Archive for April, 2015

Storytime: Midnight, Midday.

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

The sky was boiling into purple from gold and the clouds were a deep red and even if the children were too young to think of it as anything more than pretty they weren’t about to be put to bed at now of all times, when there was still so much left of the day.
“I’m not tired,” said the oldest child.
“I’m not hungry,” said the middle child.
“And I’m not thirsty,” said the youngest child. “Why do we have to come indoors?”
And their mother, a long, tall woman, shook her head and sighed and coughed and shuffled them indoors to their last meal, and as she chided them and pushed them into position she saw that the grumbles weren’t going away.
“Well then,” she said, placing the dish in the center of their little circle, “I suppose it’s time enough to tell you now about the dark.”
This did not interest the children very much because all of them already knew that they were not permitted to go outdoors after dark. “You just told us that,” whined the oldest.
“Yes,” said their mother. “But I didn’t tell you why. So sit now and listen to me and eat, sit now. Tell me, do you know of your uncle?”
Three heads shook.
“Then I will tell you. He was my brother, and he was noisy and rowdy and happy and even longer and taller than I am. If you’re lucky I think you” – and you was the youngest child – “might match him someday. A good man, if a little lazy. But the girls liked him a lot.”
“He was handsome?” asked the oldest child.
“He told us that he could catch fish just by smiling at the river,” said their mother.
They giggled.
“Anyway. This was a while ago. Back when your grandfather was still alive, but getting on a bit. You know our goats? Those were his goats, back then. Not quite as many, of course, but oh he kept them well. Grandma used to say he was half-goat himself by his beard. He loved them almost as much as I do you. And you can imagine how much it hurt him then, when he woke up one morning and found himself one goat short.”
“Did he find it?” asked the oldest child.
Their mother shook her head. “No. He looked all day long and not a trace. It was as if it had dropped off the face of the world. So he came home sad, and he slept, and the next morning, what do you think he found?”
“A giant!” said the middle child.
“No,” said their mother.
“It’s never a giant,” the oldest child whispered. The middle child poked them.
“No,” said their mother, cleanly pushing her hand in the way of the vengeful fingers of the oldest child,” but another goat missing.”
“They were running away!” said the youngest child.
“Not from your grandfather,” said the mother. “No, for he loved them almost as much as I do you. And there was something there this time: he found tracks. Great, big-footed tracks. It was a lion.”
Now the children were all ears. “Did he catch it?” asked the middle child. “Did he kill it?” asked the oldest child. “How big was it?” asked the youngest child.
“Patience,” said their mother. “Now, your grandfather was not a young man anymore, and he was largely resigned to cursing his fate. But your uncle was a young man – a VERY young man in his heart – and he proposed to stay up for it. He took his own spear and grandfather’s knife for weapons and his favourite dog for an alarm and he put himself up by a thorny wall near the goat-pen, so he would be prepared. He ran himself to all exhaustion the night before (oh, and he came back to find your grandfather another goat short) then slept all day, and when the sun had fallen he woke himself and crept out to his place and waited. There was a very large moon and it was easy to see him even as he walked away from the house. Almost like lamplight, but pale.”
Here their mother stopped to have a mouthful and the children squirmed wilfully. Patience. Patience. Easy to say and so hard to do.
“Patience,” she reminded them. “And that next morning, we walked out the doors, and we found a dead dog. It had blood on its mouth, and a broken back. Next to it was my broth – your uncle’s spear. It had a clean tip, and a broken halt. And your grandfather’s knife and your uncle were not to be seen, then or ever.”
Another mouthful. And a few more as the silence stretched.
“Did you kill the lion?” asked the middle child.
Their mother shrugged. “Who can say? No one was going to sit outside and wait another night, not after that. We lost more goats, and one day we lost none. Would it have lasted longer without my brother’s watch at the night? Who knows. Would it have lasted shorter without my brother’s watch at the night? Who knows. It’s a big darkness out there, my children, and it belongs to things that will hunt us if they find us in it. It’s no place for us to put ourselves, however young and strong and beautiful we may be, however bright the moon shines, however strong our blades or loyal our dogs. Keep to indoors under the night, children, keep to indoors when it’s dark. And keep safe.”
And then it was time for bed. And because they were good children (if impatient) and they listened to their mother, they went without further protests.
Not one sound was made all night, though they waited long before sleep in the dark. It seemed thicker than was right.

Ruddy red gleaming pure white tore the edge of the sky to shreds, flaking away the dark into morning. It was a time for rest now, for full bellies to absorb their burdens.
This was something she was explaining to her three cubs, which were not inclined to listen. Little bodies with little bellies burned as fast as they ate, and the cubs were very little indeed. But venturesome, and quarrelsome, and forever yowling.
“Mother mother mother MOTHER!” shouted the largest into her ear. “Get up! Get up and go! Let’s go running! Let’s go prowling! Let’s find something and hunt it and eat it and do it again! Come on come on come on come ON!” The last comment was coupled with a furious assault on her tail-tip, which placidly whisked itself away from the pounce.
“Shush,” she murmured softly. “Shush. It’s the day now. It’s too warm to hunt. Too bright to hunt. We’d be seen and we’d catch nothing. And worse than nothing is failure. Shush and digest.”
“Bored,” whined the middle cub. “Bored bored bored bored BORED bounce on your side pounce on your ear GOT YOUR EAR hah got it.”
“Yes, yes,” she grunted, and aimlessly pawed the cub away – carefully. “You got it. But you hunt nothing more than ears for now. We must rest.”
“Why must we rest, mother?” complained the largest cub. “Why? We’ve got room. We’ve got room for food. We’ve got room for the fight. Let’s go and get something.”
“Well then,” she said, stretching herself out on her side until her stomach seemed to last for miles, “I suppose it’s time enough to tell you now about the weight. Pay me some attention.”
So they did, and although they were now too big to really nurse they pawed and kneaded and jumped on her belly for old times’ sake as she spoke.
“Before your father, there was another,” she told them. “And he was bigger than your father, and he was tougher than your father, and he was bolder than your father. Handsomer too. And his teeth!”
“So where is he?” asked the largest cub. “Why isn’t he here then?”
“Because one day he grew bored and hungry and out of temper. We’d made no kill that night and he was angry. Fit to roar down the sky. So he went out prowling by himself and he came back full and happy. ‘What did you find?’ I asked him. It was very strange you know, for him to hunt without us. Stranger still to come back with anything. It’s hard to hide with all that mane.”
“’I found a herd of tasty little horned things in a village,’ he told me happily. ‘Goats. All bunched up with nowhere to run. Hairy, but tasty.’”
“That sounds good,” said the middle cub. “Let’s go get some let’s get some of those now I don’t mind hair look see I can bite your hair just fine mwike diff.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” she said sedately. “But no. We will not. And I will explain why. You see, it came to pass that we were slow in killing the next night as well. And though we all had some to eat – and he most of all – he was annoyed with it, and he went and fetched himself another goat. And the next night. And then the very next night he came back near-dawn, and quite vexed.”
“’What is wrong?’ I asked him. I could see that he walked slowly, and his temper was sour.”
“’A man was waiting,’ he said shortly. ‘A man with a stick and a dog and a knife. I broke the stick and I broke the dog and I got that man – ah, so poor next to a goat, hairless but scrawny! – but I think he may have poked my paw.’ And of course I rubbed faces with him and consoled him and so did we all, but he didn’t go out again. I think it hurt his pride. But of course it had hurt more than his pride, for here we all knew – and he wouldn’t admit it, but he most dearly of all – that the weight had set in.”
The cubs yowled confusion and sought battle with her nose. She nudged them into submission.
“What’s weight,” yelled the largest cub ineffectually, swatting at her whiskers. “Why should any of you care about weight? It sounds lousy.”
“The weight,” she said, “lay inside him. In that paw. Such a little cut from such a little tooth, little things, but it dragged at him, and the more he pretended it was not there the greater it grew. By three days in he limped, by a week he hopped, by two he crept, and by three he no longer moved much at all save to haul himself to food. And by four your father came upon us, and came upon him, and when your father took us all away he was hard put to do more than mumble at him. If you look over there at that hill, you can see the trees where we left him.”
The cubs looked. They were short, but they made up for it by hopping.
“I see it! I see it!” said the middle cub. “I can see his bones! Bones! Big bones!”
“Liar,” said the oldest cub. “He’ll be all eaten up by now. Anyway, I don’t see why we shouldn’t go look and eat something and-“
Thump, went her foot, and the oldest cub was pinned for a brisk washing against all protest and struggle. “The lesson,” she instructed them serenely between lashes of her tongue, “is not learned. It is incautious to hunt needlessly with full bellies in the day. And incautiousness leads to bad luck, and bad luck feeds the weight.”
“I d-n’t. H’ve-no-w’i’ht!” proclaimed the oldest cub with as much mouth as was not being licked.
“Lies,” she said, tranquility spreading from her like a sunbeam. “Why, it’s there right now, in each of us, trembling in our chests. Age feeds it. And injury. And by injury, ill-chance and happenstance and carelessness. Take a step wrong, and the weight will pull at you. Be incautious, and the weight will slow you. And come to harm, and the weight will take you. It’s an old world out there, my cubs, and though we fear none that walk it we must respect its rules. Be mindful. Be careful. And should you feel a heaviness in yourself, be doubly so.”
The cubs grumbled at that endlessly, but they were sensible enough to be grudgingly persuaded to be sensible, and so subsided into naps in the shade, one after another.
The smallest cub slept last of all, tucked as near to its mother’s side as its siblings would permit it. It looked out across the wide plains and shivered in the rising heat.
It could put name to the heaviness inside itself now.

Storytime: Good Morning.

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Hannah was a morning person. She’d never said so, but she’d felt so for years. Like some flowers, she woke with sunlight. As a child, her mother had told her the crack of dawn was loud enough to wake her. She regularly beat the early bird to the worm.
And now, with the day fading into evening, she’d pulled into the driveway a little too quickly and beaten it to the ground, too.
Hannah pulled herself free of her seatbelt, cursing quietly in time with the angry treetop chattering of the bird’s mate. She’d never liked birds. The scaly-dry legs; the beady eyes; the ruffled, battered shapes of the feathers that covered and protected the pink, naked scrawniness underneath. But like them or not, it didn’t feel right to leave the corpse lying there. It’d give her the creeps, and attract cats, raccoons, or who-knew-whats.
So she took an old spade and ten minutes and pinned the little red bird under a foot and a half of cold, close-packed dirt and gravel.
Then she went to bed.

Dawn rose soft and rounded at the edges but sharp enough to cut; it was just past five when Hannah slid away the covers and yawned herself awake. She glanced out the window and a flash of red sped into her mind. She jumped – was it? No, a cat must’ve dug it – but no, no, another, longer look showed that she was wrong.
It was another bird, another red bird, not hers. The second half of the pair again? She couldn’t tell under all the feathers. It was nestled on the gravel mound down there, staring up at her window, but unhurt. Unwilling to move, mind – even when she started her car, not so much as a blink crossed the thing’s face as its feathers billowed in warm engine exhaust. It was still there when Hannah turned the corner out of sight.

It was still there when her car crunched into the driveway nine hours later, head full of fog and arms full of groceries. For all she could tell it hadn’t moved a muscle. Except its head. Its head followed him, towed by those giant, unblinking eyes, fixed tight in their sockets.
It didn’t scare her, mind you. Didn’t scare her at all.
But she took the stairs two at a time, and closed the screen door to the warm April night.

She woke up in a grey place and found her face pressed to her bedside window, as if her body was already preparing to ask the question at the back of her brain.
Clotted red bled through the morning haze by her car. It was still there. Amazing a cat hadn’t got it.
Breakfast was squishy, tasteless and rushed – anything to get her up and out the door faster, farther away from that endless glare. She approached her car from behind and fumbled a bit too quickly with the handle, swore as she shut the door on her coat, and spent all day at work full of dry lips and fast twitches.
She looked up red birds. Pictures of robins and cardinals and red-winged blackbirds filled her screens.
No. Not those, not those. She had a book at home. She’d find out at home.

The bird was still there that evening. If it weren’t for the tight, tense movements of its neck as it watched her go in, she’d have thought it was dead. It was those eyes. Those wide, bright eyes. They were meant for flies to crawl over, not madness.
Hannah found the book after a long search and a tasteless dinner – it was a dust-chewed old thing that weighed more than a bowling a ball – and found herself watching the bird as it watched her, flipping through pages and chewing at her hair.
Not a waterfowl. Not with that sharp-tipped beak. How had she missed that?
Not a songbird, not with it being bigger than a cat. How had she missed that?
Not a hawk or eagle, not with that drab, crusted-red spatter of colour over its wings and body.
She closed the book and returned it to its tomb, glanced out the window.
Still there. Still watching.
It took her longer to fall asleep that night. There was too much red in her dreams.

The next morning Hannah woke up saw the bird had breakfast got dressed went downstairs forgot her keys found her keys went outside and found it sitting on her car.
For a moment she just stood there in confusion. No wonder she hadn’t found it in the book, she thought. It was bigger than a turkey. How had she missed that? It must’ve escaped from a zoo. Or somewhere.
There was something else, something jangling at the edges of her nerves as time cramped and her eyes slid molasses-slow over the thing from its mad eyes to its long, scaly legs, claw-tipped, clutching. Tufts of fur and red matted them, calico and grey and white and
Oh, she thought. So the cats did find it. And she took a small step back when she knew this, and as she did that the bird let out a shriek that rattled the windows and launched at her.
It was so fast, so fast. Barely a blink and now wings were around her, feathers in her mouth, cold grips at her shoulders and a sharp stabbing pain in her scalp and an all-engulfing scream so loud that she couldn’t tell if it was her or the bird. Her arms were useless flapping things pinned down and trailing but her legs were thundering up her steps and it wobbled for a second, just a second and that was enough, just enough for her to shed her skin and blunder through the door, coatless and crying.
Blood was in her eyes. Germs too, probably. And her phone was on the porch, in her pocket. And just as she thought that, she heard the scrabble and thud and clank of what only yesterday she would’ve called a raccoon on the roof.
She locked the back door and all the windows before she went to her computer and saw the flash of red at the corner of her eye, the screen.
No connection.
The line was out.

It was strange to see morning this way, not from a bed as a fresh start but as a change in the air, a glow that grey in the sky by inches.
Hannah wasn’t sure she liked it. She wasn’t sure of anything by now. And she couldn’t see the bird.
Empty grey gravel in the driveway. A spade-width, maybe a little more. She pictured her shovel, pictured the little dead thing she’d buried, pictured the animal that had torn at her head.
She looked and looked and saw no answers, and no bird, and then she thought of her coat and her phone. Maybe it was too far to her car, but if it was still on the porch…
It was. Top of the steps, a stride and a half from the door at most, and mostly undamaged beyond twin tufts of down lining at the shoulders, blowing in the cool air like wings.
Hannah stood with her hand on the door, screaming at herself to take action. And when that didn’t work she swore at herself aloud, and when that didn’t work she thought of how she’d never get help without leaving the damned house anyways, and when that didn’t work and she finally had to admit that the hairs on the back of her neck weren’t coming down she gave in and went upstairs and fetched the very small mirror from her cosmetics kit and held against the just-opened crack of the door, biting her lip as it tilted along the side of the house from sky to trees to paint to brick.
To red, rust, blood red. And an eye.
She dropped the mirror. It broke against the porch with a soft crack and something leaped past the window in a feathered blur at eye-height.
That night Hannah stayed up and counted cans in the kitchen until the early morning faded away her fingers. Sooner or later, someone would come. Sooner or later. She was grounded, and she was bleeding, but she was alive.

She woke to the sound of splintering wood and silence.
Eyes widened, fingers tightening on cold metal, small and hard and the only weapon to hand. Canned chicken. Who would eat canned chicken? From the back of the cupboard, from school?
Standing up took an eternity of dying muscles and groaning floorboards, ears wide for anything from the front hall.
Quiet. The kind of quiet that watches you.
Three awful, noisy steps to the knife drawer. A long, slow creak and a half-foot of precious, stainless steel.
Quiet. Maliciously, perfectly quiet.
And then, wishing in every bone and muscle and nerve that she still had her mirror, Hannah leaned around the corner.
Early light seeped through the front door. Its window was smashed. Its panels bulged. Its rubbing lining spilled onto the carpet like dried intestines. But it stood.
She sighed with the sob of the death row paroled, cheek to the wall, and turned around to see the rust-red fade to light crimson under the morning sun as it stood in her kitchen, head cocked, eyes mad. The feathers ruffled in the breeze from the gaping back door behind it, splinters still stuck in its scaly three-toed feet. It was taller than she was, and smelled of mist and must. Dew sparkled on its claws, the feathers pluming its stiff tail, the teeth in its just-open muzzle as it peered at her.
And then it leaped.

They arrived two days later and found it empty and torn and abandoned. And in all the fuss over what they found in the kitchen, barely any notice was taken of the little pit in the driveway, barely wider than a spade. A tiny, bright red feather in it spoke of a lost songbird.
Maybe a cat got it, they said, and returned to the business of the strange prints by the back door.
And the soft dawn wind plucked at the feather and carried it away over the trees and through the mist into the early morning of the world.

Storytime: Grounded.

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

The warrior-queen stumbled.
It was only a light tremble, a waver in her arm, a quick spin of her arms for balance, but it magnified itself as it worked its way up her body and the blade of her long, shining sword dipped noticeably, which gave Klalmxxydor just enough to bite it off along with a third of her right arm.
She dropped, cursing quietly and ferociously, legs kicking away the smouldering skull of her bodyguard to clatter into some corner of the burned husk that was her throneroom. Her blood was pouring but her eyes were blazing, and as she slumped back against the seared stone of her throne itself she gave him the finger with her spare hand.
Klalmxxydor paused mid-chew and carefully inclined all five-foot-eleven-inches of his skull just a fraction of an inch downward, teeth bared in a mockery even recognizable to humans.
The spark in her face turned cold, but not with death, and she spat something at him in high-pitched gobbledegook.
“M’lady?” he inquired snidely as his claws drew back.
To his surprise she laughed – blood bubbled and it cut off quickly – and then repeated herself, this time in old saurish, accent harsh and thudding.
“May you become as insufferable to yourself as you are to me at this moment, lizard,” she said. And then she smiled, and then she spat.
And then she fell over as Klalmxxydor’s foreclaws penetrated her torso from four angles at once.

The city was burning brightly under the cool crisp evening as he stepped free from the burning rubble of the palace, the city sprawled below like a dead deer just beginning to become temptingly bloated with putrid aromas. Klalmxxydor breathed in soot and screams like a good wine and shook himself, relishing the clank of twenty thousand scales as they slid up and down his body. Then he stretched his wings and…
If he’d possessed the facial muscles for it, he’d have frowned. His wings…
He craned his neck to stare back over the length of his own body. Yes, there it was, all the same as he’d left it. Upward of seventy feet long, a third of that his tail, plated in armour even a charged knight armed with a lance couldn’t hope to penetrate, standing on four legs strong enough to support a castle and lithe enough to swat gnats out of the sky, with his two broad wings the size of mainsails just now unfurling to catch the sunset air and-
The unfrown would’ve deepened here as his mind caught up. And. And not moved at all.
Klalmxxydor shook his head three times, then snarled to himself. He scanned the sky for reassurance and caught sight of a bird fleeing the flames – a little pigeon.
There, there was his proof.
He looked back up at his own wings, his own body. It was ridiculous. It was moronic. But it was undeniable.
He was just too damned big to fly. He’d need wings big enough to cover half the city just to glide, and the muscles to drive them would be large enough to triple his torso’s width and breadth.
An ill-tempered hiss escaped Klalmxxydor as he stomped inelegantly down the lanes of the burning city, torching fleeing peasantry and merchants alike to lighten his bad mood. It wasn’t every day he got to consume royalty, and now here he was having to walk home owing to the tragic unrealities of his own physical form. There was simply no fun to be had.

Walking was unusual and tiring both, one feeding the other, and unusual was halfway home when he felt a great and ferocious trembling in his gut. Oh, he’d eaten his share of king and queen on his little expedition, but that was a lean meal, and mostly armour – especially the queen. The woman had practically been an armoury with legs.
Still, luck was with him yet. A deer lay in the copse just ahead, paralyzed with fear of the reptile and the faint and stupid hope that its nose wasn’t working properly or its vision clouded.
He breathed in air, and breathed out heat. The air ahead of the dragon turned red and seared itself into white and blue and beyond, shimmering into a heat so pure that it caught fire in self-defence. The copse withered from the temperature just a split instant before the flames erupted from it, the deer screamed like a knight and fell still, and as the fire danced and whirled over the ground around him all that Klalmxxydor could think of was how tremendously ridiculous the whole thing was.
Fire. Not volatile chemicals such as a beetle might spray, not a spark such as might snap from the impact of flint and steel, but pure heat. And produced from his gullet, which was scarcely the most scarred and durable portion of any creature’s anatomy.
What, by cinders, was THAT meant to be?
And why the smoke that issued from his nostrils? What was he burning in there? His own organs? His last meal? If it came from his stomach it could very well be and no wonder he was hungry. If it came from his lungs… then how? How had he not seared his own breath away?
No. He would not be party to this farce. Not anymore. People would sneer at him.
The deer tasted like ashes in his mouth. This was still better than the third through fourth deer, which simply ran away.

Home arrived at dusk, a broken mound of stone and charred trees that had once been a respectable hillside. Klalmxxydor was so tired from walking that he didn’t even bother to round upon the small party of vengeful knights ineptly tailing him some half-mile back. They’d wait ‘till morning, and then he’d finally get some triple-cursed food for breakfast.
Right now all he wanted was sleep.
The bed of Klalmxxydor was gold and gilt, silver and steel, and it was piled in drifts deep enough to nestle his head and broad enough to cradle his body. He’d amassed it since he was barely big enough to spark, and by all rights it should’ve expanded slightly today but he couldn’t carry things and walk at the same time so he hadn’t. What a waste of a long trip. Next time he’d…
Well. He supposed he’d just have to walk AGAIN. But be more prepared next time.
Klalmxxydor sighed and turned himself over in his wealth and shut his eyes and felt the coins drip down his forehead and became so suddenly furious that he nearly breathed fire again in spite of himself.
He was seventy feet long and thirty feet tall and eighteen feet broad even if a third of that was tail and he was lying quite comfortably – not so comfortably now, stiff with ire as he was – on a bed of gold at least twice his diameter when curled and deep enough that he did not simply grind through it into the floor when shifting.
That was probably half as much gold as had ever existed anywhere already, just there in his bed. Even if half or more was silver. And.
Klalmxxydor’s eye twitched uncontrollably.
That was implausible.

The treasury was much smaller now; half its wealth scraped and crushed and mangled into the cracks in the floor so deep that Klalmxxydor’s great thick claws could not get at it. It was not gone, but it was at least out of sight and therefore mind and it soothed him. There. Plausibility.
He sighed and rearranged his wings, curled himself up around his single, tiny treasure-heap, rested his head on his legs and-
Icy dread crept up his spine. That was it. That was it. That was what had been bothering him all along.
No wonder he had nearly gone mad today, with such an atrocity lying underneath his very nose – literally – all this time.
Damnable dukes of ash and smoke, how had he MISSED it? His legs – four of them. His wings – two of them.
SIX limbs? What in the name of all that crackled was that meant to BE? A hawk crossed into a cat? An ant grown scaled? Six limbs. SIX LIMBS!
He’d have to fix that.

It was very painful, lying on his belly with the stumps tucked raw against the ground, but Klalmxxydor bore it in good humour. At last, at long last that filthy uncertainty had drained from his mind. And now he was as he always should have been. Plausible.
He sighed with contentment, and as he noticed this it was as if his happiness had pumped itself out of his lungs with that very breath.
How is it, he thought to himself, that a seventy-foot, narrow-chested body covered in heavy armour does not collapse its lungs under its own mass?

The knights waited for dawn, passed the night coating their faces with the ashes of their homeland and quietly wishing one another goodbye. As the day broke their swords unsheathed and their faces set and they descended, one by one, into the great smoke-fogged pit of the dragon’s lair.
They nearly stumbled over the body.

Storytime: A Captor Audience.

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Trasall Ti Remmont, High Songstress of Gelmorre, thrice-appointed to the court of Her Worshipped, the Eighth Crystalvoice (and soundmaker of note besides), watched the launch depart and really wished that someone had thought to give her a hand with her damned luggage before they left her alone on the dock with only an old rowboat for company. True, she only had two small trunks, but it was the principle of the thing. What was the point in being famous if people didn’t do things like that for you?
Grumbling aside, she set to her belongings and set up the path. The dirt path. Rustic, she supposed, but there was no accounting for taste among the rich and powerful. At least two of the most obscenely wealthy people she’d performed for in her life had lived in conditions fit to make a street-philosopher raise an eyebrow and scrub her wrists self-consciously. And there was no questioning that her latest client had access to a level of prestige that they would have envied
Matagan had ten thousand children, it was said. Maybe it was right. Maybe it was less. Most likely, it was more. But each of those ten-thousand-plus/minus Spawn of Gant were more precious than a fistful of diamonds and a hatful of Sill-shooms. You get a little speck of rock with your name on it and maybe enough space to build half a cabin, that’s when you know you’ve made it in Matagan. That’s when you know you’re somebody.
Trasall was mostly somebody these days. Much to her mother’s annoyance, she was sure.
The island she was walking on was big enough that she’d lost sight of the dockhouse entirely and was over her third hill with no end to the trail in sight. Now, what sort of thing did you have to go and do to get that, hmm?
She turned over the memory of getting the letter, since the letter itself was packed in the bottom of her smaller trunk. Addressed High Songstress, as plainly as Baker. A Request with a capital Politeness. Brisk, brief, blunt, one week of performance please and thank you, and attached to a figure that made her eyebrows raise a little without her really noticing. Signed, Mistress Scout.
War hero. That was her best guess. A bit awkward for a Galm to go perform for a jumped-up ‘Gan who’d likely gotten rich off’ve stabbing her countrymen or luring them into starving gyrwolf packs in the backwoods, but then again, she was no patriot and surely no soldier. Let Her Worshipped and her couriers and her hosts and her brigades pick fights, Trasall was an entertainer, and history had shown her that so long as you stayed smartly away from politics at the afterparties you could host anything short of a thing from the Terramac on the grace of a calm smile and a bit of boozing alone.
War hero from what, though? There were tales of the…incidents out there, Afar. And there was some stir around the Stone, but that had nothing to do with the ‘Gans. Probably. The Greywood Campaign? She’d be surprised if there were any veterans living from that who had the fortitude to feed themselves, let alone live out here in nowhere. Maybe someone from the War in the Cracks? No, that wasn’t even over yet. Too soon for anyone to retire on well-earned rests. And then there was the title… she didn’t know of many scouts who got much more than medals. The real glory was usually hogged for the generals and colonels. And she’d never heard of a Mistress-Scout before. A special rank?
Then Trasall pulled up short because she’d come to the house and it wasn’t exactly what she’d been expecting but it wasn’t what she wasn’t expecting to expect. Exactly.

The door was a full fifteen feet tall and also open. With a bit of heaving, a little swearing, and at last a full-body shove, it begrudged her a crack as she caught her breath.
Inside was no less strange. The tall, tall roof she’d observed from outside enclosed just a single floor; the rafters swinging bare overhead. Two halls stretched to either side of her, floors gaping bare and scratched to the nines, a single, oddly-shaped door sat ahead of her. It took her a moment to realize it was the only thing in the building that wasn’t outsized.
Well, that and the table at her elbow. An envelope sat on it, a single, capital T sat on that.
She opened it and enough cash to move a slumlord into a count fell out, along with a single piece of paper.
Tonight, dusk. The porch.

Trasall used the rest of the day to get comfortable. Her room – as indicated by another helpfully terse letter – was the tiny one. She could have fit half her childhood home into it, but there was no room because it looked like someone else had got to that first. A kitchen, a water closet, a pantry, bookcases, dresser… it was as if someone had condensed all the rest of the building’s contents into one place. It would have been cramped without the tall, tall walls looming over it and up to the ceiling; as it was it merely felt lost, like a mismanaged dollhouse.
It wasn’t the creepiest place she’d ever performed at. Maybe the top twenty. But the liquor cabinet helped. And she sang better buzzed anyway.
The sun dipped low and the glass filled up and Trasall Ti Remmont, High Songstress of Gelmorre, stood on the porch and packed her lungs with green, cool-breezed air.
When she let it out again, it made the trees stop and listen.
And again.
And again.
There’d been no specific requests on any of the messages. A little annoying, but it gave her room to have some fun. She did a quick cycle of old slumland nightsongs, slid from there into a hill-ballad, topped it off with one or two of her classic early works, and then (because the brandy was low and she felt mischievous) an old marching tune whose ambiguity left the nationality of the singer in just enough doubt to be tasteful.
She drained the glass, took a bow, and walked inside.

Trasall woke up uncomfortably close to morning, with a gentle, velvety headache, a slightly sore mouth, and a real need for coffee – which, mercifully, she found in a ten-pound sack.
The mists were out and prowling through the trees, and as she sat on the porch and sipped at her scalding (grainy) drink and chewed on an old oatcake she’d dug from a cupboard she could almost understand why this place had been built.
Well, besides the floorplan. She still had no idea what the two halls were for. Between them they possessed nine-tenths of the building and not one stick of furniture beyond a rug she could’ve made a circus tent out of. And it was old, all of it. Creaking and grumbling and settling. This place had been built before she was born, and for what? A giant with a crippling phobia of furnishings?
Sunlight glimmered through her thoughts, and she shook away their cobwebs. The fog was lifting, the air was shining, and somewhere a bird was making cross noises that only succeeded in sounding adorable. You would have to be a cold-hearted city-dweller indeed to not feel that pull, and although Tristall considered herself just that within the hour she relented and took her heels into the backwoods, armed with a sandwich.
She regretted her decision right away, but not quite right away enough to actually do anything about it. The light loose-leafed foliage turned thick and thorny without warning, the trees seemed to lay their roots precisely wherever her ankle was attempting to move, and by the time Trasall stopped to eat her bad-tempered sandwich the birds had become a gang of scolding thugs that would’ve put a murder of crows to shame.
Nature, she reminded herself between bites of cheese and anonymous meat, is well and good, but you don’t want to step in it. Her mother had been very firm on that and she wondered how she’d forgotten it. Then she remembered all the terrible advice the old bat had given her on finding a decent job and keeping her head out of the clouds and felt better just in time to recognize that prickle in her shoulderblades.
It was a familiar feeling. Most times it was a good one. It meant she was doing her job properly, it meant the audience was too focused to even cough.
Someone was watching her.
Also, the birds had shut up. That was probably a bad sign.
Slowly, calmly, as alarmingly casual as she could manage, she slid off the rock she’d turned into a table and began to retrace her steps in her head.
A bush rustled.
By the time Trasall’s brain had calmed down enough to form memories again, she was halfway through the door of the cabin and there were little specks of some sort of dry foam at the corners of her mouth. They reminded her of a sort of frothy dessert she’d had three days ago in a court in a city on the mainland where she was surrounded by people and not alone on a rock singing to a host who’d gone past ‘reclusive’ and into ‘invisible.’
Oh. Her host.
She suddenly felt very stupid. And not just because she’d left her only shoes somewhere out there.
Of course. That had been her host. She’d probably come across them taking a rest, the same as her. It was probably a good thing she’d left so fast. That was all that had happened, just a chance encounter. A little bad luck. Nothing strange. It wasn’t even as if there were any animals – any BIG animals – in the Spawn of Gant. Nothing bigger than a shy deer, say. Yes, she could’ve frightened a deer, too. A deer or her host. Both very harmless. Nothing strange.
Still, she took an extra glass of brandy before she sang that evening. And she stuck to lively tunes. Songs that stamped their feet and filled her head with choruses and beat back the too-quiet night to a more respectable, reasonable distance.
And she kept the giant door open a crack the whole time. And the bottle at her elbow. And her eyes moving.

That night Trasall dreamed that she lay awake with a half-moon lightning the corner of her room and listened to the front door creak and soft breath puff. Shadows slid across the edge of her door, and soft scuffing echoed from the rafters. She dreamed these things and shivered in her (old, woolen, but very thick) blankets and when she woke up it was dawn and the door was open a crack to let the fog in.
She had a drink with breakfast to steady her nerves. And a drink with lunch to hold them there. And then she had a drink while she carefully poked around the rest of the building and found nothing but more nothing. Empty walls. Not even paintings. A rug. A room for her. Nothing more. Nothing more than the scratched and worn floorboards, which she was starting to feel unspeakably uneasy about.
A tune came to mind – a long-song of a beautiful young manservant who married a mysterious noblewoman, only to find she was a spider and devoured him whole – and she realized to her annoyance that she’d been humming it since she’d woken up.
The fog wouldn’t lift. And she wouldn’t go out. When dusk came she brought a chair from her room and a bottle and she sat at the little side-table at the door and sang low sad songs of missing ships and lost lights and families that faded away like dew in the morning. And when the last glow of the sun sank behind the dark waters and black pines, she wiped her face and sang Long-By-Way, the lullaby her mother had used to keep her quiet when she was small and sick.
Then she stopped singing, and listened. Because as those last echoes of her voice slid away into the bays and stones and trees, she heard, not too far away, the closing notes of a long, soft howl.

Trasall opened her eyes and looked up at the rafters and realized she hadn’t slept.
In her defense, of course, she had been busy. Her back hurt, her arms ached, and her neck was still stiff from the odd angle she’d been forced to rest at after incorporating her bed into the superstructure of the odds-and-ends barricade she’d rigged up in front of the door.
Well, she’d sleep when she was dead or preferably when she was off the island. The rowboat, that was the key. She’d use the rowboat. And she only REALLY needed what was in her small trunk anyways.
A five-hour trip here from Matagan. She couldn’t do that in a boat. But she could find a more normal island out there in the Spawn of Gant, with a normal elderly madman who could lend her a ride or something in exchange for five minutes of awkward small talk while trying not to stare at her chest. Even that, god yes.
She slid the base of the door open. Fog wafted in against her nose and she pawed it away, cursing. It stuck to her fingers.
She looked more closely. Not fog, fur. Grey fur. And there were fresh scratches on the porch. She could fit her finger in them.
Trasall had a good two decades of fine food and finer drink between her and her last guttersprint, but in her heyday she’d outrun children twice her size. It was a matter of three masteries: tight turns, quick reflexes, and the realization that shorter legs just mean you can move them faster. It was thanks to a combination of these things that she made the trip down to the dock in less than two minutes, barefoot. Just like old times.
She punted the rowboat into the water, swearing at the pain in her arms and legs, threw her trunk into it with a hollow thud, and realized there were no oars and she was stuck. Again, just like old times.
No, no, no, her memory softly reminded her, and she listened to it. Her memory had won her races, it had won her teachers, it had won her place in the world. There’s a dockhouse, a little wooden dockhouse, barely a shack. There’ll be oars in there. There will be.
So Trasall was in a calm and contemplative state of mind when she turned around and found a bear between herself and the dockhouse and the shore and the entire world.
No big animals in the Spawn of Gant. Besides the ones that could swim.
She’d seen stuffed bears. She’d seen caged bears. This one seemed so much larger, as if the trees and water and misty air had inflated it with purpose and strength and above all else surety. It was staring at her with an open curiosity that was so much worse than an open snarl, brown eyes nested under beetled brown brows. Trasall had seen that look before, on the faces of dukes and farmers and bully-boys and who knew what. It was the considering, calculating expression of someone who was deciding exactly what it was that they were about to get away with.
She looked at her trunk in the rowboat, and decided against it. Moving seemed like a terrible plan, and the handle on the damned thing was barely attached already. She’d get one shot and that would just be enough to irritate it.
Then she looked back up and the bear was charging.
Then as she fell over backwards, half-swearing, half-screaming, she looked farther up and saw the fog move, grey on grey, and grow teeth.
Cold water.

Trasall couldn’t swim. She didn’t dwell on it, she didn’t fret on it, she didn’t shy from the touch or sight of water. It was just another relic of having a childhood too busy and too crammed to fit anything as large and rich as a lake or pool in it, and of all those heirlooms it was by far one of the smallest and least noteworthy.
At most times. Right now, as she was surrounded by ice that was trying to pry open her face and the mouth, it seemed very important indeed. The world was sliding away above her and opening up beneath her and no matter where she waved her arms they just got tired and her clothing was a lead sack and
sharp teeth. above her.
something sank into the scruff of her outfit, the nape of her clothing, and dragged her up, up, up out of the cold and murk and into the hazy morning air, gasping and dripping.
Thunk went the dock. She hugged it. Something warm and huge nuzzled her back gently, and she rolled over and looked into the biggest, bloodiest set of teeth she’d ever seen. Small specks of brown fur were caught in between them.
Ah, her memory said. Ah ah. That was the colour of the bear.
The teeth slid aside and were replaced by an extremely large nose, which nudged her again. She stood up, leaning on it for support, and there they were for the first time, face to face.
Trasall looked up at a wolf that measured twelve foot at the shoulder, and a few things clicked and snapped into place.
“Mistress Scout,” she said aloud again. And she giggled. “Pleased to meet you.”
Her tail wagged. That was a good sign.

The rest of the week was much more relaxing. Scout was still shy, but it was a more natural, wholesome shyness, the kind that Trasall recognized from some of her younger sisters, not the compulsive nerviness that had been driving both of them since Trasall’s boat had left.
“Scared of scaring me?” she’d asked as they walked back to the house, and the gyrwolf had nodded her huge grey head.
It made sense, she thought, as they dug through her barricade cabinet by cabinet. You spend half your – considerable – lifespan sneaking through forests (thirty foot of sneak) and tracking down armies for Matagan and then you come home old and grizzly and get a nice retirement where you never have to see anybody and when somebody shows up, what do you do?
Well, besides get lonely.
“First things first,” said Trasall, as she dug out the last of the brandy. “Now, second things.”
She swirled the glass for a little less than half a second, then downed it. “You prefer accompaniment, or want to trade solos?”

Four days later, Trasall Ti Remmont, High Songstress of Gelmorre, thrice-appointed to the court of Her Worshipped, the Eighth Crystalvoice (and soundmaker of note besides), and the only living human to have sung a duet with a gyrwolf, watched the island recede as she slouched in her seat, cheerily drunk, and waved. A greyness among the trees moved in rhythm with her hand, and she sighed happily at what might have happened at the edges of her eyes.
“Not so bad,” she told the pilot, who nodded in the way of all diplomats. “Not so bad at all.”
Trasall leaned back further still, head bonking gently against the broken handle of her trunk, and noticed she was humming again.
She wondered if she could learn to howl properly.

Storytime: All You Can’t Eat.

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Ed stood up and rubbed his great big gnawing flapping groaning empty belly-sack and he knew that he was hungry.

So he walked down down down all the long, long way to his car, his blessed car, and he put wheels under him and a roof over him and he took himself all the way down in a short tight clip to a place where he could eat his fill.

“I will have the pizza,” he told the waiter. “The pizazz. This is necessary.”
The waiter knew Ed and knew his appetites and he nodded and went to the kitchen and they both waited then.
Ed looked out the window and checked cars. All of them had people in them, but he couldn’t see them. He counted five red cars and a blue car and one hundred silver cars and a green car. The green annoyed him, and he itched all over. It must be his allergies. He needed food and fast or all the aches and scratches and biting nags of life would catch up and he’d be flat on the floor and bubbling hot piping steaming.

The pizza came.
It was red like blood and golden like pyrite and brown like a buffalo’s disjointed haunch and all the colours were in their specific purposeful places and he loved them dearly. It was cut neatly into ten slices. Ten was a good number. Basal. Like a spine. It was too hot to handle so he used a fork and knife and then there his plate was full and the pan was already cooling down. Time to eat.

The forkful was good. All the colours and such pretty patterns. It had tomatoes from Central America and it had cheese made from cows from North Africa and it had a bread ground from grains that had sprouted their roots in the Near and Middle East. It was topped with slices of pig from Eurasia seasoned with salt scraped from North American rocks and spices that had grown in America, the Mediterranean, and South and Southeast Asia. The pan was stainless steel and had been made in Spain using the contents of rocks from Australia and South Africa, and power from uranium that had been found in Canada.
Ed ate it. He bit the fork and damnit that hurt.
Then he took another.

Nine slices down and half to go and oh man Ed was full and his belly was groaning a different tune now. One half. One half. One half and it tasted so good but he was so sick of it but come on one half. Right there. You can do it, Ed. You can do it. You don’t want to put it off for later later’s later and right now you want it. Come on Ed. Go get ‘em Ed. Good for you, Ed. Why stop now, Ed? Who would?
Ed ate it. And he bit the fork again and oh MAN that hurt.
He tipped the waiter. It was short, but his teeth ached.

Home came home and oh the walk from the car was a killer his legs ached his belly wobbled his head thundered to the tune of the singing molars in his mandibles and maxillae. He could barely make it up the stairs his breath was waving wildly he put a hand on his knee for support he put a hand on the stoop for support he crawled in head-first through his door like a dog panting a bit a lot oh that’s a wheeze oh


No that wasn’t good. That wasn’t good at all. How long had Ed been lying there on his side with his sides aching and splitting and looking up at the golden yellow light on his ceiling through his red eyes fuelled with bulbs that had been made somewhere by someone with power from who knew and feeling himself begin to crisp over at the edges and bubble.
Man, his teeth ached.
Ed laid back and hummed and that didn’t help.
They really ached bad. He shouldn’t have had that one last piece. He should’ve ordered seconds.