MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT the quaint and lumbering buopoths native to the Exilic Lands and other curious places – but to this day, little remains known (and less understood) about the shy beasts. Read on, o seeker after mythic mysteries, and much more shall be revealed about the origin of one particular buopoth…
* * *
With an angry grumble, Prosatio Silban cast a final spadeful of earth on the makeshift grave and sighed.
Be more respectful, he reproached himself. After all, this was what might be termed a close acquaintance. But — what will become of my galleywagon?
He was just outside the village of Shar, a pleasant enough hamlet on the western border of the Uulian Commonwell. It would have been far behind him by this time, were it not for the sudden death of his draft-ox leaving his galleywagon immobile in the middle of the seldom-traveled road.
The cook sighed again. I suppose it’s the village inn tonight, then somehow engage another dray-beast in the morning. He locked his galleywagon’s upper and lower half-doors, hunched his shoulders against the early evening chill, and began trudging east.
Twenty minutes later, Prosatio Silban was coming abreast of Shar’s outlying shacks when his gloomy meditations were cut short by the sound of an animal bellowing in fear.
After making his determined way through a few twilit backyards he came upon a small mob of shouting and laughing boys, eight to ten years old. They were throwing stones at something tied by one leg to the trunk of a tall gingko sapling; two of them held sharp-pointed sticks. The beefy cook couldn’t quite make out the object of their pitiless sport, but its cries told him all he needed to hear.
His first impression was that he had rescued an elephant, but that was on account of its massive girth.
“You there! Stop that!” he cried, leaping into the crowd’s midst and waving his arms. “How dare you so treat a fellow-creation of the Flickering Gods! What is wrong with you?”
The boys dropped their sticks and stones and ran for the center of the village, shouting for their parents. When they were gone, the cook turned his attention to their victim. To his relief, the beast was – miraculously and curiously – unhurt and woundless, but still clearly terrified.
His first impression was that he had rescued an elephant, but that was on account of its massive girth. As he watched, its outlines softened and flowed until it resembled a huge rhinoceros but with strangely chatoyant hide.
“Well, I’ll be dipped in hornet-honey!” he exclaimed. “You’re a buopoth, are you not?”
The buopoth extended what might have been a hoof. The cook solemnly gave it a gentle squeeze, prompting a soft growl of contentment.
“Let us see about this rope, shall we?” Prosatio Silban said. Taking from his shoulder-bag a small folding knife, he cut the thick jute bond tethering his new friend to the tree and rubbed what must have been an ankle. The growls increased in depth and pitch.
“Better? I don’t suppose I can’t stay here tonight after spoiling the local boys’ fun. You had better get out of sight.” So saying, he stood up and headed back along the road.
He hadn’t gone far when he heard solid footfalls behind him. Turning, he saw the buopoth’s enormous bulk outlined against the stars. It reached Prosatio Silban, sat down, and gazed at him with a soft expression in three of its large brown eyes.
“I presume that this is the part of our tale where you adopt me?” asked the cook with a grin. “As the saying goes: ‘If that’s what’s written, then that’s what’s written.’ Come along. I would enjoy your company.”
* * *
In most civilized parts of the Exilic Lands, and certainly in the Commonwell, the buopoth is only known from children’s fables and other fairy-stories. No one is certain how or why the great polymorphs came to be, but their legendary stomping-grounds lay in the vast Western Wides between the Commonwell and the Rimless Sea. They were intelligent, gentle almost to a fault, and reputed to draw a heavy burden for miles on just a fatberry-cake and a kind word.
They sported the sort of muscles one develops from hard work and frequent tavern-fighting.
The perfect prey for those horrible little monsters, Prosatio Silban reflected as he took stock of his galleywagon’s pantry and vainly plundered it for appropriate provender. He had no fatberry-cakes, and didn’t expect to find any; the ubiquitous fruit’s oil was a cheap and efficient stove- and lamp-fuel, and the spent berries were pressed into lavender-scented lumps suitable for torches and supplication-altars.
The cook sighed. I suppose it’ll have to make do with some kobi-nuts. I hope one sack is enough.
He hoisted a heavy burlap bag on one shoulder, made his way outside, and plopped the sack on the ground. “Here boy, or girl, or whatever you may be,” he said. “Enjoy these.”
The buopoth’s trunk sorted through the nuts with a curious munching sound. Suddenly, the beast pricked up one of its ears and pointed it eastward.
“What is it?” asked Prosatio Silban.
Then he heard it too. Angry voices. Heading his way.
The buopoth was suddenly nowhere to be seen. The cook scurried off the road, seeking shelter in a nearby thicket which offered good cover but a somewhat limited view of the road. I wish the galleywagon was less conspicuous, he thought. I suppose I’ll have to take a loss.
The angry voices became more distinct. “Where is he?” “Nobody insults our sons!” “We’ll stretch him by his boot-heels!”
As they drew nigh Prosatio Silban’s hiding place, the cook could just distinguish their forms in the rising moons-light: a half-dozen burly men, armed with torches and farm-tools. They sported the sort of muscles one develops from hard work and frequent tavern-fighting.
The men closed in on the cook’s vehicle. “This must be the stranger’s,” one said. “He doesn’t like rocks? Let’s give him some through his windows!” shouted another, to general and mean-spirited laughter. He picked up a good-sized stone and cast it at one of the galleywagon’s small lozenge-paned windows.
It bounced off into the dense underbrush.
“How did –?” he cried in consternation. He threw a second stone, with the same result. The men began to mutter to each other. One raised his voice to calm his fellows.
“We shall drag him out of there!” he said, climbing the three steps to the galleywagon’s double doors. He raised a small sledgehammer over his head, brought it down hard.
It too bounced off, with nary a scratch to mark the impact.
“What dark magik is this?” “Who is that traveler?” “Mayhap we should purge his carriage – with fire!”
Prosatio Silban dropped his head into his hands. The fatberry-oil will go up in an instant, he thought.
The largest of the group applied his torch to the base of the galleywagon for several loud heartbeats. But as with the rock and sledgehammer assaults, nothing continued to happen.
Hearing their bewildered shouts, the cook looked up. His sincere puzzlement was interrupted by a frightened shout from the would-be arsonist.
“I well know Sted’s hammer arm! And my own torch! This should not be!”
The others raised an alarmed chorus. “This is not of this world!” “May the Flickering Gods protect us!” “Forgive us, stranger! We meant no harm!” And with that, the men fled back toward Shar.
Prosatio Silban exited his thicket, and looked after their retreat. He shook his head.
The galleywagon’s outline began to soften at the edges and, as the cook watched, a great mass oozed off it onto the road and took on the form of an unspecific but large animal standing next to his undamaged vehicle. The buopoth gave forth a rattling hoot of triumph, then flowed into the empty ox-harness and looked back at him expectantly.
Prosatio Silban threw back his head and laughed. “A most excellent jape!” he said, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “A jape for the ages.” He stroked the creature’s flank and told it what a good buopoth it was. He thought for a moment.
“Your name is now ‘Onward,’” he said. “As a sturdy dray-beast with no defined shape, you are the perfect metaphor for what draws one through this life.”
So saying, the cook stepped up to the driver’s bench, sat down, and shook the reins. Onward bent to the task what could only have been its shoulders, and the galleywagon slowly rolled forward.
Prosatio Silban smiled. “Let us go anywhere but here,” he called as they picked up speed.