AN INTRODUCTORY CHAPTER, WHICH CONTAINS A
DESCRIPTION OF A KINGDOM, A KING, A QUEEN, A
PRINCESS, A DOG, AND, AS AN ADDED BONUS,
A SHEPHERD LAD
There was once a little country called Hoodahooda. Its origin has been a subject of much scholarly debate, and countless books and seminars have been devoted to this intriguing topic. However, the only independent account of Hoodahooda's origin can be found in the History of Frawd, an obscure, ancient chronicle. According to this fascinating work, the Kingdom of Hoodahooda was founded in the following way. On one bright morning in the Dark Ages a tribal chieftain named Ragnar the Unimpressive was arrested and charged with three counts of Robbery, two counts of Extortion, and one count of Devouring the Transportation of a Minor. He was also accused of being flagrantly ugly in public. He was sent before the King. "Ragnar," said the King, "your crimes are grievous and must be punished. I'll give you two choices. You can either die by slow torture, or you can leave this land, taking your wife, your children, and your children's children, and embark on a dangerous yet fruitful voyage to discover a new land beyond the setting sun, a land where your hopes and dreams can be realized, a land where your children can grow up, strong and free, and a land where there is no war and violence, only year after year of peaceful solitude in the company of your happy, noisy children, and pleasant, talkative wife. Now, which shall it be?" Ragnar chose the first option, but before the sentence could be carried out the King, who had never liked Ragnar, pardoned him. The story of Ragnar's behavior in this instance quickly became known throughout the land, and he became a laughingstock, and his family the butt of constant ridicule. This ridicule became so severe that Ragnar finally decided to take the King's advice and leave his country forever. With tears in their eyes, he and his family packed their belongings into a tiny ship and sailed toward the setting sun. Two months later they struck land, marched inland for several days, and set up the pleasant little country of Hoodahooda. A few centuries later the ruler of Hoodahooda was King Lars XIV, an enormously tall man with a bushy blond beard and a big red nose. Speaking of red, that was the color of most of the drapes on the windows of his castle, and, since this edifice has already been artfully woven into the fabric of the story, I shall attempt to describe it. The King's castle was, as one might expect, a large stone building several stories high. It stood in a grove of trees at one end of the little village of Troddleheim. The castle had a moat, a solid mahogany drawbridge, several towers, and many rooms, 114 to be exact, each of which served a unique, specific function. Besides such conventional rooms as the Kitchen and the Master Bedroom, there were several unconventional rooms, such as the various recreation rooms where the King's courtiers could loosen up and have a little fun. There was the Axe room, the Searing Iron room, and, my personal favorite, the Cloak and Dagger room. There was also a Drawing room, where several of the top leaders of rival countries were quartered during their stay at the castle. All of the rooms in the castle were interesting, but the most important room of all was The Great Hall. The Great Hall was, as the name suggests, a great hall, and this great hall was where King Lars could commonly be found during the day, sitting at his Great Table, stuffing freshly roasted chickens into his mouth, and jesting with a huge retinue of inebriated, belching retainers. Every day he would tell them the same Traveling Moneychanger jokes, every day they would laugh just as uproariously as the day before, and every day would conclude with the King dropping unconscious into a huge bowl of Chicken and Beer soup. Fortunately for the nation, someone would always pull him out, but never without first displaying some slight hesitation. King Lars also had a great fondness for dogs, and was usually surrounded by about thirty of them, although he sternly insisted that no more than five could stay on the table during dinner--yes, even the best of Kings can be arbitrary and capricious.
The castle also featured a large interior courtyard which contained the garden of Doctor Oldair, the greatest philosopher in the western world, and surely one of its finest gardeners as well. Around the castle were spacious grounds, which included a large park and the King's stables.
Now that you've been introduced to the country, seen the castle, and met the King, you might as well be told the story, which begins, like all the world's best stories, not in the sumptuous abode of a King, but at the humble setting of a stable. Once upon a time, on a cheerful spring morning, the King's two coachman were sitting against one of the stable walls. The Head Coachman was a burly man with a bald head and a quiet, world-weary manner. Sitting next to him was his Assistant, a much younger man, who was fast asleep and snoring lustily. The Assistant also had a bald head; not a naturally bald head, but one rather sloppily shaved in an effort to emulate his leader. The Head Coachman was dreamily studying the little tufts of hair that awkwardly sprouted out of his Assistant's head, when suddenly he leaped to his feet. "Get up," he blurted to his Assistant, "The Queen wants to go for a ride." The Head Coachman had not gotten this information verbally, nor by letter, nor from divine inspiration; this was merely his interpretation of the rolling pin that had flown past his head and smashed into the wall behind him. The conclusion he drew from this phenomenon was quickly proven correct, for when he looked back toward the castle he saw the Queen staring down at him from one of the uppermost windows. "I'm riding today!!" she shouted with typical subtlety and grace, "Prepare the horses!!" The Head Coachman watched the Queen leave the window and knew she would soon be bounding down the stairs, out the side door, and across the moat, so he pulled his sleepy Assistant to his feet and hurried over to the horses. The day was so pleasant that all the horses were outside, frolicking in their pasture, and enjoying a moment of freedom. The Head Coachman leaped over the fence and, after flashing one of his rare smiles, politely spoke to the horses. "I need six of you to come with me on a little trip. I know you'll enjoy it." His countenance beamed with joy and goodwill. "Yeah," added his naive Assistant, "The Queen wants to go for a ride." Oddly enough, immediately upon hearing this remark most of the horses suddenly became lame, and started hobbling off to the far side of the pasture⎯some were lame in two legs, and some in three, while others were not only lame but suffering from violent choking attacks as well, and one horse was lame in all four legs, and also his tail, which was an unusual sight to see. One horse was suddenly struck with violent convulsions and began spinning on the ground in paroxysms of agony; next to him another horse was desperately trying to stuff his hoof into his mouth, and one particularly melodramatic horse climbed up onto the edge of the water tank, and, while teetering, looked at the Head Coachman with a plaintive eye, intimating that he didn't want to, but would jump if forced.
"Where's my coach!!" the Queen thundered as she crossed the moat and strode up to the stables.
"Please?," the Head Coachman pleaded to the infirm quadrupeds, as they staggered around the pasture.
He eagerly tried to place a halter on a few of them, but whenever he came near, the ailing equines would experience a sudden burst of dexterity, and would take advantage of these temporary remissions by leaping playfully away. The Head Coachman finally gave up and stood in the middle of the pasture, frowning. Generally the horses didn't mind pulling a coach, unless the Queen was to be in it, for the Queen had a habit of having slow horses beaten, and, coincidentally, seldom rode with horses that she didn't consider unusually slow.
"Why aren't the horses ready?!!" asked a glass-shattering voice, "I want my coach ready now!!!"
The Head Coachman stared at the ground and thoughtfully rubbed his neck, as if he didn't expect to find it in such complete condition at anytime in the near future. His Assistant, after deciding against joining the horse at the edge of the water tank, was busily scratching his Last Will and Testament onto a nearby tree.
"Purella!!" the Queen shouted, turning back toward the castle, "Hurry up! I told you you're riding with me today!"
"I'll be right down, mother!" came the reply from another of the castle's upper windows.
The mellifluous voice of Princess Purella was unmistakable, and the reaction to her voice was immediate. The horses wavered, the Head Coachman raised his head, and his Assistant misspelled "executrix".
"Hurry!" the Queen repeated.
The horses were now in a quandary, for as much as they hated to pull the Queen, they loved to pull the Princess. This was because the Princess was notoriously nice, and was always certain to reward each of her four-legged friends with an apple and a piece of sugar. Better yet, the Queen had never had a horse beaten while the Princess was with her. At the sound of Princess Purella's girlish voice the horses stood transfixed; the Head Coachman took the opportunity to gather six of them, and, with the help of his Assistant, began preparing the coach for the Queen. While they prepared it, the Queen waited for her daughter with unconcealed impatience.
Queen Gertrude was a slim woman with prematurely gray hair, whose face was wrinkled from too much frowning and angry words. However, she had once been beautiful, just as King Lars had once been handsome. And, just as Lars had revelled in performing the duties of a King, Gertrude had been happy in her role as Queen, supporting her husband and performing acts of charity throughout the kingdom.
But as the years went by the King began to feel that his courtier's jokes were more important than his country's laws, and that a full flagon of beer was more beautiful than his wife. In turn, Gertrude changed as well. She became embittered and demanding, and the responsibilities her husband abandoned she took over herself. She loved the feeling of power, and though she had never been much of a thinker before, her thoughts started becoming very, very big.
But alas! Thought is a heady drug, and should only be taken in regular, well-controlled doses. Unfortunately, the Queen ingested far too much all at once, and began vomiting out one bad decision after another. Her rule (for she was now the real ruler of Hoodahooda) was capricious, intolerant, and harsh, and if it wasn't for the love the people had for her only child, the Princess Purella, she probably would have provoked a revolution several years before.
"I'm sorry I'm so slow," said Purella, as she jogged up to her mother and curtseyed. She had run out of the small side door of the castle, across the moat, and to the stable with amazing speed, considering that her dress and shoes were designed for decoration rather than function.
"Never mind," said the Queen, "Just get in the coach."
"Can Floppy come too?" Purella asked.
"Oh, I suppose so," the Queen replied.
"Floppy!" Purella called.
Upon hearing his name a little dog jumped out of a first floor castle window and began running toward the coach. This dog, the celebrated Floppy, was Purella's faithful friend. He was an obvious member of the breed Canus Beeus Currus, or, in the vernacular, a mongrel. He had one brown eye and one blue eye, droopy ears, and a fuzzy tail, and the color of his fur (he was 5/8 shorthair and 3/8 longhair) was a sort of tortured orange, something like the color you would get if you crossed a lion with a zebra. Although the coach was only forty yards away from him, it took Floppy a good while to get there, because his form as a runner was less than ideal. He had the habit of stepping with both front legs at the same time, thus causing him to move up and down as much as forward, and making him look altogether like a tiny, fur-lined rocking horse. Eventually, however, he bounded into the coach and hopped onto Purella's lap.
"Remember Floppy, if you're going to sit in here you'll have to behave," she warned him.
"Arf," said Floppy, thus making the first of many important contributions to this story.
Finally the Head Coachman had the horses hitched and ready. Then, without further ado, he and his Assistant hopped onto their seat, and soon the coach was rattling through the streets of Troddleheim.
After rolling through several cobblestone lanes lined with storybook houses and chatting villagers, the coach left Troddleheim behind and burst into the beautiful green countryside. Inside, Purella gazed happily out the window, admiring the day. Floppy sat on her lap and, in the great tradition of dogs who stick their heads out windows, had his mouth wide open, his tongue flapping in the wind like a streamer, and was breathing with great vehemence for no apparent reason.
Purella was (in case you were curious) very pretty, possibly even beautiful, which is actually standard among eighteen year-old princesses from kingdoms such as Hoodahooda, and she had the standard-issue long blond hair. Not that Purella realized that she was an attractive young woman, of course, because if the people closest to you spend their time either ignoring you, or criticizing you, you naturally tend to have doubts about yourself, and Purella was not immune to this. For, in truth, in several ways her beauty and her behavior didn't conform to the ideal. For example, she was a few inches shorter than average, had a couple of slightly crooked teeth, and freckles instead of a tan. But what really made her different from most princesses was that she didn't want to be a princess. She wanted to be one of the people, and spend her days outside, working, talking, laughing, and making friends. She loved the common people, and they loved her, because she was kind, honest, generous, virtuous, tender-hearted, and many other pleasant adjectives too numerous to mention. One might suppose that her beauty and virtues would make her well-liked by her parents as well, but such was not the case. Her father, who had shown a great deal of interest in her for the few years following her arrival in the world, now completely ignored her, and was generally so intoxicated that he had a very confused idea about whether she existed at all.
The Queen thought her daughter was young and attractive, and refused to forgive her for it. She would nag and lecture at her continually, and though Purella's goodness of spirit would occasionally win the Queen over, the harmonious moments in their relationship were few and far between, although Purella always prayed for more.
Purella leaned over and gave Floppy a big hug. Except for her two maids, Floppy was her only close friend.
Suddenly the Head Coachman stopped the coach.
"What's wrong?" the Queen asked.
"A herd of sheep crossing the road, your majesty," the Head Coachman replied.
The Queen and the Princess looked out their respective windows and watched the herd of sheep being led across the road by a pale-faced but robust shepherd lad. He was a tall, gangly youth of about eighteen summers (and approximately the same number of winters), and he looked a little confused--in fact, it seemed as though the sheep were leading him, rather than the other way around.
"Hurry along, lad," said the Head Coachman.
At this point Floppy stuck his head out the coach window and said, imprudently, "Arf! Arf! Arf!"
The sheep obviously interpreted this as an insult. One could come to that conclusion for two reasons: first, the sheep collectively glared at Floppy, and second, when Floppy leaned over too far and fell out of the coach they began chasing him en masse.
Although it is not unusual to see a dog chasing sheep, seeing sheep chase a dog is quite another thing, and well worth seeing just for the experience. Fortunately, Lathan (for that was the name of the confused but robust shepherd lad) immediately sized up the situation. He saw his sheep chasing the dog around and around the coach, heard a mellifluous voice inside the coach say "Floppy! Floppy! Floppy!," and decided to effect a rescue. He raced over and (after tripping over one of his sheep and doing a spectacular somersault) scooped up Floppy, and then carried him over to the coach.
"Here's your dog," said Lathan, handing Floppy to Purella through the window.
"Thank you very much!" said the Princess, gratefully, "That was very kind of you. What's your name?"
At that moment Lathan suddenly realized that the cute girl and the frowning older woman beside her were none other than Princess Purella and Queen Gertrude, neither of whom he had ever seen up close before! Lathan turned beet red, and when he opened his mouth to answer Purella's question nothing came out but strange, half-stifled gurgling sounds, which seemed to belong to no language whatsoever.
"Drive on!" the Queen shouted.
Immediately the royal coach began to rumble down the road, leaving Lathan standing there, open-mouthed, in a cloud of dust. He kept his eyes fixed on the coach until it disappeared from sight.
"Did you see that?" Lathan said to his sheep (no, I'm not kidding, he said it to his sheep), "That was the royal coach! Princess Purella seemed really nice, just like they say."
The sheep were apparently not as impressed as Lathan, because even as he spoke they were continuing their long trek to the feeding grounds on the upper slopes near Brakehed Pass. Lathan, on the other hand, still stood staring at the road ahead, until finally he turned to stare at the spot where the little incident took place, in an effort to relive the experience. By the time he turned back to his sheep they were long gone, and he ran after them toward the upper slopes.