“Right, it’s time. Get in the sack, Scrote,” Quentin said. The pair had removed most of their clutter from the cart, hiding it under a pile of leaves a little deeper in the forest, leaving only the empty money sack draped over the back. Quentin’s stumpy companion emerged from the trees, where he had been making some last minute adjustments to his costume. He was still wearing the grey wig and black pointy hat he had sported the night before, and he was now wearing a long black cloak to match. He had died his skin a pale green using some sort of cabbage dye, which had done nothing to improve his peculiar bouquet; and onto his long fake nose he had managed to affix even more massive hairy warts. Truly it was a frightful sight, or at least a frightful smell; perfect, thought Quentin. He himself pulled on his black gloves as Scrote climbed onto the cart and into the sack.
“Now, remember, when we get to the village, you have to stay perfectly still, OK? Remember, you’re dead. Stay in the sack, so they can’t see you breathing. And no screw-ups this time, right?” said Quentin. There was a muffled grunt of affirmation from the sack, and Quentin climbed up behind the horse, taking the reins in one gloved hand as he pulled up his black hood with the other.
“Showtime,” he muttered, cracking the reins; and the horse pulled them forward into the village of Springar.
A crowd of villagers were waiting for them, gathered in the large cobbled square outside the doors of the village hall. Quentin drove the cart towards them slowly, enjoying the theatrical nature of his entrance. As the cart approached the crowd, he thought he saw the hem of a purple robe disappearing around the corner; but there was no time to investigate further, because the Mayor was taking a cautious step towards him, and he had to concentrate. He drew the cart to a halt a few yards away from the crowd, and spoke in the deep commanding tones of Cornelius Ravenheart.
“The deed is done,” he said, “the witch is no more!”
There was a moment of silence that seemed to stretch on for an age. Quentin’s heart beat faster, and beads of sweat appeared under his hood. Were they going to fall for it, or had they realised it was all a scam? All the noise seemed to have been sucked out of the air, time stopping as he gazed at the villagers and silently, inscrutably, they gazed back at him.
Then sound returned. The crowd cheered, and broke ranks, swarming around the cart, chanting Cornelius’ name. Quentin raised his hands, accepting the acclaim, and took a bow as the chanting grew even louder.
Only the Mayor seemed to be sceptical. Approaching the cart behind the others, he called out: “How do we know you aren’t lying?” Some of the crowd shushed him, lost in the moment, but others, Quentin saw, were looking a little more thoughtful. Well, that was no problem; time to play to the crowd a little more first, though.
“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” said the black-clad goblin in his deep voice. “I am Cornelius Ravenheart, and the last man to call me a liar did not live to regret it.” The inflection of the last phrase allowed no doubt as to his meaning, and many of the villagers cheered again at his display of heroic bravado. The Mayor, however, kept coming.
“Nevertheless, we need proof before payment,” he insisted. Some of the crowd, completely swayed by Quentin’s performance (and, he privately admitted, by their own lack of functioning brain cells), booed the Mayor; but Quentin raised his hands for silence.
“Very well,” he said. “Then I shall provide it. Gather around the back of the cart and I shall show you the corpse of your tormentor.”
Excitedly, pushing and shoving for the best view, the villagers crowded round the back of the cart as Quentin hopped into it himself. He dragged the sack to the back edge of the cart so that the villagers could all see it. Looking directly at the Mayor, he opened the sack wide, and Scrote’s disguised head flopped out, eliciting gasps from those villagers who could actually see it.
Whispers of joy and amazement rippled through the crowd as they saw the closed eyes and green hue of Scrote’s skin. “Well, fuck me, he’s done it!” shouted Emmeline, to general approbation. Even the Mayor looked impressed as the villagers once again started to chant Cornelius’ name.
“And in case you fear I am fooling,” he said, “the witch is, most certainly, deceased.” He aimed a mighty kick at the sack, connecting squarely with the seat of Scrote’s trousers (which had been padded for exactly this occasion). Scrote, as instructed, did not move, and the crowd cheered again.
Quentin bowed once more. “I have slain your foe, and rid your village of a pestilent threat,” he said (an apt choice of word, given that those villagers closest to Scrote, in spite of their jubilance, had started to gag from the stench). He pulled up the sack to cover Scrote’s face again, realising that the less time the villagers had to properly look at the “corpse” the better, then held out his hand to the Mayor. “I believe my payment is due,” he said.
The Mayor’s face contorted into an expression that resembled a badly constipated puppy (no public servant likes giving away money), but he nodded and beckoned forward a man carrying a bag that made a tantalising clinking noise as it swung from his hand. Taking it, the Mayor opened it to show Quentin the contents, then made to pass it up to him.
“Springar thanks you for your service,” he said gruffly. Quentin smiled under the hood. Finally, a plan that had gone off without a hitch…
There was a sound like tearing paper, and a foul stench filled the air. The Mayor pulled the bag away sharply, just as Quentin’s fingertips brushed the rough hessian material. “What was that?” he asked, nose wrinkling and eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“What was what?” Quentin said quickly, though the fact that his eyes had started watering from the new smell made it clear to him that this bluff might not come off.
“That noise, and that appalling stench… It came from the sack, I’m sure of it!” the Mayor said.
“Come now,” said Quentin, beginning to panic. The crowd closest to the cart were beginning to wrinkle their noses as well, some starting to gag again, which, given that they’d acclimatized to the previous ripe odour, was saying something. A few of them, who had also heard Scrote’s unfortunately-timed bout of flatulence, were looking suspiciously at the goblin, their mood suddenly changing from the previous euphoria as they put two and two together (with the aid of their fingers in some cases). What was worse, Quentin’s acidic tears, flowing unbidden down his cheeks because of Scrote’s new emissions, were starting to eat away at his hood; as soon as the crowd saw that he was not some dark and mysterious warrior, but a baby-cheeked goblin, the game would most surely be up. “Come now, the witch is dead! You have my word!” he said, but the eyes of the crowd (at least, those not taking deep breaths due to sudden nausea) told him that this would not be enough.
“Not even a witch could make a smell like that,” the Mayor said. “And whatever is in the sack just let one off. We all heard it.” The villagers took a step forward, hands tightening around pitchforks.
“No, no,” said Quentin, backing away towards the front of the cart with his hands raised in a placatory manner in front of him. “That’s just… that’s just gas escaping from the corpse,” he said. “Perfectly natural phenomenon.” For a brief moment, Quentin thought he might have saved the day, as a couple of the villagers paused in their advance towards the cart; then Scrote, still inside the sack, started to cough and splutter as he choked on his own emissions. The Mayor smiled nastily up at Quentin.
“Nice try,” he said, then turned to the villagers. “Get him, lads!” he shouted.
And this may well have been the end of the story, if the bony horse yoked to the front of the cart had not finally got a whiff of the gas escaping from behind it. With a whinny of disgust, it bolted forward, throwing Quentin off his feet and tearing the cart from the grasp of the villagers as it shot off, attached to the accelerating horse. Quentin desperately tried to regain his footing and regain some kind of control as the maddened creature sped down the village street towards the gates; Quentin saw with horror that they had been closed, blocking their only exit. Scrote managed to extricate his bewigged head from the sack, coughing and gagging.
“You bast-“ shouted Quentin, then the air was smashed from his lungs as he was once again dumped hard onto the floor of the cart. The horse had veered violently aside as it approached the thick panels of the gate, slamming Quentin back down onto the nail-strewn wood; Scrote, most of his body still inside the sack, was thrown completely out of the cart and onto the hard cobbles of the street, where he lay still. The cart itself skidded on the stones, the rotten wood attaching it to the frantic horse finally giving way and freeing the creature from its traces. It galloped away as the cart, with Quentin still inside it, smashed into the gates and fell apart with a crunch of half-rotten wood.
The goblin groggily moved aside a piece of timber and struggled to his feet in time to see the mob of villagers bearing down on a still prone Scrote, who was lying about fifteen yards away. For some reason, despite it still being light, one or two of the villagers had found and lit torches to brandish; most of the others were, far more worryingly, carrying a variety of sharp pointed objects, with the Mayor seemingly especially proud of the large halberd he was clumsily waving in the air.
Quentin, still dazed, tried to concentrate enough to weight up his options, which did not look good. He knew he only had a few seconds before the villagers reached Scrote, not enough for him to get to his companion even if he were so inclined; the horse had vanished into the midst of the village, so there was no hope there; and even if Quentin managed to get the gate open, there was little chance of him managing to escape the pursuit of the angry villagers, especially in his current condition. His black hood slipped off his head as acidic tears flowed down his face. As the shouting mob bore down on Scrote, Quentin decided that little chance was better than the no chance he’d get if he stayed here, and turned to try and force open the gates…
Which flew open of their own accord, sending Quentin flying to the side to land against the wall of the nearest house. He lay there for a moment, then pushed himself up onto his elbows to see the mob of villagers stopping five yards away from Scrote, sudden terror etched onto their faces. The Mayor dropped his massive halberd next to the prone, sack-imprisoned goblin as the villagers, in one mass, turned and fled, wailing and screaming, back towards the village hall.
Trembling, Quentin turned his head to the now wide-open gates, knowing that what he saw there had been terrifying enough to scare several dozen angry villagers on the verge of satiating their bloodlust into fleeing like mice from a hungry cat. He whimpered as he realised what he had done.
The figure that stood there was a witch, grey-haired, with a long warty nose, pale green skin and red eyes. She looked a bit like Scrote, in the same way that Anne Widdecombe looks a bit like Scarlett Johansson; if you squinted, you could see that they shared some characteristics, but it was hard to look past the tell-tale differences. Whilst his grey wig had drooped down his forehead like damp seaweed, hers moved with a life of its own, each strand waving eerily around her head; whilst his dyed skin had been a dull and lifeless green, hers was acidic, vibrant, and glowed with an inner light; and whilst his warts had been large and hairy, her warts had started their own families and were fighting turf wars with spots, styes and what looked like rare mushrooms for control of what little was left of her face. And Quentin realised that the Mayor had been wrong when he commented on Scrote’s smell; whilst he smelled of month-old compost, dung and cabbages, she smelt like someone had just dug up a half-rotted corpse and poured tabasco sauce on it.
The witch took a step into the village, her black dress billowing around her, though there was no discernible wind. She raised a hand, and from her palm roared a ball of lightning that smashed into the house opposite Quentin, blowing the door and surrounding wall apart with a tremendous explosion. A pig trotted out, dazed, and collapsed onto the street with a disgruntled squeal. Then the witch spotted Scrote, still lying unconscious in the middle of the street, his green head and grey wig protruding from the sack. Quentin, unnoticed, struggled to his feet as the witch unleashed an unearthly screech, and remembered what the fat hobbit had said not two days previously in the tavern: “There’s a witch terrorisin’ that village, they say, and she don’ like people musclin’ in on ‘er act.” With a jolt, Quentin realised that was exactly what Scrote had been doing, and he cursed his companion’s recklessness; it seemed that he was about to pay for it with his life. The witch raised her other hand, a grimace on her ugly face. A purple fireball, spitting and crackling in the cold air, appeared balanced on her fingertips; with a savage overarm gesture, she sent it flying towards Scrote, who, unconscious, could do nothing about the spell that was about to end his life.