When Armand rescued Lucky the duck it was at a late hour on a late summer afternoon. He was returning from the forest and had his long handled axe over his right shoulder and a bundle of wood tucked under his muscular left arm, mostly thin branches. Armand was not the sharpest tool in the box by any means but he did have enough sense to get in logs early for the winter. However, he had run a bit low on kindling.
He was about half a mile from the village and the evening sun was shining through the trees creating dappled shadows on the track before him. Waddling down the centre of the path was a large white duck. She quacked loudly and repeatedly, as if in protest about something or other.
Armand loved duck eggs and had always wanted a duck of his own but had never gotten round to acquiring one. This applied to so much in his life. He had not acquired a wife or children yet either, or a new barn to store grain. Many said he had not yet acquired any sense and probably never would. He ambled gently through life, taking whatever came his way gratefully. His work as a woodcutter and general labourer provided the basic necessities and he lacked the desire to get more. Men with ambition – such as Barney the Farmer – regarded him as odd but liked him nonetheless.
Here was a duck for the taking, a gift from the gods. Armand raised his eyes to heaven and nodded a brief thanks to whatever deities might live there then moved swiftly toward the bird.
Something caught his eye in the forest to his left.
A fox! It, too, stalked the quacking duck and was a few yards nearer the target. Eyes focused on the white feathered prey it had not noticed its fellow hunter.
Armand let the bundle of sticks slide silently to the ground and hefted the long axe in both hands. The fox darted forward. Armand swung back. The forest echoed to a triumphant ‘Ha!’ from the man and a loud quack from the duck (quacks do echo). The fox was silent, its head having been neatly severed by one clean blow.
Moving swiftly and with unusual dexterity, for he was somewhat big and clumsy, Armand dropped the axe and scooped up the duck. At first it protested as he snuggled it comfortably under his arm, wriggling energetically to break free. It cocked its head on one side, as ducks will to look up, and stared at Armand with one eye as if giving him a measuring look. Perhaps because his grip was unbreakable it ceased struggling.
‘Sensible duck,’ said Armand who, like many solitary men, was in the habit of talking to himself. ‘You’re lucky I came along.‘ He laughed. ‘I’ll call you Lucky. You’ll be safe with me.’ With that, he upended the duck briefly to check its sex. It was a female. Satisfied, he hunkered down and picked up the axe. Then he walked back to the bundle of sticks and managed to get them under his left arm while holding the axe in his left hand. Lucky the duck was under his right arm.
Smiling at his good fortune he sauntered on down the path. The way home took him through most of the village and past the tavern. There were a few folk about. Most just looked at the duck and smiled for it was still quacking loudly every now and then. Erik the wizard was wandering through the main square dressed in his long white robe and muttering into his long white beard as usual. Armand was careful to give him a wide berth. He remembered well the story of Daffyd.
Daffyd was the adopted son of Barney the Farmer. His parents had died of the flu when he was only seven years old and Barney, a friend of theirs, had taken the lad into his home. He had blended into the family well, becoming very good friends with Barney’s son Stephen, who was about the same age. Usually he worked in the stables and he had achieved some renown locally for his gentle way with horses, at least until the incident. Now he was famous for his encounter the previous year with Erik.
Erik was not evil or malicious but he was dangerous. He had a habit of transforming people who annoyed him into frogs. In youth, it was said, he had served at the court of the king himself, far to the east, and been one of the most powerful men in the land. In old age he had returned home to the quiet western village of his parents and become somewhat eccentric, stalking about the countryside talking to himself. It was generally believed that his head was so filled with arcane lore, mysticism and profound philosophical puzzles that he could barely focus on the mundane things of life. He was frequently seen in ill matched clothes, or wearing a summer cloak in winter or even walking about with no boots on. It didn’t seem to bother him.
His power was undiminished, however, and could be unleashed in an instant if he was disturbed. Villagers still recalled with awe the day that Daffyd, pushed in oafish play by his friend Stephen, had stumbled into the wizard in the village square. Unprepared for the impact, Erik had been knocked to the ground. Before anyone could react he had raised one arm and spoken Words of Power. There was a flash of light that had blinded all present for a few seconds. When they could see again Daffyd was gone and in his place was a small green frog. The wizard harrumphed petulantly and went on his way without a backward glance.
Happily (for Daffyd) his friend Stephen had the presence of mind to scoop him up and put him into a glass jar, generously supplied by Sonya at the inn. A few days later, trembling with fear, Stephen had approached Erik and begged him to change the frog back into Daffyd.
‘Eh? What?’ The wizard had stared at him and frowned.
Stephen explained what had happened.
Erik raised his bushy white eye brows in surprise. ‘Really? Did I? The fool must have startled me.’ He looked accusingly at the frog in the jar then shrugged. ‘Well, no harm done. Release the fellow and I’ll change him back.’
Seconds later the deed was done. Daffyd seemed to have a more croaky voice for a while but was otherwise in good health.
Safely clear of Erik, Armand noticed that Sonya, the serving girl at the tavern, sat outside it taking the air. She waved at him to come across. He went, for she was one of the few in the village who did not treat him with thinly disguised contempt.
‘What you got there, Strong Right Arm?’ That was her nickname for him. ‘Strong right arm and feeble mind’ some others muttered when she said it, but not too loudly. Easy going though he was, Armand would not be openly insulted in public.
He grinned at Sonya. ‘This is Lucky, a duck I caught.’
She leaned forward and studied it. Her pretty face was marred by a long scar running down one side which she combed her black curls to partly conceal. It had been inflicted by a particularly nasty customer who had taken umbrage at being asked to leave the tavern. She was unmarried.
She leaned back. ‘It’s a fine looking bird. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘Out on the forest track. I saved her from a fox.’
‘Odd to see a big white duck like that out there alone. She looks like a domesticated breed.’ Sonya shrugged. ‘Oh well, let’s hope it’s a female and you get some eggs. Or do you plan to put it in the pot?’
Lucky quacked loudly, as if she understood the remark.
Armand smiled. ‘I want eggs. Better get her home now. She’s no featherweight.’ He chuckled at his own joke.
So did Sonya, punching him in the shoulder lightly. ‘No featherweight, indeed. You’ve got wits about you, Strong Right Arm, no matter what they say. Now off with you. I’ve work to do.’ She turned and walked into the tavern.
As she disappeared in the gloom Armand sighed. It had occasionally occurred to him that Sonya might make a pleasing mate for a fellow but he considered her, like most of the good things in life, out of his reach. He was pleased that she was his friend though. With that thought he set off on his way home again.
His dog, molly, was waiting at the gate to greet him and barked with excitement when she saw the duck. Molly was a medium size black dog of excitable temperament and prone to chase things but she had been raised alongside his few chickens and so ignored them. Armand presumed she would behave similarly with the duck but was prepared to scold her if she attacked it.
He entered his small domain and closed the gate behind him. Armand lived in a tiny one-room stone cottage with a fireplace and an efficient chimney. He had about an acre of land on which he kept the aforementioned hens, two of them. They supplied enough eggs for his daily needs and a small vegetable garden provided supplementary diet items. For meat he hunted in the forest and for grain and other items he bartered his services as a woodcutter, reaper, thatcher and anything else he could do.
He set down his axe and sticks. Still holding the duck he cautioned molly. ‘Down, girl. This is a new friend for you, not to be chased.’
He set Lucky down on the ground. Molly sat up and the two creatures, an arms length apart, stared at each other for a few seconds, like boxers sizing up an opponent.
Suddenly the duck squawked and charged forwards, wings frantically flapping.
Molly yelped and ran, fleeing around the garden in a large circle until she was at the back of the house. Armand roared with laughter until his eyes were wet with tears.
‘Not much chance of you hurting that duck, Molly.’
Still chuckling he scooped up the bird and carried it over to the small wooden shed in which he kept his chickens. Opening the door he dropped her inside.
‘You can get out in the run tomorrow, Lucky, but stay here overnight or the fox will get you. He’s braver than molly.’ As the sun was now setting the chickens were already inside, roosting atop a wooden bar fitted for that purpose. The duck stared at Armand but made no noise.
He shut the door on his fowl and wondered what to do next. Sometimes of an evening he popped around to his old Uncle Jon’s house for a chat and a glass of beer. Sometimes he went to the tavern. Tonight, however, he was tired. He had some stew left from the previous day so he lit a fire in the hearth and boiled it up. It tasted better, as stew often does next day. Satisfied, replete, he retired to the straw mat in the corner of the room and went to bed, molly curled up contentedly against his back.
A few days passed. Armand lived his life as usual, working here and there for nearby farmers and staying quietly at home in the evenings. Each morning he collected the chicken eggs and each morning he sighed at the lack of produce from the noisy duck. Lucky had not settled in at all and continued to peck viciously at the other birds, or as viciously as a duck can with its blunt beak. Armand knew that it was the right season for a duck to be laying. The days were still quite long and the nights were short. He had checked her again, with much squawking protest, and she was definitely a female. Yet there were still no eggs.
One morning Armand was awoken by someone tapping at the door, or rather, woken fully for he was in that pleasant state between alertness and sleep.
‘Hold on!’ he shouted. Quickly pulling on his breeches and tunic he opened the door and saw Sonya.
‘Yes?’ He grinned.
A loud quacking was coming from the poultry shed. Sonya looked tired but managed a faint smile. ‘Care to join a search party, Armand?’
He scratched his head. ‘Who’s missing?’
‘A shrew,’ she replied. ‘Missing but not missed. Still, we have a duty, I suppose.’
‘A shrew?’ Armand looked blank for a second then smiled. ‘Ah, Prunella!’
Sonya nodded. ‘Prunella. Her brother popped round to see her this morning and she’s nowhere to be found. Last time anyone saw her – or heard her…’
‘You can always hear her.’
‘Indeed. Last time was about a week ago. So everyone’s checking around in case she’s had an accident. She may have fallen in a ditch or something.’
‘Any new frogs in the village?’ he asked.
‘Frogs?’ She looked puzzled for a second. ‘Oh! You’re thinking of Erik the Wizard. No. I don’t think he goes around her area but you never know.’
‘We’ll try very hard to find her,’ said Armand. He was already pulling his boots on.
‘We’ll try,’ said Sonya.
‘She’s not your friend.’
The tavern girl led the way to his gate. ‘She’s not anybody’s friend but after she called me a cheap harlot in front of everyone – no – she’s not my friend.’
‘She’s an attractive woman,’ said Armand.
‘Not as pretty as you.’
Sonya looked suddenly bitter. ‘Not as scarred as me.’
He shut up, not knowing what to say.
She broke the uncomfortable silence a minute later. ‘Bruno and his clan are searching the northern meadows. Others are checking the swamps to the west, though there’s no reason she would have gone out that way. We’re going to check the river to the south, and the river banks, obviously.’
They walked rapidly south west through a grassy field in which several cattle grazed contentedly. The sun was just over the treetops to the east and began to warm their backs.
‘Busy night at the tavern?’ asked Armand.
‘Not really. Just the usual old men.’
They were both scanning the ground nearby, looking for any sign of a human being.
‘How’s your new duck?’ she said.
Armand laughed. ‘Noisy and aggressive. She attacked Molly when they were introduced. I’m hoping she’ll lay some eggs.’
‘Females usually do,’ she said quietly. ‘Some even hatch.’
Armand was not sure of Sonya’s exact age but knew she was approaching thirty. From the chatter of older men he knew that this was a time when women who had not yet had children started to feel the urge most strongly. He thought of saying ‘You would make a good mother’ but did not. Sonya had no mate and such a remark would be like rubbing salt in a wound, if her feelings were as he suspected. Instead he said, ‘No sign of the shrew.’
They had arrived at the river. The clear water drifted gently northwest, into the village.
Sonya sighed. ‘We’ll walk along the banks back into the village. You can have a drop of ale and go on home. We’ve done our bit.’
Armand returned home around mid morning. The first thing he did was release the poultry into their run then collected the eggs. There were two chicken eggs but none from the duck, who was quacking loudly as usual and occasionally pecking at any chicken that dared to cross her path. Armand was disappointed at the lack of duck eggs again.
He hoisted his axe on his shoulder and walked east towards Barney’s farm, where he was working that day. Barney had an old ash tree he wanted reduced to logs and there was also some hay to be cut, for which Barney would provide the scythe. He was one of the wealthier villagers with about twenty dairy cows and a good sized herd of beef cattle, all carefully branded with his logo lest they should fall into other hands.
Molly trotted at Armand’s heels all the way to the job. When he arrived Barney was waiting by the stable. Inside two of his sons – he had five – were tending hot coals in an iron bowl and making ready a branding iron. Three calves were tethered nearby, little suspecting their impending pain.
‘You’re a bit late’, the farmer said testily. He stood with his big fists on his hips looking impatient. He was in his early thirties, about the same age as Armand, but the lines on his face and a greying beard made him look older. Armand explained about the search parties for Prunella.
Barney sputtered a dismissive noise. ‘A half hearted attempt, I expect. No one really wants to find her.’ He turned and called into the barn. ‘Daffyd!’
Armand was winded from running and lay on his back gasping for breath. Erik rose indignantly to his feet. Brushing the dust from his robes he glared angrily at the felled woodcutter.
‘You brigand! How dare you assault me in broad daylight?’ He failed to notice Barney rushing across the field and calling vainly for his attention. ‘I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget!’
He cast his right arm forward as if throwing a stone and spoke Words of Power. There was a flash of light and where Armand had formerly sprawled sat a small green frog.
It croaked in protest.
Barney arrived on the scene, panting for breath. ‘Erik…stop…don’t.’
The old man peered at him. ‘Barney?’
Regaining his composure and his breath the farmer managed an explanation of Armand’s tackle.
Erik looked down the road and saw a faint cloud of dust still lingering in the air above it as testament to the steed’s panicked passage.
‘A bolted horse, you say?’
‘My bolted horse’, said Barney, looking cross. ‘I left him in the care of my sons and I’ll give them what for when I go home.’ (When he did, Barney would hear a tale of boyish tussles and an accident with a branding iron but that was for later.) ‘The point is, Armand saved your life. There was no time to warn you so he did the only thing he could.’
Frog Armand croaked again as if approving Barney’s words.
‘Well, I’ll change him back’, said Erik.
He flicked a gesture at the frog and with another flash of light Armand was restored.
He was trembling slightly and glared at the wizard. ‘You should be a bit more careful, old man, and stop turning everyone into frogs!’
Barney stepped quickly between them. ‘You should be a bit careful, my friend.’
Armand stared at him for a few seconds then nodded. In a confrontation between woodcutter and wizard there could be only one winner. He took a deep breath. Molly had been hiding near the hedge, terrified of Erik and now she cowered against her masters legs.
Erik said: ‘I believe I am indebted to you, young man, and I like to pay my debts. Is there anything I can do for you.’
Barney stepped back in surprise, his eyes wide. When he spoke he could hardly keep the envy from his voice.
‘Here’s an opportunity, lad. Think of Erik’s power. He can give you anything you want!’ As an ambitious fortune seeker Barney could think of many things he wanted: a new barn for hay; a couple more stallions; a fine great bull to improve his herds.
Armand could think of only one thing. ‘I’ve got a duck that’s not laying eggs’, he said. ‘Can you fix that?’
Barney stared at him in disbelief. ‘A duck that lays eggs!’ He blinked and stared again. ‘Is that the extent of your ambition?’
Armand shrugged. ‘I like duck eggs.’
‘Is it a female duck?’ demanded Erik. ‘Even I can’t make a drake lay eggs.’
‘Yes, she’s female.’
The wizard nodded. ‘Alright, I’ll come around tomorrow morning and fix her.’ He peered at his savior. ‘Who are you?’
‘Armand the woodcutter, sir. I live in that little cottage just south west of the village, near the pond.’
Erik nodded again. ‘Nice little place. I’ll see you there in the morning.’ Then he went on his way up the track and was soon lost again to the world about him.
‘So, granted any wish, you asked for a duck that lays eggs’, said Sonya. She was sat on a bench in the woodcutter’s garden sipping on a small cup of ale.
Armand shrugged, looking abashed and mildly annoyed. Farmer Barney had spent most of the previous afternoon berating him for wasting a golden opportunity and now the tavern serving girl was doing the same. She had come round about mid-morning to update him on the latest gossip in the village, as she sometimes did. He had told her about the previous day’s events and was now regretting it.
‘The duck was the main thing on my mind.’
‘Have you no imagination? Why didn’t you ask for a fine house, a magnificent horse, a bag of gold? Even…even a cask of ale that never runs dry?’
He grinned. ‘That would be good.’
Sonya let out a long sigh. ‘Aye, it would.’ She looked at him fondly and smiled. ‘Well, the gods gave you the gift of contentment, Armand, and I suppose that’s enough. Where is the mighty wizard?’
‘He didn’t say…Oh! He’s just coming.’ Armand pointed to the path approaching his home. The white robed sorcerer had come up it and now stood with one hand on the gate looking puzzled. Armand rushed forward to open it for him.
‘Welcome, Erik. Welcome.’ He bowed nervously while Sonya stayed a few paces behind. Like most folk she was wary of the tetchy, powerful magician.
He looked at Armand and frowned. ‘What did I come here for?’
The woodcutter made another half bow. ‘I saved you from that runaway horse yesterday, sir, and you promised to make my duck lay eggs.’
‘I did?’ The wizard’s eyeballs moved up and to the left, as if the answer to his question might be found in that particular quarter of blue sky. ‘I suppose I did, yes. So where is the duck?’
‘This way.’ Armand hurried towards the poultry run. Sonya skipped a few steps to catch him up and Erik trailed quite a way behind.
She hissed at her friend. ‘He’d forgotten. You could have changed your wish to something better.’
‘Eh? Yes. Oh well, no matter.’ He hurried on. Lucky was out in the run with the hens. She pecked at one that dared to come near her and quacked loudly when she saw people approaching. Armand picked up a cane he kept nearby, opened the door of the run and shooed her out with it. Lucky looked at Sonya and quacked aggressively.
‘This is the duck,’ said Armand, pointing her out to the approaching guest. ‘All I want is for her to lay eggs.’
The wizard stopped in his tracks. The duck stopped quacking and they stared at each other. Then Erik laughed.
He flung his arm out and uttered another spell. There was a flash of light and when all present had stopped blinking, Lucky was gone.
Where the duck had been stood a woman. She was tall and well built with a mass of flaming red curls atop a long, oval face that would have been comely but for the sour expression it wore.
‘Prunella!’ said Sonya.
‘Prunella!’ said Armand.
‘Prunella,’ said Erik. Then he clicked his fingers and smiled. ‘I remember now. I was in the east woods a few days ago and she was following me, quacking away about something or other and being annoying. So I changed her to quack for real. I had forgotten all about it!’ He chuckled and clapped Armand on the shoulder. ‘Glad you reminded me, lad.’
Armand stared at the woman. ‘I thought you only turned people into frogs.’
Erik shrugged. ‘Ducks, frogs, rats. It’s all the same basic stuff.’ With that he turned and walked slowly towards the gate.
‘But…what about my…favour.’ Armand’s voice trailed off hopelessly.
Sonya patted him on the shoulder.
Prunella had remained silent but now recovered her voice. ‘You!’ she shouted, pointing at Armand. ‘You kidnapped me! You kept me in a shed with hens!’
‘You were a duck,’ said Armand reasonably.
‘You brute! I’ll have the sheriff on you for ill treating a decent woman that way. I am greatly respected in the village and…’
Erik looked back and shouted: ‘If you keep quacking I’ll make you a duck forever.’
Sonya said, ‘Go home, Prunella.’
The scold looked at the wizards back and ran off in the other direction. For a few moments there was silence in the quiet cottage garden.
Armand said: ‘Fancy another glass of ale?’
Sonya hooked her arm in his. ‘Yes, but down at the tavern, not here. Come on! The whole village will want to hear about this.’
And shortly thereafter, the whole village did.
Eamonn Murphy lives near Bristol, England and has spent the last 55 years growing up, reading Marvel comics and Golden Age SF, doing lots of menial jobs, drinking too much and generally wasting his time. Finally mature-ish, he has settled with a nice lady in the countryside and works for an animal feed company. He has been a reviewer for sfcrowsnest for several years and has published a few fantasy and science-fiction stories, most recently in Perihelion SF magazine.