The whole world seemed pinned under the sky. Everything was old and ruined like an abandoned body.
The torturer had long since passed his prime. His meat was well-marbled with fat. It clung to his ribs and smelled like decaying mushrooms. He had a face crannied and cratered by many years laughter at his victims’ screams. His wrists were bigger than his hands.
Behind him hobbled the parasite man, his belly bloated like a pregnant woman’s with the egg sack. He had piggy eyes and a short beard hung with tiny, cheery-sounding bels. He wore a sword strapped to his belt that he’d stolen from one of the guards outside the dungeon.
They could hear the posse closing on them, the tramp of booted feet and that strange, sinister song which the posse sang continuously, accompanied by a single rat-a-tat drum.
Six hours ago all three men had been chained in neighbouring cells in the king’s dank dungeon, feeling the rats and spiders scurry in the dark and contemplating their upcoming execution by boiling. It took a whole day to boil a man, so people said.
The cheater wound his way through the mighty trees of the forest, guiding his companions with the illumination of his stolen lamp. They called him the cheater, which was fair enough. But even more so than a knack for winning by any means possible, he had an unfair amount of good luck. The others followed him, not because he knew where he was going, but because wherever he went would be the right place to go
The Cheater had stolen the kingdom. He’d heard that the king did not read the documents he was given to sign. Thus the cheater had written a contract whereby the king abdicated everything to the cheater. The King signed it. The Cheater and his lawyers attempted to make good on the contract. The King had the cheater thrown to the dogs, then, after the dogs had worried him a bit, thrown into the dungeon. "I’ll boil him alive," the king said. "I’ll set an example by him."
The torturer liked cats. This in itself is hardly a crime worthy of being boiled alive. But it didn’t end with his love of cats. He had a house on Tower Street, or more precisely, his house on Tower Street had a basement. A catacombs even, where at one time his noble ancestors had been put to rest. No one knew how extensive these catacombs were, only that they were fill with cats. More cats than people in the capital, so it was said. All the torturer had to do to get information from his victims was threaten to take them to his house and send them down into the catacombs.
"The kitties," he would say, laughing, "they are always so hungry."
Well…no one knew where the princess had gone. Everyone did know that the princess had tried on several occasions to have the torturer sent out of the palace, had also tried to send soldiers into the torturer’s House to open up the catacombs and release the kittens or humanely get rid of them. Then when she went missing and they found her handkerchief in the torturer’s pocket, well…possibly she’d framed him. Possibly. More likely, in the king’s opinion, his master torturer had done something most malign with the princess. "And thus he disserves to be boiled alive," pronounced the king. "To set an example."
There of course is the parasite man to tell of, except that he’d committed no crime other than to be the unfortunate victim of some monster who, apparently, had laid its eggs within his body. "He shall be boiled alive," said the king. "To set an example."
Now they came to the edge of the forest where a violent river rushed between steep banks. A railless stone bridge spanned the river and the cheater’s lamp illuminated its slick surface.
"This is lucky," said the cheater. "We can set a trap for the posse here after we cross."
"I don’t see how," said the parasite man. The torturer couldn’t contribute to the conversation, for he was so out of breath.
"Once we are across,” said the cheater, “I shall spill some of the oil from the lamp over the stones of this bridge. They will slip and fall into the drink."
And this did happen. They listened to the men of the posse scream as they fell into the violent waters of the river.
"Unfortunate that you had to use up all the lamp oil," said the parasite man.
"Those poor men," wheezed the torturer. "They were…just following orders. I hope they can swim."
"Not all of them fell," said the cheater. "I can still hear some coming."
"Then we must hurry," said the parasite man. "I can feel the hatching will begin soon."
"Not too fast," said the torturer. "I cannot run anymore. Let us walk, quickly."
So they walked quickly, following the cheater who led the way by sound and smell, for the stars shed little light and the lamp had no oil left to burn.
"I must rest," the torturer wheezed. "Either that or you should leave me. Perhaps I can take some out when they catch me, give you all more time."
"I’m not leaving you," said the cheater. "Here. There’s a cave. We may camp here for an hour so you can recoup your strength."
The cave was uncomfortably like being in the king’s dungeon again. The air was cold and clammy and smelled of stale rock.
"Have you been this way before?" asked the parasite man. "The posse will miss this cave for sure if they catch up."
"Possibly," said the cheater. He had indeed been this way before, which was how he knew of the cave. "But they, remember, have lanterns and will be looking at our tracks. No, I think it best we wait only an hour."
Yet hardly fifteen minutes had gone by before they heard the unsettling wail of a ghost. The sound chilled their bones and the air itself seemed to quiver and resonate.
"This cave is haunted," the parasite man said.
"I’ll handle the ghost," said the torturer. He knew pain. He knew pain the way a doctor knows sickness or the way a farmer knows the weather, or a sailor his lines.
The torturer stood up and wobbled without seeing toward the inner recesses of the cave. And then he began wailing. He wailed just like the ghost wailed, only his voice was baritone, whereas the ghost was a tenor. The ghost went quiet. Was it listening? The torturer’s voice echoed alive through the cave, the way the ghost’s voice had not, for dead voices do not echo.
And then the torturer reached the back of the cave where there was a closed chest. He felt it there with his hand. He found the catch and slipped it back with some effort. Then he worked his old fingers beneath the lid and lifted. Up swung the lid of the chest. He reached into the chest and felt the bones of a skeleton. But the bones were too small. They were human bones. A child, realized the torturer, his heart wilting. Oh dear lord of the pit and sky, it was the bones of a child here in this dark cave, shut away in this old chest. There was nothing for it. He closed the lid and began to slide the chest laboriously toward the mouth of the cave.
"What did you find?" asked the cheater.
"At least the ghost is quiet," said the parasite man.
"We have to dig a grave, boys," said the torturer solemnly. "That’s why the ghost does howl. We have to dig a grave."
"We don’t have much time," said the cheater. "That posse will be here soon. If it were me, I’d be moving now."
"We have to do this," the torturer insisted, his mind on the bones in the chest. "We have to."
"I feel the eggs are close to hatching," said the parasite man. "I don’t know how much longer. A few hours perhaps."
"Do you want to be around when those things hatch?" the cheater asked the torturer.
"I’m an old man," said the torturer. "I’m just an old man who keeps a few cats for company. Yesterday I was going to be boiled alive. Today, I’m going to dig a grave."
"Well I’ll help you," said the cheater. "It’ll go faster that way."
"And I," said the parasite man. “I’ll help.”
So they began to dig a grave just beyond the mouth of the cave, where there would be light if the clouds moved from the moon’s face, or sun when dawn came.
As they dug the cheater said, "I’ll bet, old man, I’ll bet you never hurt a fly in your life. Just the rumour of your cats was enough, wasn’t it?"
"I won’t admit a thing," said the torturer. "Only that I never harmed the princess, and wherever she has gone, I wish her no hard feelings."
They put the chest with the child’s bones into the grave and put dirt back over it and then, though they had rested little, went on.
Now time was precious for they again heard the sinister song of the king’s posse. And the parasite man was itching and scratching and making chittering noises in the back of his throat.
The torturer was nearly to his last legs. The cheater was rummaging through all his cunning and sneaking ways, trying to find an avenue of escape.
Always before the cheater had scoped out his marks, planned his games to within an inch. It was always easier to cheat a cheater, he found. For they never expected it. And they had always been his preferred target. He was really just a farm boy, trying with all his might to stay off the farm. He liked the rattle of dice and the riffle of cards. He’d spent a year studying sleight of hand with a juggler and street magician, another year learning the ins and outs of card tricks and how to nudge dice with a quick finger. Then he had learned the finest art, which was taught him by an old grandmother. "Half of what people know is flat wrong," she’d said. "And the other half they never bother to think about." Then she’d taken all his money by proving every famous quote he knew as wrong, all the famous royal decrees weren’t as he remembered, and everything he thought he knew about numbers and counting could be used against him.
"I before E, except after C?" she said. "Give me a dollar for each word I can think of that breaks that rule."
He wished the ancient Grandma May was there now. She ate sour pickles like this for breakfast. He wondered how very much it would hurt to be boiled alive.
Grandma May had said that no chef could make frog soup by putting a frog in regular water and then bringing it to a slow boil. "How much you want to bet me that frog will jump out?" she’d said. Well…there would be no jumping out for him.
They had been going uphill for the last hour. The parasite man was carrying the torturer. The parasite man wasn’t really human and had more strength than you might suppose. The parasite man felt the eggs slithering around in the egg sack with every step. He supposed that he and his two new friends were coming to the end of the line.
They had been going up hill since having cross the river and now before them was a valley. The sun was creeping up. They all stared at the view. There was no way they would be able to make it down into the valley. There was a path, but they were done in. The torturer especially.
"They’re coming," said the cheater. He had assumed the fetal position. Things had not turned out for him as he had hoped. No bursts of inspiration had illuminated a lucky way ahead for him. It was the boiling pot for him; he knew it. Sobs broke from his cracked and dried lips. He was, after all, very young.
The torturer was at peace with his life. If he was fated to boil, then so be it. He was an old man, the only pleasures left to him in this life were his two cats, Spot and Ranger. He hoped that they wouldn’t fall victim to any kind of raid on his house in Tower Street. The raiders would discover the stoned up door to the catacombs. If they busted through the stoned up entrance, they might find mouldering old skeletons. The torturer had no idea.
He sat, looking at the sunrise, feeling all in. He’d run out his last legs and could go no further.
The posse came up on the three wanted men singing their sinister song:
Put a prisoner in a pot, Heat it up to boiling hot,
It will steam and they shall scream…
The cheater leapt to his feet brandishing the sword that the parasite man had stolen. "I shall fight you," he said. "Single combat, each of you, man to man.”
"Don’t do it, boy," said the torturer. "It’s no good trying to buy us time. We’re not going any further."
The parasite man was pleased that the cheater had broken through his fear. He was pleased that the torturer was not afraid. The babies would smell fear. They were coming now. He felt them. Their little teeth and claws ripped the lining of the egg sack and entered his blood.
He lifted his shirt, and because he was not human, opened the flap of skin starting at his naval and extending upward. His babies emerged into the new dawn light.
The guards comprising the posse stopped their song mid word. They began to scream. The babies weren’t very appealing to look at. They had little faces between their wings, little mouths with little teeth. They were a little bit like butterflies, or moths, but much smaller and faster. They made chittering noises as they smelled the fear and buzzed toward the posse.
"Are they going to eat the posse?" asked the cheater.
"Don’t let them be eaten," said the torturer. "The guards are just carrying out their orders."
"They just want to eat the fear," said the parasite man. "They like to lick it up. It makes them grow."
Once all the fear had been licked up out of the king’s posse, they were no longer afraid of their commander. They were no longer afraid of the torturer and his cats. They were not afraid of the cheater’s preternatural abilities to bend the odds in his favour. They were not afraid of the parasite man, who in any case was deflated back to regular size.
"I know where the princess is," said the cheater to the captain of the guard posse. Inspiration had struck at last. "But if you boil me, then I won’t tell you."
"We’re not going to force you to return," said the captain. "We can tell the king that we boiled you up. He never has to know."
"I’d like to boil him," said a man in the back ranks. "I’m not afraid of him anymore."
About a week later, as the crow flies—the crow flies through time—everyone was back in the capital. Including the princess. She’d been meeting with her lawyers. It turned out that she’d had an idea to get her father to abdicate. She’d met an old lady supplicant called Grandma May who’d given her the idea of having her father sign a contract that would give his kingdom over to her. Apparently, her father didn’t read the papers put in front of him for his royal signature.
The posse, who comprised a substantial number of the king’s guards, were no longer afraid of their commander in chief. They happily through him into his own dungeon when he threaten to have his daughter boiled alive to "set an example."
The torturer attended the wedding ,going by his real name, Harald. His cat’s Spot and Ranger, you might be pleased to know, were perfectly safe and sound when he returned to his house on Tower Street. (Oh, I forgot. The princess married the cheater. They had been secretly dating for the last year or so.)
The parasite man went off somewhere. Maybe deep into the forest or something. No one followed or asked too many questions.
The ghost in the cave was happier now that it’s bones were out in the open. There’s a sad story there, about what happened, and if you’re up to it, you can go visit the ghost and it will tell you the story, although it would prefer to play games.
The old king lives inside a man-sized pot. It’s too tall for him to climb out of. Every now and then they fill it up to his neck with hot water. The princess checks the temperature herself with her elbow. She says it’s a good example of what can happen to wayward rulers.
The whole world seemed happy to hold up the sky. Everything was young and healthy, like new parasites birthed from an abandoned body.