“Build-A-Knight” by Tony Southcotte

Build A Knight

The toys stood at the base of the crib and kneeled. Above them a newborn baby slept.

The room was illuminated by a few small night lights bathing everything in a green hue. Standing taller than the other plushies, the bear was the first to rise. Her faux chainmail suit glinted brightly as she spoke. “My friends, we’ve been blessed by our lord and lady with a new charge. It is our task to provide as much joy as possible to this little girl.”

The other plushies stood, little plastic cars spun their tires, and still others flashed their lights in agreement. A newcomer, perhaps the puffiest sheep ever created, sounded its approval with a long baa.

“I thought for sure we were heading to the yard sale,” said a plush penguin. “It’s like a stay of execution. Now the little one needs to get old enough to actually care about anything other than boobs. Although I’d be focused on the same if she were my mom.”

A pink monkey toy swung down from the dresser and smacked the penguin, knocking him over. “You’re always so inappropriate. Don’t give this girl such a dirty mouth.”

The penguin just laughed, trying to roll over and stand. His proportions weren’t quite like a real penguin, and the task was harder than it looked.

“That’s enough. This is a night to celebrate,” the bear said. “But very quietly.”

And so the toys did. They rode each other’s backs. They danced around the room. They chatted and spoke hopeful words. As the night wore on, they chose to rest, returning to their places in little display hammocks, toy boxes, and on top of dressers. As the menagerie settled, the bear sat with the penguin, looking down into the crib.

“Is it just me or do all babies look like old men?” the penguin asked. “I mean, look at those eyebrows. Those wrinkles. I didn’t even think humans could be that pink.”

The bear turned and stared. Her singular eye bore into the penguin. Her face bore the scars of dogs and a full term with a child. Patches of fur were matted down, but the armor still shown bright despite it all.

“She’s the very portrait of perfection. How dare you insult our lady?”

“How dare you speak like some sort of peon? Last I checked your tag still read Build-A-Bear. Relax, tin teddy, I’m just makin’ an observation.”

The bear shrugged and looked above them, turning her head at the decoration on the ceiling. It hung from 10 different eye hooks, and must have been over 12 feet long. The giant red Chinese-style dragon wound itself in turns. Fishing string held it up, making it fly despite not having wings.

“Do you suppose it is one of us?” the bear asked.

“Not a clue. That new sheep said it twitched last night but no one else saw it. She might have been looking for attention or trying to break the ice. Sheep will believe anything.”

“It just makes me nervous. It might be cloth on the outside but its all wire on the inside. I’m not sure what my sword could do to it.” The bear grabbed the hilt of her plastic blade. She had worn it sharper with some discarded sand paper, but not enough to bring human attention to it.

“Pretty bold assumption to think its evil,” the penguin said.

“I’m a knight. What am I supposed to think?”

Toward the door they heard a scratching, followed by sharp and angry mews. A black paw clawed at the underside of the door.

“Speaking of evil. He can’t be happy they moved his litter box. I hate that stupid cat,” the penguin said.

“I’d send him to permanent exile right outside of that window if I could,” the bear said, touching the spot where her eye used to be.

“Do you think 5 stories would be enough to do the job?”

“Verily,” the bear said.

—–

The baby wailed and the lady of the house came in. Her hair was stuck upward in strange angles. A hint of dawn peaked through the window. She sat down in the white rocking chair and fed the baby.

The cat’s green eyes looked at the scene before him with contempt. It was his chair. It was his room. It was his place. Now he was stuck in the laundry room. It was barely a closet and he was shoved in a corner. It was like the last time a new baby was here. He mewed and the woman didn’t respond. He rubbed against her leg and she absently brushed his back with her toes before putting her foot down.

The cat rubbed its face on her leg and then he jumped into her lap. She shoved him to the ground.

The cat let out a hiss and swatted at her leg. The claws bit into her flesh. She kicked again, hitting harder this time. “Screw off Jalo!” she shouted, and the baby started crying again.

Jalo jumped onto the dresser. His tail flapped, thumping hard against the wood.

It wasn’t fair. Once he was the only baby in their life. He was the only one who got attention. Then the first one came along. He took all of his master’s time. The little boy still tormented him. He picked him up all wrong. He messed with his cat food. This little larval brat would only make it worse. Something had to be done.

When the baby was done nursing the woman rocked her back to sleep, placed her in the crib, then returned to bed.

Jalo jumped from the dresser and into the crib. He looked at the little girl in front of him. Neglect fed his rage. This putrid little whelp stole his family from him.

There was a soft thud behind the cat. “I know that look, feline. Another step forward and I’ll be forced to go eye for an eye.”

The cat turned to see the bear, sword drawn, shield at the ready, her feet were staggered, her shoulders low.

Jalo stepped forward with claws twitching in and out. The thin razors picked at the sheet. The hackles on his neck stood up. His muscles tightened.

“I seek no quarrel with you Jalo, this home belongs to us all. But I swear to you on all the hearts sewn into me, I will be sure to test every one of your nine lives if you touch the child.”

A low rumble emitted from the cat’s throat and reverbed out his chest. “We’ve done this dance before, Bear. How did my stomach look? I’ve coughed up meaner hairballs than you.”

The toys watched in silence.

The cat crouched, gripping the sheets with its mouth open and leapt at the bear with a mewling growl. The bear thrust the sword forward and upward, driving it into the cat’s open mouth. It stuck deep into the gums. The cat tried to close its mouth but only managed to split his tongue down the middle.

In a panic, Jalo scrambled from the crib, sword still in mouth. The Bear followed, climbing up the crib. She jumped from the crossbar. With the plastic shield in both hands she crowned the cat with all of her falling force. The cat howled and darted away with an awkward drunken run. It slammed into the door, jarred the blade loose, and darted into the living room.

From the master bedroom, the toys heard obscenities being uttered. The bear sprinted for the bloodied blade and sheathed it right as the man walked in. As soon as his gaze fell upon him, the paralysis overtook her and she fell limp, looking out of place only by the cat’s mischief.

The man grabbed the bear and put her back on the dresser. He appraised the room through sleepy eyes looking for more disarray, then decided he was too tired to care about the stupid cat.

As he was about to leave, the toys could hear from down the hall as the woman reminded him to close the door so the cat wouldn’t wake the baby.

The door clicked shut as he left.

The toys animated and stared at the bear. She unsheathed her sword and inspected the blood speckled blade.

Whispers of elation came from the toys and stuffed animals. The bear took a baby wipe from the box on the dresser, and wiped the blade clean. The penguin waddled up behind her. “Dude! That was awesome!” he said and the animals agreed.

The bear nodded. “It was a lucky strike. My defense is better than it once was, but Jalókötturinn isn’t finished here. I’m going to need all of your help to see this through.”

Above them, the dragon shuddered, its eyes flashed green, and then it fell into silence.

—–

The apartment bustled with morning activity. Eggs were fried, a young boy of 7 complained about how boring his teacher was, and the parents tried to get dressed despite the oppressing fatigue that comes with a newborn. The dog, oblivious to all except the smell of breakfast, wagged his tail into everything and begged politely for scraps.

The cat sat on his bed in the laundry room and stared down the hall at the family. He couldn’t help but lick his chops over and over. His tongue was now serpentine, split perfectly down the middle. The top of his mouth ached. The plastic sword shouldn’t have been able to hurt him.

When the baby started crying again, his hatred seethed. He stomped around his bed, pulling up fluff and huffed to himself. He was an exile in his own home and there simply wasn’t any room for him anymore. They’d let the dog get the run of the house. The baby would get his room. The baby would get their love. The other kid would poke and prod and bother him, and if he retaliated he would be hit with that damned spray bottle again.

He was growling and didn’t notice.

The man came up to his bed. “Aww, such a touch guy,” he said, smooshing his hand over Jalo’s face. The cat hissed and swatted and scratched, but the man persisted, picking him up and obscenely cuddling him, emasculating him. Jalo squirmed free and swiped at his face before running under the couch.

Jalo knew that this wasn’t his family anymore. This wasn’t his home. It was the little pink one’s fault. He would snuff the life from her. Feel her last breath get lost in the fur of his coat, bear be damned.

On the floor across the kitchen, the dog played with a rawhide bone, tearing it to pieces slowly.

—–

Several weeks passed and the cat embraced the neglect. He wandered from dark place to dark place as his humans went about their lives. It had been a week since they scooped his litter box. He had become an afterthought, and that was his advantage.

The man had returned to work, and the house became quieter. For the first time in two weeks the woman left, baby in tow. The house was his.

Bruno the lab was sitting in his pen, jealous of the fact that the cat could roam free and he couldn’t. The bars of his cage were gnawed on, remnants of a puppy chewing habit that he never quite grew out of. His confines became an everyday rule after an incident with a swallowed sock that cost a pretty penny to remove.

The cat fiddled with the simple latch on the cage. Bruno perked up. His tail wagged and his big brown eyes pleaded with the cat. When the second latch was open, the dog barreled through the door and ran around the living room, immediately laying on every forbidden piece of furniture.

Jalo crept down the hallway, listening to the toys excited bustle from behind the door. He nudged the door open.

All conversation stopped and the toys turned to look at the cat.

The bear drew her sword and started toward the cat. Some of the harder toys followed her lead. In the living room, the dog tromped around making a racket.

“Oh don’t be so dramatic, Knight of the Hamper. I’ve come to make a truce.”

The bear didn’t stop. She knew better than to let the cat get the jump on her. “What are your terms?”

“Terms? You’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones. Lower your sword or I’ll take it from you.”

“Like the other night? The only way you could take this from me is with it stuck deep in you.”

“Suit yourself,” the cat said, leaping across the room and scraping the bear across the face. The bear cried out and dropped the visor to her helmet. The cat ran from the room. The bear followed.

The cat was already down the hall, its speed unmatched by anything in the house. He ran and swiped at the dog to get his attention and ran back toward the bear. Bruno followed. Jalo leapt over the bear. The dog followed and, for the briefest moment, he looked confused by the walking bear. His confusion gave way to compulsion, and he charged.

The bear turned to the open door and she pointed her sword at them. “SHUT THE DOOR!” she shouted.

Bruno snatched the knight up by the chest. Toys gasped in horror as their hero was swept away with such ease. A blur of fur and slobber was there, and then gone.

The penguin screamed out, and tried to waddle to the door. The chimp and several other toys grabbed him. “You can’t help her now! It’s suicide!” the pink ape cried.

Down the hall, they heard the screeching roar of the bear and the psychopathic cackle of a cat in ecstasy. The pink ape slid the door shut.

The dog passed the door again, and they heard the bear scream, “Save her!”

—–

Jalo let the dog thrash the bear, chew on her, pull at the cotton insides and lick. Every time the bear tried to reason with the dog, it would thrash again, spreading more fur. An ear was swallowed whole; a leg lay across the room. On the floor lay several red hearts that had been sewn into the bear when she was made.

Seeing her own heart on the floor, the bear remembered.

—–

The boy was three. Just a towheaded little man who liked trucks and stories of knights like King Arthur. She was just an unstuffed shell, waiting to see what she would become. Would she be a firefighter? A princess? She didn’t know until the moment he ran to his mommy with the knight outfit, red cross on the tabard, the faux chainmail, the sword and the shield.

She was scared. Life was simple in the store. She never worried and she saw so many kids. When he grabbed her, incredible fear ran through every stitch and hair.

The man began to fill her limbs with cotton and she felt full, and the fear became less. Each puff filled out her cushy body. The uncertainty fell as she grew full. Then the man handed a little stuffed heart to each of the family members.

He winked at the boy and said, “A brave lady knight needs a lot of love, a lot of courage. I don’t normally let people do this, but all of you will give her a heart and make her extra strong and courageous.” The man had them kiss the hearts, and then they placed them inside.

All worries fell into adoration. All fear gave into love. She was placed in her knight outfit and knew that her job was to protect the boy and all that he loved.

—–

The bear fought. With weak slices, she tried to hit the dog’s snout, but it was no use.

Knowing the time was near, Jalo knocked a bag of dog treats off of the counter and watched as the moronic mutt gave up on its toy and went for the dry treats.

The bear lay face down, trying to pull herself back to the nursery. Jalo grabbed her by the neck and carried her to his bed. Through a gaping wound in her chest, the cat drove a paw deep, finding the heart, and tore it out. The bear trembled and shook then lay still.

With his work done, Jalo lay over the fallen bear and slept.

—–

The toys behind the door shuddered at the screams of their brave bear and felt a sinking despair as the screams started to fade. They crowded against the wood, trying to listen, but other than the animals, they heard not a peep. Wrenching sobs fell from the mouths of plastic and soft toys alike.

Above them, the dragon writhed against his ties.

The penguin’s head drooped as he put a flipper up to the door. “Wha… what do we do now?” he said.

“Save the girl,” a voice said, quiet, almost buried.

“How do we do that?” the penguin asked. “That monster wants her dead. That stupid cat…”

“Jalo is not the only monster in this house.” With a cough, the voice grew louder and more resounding. “SAVE THE GIRL. KILL JALO.”

All eyes turned upward, watching the 12 foot dragon writhe and buck against the strings. It moved in waves, like a rope shaken quickly. The motion ran from head to tail.

Several toys gasped. Some hid.

The penguin waddled forward. “Oh, so you’re the silent type until it’s convenient. Tell me, if you are so big and bad, why didn’t you help her?”

“The cat’s vile nature woke me from my slumber. In its heart resides only frost. There is need for retribution. For blood.” The dragon shook harder, snapping its head against the fishing string. “Set me free!”

“Hold your scales lizard breath,” the penguin said. “We let you out now and that dog will tear you to shreds. We have to come up with a plan.

The dragon turned his emerald eyes on the stuffed penguin. “You are brave for a flightless puffball. Tell us, oh wise one. What is your plan?”

The penguin took a deep breath and told them all what had to be done.

—–

When the masters of the house returned they found cotton spread all over the floor. Great bouts of shouting were yelled at the dog, who had long forgotten his transgressions. The mother found the bear, body torn in half. She collected the pieces and took them to the nursery and put them on the nightstand next to the other stuffed animals.

The young boy came in and held the bear as he had for so many nights. In the cat’s bed he had noticed one of the hearts that used to be inside her. He placed it with the Bear’s torn body, and asked his mom if they could put her back together.

“Maybe.” She sighed, patted the bear on the head, and went back to cleaning up the mess.

—–

When the bear awoke, she saw her friends gathered around her. Her hand immediately went to the penguin and pulled him close; nuzzling him with the strength she could muster. The other paw felt absently at the torn body, which was split in half. Her armor was wrecked, the sword semi-chewed and covered in slobber. The plastic shield was still intact.

She felt the heart inside her again, and felt its warmth. She could not feel her legs, but she felt the boy’s love and it swelled within her.

“I think I saw heaven,” the bear said. “It had a lot more teeth than I expected.”

The penguin cried in short shudders. He whispered his love for the bear as the other toys sat and watched.

Above them, the dragon stretched and swayed. “Welcome back to this realm, knight.”

The bear was startled.

“You aren’t going to like this,” said the penguin.

—–

The baby slept deeply, swaddled in pink blankets, and the bear wondered if this would all be in vain. They were risking the baby’s life, but the cat had to go. There could be no other way. She might end up in a trash bag tomorrow, but there was still time for one heroic deed.

The bear sat at the base of the ramp, propped up like a seesaw. Above her the dragon breathed heavy, smooth waves coursing through its body as it waited.

The bear signaled to the others, and they opened the door just a crack.

Jalo heard the noise and immediately began to stalk his way through the house. Could they really be so stupid? Exploring so soon? When he reached the door, he pawed it open and walked into the nursery. The window was open, moonlight trailing in. All was in its place except for the bear on the seesaw.

Tenuous steps brought the cat closer. “What foolishness is this? Are you really up for a rubber-match, Bear?”

The bear broke her stillness and raised her sword. Jalo charged with a wild snarl.

The other toys came to life. On the dresser above, they pushed a heavy lamp off of the edge. It crashed into the high part of the seesaw, sending the bear flying. She snagged the head of the dragon, which cackled under her grip. “Loose me from these blasted confines, Bear! Set me free!”

The cat came to a halt and turned its head.

The door clicked behind Jalo as pink ape shut it.

The cat turned to run out, but there were too many toys in the way. Jalo clawed and snapped and pulled them, but they just kept wedging themselves between the door and the cat.

One line snapped, and the dragon drifted closer to the floor, its mouth wide, teeth bared. Another rope snapped as the bear climbed, trailing bits of cotton with each string.

The cat mewled and cried. “Let me out, vermin. I’ll tear you limb from limb!”

“Not tonight, Jalókötturinn. Yule cat or not, your hide is mine,” the dragon bellowed. Its full length was unfurled and it dragged down to the floor, pinned only by the last string. Its claws met the ground and it reached for Jalo.

The cat turned from the blockade of toys and saw the dragon’s eyes sparking in the moonlight. Its long whiskers flapped as it snapped and reached out. Jalo saw that the only way out was through. He lunged for the dragon, digging his claws into the mesh fabric of its body. The dragon snapped back, coiling around the cat and pulling it from the floor.

The violent jostling caused the bear to lose her grip and she started to fall. The last string held taught against the ceiling.

She stabbed her sword out, into the dragon, which screeched but didn’t break its mortal combat with the cat. She pulled the sword out of the beast’s side and continued back toward the last mount.

She sawed the last bit of string and felt the world go weightless.

The three slammed to the ground and the dragon wound itself tighter around the cat, The sound finally woke the baby, who belted out scared cries.

The speed of the dragon horrified the bear. It took the cat, knotted in its hide and bones, and darted for the window and ripped through the screen. The body uncoiled and Jalo was hurled into the night. The dragon followed with it.

The cat snarled all the way down before hitting the concrete five stories below with a terrible thud. The dragon spread its body and limbs wide, landing, and darted down the street and disappeared into the night.

—–

When the woman came into the room she was too groggy to notice anything out of place. She would feed the baby and come back before seeing the shreds of fabric and the broken screen.

On the dresser sat the half-a-bear and the penguin, paw in flipper, absolutely still.

 

 


 

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Tony Southcotte hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.

photo credit: Day 40 – CY365 – A Little Heart via photopin (license)

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8 Comments

  1. Well done, Sir Tony, now I’m the one who’s intimidated.

  2. There are bound to be obvious comparisons to Toy Story, but honestly..doesn’t that movie series just make obvious what we all thought our toys got up to when we weren’t looking?

    For something that looks ostensibly child friendly, Tony really takes this to some dark places, leavening them with a light touch and some nice humour. Best of all, I was eager to find out how the toys were going to deal with the cat and the pace of the story kept me engaged until the very satisfying ending.

    I was also pleased that I could sympathise with the villain and the bear, so this was a well chosen pairing of protagonist and antagonist who were well realised.

    The only problem with this story is that I now have to chose between this and Lu Whitley’s tale. And I’m not sure how I’m going to do that.

  3. I have one very serious complaint about this story. My complaint is that it ends. Just a whole lotta wow, otherwise.

  4. I loved this story. There is so much about this story that I love it’s hard to sort it out and write this comment.

    Tony’s eye for detail continues to make for good reading. I could see the paper dragon above the crib, and the bear in her armor, and the idiot dog and the pissed off cat. It all worked as a fairy tale story setting as well as an apartment drama. Plus, I don’t know if I have some repressed childhood moment about this matter, but I could freaking feel how sharp that plastic sword was (especially on my tongue? No idea why that rang so many bells).

    I’m a sucker for a hard fought win, and this story delivered that beautifully. The final line gave me the chills and the back and forth between the various plans and attacks and subterfuge and all for the protection of a baby? Yes please. Sign me up.

    I also liked how the dragon was not the centerpiece of the story, and yet became a major factor. He was used enough so he didn’t feel tacked on. I never thought, “Well okay there’s a dragon in the story, sure, but that could have been a bird or a mobile of monkeys and this would have played out the same.” An excellent response to the prompt.

    There were a few nits to pick, naturally. That’s what we do here. I would say that the penguin felt a bit stilted at first. It definitely felt like one of those characters that isn’t understood by the author until the end of the story, so another pass through to polish him up would have been appreciated. Likewise, as the editor…well there was some editing to do here *ahem*. Also I didn’t like the forced notion that the cat somehow woke up the dragon with his dark heart. We have stuffed penguins that are alive from the get-go, and we have all the characters not being too too surprised that the dragon is still asleep. I just figured it took awhile for the various things to come to life once they got placed into the room, I didn’t need the extraneous explanation.

    But, overall, just a great story. Easily one of my favorite so far in the arena…and that is not something I can say lightly.

  5. Great story Tony! I have to agree with Joseph, this is definitely one of my all-time favorite Arena stories. You took a theme like “Here there be Dragons” in which I would pretty much expect a medieval fantasy, but you took the theme and made a story I never would have expected.

    The “living toy” predates Toy Story by quite a bit (Pinocchio and an old Twilight Zone episode come to mind), but rarely is the toy an actual important factor in the “real world”. Mostly they have their own problems, and the stories revolve around that. Even in Toy Story this is the case. But you went ahead and made it more of a covert war that has high stakes in the real world. That was very well done.

    The characters were also great. The Bear and the Cat were particularly excellent, but the supporting cast really made the story great. I have to disagree with Joseph about the penguin. It’s hard to develop support characters in such a short time, and I thought the Penguin and the Dog were done very well.

    I also particularly liked the flashback scene. I think it added a lot of depth to the Bear and the story in general. My only critique would be the same as one of Joseph’s, that the dragon waking up explanation could have been worked better or left out entirely.

    Well done!

  6. There’s a lot I could probably say about this story, but the one thing I found most interesting was the clash of cultures at work here. You have a knight (a western “Christian” warrior) teaming up with a Chinese dragon, to defeat a cat named after a mythological Norse monster. That mythological mash-up elevated the story from one I enjoyed to one I found myself thinking about days after I’d read it.

  7. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    Bravo. An unexpected romp through a fantasy land of animated plush animals, seamlessly navigating between territories of both dark, bloody savagery and tender, heartfelt enchantment.

    Nicely done, Tony.

    I loved this.

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