Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, a hero, the Chosen One, was born… and so begins every fairy tale ever told.
This is not that fairy tale.
There is a Chosen One, but he is unlike any One who has ever been Chosened. And there is a faraway kingdom, but you have never been to a magical world quite like the land of Pell.
There, a plucky farm boy will find more than he’s bargained for on his quest to awaken the sleeping princess in her cursed tower. First there’s the Dark Lord, who wishes for the boy’s untimely death… and also very fine cheese. Then there’s a bard without a song in her heart but with a very adorable and fuzzy tail, an assassin who fears not the night but is terrified of chickens, and a mighty fighter more frightened of her sword than of her chain-mail bikini. This journey will lead to sinister umlauts, a trash-talking goat, the Dread Necromancer Steve, and a strange and wondrous journey to the most peculiar “happily ever after” that ever once-upon-a-timed.
In an irreverent new series in the tradition of Monty Python, authors Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne reinvent fantasy, fairy tales, and floridly written feast scenes with Kill the Farm Boy—available July 17th from Del Rey.
In the Tower of Toby, the Dark Lord,
He Who Dreams of Artisanal
The Dark Lord took a break from studying the esoteric movements of the magical spheres of portent and went to the cupboard for some crackers. Lo, he found none. And he was very angry.
“Dementria, where the gadzooks are the crackers?” he shouted into the night, and then wondered if he should have said “zounds” instead.
When no answer wafted his way, he glared at the hourglass, forgetting when last he’d turned it. It was probably past six, and his wizened servant had already departed for the night.
“The world is a terrible place,” Toby said to a hedgehog squatting sadly in a cage on the table. “What’s the point of being a potentially all-powerful wizard if you can’t even have cheese and crackers when you really, really deserve them?”
The hedgehog merely tightened into a bristly ball and said nothing, seeing as how Staph had not visited and bestowed the gift of speech upon it. Even if she had, the hedgehog mostly would’ve whimpered, having been the subject of Toby’s wizardly attentions all day. And then the hedgehog would’ve uncurled, poked a tiny finger in the wizard’s chest, and explained that hedgehogs and box turtles couldn’t mate, and even if they could, shoving them at one another and shouting at them for hours wasn’t exactly considered seductive. The turtle, for his part, was playing dead, and rather convincingly. The hedgehog liked the turtle better that way, but she still had a boyfriend back home in the garden and wasn’t interested.
“I AM THE ALL-POWERFUL DARK LORD, AND I WILL HAVE CRACKERS!” Toby shouted, green bolts of magic issuing from his fingertips and leaping to a nearby platter, where something almost exactly like crackers appeared in an artistic sort of arrangement. Unfortunately, one of the green bolts also hit the cage, and its energy traveled all along the metal and wound up shocking the nethers of its occupants. The hedgehog squeaked in anger. at was not the way to turn anyone on. The turtle, for his part, just crackled a bit. Turning away from his recalcitrant captives, Toby fetched a wheel of cheese from his magical cabinet and began paring o slivers to eat with his almost-crackers.
“If you two would just breed like reasonable creatures,” he said to the hedgehog, “I’d have the magical familiar I require to fully access my abilities, and then I could conjure real crackers. The kind with seeds placed on them by artisans. Or maybe the seeds were grown by artisans. Regardless, they’d be artisanal. Because I’d have an armored, spiny, talking turtlehog familiar, and my magic would be boundless, and I could lure the nest cheesemongers to my very door. No more ordering from catalogs!”
He took a bite of cheese and pseudo-cracker and munched thoughtfully, almost-crumbs peppering his almost-beard. He stroked it—what few pathetic hairs there were—and his spirits sank. If only he had a beard, he wouldn’t need the turtlehog. He would already have the magic he desired, and he’d be able to summon true crackers from the aether—and a lot more. Darkness! Storm clouds! Storks! But he had to admit, at his ripening age, that such a beard would never be his unless he managed to stumble across a particularly hirsute dwarf corpse while holding a very sharp knife in an area with little foot traffic.
There were many such ways to become a true wizard if one was born with the knack, but they all depended on something random, dangerous, or impossible. Among them: connect with a mystical animal that agreed to be your familiar; grow a stupendously long beard; find a crystal wand; be blessed by a pixie; fall into a vat of glowing green spiders; or climb a beanstalk and steal a golden goose. us far, Lord Toby had utterly failed to secure the means to really pump up his power and make his dreams come true. He’d never left this little corner of Pell, as he’d heard the ill-kept roads were chock-full of highwaymen and unsavory halflings. Even his decently fat purse wasn’t enough to secure a true crystal wand, and so he’d spent years trying to breed strange animals while hunting for beard oils and unguents to encourage follicle growth, but it was all for naught. His oily little goatee would barely look respectable on a billy goat. And he hated billy goats, except to eat.
It might be time, he thought, to gure out some other career. His father—the elder Toby, a true Dark Lord with a luxurious beard—had died in a freak pitchfork accident, cutting short a life of macabre magnificence, and Toby was now that same age and had accomplished not nearly half so much. All his life, Toby had longed to follow in his father’s dread footsteps, save for the last one on the pitchfork. But until his magical powers were secured, he couldn’t print DARK LORD on his stationery without summoning the wrath of the Council of Merlins. Privately calling himself the Dark Lord, however . . . well, that would be hard to give up. He might have to grow accustomed to being merely an Ominous Adept. And perhaps he needed a convertible carriage with a bespoke leather interior to distract him from this disappointment.
Just then, a sonorous bell rang, echoing around and up the jet-black stones of the Dark Lord’s tower. Toby perked up, straightening his robes and smoothing the crumbs from the embroidered stars on his velvet lapels.
“Ah,” he said, drawing himself up tall and looking very wise. “’Tis the mail.”
Ignoring the traumatized creatures in the cage, he clambered down the stairs of his tower, noting that towers were really a very stupid kind of building, as they required three times as many steps as anything else, and one day, if all went well, he would be a white-bearded wizard and fall down and down and around and break his back and die in a puddle of wizard blood. This time, at least, he made it down all six hundred thirteen steps to throw open the carved oaken doors to reveal neat rows of roses and hedges and a very angry male hedgehog and an Unwelcome mat.
“Who dares disturb the might—”
But the mail carrier was long gone, considering it had taken Toby nearly half an hour to navigate his own home. There on the step he found a packet of missives filled with dark tidings, including several bills and foul solicitations for charity. One letter stood out, and he slit the wax seal with a particularly creepy pinkie nail he’d grown out long for just such an occasion.
“Dear sir or madam,” it began. “Dost thou have the power to kill thine enemies? For I need just such a wizard.” Toby brightened considerably, pleased that word of his powers—or almost-powers—had spread. But when he read, “Payment shalle be in chickens,” he ripped the letter in half and set it on fire with a candle guttering in a sconce in his foyer. He hated chickens. The ones in his barnyard were exceptionally awful. They wouldn’t breed with hedgehogs, either. The only worse payment than chickens was exposure, and Toby didn’t like to talk about his seamy past in the Lordling of the Month calendars.
The last letter seemed rather promising, being heavy in the sort of way that indicated it might contain actual currency, but Toby quickly noted that it was addressed to someone else, a “Grinda the Goode Witche” who lived at Malefic Beach, whereas Toby lived at Malefic Reach; it was a simple enough mistake. Weighing the bundle in his hand, Toby stroked what little beard he had.
“The Dark Lord does what he will,” he finally said, and there was no one around to suggest that perhaps the Dark Lord shouldn’t open someone else’s mail.
Unfortunately, the letter’s weight wasn’t owing to a bundle of writs or deeds or the secret recipe for Glandalf’s Great Goatee Growing Grease. No, the envelope, in fact, held the most horrific thing the Dark Lord could imagine: a very detailed letter of woe. “My Dear Systere Grinda,” it began. “Woe unto Usse, for Worstley hath runneth offeth. He is our last remaining Sonne, and who shalle now Clean up the Dungg?”
Normally, Toby would’ve stopped reading immediately, but something caught his eye in the next sentence: “He hath told Usse he is the Chosen One and taken with him our Laste Foine Goat, which is truly an Evil Creature, as it hath begunneth Talking, and spraying mine floore with Panic Shite.”
Mesmerized, Toby read on, wincing at the horrible grammar and utter abuse of capital letters and extra Es. After several pages of ranting and bemoaning her many recipes for goat stew that would never be used and the loss of an important bottle of fish, he had learned one fact that now overshadowed even his need for crackers and a proper turtlehog empire: the boy, Worstley, had been designated the Chosen One. Toby was very familiar with Staph the pixie and her proclamations. It was she who had first suggested that he “go home to grow his beard and fiddle with his pillar,” which was obviously a reference to his future as a wizard living in a properly terrifying tower.
He had followed her suggestion immediately, and he still wasn’t done fiddling with his tower. He had many improvements to make, in fact, and assumed he’d be fiddling with his tower and grooming the shrubbery around it until he was a doddering old man and his tower was falling down.
Staph, for all her unpleasantness, was never wrong.
And that meant . . . there was a Chosen One.
And one of the many unusual ways to become a fully puissant wizard involved possessing the heart of a Chosen One.
It seemed like a ghastly way to breed magic, but Toby wasn’t complaining. After all, there were other benefits to killing a Chosen One, so he’d be doing a public service.
For one thing, Chosen Ones were very bad for business. One couldn’t have them mucking about, seeking their destinies and screwing up everything for the hardworking folk who didn’t think they were the center of the world. Whether or not they succeeded on their quests, Chosen Ones upset the status quo, and Toby the Dark Lord was rather happy with the status quo at the moment. Maybe not as related to crackers, hedgehogs, and turtles, but when it came to the current political climate, the common man was prospering. On one side of Toby’s tower, the king of Pell was a silly, unambitious man who paid more attention to liquor and horses than to his actual kingdom. And on the other side, the fatuous Earl of Borix was resting, as it were, under a sleeping spell. Lord Ergot of Bruding was mostly running things while the earl was napping, and Lord Ergot was quite easily bribed when one needed a wee favor, at least in regards to building codes and tower improvements.
Peace and quiet and magic. That was what a Dark Lord wanted. Or quiet and magic and a thriving market for crossbred animals. Get a bunch of Chosen Ones running about unchecked, and one of the lot was certain to start gunning for the Darkest Lord around, assuming he had all sorts of terrible plans to call forth demons from the underworld and steal princesses and . . . honestly, that was just a lot of work. Toby was quite content, and that meant he now had one goal: kill the farm boy.
For the general economy, of course. For the good of the people.
And if the Chosen One’s heart should disappear, most likely no one would notice.
They’d be too busy cheering to have the wicked little busybody safely out of the way.
“Poltro!” Toby shouted, stepping carefully over his unwelcome mat to glower in the direction of his barn.
Part of the Dark Lord’s contentment stemmed from a tidy insurance settlement (they paid double for pitchfork accidents) that had financed many improvements in his demesne, as well as a few servants bound to his land. Dementria went home at night to soak her bunions, but his own un-Chosen farm boy shared the hayloft with his sister, Poltro. The girl appeared now, cutting a charming figure as she leapt from the barn’s double doors. Her livery was all black, her sword and dagger hanging at her side as her cloak swept dramatically behind her. Her hair, dark as a raven’s wing, rippled back from an olive brow, her eyes as sharp as an eagle’s. Toby had paid handsomely to have her fostered to a huntsman named Cutter, and as he watched her approach, he felt that his money had been well spent.
Right up until she tripped over a chicken and fell on her face in the muck.
“Cor,” she muttered, sitting up on her knees to wipe chicken dung from her lips. “I bloody hate chickens. Stealthy things, they are.”
Toby’s fingers twitched, but he used his hard-won control to firm them up into a fist.
“Poltro, I’ve a job for you,” he said, sounding mysterious and magnanimous.
She stood, wobbling, and tried to wipe the various stains from her costume. “Hope it ain’t chickens,” she said. “Never trust ’em, what with their poky beaks. And their buttfruit. I tell you, sire, it’s unnatural, eggs is.” She cocked an eyebrow. “But if it’s eggs you want, I have a source.” Her eyes slid over to a chicken coop. “You didn’t hear it from me, but I find a bucket of eggs by the henhouse every morning. I do suspect foul play.”
Toby swallowed hard and counted to ten. Between her brother and Poltro, Poltro was still the better bet. And the job he had for her was a tricky, delicate thing. He beckoned her closer, and Poltro managed to make it across the yard without tripping on another chicken, although she did have quite a standoff with a sheep. Finally, she stood before him, cloak thrown back to undulate in the wind.
“What is your will, m’lord?” she asked. She meant to kneel in respect but misjudged the distance and ended up with her face just a little too close to Toby’s crotch.
He cleared his throat and backed away. “My huntsman, I command you to find the Chosen One, take his life, and bring me his still-beating heart,” he said, sounding just as grand as he imagined he would.
In the silence afterward, a few chickens clucked, and the one Poltro had fallen on sort of uttered to indicate it was trying.
“A fine errand for a Tuesday, m’lord! But, uh. Just so there’s no misunderstanding, do you mean, like, kill him, and then bring you his heart? Because I was fairly certain that when you killed someone, their heart stopped beating. Cutter led me to believe it was a sort of cause-and-effect thing and no way around it. So I feel like I could bring you his not-beating heart, or maybe I could like tie him up and bring him, and then kill him in front of you, and you’d know his heart was still beating right up until he died?”
Toby considered that and was frustrated by how much sense it made. When Poltro started talking sense, it usually meant one had drunk too much.
“Fair enough. I then command that you kill the Chosen One and bring me his heart. Not beating. But if it was, that would be okay, too.”
“But it won’t be,” she argued.
“Fine. Just . . . the heart.”
“Why his heart, my lord? Could a kidney work, or maybe a lymph node?”
Toby barely stopped himself from spluttering.“Because . . . well . . . I need to know he’s dead.”
“Oh, so my word isn’t good enough for you? I tell you someone’s dead, and you would doubt that? My lord, I find your lack of confidence very insulting.”
Toby’s fingers spasmed and his voice cracked, but he most certainly did not shoot green lightning at Poltro, because even if she was terribly clumsy and rather annoying, she was an excellent and effective tracker who would soon have this Chosen One in hand, as long as he wasn’t a chicken.
“A Chosen One,” he said slowly, “is a very tricky thing, my dear. I will need his heart for . . .” He almost said “personal reasons” but realized that sounded a bit creepy. “Magical reasons,” he finished, but afterward realized that sounded equally stupid.
“Magical reasons,” Poltro repeated. “Well, can’t argue with magic. What can you tell me of this Chosen One, my lord?”
Toby squinted at the sheaf of papers in his other hand, trying to remember the pertinent details drawn from the pages and pages of purple prose he’d read. “His name is Worstley. He smells of dung. He’s traveling with a black goat that may or may not talk. Worstley is eighteen, white as milk, and tall and strong with wavy blond hair and earnest blue eyes that sparkle with a call to greatness.” He paused to wrinkle his nose. “Gadzooks, who writes this trash? He was last seen in a jerkin and breeches the color of mud and smeared with barnyard waste, with a cloak to match, headed out with a jar of pickled herring to save the world while breaking his poor parents’ hearts. Honestly, he sounds terrible.”
“He sounds like every other lad about the countryside. Pickled herring is right popular for good reason. But the talking goat might give me an edge,” Poltro mused. “Where will I find him?”
“The return address suggests he lives somewhere to the west, so I suppose this tower he’s headed toward is the earl’s—the one all covered in thorns and whatnot. Only a Chosen One would be foolish enough to try to penetrate that wily thatch.”
Poltro rose to her feet and struck a proud pose, with one boot pointed. “Head toward the tower entangled in a wily thatch, find the Chosen One, and kill him. Got it.” She took a few stalwart steps, then turned back around. “What about the goat?”
Toby shook his head. “What about the goat?”
“Do you want its heart, too, and if so, can I eat the rest of it? And if so, will you be wanting some? I mean, how are we going to divide this guy’s goat friend? And how do you feel about curry?”
Rubbing the place where a headache was brewing, Toby said, “You may keep whatever parts of the goat you wish. I just want this farm boy’s heart.”
“So the rest of him is up for grabs?”
“The rest of the goat?”
“No, the rest of the . . . yeah, the goat. The goat. Good eating, goat.”
With that, she saluted him with the wrong hand and set off toward the west. Toby watched her go, feeling a lightness in his heart as the huntress hopped over the fence and landed on her face. As she stalked into the sunset, he called after her.
From far away, she turned, cape billowing in the early evening wind.
“Yes, Dark Lord?”
“Did you want to take your horse?”
She shouted a very rude word and jogged back toward the barn to saddle her coal-black steed. Toby waited, watching his chickens and sheep, all black as night, peck at the ground. When Poltro finally rode out of the barn, her stallion prancing, the Dark Lord walked up to her and held out a small bag he’d untied from his belt.
“What’s this, my lord? Provisions?”
“No, Poltro. You can take your own provisions from the larder in your quarters. These are a few potions to aid you on your journey. They are carefully labeled and sealed with wax. One is an invisibility potion that will hide you from any enemy. One is a sleeping potion; taken in its entirety, the victim will sleep for a year. And the third is a healing elixir that will heal any wound or sickness.”
He didn’t mention it, but he’d purchased them through a mail order potion purveyor and was too frightened to use them himself.
Poltro took the bag and peered inside as her horse snorted and danced. “How do they work?”
“Read the labels.”
“But do I drink them? Or do they go . . .” She made a poking motion with one finger. “Up the other way? Me mum used to give us one like that.”
“Read the labels. None of them are to be taken rectally.”
“Good,” she said, nodding and tying the bag onto her belt. “Anything else, my lord?”
“Just kill the farm boy, Poltro, and bring me his heart. When you return, you will be well rewarded. What will you claim as your bounty?”
Her chin raised as she looked off into the sunset, a fierce creature with eyes always on the horizon.
“A world without chickens,” she breathed.
“I could probably build you a lean-to in the south pasture,” he said. “But you’ll have to keep the chickens out yourself.”
“Such is my fate. Onward, Snowflake!”
Digging her heels into the black stallion’s ribs, she took off at a mad gallop before stopping short at the gate, dismounting, fumbling with the latch, opening the gate, remounting, riding through the gate, dismounting, closing the gate, catching her horse after he wandered off to crop grass, and remounting. With another ferocious war cry, she kicked the horse again and galloped off into the outer reaches of his estate, completely forgetting to take any provisions.
There were three more gates to navigate before the road, which required an obscene amount of mounting of both the re- and dis- varieties.
Toby gave up and began the long climb upstairs. For just a moment, he considered going after the Chosen One himself. But he’d never left his tower before, and the papers and best-selling books he ordered seemed to suggest that life happened on the other side of the doorstep and that said life generally involved a lot of getting robbed and killed. One of the lovely things about being the Dark Lord was that one could choose to stay at home, masterminding various dark deeds from the comfort of one’s own armchair. Even if one always felt a bit left out and couldn’t quite manage the right sort of crackers. Home had been good enough for his father, and home would be good enough for Toby.
The Chosen One was, for the moment, out of his hands.
But maybe the hedgehog could still be coaxed.
Excerpted from Kill the Farm Boy, copyright © 2018 by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne.