In the center of a forest of very tall, very gray trees lived an ogre with a skin of iron and mud. His palace was grayer than the trees and rose above them, a jagged stump among their gray needles and lifeless branches. He had once worried about the look of his palace. To make it more festive, he had grabbed some birds from the air and lizards from dark corners and leashed them to the sharp heights so that they would entertain him with their furtive and futile attempts to escape. When they died, he left them there, warnings to other birds and lizards to keep their distance, for the ogre was not to be mistaken for a friend.
The ogre’s scowl kept thunder clouds above his palace and an oily rain drizzling over all his lands. Tornados broke branches in the forest around him, and lightning pierced the air with dark bolts that sent long shadows scurrying through the forest.
The gargoyles who lived in the eaves and on the ramparts of his palace saw his scowl and knitted brow and thought he must be smiling. They were gargoyles, though, and all other creatures in the land knew his was the deepest frown they had ever seen.
The ogre became bored with his tall, gray palace and thought about what to do. He considered painting his face on all seven facets of its walls. He grabbed a branch from a tree, which then withered in shame for its part, and dipped it in a puddle of molten gold he kept in his treasury. With an impatient hand, he slashed at the walls of his palace, thinking how majestic he must look to all the creatures in his lands. As he walked around the ramparts, splashing gold from his tree branch brush, he made himself over seven times, each one different from the others. All his faces grimaced as the gold hardened into masques of despair, yet he saw them all as works of glory, works of perfection adorning his palace in the forest on his lands.
The ogre had lived in the palace his whole life through no fault of his own. His father, a frowning, fearful ogre in his own right, had built the palace by smashing the forest that once lived there and lashing the trees together with their own wilting roots and branches. His father had done all the work himself and the creatures in his lands had cowered to see the awfulness that had risen from what once had been green and living. So, the ogre’s son had grown up in the grayness and relished it as his own, a stark realm in which all color but gray and gold was banished beyond his sight.
Eventually, the ogre realized that the lizards and birds, the gargoyles and rats, the spiders and slugs who were his constant company among the gold chairs and tables within his shattered palace were not enough to keep him amused. He thought of a project to keep him busy as he plotted his next steps.
“I need a wide and deep moat to protect me in my palace from any enemies that may wish what I have earned!”
He spoke to the lizards and rats and birds and gargoyles and told them all he needed a grand moat and a broad drawbridge to keep them all safe, for it was in all their interests to be safe in the palace among his closest friends.
“I need this moat to be 20 fathoms deep and 100 yards wide. I need the fiercest fish in the seas to swim the moat and eat any swimmers who may try to pass. I need the edges planted with thistles so that any who try to enter the moat are cut by the leaves and stung by the sap. I need the drawbridge made of 20 fresh trees from beyond this sad forest that surrounds us and the 20 trees must be renewed every month so that the bridge is always young and supple when any visitor crosses it… with my permission, of course! Go make this so! You will be paid with coin of my realm beyond your deepest dreams.”
And the lizards and the rest of his crew set to work, night and day, making the moat 20 fathoms deep and 100 yards wide. As they felled the first lengths of fresh, green trees and filled the moat with water from the seas in which the fiercest fish would swim, the ogre came to them, one by one, and pushed them in, where they were gnashed by the sharp teeth and swallowed by the deep gullets of the fish they had placed there. The ogre scowled a long, satisfied scowl and went back over the drawbridge, pulling it up with golden chains he had fashioned from his stores of hidden gold.
He was safe now. His creatures, though, had been depleted as he pushed them all into the moat. He thought about this and knew what to do. He would marry a lion. He had never seen a lion but he had dreamt one in a dream and they were ferocious creatures that matched his own fearsomeness.
He sent his favorite gargoyle out beyond the gray forest to find him such a creature. The gargoyle, happy for the relief from his perching, searched for forty days and forty nights, then searched another forty days and nights just to make sure that the lion he had met on the first day was the most pleasing of all.
He brought the lion to the ogre and presented her. “This is a wondrous lion!” said the ogre, “but are you sure it is the most beautiful lion there is in all my lands?”
“Yes, your majesty” gargled the gargoyle in reply. “She is the most beautiful I have seen in all my travels, which took me through all your lands.”
“Very well then, I shall marry her” said the ogre. He did not ask but he married her all the same.
“You must learn to stand on your hind legs” said the ogre. The lion looked at him and snarled. He took this as ascent and leashed her front paws together, lifting them in the air towards the top walls of his palace. “Stay there until you learn” said the ogre. As she stood on her hind paws, roaring and weeping with the humiliation of this treatment, for she was a majesty in her own right, he sat in his gold chair with his hobbled feet up on a gold table and admired her underbelly, embellished as it was by eight teats ringed with golden hair. “You are a treat for my cruel eyes!” said the ogre as he continued to stare.
After a long while, although he lost track of the time as he lost interest in the lion, he unleashed her from the walls and let her stand on her own, which she did not. She fell to the ground on all fours and curled up in a ball. “Let me leave, hideous creature!” she howled in pain. “Why have you treated me so poorly, I, a majesty in my own realm and your superior in every way!” she roared.
“Ah now! That’s a problem” said the ogre as he flung her out the closest window into the moat.
The ogre wondered what to do next, for this first attempt at companionship had not gone as planned. Eventually, although it took some years, as the ogre was not as quick at thinking as he thought himself to be, he dreamt of another creature who might be his mate.
“Gargoyle,” for they were his most trustworthy assistants, “bring me a golden bear. Before you come back, make sure the bear walks on her hind legs. I don’t want to be disappointed again!” said the ogre. The gargoyle shuddered a little and loped off into the wilds for another long look around the vast lands beyond the gray forest. He found the perfect bear on the first day but spent a year looking everywhere just to make sure he had found the most beautiful bear of all.
“Bear, you must do as I ask and I will only ask once. You must walk on your hind legs when you are in the presence of the ogre. If you do not, this will all take a nasty turn which neither of us want to see.”
“I can do that, gargoyle, as I am a golden bear and my people have walked on our hind legs long before you loped along the ground.”
They returned to the palace. As the ogre saw them coming and saw that the bear walked on its hind legs, he lowered the drawbridge and let them in.
“Ah gargoyle! You have done well this time! You have found me a golden bear that walks on its hind legs. I shall marry her and she shall rule beneath me and raise young ogres to inherit my wealth!”
The ogre and the bear married and bore young. They were misshapen creatures with gray fur where golden fur might have been and knobby flesh where the ogre’s blood had its way but they were the spawn of this marriage and were raised so by the gargoyles in the palace. As they grew, they learned to speak as the gargoyles spoke and learned to lope as the gargoyles loped. When it came time for an audience with their father, the ogre was not pleased.
“Speak to me, young man!” commanded the ogre.
“I speak when the gargoyles ask” said his eldest son. The ogre threw his eldest out of the closest window and the fish below swallowed him in one bite.
“Gargoyle, I will give you a chance to correct this issue” said the ogre.
“We will do so” said the gargoyle, speaking for all of them at once.
The gargoyles returned to the nursery and spoke to the two young ladies and two young men who played there.
“You must speak to your father with reverence and love. Learn his language and his way of speaking and you will live to inherit his wealth and power” said the gargoyles, taking turns with the words as it would take too long for any one of them to say them all.
“We will do so” said the young ladies and men.
Soon, it was time for the ogre to see his spawn. He sent for them and spoke.
“Speak to me, young ladies!”
The young ladies spoke in their best ogre slur, complimenting their father on his wealth and power. The young men spoke as their sisters did, pronouncing their father the richest and wisest ogre in the world.
“Gargoyle, you have done well. You may take them all back to the nursery and continue your work. You have honored me with your tutelage!” said the ogre. They all returned to the nursery and continued to play and practice their ogre-tongue with care.
After a few years, he summoned his spawn and his spouse to the golden room with the golden furniture. It was time for them to go and tell the lands of his might and majesty.
“Young ladies, young men, dear spouse, and all my gargoyles! It is important that all creatures in my land understand my importance, my wisdom, my power, and my wealth. You must all go among them and inform them of these facts. When you have returned, we will feast on whatever we can pull from the air and whatever we can fish from the moat that surrounds us. Go! Return when all know what I have told you!”
The ladies, the men, the spouse, and the gargoyles all headed out of the palace and crossed the drawbridge. Before they crossed, as they always followed the ladies, the men, and the spouse in their travels, the gargoyles unlinked the golden chain from the drawbridge so that the bridge sat across the moat as a fallen tree sits across a stream. When they loped across behind the family, they lingered behind and, working together, one hundred gargoyles all at once, pulled the drawbridge from the palace. One end sunk into the waters of the moat. The fierce fish, thinking it was feeding time, set upon the trees, eating them from one end to the other until their bellies were full of splinters and bark and the drawbridge was no more.
With that, the ladies, the men, the spouse, and the gargoyles set off into the world to regale the creatures in the sky, on the land, that burrowed and swam and scuttled about, that the ogre was the wisest, most powerful, richest, and most important ogre in the world and that his palace was the most majestic in the land.
And if they wished to be as wise, powerful, rich, and important as the ogre, they would do well to keep their distance from that fetid, gray stump rising among the gray trees.