Episode 64: The Gloaming, Part 2 by M. E. Garber

Show Notes

Today we present Part 2 of The Gloaming by M E Garber. Be sure to check out Part 1, first, if you haven’t already.


The Gloaming

by M E Garber

At this time I knew the Rules One through Five. They were easy, almost ridiculously so. Except for the “Asking” part, which I found hard.

 

Rule One: What you truly believe will become real. What you truly disbelieve will fade.

Rule Two: Pride brings unwelcome notice, and testing by the true fey. Guard well against Pride.

Rule Three: The Question must be asked. A lore-tender may only divulge rules once his or her charge has asked after each of them. Some leading is permissible, but pure telling is not possible.

Rule Four: Names prove important in strange, unpredictable ways. Always be careful when Naming if you have the power of fey.

Rule Five: Protect your purity. Loss of that innocence, of purity in your thoughts and deeds, will result in loss of your fey abilities.

 

My own corollary to Rule Five: It’s well-known that unicorns only associate with pure fey innocents. So, to stay with Azim al-Liajli, I stayed as far from human boys as possible. Easy.


Another goblin rush. The beast on my back eased his grip as he edged his head around to watch his brethren in glory. The hand on my breast even ceased its carousing. I whirled my eyes around to the others holding me. All leaned forward, engrossed in the battle. Their hands were loose, and their leader edged forward to watch the fall of the final unicorns.

A scream heralded another unicorn down. The hands on me loosed further as the goblins guffawed at the beast’s pain. Azim al-Liajli and his remaining companion now stood chest-to-tail, their sides heaving and streaked with blood, mud and goblin ichor.

The goblins were sure of victory–too sure. Their overconfidence was my opportunity. As they began the attack, I reached over my head, grabbed the surprised monster on my back and threw him into the leader’s face.

And I screamed.

I screamed my anger, my outrage. I screamed the agony of watching my protectors die, and the hot pain of knowing it was all – ALL – my fault. My lungs exhaled the storm:  all the power of the winds unleashed, the tree boughs rushing and bending before my wind, adding to it their strength.

I believed I could do it, and I did. I shaped that howling wind. It flattened every goblin. The wind struck, knocking them senseless. The winds flattened the cornfield, scoured clean the ditch, sought every last goblin. Only the unicorns it spared.

All my agony, all my rage, all my power, vented into that screaming wind. It lasted a long time.

It ceased as suddenly as it began. The air was still. Clouds covered the sky as a heaviness settled over everything, weighted and expectant.

But I saw and felt nothing.

Azim snorted.

My trance broke. Devastation surrounded me:  cornfields shredded, heaps of goblins lying where they’d fallen, broken branches all around, impaling some of the goblins, and debris and weeds scattered over all. Four white shapes, no longer glowing like moons, lay along the field’s edge, one more by Azim al-Liajli and his companion, both of whom stood leaning together for support. The other’s eyes were dull with pain, but Azim al-Liajli met my gaze.

He snorted again, bobbed his head and struck out with his front hoof. I followed the motion, and saw the Goblin King lying a few feet away. His hands were beginning to twitch. A dagger gleamed in his grip. I kicked him in the chest, and he lay still.

Wooly-headed, I walked away, to the first unicorns killed. They no longer appeared magical, but like small white horses, dead in the mud. My heart grew heavy:  a piece of pure magic sullied by the Goblin King and his minions.

Another step and I saw their many wounds, their broken bones, their … what was that? The first dead unicorn had its head turned away from me at an unnatural angle, but it looked…strange. I walked towards it, telling myself that it couldn’t be true.

But it was.

A jagged hole gaped where the unicorn’s forehead had been, and silvery gore was everywhere. It shimmered on the nearby goblins’ hands and weapons. I looked away in disbelief, but my wide eyes flew back.

The unicorn’s horn was missing.

Sticking out from the second unicorn’s side was the spear that’d been thrust through his heart: its companion’s spiral horn.

I doubled over as if I’d been punched in the gut.

The first things Aunt Rosemarie told me were about unicorns; how they’re kind creatures of pure magic, and they protect less-abled fey creatures–like me. That one should be so desecrated, even in death, was sickening.

I clenched and unclenched my fists, my breath coming in great gulps. I felt hot, hotter even than before. That had been self-defense. This was pure fury. A unicorn corrupted after a noble death, another killed with the spiked horn of its companion–it was just … wrong. Worse than wrong; to kill goodness with the weapon of goodness was obscene.


 I told Aunt Rosemarie about the unicorns and of my dreams of being with them in the garden each full moon. But I never told her I named Azim al-Liajli. Some premonition kept me from it. I was sure she’d be against it, and I’d have to explain how careful I was in naming and I just didn’t want to argue. Not with Aunt Rosemarie, not about something as silly as that. She was still helping me be the best fey-girl I could be. I didn’t want to endanger that, and my senses told me that this could do just that.

I was keeping secrets. But what teenager doesn’t, I told myself. It’s nothing unusual, nothing dangerous. For once I was glad to be normal. Just your average kid. It felt safer.

Well, I could lie to myself, and to those around me, but I couldn’t lie to the gloaming-world. Things began to change. Slowly at first, so I didn’t really mark the difference. And when I did, it was too late.

The first changes were so subtle – the unicorns became restless in the garden, pacing the perimeter. Azim changed, too. He stared intently at me while resting his gleaming white head in my lap. It seemed like he was asking me deep and serious questions, but in a language I couldn’t understand. After a few moments of the searching look, he’d sigh and relax, eyes drooping into sleep. Waking, he’d snort, shake his head and rise to his white-hoofed feet, then trot over to pace along the wall.

This action puzzled me, and hurt, too. Why did Azim shake his head so that his forelock hid his eyes from me? Why did he leave me only to pace the wall? What was going on?

I longed to ask Aunt Rosemarie, but of course I couldn’t. I’d have to explain too much, expose too many lies-by-omission. I knew she’d have an answer for me, if only I could ask it. So I tried to think of a way to phrase it, to make it seem like any other ‘idle curiosity’ question, as opposed to a ‘burning need’ question. By this point it was closer to a ‘burning need’ question. The signs were obvious.

My nightly walks home – now alone, of course – once so delightful and anticipated, took on a sinister quality. The fairies seemed less common, more wary. No longer did the ward-wolves pad around me,  flanking me with their steadying presence and their doggy-minty aroma. Instead, the woods remained unusually still and quiet as I walked by, and small stirrings in the brush behind me raised the hairs on my neck. If I spun around, a swaying branch marked where something had been.

I had the impression of many eyes gazing out at me with malign interest. Nothing showed itself for my flashlight – once more always at hand – to illuminate. My imagination ran along full-steam, sensing a goblin horde trying to trap me, waiting for a moment of my inattention. And in my haste and hurry to protect myself, I forgot Rule Number 1.


My brain boiled over. The only thought throbbing there was repayment for unspeakable wrongs. Revenge. I grabbed the spiral horn and pulled. The pointed tip glistened as it slipped free with a wet hiss. The gold was now cheap and brassy-looking. Hefting it, it felt good in my hand. I smiled as my feet moved of their own accord.

I halted,  surprised–but then not–to find myself back where I’d begun. The Goblin King lay sprawled at my feet. A breeze skittered around his hairy chin. The whiskers waved. He made a small, wet sigh.

Azim whickered. My head jerked up as I recognized the first real-world nicker. Azim took two mincing steps and laid his nose on my forearm. His whiskers felt rougher than in the moonlit-dreams, his chin warmer. Freesia drowned out the smells of blood and goblin-stench. His glittering dark eyes captivated me.

The goblins almost stole him from me. My stomach burned.

I thrust Azim’s head aside as I plunged the horn down with both hands. It struck the body where I thought its heart–if goblins had such a thing–would be.

Azim’s scream of protest rent the air.

A blinding light and a sharp “Crack!” extinguished the world. I threw up my hands to protect my eyes, my face … and I remembered no more.


When I woke, I recognized the familiar lace curtains and herbal smell of the room; I was back at Aunt Rosemarie’s, in her guest bedroom. I remember now that I’d hoped she’d have fresh cream and strawberries for breakfast, as when I was seven.

The door cracked open, and Aunt Rosemarie came in, carrying a small tray. It wasn’t the Aunt Rosemarie of my childhood, but an older, stiffer woman–the modern Aunt Rosemarie of my seventeen years. Only then did I remember that something bad had happened. But I couldn’t recall what.

Seeing me awake, her lined face edged into a small, tight smile. “No frowning, dear. You’ll remember soon enough, I’m sure. Now, why don’t you eat this breakfast and gain some strength. You’ll need it, I think.” She smiled again, but it didn’t reach the sadness in her eyes.

I ate the toast, drank the lemon-rosemary tea with plenty of honey. I saw scratches on my arms, on my hands; gouges, even, in places. I held them out to examine them. My shoulders ached when I moved, as if I’d hoed and planted the whole garden in one day, by myself. I grunted, surprised I could hurt so badly. I looked to my aunt who watched me with troubled eyes.

“You got caught in the storm not far from here, out in the cornfields. Lightning struck nearby, and a tornado, too. You were lucky not to be hit by flying debris, like the nearby horses. That’s the official story, at least. From the farmer who brought you here. The non-fey view. But I think something else happened, Sylvie. Yes?” She peered at me closely.

It came back to me, in terrible, jagged pieces. I convulsed into tears, hiccoughing and shaking by the time I finished telling Aunt Rosemarie my story, what I recalled, how I remembered it. All of it, this time, including how I’d named my unicorn, how I’d been so proud, and hadn’t even realized it. How I’d brought it all on myself. How I’d forgotten all about the Rules.

“But I won’t make that mistake anymore. I’ve learned my lesson,” I promised, wiping the tears and snot from my face with the towel she handed me. My face was swollen, my eyes ached, my nose felt three times its normal size, and tears burned my cheeks and chin. But all that pain couldn’t match the misery I felt whenever I remembered the dead unicorns.

Senseless deaths. All my fault.

“Oh, child,” Aunt Rosemarie said, sitting beside me on the bed, and she gathered me into her bosom and rocked me back and forth. “Oh, my poor, poor child.”

Something was going on. She wouldn’t look at me, and she didn’t speak for the longest while. Finally, I pulled out of her rocking embrace.

“What?”

“There won’t be a next time, Sylvie.”

I stared at her. She grasped my limp hands in hers. Her voice was hoarse with pain.

“Azim al-Liajli, your unicorn. You named him ‘Defender of the Pure,’ not ‘The Pure-White Defender.’ Semantics are important in magic, remember? Rule Four. He won’t defend you anymore. You’ve lost your purity.”

“I have not!” I shouted, pulling away. “Those goblins grabbed me, they felt me up a bit, but they didn’t … I’m still …” My cheeks burned red, and I couldn’t speak, too embarrassed to mention sex and virginity to my maiden aunt. I knew the goblins would’ve raped me after the unicorns were dead. Thinking of those disgusting creatures doing that – my imagination failed me. Fortunately.

Aunt Rosemarie clenched my hands. I winced and met her hard eyes.

“No, girl, not sex – innocence. Despite the fairy tales, they’re different. The Rules state it. You lost your innocence when you killed for revenge. Using the unicorn’s horn as your weapon was the icing; just as bad, in its way, as the goblins’ use of it.”

“But….”

My mind was spinning faster than my tongue could go. I spoke slowly, trying to concentrate on one single strand of thought. “I was saving Azim al-Liajli’s life. The goblin was going to kill him. He had a knife.” My reply sounded limp to my ears. I realized that Azim tried to prevent me from killing the goblin with his gaze. But the rage flooded me again and I struck. I had killed for revenge.

I slumped in my aunt’s sheltering arms. A long while later, without looking up, I asked the only question that mattered to me.

“Have I … do I still have my fey abilities?”

The slow shaking of her head rocked me as I rested on her bosom. Her old-lady, lavender and herbal scent filled my nose with the motion. I dreaded that answer, even as I knew it was the only true one.

There was a long silence before another question burned its way out of my mouth.

“Will I ever see him again?” I meant Azim al-Liajli.

“No, Sylvie. He can’t see you. Even if he wanted to. He didn’t make the rules, either, you know. But we all have to live by them. Whether we want to or not.” Her soft voice was muffled. I could tell she was lost in her own thoughts. I wondered what had happened to her. Something similar, I was sure. I should’ve asked those questions long ago.

While I knew I would care later, right now nothing mattered. Nothing got through the emptiness.

The space where my strong magic had been was an echoing chamber – vast, beautiful and empty, like a palace for Sleeping Beauty. If only I could believe that a kiss from my beloved could awaken me from this terrible dream. But my beloved was a unicorn, and I was no longer pure in thought.

“Whether we believe in it, or not,” I muttered, half asleep in her arms.

“Exactly.”


Years have passed since that time. Aunt Rosemarie is long gone. My sister has two children, my brother and his wife expect their first. I am anxiously watching you youngsters for any sign of the fey about you. So far, nothing. But I remain vigilant.

And dedicated. I’ll see to it that the next generation, the ones I teach, will benefit from my pain. Unlike Aunt Rosemarie, who couldn’t bear to tell me her tale until after I’d failed, too. How I wish….

But it doesn’t matter. The past is done. My magic is gone. I sense things, but I can no longer affect them. I can only pass on the lore.

Therefore this tale, written here for any to read. I may not be able to tell the information, but there is no Rule against writing it, or leaving the story out for it to be read. The Rules are what they are, and I must abide by them, like them or not. But, as Aunt Rosemarie and the Rules both have said, ‘be careful when using names.’

Perhaps I can’t use the fey abilities any more. But I can use semantics, dear niece or nephew. Read this and heed my warning.

And, if you happen to see Azim al-Liajli, please, tell him I love him still.

Episode 63: The Gloaming, Part 1 by M. E. Garber


The Gloaming, Part 1

by M E Garber

I forgot Rule Number 1.

I imagined the evil hordes, and they became real.

I did it. I believed in them, gave them their power and forms. They merely fed my fear and my inattention, directed my fertile imagination into the darkness of isolation. I followed, as blind as I could be.


Aunt Rosemarie sniffed the air as she opened the door, and peered around as I stepped outside to walk home.

“Something’s funny. It feels wrong out here,” she said, shaking her head. She’d been unsettled for two nights. Tonight she looked worse still. Her pale blue eyes flickered over my face, looking for – something. I ducked my head, trying to hide my own nervousness, hide the questions I wanted to ask, but didn’t know how. At seventeen, there were lots of things I couldn’t easily say anymore, but this was a big one.

I shuffled my foot, nodded and smiled. “It’s supposed to storm later. Maybe it’s the weather you’re feeling.”

She grunted. I was more sensitive than she was anymore. She always said so, at any rate, explaining “At puberty, all those senses are ratcheted so sky-high, you could sense a misplaced pin a haystack if you wanted to.”

She searched my face again.

“Should I call your father? He’d pick you up. We’d say it was fear of the storm, if you want …” She glanced over my shoulder, out at the darkness beyond the porch light, where even now the breeze was stiffening, the trees beginning to sough. The air felt heavy and prickled with expectation.

My aunt pulled her troubled gaze back up to my face, back into the light of the dim porch-light trying to illuminate all the night. A few moths spun around it, making me dizzy with their arching and spinning. That made me smile, and I relaxed.

“Aunt Rosemarie, it’s okay. Really.” I smiled as I leaned down to pat Flora the cat, who now circled my ankles. “I’ll be home long before the storm breaks, and let’s face it – you’ve taught me well how NOT to be afraid of the dark.”

Aunt Rosemarie chuckled at that, and I felt her relax. Not entirely, but enough; she’d let me go.

I scooped Flora in my arms and snuggled her close a moment, then handed the cat back to Aunt Rosemarie. As I did, she said, “Well, I suppose I have, at that. I’m not sure I like it, but you go on, then. And call me when you get home. Maybe it’s just an old woman’s worries, but I just can’t shake the sense that this storm just … isn’t right, somehow.” She shook her head while stroking the ancient cat in her arms.

I smiled for her over my shoulder as I stepped off the porch, the stairs squeaking under me.

“I’ll do that. Goodnight.”

Her “Goodnight” rang through the air  like a benediction, a blessing that wrapped around me and kept me safe and warm. I snuggled into that feeling as I left the long driveway and walked along the country road that would bring me home, in town under the glare of incandescent street lights that I normally hated. Now I longed to reach them.


 

In the gloaming, understand, anything is possible. You see, I’m a fey-girl, and Aunt Rosemarie is my teacher. She knew what I was from the beginning. She didn’t belittle my stories or roll her eyes at my sightings like everyone else, and her voice didn’t take on babyish, high-pitched tones when discussing these things with me.

Daddy would not-so-patiently shine the flashlight’s revealing beam on the scary shape and it was the stump of a dead tree, covered in ivy – when a moment before it had been a witch or a goblin sneaking after me, wearing a flowing cloak.

“See,” he’d whine. “Nothing to be afraid of, Sylvie.”

And after the flashlight’s beam showed the unflattering, mundane “reality,” it had to stay that way. Those are the Rules.

Aunt Rosemarie told me about the Rules, and how to use them to my advantage. Thanks to her, I learned that what I saw was partly mine to choose, and that what became real was influenced by how much I believed in what I saw. So I taught myself to see ward-wolves, the protectors of forests and fey, instead of shadow jaguars, the lurking evil cats that pounced on unwary innocents. And instead of goblins I saw fairies. If I did see a “goblin,” I shone a light onto the spot to see what it really was, so that my “imagined” evil couldn’t become real.

It was all wonderful, even if a little scary. Everywhere I looked in the thickening darkness of evening — the gloaming — the woods near Aunt Rosemarie’s house came alive with silent shapes, furtive whispers, rustlings in the undergrowth marking the passage of things unseen. Aunt Rosemarie walked me home in the evenings, on the dirt road running along the edge of the woods, and helped me practice. As time went on, those things became less scary, more enchanting.

But they were about to become scary again.


The wind whipped across the fields. The corn, head-high, was rustling and rattling, making such a ruckus as to drown out almost any other sound. The forest lay beyond the fields, further down the road. There the wind would be quieted by the density of the trees. I’d feel safer there, less exposed. My name, Sylvie, comes from sylvan, or “from the woods.” It meant my magic was strongest in the forest. I picked up my pace.

The wind fussed with my hair, so I tucked the loose strands behind my ear. Thick clouds scudded across the horizon and blocked out the stars. The moon made a sporadic showing, and her waning, half-full figure cast little light on the terrain. A thousand things could be hidden in that darkness and I’d never see it, or hear it, thanks to the corn. I shivered, then gave myself a mental shake.

“Get a grip!” I muttered.

Despite the strong winds, a reek rose around me. I gagged and put a hand over my mouth and nose, warding off the rotting stench of an animal carcass. It came from the deep ditch to my right, there in the drain-pipe culvert under the tractor bridge. It hadn’t been there before – I would’ve remembered it!

A wailing howl, cut short, rang out from the forest’s edge. I jerked my head up. A ward-wolf!

A snarl, nearly masked by the now-shrieking cornfield and blown away by the howling wind, sounded nearby.  At the same time, I saw a motion, a glowing, opalescent form moving in the nearest corn rows.

It was Azim al-Liajli, my chosen unicorn! He broke through the corn at the small clearing before the tractor bridge just behind me. Around him, his six unicorn companions emerged from the cornfield. I didn’t have time to marvel that, for the first time, I was seeing Azim al-Liajli and his brethren in the flesh instead of in the dream-world.

He stamped a hoof and snorted, and the ground in the carrion-stinking ditch between us began to boil. Like black vomit and bile of the earth, goblins rose up – misshapen and twisted, with dark, cunning eyes and vicious teeth gleaming in their malevolent smiles. They were short, maybe three feet tall, with long, oddly-jointed limbs. Their reek gagged me.

I shrank back, hoping they hadn’t seen me. But they knew I was there — they’d come for me. Five turned toward me, malice in their smiles, while the remainder advanced toward the unicorns, who lowered their heads and horns, bracing their feet against the tide.

I backed up, away from the goblins and the unicorns they now clashed with. Panic washed over me and I turned my back on all that feyness to flee, but a bony, long-fingered hand snatched my elbow. Others grabbed my arms and even my leg. I twisted and flung myself about, trying to wrench free, but the fingers, the hands groping all over my body, were too tight, too many, too strong. And the stench of them was so overwhelming, my breath came in ragged gasps. One glued himself to my back, his arms and legs wrapped intimately around me. Two others held my arms, and one sat on my left foot and gripped the ankle and calf.

I couldn’t move.


I spent long days tending the garden with Aunt Rosemarie, while my older brother and sister were in after-school activities and my parents worked. Grandma Seal – her name was Cecilia, but I’d always thought of the animal – lived there with Aunt Rosemarie in her cottage in the country. Grandma Seal was full of stories. She told me the oldest stories she remembered. A light would come on in Grandma’s pale blue eyes, like a beacon, as she launched into a new yarn.

Folktales, she called them. Old wives’ tales, my mother snorted. Fairy tales, my siblings–far older and too superior for such children’s things–scorned. My father never said much of anything except “Oh,” or “Uh-huh,” and went back to his magazine.

I didn’t care because Aunt Rosemarie confided that this is the way it always is. That most people can’t see and some won’t see, while only a few really do see the magic, the mysterious things. And of those few, only a very few human-fey mixed-bloods – like me – can influence them.

She told me not to be too proud because then I’d draw the pure fey to me like moths are drawn to a porch-light. Then the goblins and the evil witches would outnumber the good elves and fairies. They’d become stronger and bolder, and they’d play havoc with our mundane, human world.

Now, this seemed a bit too much for me to believe, even after everything else she’d told me. All the rest seemed logical and reasonable to my creative young mind, but not this.

“How could something you don’t believe in hurt you?” I’d asked as we weeded the garden.

The teasing light left her pale gray-blue eyes.

“If only we could prevent evil by not believing in it – if only it were that simple, Sylvie. But evil is always there, waiting for its chance to twist meanings. To ruin us.”

And she’d shaken her head and hobbled back into the house.


The goblin on my back rubbed himself on me, slowly. I lowered my head and saw the goblin holding my foot smile. I shuddered, and he gripped tighter with one hand and stroked my ankle with the other. His yellowed, sharp teeth gleamed.

“Good,” the one on my back hissed into my ear, “good girl. No more fighting now, eh? Heh-heh-hee.”

I would have collapsed except for fear of what might happen if I was on the ground. I trembled.

Fingers grabbed my chin and forced my head down. A goblin, obviously their leader, held my face. He stood taller than the rest, coming up to my shoulder. His inhumanly-long arms reached my chin while the other wound itself into my hair. He was so strong. My breath rasped in my throat as I fought the terror and nausea warring for possession of my stomach.

All the chaos of the battle–pounding hooves, squeals and cries of pain, neighs of triumph, hoarse yells and cheers–dimmed as I gazed into that face. Dark eyes that gleamed like fresh blood; smooth skin not brown, black or gray, but somehow all those combined, like the slurping mud that pulls the shoes off your feet. A few wiry hairs ran along his jawline, and several longer ones formed a tuft at his pointed chin. His mouth twisted into a grin, showing pointed teeth growing in all directions and two long fangs protruding from his lower jaw like tusks.

He was compelling. I couldn’t draw my gaze away despite his repulsive smell, the horror of his looks, the sounds that called to me. His eyes drew me in, calmed me.  My body quivered, my heart pounded and my breath raced fast and shallow. Part of my mind was screaming, “Run! Fight! Flee!,” but I had no volition. I was ensorcelled.

I was amazed at how well-done the trap–the ensnarement–had been. I marveled at his control, and acknowledged a mastery greater than my own.

“No! NO!” screamed a wiser fraction of my brain. But it was too late.

What I believe becomes reality. I was now defenseless.

The Goblin King stroked my cheek, then released my face and turned to watch the battle. Now that I’d been mastered, it seemed I was to watch the slaughter with my captors.


My Change occurred around age fourteen. Afterwards, when I dreamed in the light of the full moon, I played with unicorns, dancing with them, stroking their warm and gleaming sides. Their soft, whiskery noses nuzzling my hair, tickling my neck. One unicorn in particular was my favorite, and he regarded me similarly. He came often, and stayed longer that the rest, sometimes even lying his head in my lap for me to smooth his forelock from his eyes, to stroke his brow. He’d sigh, I’d sigh, and we’d both be lulled to sleep by warm freesia-scented breezes. When I’d wake next, I’d be back in my own room, in my bed, and the scent of freesias would surround me, seeming to come in the open window on moonbeams.

Romance:  that was the Change, Aunt Rosemarie explained.

I decided that my unicorn needed a name, a special name. Now, we’d already covered the importance of naming, using her own name as an example. Well, rosemary is an herb, and not just any herb. It’s the herb of remembering, of memory. And here she was, remembering all the lore, passing it on to me. “Just as one day,” she’d said, “you’ll pass it on to the next generation. That’s the way it works, you know. We creative ones don’t have children of our own.”

“Why?”

But her face had turned to stone. She sat there for long, unmoving moments as I watched the memories flashing behind her eyes. They weren’t good. Into the hush that had silenced even the breeze, Grandma Seal called, “Lunch’s ready! You better get inside.” The spell broke, the vision of memories stopped.

So I called my special unicorn ‘Azim al-Liajli,’ which as I reasoned it out, meant Protector the Pure. I meant it to signify his pure whiteness, and his role as my defender against the forces of evil magic outside our beautiful walled garden. That’s where I found myself now, in my dreams with him and the other unicorns: in a beautiful, sunny walled garden–like in the tapestries–with a forest, dark and lovely, all around. I whispered his name into his ear one night. His dark eye regarded me, then began to gleam, and he nuzzled my hair, my neck. I could tell he was pleased with my choice.

So passed two more years. Quiet, idyllic years.

Aunt Rosemarie had gotten older, more frail. She needed my help more than I needed hers now. She had her hands full trying to care for Grandma Seal, the house and the garden, and she welcomed my visits; needed them, even.

My little magics helped the day along, although once in awhile Aunt Rosemarie scowled a bit, her jowls shaking as she growled, “Be cautious with how you play with that, girl! Magic’s not to be abused, and it’s not to be over-used, either! Don’t draw attention to yourself, Sylvie – it’s never any good! The true fey don’t care for us, and they want us gone. Remember your Rules.”

I’d always look solemn and promise that I’d be careful not to draw attention, not to let anyone know what I was doing. And since I meant it, she was mollified. But I wasn’t about to NOT use these gifts, to do everything the hard way, when I didn’t have to. Not when the fey magic ran in my blood.

So I’d “see” all the weeding done, the garden looking proper and neat in the ninety-degree sun, and it would be. Then I’d go do some work in the shade for a few hours before I went back to tell Aunt Rosemarie the weeding was done. Or I’d imagine the watering bucket full at the well, so I wouldn’t have to haul the water all the way up from the depths by the hand crank. I’d still fill the watering cans and carry them to the garden, but at least I wouldn’t have rope-burned hands along with the sore arms and shoulders and a sunburned neck.

They were small concessions, and they kept me sane and my skills sharp. When an emergency came, I’d keep my wits and see my desired ending, I told myself. And I believed it. But there was a pull, too, toward using magic just because. Because it was easier. Because, despite the warnings, I was growing proud.

“What was the good of having a talent if you never got to use it. Why have a cook and then do all your own cooking anyway?” I asked Aunt Rosemarie one afternoon after her warning.

“What’s gotten into you, girl? This fey power is no plaything. I’ve told you that from the get-go. And still you don’t understand this?” She snorted, a warbly sound deep in her throat that commanded no respect seeing as how it resembled canary sneezing. “You flaunt your powers, you’ll draw unwanted attention from the true fey, you can be sure of it. And trust me, Sylvie, you really don’t want that. They barely tolerate humans-fey mongrels like us. They want you to fail.”

Her eyes rolled, and foam flecked her lips. She was really worked up over this I realized, and I lost my anger. Something had happened to her. I could almost see it again, but she wouldn’t talk about it. Or maybe I wasn’t asking the right question.


The unicorns began falling before the crush of goblins. One screamed as it was pulled under by nightmarish black and gray figures. With another scream, a second disappeared beneath a rising hill of goblins. When the hill flattened, the unicorn was gone. A third took a blow to the neckline and crumpled without a sound, while a fourth unicorn struggled to stay upright on three legs. Its right rear leg hung at a sick angle, with a bone protruding below the hock. A grinning pair of goblins taunted him by swiping at his front legs with their long wooden spears. A third goblin leapt onto his back, whipped a rope around his neck and yanked back. The unicorn reared onto his hind legs in eye-rolling panic, then toppled back and sideways. Another guttural cheer went up from the surrounding goblin horde.

The last three unicorns stood in a circle, hindquarters almost touching. They staved off assault after assault. Facing me was Azim al-Liajli. A flurry of motion came between us as another rush of goblins tried to break the trio. Snorts, stamped hooves and screams rent the air while the dark forms of broken goblins went flying. At the next pause,  Azim al-Liajli had a trickle of blood seeping down his fetlock, and one of his partners was wheezing. They couldn’t last much longer.

Episode 62: The Quarrel of the Monkey and the Crab by Yei Theodora Ozaki


The Quarrel of the Monkey and the Crab

by Yei Theodora Ozaki

Long, long ago, one bright autumn day in Japan, it happened that a pink-faced monkey and a yellow crab were playing together along the bank of a river. As they were running about, the crab found a rice-dumpling and the monkey a persimmon-seed.

The crab picked up the rice-dumpling and showed it to the monkey, saying:

“Look what a nice thing I have found!”

Then the monkey held up his persimmon-seed and said:

“I also have found something good! Look!”

Now though the monkey is always very fond of persimmon fruit, he had no use for the seed he had just found. The persimmon-seed is as hard and uneatable as a stone. He, therefore, in his greedy nature, felt very envious of the crab’s nicer dumpling, and he proposed an exchange. The crab naturally did not see why he should give up his prize for a hard stone-like seed, and would not consent to the monkey’s proposition.

Then the cunning monkey began to persuade the crab, saying:

“How unwise you are not to think of the future! Your rice-dumpling can be eaten now, and is certainly much bigger than my seed; but if you sow this seed in the ground it will soon grow and become a great tree in a few years, and bear an abundance of fine ripe persimmons year after year. If only I could show it to you then with the yellow fruit hanging on its branches! Of course, if you don’t believe me I shall sow it myself; though I am sure, later on, you will be very sorry that you did not take my advice.”

The simple-minded crab could not resist the monkey’s clever persuasion. He at last gave in and consented to the monkey’s proposal, and the exchange was made. The greedy monkey soon gobbled up the dumpling, and with great reluctance gave up the persimmon-seed to the crab. He would have liked to keep that too, but he was afraid of making the crab angry and of being pinched by his sharp scissor-like claws. They then separated, the monkey going home to his forest trees and the crab to his stones along the river-side. As soon as the crab reached home he put the persimmon-seed in the ground as the monkey had told him.

In the following spring the crab was delighted to see the shoot of a young tree push its way up through the ground. Each year it grew bigger, till at last it blossomed one spring, and in the following autumn bore some fine large persimmons. Among the broad smooth green leaves the fruit hung like golden balls, and as they ripened they mellowed to a deep orange. It was the little crab’s pleasure to go out day by day and sit in the sun and put out his long eyes in the same way as a snail puts out its horn, and watch the persimmons ripening to perfection.

“How delicious they will be to eat!” he said to himself.

At last, one day, he knew the persimmons must be quite ripe and he wanted very much to taste one. He made several attempts to climb the tree, in the vain hope of reaching one of the beautiful persimmons hanging above him; but he failed each time, for a crab’s legs are not made for climbing trees but only for running along the ground and over stones, both of which he can do most cleverly. In his dilemma he thought of his old playmate the monkey, who, he knew, could climb trees better than any one else in the world. He determined to ask the monkey to help him, and set out to find him.

Running crab-fashion up the stony river bank, over the pathways into the shadowy forest, the crab at last found the monkey taking an afternoon nap in his favorite pine-tree, with his tail curled tight around a branch to prevent him from falling off in his dreams. He was soon wide awake, however, when he heard himself called, and eagerly listening to what the crab told him. When he heard that the seed which he had long ago exchanged for a rice-dumpling had grown into a tree and was now bearing good fruit, he was delighted, for he at once devised a cunning plan which would give him all the persimmons for himself.

He consented to go with the crab to pick the fruit for him. When they both reached the spot, the monkey was astonished to see what a fine tree had sprung from the seed, and with what a number of ripe persimmons the branches were loaded.

He quickly climbed the tree and began to pluck and eat, as fast as he could, one persimmon after another. Each time he chose the best and ripest he could find, and went on eating till he could eat no more. Not one would he give to the poor hungry crab waiting below, and when he had finished there was little but the hard, unripe fruit left.

You can imagine the feelings of the poor crab after waiting patiently, for so long as he had done, for the tree to grow and the fruit to ripen, when he saw the monkey devouring all the good persimmons. He was so disappointed that he ran round and round the tree calling to the monkey to remember his promise. The monkey at first took no notice of the crab’s complaints, but at last he picked out the hardest, greenest persimmon he could find and aimed it at the crab’s head. The persimmon is as hard as stone when it is unripe. The monkey’s missile struck home and the crab was sorely hurt by the blow. Again and again, as fast as he could pick them, the monkey pulled off the hard persimmons and threw them at the defenseless crab till he dropped dead, covered with wounds all over his body. There he lay a pitiful sight at the foot of the tree he had himself planted.

When the wicked monkey saw that he had killed the crab he ran away from the spot as fast as he could, in fear and trembling, like a coward as he was.

Now the crab had a son who had been playing with a friend not far from the spot where this sad work had taken place. On the way home he came across his father dead, in a most dreadful condition—his head was smashed and his shell broken in several places, and around his body lay the unripe persimmons which had done their deadly work. At this dreadful sight the poor young crab sat down and wept.

But when he had wept for some time he told himself that this crying would do no good; it was his duty to avenge his father’s murder, and this he determined to do. He looked about for some clue which would lead him to discover the murderer. Looking up at the tree he noticed that the best fruit had gone, and that all around lay bits of peel and numerous seeds strewn on the ground as well as the unripe persimmons which had evidently been thrown at his father. Then he understood that the monkey was the murderer, for he now remembered that his father had once told him the story of the rice-dumpling and the persimmon-seed. The young crab knew that monkeys liked persimmons above all other fruit, and he felt sure that his greed for the coveted fruit had been the cause of the old crab’s death. Alas!

He at first thought of going to attack the monkey at once, for he burned with rage. Second thoughts, however, told him that this was useless, for the monkey was an old and cunning animal and would be hard to overcome. He must meet cunning with cunning and ask some of his friends to help him, for he knew it would be quite out of his power to kill him alone.

The young crab set out at once to call on the mortar, his father’s old friend, and told him of all that had happened. He besought the mortar with tears to help him avenge his father’s death. The mortar was very sorry when he heard the woeful tale and promised at once to help the young crab punish the monkey to death. He warned him that he must be very careful in what he did, for the monkey was a strong and cunning enemy. The mortar now sent to fetch the bee and the chestnut (also the crab’s old friends) to consult them about the matter. In a short time the bee and the chestnut arrived. When they were told all the details of the old crab’s death and of the monkey’s wickedness and greed, they both gladly consented to help the young crab in his revenge.

After talking for a long time as to the ways and means of carrying out their plans they separated, and Mr. Mortar went home with the young crab to help him bury his poor father.

While all this was taking place the monkey was congratulating himself (as the wicked often do before their punishment comes upon them) on all he had done so neatly. He thought it quite a fine thing that he had robbed his friend of all his ripe persimmons and then that he had killed him. Still, smile as hard as he might, he could not banish altogether the fear of the consequences should his evil deeds be discovered. IF he were found out (and he told himself that this could not be for he had escaped unseen) the crab’s family would be sure to bear him hatred and seek to take revenge on him. So he would not go out, and kept himself at home for several days. He found this kind of life, however, extremely dull, accustomed as he was to the free life of the woods, and at last he said:

“No one knows that it was I who killed the crab! I am sure that the old thing breathed his last before I left him. Dead crabs have no mouths! Who is there to tell that I am the murderer? Since no one knows, what is the use of shutting myself up and brooding over the matter? What is done cannot be undone!”

With this he wandered out into the crab settlement and crept about as slyly as possible near the crab’s house and tried to hear the neighbors’ gossip round about. He wanted to find out what the crabs were saying about their chief’s death, for the old crab had been the chief of the tribe. But he heard nothing and said to himself:

“They are all such fools that they don’t know and don’t care who murdered their chief!”

Little did he know in his so-called “monkey’s wisdom” that this seeming unconcern was part of the young crab’s plan. He purposely pretended not to know who killed his father, and also to believe that he had met his death through his own fault. By this means he could the better keep secret the revenge on the monkey, which he was meditating.

So the monkey returned home from his walk quite content. He told himself he had nothing now to fear.

One fine day, when the monkey was sitting at home, he was surprised by the appearance of a messenger from the young crab. While he was wondering what this might mean, the messenger bowed before him and said:

“I have been sent by my master to inform you that his father died the other day in falling from a persimmon tree while trying to climb the tree after fruit. This, being the seventh day, is the first anniversary after his death, and my master has prepared a little festival in his father’s honor, and bids you come to participate in it as you were one of his best friends. My master hopes you will honor his house with your kind visit.”

When the monkey heard these words he rejoiced in his inmost heart, for all his fears of being suspected were now at rest. He could not guess that a plot had just been set in motion against him. He pretended to be very surprised at the news of the crab’s death, and said:

“I am, indeed, very sorry to hear of your chief’s death. We were great friends as you know. I remember that we once exchanged a rice-dumpling for a persimmon-seed. It grieves me much to think that that seed was in the end the cause of his death. I accept your kind invitation with many thanks. I shall be delighted to do honor to my poor old friend!” And he screwed some false tears from his eyes.

The messenger laughed inwardly and thought, “The wicked monkey is now dropping false tears, but within a short time he shall shed real ones.” But aloud he thanked the monkey politely and went home.

When he had gone, the wicked monkey laughed aloud at what he thought was the young crab’s innocence, and without the least feeling began to look forward to the feast to be held that day in honor of the dead crab, to which he had been invited. He changed his dress and set out solemnly to visit the young crab.

He found all the members of the crab’s family and his relatives waiting to receive and welcome him. As soon as the bows of meeting were over they led him to a hall. Here the young chief mourner came to receive him. Expressions of condolence and thanks were exchanged between them, and then they all sat down to a luxurious feast and entertained the monkey as the guest of honor.

The feast over, he was next invited to the tea-ceremony room to drink a cup of tea. When the young crab had conducted the monkey to the tearoom he left him and retired. Time passed and still he did not return. At last the monkey became impatient. He said to himself:

“This tea ceremony is always a very slow affair. I am tired of waiting so long. I am very thirsty after drinking so much sake at the dinner!”

He then approached the charcoal fire-place and began to pour out some hot water from the kettle boiling there, when something burst out from the ashes with a great pop and hit the monkey right in the neck. It was the chestnut, one of the crab’s friends, who had hidden himself in the fireplace. The monkey, taken by surprise, jumped backward, and then started to run out of the room.

The bee, who was hiding outside the screens, now flew out and stung him on the cheek. The monkey was in great pain, his neck was burned by the chestnut and his face badly stung by the bee, but he ran on screaming and chattering with rage.

Now the stone mortar had hidden himself with several other stones on the top of the crab’s gate, and as the monkey ran underneath, the mortar and all fell down on the top of the monkey’s head. Was it possible for the monkey to bear the weight of the mortar falling on him from the top of the gate? He lay crushed and in great pain, quite unable to get up. As he lay there helpless the young crab came up, and, holding his great claw scissors over the monkey, he said:

“Do you now remember that you murdered my father?”

“Then you—are—my—enemy?” gasped the monkey brokenly.

“Of course,” said the young crab.

“It—was—your—father’s—fault—not—mine!” gasped the unrepentant monkey.

“Can you still lie? I will soon put an end to your breath!” and with that he cut off the monkey’s head with his pitcher claws. Thus the wicked monkey met his well-merited punishment, and the young crab avenged his father’s death.

This is the end of the story of the monkey, the crab, and the persimmon-seed.

Episode 61: The Great Game, Part 6 – When Stars Fall by James Vachowski

Show Notes

To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.


The Great Game, Part 6–When Stars Fall

by James Vachowski

Child!  Quickly now, come here!  Pull the drapes back, there’s a good lad, and roll me to the window.  See…there! That flash of light! 

What?  A meteor?  Don’t be a dunce, child, there’s no such thing.  That was a star falling from the heavens, as sure as I’m alive.  But draw the curtains now, if you please. A single shooting star is an omen of luck, but seeing several foretells death.  I’ve seen enough death in my time, and I fear that my own summons cannot be too far off.

Ah, thank you.  The stars are beautiful flashes of silver from afar, but terrifying when viewed up close.  What? Of course I’ve seen a star up close, child! In fact, I’ve actually ridden in one!

Eh?  You don’t believe me?  Your disbelief is clearly fueled by pure envy.  Here, pull up a chair and I shall explain. It was in Egypt, of course, that mystery of a nation.  The city of Cairo was a sunlit nightmare by day, the heat rising up from the dusty streets and back alleys, but at dusk the air would cool and the imam’s call to prayer brought with it a pleasant peace.  I would take my ease after each long day of directing Allenby’s moronic staff, content to lie on the roof of the Embassy and contemplate the pantheon of stars stretching out in the inky night sky. Our Earth itself is so young compared to the stars, but to be in Egypt is to be within Time itself.  Ah, the memories! Yes, Cairo was probably my favorite posting during the War… at least until the bombs started dropping.

The Kaiser was a wily strategist, you see, and he aimed to cut a swath through the Levant by capturing the Suez.  The canal was nothing more than a dredge torn through the Sinai, but during the War it became the lifeblood of our troops.  Without it, transports bearing supplies and troop reinforcements would grind to a halt. If we lost the Suez, I wager to say that we could all but surrender India.

We knew an attack must be coming, child, but we knew not how.  Our sharpest eyes were fixed towards the West, scanning for telltale dustclouds signifying the movements of enemy troops across the desert, but all was still.  Then, from nowhere, a series of slow-moving shapes caught the sun’s rays on the horizon. They shimmered in the light, making their forms impossible to discern until they were nearly upon us.

Zeppelins!

The Kaiser’s aeroforces had slipped over our outer perimeter, racing in from Bulgaria on a brisk easterly wind.  The watchmen raised the hue and cry too late, as the attack had caught us by surprise! While our men scrambled to arms, struggling to winch our machine guns skyward, the first bombs fell.  The bloody Krauts walked them in on their approach, each successive impact louder and more forceful.

My actions were more of reflex than bravery, child, as my swift legs covered the mile to the airfields in mere seconds.  I ran towards the nearest Sopwith and threw the propeller, twisting the engine to life. In a flash, I was aboard and taxiing down the runway, explosions falling nearer and nearer behind me.  I pulled the throttle back with all my might, willing the aircraft to rise just as the runway came to an end. Feeling the impact behind me, I risked a glance back. The entire runway was pocked with craters, all of the hangers ringed with flames.  In less than a minute, an entire wing of the Royal Air Corps had been destroyed!

All save for me, that is, but I feared my fortune might be short lived.  Dozens of fighter escorts left their zeppelins and swarmed towards me, hailing down waves of bullets that turned the skies black.  Five of them, then six and seven, went down in my crosshairs before a single lucky shot clipped my tail fin. The plane started spiraling downward at full speed as I fought to hold control, black smoke belching from the engine.  Greasy hydraulic fluid spurt forth across the fuselage and streaked up over the windscreen. It was at that point, child, when I reassessed the odds I faced. As much as I despise cowardice, I began to think that a hasty retreat from the battle might be prudent.

With every last ounce of strength in my arms, I muscled the throttle back and somehow got the small plane level.  We buzzed over the city rooftops, the Kaiser’s aeroplanes hot on my tail as I headed west, hoping to lose them in the setting sun.  The pilots were tenacious beasts, though, no doubt hoping to win the glory of bringing me to ground. I heard the staccato hammering of their propellers as the fleet grew ever closer, their poorly aimed bullets whizzing close by.

We cleared the city walls, crossing low over the Nile River, and my hopes grew dim.  Before us lay naught but open desert, with no cover for my escape. In an instant, though, a thin cloud passed over the setting sun and I spied the pyramids of Giza!  My heart lifted, and I opened the choke to dump the remaining fuel. The little Sopwith shot ahead of the pack. I knew the gain in speed would be short lived, but hoped it would be just enough to make one last run for cover.

My plane came in long and low, the rubber wheels bouncing thrice off the rocky desert sand.  I shot straight for the Great Pyramid of Cheops and just as I had planned, the German planes pulled back.  The fools thought I was landing in order to surrender, so they gave me room. At the last second, however, I stomped down hard on the pedal to bank left.  The first two of the Kaiser’s men shot past as I tilted around the base of the pyramid. I was so low that my wingtip grazed the sand, and it took all my skill to wrench it back level.  Seconds later, I pointed the nose into the sand for a hard stop, landing directly between the legs of the Great Sphinx.

There was no time to pat myself on the back, though!  The sound of buzzing propellers grew louder, followed by rows of bullets zipping into the sand behind me.  Ahead, I spotted a dark doorway at the base of the Sphinx, so I raced forward and dove inside, straining to push the stone door back on ancient hinges.  It slammed shut with a thud, just as scores of bullets impacted on the outside.

I was safe!  Trapped inside of a rock, yes, and surrounded in thick darkness, but safe!  I paused briefly, hoping to catch my breath. My hands trembled as blood surged through my veins, and I fought to clear my head.  It seemed there was no way out, and I wondered if I had just traded a swift dispatch from German machine guns for a slow demise by way of asphyxiation!

After several more long moments, my eyes began to adjust to the darkness.  I sensed the dimmest blue glow, and could make out what appeared to be a long tunnel that cut through the rock.  With a heavy heart, I summoned my courage and shuffled further along. There was no way of knowing what awaited me, but what lay outside the Sphinx was an absolute I had no desire to face.

I must have walked for a hundred yards, or it could have been a hundred miles, before the rock opened around me and the light grew exponentially brighter.  It was an open chamber, child, in the heart of the Great Pyramid itself! The floor was surfaced in slick marble, and when my eyes came to focus on the center of the room, I could not hold in my gasp.  There before me was a great silvery object, shaped like a walnut and pulsing with cool blue light. Believe me when I say that I had traveled half the world by that time, but had never beheld such a wondrous saucer.  Even now, with all my years, I struggle to describe it.

My shock at this sight was such that it seemed no more unusual that the starry craft should be tended by an equally obtuse pilot.  He stood half my height in his naked, grey skin, with a bald bulb of a head and the black eyes of a cat. I should have been scared, I suppose, but I knew not what to make of him.  We stood there regarding each other for the longest moment. Looking back, I suppose he should have felt the same curiosity about me!

We spoke no words, but somehow I knew he sensed my anxiety.  A picture of the Kaiser’s mighty zeppelin air force flashed through my mind, and I spotted the creature’s head tilting slightly sideways.  I don’t know how I knew, but I knew, that we were sharing the same image. His chin dipped forward in the most imperceptible of nods. Slowly, he opened his hand and pointed four fingers toward the cosmic galley.  It was an obvious invitation; one I had no intention of refusing.

A hatch appeared before us, closing just as quickly once we climbed aboard.  A seat stitched from the finest Corinthian leather rose to meet me. My newfound ally stood tall, somehow bringing the craft to life with his mere thoughts.  I felt the briefest pulse as the ship flashed blue…and in an instant we were outside, thousands of meters in the air! When the shock of the teleportation had passed, I found myself looking down on the Kaiser’s fleet of dirigibles.  Night had fallen, and we floated overhead as just one more blue star in the sky.

The sight of those murderous blimps below filled me with rage. The creature must have sensed my heated thoughts, for he dipped his head in a nod of acknowledgement.  Seconds later, we were slanting downward, diving straight towards the airfleet! Jets of laser-hot rays shot forth from our ship, turning the mighty gas-filled zeppelins into nothing more than a quick succession of floating fireballs.  This battle was over before it even had a chance to begin, my child! Ah, the horrors of that War still play fresh in this old mind, but none more so than the sight of those burning steel hulls tumbling downward to melt into the still desert sands.

Before I could comprehend the sheer impossibility of what had just transpired, I found myself standing down in the desert itself, just outside the city walls, watching the last of the zeppelins burn.  From the corner of my eye, I spotted a blue burst of flame rising up into the sky. The airship was bound for the heavens, I suppose, or to some other galaxy in need. And though my eyesight is not what it once was, I still look towards the constellations each night, hoping to catch a glimpse of my old friend and his star ship.  Alas, I have never again seen a falling star quite like his, but sometimes I look up in the sky and wonder…

Episode 60: The Swineherd by Hans Christian Andersen


The Swineherd

by Hans Christian Anderson

There was once a poor Prince, who had a kingdom. His kingdom was very small, but still quite large enough to marry upon; and he wished to marry.

It was certainly rather cool of him to say to the Emperor’s daughter, “Will you have me?” But so he did; for his name was renowned far and wide; and there were a hundred princesses who would have answered, “Yes!” and “Thank you kindly.” We shall see what this princess said.

Listen!

It happened that where the Prince’s father lay buried, there grew a rose tree–a most beautiful rose tree, which blossomed only once in every five years, and even then bore only one flower, but that was a rose! It smelt so sweet that all cares and sorrows were forgotten by him who inhaled its fragrance.

And furthermore, the Prince had a nightingale, who could sing in such a manner that it seemed as though all sweet melodies dwelt in her little throat. So the Princess was to have the rose, and the nightingale; and they were accordingly put into large silver caskets, and sent to her.

The Emperor had them brought into a large hall, where the Princess was playing at “Visiting,” with the ladies of the court; and when she saw the caskets with the presents, she clapped her hands for joy.

“Ah, if it were but a little pussy-cat!” said she; but the rose tree, with its beautiful rose came to view.

“Oh, how prettily it is made!” said all the court ladies.

“It is more than pretty,” said the Emperor, “it is charming!”

But the Princess touched it, and was almost ready to cry.

“Fie, papa!” said she. “It is not made at all, it is natural!”

“Let us see what is in the other casket, before we get into a bad humor,” said the Emperor. So the nightingale came forth and sang so delightfully that at first no one could say anything ill-humored of her.

“Superbe! Charmant! exclaimed the ladies; for they all used to chatter French, each one worse than her neighbor.

“How much the bird reminds me of the musical box that belonged to our blessed Empress,” said an old knight. “Oh yes! These are the same tones, the same execution.”

“Yes! yes!” said the Emperor, and he wept like a child at the remembrance.

“I will still hope that it is not a real bird,” said the Princess.

“Yes, it is a real bird,” said those who had brought it. “Well then let the bird fly,” said the Princess; and she positively refused to see the Prince.

However, he was not to be discouraged; he daubed his face over brown and black; pulled his cap over his ears, and knocked at the door.

“Good day to my lord, the Emperor!” said he. “Can I have employment at the palace?”

“Why, yes,” said the Emperor. “I want some one to take care of the pigs, for we have a great many of them.”

So the Prince was appointed “Imperial Swineherd.” He had a dirty little room close by the pigsty; and there he sat the whole day, and worked. By the evening he had made a pretty little kitchen-pot. Little bells were hung all round it; and when the pot was boiling, these bells tinkled in the most charming manner, and played the old melody,

“Ach! du lieber Augustin,
Alles ist weg, weg, weg!”*

* “Ah! dear Augustine!
All is gone, gone, gone!”

But what was still more curious, whoever held his finger in the smoke of the kitchen-pot, immediately smelt all the dishes that were cooking on every hearth in the city–this, you see, was something quite different from the rose.

Now the Princess happened to walk that way; and when she heard the tune, she stood quite still, and seemed pleased; for she could play “Lieber Augustine”; it was the only piece she knew; and she played it with one finger.

“Why there is my piece,” said the Princess. “That swineherd must certainly have been well educated! Go in and ask him the price of the instrument.”

So one of the court-ladies must run in; however, she drew on wooden slippers first.

“What will you take for the kitchen-pot?” said the lady.

“I will have ten kisses from the Princess,” said the swineherd.

“Yes, indeed!” said the lady.

“I cannot sell it for less,” rejoined the swineherd.

“He is an impudent fellow!” said the Princess, and she walked on; but when she had gone a little way, the bells tinkled so prettily

“Ach! du lieber Augustin,
Alles ist weg, weg, weg!”

“Stay,” said the Princess. “Ask him if he will have ten kisses from the ladies of my court.”

“No, thank you!” said the swineherd. “Ten kisses from the Princess, or I keep the kitchen-pot myself.”

“That must not be, either!” said the Princess. “But do you all stand before me that no one may see us.”

And the court-ladies placed themselves in front of her, and spread out their dresses–the swineherd got ten kisses, and the Princess–the kitchen-pot.

That was delightful! The pot was boiling the whole evening, and the whole of the following day. They knew perfectly well what was cooking at every fire throughout the city, from the chamberlain’s to the cobbler’s; the court-ladies danced and clapped their hands.

“We know who has soup, and who has pancakes for dinner to-day, who has cutlets, and who has eggs. How interesting!”

“Yes, but keep my secret, for I am an Emperor’s daughter.”

The swineherd–that is to say–the Prince, for no one knew that he was other than an ill-favored swineherd, let not a day pass without working at something; he at last constructed a rattle, which, when it was swung round, played all the waltzes and jig tunes, which have ever been heard since the creation of the world.

“Ah, that is superbe!” said the Princess when she passed by. “I have never heard prettier compositions! Go in and ask him the price of the instrument; but mind, he shall have no more kisses!”

“He will have a hundred kisses from the Princess!” said the lady who had been to ask.

“I think he is not in his right senses!” said the Princess, and walked on, but when she had gone a little way, she stopped again. “One must encourage art,” said she, “I am the Emperor’s daughter. Tell him he shall, as on yesterday, have ten kisses from me, and may take the rest from the ladies of the court.”

“Oh–but we should not like that at all!” said they. “What are you muttering?” asked the Princess. “If I can kiss him, surely you can. Remember that you owe everything to me.” So the ladies were obliged to go to him again.

“A hundred kisses from the Princess,” said he, “or else let everyone keep his own!”

“Stand round!” said she; and all the ladies stood round her whilst the kissing was going on.

“What can be the reason for such a crowd close by the pigsty?” said the Emperor, who happened just then to step out on the balcony; he rubbed his eyes, and put on his spectacles. “They are the ladies of the court; I must go down and see what they are about!” So he pulled up his slippers at the heel, for he had trodden them down.

As soon as he had got into the court-yard, he moved very softly, and the ladies were so much engrossed with counting the kisses, that all might go on fairly, that they did not perceive the Emperor. He rose on his tiptoes.

“What is all this?” said he, when he saw what was going on, and he boxed the Princess’s ears with his slipper, just as the swineherd was taking the eighty-sixth kiss.

“March out!” said the Emperor, for he was very angry; and both Princess and swineherd were thrust out of the city.

The Princess now stood and wept, the swineherd scolded, and the rain poured down.

“Alas! Unhappy creature that I am!” said the Princess. “If I had but married the handsome young Prince! Ah! how unfortunate I am!”

And the swineherd went behind a tree, washed the black and brown color from his face, threw off his dirty clothes, and stepped forth in his princely robes; he looked so noble that the Princess could not help bowing before him.

“I am come to despise thee,” said he. “Thou would’st not have an honorable Prince! Thou could’st not prize the rose and the nightingale, but thou wast ready to kiss the swineherd for the sake of a trumpery plaything. Thou art rightly served.”

He then went back to his own little kingdom, and shut the door of his palace in her face. Now she might well sing,

“Ach! du lieber Augustin,
Alles ist weg, weg, weg!”

Episode 58: The Great Game, Part 5 – The Dark Continent by James Vachowski

Show Notes

The Dark Continent is part 5 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.


The Great Game, Part 5 — The Dark Continent

by James Vachowski

Light a lamp, child, and be quick about it.  The day is fading, and my eyes are not what they once were.  Ah, that’s the rub. This room closes in when night falls. Oftimes I find myself back in the dense brush of the Kalahari.  Were you to speak a smattering of Bantu, odds are fair I would mark you by size as a pygmy Bushman.

What?  A Bushman, child!  Do you mean to tell me you have no knowledge of the fiercest warriors on this Earth?  The scourge of the Dark Continent? Those diminutive spearmen have dispatched tens of thousands of Her Majesty’s riflemen to their end, and it is no embellishment to say that I was nearly one of that number.

Your professors might say Africa was a secondary theater during the War, but it became a most primary concern for my soldiers once tiny spears came whistling over our heads.  It was a covert mission you see, one of the utmost importance, and so the General would assign it to none but myself. We were en route from the port of Dar es Salaam to rendezvous with a reconnaissance team atop Mount Kilimanjaro, in the heart of the Kaiser’s territory in East Africa.  It was a dangerous task, made more so by the thousand-mile trek through the wilds of Zanzibar.

We were barely a week’s march into the brush when the fiends encircled us and attacked!  Tiny spears rained from the treetops, blowgun darts felled men like killer bees. Our brigade was halved in a matter of seconds by this treacherous ambush.  My men took up defensive positions, bless them, but it was only for show. Thousands of pygmies stepped out from behind tree trunks and sawgrass bushes. Clad only in leather loincloths, with ritual scars etched across their chests, their intent was clear as they bared their filed teeth.  Their battle leader approached, and I had no choice but to lay down my arms in surrender.

The Bushmen were clearly indentured mercenaries of the Kaiser, so I doffed my pith helmet and demanded parlay, hoping to channel the spirit of the great explorer Livingstone.  I doubted that the dark warrior fully understood the meaning of my flowery greeting, but I assume that he received my peaceful intent, just by the fact that I was still alive. With a shrill whistle, the leader summoned a spotted giraffe, who prostrated himself to receive passengers.  He and I climbed aboard, and we cantered across the bush at treetop level, occasionally ducking to miss stray branches.  

Hours later, with the sun still perched high above, we arrived in the Bushman’s village.  It was nothing more than a few haphazardly constructed straw huts surrounded by a circle of thorns, but the village came to life as we made our entrance.  Dusky women clutching babies to their breasts edged forward to gawk at my fair skin. The giraffe slid to a halt in front of the largest hut, graciously laying for us to dismount.  

The chieftain emerged from his hut in due time; whether he was intentionally making us wait or simply needed extra time to arrange his finery, I know not.  He was a giant among the Bushmen, standing three and a half feet in stature, wearing a loincloth spun from pure gold fibers. A beaded crown topped his nappy head, but his face was concealed behind a carved wooden mask.  A gigantic cowrie shell stood in place of his lips. By magic, its edges moved with the weight of his words as he spoke.

“Welcome to our home,” he said, in a clipped form of pidgin English, “and yours as well, at least for a short time.  You shall serve as our dinner of course. Bring your men ‘round forthwith. They are to be decapitated, disemboweled, and stewed.”

Forgive an old man a pun, child, but the thought of having my men slaughtered in such a fashion was quite distasteful.  My mind raced as I struggled to bargain for their lives. In an effort to buy time, I fell to my knees and kowtowed before the chieftain.  “My Lord,” I said, “Such a feast might be fine, but my men are exhausted from the War and our long journey. I fear that the stringy meat on our bones might not be pleasing to your royal palate.”

A shadow of worry crossed the chieftain’s mask.  “Yes…” the fiend hissed, “that would not do at all.”

Seizing this window of opportunity, I went on.  “Might I suggest an alternative, your highness? Perhaps my men would better serve your village as slaves.  They could bear fresh water daily from Lake Victoria.” The thought of my troops baking under the red sun and suffering a slow, exhausting demise was not much better than the image of them being eaten, but at least it would postpone their deaths for weeks, if not months.

The cowrie shell twisted into a wrinkled smile.  “Yes…” the chief hissed again, “that would be of great benefit to my tribe.  Water is hard to come by in my kingdom, and your soldiers might prove very useful to us.”

He had been sold on the idea of luxury, so I seized upon the power of negotiation.  “It is settled, then. As a representative of my men, I will submit to a challenge. If I fail your test, we will surrender ourselves completely as your servants.”

The carved wooden eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “Why should I test you, white man? Your army is still surrounded.  I could give the order and have them all killed in a matter of seconds.”

I smiled at that, sensing my position of advantage.  “Ah, my Lord, but if you kill us, then who would bear water to your village?”

The oversized mask nodded up and down.  “’True…”

I went on.  “So I have your word then, sir?  If I pass your challenge, we shall have our freedom.”

A long pause before he answered.  “Yes…” the cowrie lips hissed, “you shall. I propose a riddle.”

The tribe gathered around us let out a collective gasp, and I felt my blood run cold.  It was said that the African riddles were older than the continent itself, and no white man’s mind could fathom their depth.  But before I could refuse the challenge or protest the unfairness, the tiny sorcerer spat forth his puzzle:

“Who has more courage than a Bushman?”

My face flushed as I stalled for time.  It was a trick question, with no right answer.  To state that any other being was more courageous would surely be viewed as an insult, and I would be killed immediately for insulting the chieftain’s honor.  A squad of warriors nearby sensed this, and bared their filed teeth in anticipation. “Surely there is none, sir” I cried. “A Bushman is the fiercest, bravest warrior. He is true of heart, and none can best him in battle.”

The chieftain grinned an evil grin.  “Your words are just, but do not answer my riddle.”  He summoned with his arm, and a pair of warriors stepped forward.  Their intent was clear by the sharp spears that they shook over their heads.  I swallowed hard, fighting back the urge to scream. It seemed I was headed for the stewpot, my men for short lives of servitude.

I steeled myself as they approached, vowing not to die without a fight, but my mind was still caught up in disbelief.  “Two Bushmen” I whispered quietly, shaking my head at my fate. But suddenly, the ashy soldiers stopped. They turned towards their dear leader, as if for confirmation.  I glanced up in confusion and did the same.  

The chieftain’s cowrie shell lips wrinkled into a sly smile.  “More flattery, white man….but it is true. The only thing that could be braver than a Bushman warrior would be two Bushmen.  Your words have earned your freedom, and safe passage through my realm.”

The women of the tribe ululated in a chorus, and a few celebrated by throwing their children into the air.  They would be denied their cannibalistic feast, but did not appear distressed at the prospect of continued hunger.  As I fought the urge to grin, I bowed low once more before the fierce warrior king, thanking Providence for his mercy in the darkest of the world’s wastelands.

My men were brought forth within minutes.  The tribe produced a feast of roast bushmeat and steamed cassowary eggs, then went about preparing mounts for the rest of our journey.  The soldiers wept at the news that we were to be spared, and the clamor they made was a joyful one. We spent the night in merriment, bonfires burning late in complete ignorance of the jackals prowling outside the thorn ring, or of the Huns marching outside the continent.

Ah, child, to see Kilimanjaro again.  The peak was still capped with snow when we arrived at the observation post several days ahead of schedule.  We were loaded down with gold bars and raw diamonds that we had literally scooped up from the red clay during our ride. Valuable treasures, to be certain, but they were naught compared to the priceless look on the reconnaissance mens’ faces when we arrived with our caravan of zebras!

Episode 56: Empty Pockets, Part 1 by James Isaac

Show Notes

Today we present Part 1 of Empty Pockets by James Isaac. James has three stories (non-YA) placed in three different anthologies that should be out before the year’s end:

Anabiosis, editors John G. Hartness & Emily Leverett, The Big Bad – An Anthology of Evil (publication and other details pending)

The Edge Between, Soul Reflections, Wicked East Press, 2012 (not yet appeared) e Publications, 2012

Waste Not Want Not, Tales for the Toilet, Crowded Quarantine Publications, 2012

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


Narrated by Graeme Dunlop

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Today we present Part 1 of Empty Pockets by James Isaac. James has three stories (non-YA) placed in three different anthologies that should be out before the year’s end:

Anabiosis, editors John G. Hartness & Emily Leverett, The Big Bad – An Anthology of Evil (publication and other details pending)

The Edge Between, Soul Reflections, Wicked East Press, 2012 (not yet appeared) e Publications, 2012

Waste Not Want Not, Tales for the Toilet, Crowded Quarantine Publications, 2012

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

Episode 55: Flash Collection II by Bethany Powell and David Steffen

Show Notes


Our first story is Color Contacts by Bethany Powell. Bethany didn’t really know people wore contacts until one day in middle school, when one of her classmates ran out of homeroom because one of his flipped. The fascinating trickery of it has stuck with her. (Though he was just as cute in glasses the next day.) She also has a weak spot for manga with plot points about glasses or contacts.

Bethany has mainly published fantasy genre poetry, which you can find at bethanypowell.com. She also keeps a semi-popular Tumblr on suit fashion, mainly featuring Asian celebrities. When not scribbling or reblogging photos, she waits tables in a tea room.


Our second story is The Quest Unusual by David Steffen. David runs the webzine Diabolical Plots, which posts interviews, reviews, lists and other material related to the field of speculative fiction. At this point DP is the only site to regularly review Daily Science Fiction, where this story originally ran. Another highlight is the “Best of” podcast lists, including a “Best Of Cast Macabre”, and in the near future a “Best of Cast of Wonders”.

He has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Pseudopod, and Daily Science Fiction, and his stories have been published in more than a dozen others. See his a bibliography page on Diabolical Plots for a full listing.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


Narrated by Graeme Dunlop

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes


Our first story is Color Contacts by Bethany Powell. Bethany didn’t really know people wore contacts until one day in middle school, when one of her classmates ran out of homeroom because one of his flipped. The fascinating trickery of it has stuck with her. (Though he was just as cute in glasses the next day.) She also has a weak spot for manga with plot points about glasses or contacts.

Bethany has mainly published fantasy genre poetry, which you can find at bethanypowell.com. She also keeps a semi-popular Tumblr on suit fashion, mainly featuring Asian celebrities. When not scribbling or reblogging photos, she waits tables in a tea room.


Our second story is The Quest Unusual by David Steffen. David runs the webzine Diabolical Plots, which posts interviews, reviews, lists and other material related to the field of speculative fiction. At this point DP is the only site to regularly review Daily Science Fiction, where this story originally ran. Another highlight is the “Best of” podcast lists, including a “Best Of Cast Macabre”, and in the near future a “Best of Cast of Wonders”.

He has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Pseudopod, and Daily Science Fiction, and his stories have been published in more than a dozen others. See his a bibliography page on Diabolical Plots for a full listing.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

Episode 54: The Great Game, Part 4 – In The Bowels of the Sick Man by James Vachowski

Show Notes

In The Bowels of the Sick Man is part 4 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


Narrated by Barry J. Northern

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

In The Bowels of the Sick Man is part 4 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

Episode 53: The Cruel Sister by James Breyfogle

Show Notes

Today we present The Cruel Sister by James Breyfogle. James writes fantasy and Science Fiction from his home in Pennsylvania.

Your narrator is the fabulous Tina Connolly! Tina lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young son, in a house that came with a dragon in the basement and blackberry vines in the attic. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthology Unplugged: Year’s Best Online SF 2008. Her debut fantasy novel IRONSKIN is forthcoming from Tor in October 2012, with a sequel in 2013. She is a frequent reader for Podcastle, and is narrating a 2012 flash podcasting venture called Toasted Cake. In the summer she works as a face painter, which means a glitter-filled house is an occupational hazard. Her website is here. Check the shownotes for details.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


Narrated by Tina Connolly

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Today we present The Cruel Sister by James Breyfogle. James writes fantasy and Science Fiction from his home in Pennsylvania.

Your narrator is the fabulous Tina Connolly! Tina lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young son, in a house that came with a dragon in the basement and blackberry vines in the attic. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthology Unplugged: Year’s Best Online SF 2008. Her debut fantasy novel IRONSKIN is forthcoming from Tor in October 2012, with a sequel in 2013. She is a frequent reader for Podcastle, and is narrating a 2012 flash podcasting venture called Toasted Cake. In the summer she works as a face painter, which means a glitter-filled house is an occupational hazard. Her website is here. Check the shownotes for details.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.