idol season 11 | week 24 | ~ 3600 words
If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn
Note: This week's story is an Idol Intersection with hangedkay. We chose a common idea, and then wrote our different adventures independently. His entry is here, and they can be read in any order.
It was almost eleven o'clock, and Harold Bleeker was tired. It had been a long day—a horrible day—and Harold was standing in the damp and the dark at the side of the road, peering through the fog and hoping with each flicker of movement that the bus to Watertown Road had finally arrived. He'd reached the superstitious phase where he tried not to think about the bus (to avoid jinxing his chances), and he had almost circled around to thinking that maybe he was jinxing himself by not wanting it enough when the bus came rattling through the fog and creaked to a stop in front of him.
Harold climbed on board, dumped his fare in the coin slot, and dropped down into one of the sideways-facing seats near the front. His stomach churned over the onslaught of the vending machine snacks he'd eaten in lieu of dinner, but he was too tired to care. He'd be going straight to bed when he got home, hoping to grab five or six hours of sleep before starting all over again the next morning. Quarterly accounting reports were the pits.
He finally looked around at the other inhabitants of the bus. There were never many passengers that late in the day—or ever, as far as he could tell. It was not a popular route. But still, this group wasn't quite what he expected. There were three of them, all sitting near the back, and they were all such hulking sorts. Growly-looking too, now that he thought about it. Ogre-ish.
It wasn't that he thought they might try to eat him (probably not), or even start brawling in the aisle, but they were not a mellow bunch. As near as he could tell, anyway, since he couldn't really see their faces. There were just these glowing red things where their eyes should have been, which he had to be imagining. The whole bus was oddly dark. Murky, even.
Harold peered at the wall across from him. Would it kill them to do a little cleaning and maintenance once in awhile? He rode this bus every week, but it looked much worse than he remembered. Almost mossy.
The bus hit a bump, jolting Harold halfway out of his seat. The ride isn't usually this rough. Or twisty, he thought. Where were the Biltmore Kennels? He should have passed them by now, but he didn't remember seeing them. And what was that tall, gloomy house up ahead? He'd never seen that before.
There was a sound from the back of the bus that definitely sounded like a growl. After fifteen years working as an accountant, Harold rarely called upon his instincts, but they woke up on their own just then and informed him that the generalized "wrongness" of that bus was about to become dangerously specific if he didn't get off right now. He pulled the signal cord and lurched to the front of the bus.
"I'd like to get off here," he said to the driver.
The driver glanced at him. Wait, are those tusks? Harold thought.
"I'm afraid not, sir," the driver said. "This isn't your stop."
It wasn't one of the usual drivers—and those were definitely tusks—so Harold couldn't imagine how the driver even knew where he lived. "That's all right," Harold said, "I can walk the rest of the way."
"Not tonight, sir. We're all riding to the end of the line," the driver said. "You and those giant trolls back there all have the same destination."
"I'm sorry, did you say trolls?"
"Didn't imagine they were ogres, did you?" The driver snorted a laugh. "People are always thinking that. Ridiculous!"
"Well, I'm sorry if you find my troll taxonomy skills lacking!" Harold said. "Now stop this bus, I mean it. I want to go home."
"Oh, they all do, sir, but it's not up to me. So you'd best sit right down again and prepare to take your lumps like the rest of them."
"Now, see here—" Harold began.
"Yes, yes," the driver said. "All in good time…"
Harold flopped down into a seat. I've been kidnapped, he thought.
Why hadn't anyone ever said there was a chance of being kidnapped on the late bus to Watertown Road? Kidnapped by some sort of warthog creature, no less, in league with giant—
Hold on. This must be a dream. Harold pinched himself, which hurt, but it had to be a dream. If he didn't wake up soon, he'd miss his stop and never make it home at a decent hour!
The bus hit another bump, and then plunged into a tunnel. When it came out, it was in the middle of a beautiful, overgrown forest. The sun was rising overhead, and Harold was officially out of alternative explanations.
The bus drove on, and stopped a few minutes later at the edge of a village green.
"This concludes our journey. All passengers must now depart. And you," the driver nodded at Harold, "off you go to processing." He pointed at a nearby tent.
Harold stumbled out of the bus, looking around in a daze. There were unicorns and fauns and wizards and fairies, and they all seemed to be going about their business, whatever that was. When he turned to look back at the bus, he saw only a long, horse-drawn carriage, already continuing its way down a dusty road. He turned around again and considered the tent, then entered it cautiously, unsure of what waited inside.
There was an elf, surrounded by books and sitting at a table with a quill pen and a scroll of parchment.
"Name and age," the elf said.
"Harold Bleeker, thirty-eight. But look, I didn't ask to be here. I want to go home."
"When the time comes." The elf opened a large green book and wrote in it, then looked up again. "You are unwed?"
"Yes. I mean, I thought I might meet a nice girl and settle down at some point," Harold said. "It just hasn't happened yet."
"At nearly forty years of age, it might be wise to consider a better plan."
"Yes, well, easier said than done!" Harold bristled.
"Describe your occupation."
"I manage business accounts and inventories, and track income and expenses," Harold said.
"Money, then," sighed the elf.
"Yes, I suppose so."
"That seems an oddly common trade among people from your realm. In this realm, however, I am the only necessary purveyor. Have you any other skills?"
Harold thought. "I wanted to be a chef when I was younger. I still cook on weekends."
"Castle cook it is," the elf said. "Go to the main gate and tell them Greenleaf appointed you as cook. Next!"
Harold left just as a little red squirrel came hopping in. "That had better be the King's due," he heard the elf say. "Those nuts don't grow on their own..."
At the castle, a creature with three heads guarded the gate. "Purpose?" it growled.
"Greenleaf… appointed me as cook?" Harold said.
"Egad, not another one," the creature muttered. "Come through," it said louder, "back corner, past the troll, off you go."
"Thank you?" said Harold.
The kitchen was bustling, crowded, and terribly hot. Harold took off his winter overcoat, and then his suit jacket.
"You one o' them out-worlders?" A large, red-faced person flapped her stained apron at him with one of her three arms.
"Yes?" Harold said.
"Knew it. Never dressed for proper work, are you? Dickie'll find you something—Dickie!" she shouted, "and then you'd best get started. His Grace wants roast cattle for his supper, and them takes hours to prepare."
Dickie outfitted him with a tunic, hosiery, and boots, and Harold quickly changed and then hurried back to the kitchen.
"There," the red-faced person said, pointing to a large slab of meat mounted on a spit, ready for the fire.
"I've never cooked anything as large as that before," Harold said. "I wouldn't know where to begin."
"No, of course not, why would you?" she said. "I don't know what that elf is thinking, sending us these figwiggins time and again. As if there weren't enough work already!"
"What happened to your last cook?" Harold asked.
"Gone off again—somewhere or some-when. They always do. Fine, you'll be my next pupil, then. I'm Mrs. Herdgirdle. Come on…"
Over the next four hours, Harold oversaw the spit boy, who managed not to char the meat too badly, and he helped make a vat of gravy from the drippings.
He bedded down for the night on a straw pallet in the kitchen with the other workers, crowded in on all sides by snorts and snores and various horns, tusks, and barbs that threatened to skewer him in his sleep. He dozed off just in time to be woken by the bellows-workers stoking the fires for the new day.
Mrs. Herdgirdle set Harold to work making bread, along with several other workers. He'd had little experience with it, but was able to learn by watching. He was somewhat disconcerted to discover that the spit boy was perfectly capable of working unsupervised, and realized that the previous day's endeavor had likely been nothing more than a means for Mrs. Herdgirdle to keep him occupied. His last loaves of the day turned out quite well, however, and he was pleased. He was also offered the chance to create a meat sauce for the kitchen workers' meal, and it was well received.
Harold was tired enough at the end of the day to fall asleep, even in such an uneasy setting. He dreamed he'd been fired for not showing up at the office, and none of his coworkers much cared except to fight over who would get his new PC monitor and his ergonomic desk chair.
He demonstrated a savory cream sauce for roasted fowl the next day, and Mrs. Herdgirdle gave him leave to prepare it for the evening meal. "We've had many a cook sent our way," she said, "but you're the first what's had any talent."
"I’d hoped to be a cook, once," Harold said, "before my mother got sick and we ran out of money."
"Ah," she said. "And did you like it, that other work you did?"
"It was okay, I didn't mind it. It paid the bills."
"Well," she said, patting his arm, "Wasn't certain at first, but you've proved able enough in the kitchen."
"I've just never cooked on this sort of scale before," Harold said. "Or with wood fires."
"What, are your fires magic, then?"
Mrs. Herdgirdle was an ogress, Harold had learned, and many of the other kitchen employees were pixies, trolls, or elves. None of them possessed any magical capabilities, and electricity was unheard of and far too strange to explain.
"Close enough, I suppose," he said. "Close enough…"
It was a few days afterward that Harold first heard about the dragon.
"Big as you like," the gamekeeper said. "Nearly the size of this castle, even."
"And will they send someone to kill it?" Harold asked.
The gamekeeper eyed him strangely. "Aye, lad, that they will…"
The dragon defeated the first knight and ate four villagers before sundown that day. The second day, it scorched a herd of cattle and flew off with a new knight, who was never to be seen again.
The third day, the king's people came for Harold.
"What, you want me—your cook—to battle a gigantic dragon? I'm hardly qualified! Some nice, big trolls came in on the bus with me—perhaps you ought to try one of them!"
"But only humans are immune to the dragon's magic," the king's chancellor said, "and you're the only one we have left."
Is that why I'm here? Harold wondered. He couldn't recall seeing any other humans since arriving on the bus, and he still had no idea why he'd been brought into this other world (or this timeline, or whatever it actually was). "Is this why I was kidnapped?" Harold asked.
"Kidnapped? Never!" said the chancellor. "Humans come and go as needed, no one quite knows why, and our own citizens do the same. We're simply grateful you're here."
"But I have no armor, no training," Harold began.
"We will arm you for battle and teach you the dragon's weaknesses, and those are all that truly matter. His kind are more susceptible to guile than strength."
"And if I refuse?" Harold asked.
"Then the dragon will soon destroy us all."
The castle sorcerer enrobed Harold in a suit of magical, lightweight armor, and gave him an unbreakable sword. "He can be killed through the eye or the throat, or by whispering his name into the East wind," the sorcerer said.
Harold shifted and flexed his armor, which moved remarkably well. "Why not start with that last part, then?"
"You must whisper, not shout, and you must first be certain the wind is listening," the sorcerer said. "Which means you must keep your wits about you at all times."
"While facing down an enormous, deadly dragon…"
The sorcerer gripped Harold's arms and looked at him fiercely. "Think back to a time when you had to be brave."
Harold was taken to the stables, where a large white horse was saddled-up and waiting for him. There was an elf-squire there to assist him, but Harold had been a farm-boy and his magic armor weighed no more than a business overcoat. He mounted the horse easily, and the elf handed him the sword.
"Courage, sir!" the elf said, and backed away.
"Yes, because I have no idea what I'm doing," Harold muttered to himself, as he and the horse marched off to war. "How on earth am I going to survive this?"
"Don't ask me," the beast beneath him said. "I've only been a horse for about a week, so I don't know what I’m doing either."
"What!" Harold leaned around sideways to catch the horse's eye. "What were you before, then?"
"A stockbroker. But the elf said I needed to support other people instead of exploiting their money, whatever that means. What were you?"
"An accountant. Who wanted to be a chef, but made the safe choice instead of following his heart, apparently," Harold grumbled.
"Oh god, we're doomed!" the horse moaned.
"We'll see about that!" Harold said. "The mage said bravery was key, so you do your part—no matter what—and I'll do mine. Onward!"
The horse increased his pace to a trot, and he and Harold swept through the courtyard and went out the gate, leaving the sound of the cheering crowd behind them.
Harold could see the dragon a mile or so away. It was as if it was waiting for them, idly twirling what looked like a very large bull in its claws.
"There," he said.
The horse sped up to a gallop and ran until they neared the edge of the field with the dragon in it, at which point he slowed and then stopped.
"Wait, what happened to bravery?" Harold asked.
"That thing is huge!"
"It is," Harold agreed, "but we have no choice. If—sorry, what's your name? I never asked."
"Hi, Brad, I'm Harold. Okay… so, if we don't defeat the dragon, everyone here will die, including us. There's no way to survive if we don't fight it. We have to try."
Brad flicked his ears and pawed the dirt for a moment, and then stiffened. "All right, then," he said. "Let's do it."
Both Harold and Brad lowered their heads as Brad started running again. "When you get closer, run to the side and circle him. It might confuse him," Harold said.
The dragon raised his wings as they approached, and breathed evil smoke out of his nose and mouth. He turned in surprise as Brad ran past and behind him, and lurched slightly off-balance.
Harold hoped the East wind was listening as he whispered the dragon's name again and again while Brad looped around it.
The dragon recovered and lifted a front paw to flatten them as they came forward.
"Reverse!" Harold said, and Brad spun away from the crashing foot and circled back. "Circle farther away whenever he can reach us," he muttered into Brad's ears, and then, "Reverse again!"
Harold resumed softly chanting the dragon's name as they came around toward the front again, and the dragon lunged with the other foreleg and missed.
"Reverse!" Harold said.
Brad was getting the hang of keeping the dragon unsteady, as he darted beneath both of its front legs and around to the back again. "Keep looping," Harold said, gripping the sword and whispering the dragon's name for all he was worth.
They were almost around to the front when Harold heard a hissing sound coming from the left of him. That can't be the dragon, he thought. Is there another one?
He glanced over and saw nothing, then looked back to the other side. The dragon was reeling, slowly and drunkenly, and then it collapsed in a heap.
"Charge!" Harold shouted.
Brad circled wide and then tore in toward the top of the dragon's head. "Closer," Harold said, "closer—I have to get to its eyes!"
The dragon blinked sleepily and lifted a feeble paw as Brad came nearer, but the horse was undeterred. He went right up to the bridge of the dragon's nose, and stood firmly while Harold leaned over and plunged the sword into the dragon's enormous eye.
The dragon exhaled a long, rattling breath, and expired.
Harold suddenly found himself in front of the carriage at the edge of the village green, wearing the clothes he'd had on when he first arrived.
"Well, come on inside, then!" the driver called out through the door. "I've a schedule to keep."
Harold sat down in a daze near the front, where he could be sure of leaving when he had to. The bus immediately began moving again.
The countryside and forest looked lovely from inside the safety of the bus. Harold gazed out over all of the pretty shops and fields and gardens he'd never had a chance to visit, and was just as happy to have missed them if it meant leaving. Soon the bus passed into a grove of dense, dark trees, and Harold jumped as it emerged into blackened horror-scape of smoke and fire. The bus stopped suddenly, and Harold's hands clenched around his seat.
"Not to worry, sir. We'll just be a minute," the driver said.
The door opened a moment later, letting in the sounds of screaming and the howl of desolate wind as a lone figure stepped onto the bus. Harold shrank back as the smell of sulfur wafted toward him, and he avoided looking at the dark, hooded passenger who went by. The door shut, and the bus moved on.
The road grew rough and bumpy, and then the bus shot into a tunnel too dark to see anything outside. Harold sat frozen, afraid to move or even breathe, and finally the bus slipped out of the tunnel and into a strange desert-like region that floated spookily under a weak, purple light. The bus stopped in front of a large, off-tilted dome, which did not look like part of any world Harold ever wanted to live in. He looked at the driver nervously.
"Not your stop either, sir." The driver nodded to a meek, little green person coming forward toward the exit. "Miss Griznik, best of luck, eh?"
"Thank you, Tuskwartle," she said.
Harold sat back as the bus started moving again, and tried not to doze off. After a much longer string of twists and bumps, the bus finally pulled up next to a familiar-looking streetlight. Harold sat up sharply and squinted at the street signs on the corner. Oh, thank god, finally!
"I chose well in your case, from the reports I've had. Mind how you go, sir," the driver said, "and keep your journey to yourself."
"Yes," Harold said, and sprinted out the door the moment it opened and kept on going until he was down the block and out of sight.
He kept running all the way to the elevator leading to his apartment, and he'd never been so happy to unlock the door and get inside.
Harold bolted the door and then stood there a moment. He pulled his phone out of his pocket—dead—but noticed he'd left his computer on. He Googled "current time," and was surprised to see that it was just a few minutes before midnight on the night he'd taken the bus from work. That was good, he supposed. Maybe his chair would still be at his desk when he got to the office.
The next morning, Harold got up and showered for work as usual, but a spark of excitement was burning inside him. Just two more days of finalizing quarterly reports, and then he would give notice and go back to school for the culinary training he'd always dreamed of. He had savings, and if he could face a dragon, he could weather anything.
He ate breakfast and dressed, and locked the apartment before heading off to work.
Out on the street, the Watertown Road bus stopped at the corner as it always did.
But Harold drove past in his car and waved it onward. He knew where he was going with his life, and he was determined to be sitting in the driver's seat from now on.
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