Bogleech.com's 2019 Horror Write-off:
One Pink Gizzard
Submitted by DandelionSteph
"Finger minion. Fetch me the vegetables."
The four delicate, pink fingers of the princess's left hand detached themselves, gluing themselves into a crude human shape. It scurried, spider-like, to the small plate of vegetables, and tottered back with its burden.
The king grimaced, his eyes narrowing. "You mustn't do that."
"Why not, father?"
"It is not the way of a princess to....to do that. Please, just forget about this whole fiasco."
Her father’s mouth twitched, but he said nothing. The princess looked away detachedly, and then towards the dish the minion proffered. With her right hand, she idly transferred a clump of vegetables to her plate.
"Father...things are different,” she said curtly, frowning. "You have seen my limping."
"Riding accidents happen, dear."
The princess’s eyes widened in disbelief. "Father, a dragon bit me in the leg. Did you truly not hear?"
Her father shook his head. "I know you've gone through...such difficult times. But your injury does not deny you from the life you are meant to have. The person you are meant to be. Other princesses, I say, have surely had riding accidents. You do not stand out."
The princess's mouth quirked. "Finger minion. Reattach." The man of fingers disassembled. Its individual fingers wriggled, worm-like, on the table. The princess reached out her hand, with all the delicacy of offering her hand for a noble to kiss, and the segments writhed and glued themselves back to her limb. But for a thin red line of blood-glue a mere scratch, her left hand was simply the mirror of her right. But still, the fingers of her left hand were numb to her.
The princess set her left hand by the dish and quietly ate her first course. Far across the table, her father, too, ate his dish. The room, normally so bustling and resplendent, was quiet. Too...empty.
"Where is Mother?" the princess asked.
"She shall not be joining us today. She is still bedridden."
"Giving birth to the heir—" The princess glared— "your brother, has been quite a struggle for her. But it is most likely a mere fever."
"The servants' expressions say otherwise."
The king looked at her with surprise. "You know, dear, the servants are...superstitious. Paranoid."
"I remember the look on their faces," the princess said as she tried to cut apart her meal. "Weary. Worried. Scared." It was so difficult to cut apart the meat when the fingers of her left hand had no feeling, as stiff and unresponsive as a dead limb.
"Your mother is still a strong woman. She will—"
The plate’s cover clattered to the table.
Underneath it was a fish, glassy-eyed, with a pointed snout, and drooping pink lips, and fangs, and membranous...wings...
The princess stood calm—bold, even—before the approaching beast.
"You would not kill me."
The dragon staring at her. Opening its mouth. And pain, agonizing pain radiating from her leg.
"What is wrong?"
The princess’s head jerked up.
"What is this fish?"
"A zander, I believe. Fresh from our rivers for today."
"I wish to never see one of its kind ever again."
The princess walked briskly away, leaving an emptied dish in an emptied room.
"A healing poultice, of mashed tendons. From a human foot."
The princess scratched it out, shaking her head. There was simply not enough fresh human feet, and who knew if it would work for fever?
She put a hand to her head. So many spells rattled around in her head, but so many of the ingredients were too difficult to prepare or hard to find. She pushed the chair aside, and paced mindlessly in her chamber. "Does it need to be human tendons?" She limped left. Then right. Forward. Backward.
"Would the flesh of other creatures do for healing? What about fever?" She thought out loud, her right hand clenched to her chin. She looked down at her left hand, still numb as dead flesh.
"Finger minion. What do you think?"
The finger minion said nothing.
The princess turned, brushing away her hair. So soft, so clean...even now, it felt like a dream. "Well, you are still good at listening."
Listening. Listening. Don't make a sound, the dragon will hear. Outside your room. A pointed mouth, with long teeth, and glassy fish eyes—
The princess stood still. But there was nothing there.
The dragon on her plate, staring up at her, grinning.
"Finger minion. Defend me." The words slipped from her mouth. Her fingers dropped like icicles falling from the eaves, fitting themselves together moments after hitting the floor. It picked up a quill sharpener left on the floor in haste, wielding it like a spear.
She faced the door. But...a door. Her door. She was back in her room, her real room, back home. It was only a fish. Just a simple, harmless zander.
The princess breathed out. "All this...over a fish." A zander. A zander...
Ingredients for relieving fever: The fangs of a zander, essence of coriander...she went over the ingredients in her mind. The castle had everything in its stocks, or could get it nearby. The princess smiled.
"Finger minion. I rescind my order."
The princess stood impatiently over the steaming cauldron. Again, she was alone. Some of the castle cooks admired her struggle, and others did not, but, still, it was best to not get others involved. As the princess stood still, the finger minion scurried about, collecting dried herbs to be tossed in at the last minute.
Finally, it was done. The princess scooped up a ladle, examined the cloudy potion, and transferred the cauldron's contents to a smaller pot. The fingers of her left hand had reattached: even without a grip, she could balance the pot upon them.
The princess navigated the castle’s halls. Once its labyrinthine paths had been second nature to her, and then they were not. But, day after day, she reacquainted herself with every corner and painting, like greeting an old friend.
The queen laid in the bed, the coverlet pulled all the way to her neck. But her mother's face was pale and slicked with sweat. It was one thing to guess based on the servants' faces, and quite another to see it for oneself. For now, though, no servants attended to the queen. The princess set her pot upon a dresser and crouched beside her mother.
"Mother. I have something that will ease your fever."
The queen's eyes opened. "Ah, it is good to see you again. Have you stopped your nonsense?"
The princess frowned. What nonsense could she be talking about? "Mother, let us not waste time on that. Here. Drink this."
The queen spluttered, spitting out some of the concoction. "I know it is bitter, mother. But it is the only way to get better again."
Hours passed in anxiety. The princess wrote out notes for the potion, and any others that came to mind. Her minion, literally by her side, was silent and still and numb. Nonetheless, it gave her comfort.
The princess checked on her mother again. No longer was she so pale. No longer was her brow slicked with sweat. Those long hours now seemed so short in her mother's health.
"How is your health, Mother?"
Her mother's eyes narrowed. "What was in that infusion?"
"Oh. The teeth of a zander, finely ground. Essence of coriander, extracted—"
"How did you make it?" Her mother’s curt words sliced into her.
"It was a simple recipe, of sorts. A basic infusion against fever, which I believed could avail you of—"
"And where did you get this 'recipe'?"
The princess's right hand clenched. "From a friend."
With all the disdain in the queen’s glare, the princess might as well have been a displeasing lower noble. But the princess, too, was royalty. "From an old man. A wizard. He was my only friend for so long...in that tower.”
"How could you?" her mother said in disgust.
"What? I cured you..."
"You have cursed me! Corrupted me! Everything I have done, I have done to save your soul!"
"I don't need saving. I'm fine." the princess said curtly, her eyes hardening. Her right fist clenched harder.
"Get out! I cannot bear you."
"Why did you summon me, Father?"
The princess and king stood in the study, surrounded by leather-bound tomes. Her father avoided her gaze, searching among the tomes.
"I had hoped it would not come to this," he said softly, his fingers passing by the books. "But I have no choice."
The king opened book after book, flipping through its pages. He hunched over them as he scanned their pages. But, then, he grimaced, and he sighed with a small shift of his shoulders. All the while, his daughter waited, watching him like a captive animal. Her father turned around to face her, his eyes shadowed and weary. Suddenly, the princess wondered: how long had she been the dragon's captive? Had her father's face always been so old and worn?
"There is something you should know....the reason we have denied your tale, or avoided it entirely."
"Please, just tell me."
"Magic is real."
The princess blinked. "What? What could have changed your mind just —"
"But you must never use it. For human beings, it only corrupts the soul."
"But, father, I..."
"We had hoped," her father interrupted, "that if you only used one spell, and we could persuade you to never use another...it might not be beyond repair." With his stern tone, it was no longer clear whether he spoke as a king or father. "But you must not use magic ever again."
"Using magic saved me!"
Waiting. Watching. Listening. Knight after knight. Crack. Shattered spines, crushed armor, splintered swords....sneaking out. Pain. Hickory smell, limping, forevermore...
Her father stood back at her shout, and that...that rage within his daughter's eyes.
"I did everything else, and it was all for naught!"
Do not scream. Blood on the floor. Her rescuer, a man of her own fingers.
"We do this for your soul!” the king exclaimed. “You can still have a normal life, bury it away—"
"How many knights did you bury?" Her lips were pulled back in a snarl. "All because I could not find that spell faster."
"That's enough—!" Her father shouted.
But the princess had already left.
In a little-used hall of the castle, near the stables, knelt a beautiful princess in a beautiful gown. But her garment pooled over the floor, and she held her arms over her bent legs. The princess's hair, long and soft, draped over her face, and every breath rattled.
What was worse: for others to see her tears? Or for her to have no tears at all?
She could smell horse manure. Just a trace. But it was not too far from the smell of bat droppings and cave mushrooms. Beneath her hair, the princess stared out into the distance: into a place long ago, far away.
"You're the princess," said a voice. Young: a boy's. The princess turned her head, vision still obscured by her hair.
"You know...everyone has been talking about you." The princess gave a perfunctory nod. "Some people...really feel for your pain."
"You cannot know what it is like. To be...there." the princess replied as the boy sat down.
The princess shook her head, and said: "I do not see anyone else who limps..." the boy raised a finger. "With dragon-bite scars." the princess finished. The boy set down his hand.
"I always believed you, you know. I..." the boy fidgeted. "Left out to save you. I...I am sorry."
"For what? You did not hold me captive."
The boy's face crinkled. "No, no...I mean...I only tagged along. The last knight sent to save you...he was my master. I...could not really do anything."
The boy looked away with a look of futility. "I am just a squire. My master...he was aged. He knew he had little chance of saving you, but he volunteered to rescue you anyway. So few knights were left. When we ventured into the woods next to that cave, it was just us. And, well, that hermit of sorts out in the distance, but we never talked to him."
The boy leaned back. "When we found the cave, my master...he told me that if I heard noises of battle, that I had to run. That I had to find that old man out in the woods and evacuate him, too, just to be safe."
"He...he knew he wouldn't win if it came to a real fight.." the squire looked down, before suddenly perking up, "but he went out to save you, anyway!"
Realization dawned on the princess's face. "Wait. The old man in the woods. What did he look like?"
"Well, um....he was far away, so we didn't see him well. He had a long beard. Robes. A hat, I think..."
But the princess had dashed off.
The sunset stretched above the canopy of trees. The horse was breathing and sweating heavily after so many hours of running, and its neck drooped in its slow walk. The princess slid off the horse, the leaves making a raspy hiss on impact. She flinched, rising unsteadily with her injured leg.
Looking back...she should have asked a stable boy, or even that squire, for help in setting up that saddle. Or getting a more practical riding outfit. Or fetching...other horse equipment.
The princess looked at her left hand. It could kill a dragon. Surely it could take off all the horse equipment? No....it would only spook the horse.
She spent a minute tying the horse to a tree. It was not the best spot, but she would press the horse forward no longer. "Stay here," she commanded. The horse turned away, nipping at a clump of foliage.
Had it grown dark so quickly? Or was it only the shade of the trees?
Alone, she tread through the forest. Spring had turned to summer, and the forest itself was a sort of labyrinthine palace: it had a high roof of fresh, green leaves, and a whispering, carpeted floor of dry litter. The song of some nocturnal bird—a nightjar—ran through the twilight.
"Wizard?" she called out. Her voice was stifled by the trees and undergrowth. No response. If only she knew the name of the man...
It looked as if she'd have to find her friend tomorrow.
The princess sighed. Even if there was a small cabin or hut nearby, she could never find it in this darkness. Just a few months, and already her skin had grown used to the comfort of downy pillows and thick blankets.
After some time seeking out a somewhat protected place, she found a grove, almost walled in by the sheer size of its trees. The moon shone down in the clearing, its light cast through empty branches. The trees were immense, and ancient...and all dead. One tree held stubbornly onto a few leaves, high up on its trunk, casting silhouettes under the silver light.
I guess I am like you, the princess thought. I refused to die of despair.
A thick, gnarled offshoot grew, twisted over, from the tree's roots. Only the size of a man, moss and knots of vines dangled from the stump at the top. She nestled down next to the offshoot, trying to get comfortable between the tree's enormous roots. Yet...it was impossible.
Fortunately, she knew something that could do the impossible. She held her left hand up against the shining moon. "Finger minion. Make this spot more comfortable."
Her fingers detached, dropping like the twigs of a shaken tree. Beneath the carpet of litter, it reassembled into a man of fingers: two arms above, and two arms below. It pinched masses of leaves between its arms, depositing it beneath the princess in a hurry.
The princess rushed to gather leaves as well. With all the minion's energy, it was still more practical to do it herself.
The wind shook the limbs of the trees in the night. Above her, the trees groaned and creaked. A weak rattling noise sporadically broke through the noise of the wind. When a solitary leaf fell from the tree clinging to life, it was too much.
The princess awoke. Still, it was nighttime. She looked up in frustration at the trees above her before shaking her head.
Heeehh. The rattling noise showed up again, louder this time, as she passed the water sprout. She jumped back. What was it? Bees? But why did they not attack her?
No...it was not quite right....
The clouds passed from the moon, illuminating the grove, as the princess cautiously approached the water sprout. It was quiet again. She turned away, and once more the noise came. She got closer still...and tripped. Her left hand brushed against the rough wood of the tree roots, and she glanced at them.
Where it joined with the roots of the tree, the water sprout almost seemed to have toes.
"Heehhh...." A dying rattle, so like that of the dragon. "Heeehhh...."
"Finger minion." The finger minion seemed to perk to attention, and walked closer. "Find a weapon."
The minion scuffled away, only the dry, dead leaves of the grove betraying its movement.
"Show yourself!" the princess cried out as she stood.
"What?" The princess faced the water sprout. "Did you just say...'help me'?"
The princess looked closer at the water sprout, brushing against its trunk. It was the size of a man, if hunched with age, and the wood bulged in odd places. One of its branches hung down oddly: she had never seen a branch like that. And the stump at the top of the tree was oddly rounded, with a ridge like a nose. And if the ridge was like a nose...the moss and tangled vines were like a beard.
Hunched with age. Beard.
The finger minion returned with a hunting knife. It must have been within the saddlebag, left behind by a previous rider. "Do not worry. I will free you."
The root had thick, rough bark and hard wood. She could feel the knife dulling as she sliced away using her right hand, as if the root could not bear to give up its prize. The moon passed behind a cloud as the storm grew, and the princess squinted, kneeling beside the root. The hunting knife was never intended for such hard wood. She held out her left hand, trying to feel the man's toes and distinguish them from the root itself in the darkness.
But she no longer had fingers on her left hand.
She hissed, grazing her thumb against the fissured bark. It was all she could do.
Finally, the man was freed. With a shove, his feet snapped off from the bark of the root, leaving only bare, pale sapwood behind.
She sawed into the legs, fused together with wood, as best as she could. When the edge of the knife grew too dull, she stabbed. Soon the knife was chipped and useless, and the legs were still fused together. But the princess was exhausted.
The princess dragged the man of wood away from the tree.
The princess struggled to carry the man’s weight, light as he was, through the darkness. She wandered about aimlessly: no better shelter in sight. At least she could crouch beneath those long-felled, rotted logs...
She tripped, halting her fall with outspread hands. The space between the rotten logs was so much bigger than she had thought.
No: it was some sort of hut, so well-hidden it looked like mere logs in the night. Its open windows, high up on the walls, were covered in vines and small bushes. The floor, unexpectedly, was made of stone, and shelves were set up onto the walls. Despite her best effort in dodging all the objects on the shelves, the man inevitably bumped up against them, and she cringed.
The princess gently placed the man of wood onto a chair. The chair’s decayed arms creaked under his weight, slight as it was. Still, the old man’s legs were fused together, unable to bend on the seat. “II am sorry....my knife is too dull to do anything more..." the princess said.
The old man of wood did not respond.
The next morning, golden light poured through the windows.
The princess rose from her dress, piled up as a pillow. As impractical as it was for riding, at least it was better than the cold stone floor. It no longer mattered that it was dirty and scuffed.
The man still slept in that creaking chair. In the light of the morning, it was so much clearer: his face was wood. his body, wood. His eyes were sealed, mere creases in tree knots. Chunks of bark hung on to his legs and toes, and the red resin seeping from the ill-made cuts on his legs filled the princess with shame.
With each weak breath, his chest made faint cracks and snaps, like breaking wood.
The princess looked among the shelves. All were old, dried wooden planks, bent with age: some grew patches of moss. Among them were glass jars. Many were clouded and dirty, and many were broken, or cracked, or empty. Most of the labels were faded: some were so damaged by time they were as empty as the jars themselves.
Pink strips filled one jar. The princess uncorked it: dried grapefruit. Behind it was a small chopping knife, and a jar holding two small blobs in a smeared glass. Were they...toes?
The man made a wooden grunt, startling the princess from her thoughts.
"Did you want some breakfast?"
The man groggily opened his eyes. His eyes...were wood. Blank, pupil-less, and brown.
"I found some dried grapefruit. I cannot recognize the rest...I know it is bitter, but it is all we have."
His body’s loud creaking permeated the hut. "Cuuuttt...." the man opened his mouth, and his movement of his fingers sounded like snapping twigs.
The princess took out the chopping knife, weighed it, and then bent down over the man of wood. She carefully sawed at the corners of his lips, and flinched as she stabbed into his mouth. Thin shreds of bark fell from his face, leaving ragged, pale insides.
As the princess stood back, the man smacked his lips together. Suddenly, leaves and resin spewed from his mouth and onto the floor. After a few moments of coughing, he smacked his lips together, and spoke.
"Thaaat....is kind of yoou. Buuutt....myyy booddy caaannot handle thaaat yet." His voice was low and hoarse. Disused.
The princess gasped. Those jars of strange ingredients...a smile spread across her face.
"Are you...a wizard?"
The man's head tilted, and a brow lifted. He seemed to think carefully for a moment.
The wizard’s body creaked from the force of the princess’s embrace.
As the hours passed into days, the hut filled with strips of bark, leaves, and resin. His mouth now finely carved, the wizard no longer struggled to speak. The princess had also cut proper slits in the wood of his body, remaking his joints. With one arm freed, if slow, the man set to work, chopping and slicing at his legs with whatever sharp tool the princess could find.
Early on, the princess had set out to untie the horse and bring it closer to the hut, delighting the wizard. With his guidance, the princess had also gathered herbs, and had set the heavy, old iron cauldron to boiling in the cobwebbed fireplace. But it was no potion, no concoction: simply a weak tea.
The steam wafted to her nose, carrying a small of leaves and dry wood. The princess sipped it nonetheless.
It was bitter.
After a few moments, she broke the silence. "Why...were you made of wood?"
"I was old. Very old...." the wizard coughed. Even now, he still had to spit out the stray leaf, or resin-like spittle. "I had denied the earth its treasure....so the earth itself....made me my own coffin."
"People say that magic corrupts the soul," the princess said. "But I don't believe that. Magic is beautiful. If....if you are a wizard...can I be your apprentice?"
The wizard's eyes went wide, and he suddenly hacked up leaves. "Wizards do not take apprentices lightly...."
"I already know of many spells. I have used one myself."
The wizard raised a brow, and he looked away. His mouth moved, but a face of wood obscured his emotions.
"You are suitable."
The princess turned on her pillow, a crude sack of feathers she had made while out with her finger minion. The wizard was grumbling and glaring at his ingredients supply, just as she imagined while reading his books so long ago. The princess could not help by giggle as he grumbled at the empty jars. He spoke much more smoothly now, rambling over how animals, bandits, and time itself had stolen away most of his ingredients or rendered them unusable.
After a quick breakfast, a resupply was in order, and the wizard and his apprentice ventured through the forest.The wizard moved slowly, and groggily, but, still, most of the time he moved unassisted. By now, most of the bark on his body had flaked off, and he no longer spat leaves from his mouth. At times, the wizard mumbled to himself, chastising various plants and even insulting a tree. The princess covered her mouth with her right hand, but it was no use: giggles burst out.
Finally, the wizard spoke directly to his apprentice. “The most valuable ingredient for the potion of life," the wizard said, "is innocence."
"Oh, do not look at me like that," the wizard said. The princess stared, baffled. "'Innocence' is merely a shorthand: for faith, for purity, for hope. The thing all the young hold and prize, that makes them persist in this cruel and limited plane."
Finally, they had reached their destination: a cave. The princess stood still. This cave was grey, and damp, and smelled vaguely of fungus. Now, just as it was....then....
“Finger minion.” she spoke.
But the wizard was already deep inside, her stunned stare unnoticed. The wizard. The wizard...the man embodied...the princess breathed out, and stepped inside.
She looked around, baffled: they were far from the entrance, but they could still see. No matter how far they ventured, it rarely became any darker than twilight. How had she never questioned that before? Unfazed, the wizard continued into the enormous cave, never hesitating in its passages. He stepped past the shattered swords, dented armor, and scattered bones with only a hmm and a grunt. The eye sockets of an ex-knight watched as the two passed.
In the distance was a small tower, only a few stories tall, crafted of rough-hewn stone. But something else, something even closer, drew the princess’s eye.
The corpse laid upon rocks and shards of metal, its wings draped over it like a cape. The glassy eyes stared into nothingness. Its enormous mouth was slack, and its tongue lolled. Long-dried blood dripped from its nostrils.
But...even after all this time, there was no rot. No stench. No softening of the flesh, nor ragged skin. Life itself had abandoned the dragon.
Upon seeing the corpse, the wizard paused. He contemplatively scratched at his beard, still mossy and entangled with vines. His mind set, he knelt before the dragon's corpse, digging away at its skin.
The princess moved closer. Despite the carpet of shards, she moved quickly and soundlessly. Limp or no limp, she had practiced countless times.
"The parts of a dragon are very useful in potions," the wizard muttered. "But the most important ingredient of all...is the gizzard. The greatest source of innocence there is...." the wizard smiled. "It is all concentrated from its life.” He hacked into it with a grunt.
"With so much innocence....I will not not have to worry again for a while."
"How did it get that innocence?" the princess asked.
The wizard startled. "Do not sneak up on me like that! You will give me a shock."
After a brief look at her, he returned to his extraction. "But...yes, the innocence...it gets it from its prey." Blood seeped out from the slit in the dragon's flank, as fresh as it was among a living thing. The wizard placed his hands of wood inside the slit and tried to pull the organ out. The princess then knelt beside him, clutching the gizzard before releasing it from the dragon's insides.
The heavy gizzard fell with a wet slap. It was enormous: several feet long. "I cannot carry that," the wizard said to himself. He glared at the enormous corpse. "If only you could have died someplace other than outside my workshop." The princess went still. Obliviously, the wizard bent over the huge organ and sliced it apart, like it was nothing but ordinary meat and not the innards of a beast.
The insides were pink, pink as the princess’s own lips. But black blotches spread beneath the outer skin of the organ. Like tainted meat.
"That's strange...." the wizard mumbled to himself. "It was stained near the end."
The wizard shrugged. “Ah, still pure enough for my purposes! It cannot be anything but quality innocence! After all...”
“What could be more perfect prey than a princess?”
The princess rapidly stood, taking a step back. Metal shards scraped against the floor. The wizard did not notice then, did not notice when the princess’s breath came out in gasps. He simply chopped the gizzard into neat strips, like an ordinary day in the butcher’s shop.
"Oh? The dragon's leg is severed...."
The dugout hut was well-hidden: so coated in dried grass and moss it looked as mere logs covered in dirt. Within the hut, the wizard hunched over the cauldron. He stirred as a foul-smelling smoke arose through the chimney.
But beyond the chair, beyond the stone floor, beyond the shelves, beyond those glass jars....beyond the threshold, beyond those sweet memories....the princess stood.
She looked down at her hands. Beautiful, delicate princess hands. Four fingers and one thumb, sensitive to the pain and cruelty of the world. Four fingers, exempting the thumb: numb to pain. Numb to feeling.
And the wizard never knew...
"Finger minion. Ride upon my shoulder."
The fingers detached, crawling up her wrist, her arm, her shoulder. She turned away, moving grimly towards her horse with not a sound.
There was nothing to be done but cut him out, like a diseased limb.
The air was fresh, the sky was grey, and the princess could hear the song of a nightjar.
And the princess lived.