiend possessed of great power who's already defeated many fine warriors.'
'Who's Lord Grippando?" I asked, assuming a steady voice.
'Tomorrow,' Greenbrass decided, slapping the table with finality. 'Tomorrow, there'll be plenty of time to hear our troubles. You've traveled a long way today, so I suggest you sleep now. Rest, for you'll need all your strength and cunning in the days ahead.'
It sounded good advice and although Grippando's name seemed to echo in my head like the ominous pealing of a church bell, hardly had my head touched the pillow than I slipped into a deep sleep. Yet as every knight will attest, there is always some part of our brains alert to danger and our weapons are constantly at hand.
At 3 am, I awoke to the sound of scuffling and muffled cries from the corridor. I swiftly dressed and buckled on my broad sword for close fighting. Then I slipped to the door and quietly eased it open. I was shocked to see each of Greenbrass's daughters, bound by the wrist and gagged, frantically struggling as they were pushed toward the stairs. Yet to my astonishment, I couldn't see their captors!
There were at least five invisible ruffians and perhaps more, but I reasoned their invisibility made it unlikely they were carrying weapons. With a great cry I hurled myself into the fray, and swiftly felt the heat and sweat of muscled flesh as my opponents try to wrench my sword away.
It may have been crazy odds, but I fought like a madman and soon there were screams of pain as I slashed and thrust, taking great care to avoid the girls who were twisting around violently, seeking to be free. The wounds I opened and the blood I spilt were visible, while the flesh of my opponents remained invisible. An arm gripped me from behind but I shook it off and the balustrade gave way, sending my assailant crashing down to the marbled floor below. As the man died, he gradually became visible.
Sensing another man near me, l lashed out with my foot. There was a surprised cry and the sound of a body cartwheeling down the stairs. He too must have died of a broken neck as his crumpled figure appeared.
In a matter of minutes the fight was over and the invisible band fled, leaving me free to untie the girls. We found Greenbrass lying insensible across his bead, blood oozing from a nasty gash on his forehead where one of his cowardly opponents had struck him. Fortunately, he soon recovered and after I dragged the two bodies out into the yard, peace was restored.
Several minutes later I heard movement outside and looked through a window. In the square were about 20 villagers blindfolded, their wrists bound being pushed into what must have been invisible carriages. Before I could run into the square to rescue the captives, the carriage doors slammed shut and I heard horses hooves fading away.
Troubled by these images, I went to bed and was surprised to sleep deeply and wake refreshed. I made a pot of tea and took a cup to Greenbrass who I found sitting up in bed, his head swathed in a bandage like a turban. He greeted me cheerfully, 'Lars, come and sit by me.' I felt pleased that he had begun calling me by my first name.
'You look well, considering.'
'Fit as a fiddle! Well, perhaps a little sore, but more than that annoyed at myself for being so helpless in protecting my family. Thank heaven you were here.'
He leaned forward gripping my arm. 'John, you must put an end to this. My daughters told me that you drove off the invaders but there's nothing to stop them returning when you aren't here. I thought my doors were strong and my locks secure, but they're a weak defense against black magic.'
I told Silas about the villagers I had seen captured. He sighed wearily,' It's growing worse. Soon most of the village will have been taken to Grippando's castle.'
'What does he want with them?'
'Maidservants, soldiers, administrators. He has many needs and numerous plans. Mainly however he is building an invisible army that will one day conquer our nation. From there, he will go on to wage war with the rest of the world. He's drunk with power.'
'Who is Lord Grippando? I can't recall seeing his name listed among the Book of Nobles.'
'You wouldn't. He's a wizard who's stolen the title of Lord.
'I don't know why he chose us, but Grippando first appeared as a huckster at our local fair. The Mayor's wife, Esmeralda Strapease was very vain and had a sizable mole on her right cheek. It didn't matter how many friends assured her that the mole wasn't unsightly or how often her husband advised her to ignore the blemish, she felt she was disfigured. The richer she became, the more she was determined to rid herself of the imperfection.
One fateful night, feeling bored she left her mirror and hiding her cheek beneath a scarf visited the fair, accompanied by her maidservant. As she glided through the crowd, men bowed and women dropped curtsies to which Esmeralda responded with regal aplomb, nodding graciously to some, ignoring or staring coldly at others. Her stately progress at length took her beyond the main area and into a line of sideshow tents. Such tawdry nonsense, she thought with contempt. No wonder so men people are reduced to beggary, spending coins to goggle at the absurd trumpery offered - bearded ladies, two headed calves, a genuine mermaid, a man who was so tiny he slept in a snuff box each night and so on
'This way,' a soft voice broke into her musings. 'Just over here my lady is all that you seek.'
'What impudence!' Esmeralda thought 'How dare one of these mountebanks presume to know what a lady of quality seeks.' She turned angrily to confront a tall, bald man dressed in clothes so black that they seemed to swallow the light. She looked into his face, noting with a faint tremor, in stark contrast to leprous white skin his scarlet lips twisted into an ingratiating smile.
Why, he looks like the mask of death, she thought with alarm. But there was nothing dead about his small dark eyes glittering with knowledge and malice.
'Who are you?' she asked, uncomfortably aware that her demand sounded a little like a plea.
'I, Madam? Why, I'm nothing. A dealer in dreams. Yet my dreams are not the vapors of imagination, but marvelous reality. They call me Grippando.'
Esmeralda looked at the small canvas booth. It had no signs and was bare, save for a rough wooden table on which some jars were placed. Each jar contained a small quantity of white liquid.
'I am a mixer of potions. After many years I have discovered a miracle cream.'
Curiosity overcame caution. 'What miracle?' Esmeralda demanded sounding more scornful than she felt.
'To enhance a woman's natural beauty. To remove in an instant any blemish.' As he said this, he stared meaningfully at the scarf covering Esmeralda's lower face and the mole suddenly burnt like an iron coin baking in a furnace.
'How much is this cream?'
'Grippando shrugged. 'How should I set a price? For you, nothing.'
'Nothing? Then you can't believe it will do me any good.' Sensing an advantage, Esmeralda regained some of her customarily bullying manner, 'This will do you no good Mr.Seller of Magic Portions! If I try your cream and it doesn't work, I'll have your skin flayed from your bones. You certainly picked the wrong person with me. A pity you didn't know who I was!'
'I know who you are,' Grippando answered composedly. 'You're the wife of the Mayor. I also know that would give a fortune to rid yourself of that little mole on your face. I shall charge you nothing for as soon as others see the result with you, I will scarcely be able to keep up with the demand. Why, only tonight I saw as I walked through this fair, scores of people with smallpox scars like pumice stones, birthmarks like crushed raspberries, hideous acne, frightful burns: scarcely a person who wouldn't pay almost everything they own for a jar of my cream.'
'Very well,' Esmeralda held out her hand. 'I'm sure you're a rogue, but if perchance your cream is as good as you say, I'll recommend it to my friends.'
Grippando shook his head.' 'No. You must apply it here.'
'Are you mad?' she exploded. 'What makes you think that the most important woman in this town, saving of course, the esteemed Lady Taunton would stand here under the ogling of common people as though a dirty, little fairground was my bedchamber?'
Grippando smirked. 'Apply the cream here or walk away. I won't waste more time with you.'
Esmeralda flushed with anger, but faltered under his mocking stare.
'Give it to me,' she whispered. The crowd pressed forward for a better view as she dipped a tentative finger in the paste and drew down her scarf.
'You'll need more than that,' Grippando advised.' That's better. Now rub it in all over the cheek.'
As she did so, Esmeralda felt the mole stop throbbing. Then it felt as though it was shriveling away.
'Excellent,' Grippando sniggered, passing her a hand mirror, 'See for yourself. The blemish has vanished.'
'Well,' Esmeralda said to her maid, 'What do you think?'
The maid, stared at her mistress, her mouth dropping open in horror. The crowd fell back. Esmeralda, suddenly sick with worry, looked at her reflection, then shrieked in terror dropping the mirror that exploded into a thousand fragments. The mole had gone but so too had a large section of her cheek leaving a hole that you could see clear through to the crowd behind.
As Esmeralada screamed and her maid burst into tears, the crowd grew angry and would have seized Grippando to tear him apart but he sprang nimbly onto the table and spinning round like a top, chanted mockingly,
'Now you see me.
Now you don't.
I'm a puff of smoke.'
And with that he disappeared.
'What happened to the poor woman?' I asked Greenbrass.
'It was horrible. She fled to her house and locked herself in her room. After knocking on the door for hours and hearing nothing, her husband finally broke the door down and found she had hung herself. It broke his heart'
'Dreadful,' I agreed. 'And Grippando?'
'He wasn't heard of for two years. When he came back, it was as the new owner of Taunton Castle. He had all the correct legal documents transferring ownership, but noone has seen Lord or Lady Taunton or their daughter since Grippando moved in.
'Strange tales began to swirl like mist around Taunton Castle. Traders from distant lands told of weird dinners in which plates heaped with food floated from the kitchen to be placed in front of each diner. Where wine was poured by invisible hands. Where Grippando who has bloated to a vast size, simply opens in his mouth for a fork to feed him. And when Grippando finishes his sumptuous meal he settles onto a richly embroided couch that is lifted and floats from the room.
A child discovered the fate of Lord Taunton and his court. He told his parents that he heard voices that seemed to float from the rocks. After many hours of badgering, the boy convinced his father to accompany him and they walked for some hours before reaching a remote section of headland. The boy stopped near a blow-hole where the sea at high tide rushed into a cave on the cliff forcing spray up in a tall, violent spout
'It was here I heard the voices,' he said.
The father and son stood listening to the sucking of the sea, its breathy roar and the spitting of water into the air. Just as the father had shrugged and was about to leave, he heard a low, urgent plea from far below in the half-drowned cave. The spout gradually died away and he was able to recognize the voice of Lord Taunton begging anyone who could hear to release him and his court. As Taunton spoke, all around could then be heard the voices of others: from the rocks and from the pine forest that stopped short of the cliff. And as they watched in fear, the father and son saw the pine trees began to bend and shake as though clamoring for attention, though there was not the slightest breeze. And the voices told them that they were the enchanted court of Lord Taunton. They said Grippando had placed a powerful spell upon them and imprisoned them in the rocks and the trees of this wild and lonely place. Again and again, they pleaded for release until the father and son fled the spot and sought out the Mayor.
They found the Mayor half distracted by grief and anger at the terrible fate of his wife, but as soon as they related what had occurred, he seemed to find a new determination. He quickly gathered together a small army of citizens and soldiers and they marched to Taunton Castle. "Lower the drawbridge and open the gate, Grippando," the Mayor bawled, "I've come to arrest you."
'And the drawbridge came down and the door opened though not a sound was heard from inside the castle. The Mayor and his band bravely marched over the moat through the door which closed behind them and none were ever seen again.'
Silas Greenbrass looked at me quizzically. 'It's strange when I wrote to the Master, I imagined he would send a company of his strongest knights, perhaps even a white magician, yet here you are. One man largely untried.'
I nodded glumly. To ask the Master for additional help, would be to question his judgment, but I couldn't imagine how I could enter a castle to confront a foe shielded by an invisible army. I spent much of the day in the village church, praying for guidance. By nightfall, I felt no closer to a solution, but as so often happens when one despairs of an answer, it presents itself. I had finally fallen asleep around 3 am when I was woken by a gentle shaking of my shoulder. I thought at first I had imagined this for the room seemed empty, but it happened again and a woman's voice whispered, 'Don't be afraid, Sir Knight.'
'Who are you?' I demanded roughly, thinking this was another devilish trick by Grippando. As I spoke, a woman's form appeared. She was a lovely young maiden and her clothes, jewelry and deportment showed her to be a noble. It was as though she was painted in mist. I could both see her and see through her
'I prefer to be known as Trini,' she said,' My given name is ridiculously pompous. I'm the only child of Lord Taunton.'
'What are you doing here,' I asked, still fearful of a trap.' Why aren't you with the rest of your family trapped in the rocks and trees?'
'I don't know,' she confessed. 'When Grippando cast his spell, I became invisible like the others, but whereas he seemed to see everyone else, he couldn't see me. I watched helplessly as my family was cast into the blowhole while the rest of the court was imprisoned in the pine forest.'
Her brave voice faltered and she began to cry. Without thinking, I took her in my arms. All that I had been taught as a dispassionate and chivalrous knight was forgotten in a second as I comforted the poor girl. I knew at that moment with absolute clarity, that I had three purposes left in life: to overcome Grippando, to make Trini fully visible and to spend the rest of my days on earth loving this graceful companion.
To my surprise, she told me that she had traveled to see the Master, confirmed what Merchant Greenbrass had written and together they had devised a plan so audacious, or some would say foolhardy, that it might succeed. It was the evening before the day on which the Master sent me on my quest. 'I have been close to you ever since,' Trini said, 'but only now you are permitted to see me.'
By nightfall I was standing by myself in the dark wood that encircled Taunton Castle. If Trini was there, invisible to my eyes I cannot say but I felt keenly alone and woefully inadequate for the task ahead.
Of course I had heard of the Zenastra bird. As a child, my parents would read to me fabulous tales of the bird that buries its eggs in hot volcano sand in the land of Ur. Giant eggs with hard and shiny shells - gold colored for females, silver for males. Shells so brilliant in appearance that any human seeing them would be instantly blinded. How the bird lives for a thousand years and will only die with the waning of a blue moon. How no one has found the place where the dead birds lie and how an adult bird can easily carry five men on its back in flight.
As I grew older, I consigned the Zenastra to the same fabled realm as the unicorn or griffin, yet here I was standing in the dark waiting for a creature that belonged more to fairy tale than reality.
For a giant bird, its approach was incredibly quiet. One moment, I was standing in the trees beside a field dimly lit by a reluctant moon. The next all light was extinguished. For a moment, I feared that Grippando had discovered me. Even as I thought that however, light returned and I realized the momentary blackness was simply the shadow of the Zenastra as it floated down as silently as a leaf falling in a forest.
I goggled at the size of the bird. Its legs for instance were the size of tree trunks, its head was at least four times larger than my body. The bird turned its head toward me and I gazed back, expecting to see the glare of a wild creature. Instead, the Zenastra seemed to be regarding me with kindness and perhaps friendship. It then gently inclined its massive head and it was clear that it was inviting me to mount on its back.
Many people have asked me what I felt that night going into battle with Grippando. In all honesty, I can say that I didn't feel afraid. Moments before I was apprehensive, but when I looked into the Zenastra's great, gentle eyes, I felt strangely calmed.
I climbed aboard the bird's back and we silently rose. Within a minute, we were high above the forest then we began a steep descent, gliding down toward the shadowed castle. I half expected to hear a cry of alarm, but whatever guards were posted mustn't have been looking at the sky, which swiftly darkened as though to hide our approach. As the Zenastra hovered, I could see only a faint light high up in a tower. This was from a candle that Trini had promised to light when Grippando fell asleep. I knew that she also opened the window catch to allow me to enter the room.
When we reached the unlatched window, I crawled out along the Zenastra's outstretched wing, making sure I didn't look into the dizzying depth below and scrambled onto the ledge.
Inside the sumptuously decorated bedroom, a tall, fat bald-headed man laying snoring in bed.
'I'm worried about you,' Trini had said to me when we planned the attack.
'I'm rather concerned myself,' I admitted with a short laugh.
'No, what concerns me is that you have a kind nature. Most of the time that's a wonderful way to think, but sometimes it can be dangerous. When you see Grippando, you may feel pity because he'll look like a fat, weak old man. Remember that's a sham. He can sense your feelings even when he's asleep and adapt to them. He's a powerful wizard that must be destroyed. Another thing. If he wakes and you see his open eyes you will fall under his spell. Also if he speaks, you will be his forever.'
'Then what am I to do? Cut off his head while he sleeps?'
'No, that wouldn't work. His head would regrow and he would be whole again in less than a minute. I've seen him have his head sliced off as a party trick. No, as soon as you enter his room, lock his door then blindfold and gag him. Bind his wrists and force him to mount the back of the Zenastra. Climb up behind him and the bird will take you to the only place where Grippando can be destroyed.'
It all happened as Trini instructed. I swiftly rendered Grippando helpless and with the tip of my sword, prodded toward the open window. We had scarcely stepped out onto the ledge when I heard a jiggling of the bedchamber door handle followed by a furious hammering.
'Master,' I heard a voice implore. 'Speak to me. Open the door to let us know you're safe. The watch has reported a mighty bird hovering by your window. We've sent a rain of arrows against it and are bringing up the cannons, but so far it appears unaffected. Please open the door. You are in terrible danger!'
I roughly pushed Grippando out onto the bird's wing.
'Hold your fire!' I heard a faint command. 'You may hit the Master.'
Grippando stumbled along onto the bird's back and almost toppled off, but I seized him before he fell. I had no doubt after what Trini had said that the wizard would survive even a fall from this height. I sank down onto the bird's back behind the wizard and clutched at its feathers. The Zenastra rose effortlessly and soon we were far from the castle, traveling at great speed toward the sea. Scarcely had I had time to blink before we circled above the blowhole where Lord and Lady Taunton were imprisoned.
The Zenastra's circles became tighter and it tilted over on a sharp angle causing Grippando and I to frantically grasp at its warm feathers. As I buried my hands in the feathers, they seemed to lock onto me. The magician however was no more able to hold on than if he had grasped a mound of jelly. As the bird increased the sharpness of its angle, Grippando slid off its back clutching at nothing. He plummeted like a lightning bolt into the blowhole. A mighty jet of water as black as a squid's ink erupted then fell back and all was silent.
The Zenastra settled onto the cliff. Scarcely had I alighted, when it rose again, departing before I had time to thank it. Instantly I was surrounded by a crowd of lords and ladies. The court parted to allow a distinguished old man, Lord Taunton, his wife and my beloved Trini to approach.
'Father,' Trini said, 'may I introduce Lars Nordstrom, the knight sent by the Master to rid us of the black magician's curse?'
What remains for me to write? The moment Grippando was imprisoned in the blowhole, all who had been placed under his spell became visible. His army was swiftly defeated and those who were not put to the sword were hung, imprisoned or exiled. Nothing more has been heard of Grippando, though some report hearing filthy cursing and dire threats issuing from the blowhole
It was with a mixture of sadness and regret that I appeared before the Master a week after the victory.
'I expected to see you happy, but you seem troubled,' he observed.
'Sire, I have come to ask you to release me from your service.'
'Why?' he softly inquired.
'I have loved being a knight and always imagined that this was how I would end my days. Now however I wish to marry Trini, settle down and raise a family.'
To my surprised joy, the Master smiled. 'I know,' he acknowledged. 'I could see when I first met Trini that you both had much in common. It was one of the reasons I sent you to battle Grippando.'
He stepped down from his throne and placed a fatherly arm across my shoulder. 'No tears,' he said gently. 'It is the way of all flesh. You have not only a wife to love and soon a family to raise, but before long you will succeed to the title. Taunton is old and will soon be greeted into a principality far greater than any he has known. Your adopted country has need of you. Remember what you have learnt as a knight and in your heart you will remain a true follower forever.'
Shortly before I married Trini I learnt that the Master had led his army into battle against the blood crazed Orcs of Trehgarza. Many of my close friends from early days were killed in the frightful battle that ensued and it took the combined pleading of Trini, Lord Taunton and many others to dissuade me from buckling on my armor and marching off to help. Even now, I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision to stay at home.
News of the Master's victory was whispered to me in church moments after Trini and I exchanged vows, greatly adding to my joy. Outside the church a wonderful surprise awaited. The Master had sent the Zenastra bird to take us to the land of Ur for an unforgettable honeymoon.
In this story, I've tried to the best of my modest ability to set out my story in a plain and truthful manner. Please forgive my occasional infelicities of expression. Ye Gods, I'm starting to sound like a courtier myself! Finally, I beg that you honor my memory by treating all other accounts of these events for what they are - amusing but foolish fairy tales.