It was a bright spring morning when Mandragora came upon the sweet little cottage with the two dead bodies hanging from its eaves.
“What’s all this then?” he asked his skulls, rattling out behind him on their 100 leather tethers.
“Looks like a violation,” they called, bobbing and jostling to see. “A clear violation. Bodies from the eaves, what else could that be?”
Mandragora walked over and studied the bodies. One was a man and he had his skin intact, though one of his legs was gone, and the other was a woman but it wasn’t easy to tell because all her skin had been removed. Mandragora poked the man’s blotchy pink flesh.
“Was I not clear last time? I posted the laws all over.”
“Yes yes,” nodded the skulls, “you were very clear. No cannibals and no human-skinning.”
Image from here.
“A fresh beheading then?” asked the skulls. “Number 101?”
“I suppose so,” said Mandragora, looking over the cottage.
It was a squat wattle and daub box painted with white lime plaster. Ferns and multicolored herbs lay in neat rows all round. There was no path up to the door. The air stank of smoky incense.
“If there’s one thing I hate more than cannibals, it’s cannibal witches.”
“Amen to that,” said the skulls.
“Alright then,” said Mandragora, and threw the little door wide open.
Inside was a revoltingly hideous witch eating a roasted hunk of leg.
“Oh!” cried Mandragora, flinching. “That’s hideous!”
She rose to meet him, setting down her knife and fork carefully. She was indeed quite hideous. Her skin wasn’t on straight, pulled too tight and skewed bumpily in wrinkles and folds. Her breasts, lumpen and sagging beneath her thin white shirt, shifted from chest to hips to stomach with every breath she took. Her hair hung down her back and from her shoulder like a wet scrag of mildewy seaweed. She was yellow and she smelt like an open grave.
“Hello Mandragora,” she said, her gray lips slipping from cheek to cheek as she spoke. “I’ve been waiting for you. Want to have some dinner?”
“I outlawed cannibalism 10 years ago,” he roared. “This is totally in violation.”
“Come on, get over yourself, you outlawed everything but posted no laws. How were common folk like me to know?”
“I posted laws everywhere you foul old hag. Everybody knows my laws.”
“Not me. Is my ignorance a crime?”
Mandragora considered this. “Actually, it wouldn’t be, if it were true. But it’s not, is it?”
“Well, I think it is true, and unless you can prove otherwise it appears we are at an impasse.”
“No,” he said, sliding his huge battle-axe free of its sheath, “I’m afraid we’re not.”
He stepped up to her and swung the giant axe into her neck. She was sent rocketing across the room. Her flailing body smashed into the wall, slid down, and slumped in a muddled puddle of limbs and skin on the floor.
“Hmm. That never happened before.”
“Normally just the heads come off, don’t they?” asked the skulls.
“I think so,” he said, scratching his head with the axe’s haft. “How peculiar.”
Then the witch got up. The skulls gasped. Her neck was unmarked. There was no blood.
“That’s definitely new,” said Mandragora appreciatively. “How did you do that?”
“Magic 101,” said the witch. “The skin of an innocent virgin is proof against your axe.”
“Who says?” He walloped her again in the face. She flew, splatted the wall, then got up.
“Unreal!” chorused the skulls.
“Now,” she said, “is it my turn?”
“No,” he said, and swung again, but before the blow could strike home she clicked her fingers and something happened.
Mandragora was swept up. There was a rattling of chains and he was hoisted into the air.
“What kind of contraption is this?” he said, suspended in the middle of the room in a net of chains, hanging from the ceiling.
“Magic 102,” she said, approaching. “Concealment and booby-trapping.”
“102?” he asked, pulling at the chains. “Who teaches magic these days?”
She grinned, baring her teeth through an eye-hole. “Me,” she said, and tapped her neck. “Cannibalism has its charms, you know? I can steal a skin, tan it, wear it, and take on the attributes of its owner.”
“No you can’t, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Ah, actually,” said one of his skulls politely.
“Hush,” said Mandragora. “I’m talking here.”
“This isnâ€™t my skin,” said the witch, pulling on the skin of her fingertips, which stretched and went limp like she was taking off a glove. “See?”
“You saw the body outside, no doubt? My bait for you. And she was an innocent, even though I’m not.”
“Well, that’s genius,” admitted Mandragora. “But bait for me, why?”
She grinned, crooked through skewed lips. “That’s the best part. I’m going to kill you, eat you, and take your skin.”
“That doesnâ€™t sound very neighbourly. Why would you want to do that?”
“Because you’re the strongest man in the world. I’ve studied you. Magic 103, Mandragora.”
“That’s very flattering. I’m touched.”
“You’re a whole course on my curricula.”
“That’s really lovely.”
“And once I have your skin, I’ll be as unstoppable as you are.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it all planned out. But if I am, in fact, unstoppable, I have to wonder how are these chains are going to stop me.”
She grinned. “Magic 104, the forging of Ludstrium.”
“No!” gasped Mandragora. “This is Ludstrium? They say no man alive can work it.”
She posed coquettishly, producing a hideous effect. “I’m no man.”
Mandragora grimaced at the sight, but had to give her credit. “Touche. And what else did you study?”
“Your skulls. 100 these days, yes? I’ll have them too, once I have your skin.”
“Oh no, they’re really more trouble than they’re worth. You don’t want them.”
“I’ll take them anyway,” she said, standing by his side, her eyes glowing through the shifting sheen of innocent skin covering them. In her hand she held a skinning knife. She brandished it before him. “Shall we begin?”
He sighed. “They have their uses though,” he said, and nodded at the skulls. They did nothing. “Come on then,” he added impatiently, tugging on the tethers.
“Oh, of course,” said one of the skulls, then led the others flying through the air to fall upon the Ludstrium chain net, where they began chomping. Within seconds Mandragora fell free.
“What on Earth?” asked the witch, back stepping, knife flailing.
“They say no man alive can forge Ludstrium,” getting to his feet and pointing first at the witch, then at the skulls. “You’re no man, and they’re not alive.”
A second passed as she took this in.
“And now you’ve had your fun, let’s find a nice hole in that virgin armor of yours, see what we can do about enforcing some law.”
For a second the witch stood her ground. Then she dropped the knife, jumped through the window, and sprinted off.
“All right, fellas,” said Mandragora, un-tethering the skulls, “off you go.” And off they went, all 100 of them racing and bouncing and rattling after her.
They came back within the hour.
“So?” he asked.
One of them spat out a hank of dirty clothing. “Couldn’t get any more than that,” it said. “Her skin is so slippery.”
“And it tastes foul,” said another.
“Come on,” said Mandragora. “You don’t taste anything, you’re dead.”
“Maybe,” said the skull, “but I remember what foulness tastes like, and she’s it.”
Mandragora nodded. “She was pretty foul.”
The skulls nodded vigorously.
“So where did she go?”
“A castle,” said the skulls. “Looks like she’s got them whipped. Few leagues east of her, nice big walls and a moat.”
“Hmm. How about the people, they cannibals too?”
“Ah. Not one?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Well, that complicates matters. They have guards on the walls?”
“Yes, double posting it seemed, lots of crossbows and such.”
“Are they her army?”
“Looks like she has them cowed. We saw some women and children on stakes in the courtyard, held with some glowing bonds. Part of her magic, I wager.”
“In the courtyard? How did you see that?”
The skulls rattled happily. “Climbed a tree, didnâ€™t we, and stood skull on skull until the top skull could see in.”
“Nice,” said Mandragora, nodding. “Very resourceful.”
“Thanks,” said the skulls, grinning inanely.
“So they’re innocent?”
“Looks that way.”
Mandragora sighed. “So I can’t go in killing. OK. Let’s see. Anything going in and out of the castle?”
“Not sure, but we did see some herds of cows and flocks of sheep off to the south. I guess they let those in, though doubtless it’ll be well covered by the guards and would mean some killing to bust through.”
“And she knows it,” said Mandragora, stroking his chin. His armor chinked and rustled over his bulky muscled frame.
“She’s pretty smart for someone so foul,” said the skulls.
“She is. But not as smart as us. Bring me a cow.”
“And some sheep.”
“You want sheep?”
Mandragora looked over the skulls. “Maybe 10?”
“And one cow?”
The skulls shrugged, and off they went.
Bob and Fob hated the guardhouse. It was the boringest job in the whole castle. You sat and you watched nothing happen, out there on the plains where nothing moved and nothing changed. If you fell asleep, the witch killed you and probably ate you and flayed you and threw your innards in her privy and wore your skin for Sunday best. If you failed to raise the alarm well enough, you got the same. If you raised the alarm for no good reason and just annoyed her, then you got the same. Sometimes she’d do all that just because she was in a bad mood, if you had nice-looking thighs or a good bit of paunch going on, or she was bored.
“I hate that witch,” said Fob, chewing on a grass stalk.
“Shhhh,” said Bob, staring in either direction nervously. “She can hear everything, you know.”
“You know she roasted Barry Newman up the other day?”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“Right there, in the courtyard. And what did he do?”
“What did he do?”
“Refused to clean out her privy, didn’t he?”
“Holy Esapbah,” said Bob, shivering. “Poor chap.”
“Can you blame him?” asked Fob. “It must be bloody awful down there now, all them guts and bones together.”
“I’m sure,” said Bob quietly, “and, you know,” he looked over his shoulder, “crap, too.”
“Well, he’s down there now as well, whatever she didn’t chow down on.”
“She’ll be asking around again soon.”
“What a way to go.”
“I heard the last guy that went down for cleaning was dead by the time they pulled him up.”
“What a witch.”
“Shhhh,” said Bob, “look who’s coming.”
Both men leaned over the guardhouse parapet and down to the edge of the moat. There on the sandy grass was a cow and 10 sheep.
“What’s this?” said Bob.
“Where’s the shepherd?”
“There’s no bloody shepherd for miles. Look.”
“So what are they doing here?” Bob asked, checking the rations book. “Theyâ€™re not due for another two days. We’ve already plenty.”
Fob shook his head. “It’s that bloody witch, isn’t it? If it isn’t enough to put a man in your toilet, then she’s got animals walking themselves to the slaughter.”
“You think this is her doing?”
“Of course it is! Look, they’ve even got leashes all connecting them to the big cow. Have you ever seen that before?”
Bob peered closer. “So they do,” he said wonderingly. “Looks like hundreds.”
“And look at the way they’re standing, all deformed and palsy looking!”
“It’s true, they do look a mite funny. See that one sheep? I could swear that’s a skull it’s walking on and not a leg.”
“And that cow, what, it’s carrying its own axe? Holy Esapbah! What will she think of next? Cows that slaughter, butcher, and cook themselves?”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” said Bob, crossing himself.
“That’s right. So, what do we do?”
“Let them in, I suppose.”
Fob considered this for a moment.
“It’s that or ask the witch. Alright, let them in.”
Fob released the catch on the drawbridge cog. It rattled down to the ground, spanned the moat, and slammed before the cow and the sheep.
The skulls were giggling uncontrollably under their sheep-skin disguises as the drawbridge descended.
“There you go,” whispered Mandragora, grinning broadly inside his hollowed out cow. “Nothing to this skins business.”
“They must be so stupid!” hissed the skulls, muffling their laughter.
Fob and Bob watched as the cow and sheep glided smoothly over the drawbridge and into the castle.
“I’ve never seen a cow glide like that,” said Fob.
Even Mandragora was laughing as they stepped off the drawbridge.
“They didn’t even,” gasped the skulls, helpless with laughter, “they didn’t even-”
“I know,” said Mandragora, gasping for air. “I know. Shhhh!”
The huddled group of animals took a breath under the portcullis until all the giggling subsided. It took a long time. One of the skulls would breathe funny, or snort, and they’d all set off again.
Eventually, Mandragora led them into the stables, where they quickly cast aside their animal skins.
“What now?” whispered the skulls.
“Now we get our hands dirty,” said Mandragora. “Grab some hay, will you?”
The witch settled herself regally upon her privy. It was laid out like a throne, with diamond studded armrests and an intricately wrought Ludstrium link flush chain.
“Hey,” she called to her privy bodyguards, two heavily armored men at the door. “Look the other way, will you?”
They turned to face the wall.
She smiled, slid the innocent virgin’s skin around until everything was aligned, then relaxed.
She felt cold metal against her butt.
“Ooh!” she said, and reflexively tried to hop off the throne, but there was suddenly a hand wrapped round her thigh, holding her down.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said a voice, floating up from the privy. “That’s my axe tip against your butt.”
“No!” she gasped. “Mandragora?”
“The very same.”
She settled back onto the seat. “What are you doing in my toilet?” she asked.
“Nearly choking down here,” he said. “It’s really horrible. You know there’s dead people down here? They must have just fallen in or something, poor devils.”
“Actually, I put them there,” she said, with a faint air of pride.
“Seriously? Well. You really are a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”
“Yes I am.”
He sneezed. She felt the metal tremble against her butt.
“It didn’t smell so bad up top,” he said. “Before I got in.”
“That’d be the dispelling spell,” she said. “Magic 105. I cast that soon after I discovered indoor privies smell so very bad.”
“Or else it’d be no fun to come down here.”
“Right,” he said, “fun.”
“Is it that bad?”
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m feeling faint.”
“Perhaps you’ll pass out and I’ll have your skin after all,” she offered.
“No,” he said. “I’ve already been down here for around 3 hours. I’ve got hay shoved up my nose like you wouldn’t believe. It helps some. It’s no spell, but it’s the best I could do. Plus I’m standing on a few bales of the stuff. And a saddle.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed.
“There’s nothing I can do about the walls though, if it makes you feel any better. I’m just living in fear that I’ll lose my balance and have to touch one of them.”
“Ah,” she said, brightening. “Well, that’s something.”
“But not now, since I’ve got a hold of you.”
“Oh yes,” she said, staring again at his hand round her loosely-skinned thigh.
“But if it’s any consolation, your skin doesn’t feel so nice either.”
“Well that’s something, but you’ve still not answered my question- why are you in my toilet?”
“Ah yes, the golden question. Well, it’s because of your honest virgin’s skin, isn’t it? I have to kill you, that goes without question, but how can I?”
“There has to be a more dignified way than this.”
“Can you think of one?”
She pondered this for a moment. “Perhaps not. So what happens next?”
“The way I see it, and I’ve had plenty of time to review this plan while I’ve been down here, is that I have two choices. One is to kill you now and split you in two with this axe- a plan which I’m not all the way enamored of since I’ll get showered with all your blood and guts and such when they come tumbling down.”
She shivered. “I’m not an advocate either. What’s the other way?”
“The second way is you get up, give me time to climb out of the privy, and then take off your skin and let me have your neck. Then I take your skull with me and you become number 101 on my tethers.”
“I see,” she said, “neither choice being too appealing at this point.”
“I realize that. I also realize that in offering the second choice I am in fact trusting you a rather large amount, as it will doubtless take some time for me to extricate myself from this hole.”
“Right, the hole is actually quite small. How did a big guy like you get down there?”
“I held my breath,” he said.
“Well then,” she said. “I’ll go for number 2, if I may.”
“And your assurances?” he asked. “That you’ll cast no spells and respect the terms of our agreement?”
“What would you have me swear by?”
“I thought about that too, in my three hour stint down here. It’s rather switched around my ideas of ‘bad ways to die’. So how about- on pain of privy death?”
“I see. So if I do something to escape you, something which results in my escape and your continued entrapment in the privy so you canâ€™t kill me, the repercussion is that I, in fact, not you, will die a privy death regardless?”
“That’s my fervent hope.”
“Then I swear.”
“I’ll hold you to it,” he said, and relaxed the hand round her thigh. She felt the metal point slide away from her skin.
She jumped up, slammed the toilet lid down, and ran for the door. “Sit on that privy!” she cried to the bodyguards. “Sit on it! Nail it down!”
The bodyguards instead pushed the privy door closed and took her firmly by the arm.
“What?” she cried, “unhand me!”
“You’re in trouble now,” said the armored guard through his visor. “Big trouble.”
She turned to stare at him, peering through his eye-slit. “No!” she whispered.
“I’m afraid so,” said the armored guard, and flipped up the visor. A gleaming skull grinned out at her. “I’m afraid it’s the privy for you, young lady.”
“NO!” she screamed, raised her hand to cast a spell, but the second guard had already slipped a Ludstrium chain round her chest.
“Cannibal catching 101,” said the skulls. “It’s a new subject.”
Mandragora flopped free of the toilet bowl and panted loudly.
“There’s plenty of hay down there,” he said. “That ought to keep you going for a while, if you like. I think though the brave soul would dunk himself, end it quickly.”
“No,” whimpered the witch. “It’s not supposed to be like this!”
Mandragora sighed. “That’s what everyone says,” he said, walked over, and laid a hand on her arm.
“Oh,” exclaimed the skulls, tinnily from inside their suits of armor, “oh, that smells terrible, Mandragora.”
“Yes,” he said, “it does.” Then he led the weeping witch over to her own privy hole.
“Please,” she begged, “please, I’ll do anything, don’t put me down there.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” asked Mandragora. “You already swore to go down.”
“So I’ll swear again. I’ll be a skull. Anything’s better than the privy.”
“Hmm,” he mused, “let me think about it,” and picked her up, threw her into the privy, and slammed the lid down. There was a splash and she screamed.
“Horrible,” said the skulls, turning away. “Just horrible.”
Her moanings echoed up through the closed lid.
“She deserves it,” said Mandragora.
“How long before you let her out?”
“I don’t know. A few hours?”
“Wait a moment,” protested one of the skulls, “that’s hardly fair. I was in that desert for 2 days before you chopped off my head.”
“The desert’s easy as pie compared to that privy,” said Mandragora. “Besides, you were worse than her. I’ll help her when she asks for it.”
“Help!” came the witch’s muffled cries. “Help!”
Mandragora smiled. “But not yet.”
By that night she’d fallen silent and Mandragora had to keep checking she was alive. The first few times he checked she’d tried to jump out, or cast a spell, but each time the privy lid banging down on her head convinced her otherwise.
“I bet she’s got a really weird shaped skull,” complained the skulls, playing poker in a corner. “She’s going to make us look bad.”
“I’m ready,” came her weak voice from the privy. “I’ve seen the error of my ways.”
Mandragora got off the privy lid and lifted it open. He looked down, saw the witch with her virgin skin all stripped free. She wasn’t all that bad-looking really. She was covered in crud, but looking past that, she wasn’t so bad.
“Her skull’s a nice shape,” he called back to the 100. They grumbled.
“I’m really sorry, I won’t do it again.”
“That’s right, you won’t.”
“Can I come out of here then, please?”
“The only way out is as one of my skulls.”
She said nothing.
“So what’s it going to be?”
Standing underneath the guardhouse the next morning, decked out once more in their animal skins, the skulls whispered to Mandragora. “Why do we have to go like this? Why don’t we just walk out?”
“Because it’s more fun like this.”
The skulls giggled. “Well, that’s true.”
They stood there for a few minutes, waiting to be noticed.
“It’s not working this time.”
“They don’t see us,” said the skulls. “We should call up to them.”
“Alright,” said Mandragora, then called up to the guardhouse. “Hey! Can you let us out! We’re all finished in here!”
“No no! You’re a cow, you have to talk like a cow!”
“Of course, silly me. Mooooo! Mooooo!”
“No no, you sound like a person saying moo. That’s no good. It has to be more natural.”
“Go on then, you do it.”
“Like this. Mooooo! Mooooo!”
“Sounds the same to me,” said Mandragora sulkily.
“Just try it like that,” said the skulls encouragingly. “You can do it. Go on.”
“Mooooo! How’s that? Mooooo!”
“Good!” enthused the skulls. “That’s better. Now keep going. Mooooo! Mooooo!”
“Mooooo! Mooooo!” said Mandragora.
They moo-ed for a while.
The drawbridge descended.
“See!” said the skulls. “Easy!”
“We should always do this,” said Mandragora, stepping out along the drawbridge. “Just for fun.”
“Next time we want to be cows, all this wool is itchy.”
“We’ll see,” said Mandragora, and so they left the castle.
Bob and Fob were staring out over the empty spaces, as usual, when they heard the voice call from the courtyard. They turned around and looked down.
“The sheep are back,” said Bob quietly.
“I see that,” said Fob. “And the cow.”
“They’re just staring at us.”
“What’s that on the cow’s back?”
“Oh God,” said Bob, and fainted.
Fob knelt, slapped him a few times, then hoisted him back up.
“Is that the witch’s head?” asked Fob.
“Yes,” said Bob, and fainted again.
“Esapbah,” cursed Fob, slapped Bob some more and pulled him up. “They must’ve come for the witch.”
“Mutton,” said Bob, in a daze. “Beef and mutton.”
“That’s what the axe was for, then. That’s a warrior cow, Bob. You ever seen a warrior cow before?”
“I haven’t. Glorious beast, isn’t it, if a bit mimsy in its standing.”
“It certainly is.”
“And the sheep?”
“Sidekicks,” said Fob, “I don’t know. Warrior sheep?”
Then the cow spoke. It said “Mooooo!”
“What was that?” said Fob.
Bob flinched, then turned from the courtyard and slumped against the battlement walls, looking over the empty plains. “I’m going to look out here,” he said. “At normal things. Enemies. Things like that. That’s my job.”
“That cow said ‘Mooooo’, didn’t it?”
“So?” asked Bob, unconvinced, his back to the animals. “Cows say moo, don’t they?”
“They make the sound, moo, yes. They don’t actually say ‘Mooooo’ though, do they?”
“Mooooo!” came the softer lowing from below.
“There!” cheered Bob, “that sounds better doesn’t it! That sounds like a real cow!”
“That was coming from the sheep,” said Fob.
There was a chorus of mooing from below.
“Now it’s the cow and the sheep and the witch’s head, all together,” said Fob.
“Let them out!” cried Bob.
Fob turned to him. “Alright,” he said, grabbed the drawbridge winch and let the wheel spin free. The drawbridge thudded down on the other bank.
“Phew,” said Bob.
They watched the animals cross the moat and glide away.
In the woods clear of the castle, still giggling but regaining control, Mandragora and the skulls threw clear their disguises.
“So when will I be a skull?” asked the witch’s head. “I’m ready.”
“Well,” said Mandragora, “I’ll cut you a tether now, and as you get dragged along behind me, your flesh gets scraped away and you become a skull.”
“It’s actually quite liberating,” said the skulls around her. “But you have to exercise your jaw or you’ll never be able to jump like this,” and they all jumped high in the air.
“That’s impressive,” she said, “I could never jump like that in real life.”
“Well, who’s surprised you became a cannibal then, with no athletic outlet?”
“Calm down,” said Mandragora, tying a leather tether round the witch’s forehead. “They’ve got a bunch of crazy cannibal theories, best not to listen too much. Anyway, now, we’ve got a school of cannibal witches to hunt down.”
“Ah,” said the witch. “Yes, I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, and took off through the forest at a run. The witch’s head bounced and rolled along behind, surrounded by 100 other skulls.
“He’s alright really, isn’t he?” she asked the skull bouncing along next to her.
“Yes,” said the skull grinning. “Him cutting off my head was the best that ever happened to me.”
She thought about it for a second, evaluating her life and everything she’d done up to that point. The answer came surprisingly easily, freed of her body.
“Yes,” she said, “me too.”
“There’s the spirit, lad,” said the skull. “You’ll be one of us yet.”
And off they bounced, trailing Mandragora, heading to enforce some of his laws.
You can see all MJG’s stories here:[album id=6 template=compact]