Posts Tagged ‘Wilson Fowlie’

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Cast of Wonders 263: A Coat For Aodh

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


A Coat for Aodh

by Ika Koeck

 

I have always hated the cold. It makes the simplest of tasks impossible. Trying to tighten the girth around a gelding that was holding his breath on purpose was already difficult with one weak hand and one bad leg. In the cold night, my numb hands simply refused to cooperate, and I was in the midst of heaving, puffing, and cursing the horse’s ancestors when Tipsy meowed and alerted me to a visitor.

I looked over my shoulder to see a young man of maybe fifteen summers, peeking from the side of the stall.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said, removing his top hat. “I’m looking for Miss Callan.”

“She isn’t here,” I said, hopping on my good leg and clinging to the saddle when the gelding turned around to face the visitor. I had spent an entire day on my feet evicting a clan of swamp fairies from the city sewers; a nasty affair that necessitated some bloodshed and a very long debrief with Her Majesty’s Chief Constable. I was not in the mood to entertain anymore clients.

“Blasted horse! Stand still, will you?” I waved the young man away. “Whatever it is, come back in a month. She might be here then.”

“A month?” the visitor’s voice had scarcely matured into manhood. “I can’t …” He trailed off in a sigh and looked up at the sky. “I don’t have a month, sir. Miss Callan said I could come by anytime if I needed to see her.”

“And I’m certain she meant it, but it can’t be helped. She was called to a prior engagement.”

“Please, do you know where I can find her?”

I shrugged and continued pulling on the girth strap. One can never tell with Faun. Her cases often took her miles from town, and perhaps even into the fae realm. And the nature of our business meant that it was a rarity for the both of us to be at the same place at the same time. I could offer no other answer. The cold was beginning to send a dull ache through my bad leg, and I was fast losing my will to be civilized.

“May I, sir?” the boy said. Before I could protest, he stepped beside me and led the gelding outside the stall. I might have imagined it but there was amusement in his voice then.  “Does he always hold his breath?”

“Only when he wishes to compound my misery,” I said as I rubbed my knee. The young man walked my horse a few steps down the road and back to the stall until the four-legged imp gave up and released the breath he was holding.

“He reminds me of the horses in my uncle’s stable,” the boy said as he tightened the girth and handed the reins back to me. He quickly looked away when our eyes met, and I caught a whiff of something otherworldly about him. Tipsy gave me a pointed look, sure sign that she too had caught that smell.

“What is your name?” I asked.

He looked over his shoulder before responding. “Aodh.”

“Thank you, Aodh,” I said. “As I have mentioned, Miss Callan will return in a few weeks, perhaps. I suggest you come back then.” Tipsy meowed again and swatted my leg. Her marble-green eyes were steeped with disapproval. When I ignored her, the calico began to yowl, as loudly as she could.

“Gods be damned. Alright, alright!” I sighed. The yowling stopped the moment I offered my hand to the visitor. “Perhaps I may be of service, but for the sake of my sanity, let’s get out of this cold first.”

He hesitated, but shook my hand anyway. His grip was as weak as his voice was small. He would have been almost as tall as I was if he would just straighten his shoulders. Yet beneath his oversized greatcoat, the air of desperation clinging about him weighed him down so heavily that I wondered what could be plaguing a man so young. “I’m not certain you can help, sir,” he muttered.

“Let me be the judge of that,” I said. “I am Wolcroft.”

He looked up to squint at the sign painted above my establishment. “Of…Callan and Wolcroft?”

“The very same.” I bent over a little and turned my shoulder to let Tipsy have her usual perch. “Come, this way. You look like you could use a drink.”

 


 

Aodh’s nerves didn’t dissipate once we were nestled within the comforts of the tavern. If anything, its nondescript façade and shortage of patrons made him even more nervous, but I had been coming here for years and relied on its seclusion to conduct my business. Besides, it was the only establishment that served both a fine selection of rare liqueurs, and my favourite spiced tea.

Under the tavern lights, Aodh was a spectre of a thing. His eyes, which should have been bright with the vigour of youth, were sunken and watery.  He glanced over at the door every minute or so as though he was expecting trouble to hound him, his dark hair hanging like seaweed around his gaunt face.

“We’re safe here,” I assured him, setting a bowl of cream down on the table for Tipsy. “So, what are you?”

Aodh blinked at me in surprise. “How can you tell?”

“Your scent.” I stretched my bad leg towards the hearth beside us, glad for the warmth of the fire and the tea now swirling in my stomach. “Magic from the fae realm has a peculiar effect on the flesh, particularly when it has been mixed with the human bloodline. Gives away a certain, distinct smell, like charred flowers, or fresh cut salmon. It varies depending on what species the other half of the bloodline is.”

Aodh looked uncomfortable. “Oh. Begging your pardon, Mr. Wolcroft. I certainly hope I am not reeking of fish.”

“Not as bad as Tipsy here is,” I smiled and stroked the cat’s head. “It still doesn’t tell me what you are.”

The young man retreated into his seat, shoulders hunched until his neck almost disappeared. He gazed into his cup, as though the tea could provide the answers or courage he so desperately sought. Just a boy, I thought. A confused, terrified boy who, perhaps like most half-breeds in Sonning, had spent his whole life under the critical eye of one side of his family and rejected by the other. Further judgment on my part will only cause him to withdraw, and perhaps flee beyond any hope of help. I turned my attention to the plate of pastries on my table, and split one that had a fish filling to share with the cat.

“Would you like to know why I named her Tipsy?” I asked. Aodh looked up and gave a single nod.

“She walks like a drunk. A carriage trundled down the road and was turning a sharp corner and the wheel clipped her, just here,” I stroked the bones on her spine and the base of her tail. “She was just a kitten then, and she’s been walking funny ever since.”

“Oh,” he murmured. “Poor cat.”

“Indeed,” I said. “And would you like to know the secret of how I obtained my limp?”

Aodh’s nod was eager this time.

“I ran over a little calico kitten while riding a carriage,” I said. “Flipped the whole damn thing over and over on the road. Broke my leg in three places, that. I’ve been walking funny ever since.”

That drew snorts of laughter out of him, and the reservations on his face eased a fraction. I leaned back against my seat and smiled as the boy choked his laugh and cleared his throat. “Please forgive me, Mr. Wolcroft,” he said, breathless. “It’s very unbecoming to find amusement in another man’s misfortune.”

I waved the matter aside. He gathered himself and sat forward in his seat. Faun was right.  Tell someone your secret, and they might tell you theirs.

“My father died before I was born,” Aodh began. “I had always assumed that my mother left me to my uncle and aunt because I was often poorly, and that she couldn’t afford to pay for my care. It’s what my aunt always led me to believe, but something inside tells me otherwise. And a little over a year ago I began to suspect that I wasn’t entirely… human.”

I wiped crumbs from the side of my mouth and exchanged glances with Tipsy. “Our noses have already established that, but why do you think so?”

“I have always been drawn to the sea,” he said with a sigh of longing. “When I was a child, I used to sneak out of the family home for a swim, and often seek out the company of…” he paused to see if anyone around us was listening. Not that anyone was. The only other patron was seated on the far side of the room, slumped over his empty beer mug in sweet, blissful slumber. “Of seals. No matter how choppy the waters were, or how terrible the weather, I found more comfort being in the water with them than I did on land with my family.” He allowed himself to smile a little. “My aunt had to pay the harbour master to fish me out with a net once, when I refused to return home.”

That narrowed his origins down to a considerable degree, and exposed the gravity of his predicament. Small wonder why he was so desperate to see Faun. I set my cup down. “How long has it been since you last saw your seal coat, selkie?”

His eyes widened like saucers. “Years, sir!”

I scratched Tipsy between the ears as I considered this. “A human cannot remove a selkie’s coat without consent, much less hide it.”

He nodded. “When I confronted my aunt and uncle on the matter, they told me that it was my decision to be human. That I had given up my coat on my own free will when I was a child. A child! I was seven years old. How could anyone expect me to make a sound decision at that age?”

Whatever transpired in that moment when Aodh was forced to choose between a life of the fae folk or that of a human, I would never know. Yet it was a fairly common affair in Sonning, and every few weeks or so I would meet another half-breed who had been assimilated into human society and robbed of his or her ties to Kil-Varra, the fae realm. It would have been the more practical answer to the problem, for the journey to the fae realm is often treacherous. Half breeds lack the full capacity of their magical lineage to be able to make the crossing safely without any help. In removing his coat, Aodh’s uncle and aunt, however good their intentions were, have removed the boy from half of who he was.

I nodded in sympathy. I knew what it felt like to lose part of yourself. My leg’s poor state was a constant reminder of my limited faculties. “Can you still feel your coat?”

He leaned forward, his voice no more than a whisper. “That’s the trouble, Mr. Wolcroft. I have been removed from it for so long that I can’t feel its presence anymore. My mother might know how to find it, but I believe she’s in Kil-Varra. And I haven’t the slightest inclination if my coat has been hidden somewhere or,” he swallowed, as though his next thought was painful. “…or destroyed.”

The sound of Tipsy’s purring and the logs crackling in the fireplace accompanied the ensuing silence. I knew the course of my action, yet some part of me wished Faun were here. She had a more diplomatic touch, as I suspected would be more apropos.

“A selkie can’t thrive without his coat. I can’t bear it any longer,” Aodh sobbed and buried his face in his hands. True to her name, Tipsy wobbled like a drunk across the table to rub herself against the young man, and batted his fingers until the sobs subsided into a chuckle. I waited patiently while Aodh gathered himself, the cold forgotten, the pain in my leg dulled enough for me to feel eager about the new case.

“And what do you plan to do once you have your coat?” I asked once the young man relaxed in his seat. “Do you wish to travel to Kil-Varra and find your mother?”

He wiped his nose with the sleeve of his greatcoat, holding Tipsy against his chest. “I…I didn’t think that far. Must I leave Sonning if I have my coat?”

“You can’t live in both realms, Aodh,” I said. “There are laws in this kingdom that we must abide by, and if you choose the fae side of your lineage, your citizenship here will be revoked. You may stay as a visitor for a while, but as a permanent resident?” I shook my head. “Her Majesty’s constables will not take kindly to that.” The last thing I wanted was to end the business with Aodh the same way I ended it with the swamp fairies.

He thought about this a moment. It wasn’t a small decision. He would have to stand at a crossroads once more, another that would change the course of his life forever. But the uncertainty in Aodh’s eyes turned into resolve, and I knew there was no turning back. “I will travel to Kil-Varra when my coat has been returned to me,” he said, and I could just see a trace of the hale, self-assured young selkie that had been denied from him for so long.

“Good. Right then. The first thing we have to do is to see if your uncle has the coat hidden in his estate. I presume you live in Upper Sonning?”

Aodh nodded. “In the Red Brick estate with two green marble dragons at the front gate. Uncle Baltair has always had a flair for the ostentatious -”

“Baltair?” I stopped him, ice twisting my guts. “Lord Baltair Craith?”

The consternation on my face must have been obvious. Aodh quickly reached inside his coat and produced a coin purse.  “I assure you, I can pay for your services, Mr. Wolcroft,” he said and slid the purse over to me. “Please, consider this as the first payment. I can give you more when I return to the estate.”

That wasn’t the issue. I would rather deal with several clans of angry faeries than members of Sonning’s landed gentry, and for good reason. They viewed men like me with far more contempt than they did the fae folk, and their ties to the royal households meant that there would be political implications should I pursue the case. After all, what was more reprehensible than a human who knew the fae arts and ferried half breeds between realms for profit?

 


 

As it turned out, there was no need for me to make my way to Upper Sonning after all.  The very next morning, another visitor arrived at my office, this time by way of the front door, and not looking for Faun. I looked up from sharpening my climbing tools to the jingle of the bells that hung on the doorway. A whiff of citrus and jasmines, the blend of perfume not unlike the ones favoured by Sonning aristocracy this season, came in with the cold air, strong enough to make Tipsy sneeze. The visitor jumped at the sound, and I took that opportunity to slide a cloth over my tools.

“Oh!” she took several steps back as Tipsy bolted towards me and climbed on my shoulder. “Goodness, that thing frightened me!”

“You frightened her, from the looks of it,” I said, wiping my hands on my apron and silently cursing myself for not locking the door. “I’m afraid we’re closed, madam. I have a prior, pressing engagement.”

The lady turned from wrinkling her nose in contempt at Tipsy, to scowling at me. “If I might chance a guess at your engagement, it involves a young selkie, does it not?” she asked. At my puzzled frown, she removed her plumed hat and stepped forward. “Forgive me for being forward, Mr. Wolcroft. I am Lady Craith.”

I frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand –”

“Spare me the guile, Mr. Wolcroft! I had Aodh followed yesterday. I know he came to you.”

Of course. I stifled the urge to curse and instead gestured my good hand towards the chair by the hearth. “Will you have some tea, my lady?”

“I will not take up much of your time,” she said, her eyes sweeping across the room. The nervousness must have been something Aodh inherited from this side of the family. She was just as fidgety and pale as Aodh was, if more beautiful. The angled shape of her jaws gave her a truly noble air, her features complemented by the blue silk dress with its lace flower trimmings. But there was a constant tremor about her, barely palpable in my office’s poor lighting. I made a mental note to install more windows and lights. “I am here with the hope that we may come to a mutual agreement regarding Aodh’s best interests.”

It was my turn to be forward. “He needs his coat, my lady. You know how terrible it must be for him to live all these years without it.”

“Of course I know it!” she hissed. “I have had to live with him for years! Oh how he moans for the ocean. How he sits by the window each morning, sighing, wishing he was with his mother!” She drew a sharp breath, as if remembering herself, and her next words came with a touch less venom. “Duty to family comes above our personal needs. Lord Craith and I have not been blessed with an heir.”

“So Aodh stands to fill that position,” I said. “And he must be seen to be completely human, to be accepted among your peers.”

“To carry on our family name,” Lady Craith corrected. “Now do you see our predicament, Mr. Wolcroft? Aodh cannot be allowed to have his coat.”

“You should have destroyed it then,” I said, throwing my bait. “He wouldn’t be pining for his coat if you no longer have it.”

“Please,” she gave a delicate snort. “We’re not barbarians, to permanently rob the boy of his heritage. When he is much older, and has produced another heir to carry on the Craith name, then perhaps we will return his coat to him.” She pointed at me to emphasize her point. “Perhaps.”

Tipsy made an unpleasant sound that echoed my sentiments. The political implications that concerned me now reared their ugly head. Once again, I wished it were Faun here, in my stead. She would have devised a solution that would not require me to break the law.

“My lady, you are condemning the boy to a life he wants no part of,” I said. “He will come to resent you and Lord Craith, and this false life you have planned for him.”

“We have all been forced to make sacrifices at some point in our lives,” she said with a finality that brooked no arguments.  “What would the nobles have to say if they learn that the heir in the Craith lineage is a half-breed? Our efforts to build a position among the gentry will be all for naught! I will not see that happen. He will come to understand, once he is older.”

I stroked Tipsy’s chin when she gave a low, unsatisfied growl. Faced with the full force of the woman’s glare, there was little left for me to do but open the door. Lady Craith’s icy stare paled in comparison to Faun’s fury, but it made me uncomfortable just the same. “Good day, my lady.”

“Please, Mr. Wolcroft,” Lady Craith’s tone softened and she stepped closer to me. For a moment, I thought she would reach out to grab my hands, the cloying air of her perfume at odds with the smell of my old wooden furniture. “I am imploring the better part of your nature to consider my words here. I know how much work you and your associate Miss Callan have done for the well-being of the half-breeds and to preserve the peace between humans and the fae in Sonning, but this is a family matter. And we would prefer to keep it that way.” She gathered her skirts and headed for the door. “I will send a courier with double of what Aodh paid you. Stay out of this.”

Or else passed unspoken, but I heard that message as clearly as I would if she had shouted it at me. The door didn’t shut behind her fast enough to keep the cold out. I heaved a sigh and settled into my chair. “I hope you’re up for delivering a little message to our young selkie friend,” I told the cat and massaged my knee. “It’s going to be a long night.”

 


 

The good thing about being a cat is that you can be certain of your footing no matter how treacherous the terrain. The problem was, I wasn’t a cat. Attempting to traverse across an angled roof while sea winds lashed at you, with one bad leg and one weak hand, was suicide. And yet here I was, hanging from the side of a tall red brick wall, about thirty feet off the ground. Made me wonder how many bones I would break if I lost my footing. Gods, it was cold.

“Tip,” I whispered. “Slow down.”

One of the first lessons I learned when I entered into business with Tipsy was that, like all cats, she only listens when she wishes to. The sound she made was a combination of a disgruntled meow and a frustrated chirp. She paused to look over her shoulder, ears flat under the constant harassment of the wind, her crooked tail held low.

“If I hurry any more I’ll fall and break my neck!” I hissed and unhooked the spikes from beneath my boots. Tipsy trotted to the other side of the roof with enviable ease despite her old injuries, while I followed, lacking both speed and grace. Each hand and foothold required deliberate care, and I prayed to the Gods that the sound of the howling gusts and the waves crashing on the docks nearby would mute our break in.

I eased myself down onto the balcony waiting at the other side of the roof. Light flickered in the room I hoped was Aodh’s. He left his door unlocked, as instructed.

“Aodh?” I whispered into the warmth of the chamber. Empty. Tipsy led the way inside and licked her fur back in place while I closed the door behind me. That same otherworldly smell that lingered on Aodh was stronger here, and my suspicion that the Craiths have kept their nephew’s silk coat in the estate merely intensified.

Distant voices drew my attention to the hallway. There was no turning back now, and I hoped Aodh would seek me out at our second rendezvous point after tonight. I followed Tipsy out of the room and down a corridor lined with stained glass windows. The first flashes of lightning heralded the arrival of a storm I was hoping to avoid, but distant thunder failed to stifle the sounds of crying and a string of angry words echoing from below. The corridor opened into a balustrade, and Tipsy crept over the edge to peer curiously over the side.

“Tip, no,” I nodded down the corridor. “We have to keep going.”

I followed my nose while Tipsy walked drunkenly on her feet, guided by hers. Aodh told me that the servants only stayed until sunset, for his uncle and aunt trusted no one but the handful of guardsmen Tip and I had to scale the roof to avoid. We meandered through a series of chambers and hallways that would have been breathtaking during the day. Carpets woven from the finest threads silenced my limping steps. Statues carved in the likeness of seals and fantastical creatures stood proud on columns decked with gold leaves. In one of the chambers we passed stood a pair of massive wooden unicorns, the points of their horns touching as they reared on their hind legs.

The scent was strongest here. Tipsy’s ears twitched, and she sat down on a spot directly underneath where the two unicorn horns met. I shut the door behind me, my suspicions confirmed now. That tang of otherworldly magic, of the fae realms, wafted out from under the stone floors like the noxious fumes from a dragon’s breath. And threaded between that was the cloying smell of Lady Craith’s perfume. It permeated throughout the whole house, now that I thought about it – An attempt to hide the fae scent for those who could smell it, perhaps.

Years of being in the trade lent us both a sharp eye for magic, and Tipsy, more familiar to the workings of fae sorcery than I, began to touch her nose to the edges of the square stone block beneath the statues. It emitted a dull green glow, and as I knelt beside Tipsy, scripts written in fae began to appear on the stone.

Tipsy gave a low growl. I cursed. “How would the Craiths know this spell? They’re humans.”

I traced the fingers of my good hand over the stone floor and muttered the names of the letters that appeared in sequence around the stone. The spell keeping the stone in place unravelled like clockwork under my touch, and a portion of the floor slid aside to reveal a wide, deep compartment. Nestled within were three pure white seal coats.

“What in hell –”

I only had time to hear Tipsy’s startled meow and hiss, before something blunt and heavy thudded against the back of my head. Stars exploded in my vision, and my limbs went limp. I remember falling to my side, and seeing the startled faces of Aodh and Lord Craith, and the wide-eyed snarl of Lady Craith as she tossed aside the club she had used to strike me. Then everything went dark.

 


 

The sound of thunder brought me back from that darkness. Rain pelted my face in earnest, and I cracked one eye open to see my bound feet before me, leaving a trail on the sand as I was dragged down the beach towards the pier.

“Aunt Linna, please, I beg you! You can’t do this!” Aodh shouted over the rain, trailing after me and my captors with his hands clasped over his cloak. Even then he was denied his coat.

“I’m sorry, Aodh,” said the voice of the man dragging me. Lord Craith, I presumed. “We must .”

“The constables will pass it off as a drowning,” Lady Craith said from somewhere ahead of us. “No one will know.”

“Murder, more likely,” I said over the sound of the waves crashing against the docks. Lord Craith stopped and peered down at me, his face illuminated by the glow of his seal coat. He, at least, had the decency to look sorry. I lifted my bound hands. “The constables can’t pass this off as a drowning. This, and the lump that you have kindly placed on the back of my head, will scream murder.”

Lady Craith’s face came into view, her eyes wide with desperation and anger. “I warned you not to meddle, Mr. Wolcroft.” She was even more beautiful then, garbed in her soft seal coat and glowing with a vitality so common among the fae.

“Well if you’re going to murder me, at least tell me where my cat is,” I said.

“She slipped away, sir, don’t worry,” Aodh said.  That brought me some measure of relief. This wasn’t a lost cause yet.

Lord Craith continued to drag me down the pier. “I must applaud your success in avoiding the constables’ attention,” I said. “You must have spent years climbing your way up the aristocracy, carving your life out here as humans. Hiding your coat away to avoid discovery. You’re breaking the law, my lady. The fae cannot reside in Sonning, far less live as a member of its aristocracy.”

“Why did you do all this, aunty?” Aodh asked. The hurt in his voice and his face must have reached her, for Lady Craith reached out and held his shoulders.

“We cannot live in Kil-Varra, child!” she said. “The realm is on the cusp of a war that will destroy thousands of the fae folk. You will sooner find your death out there as a selkie than here as a human.”

“There’s been a threat of a war for centuries,” I snorted. “Skirmishes are common, perhaps, but a war? Any rebellion that size will be quashed by the fae alliance -”

“His father died fighting in those very skirmishes, Mr. Wolcroft,” Lady Craith said, wiping her cheeks. “I will not have Aodh suffer the same fate.” She clasped his face with her fingers, her touch gentle. “We were dirt poor in Kil-Varra. Our life is good here, Aodh. You will want for nothing as a member of Sonning’s landed gentry. You will learn to love it, if only you would try.”

The sorrow on the young man’s face made him appear so much older. He cast his eyes to the ground and nodded. “If that is your wish, aunty.”

“My good lad!” Lady Craith embraced him. Aodh’s eyes met mine, and at that very moment the sound of whistles pierced the night air, startling all of us.

“In the name of Her Majesty, I command you to stop!” came a shout.

Light beamed from lanterns now dotting the beach we had just traversed, and a handful of men garbed in the uniform of the constabulary dashed towards us, Tipsy bounding at the lead. Lord Craith tightened his grip around my vest and heaved me into the ocean.

I couldn’t swim even if my hands and feet weren’t tied, not with my bad leg and weak arm, so the very thought of drowning flooded me with a rare, primal fear. I kicked against the water, to no effect, and nearly missed the sight of another man diving into the water after me.

Aodh.

He had a seal coat wrapped around one arm and a knife between his teeth. He pursued me as I sank into the bottom of the sea, slipped the blade between the ropes, then wrapped his arm around my chest. Aodh, who was so meek and uncertain on land, was as nimble as a seal in the sea, even without his coat. We emerged sputtering out of the water, and he dragged me to the beach with the same surety that his uncle had while dragging me towards the sea. We both collapsed onto the sand, and Tipsy jumped on my chest, meowing with delight.

“Good work, Tip,” I said between breaths, scratching her ears. “You came just in time, as always.”

“Gods be damned, Raynard. I knew you were in trouble when Tipsy showed up on my windowsill. Are you still alive?” said a familiar voice. The Chief Constable’s face appeared above me, his moustache quivering.

“Just barely,” I said, then nodded at Aodh. “This young man saved my life.”

“My coat! He took my coat!” Lady Craith was shrieking as the constables restrained her. Lord Craith lay sprawled and groaning on the pier, one hand clasped around a stab wound on his thigh.

“You ingrate!” Lady Craith said as she was dragged past us. “You are a disgrace to the Craith name, Aodh! You’ve condemned us to the poorhouse in Kil-Varra! You’ve damned us all!”

But Aodh was beyond reproach now. He rose to his feet and helped me to mine, no longer a boy. No longer afraid. “Chief Constable, sir?” he said. “I would like to report a fraud, and an attempted murder.”

 


 

“The rules of this realm aren’t fair,” Aodh observed, hands clasped around a seal coat. His coat. We had retreated into the warmth of my favourite tavern once again. This time, I was nursing a glass of wine.

“It keeps the peace,” I said between sips. Though I did not disagree with him. “The laws were made in the best interest of Sonning and its populace. This realm belongs to the mortals.”

Without ceremony or hesitation, Aodh tossed his coat into the fire.

“Aodh!” I reached out, but he stood in my way. It crinkled quickly under the heat, and dissipated into a cloud of green smoke. Aodh winced and doubled over but only for a moment. Then, as if released from a spell, he drew a deep breath and straightened himself into his fullest height; the first time I’ve seen him do since we met. It wasn’t the outcome I was expecting, and neither did Aodh, judging by the look on his face.

“I was wrong about the coat, Mr. Wolcroft. Perhaps I can learn to thrive without it,” he said and sank into the seat across from mine, the darkness on his face slowly lifting. “I’m staying here. If my aunt and uncle could fool their way into the Sonning aristocracy, then perhaps there are others doing the same, or worse.”  Yet there was something else behind that decision. I could see it in his eyes. Aodh had found that missing part of himself in the water when he pulled me out. The magic was never in his coat.

I raised my cup at him in salute. “That, my lad, is the most courageous thing I have seen anyone do.”

For the first time since we met, the young man gave a contented smile. “Mr. Wolcroft, would you have room for an assistant? Someone to tighten the girth of your gelding, perhaps?”

I blinked for a moment to register his question, then chuckled and glanced down at the purring calico perched on my lap. “I believe we can make room for another man. Welcome to Callan and Wolcroft, Mr. Craith. And please, call me Raynard.”

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Episode 239: Artemis Rising 3 – Hackers’ Faire by Rati Mehrotra

Show Notes

Illustration by Mat Weller. Artemis Rising logo designed by Scott Pond.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Hackers’ Faire

by Rati Mehrotra

 

Some jerk in a speeding racer had wrecked Tiya’s cat. I was all for recycling its remains, but Tiya would have none of it. She wept until I gave in and promised to get it fixed at Hacker’s Faire.

I’d sworn not to go back there, not unless our lives depended on it. Everything at the Faire has a price, and I had little left to sell or barter. I had optioned my useful parts years ago, before I met Hanna and settled down – if squatting in an abandoned warehouse with eight other families can be called settling. Anyway, I had left my old life behind, and I kept quiet about my Truthtelling skills.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 222: The George Business by Roger Zelazny


• Narrated by Wilson Fowlie, Phil Lunt and Cheyenne Wright
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Dragons of Light (October 1980)
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Show Notes

roger-zelazny Roger Joseph Zelazny (May 13, 1937 – June 14, 1995) was an American poet and writer of fantasy and science fiction short stories and novels, best known for The Chronicles of Amber. He won the Nebula award three times (out of 14 nominations) and the Hugo award six times (also out of 14 nominations), including two Hugos for novels: the serialized novel ‘…And Call Me Conrad’ in 1965 (subsequently published under the title This Immortal the following year). He won for best novel again in 1967 for his arguable other best known work, Lord of Light. Special thanks to his son, executor and damn fine author in his own right, Trent Zelazny, for allowing us rights to this story.

 

 

wilson-fowlieWilson Fowlie has been reading stories out loud since the age of 4, and credits any talent he has in this area to his parents, who are both excellent at reading aloud. He started narrating stories for more than just his own family in late 2008, when he answered a call for readers on the PodCastle forum. Since then, he has gone on to become PodCastle’s most prolific narrator, reading or appearing in nearly 30 episodes. He’s a proud member of the Escape Artists hat trick club, having narrated for PodCastle, EscapePod and Pseudopod as well as Cast of Wonders, in addition to StarShipSofa, Beam Me Up, Cast Macabre, Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine and the Journey Into… podcast. He fits in all this narrating between his day job as a web developer in Vancouver, Canada, and being the director of a community show chorus called The Maple Leaf Singers.

phil-luntHailing from the rain-sodden, North Western wastelands of England, Phil Lunt has dabbled in many an arcane vocation. From rock-star to conveyor-belt scraper at a bread factory, milkman to world’s worst waiter. He’s currently a freelance designer, actor and sometime writer/editor and impending father. For his sins he’s Chair of the British Fantasy Society, a role that can be more complicated than herding cats, at times. He’s still considering becoming an astronaut when he grows up, and you can follow him on Twitter.

 

 

cheyenne-wrightCheyenne Wright is a freelance illustrator of many fine table-top projects like the Deadlands Noir RPG, the Professor Elemental card game, as well as the color artist on the Hugo Award winning graphic novel series Girl Genius. He is NOT the Lord of a subterranean colony of Mole-people bent on world subjugation. Such claims are libelous and unfounded. As is the ground beneath those who repeat them. [You have been warned sun-sucking dirt walkers]. More info about Cheyenne’s current plans for a better world [all of them… better worlds] can be found his website, Arcane Times, and occasionally on Twitter.

 

 


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

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Episode 182: A Troll’s Trade

Show Notes

Dedicated to Graham Joyce, Clarion West 2010 Instructor


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


A Troll’s Trade

by Sandra M. Odell

Maybe I should have listened to me mudder, been a mason or a carpenter, but I was young, hornstrong, determined to make me own way.

“A what?” she said, and stirred the stew so hard the pot tumbled right off the fire and spilled into the river.

I picked me nose and spread it on a cracker with a bit of brie. “A florist.”

Me mudder scooped what she could of the stew back into the pot and set it back on the fire. “What would your da say? He built our bridge with -”

“With the sweat off his nose before he got tricked by the Maiden of Merriwether and turned to cheese, yah, yah, I know. Chisels and mortar and nails aren’t me thing, is all.”

“You’re a troll! Where are you going to live if’n you can’t find a bridge?”

I tossed a bit more gravel into the stewpot for a proper crunch. “I’ll find something, easy peas porridge.”


Yeah. Me mudder threw me out on both ears and without even the porridge. Too bad, because there weren’t no bridges neither. I looked long and hard. Looked so hard, me eyes bugged even more. Even went as far north as the Pigling Lakes, thinking plenty of water made for plenty of bridges. Did you know some folks think a fairy is a boat?

I figured maybe I could live someplace else, become a trendsetter. I mean, trolls don’t always got to be masons so it don’t always got to be bridge, right? I tried a vine trellis, even a vineyard row, but neither had that special hidey something that makes a place livable. Haylofts were awful high up, and root cellars offered no privacy. Chicken coops? No thank you; I have me pride.

So, I did the only thing I could. I went to live under a porch. It wasn’t proper or even fancy, but it was a roof over me head. The folk family kept goats and chickens, had a garden with lovely sweet peas in the spring and winter squash blossoms in autumn. There was even a field a good skulk away with red and orange poppies, and rose mallow. I grabbed the kids’ ankles at least twice a week to keep in shape. I could have wished the folk mum didn’t always hold the most tender, but, well, florists can’t be choosers.

Though it does make a mouth drool just thinking about it.

Thing is, there isn’t much room under a porch, not like there is under a proper bridge. Always dirty and spidery, no room for flowers or pots let alone a nice vase, and I could never stand up. Made for a nasty belly rash, that. Not even a place to set up a spit or me smallest cook pot.

No, life under a porch was not for me. The local bridges were all taken, all except for the comfy stone bridge south of the city proper with the not so comfy ghosts. I heard tell of a gray beard who lived under a city bridge and was maybe looking for something less busier, so I went to see what we could work out. Well, he worked me out alrighty, right out from under his bridge with a roar and a tumble. Him and his silver coins woven into his back hair sos the trollops might find him fancy. Fah!

And it was such a nice bridge, a right full overpass. Worked stone arches, strong pylons, no ghosts.
Fuddleswort up north said I would be better off going over the Old Bones Range and find me a gulley bridge. Edfart said Fuddleswort was full of stinky soup, and I should get me a big pot, cook up a folk stew with peppers and baby fern, and make meself at folk home. Fuddleswort said baby fern didn’t hold up, and to use kale.

“Baby fern.”

“Kale.”

“Baby fern!”

“Kale!”

They locked horns, and I left them to make out for themselves.

I almost crawled back home, but what with the rash and all I couldn’t take the pain. There was nothing to it but to braid buttercup crowns and thunk trollish thoughts.

The answer? Money. And for money, I needed folks.

The folk pa seemed a decent sort as far as folk go. He did have the heaviest step, but he didn’t tromp over me just because he could. A regular folk with no charms or trickery about him, which is good; cheese is for eating, not being. As I understood it, he worked the market selling fresh eggs and his wife’s bakings, more like burnings, actually, which was perfect for me.

I thunk me thoughts all the way through, and when he came down the two short steps early one morning to gather eggs I was ready for him.

I grabbed his ankle at the bottom step. The folk pa whooped and took a tumble, basket one way, hat another, and me holding on. He tried to jerk his foot away, and I jerked back. “I want to talk to you,” I said. I glowied me eyes so he could see me. I must have glowied them too well because he fainted dead away. Folks. Never scare when you want them to.

A few seconds later he came to and tried to get his feet, but I still had one. “I just want to talk.”
His eyes bugged and his face turned all sorts of colors before he settled down. There was enough of me hand and arm showing that he could follow it under the porch to me not so glowy eyes. “You’re real,” he said, rather, squeaked.

“Yah.”

“The children. They said you – ”

“I’m a troll. That’s what I do.”

He gulped. “Are you. . .Are you going to eat me?”

Not without cooking him first. What does Edfart know. Grown folk are best braised. “No.”

He managed a sit and then bent low for a closer look. “What are you doing under my porch?”

“It’s me summer home. I need to use your fireplace.”

He moved his leg. I didn’t let go.

“My what?”

“Fireplace. Your fireplace.”

“My fireplace?”

This wasn’t going like I thunk it would. “That’s what I said.”

“All right. Why? And how did you get under there? I thought you trolls are, you know, big.”

Like that, I pulled his leg all the way under the porch.

The folk pa squealed. “Okay, okay! You’re a troll. Big troll, huge troll, massive, ginormous.”

“Better.” He smelled ripe with sweat, nothing a little oregano couldn’t fix. I gave him his leg back.
To his credit, he didn’t run. He got to his hands and knees, still peering under the porch. “So, if you don’t mind my asking, why do you need my fireplace?”

“I want to cook.”

His eyes bugged again. “Not the children, I hope.”

Kid pie with potatoes and pearl onions. Me drool made the ground all muddy. “No.”

I could have wanted for flowers, but food would do. I set out what I needed from market. He listened, nodding his head with all that floppy red hair. “I’ll, um, I’ll have to tell my wife. Midge. She’s my wife.”

“Yah.”

He squinted his eyes for a better look. I glowied mine, and he decided he’s seen enough.

“Right,” he said, and mopped his brow with a muddy hand. “You’ll do your cooking, and then you’ll crawl back under the porch to eat. I hope.”

“No, then you take it to market.”

That’s when he figured it was best to get on gathering eggs. I liked him more already.

That night, when the candles were guttered and the dark everywhere, I crept inside and found me fixings on the plank table. Houses give me the willies with their shuttered eyes and walls and doors; they’re too housey. I put it out of me mind and set to work. True to our agreement, the grown folks stayed in their beds and left me good and alone. Good thing, too. I eat when I get nervous.

Before the first of them made a noise the next morning, a baker’s make of cherry clafoutis wrapped in checked muslin waited on the table. I snuck out of the house just as the most tender set up a hungry squall. Lucky for him I’d made extra.

With the eggs gathered and whatever folk do in the mornings done, the folk pa set off to market with the eggs, me luscious clafoutis, and two of his wife’s custard pies. “Have a good day,” I said around me last mouthful.

He nodded, and stepped a little faster on his way.

As usual, he was home after sunset, baskets swinging from his arms and a frown on his face. He settled himself on the first step and sat without a word. I heard a muted tinkle, muffled metal on metal.
What was he waiting for? I cleared me throat and he nearly fell off the step.

“Oh, you are there,” he said.

“Sit on the ground,” I said.

He did. I couldn’t see his face, but he worked the cap in his hands like a folk mum on wash day. “You sold them all?”

“I did.” He opened his cap, pulled out a few coins, held them low so I could see. “Five silver and three half-coppers. Your share.”

“What about your wife’s pies?”

His hands drooped, but he didn’t let go of the coins. “Still have them both. Everyone wanted more of your tart things.” He lifted the corner of the cloth over one basket. “I don’t even think I can get the goats to eat these.”

I wouldn’t want to eat the goat that ate her pies. “Too bad.”

He presented the coins a second time.

“Keep them for now,” I said. “You’ll be needing them for market tomorrow.”

“All of them?”

He sounded somehow wistful, and that’s when I was certain.

“We’ll work something out,” I said.


We started small, a few popovers here, a pile of raisin tarts there, on the folk holidays sugar buns stuffed with goat cheese and apricots. I added slugs and potash to me sugar buns, an acquired taste, I know. On the days he came home with empty baskets, I let him keep two silver coins and I buried the rest in a hole at the back of the porch. The kids soon had new shoes, and the oldest kid a red ribbon for her hair.

A baby goat went missing the night the folk pa counted out me hundredth piece of silver. No idea how that happened. Quite tasty with a toe jam glaze, though.

Like a good bridge, good business needed a strong foundation; the folk pa bought the fixings at market, and I did the cooking.

“We’re bringing in enough that I put silver down on Ha’penny Jack’s old stall today,” he said one evening from his place at the front step. “I’m moving over tomorrow. It’s big enough for a stool if I want, maybe even a second body if business keeps up. Midge thinks it’s a good idea.”

I wasn’t in the mood to be happy for his larger stall. The rash was bad enough I had taken to staying on me back, and now the tip of me nose was sunburned from poking up through the porch slats. “Fine.”
“You all right?”

“Just spiffy.”

“No harm. Just asking.”

I thunk about ways to rub me belly against the porch without catching me pelt in the cracks. What he thunk about, I hadn’t a clue or care.

The sun was an orange memory when the folk pa said, “There is one thing, um. . .Heh, I don’t even know your name.”

“Of course you don’t,” I said as testy as I pleased. “Trolls don’t tell folks their names because folks with magic can do nasty things with them.”

“Oh. I didn’t know. What, um, what do I call you? ‘Ginormous troll under the porch’ is a bit awkward.”
I huffed. “Call me Troll.”

“Troll. Makes sense. I’m Sando Loggerson.” He waited, shifted his feet, kicked up dust when I didn’t want to sneeze. I let him wait.

“So, Troll. Midge and I were talking last night before you came in, and she wondered.”

“Wondered what?”

“Well, if you could maybe share a few of your recipes.”

There wasn’t room to roll me eyes, either.


One late summer evening while I sat under the moon scratching and fretting on how me plans were taking longer than I thunk they should, Edfart and Fuddleswort surprised me with a visit. I don’t get many visitors; don’t really have a place for entertaining. Still, I set out some field greens with scabby bits and a light vinaigrette. Only the best for friends, I say.

I couldn’t make tails or nosehairs of me troubles, so I settled those two down and told the whole story.

Fuddleswort nodded, and picked his nose to garnish his salad. “Told you you should have looked for a gulley bridge.”

“I don’t want a gulley bridge,” I said back.

“Says the troll with porch rash.” He sniffed and went on eating.

“Why not’s just eats the folk and make a bridge of their house?” Edfart said, picking scabby bits from between his teeth and sucking his finger clean.

Even the thought made me shiver. “Don’t like houses, not at all.”

“Don’t got to keep it a house. Knock out the walls, leave the roof, and you gots yourself a bridge. Easy as mud pie.”

Now, there was a thunk. I rolled it over between me horns. “No, still too housey. It’s a bridge or nothin’ for me.”

Edfart gobbled up the rest of his greens. “Suit yourself.” He stood and headed for the house.

Just like Edfart to not listen. “I said I wouldn’t be knocking out the walls.”

He waved at me over his shoulder. “I heard you. I’m still hungry is all.”

Fuddleswort stood – “Now there’s an idea.” – and followed after.

“Hold on now.” I came up and hurried right behind. “You can’t be doin’ that.”

Edfart rubbed his belly. “The salad was nice, but no ways a meal for a growing troll.”

Fuddleswort smacked his dead-fish lips. “Yeah. You said they gots an oven. We could whip up a crust and make pasties.”

Human pasties with capers and fennel. Yeah. Almost as good as a braise.

Wait. No.

Quick like, I got ahead put out me arms. “There’ll be no eatin’ of the folks, understand?”

“No worries, there’s plenty for us all.” Edfart made to step around me, and I stepped with him. He frowned, and glowied his eyes. “Come on.”

I stood up straight, head and horns above either of them. “They’re my folks, and I says no eatin.”
“Like he said, there’s plenty to go around.” Fuddleswort wiped the drool off his chin. “Seeing’s as you’re the host, you get the first pick.”

They made to go around on both sides. I grabbed a horn on each and shook them up good. “When I says no eatin’, I mean NO E – eatin’.”

I couldn’t give a proper roar or I’d wake the folk, so I choked it off quick.

“Oi!” Edfart grabbed my wrist and tried to pull free. I held on troll tight. “Didn’t your mother teach you no manners? It’s rude not to share.”

“Yeah.” Fuddleswort waggled his head, but didn’t do no better. “What’s all this?”

Yeah. What was all this? It wasn’t like I didn’t have a taste for the most tender, or even the older folk sometimes. So why wasn’t I letting them have a sit down with me?

Maybe because I wanted the folk all to meself. Or could be I’d come to like having the folk around. Possibly. Sort of. A little.

I shook those two until their eyes rattled in their sockets. “They’re my folk and I can do with them what I please, and what I please is no eatin’. Got that?”

I slammed their heads together like pig iron bells and dragged them back to the stream.

I dropped them down, and settled myself between them and the folk’s house. Now and again Fuddleswort would look to the house, or Edfart would make to stand, and I’d glowy me eyes at them until they settled back down.

Finally, Edfart pulled up more greens and rubbed them around the inside of the salad bowl. He stuffed the whole scabby wad in his mouth and muttered around the stems.

I made like to reach for one of his horns. “What was that again?”

He swallowed the mouthful and hunched his head to his shoulders. “I said leave it to a florist to get all flowery soft.”

“That’s ri – ” Me thinking came back and dropped the last piece into place light as a rose petal. Flowers? Flowers!

I grabbed Edfart by both horns and kissed the end of his warty nose. “Edfart, you’re a genius!”
He wiped off the slobber. “Wait. What?”

“Flowers! Don’t you sees? I got so tangled up in thinking folks would pay for good food, I never thought they might pay for good flowers.”

Fuddleswort scratched the side of his head. “Do they pay before or after they wipe?” He covered his face with his hands. “Don’t kiss me!”


Straight away I had Sando bring me flowers whenever he could. I used up the folks’ pitchers and jars until he could bring home proper vases. While sweet and savory memories of me mudder filled the creepy house, I used dried moss and earwax as a base for me arrangements. Balance, proportion, color, and earwax. Lots of earwax.

Sando took me creations to market, and most often they sold better than me bakings. Business was good, as much as nine silver some days. The grown folk talked of finding a house in the city for the family, and a proper bridge for me. I sent me mudder a scroll with the good news. She sent me back a phbtbtbtbtbt, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Fuddleswort and Edfart were dumbfounded.

“What’s all this about?” Fuddleswort said one mid-winter night as I handed him an arrangement of holly berry and ivy. The snow made his bridge look less rickety, more bridgety.

“I made it meself,” I said, proud and a bit self-conscious. I was going places but still lived under the porch.

Edfart gave me a long sniff. “You smell like. . .pansies!”

“Hothouse sweet peas, actually.”

Fuddleswort held up the basket and looked it over. “What do I do with it?”

Edfart picked at a leaf. “I think it’s a salad.”

I slapped him upside the horns. “No, it’s not a salad. You put it somewhere nice to look at it. Here.” I took the arrangement from Fuddleswort and looked for a place where it wouldn’t get stepped on or lost in the snow. No good. I looked at the soffits under the bridge, and then to Edfart. “Behind you! A dragon!”

Edfart whirled around. “Where?”

I yanked out one of his back hairs, and wrapped one end around the basket handle. I bent the other end into a hook, considered me options, and hung it as close to the middle of the stretch as I could. I stepped back. “There.”

Edfart rubbed his back. “I still say salad.”

Fuddleswort stared at the bit of color hanging in the middle of the snow and dark. “I dunno. Brightens the place up a bit, don’cha think?”

During spring and such, extra flowers and greenery were kept fresh in a bucket wedged between two rocks in the stream. At the end of every market six-day, I made an arrangement out of what was left for the plank table to make the folk house seem less housey. I didn’t give the arrangements much thought after the fact until the night Sando and Midge came into the kitchen.

Mulberries are a favorite summer treat, me mudder’s mulberry and frog kidney pie in particular. Fresh out of frog kidneys, I can’t eat just one, I’d decided on mulberry pasties for market. In the middle of spooning out the next bit of filling, I heard a step and a low gasp behind me. I whirled around in a splatter of mulberry syrup.

Sando and Midge stood at the door to the loft stair, he shamefaced, she wide-eyed. “She said she would come down with or without me, so. . .” Sando hitched a shoulder and smiled as best he could.
A hand on her elbow, he led her to the plank table where I worked.

The spoon dripped in time with their steps. I licked it, and stuck it behind me ear. “Mind the mess,” I said. Some part of me noticed that she didn’t have the most tender with her, the rest of me was too surprised to care. Sando went to market, but he never did anything without her approval. She could end it all right here and I’d have to live under a porch foreverer. I’d be nothing but rash and stinky soup.

They stopped at the corner of the table. “Troll, this is my wife Midge,” Sando said, gesturing to us both. “Midge, this is Troll.”

Such a small woman; no wonder her step was so light.

Midge looked up, up, up at me. “You really are big, aren’t you?”

I shook me head, the spoon knocking against a horn not as loud as me knocking knees. “Not so much. You’re just short.”

I smiled. She paled. I stopped smiling.

Sando put his arm around her. “What he means is -”

Midge shushed him with a look and a wave of her hand. She pushed the bowl of mulberries and trays of dough circles aside, and climbed onto the table. Her robe and shift bunched up around her twig legs, not that she seemed to notice but Sando did. As he pulled her clothes stuff back down, he flushed and gave me a sidelong look. Folks is the craziest people sometimes.

Midge brushed Sando’s hands away, took two steps towards me, and looked me right in the throat. In fits and starts, she reached up and took me horns in her tiny folk hands. I let her pull me head down until we were eye-to-eye. Right to say that at that moment I’d have rather gone to live with the ghosts.

“Thank you for the lovely flowers,” she said, and kissed me on the peeling tip of me nose. “Tomorrow I’ll mix-up an oatmeal rub for that rash.”


I’m a troll. I don’t believe in happy endings, but comfortable ones aren’t so bad.
The city council approved Sando’s petition for a house, and he set to building. The family moved before the autumn rains. This new house has a room specifically for cooking. Another room; I’m not certain I like it.

Sando did something he calls hired to a kid, and now the kid minds the shop when Sando has other business. Sando’s oldest kid seems quite taken with him. No idea what she sees in him, though; folks aren’t much for looks. Midge helps me with bakings, and almost never burns things anymore. The younger kids love to take their friends across town to feed the ducks, particularly if they know I’m home.
Home. I’m a city troll now, and I have a city troll bridge. I’d paid another visit to the gray beard. He reached for me to show me what for, and I hit him over the head with me bag of silver. All them coins scattered out, and his eyes glowied right up. Said he wanted something smaller, less cluttered. I directed him to Sando’s porch.

The overpass is more than enough for one troll, and comfortable for three. I call the main arch me own, and Fuddleswort has the east arch near the stables. Edfart likes his span bridge over Lockjaw Gorge too much to move. Me mudder is coming to visit this summer, and I wonder if she wouldn’t fancy a place in the city, with rabbits and kids and squirrels fresh for the pot.

Yeah, maybe I should have listened to me mudder, but if I had I wouldn’t have such splendid flowerboxes under a bridge I can call me own.