Issue V: "The Forbidden Fools' Stools"
In which three fools narrowly survive a prickly situation...
“And now, a brief intermission,” the Imperial Bard announces after the tragic conclusion of Rishne’s tale.
The audience stirs, a few drying their eyes. Some stand to stretch and relieve themselves; others seek cool relief from massive kegs of beer that have appeared, as if by magic, in the Grand Hall.
His announcement made, Rothus ‘ja Darden gestures from the rostrum, and aerialists in pointy hats leap from the shadows of the dome, tumbling and twirling through the air. Gasps pierce the growing din of conversation, followed by relieved cheers and applause as the airborne tumblers — slowed in their descent by some hidden enchantment — land gracefully on their feet.
But not everyone is satisfied with the intermission performance.
“You call that entertainment?!” A young man swills from his stein and topples forward onto the stage. The crowd boos at him, which emboldens him further. “And this beer? This is not beer.” He spits it onto the ground. Jeers from the audience, alongside a few empty vessels aimed at his head.
“Stop!” A portly, babyfaced man stands and a hush falls over the crowd, eager for his next word. This is Steven Boepensberry, the beloved hawker of the city’s favorite beer, Rilkback Lager.
“Why? That man is sullying your beer!” asks a voice from the stands.
“It’s not his fault he can’t hold his liquor,” Steven winks. Laughter echoes through the seats. “Besides… this man may amount to nothing in his life, but his actions can still alter history in hidden ways.”
“Me? Amount to nothing?” the young man slurs in disbelief. “I’ll have you know that I will become somebody. My dad guarantees it!” Mocking laughter from the audience.
“Get this lad a bed and some tea!” Steven calls. “As the city’s premiere peddler of pints, I have seen my fair share of deadbeats. Here’s a story of the unlikeliest of heroes…”
Three brothers from the poor hamlet of Graycott marched through a field of hops, swaying in the breeze. It was golden hour, with the sun just setting, and good humor filled their souls just as good beer, fresh bread, custards, and cheeses — a veritable feast — filled the sacks they lugged.
The Cogstone brothers were field hands, picking up odd jobs here and there between seasons. Yet despite their good intentions and hard labor, misfortune followed them like thorny storm clouds.
Mathias took a swig of beer from a jug and adjusted the sack on his shoulder. “These’ll be lighter by the morning! Been looking forward to this all week,” he bellowed, leading his younger brothers — Casonato and Bartek — into the woods. By now, moon light peeked through the dense leaves.
“To relax with your favorite brothers?!” Casonato beamed at the thought. The youngest brother, Casonato had the largest heart, yet he remained the most sheltered and least competent.
“No! To get away from the missus and kids!” Mathias, the only father of the three, chuckled. As the eldest, he’d done and seen more than his brothers, and never failed to remind them of that. “You’ll understand when you become a dad. You need your own time,” he muttered and took another long pull of beer.
“If you wanted to let loose, we could’ve just gone to the pub,” Bartek said, stepping carefully and waving a stick around before him. “You can’t get eaten by a bear at a pub.” The middle brother had developed baffling superstitions and lived in constant fear of his life, due to, well, having narrowly survived many fatal accidents while in the company of Mathias and Casonato.
“False — there was that string of unexplained bear attacks at the Stone Tavern Inn,” Mathias said, shaking his head. “Those poor orphans.”
The three brothers come upon a clearing at the top of the hill, bathed in silver moonlight. Mathias threw down his bag. “We’re here!” Casonato followed suit and stretched his arms over his head in triumph.
“Not so fast!” Bartek squeaked. “Help me inspect the ground for rock mites. They can burrow deep into your skin and eat you alive.” Bartek carefully dropped to his knees and began poking around, Casonato eagerly at his side.
“I’ve said this a million times — rock mites don’t exist in this part of the land!” Mathias’s words fell on deaf ears. He took another swig and dropped his gaze to the ground. A smile crept across his face. “Hang on. Are those…”
At the foot of a small bush, Mathias found a patch of glowing, iridescent, squat toadstools. “Fool’s stools!” Mathias licked his lips and reached for them.
“Stop! Those are dangerous.” Bartek swatted Mathias’s meaty hand away. “Our minds must remain sharp in these dread woods.”
“Don’t be such a worrywart,” Mathias said. “Look around us. There are no bears — or mites — I promise.”
“It is not just bears and mites! You know as well as I do that Rilk’gar lurk in this region. Those horned, spiny beasts find nothing more delectable than the sweet flesh of man, flayed raw and dripping with hot blood,” warned Bartek. “The Stone Tavern Inn wasn’t attacked by a bear — it was a Rilk’gar massacre! You mark my words… and they are still on the hunt!” Bartek’s lip quivered as the words spilled from his mouth.
“Shut up, dear brother!” Mathias held his head in consternation. “We’re here to relax, and what better way than with some delicious mushrooms!”
“They’re called forbidden toadstools for a reason—” Bartek squealed.
“You guys should try these, they’re delicious!” Casonato garbled, specks of iridescent spores covering his mouth and his hands overflowing with toadstools. Mathias smiled and clapped Casonato’s back, stuffing a handful of the toadstools in his mouth. Bartek seethed quietly.
“Don’t you wanna feel included?” Mathias said, gulping down fleshy caps of the toadstools. Half of the patch had been uprooted.
“Fine,” Bartek responded, carefully peeling a toadstool into thin pieces and placing them in his mouth. “If something bad happens, it’ll be on your heads.”
The brothers chowed down on the toadstools, all while shoveling handfuls into one of the sacks for later.
After the toadstools had settled in the brothers’ bellies, they laid gazing at the starry night sky, swigging beer, giggling and speaking incomprehensibly, unaware of the danger creeping upon them in the darkness.
“VERMIN.” Such a deep gargling voice could only come from Rilk’gar.
The brothers sat upright. “Who goes there?” Mathias ventured, peering bleary-eyed into the darkness. As his eyes slowly focused, he saw a Rilk standing on its hind legs, inspecting the soft soil that once housed the forbidden toadstools. He scrambled backwards in terror, eyes bulging at the site of the spine-backed, horned creature. Its eyes flashed and its fangs dripped.
“I am Evghar of Spine Hezyoosh,” it roared. The brothers squealed and held each other for safety. “But you can call me Eve.”
The Rilk settled back on her hind legs and the brothers got a good look at her. As far as Rilk’gar go, she was small, not much bigger than a donkey, and her spines were all intact. She lacked the scars of combat and carried no weapon. A tremor of anxiety even seemed to enter her voice as the brothers listened, slack-jawed.
“I’m in deep trouble. There was a patch of toadstools here that I used for a Bind, but now it’s gone!” Eve brought her head closer to the ground, then glared at them. “Are these tooth marks? Didn’t think anyone would eat them, they’re fatally poisonous in large quantities.”
The brothers glanced at one another.
“We ate them, because they were delicious,” Casonato said, smiling weakly.
Eve’s eyes went wide. “How could you?! I spent weeks growing those, enchanting them with a Bind! What am I gonna do?”
“What was the Bind for?” Bartek asked, perplexed. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, they were delicious, but they taste pretty good without enchantment, so—”
“They’re not for eating!” Eve shouted, her anger quickly replaced by embarrassment. “I’m no good at fighting, and after the Stone Tavern Inn, my sisters said I needed to pull my weight, so I… well, the toadstools are to make spine moisturizing creams,” Eve sniffed. Indeed, if Rilk’gar could cry, she might have been doing so by this point.
The brothers shared a concerned look. “Her spines do look luscious,” Casonato whispered. “Relatively speaking. You see, Rilk'gar spines are similar to human hair. They can dry out and splinter. Moisturizing keeps them shiny, strong, and healthy. For many, it’s also a way to show status.”
The brothers glared at him, aghast. “How the fuck do you know that?” Mathias growled.
“Yeah, that’s truly bizarre,” Bartek agreed.
Eve, peering at Mathias’s haggard face, continued, “Judging by your ashy skin, you have zero experience in moisturizing.”
Feeling attacked, Mathias stood up. “Of course I know about moisturizing! I just haven’t done it in a while.”
Eve, Casonato, and Bartek looked at him skeptically. The Rilk licked her razor-sharp teeth and flexed her claws. “Unfortunately, since I can no longer make moisturizing creams, I must kill one of you to bring back to my sprawl. Do you want to volunteer, or should I pick?”
“I’ll show you something even better than whatever cream you were using,” Casonato exclaimed.
“Good! I needed to give the creams to the elites today. If you can prove to my sisters that what you have is better, then they won’t hate me, and I won’t have to kill you.” Eve pushed them in front of her with her claws and marched them into the dark woods. “They’re the ‘popular’ ones of the sprawl, and honestly, I can’t deal with them being mean to me anymore.”
“What are we doing? Now’s our chance to escape!” Bartek whispered.
“We’re gonna help her out,” Mathias said, trying to put on a brave face. “Besides, if there is anyone who knows how to deal with teenage girls — especially popular ones — it’s me.”
The brothers slunk on.
Eve ambled up to a large tree and shoved aside a rotting log lying in front of it, revealing a small opening between the knotted roots. She climbed through the dark hole, and the brothers quickly followed behind her. Inside was a spacious room, lit by guttering brands and bioluminescent fungi. A stink wafted over the brothers, but Eve didn’t seem to notice.
A gaggle of Rilk'gar were there, gnawing on suspiciously human-looking bones and chatting beside a long table, which held a dismembered body amongst the tatters of a jerkin with the Stone Tavern Inn coat of arms embroidered on the sleeve and a punch bowl. One Rilk, wearing a glittery tiara, held court before others.
“You! Where are our creams?!” the ring-leader barked, jabbing a clawed finger at Eve.
“These humans can explain!” Eve stepped aside and gestured to the brothers. “Tell Penny what you told me.” Chatter turned to silence, as all partygoers directed their attention to the humans.
“Well?” Penny impatiently tapped her feet. “My spines are not gonna moisturize themselves.”
“Um… well, you see…” Bartek began, looking to Mathias and Casonato for help, but finding none, since they were both mesmerized by their surroundings. Bartek elbowed Mathias, who momentarily regained focus.
“Creams… creams… ah, right. Listen, you ladies don’t need creams. You’re beautiful already as you are.” Stillness as Mathias let this sink in.
“That’s right,” Bartek ventured, gaining more confidence by the second. “The spine cream industry is taking advantage of you and your hard-earned money.” Puzzled looks crept over the Rilk'gar’s faces. Mathias cringed. Bartek clearly had never spoken to a young person before — or a Rilk, for that matter.
“No. This is unacceptable! I need my creams!” Penny roared, all of her friends joining in. Mathias and Bartek covered their ears.
“STOP!” After the shouting and roars subsided, Casonato spoke again. “What about this cream?” He reached into one of their sacks and when he pulled his hand out, it was covered in a pale cream. He smeared it on his face and grinned.
“NO! That’s the custard — I was gonna eat that!” Mathias blurted out, before falling silent.
Penny, now incensed, reared up on her hind legs and let out a shrill piercing howl. The room started to shake. Bartek and Casonato ducked under the table for cover, while Mathias stood his ground.
“All right, all right, enough!” Mathias said. Silence fell once more. “We were out camping, so we have some snacks with us that will definitely taste way better than any of us. You can have them all.” Mathias offered his sack to Penny, who eagerly accepted it.
“Fine. This better be good. Now leave before I change my mind,” Penny growled. As she rifled through the sack, the brothers scrambled back through the exit. Eve, head hung low, followed quickly on their heels.
Outside, in the cool night air, the brothers and Eve rested against the gnarled tree roots.
“Ugh, Penny is the worst. She’ll never let me forget this,” Eve said.
The brothers looked at each other. “So you’re not going to kill us?” Bartek squeaked.
Eve shrugged. “Maybe?”
Mathias cut in. “This is our fault. If we help you make good with the cool — ah, ehm… mean girls, can we go?”
“I’m just gonna complain to my mom. Killing you is up to her, really.”
“Mom?” The brothers look confused.
“Yeah… Penny and I are sisters. And our mom is the Queen of our sprawl.”
“Let us speak to her!” Casonato piped up. “We’ll make sure your sister forgives you.”
A few minutes later, Mathias, Bartek, and Casonato stood before a Rilk the size of a plow horse. Her spines were splintered, her face scarred, and she had an iron club belted about her waist. Eve and Penny perched beside her, glowering at each other.
Casonato swallowed, then spoke. “This isn’t Eve’s fault. It’s our fault.”
The ground rumbled as the big mama Rilk spoke. “You’ve given us enough headaches for one night. If Penny and Eve can apologize to each other, then your transgressions are forgiven. Otherwise…” Mama Rilk nodded toward the skeletons littered around the burrow. Silence, save for a gulp from Bartek.
Mama Rilk turned to Penny. “Forgive your sister. She’s just trying to be helpful.” Penny, eyes closed, lost in her own thoughts, eventually opened them. She smiled toothily. “I’m sorry, Eve. Love you, little sis.”
Eve, in a similar daze, quickly returned the apology. They embraced each other in a thorny hug.
Mama Rilk raised an eyebrow, then turned her attention to the brothers. “Forgiveness for Penny has never come easily. Consider yourselves lucky. Begone!”
The brothers ran pellmell through the woods, then collapsed exhausted back at the top of the hill where they had first made camp. They heaved a collective sigh of relief.
“Finally!” Casonato leaned back, stretching his arms.
Bartek, on his knees and face filled with gratitude, pleaded, “Thank you for sparing me! I promise to never eat any more mushrooms or hang out with my idiot brothers ever again.”
“Oh, stop it!” Mathias sighed. “You’re killing my buzz. Or perhaps it’s just wearing off…” He reached into his bag and pulled out— “A… beer?” He flipped the bag upside down and emptied it. Nothing but beer and cheeses. Not a toadstool in sight.
“If the toadstools aren’t in this bag, then where are they?”
Back in the subterranean root house, Penny, Eve, and all the other Rilk'gar guests rolled around on the ground, giggling, and mumbling incoherently. Mama Rilk observed them, her clawed paws slowly curling into fists.
She called for her aides. Two scar-covered, hard-bodied Rilk'gar mobilized beside her, spears at the ready.
“Those humans,” the Queen Rilk said. “Track them down and bring them to me on a spit.”
“Well, dear people of Amal,” Steven Boepensberry chuckles, “those three brothers had to flee, no doubt about it. But whaddaya know? They washed up here and went into business.” He takes a deep swill from his beer and pats his prodigious stomach. “And they brought with them the recipe that eventually became the very Rilkback Lager that we’re all enjoying tonight. Three cheers for Cogstone Brewery and three cheers for beer!”
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