Dedicated to Russell Mickler, the forger of fantasy and fancy, whose tales of the intrepid and virtuous halflings and their neighboring realms deserve so much more than a Tolkien glance.
Russley planted his broad quarterling rump in his beloved Lazyboar recliner, caressing the bristly but somehow supple upholstery he himself had crafted after battling the great beast Porkham to reclaim the Dark Swamp of Treyf from the armoured, terraforming Fieldsmiths.
Russley’s fine leather Croqs, cobbled by the Croq Monsieur who lived in the Sandalwood Forest, still bore the organic stench of the Fieldsmiths’ scheme to turn the Dark Swamp into a realm of warthogs and javelinas and peccaries and hampshires and other hooved creatures of the shadows.
Their plot had been as apocalyptic as it had been insidious: By wooing the quarterlings into consuming the enchantingly delicious but ka’lestral-bewitched suet and sinews of the dark beasts, the Fieldsmiths hoped to clog the thin blood and corrupt the hearts of the simple, peaceful, health-conscious folk of the Shrop Shire. Rome wasn’t built in a day, the evil megademons had reasoned. Rome was roughly the same as the Rome of the parallel realm — a place for weary quarterlings to tour the ravages of past battles, purchase expensive rainments, and feast on food that might not taste as decadent as that served in the quarterlings’ Garden of Olives but had the allure of “authenticity.”
For after all, the quarterlings contended, the swamp swine’s flesh was almost vampirically free of the rich scarlet blood that according to the village wizard Addkins possessed the ka’lestral humours. In moderation or atop a melange of greens, the red flesh of the Bouvines engendered feelings of comfort and a way of masquerading the weedy meagerness of the greens. By extension, the trim and totes cut Addkins suggested, the relatively bloodless flesh of the Porcines should provide a more wholesome, fulsome feeling of vitality and satisfaction.
The outlying Veagans, who had protested the slaughter of the Bouvines and in fact maintained the crops of the fields and glens, properly prepared, were virtually indistinguishable from meat, were holdouts. But the Lochtuveagans of the serpent-haunted lake — who had determined the milk of the Bouvine and the eggs of the dwarf orc to be free of the Life Force and thus “OK” — were willing to “just see what all the hoopla’s about.” These swamp monsters were soulless creatures without the expressive brown eyes of the Bouvines, and so, they argued, how could one “murder” them? And, aware of the unseemly victory rituals of the ancient Roman warriors, this seemed to be a relative win-win.
Russley was a Mc’ler — one who rendered the farmer’s bounty, the hunter’s treasures, the fisherfolks’ catch into portable, ready-to-consume meals for the battle-worn returning warrior, harried quarterling mother, resigned bachelor, or Accounter buried in government tribute documentation.
He derived great pleasure and honor from converting the dimwitted and flatulent Bouvine into a juicy hand-held comestible, from slicing and frying the tuber roots that served to honor the b’ger, the spirit of the sacrificed Bouvine. He tucked each token of past icons and warriors into it’s Child’s Basket of Happiness with pride and reverence.
“I am loving this,” Russley once proclaimed to his better fourth, the titian-haired Windee.
Fellow Mc’ler Davyd, perhaps the most famous “casual dining” Mc’ler, embraced the swamp swine enthusiastically, exorcising them with sacred spices and a touch of brown sugar and a half-day of sacrificial smoking. The key was disassembling the creature, rubbing magic spices into its thick hide, chanting “Oh, yeah, oh, yeeeeah” to the deities, and slowly roasting the evil out of the thorax, the mighty shoulder, the rump. There was one simple rule: To anoint the swine meat with mustard was forbidden - a reminder of the ruthless Carolineans, who’d worshipped odd flags and enjoyed the string-plucking cacophony of the Hill Wraiths.
With more than at least a thousand Bouvine patties sold, Russley questioned the wisdom or even the safety of straying from tradition. However, if the move from oral storytelling to the Kind’l had taught the quarterling anything, it was that change could be good. He warily began to grind the swine flesh and inculcate it with sacred seasonings as a morning offering on a wheatleberry muffin with a fried orc egg. He rendered the belly of the abominable beast into strips, reciting the ancient incantation “Ba d’a ba d’a d’a” and curing the meat before serving it with a thick patty of sanctified Bouvine. The applewood-blessed belly-and-cheese Quarterling Pounder proved an immense success, especially after the Fieldsmiths dispatched their slaveling Hor’mals into the village to promote the benefits of swine.
And then, it started. Mikel the Dodge, the rotund and lovably fumbling village detective, collapsed in the Square during the Market of Rummaging after downing four bratworks produced from the finest but most obstreperous sucklings. The Assistant Necrometrician ruled the death the result of eating non-adulterated swine flesh with, in a few local readers opinions, a bit too much mead. The widow S’rah ranted to anyone who would listen that she had admonished the dead quarterling that swine once a week or so was fine, as long as the suet was trimmed first, but that at least twice a week, the flesh of the orc or grilled not battered sea-chicken should be served or maybe a nice house salad with not too much ranch.
More quarterlings became sluggish and complained of chest palpitations and fell over dead cutting their turf or shoveling the snow from their hovel pavement. At last, it was decreed, the Day of Battle arrived. The challenge was daunting, as the sound of a demon swine dying horribly at the point of an alderbyrch spear was nearly identical to that of one rhapsodizing over a trough of macerated grain or fornicating with zestful brio.
After months of battle, quarterlings bloodied by rutting and tusk-goring, and dozens of victory BBQs and consolation pork roasts, the Swamp Swine were banished to the far reaches where their bacchanalian squeals could not be heard, where the young quarterlings inhabiting the developments multiplying around the “natural riparian beauty” of the Swamp couldn’t smell porcine poop and drive out the grain harvesters on principle, too.
The final conquest of the satanic swine was celebrated with a contest of champions, rubbing, marinating, and grilling their vanquished foes and awarding hand-forged trophies to the winners. After a collateral skirmish between the Dryrubbers and Saucers, the celebration was declared an annual event, with admission, sides sold on wagon tailgates, and Hillfolk troubadours performing on the hour.
Peace had once again descended upon the Shire. “We deserve a break today,” Russley the Mc’ler solemnly told the villagers after prevailing in the burnt ends bracket.
It was a mere whisper, but Russley bolted upright in his boar chair, reaching instinctively for the dagger next to his pouch of chipped corn snacks. He froze as the spectral entity loomed before him.
It was the size of six quarterlings, of three halflings, a couple heads taller than the “humans” of which legend told. It’s translucent hide was coated in muck and swine leavings, and it’s obscene snout was dripping a thick ectoplasmic puddle on Russley’s deeply piled thistleblossom rug.
“Mc’ler,” the apparition repeated, with a slight snort at the end. “You have defeated our masters, rendered them like shortening. But because we lack the limpid eyes or dimwittedly endearing countenance of the Bouvine or the pure and fluffy aspect of the Lamb or the favorable LDL of the fowle, are we still not deserving of existence, of regard, of favor.”
Russley trembled as the Hell Hawg’s curlicue tail twitched in, what, wrath, sadness, grief? “What would you ask of me, Swine?”
“Respect. Consideration. Your enmity was with the Fieldsmiths, who merely employed our high fat content to subjugate the quarterling peoples. At least then, our sacrifice was for the adoration and satisfaction of your tribe. Now, you will worship again at the toothsome hooves of the fatted Bouvine, and we will be forgotten, a footnote in your history.”
The ghostly barnyard scent filled Russley’s nostrils, along with a faint essence of gravy. Russley regretted both failing to hang a ritual bouquet garni from the rafters and skipping lunch to craft new dipping sauces. Finally, he steeled himself.
“You were indeed worthy adversaries,” the quarterling murmured humbly. “And your flesh is sublime, particularly when paired with rosemary or Sweet Babette Ray’s special basting elixir. How might I pay you and your tribe a proper tribute?”
“It wouldn’t have to be much,” the Spirit Pig suggested. “if but once in the rotation of the sun around this sphere, or mayhaps twice, you could commemorate the time when the quarterlings wallowed in the pleasures of our flesh.”
Skipping over the obvious euphemisms as the quarterling is wont to do, Russley the Mc’ler struck a deal that eve with his noble, savory former enemy.
“And here is your sandwich,” Russley beamed as he handed the oilcloth parcel up to Squire Omnus Vore. “You were fortunate — it is the last one available until the autumn equinox.”
The portly Omnus paused under the gilded archway that had replaced the Mc’ler’s former oaken doorbeams. “You have prospered in your act of mercy and grace. And I have to say, I have been craving one of these for many fortnights, for reasons I cannot explain.” He ripped the oilcloth from his slab of swinelike meat, and soon, his delicate quarterling fingers were dripping with tomatoey, molassesy sauce.
“Yeah, I know,” Russley admitted. “With the decimation of the Swamp Swine, harvesting enough meat to supply the entire shire has tested me. I have stretched my stock with every bit of gristle, offal, and forest filler I can muster. However, through whatever mystical forces the Spirit Pigs marshall, I have a line for the Mc’Rib that extends from the alchemist’s apothecary to the outlet market on the edge of the village. It is perhaps what I call reverse sorcery — the mind seeks that which is absent, which is withheld, even if it tastes somewhat like the sole of one’s Croq.”
Omnus sucked a bit of cartilage from a molar. “Of course, in moderation.”
Russley nodded sagely. “Well, shit, yeah. Moderation.”