The Reading Shelf
Wilbert and Grunt
Brian H. Gill
Fewmetica was a delightful little kingdom, stuck on a mossy strip of land between the sandpits of Skritch and the tangled forest of Prolixity.
Many leagues lay between the borders of fair Fewmetica and the tangled forest of Prolixity the Mad, wizard extraordinary and part-time encyclopedia salesman. There, fell deeds and dire foes awaited a knock-kneed band of adventurers gathered in the dawn's early light.
Last night's revelry, fueled by tuns (or was it tons?) of ale and slightly rancid mead was but a fuzzy memory, whose reality was confirmed only by the flannel tongues and furry eyes of the bold band, and the tattered bit of parchment in Wilbert's hand. Could it be that he actually had found the secrets of Prolixity's fastness near a grog shop on Yakmuzzle lane?
Of course not, but it sure beat facing a drunk-and-disorderly charge back in Fewmville. And besides, itinerant bands of heroic adventurers aren't supposed to reason why, theirs is but to charge into whatever ridiculous situation the author sets up for them. So, without trying to develop a rationalization for this intrinsically irrational, not to say suicidal, outing, let us get on with the adventure.
First of all, a look at Our Heroes: The leader of this valiant band, Wilbert the Wizard, a scrawny little fellow, frequently mistaken by the Royal Guard for a pickpocket; possibly because other people's property had a way of showing up in his apartments.
Then there's Grunt, the barbarian, a tower of muscle and bravery with the IQ of a rock; a small rock, at that. He's fanatically loyal to Wilbert, a fact which is occasionally embarrassing to Wilbert, as Grunt is likely to mistake a pat on the back, a firm handshake, or one of his migraine headaches for an attack on his master.
Mildred the Magician is a practitioner of the arcane arts whose skill is little less than Wilbert's. She follows Wilbert around because she secretly likes the little twerp, and because she doesn't want him to stumble upon ex-caliper, the magic measurer, without her.
Blotto the thief is a professional thief, whose fame depends largely on his incredible luck. A frequent resident of Yakmuzzle lane, Blotto has stolen, and lost, several fortunes in his career, and is currently trying to burglarize his way out of poverty.
To say that Wilbert didn't intend to become famous is like saying that a pickpocket didn't really intend to fence your watch. Wilbert found his true calling the day his long lost Uncle Sidney in Canabier left him a fortune. The gold cane with a string attached: Wilbert must become a magician. Wilbert soon found that he wanted to make a name for himself, to ensure that generations to come would speak in awe of Wilbert the Wizard.
During his arcane studies, Wilbert learned of a long-forgotten book, written in another age, which might enable its reader to control mighty powers. His sources were a bit vague, but Wilbert gathered that if he were to get his hands on this book he could learn to cloud the minds of men, eschew obfuscation or ambiguitize the import of communication as he pleased. The prodigies of persuasion possible with this power were beyond the dreams of Avarice: even Wilbert's. Wilbert decided that he would not rest until he possessed the great Idioticon of Prolixity.
Alas! until the previous night, Wilbert's only clue as to the Idioticon's location was that it lay hidden within the forest of Prolixity the Mad.
During last night's revelry, Wilbert had wandered into a shop on Yakmuzzle Lane in the fair city of Fewmetica. He had confused its door with that of a nearby grog dispensary. Inside were the usual bits of legendaria: pieces of the Philosopher's Stone that glowed in the dark, tea cozies made of the Golden Fleece, maps of Atlantis, and vials of water fresh from the Fountain of Youth. Wilbert ignored this junque, leaning instead on a pile of parchment.
The sheets had an uncanny way of skidding off the table, taking Wilbert's hand with them: as if Fate was guiding him to his Destiny. Eventually, a sheet surfaced which was a map. A keen student of the arcane arts, a subtle searcher of hidden knowledge, a diligent delver into the Secrets of the Universe, in other words, a fairly typical Wizard Hero, Wilbert immediately saw that this was Something Special. In a flash, Wilbert's mildly muddled attention focused on the ancient scrawls. A cursory glance showed him that this was a true map of the way to the dreaded White Castle, home of the fabled sorcerer Prolixity. Wilbert promptly paid five hundred Crimoleons for the Map, and hurried off to organize his Quest.
Some time later, the gray light of dawn silhouetted four figures on a rocky ridge. Two of the men were of slight stature and bony wrists, the third man a mammoth mountain of magnificent muscle. The fourth was a woman whose form was disguised by a cloak of muskrat pelts. It would make a fine cover illustration for a certain genre of periodical, as long as the artist kept their faces blank. Their faces were rather blank, as a matter of fact: a natural condition for Grunt the Barbarian, a matter of circumstance for the others.
"This is something awful," thought Wilbert in the cold morning light. That five hundred Crimoleon map hadn't shown the last two snirt lairs they had avoided, and had shown a bridge across the chasm in their path. In fairness, it must be admitted that both the path and the chasm were there, but most of the bridge was at the bottom of the chasm.
"Our choice is clear," Wilbert said in his best Fearless Leader voice. "We may turn back, and face ignominy," ("and jail time," he thought to himself,") "or we may go left, through the land of the dread Grammarians, and continue our quest."
When the dust cleared, Wilbert stood alone on the ridge, save for Grunt, his faithful companion. Grunt had failed to follow Wilbert's speech, as usual.
And so, Grunt and Wilbert set off toward the land of the Grammarians, deserted by comrades but undaunted, undefeated, understaffed, and, in Grunt's case, unthinking. Soon, they crossed the thin blue line that marked the border of Final Copy, as the Grammarians called their eraser-marked land.
Piles of split infinitives and mixed metaphors littered the landscape like grim cairns. Far away the dying shriek of a cliché filled the adventurers with a sense of grim foreboding, a grimness not lifted by the sight of a flight of Fancies winging their way out of the reworder's realm.
Like an omen of doom, a participle dangled from a tree not three paces from their path. Grunt and Wilbert passed this sign of the Grammarians. awful wrath with a shudder and hurried on, eager to escape this heartless land.
Suddenly, they stumble onto a pack of Grammarians diagramming a sentence. Wilbert saw at a glance that their victim was beyond hope. Verbs and subjects were exposed, and the phrases completely separated.
The largest of the Grammarians, a vicious brute with a pronounced case of semantic rigor, turned his gaze on Our Heroes.
"Aha! Two literary conventions come to call? We'll make short work of you. Paraphrase!" he called, crying the dreaded battle cry of the meaning-manglers.
Our Heroes pulled their swords as the Grammarians advanced, deadly erasers at ready, horribly sharp blue pencils prepared to annihilate any thought which stood in their way.
"Only a miracle will save us," thought Wilbert as he saw a cunning blow expose Grunt's characterization to rational scrutiny.
Suddenly, one of the Grammarians stabbed himself with his own blue pencil. Another tripped over a hidden meaning, and got tangled in his context. Yet another put aside his eraser, and began composing in free verse. This was too much for the others. They fled, leaving Wilbert and Grunt puzzled greatly at their escape from near-certain death.
"How long will the author be able to get away with this bilge?" wondered Wilbert. He wasn't the only one.
Wilbert and his doltish companion set off again, hoping to reach the other side of the Grammarians. realm by nightfall. Then, after crossing the chasm at the Path of Least Resistance, they could get on with their quest.
At the chasm, the setting sun cast its ruddy rays on a roadway cut into the side of the chasm. "This must be the Path of Least Resistance," thought Wilbert, his grasp of the obvious as firm as ever. The two intrepid adventurers descended the path, passing an ancient weathered statue, and sword stuck in a block of marble, and a cave with the words "MERLIN SLEPT HERE" graven over its mouth on their way to the bottom.
There, the wide, dark, storm-tossed stream was bridged by a narrow plank of iron, barely a foot wide. As they crossed, there was a fall of mist, a clap of thunder, a meteor shower, a flight of birds, and a sudden rushing wind. The sun set, plunging both Wilbert and Grunt into darkness, and Grunt into a particularly thorny hedge.
As the muscle-bound dolt forced his way free, Wilbert wondered where and how they would camp for the night. Neither of them were carrying food, and the sleeping rolls were with their departing comrades. This would be a dark, cold, hungry night.
Suddenly, with a soft FOOSH!, a campfire appeared some ten yards to the left of the path. By its light Our Heroes could see a table covered with a damask cloth, about forty pounds of steaming roast, huge toureens of stew, and two bowls of fortune cookies. Behind the tables were two pavilions, suggesting that commodious sleeping accommodations were also available.
"How convenient!" thought Wilbert. "Grunt," said Grunt, as he advanced on the table and tore into one of the roasts. Wilbert joined him, and they soon were ready for the desert of anti-acid potion and fortune cookies. Wilbert opened his first, and read "BEWARE, LEST YE FIND WHAT YE DO SEEK, FOR OFT-TIMES DESIRE STIRS UP QUITE A REEK." We will never know what Grunt's fortune said, since the warrior ate the paper along with the cookie.
Filled to the bursting point, but confident that the anti-acid potion would ward off any adverse effects, Our Heroes inspected the pavilions. They were made of finest silk, with soft cushions within welcoming the beholder into the realm of Morpheus. Without hesitation the two adventurers retired, Wilbert to the white pavilion with red cushions, Grunt to the red pavilion with green cushions.
"This is really living," thought Wilbert as the fire outside faded and a string quartet began playing Brahm's lullaby. As he fell asleep, Wilbert was troubled by the feeling that he had missed some subtle sign in the night's events.
When Wilbert awoke, the first thing he noticed was that it was still dark. The second thing he noticed was that he was lying on something cold and hard, and the third thing he noticed was that he wasn't alone.
The glutinous rasp of Grunt's snore sounded to his left, but to the wizard's right a bubbling mutter brought to Wilbert's mind the thought that "swift and immediate measures should be actively pursued to facilitate a resolution of the present crisis."
Even as he stumbled over the unconscious Grunt, Wilbert realized that his thoughts usually did not run to such multisyllabic gibberish.
With an unpleasant squelching sound, whatever It was hit Grunt. Wilbert took another couple steps back. Grunt didn't like to be wakened quickly, and had trouble verbalizing his dislike.
"Grunt!!" said the massive myrmidon as something wet whipped past Wilbert. "Grunt!!" the heroic hulk said again, as the floor beneath Wilbert shuddered, suggesting that something massive had been hurled toward the center of the earth, but encountered an obstruction en route. "Grunt!!" Wilbert heard the familiar battle cry again, this time accompanied by a blubbering whimper that swiftly faded into the distance, leading Wilbert to speculate that Grunt had emerged victorious in the militant confrontation which had recently transpired in his vicinity.
Again, Wilbert wondered greatly at his newfound penchant for polysyllabic cognition as he cautiously said, "Grunt! Over here: it's Wilbert, your pal." ("At least that came out straight," he thought.)
Remembering that he was a wizard, Wilbert muttered an incantation, and was rewarded by a dim light at the end of his finger. By the gleam of this eldrich phosphorescence Wilbert could see before him Grunt, apparently undamaged, and beyond the awesome oaf a vast subterranean grotto. Behind him, Wilbert saw to his dismay, there was a well-defined corner.
Terrified at this token of impending doom, Wilbert realized that he and Grunt faced a fearsome fate: the author had written himself into a corner! Fortunately, Wilbert was a wizard.
He took out a strip a celluloid from the fabled Saturday Matinee Serials, placed it on a pile of continuity, muttered the words "willing suspension of disbelief," and cast a cloak of credibility about himself and Grunt. The cloak, the pile, and the celluloid strip disappeared with a painful groan as Our Heroes felt themselves fall into an underground river. Wilbert's head hit something solid, and he knew no more.
"In the eventuality that I, or we, should happen to enter an environmental situation which does not preclude the acquisition of a gaseous medium conducive to respiratory sustenance," Wilbert thought to himself, "I shall be forced, in the interests of individual cognito-emotional equilibrium, to ascertain the causative agency, or agencies, responsible for my present penchant for polysyllabic verbalization of ideational construction."
"What was I saying?!" Wilbert thought again, as full consciousness returned. He was soaked to the skin, lying on a smooth lawn, and felt as if he had swallowed about three barrels of water. Grunt was sitting beside him, staring dumbly (how else?) at a mysterious hooded figure.
"Who are you?" asked the mysterious hooded figure, with a dramatic gesture.
"Before responding to that enquiry, . . . ah!" Wilbert caught himself, and started over. "Just who are you, mister?"
The mysterious hooded figure drew back its hood, revealing white hair, a wrinkled forehead, bleary blue eyes, and a white beard which could have used a good trim and a shampoo.
"I am the Old Man," said the mysterious unhooded figure. "I usually come into an epic at about this point to get the heroes out of some idiotic jam or other, and explain what is going on. From the looks of things, you and your friend could use dry cloths, food, supplies, and a lot of advice. Follow me." He turned from them and strode toward a ruinous tower incongruously placed on a country-club-like lawn.
Wilbert and Grunt followed Old Man, Grunt tripping over a lawn sprinkler on the way. Inside the tower, the two heroes, were seated at a plain, formica-topped table and fed a simple meal of cheeseburgers and french fries. The Old Man lectured them as they ate the anachronistic repast.
"You seek the Idioticon, and so the curse of Prolixity is already upon you. Yet this curse may seem to protect you, as when you faced the Grammarians.
For when the mighty sorcerer Prolixity created this tome of doom, mighty enchantments were cast which ensured that whoever coveted it should find their minds attuned to its spells. Already your thoughts are altered, using words of five syllables where two would do, introducing an atmosphere of complexity to simple matters. Unless you drink a draught of limpidity, drawn from the spring of Pellucider in the Laconic Mountains, you will soon become unable to experience coherent thought as you once knew it."
Wilbert started at this revelation of the Old Man's knowledge, and quickly chug-a-lugged the contents of the crystal vial offered by the ancient one. The Old Man relentlessly droned on.
"I shall aid you, since it is my duty as a literary device to keep the plot going without burdening the main characters with logic, or even common sense." The Old Man signed, as if seeing things to come. "You shall leave at dawn."
They left at dawn, with fresh horses, enough supplies to last them a month, sharpened weapons for Grunt, and a magic compass for Wilbert. The magic compass would point toward the Idioticon until Wilbert found it, for six months, or 50,000 miles, whichever came first. Besides the compass, Wilbert now held an alabaster case within which lay twin lenses. Round as a new moon, these lenses were ice from Pellucider Spring, frozen by magic, warmed in the radiance of enlightenment, and bound by pure gold wires. Finally, strapped to Wilbert's saddle was a pouch with the glyph "TRICKS" embossed upon its cover.
Soon they faced the borders of the dreaded Forest of Prolixity, in whose danksome depths lay the very lair of Prolixity. A weathered sign read "Stranger beware, lest you enter here, passing this way ain't all pretzels and beer." As if to add emphasis to the warning, a yellowed skull adorned the top of the signpost. Prolixity always had maintained a reputation for loud taste in landscape design.
Within the wood, vague chatterings and rustlings in the undergrowth hinted at an unseen escort. Wilbert kept an eye on the magic compass as Grunt warily eyed the passing trees. Suddenly, as Our Heroes were at a stream which driveled through the verbiage, about a dozen men leaped out on the path before and behind them. The men were clad in polyester double knit sports jackets and wielded terrible clipboards.
"Genuine wood-tone finish!" cried the leader.
"Easy monthly payments!" exclaimed another.
"Fully guaranteed!" uttered yet another.
"No money down, no payments for the first six months!" offered a fourth Jacketed One.
Wilbert quailed as Grunt halted, mesmerized. These, Wilbert realized, were the minions of the White Castle, the Jacketed Ones, the Dreaded Drummers, proxies of the perilous prestidigitator Prolixity. As a dazed Grunt scrawled an X on The Dotted Line, Wilbert summoned his last shreds of will for a final, desperate stand against the Jacketed Ones.
"Fiscal integrity," muttered Wilbert, feeling his mind yielding before the dreaded Sales Pitch cast by the Drummers. "Economic realities, no free lunch, caveat emptor," mumbled the weakening wizard as a Drummer advanced, clipboard at ready. As through a mist, Wilbert saw his hand move toward the pen offered by the Jacketed One.
With a final burst of individual volition, Wilbert cried, "Obduracy!" At this, the mists fled from his mind, the Jacketed Ones recoiled in dismay, and fled toward their calcimine castle. Alas, Grunt was in their midst, enthralled by the baneful enchantments of the Drummers.
The White Castle, calcimine keep of the incomprehensible sorcerer Prolixity, was but a matter of legend to the masses of messy menials in Fewmetica. To Wilbert, astride his horse without the gate, it was a formidable reality, with masonite battlement frowning down upon a moat filled with artificial flavors and coloring.
The great gate of the castle was blocked by the raised drawbridge whose underside was emblazoned with the motto "SORRY, WE'RE CLOSED." Wilbert sat upon his horse and pondered his options. If Grunt were there, he could have that tower of strength do something improbable and heroic. Alas, Grunt was within the castle, thrall to the enchantments of Prolixity. Wilbert had only his wits, and a devious bag of tricks given him by the Old Man.
Minutes later, a lone figure stood near the great gate of the White Castle. Wilbert's voice rang out. "Prolixity! I, Wilbert the Wizard, famous throughout Fewmetica, defy you! Are you coming out, or do I have to come in?"
The drawbridge dropped like a titanic flyswatter on the lone figure, which disintegrated with a loud POP! The drawbridge was quickly raised, but not before a shadowy figure galloped through the gate.
"Heh, heh, heh: they fell for the old inflatable wizard trick," chuckled the ingenious, and extremely lucky, Wilbert. He and his horse were within the perilous lair of Prolixity. A few more lucky breaks and the Idioticon would be his! The first item of business, though, would be to locate Grunt and disenchant him. Wilbert would feel much better with Grunt and his massive muscles at his side.
Wilbert quickly located the stables, tied up his horse and accepted a polyester jacket from the groom, who unaccountably mistook Our Hero for a member of the palace guard. Disguised in livery of the castle, armed with mighty spells, and shielded by incredible luck, Wilbert continued his quest.
The groom had informed Wilbert that the entire staff of the castle was at a sales meeting in the chamber of boards. Wilbert hastened hence, and with the words "invita Minerva!" sealed the portal of the chamber with the denizens of the dojon within.
After some wandering, Wilbert found a door embossed with a great golden stag. This, Wilbert realized with a sense of wonder, was the Almighty Buck, worshiped by Prolixity. This auric symbol marked the entrance of the room of Teevy Coffers, treasure room of the soulless sorcerer. Inside, the walls of the vast chamber were covered with countless doors, seven to each wall.
Wilbert opened them one by one (how else?). Behind one were coffers filled with diamels, ruby-tone crystals, and emerald-green ornamental gems in gold-tone settings. Another revealed myriad kitchen knives guaranteed to cut through axe handles, leather soles, and other materials considered by advertisers likely to be found in a typical kitchen.
At last he found Grunt, sitting on a pile of gold-colored lead coins and eating tiny slabs of ground meat cunningly held between wafers of grease-soaked bread. With difficulty Wilbert separated Grunt from his ersatz wealth, but not before Grunt had filled his pockets with the gold-tone paperweights he took for coins.
Reunited at last, and Grunt disenchanted by the conjurations of Wilbert, the two adventurers set out on the final leg of their quest. Descending to a lower level of the castle, they found a door warded by dire runes. "OUT OF ORDER," said one. "KEEP OUT," warned another. Surmounting all, in characters of crimson upon a ground of azure, was a banner with the strange device: "BEWARE OF LEOPARD!" Wilbert surmised that this was a ruse to ward the chamber which held the terrible tome. He opened the door and rushed in, followed closely by Grunt.
Later, in the castle infirmary, Wilbert put a bandage on the last of Grunt's wounds. The leopard had ignored Wilbert entirely, venting its fury upon the valiant Grunt. The wicked wounds were not suffered for naught, however, for Wilbert now had the Idioticon stuffed in his knapsack. The only problem Our Heroes now had was to get out of the castle, and back to Fewmetica.
Outside the calcimine keep, riding down the road which led back to what passed for civilization in that part of the world, Wilbert wondered greatly at the way they evaded the guards, recovered their horses, and leapt the moat. Of such things were legends made. Wilbert made a mental not to hire a minstrel for that purpose.
Back in Fewmetica, Wilbert set himself up as Royal Advisor in charge of Propaganda, Publicity, and Proclamations. With the aid of the Idioticon, he surpassed even the Bards of Old in gilding the lily, selling mutton for lamb, and feats of obfuscation.
And Wilbert had gained a power even more wondrous. Reading the Idioticon with the spectacles of Pellucider ice, Wilbert could now read between the lines!
He didn't exactly live happily ever after, but he sure had a good time trying.
copyright © Brian H. Gill 2002
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