by Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe / Thag (A short story in Spanish)
ONCE upon a time there was a boy named Eric who had a tame raven and a ragged cap and no boots, and lived with his mother in a cottage in the forest. Eric' and his mother were very poor, but nonetheless they possessed a great treasure, a charm ancient and powerful. This was a bear's skull, and hung from the roofbeam of their little house on a chain of iron. Eric's great-grandfather had made it long ago, choking the bear with moonlight and filling his skull with the cottony tales of rabbits, and the urine of shadows, and black feathers snatched at great risk from the left foreleg of an eagle, and many other things. The bear's skull was the home of Thag, as a beehive is the home of bees; and Thag was a powerful spirit though he was often away.
One day when Eric and his mother were picking mushrooms in the damp spring woods, he asked her to tell him -again-about the last time Thag had returned home; for this had been the winter after Eric was born, and he had been too small to remember. So Eric's mother told him, and it was a story that grew better with each telling, just as the hilt of a scramasax learns to glow beneath its owner's hand.
For Eric's father had, with the aid of Thag, made the trees to dance down the highroad, and built a great hall of glass on Nine Men's Meadow through whose dome the stars could be seen by daylight, and forced certain rich men in the town to disgorge a part of what they had won by law from the poor country folk, and for this last, after Thag had gone again, had been hanged.
There had been a great fair on the gallows hill (as Eric's mother explained to him) for the hanging, with jugglers and gingerbread, and beer given free so that men filled their caps with it and set them on their heads. She and Eric had been the cynosure of all eyes, the only time in her life that she had felt so important, so that she swore if she could she would marry tomorrow if only her new husband could be hanged too; and it was then that Eric decided that if ever Thag came home to the bear's skull again he would use him, and surpass all the exploits of his father, both for wonder and boldness.
Now that very night Thag returned. Eric was lying asleep in his little three-sided loft beneath the roof when he dreamed he saw a running man in crimson and gold who carried a naked falchion. Eric knew it was the custom ofThag to appear as a man in dreams and otherwise in reality, and he knew that this was Thag. Behind Thag, very dimly seen and small in the distance, were three figures; but Eric paid them little attention. He woke, and the whole house was quiet as the wind in the wood. Then Gnip the raven stirred on his perch and said, "Mystery," and Eric heard a humming in the bear's skull outside his window and knew Thag was back. In the morning it would be necessary to propitiate Thag, and then he could do whatever he wanted.
Now the king of that country was named Charles the Wise, and he was sleeping late of the morning following the day following the night Thag had returned at last, when he was waked all at once by three things together. The first was that the queen ran into his bedroom screaming; and the second was a great shouting in the bailey, accompanied by the clashing and smashing heard when polearms and partisans and halberds and brown bills are let fall to the cobbles; and the third was that the whole castle had begun to rock back and forth beneath him, so that when he looked out the window he saw the watchtower tossing against the sky like the mainmast of a galleass in a gale. Then the queen (a tall, fair, finefeatured woman just settling into solid flesh after her girlhood, with no more brains than a sack of groats) cried, "Charles, save me!" and when he asked her what was wrong she explained that they were set upon by the mitred powers of Hell, and every knight in the castle who could throw a leg over a horse was already ten days' ride off, and the men-atarms had dropped them and were hiding in the cistern, and the archers were all unstrung as well. And she concluded by saying that if he did not flee this minute they were doomed.
Then the king took thought, and particularly upon his father's maxim, given him when he was but young, that kings sal three-legged stools-the legs being their armies, their castles, and their treasuries. And it came to him that as his army was already scattered, if he should leave his castle and the gold and silver therein he should have nothing and would be a king no longer. And also that the tax rolls of the kingdom were long and complex, and the windings of the castle passages of great elaboration; and that the conquerors (whoever they were) might welcome someone who could explain these things, and that in time they might even be persuaded to go a-conquering elsewhere leaving the affairs of this kingdom in the hands of that trusty vassal Charles, who was already so well suited to direct them. And so he bade the queen drink a flacon of wine and be quiet, and dressed himself in hose, and a jerkin rich and impressive but without presumption, and went out to confront his conquerors. But he found no one there but Eric.
"Well," said the king, "how do you do, boy? Where has everyone gone?"
"I believe most of them have run away," Eric told him. "But a good many have been eaten." Then the raven, Gnip, came and settled on his shoulder.
The king dropped to his knees at once. "I perceive you are a magician," the king said, "and that that bird is your puissant familiar; and I confess that it has always seemed to me that were I a magician I would choose to return to that very age at which you manifest yourself; but I would think you must find the raiment you have selected rather chill-I can show you better."
In this way Eric became ruler of the country, and after giving his mother a kingdom of her own (and then shutting her up in a bottle because she would not stay there) reigned without aging at all for thirty years, at the end of which time the realm was a wilderness. Deer ran through the streets of the town, and few there were to loose an arrow; wolves bred in wineries, and foxes in farrowing pens; undines from the sea came up the river ten leagues beyond the ford; the stonetrolls of the mountains were seen on the roads at noon; and goblins, excessively ugly and evil, with seventeen fingers on each hand and steel teeth, stood guard at the castle barbican. Throughout all this Eric was, needless to say, exceedingly happy.
As for Thag, he had taken the dungeons for his own, but came out promptly whenever he was wanted and occasionally when he was not. He took the forms of a black and reeking mist, a crab covered with living slime, a dog with its fur afire, a fountain of sand, and many other things; and when Eric rode out hunting-on a unicorn or a hippogryph as often as not-he sometimes noticed that the castle was coming to resemble the skull of a bear, but it did not disturb him at all.
King Charles (who had often assured Eric that his name was the foolish) stayed on with his queen, they having become Eric's principal servitors (Thag excepted), and rejoiced in the possession of a son called Prince Robert who was the rightful heir, though he scarcely knew it. And while the king often mourned in secret for the palmy days of his pride, he comforted himself with the knowledge that he still commanded his castle and treasure-Eric had hardly spent a cent.
Thus matters stood, until one evening when Eric was dining in the great hall by the light of a single guttering candle on a golden pricket, there appeared from nowhere three remarkable figures. The first was a blond girl of great beauty, who wore a diaphanous gown that left one breast bare. The second was a darkhaired woman, also of great beauty, with a white forelock that made Eric think of a night sky slashed by lightning, this woman was dressed in a white robe embroidered with gold, and carried a staff forked at the top like the horns of a bull. The third was a man, tall and muscular, grey-bearded and one-eyed. And as this man, the last of the three, appeared, there came from the dungeons a roar of anguish.
Eric saw at once that these were not common folk (or he would have had them devoured), and rose and introduced himself and offered to share his dinner with the newcomers; but he had no sooner done this than his pet (ravens are longlived birds-sometimes inconveniently so) came flapping in at a window and lit on the one-eyed man's shoulder.
"Now," the one-eyed man said, "I see we are in some kind of castle," and he began to examine the hangings and decorations, as if he were leaving everything to the woman with the staff.
"I heard Thag roar," she said, "at the moment we materialized. How long has he been here?"
"Thirty years," said Eric, so surprised that he never considered not answering.
"Time flies rapidly here, then," the one-eyed man commerited. He had taken down a broadspear from the wall, and was fingering the edge as he spoke. "I thought we were close upon Thag."
"We were," the woman told him, "but as you say, time can pass quickly here-thirty years between paragraph and paragraph, if need be."
"What do you mean?" asked the man, but before she could answer him the king and queen entered, followed by Prince Robert. They had been watching from an alcove, and the king (who was of the old belief, as the mighty usually are whether or not they will admit it) had decided to throw his sword.
"Great Woden," he said, "we cast ourselves upon your mercy, and on the mercy of serene Frigg and lovely Freya. The throne of this land is mine, mine to hold in my lifetime, mine to give by father-right to my son when I die. For half again a score of years have I been defrauded of it-slay the monster and grant me justice."
And Woden said, "What the Hell is he talking about?" and as he spoke the keystone of the great arch of the castle cracked, and a little sliver of stone no bigger than a fingernail fell ringing to the floor.
"He thinks we're the Norse gods," the woman said, and the girl added, "Don't you see, Daddy, we're in a book."
"Not more impossible than going backward in time. Look around at things: there's the evil magician-that boy in the pointed hat-here's the castle; there's the true king, the fat lady is the queen, and that fellow who hangs his head and snivels is the prince. Thag is the monster in the crypt beneath the castle. We kill him and disappear, the magician gets pushed off a roof or something, and that's the end."
Eric asked, "Are you saying that we are people in a book in whatever place you come from?"
The one-eyed man nodded. "That's what they're sayinga fairy tale-I'm not sure I believe it." He paused. "Are you well-read? At least by whatever standards are used here?"
Eric nodded. "I've spent many happy hours in the castle library-it's something we enchanters are expected to do, and I've come to enjoy it."
"Then tell me something. Do the characters in the books you have here ever read themselves?"
Eric shook his head. "Never, to my knowledge. They're always going somewhere."
"That might be it, then. In our world, you see, it would be quite possible for a character in a book to sit peacefully before his fire reading the short stories of Alexander Solzhenitsyn." Just at that instant Thag rushed into the room in the form of a headless bear, blood spurting from the stump of his neck. "Do I kill him?" Woden asked Frigg.
"A moment ago I would have said yes."
The bear stood upright before the one-eyed man, blood cascading over his shoulders and his extended paws.
"Now you don't-why not?"
Freya-goldenhair touched his arm. "It will be the end of the story, won't it, Daddy? And if we can't be killed, how can Thag? He's been here thirty years now, they say. Won't this just turn him loose to go somewhere else?"
"I don't think this is where he really belongs," the woman called Frigg said. "This is probably a very low energy level for him, as it is for us. And he's asking you to do it, standing there with his chest exposed like that-if he's not begging you not to. I don't like it."
"Then the thing to do is to keep him here." Like a fisherman impaling a pike, Woden drove his spear into the bear's hind foot, pinning it to the oak floor of the hall. "Make it tight," the woman called Frigg advised him, and with a sp.iky morgenstern he pounded the iron-shod shaft until the head was nearly buried in the wood.
"Use him for your spells all you want," the one-eyed man told Eric, "but if you let him go now I think he'll disappear on you, and I know damned well I'll come back here and make you sorry you did."
Eric bowed. "I understand, Magister."
(Frigg whispered to Freya, "There has to be a world that corresponds to each of our fictions, dear, since what never was nor will be is inconceivable. Still, I wonder what Thag really is." And the bear became a snake pinned by the tail and struck an inch short of her heel.)
"Magister," Eric asked as the one-eyed man began to melt into the air, "what shall I call you? You said you are not Woden?"
"My name is Harry Nailer."
Eric bowed again. "Hairy Nailer. It is fitting, Magister." He was already thinking of the things he would do to the king.
And as soon as the three were gone he did them; and lived, in the most literal sense of the words, Happily, Ever, After.
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