With so many episodes to choose from, how can we possibly decide on what to pick as our birthday encore story?
Marguerite’s favourite episode of all time is Kulturkampf by Anatoly Belilovsky, narrated by Hans Fenstermacher – we released this as an encore story, in episode 360.
Mine — at least this week — is episode 381, The Lie Misses You by John Wiswell, narrated by Athena Haq.
Jeremy, our long-suffering audio producer, would choose the marvellous Why I Spared the One Brave Soul Between Me and my Undead Army, by Summer Fletcher, narrated by Katherine Inskip – this was episode 355, and a staff pick for 2019.
However, the story we’ve chosen to highlight today is our founding editor Graeme Dunlop’s selection:
The Cruel Sister
by Jim Breyfogle
It is hard when you only have butterflies for an audience, Eleanor thought. She could never tell if they were happy while she played, or if they stayed happy when she finished. She watched them cavorting over her harp. They certainly looked happy.
Happy was one thing, she thought, Love was another. She could blend magic with her music to make her listeners Happy. But to engender Love was far, far harder; beyond anything she had ever managed.
She ran her fingers over the strings, playing the notes faultlessly, but did they have power? Sir Ivor would arrive that very afternoon to meet her sister Tari. Should the two find each other acceptable, they would marry in a week.
The wedding would give Eleanor a perfect opportunity to try her magic. You couldn’t sing complex and powerful feelings indiscriminately, but to sing Love at their wedding would demonstrate her power as a minstrel mage. She couldn’t pass this chance, for who knew when she might get another?
So she came to this meadow far from the castle and village to practice where the river widened and ran slower before plunging into the deeper, narrower channel and racing under the bridge.
Her eyes drifted from the butterflies to the swan swimming upstream. Its feathers shone gold from the sun as it moved in the still portion of the river. Its neck curved gracefully, and it held its head cocked as if studying the river for food or listening intently for more music.
There was a buzz and she started. A feathered shaft stuck from the swan. It twitched, losing its grace, wings relaxing and spreading, neck flopping down.
A man stepped from the forest beyond the swan. He wore rough brown clothes, much torn and soiled. His tunic was loose, and tied with cord. It was lumpy around his waist where he hid his possessions. Even from a distance she could tell his beard was patchy and straggled across his face. He wore a leather archer’s coif and clutched a short bow in his left fist.
She felt a deep rage at the poacher, for poacher he must be. None hunted here without her father’s leave, and he would never permit the killing of the swan.
“Shame!” she cried, and the man jumped, turning toward her. “Shame for killing such a noble bird!”
The man hesitated, then, seeing only her, came down the riverbank. “Another bird,” he said and grinned, showing broken and discolored teeth.
Eleanor did not recognize him. He wasn’t one of her father’s tenants, nor did he come from the village or he would have recognized her.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“Aren’t you a pretty one,” he said mainly to himself.
“Who are you?” Eleanor asked again. “What is your purpose here? I warn you, my father will have you whipped for killing that swan.”
“Will he now? Whipped is it?” Again the man spoke more to himself than her. “Well, that’s better than hung, now isn’t it? Be hung anyway, all the same.”
A shiver ran down Eleanor’s spine. The man was an outlaw and destined to hang, maybe already convicted elsewhere. A desperate man, and dangerous man. Though still angry, she felt a shiver run down her spine. He now stood close enough that the breeze brought his smell: sweat, stale beer, and rotting teeth.
“Too pretty to pass now,” he said. He drew a short-handled pruning hook from under his tunic. “Be hung anyway.”
The fear overcame her anger. She pressed back against the tree and set down her harp. It would not help her now. She drew a small dagger, so very small it seemed. “Stay back.”
The man laughed. “Oh yes, a fight. Likes ‘em to fight. Make sure I deserves the rope.”
She could see the patches of bare skin in his beard were scars, and scars laced both hands. He dropped his bow and almost stepped on it he was so intent on her. He stared without blinking, mouth slightly open as he came forward.
She lifted her dagger.
“Oh yes,” he breathed.
A dog snarled. The man froze. Eleanor turned her head, just a little, trying to keep the man in sight. A mastiff stood next to the tree, hackles raised, teeth bared. The massive animal, its back was higher than her waist, snarled again and stalked forward to place itself in front of the man. Once there it stopped, feet planted.
“King’s dog,” said the man, softly, lowering the pruning hook. He took a step back. The dog growled. He took another step back. When the dog didn’t follow he backed into the trees and fled.
Eleanor let out her breath slowly. She hadn’t been aware she held it. The dog looked back at her, wagged its tail, and started to pace, sniffing the dropped bow and ground around it.
Eleanor turned at the sound of the voice. A different man stepped from the trees. The dog looked toward him and returned to sniffing the ground.
The man looked puzzled. “I hope he didn’t scare you.”
“No,” Eleanor laughed, her voice shaking a little. “No, he likely saved me.” She told the man what had happened. His face clouded as she told her story.
“I shall take you to your father’s castle, Lady Eleanor,” he said when she finished. “Then, with your father’s permission, Hawkins and I shall hunt this rogue and he shall indeed dance on the end of a rope.”
Eleanor nodded agreement. As she bent to pick up her harp, she spied the dead swan, brought downstream by the current and now idling in the sun dappled water. Strands of blood drifted slowly away.
“When Hawkins ran off, I could not ride through the trees,” he explained, sounding apologetic that he led her not to her father’s castle, but to the road where a great stallion waited, reins hastily wrapped around a sapling.
“You are Ivor.” She found herself thinking more clearly and recognized the heraldry on the shield hung on the saddle. “How is it you knew my name?
“I am Ivor,” he agreed. “Kilrick described you, of course. Child of the sun, he called you.” Eleanor blushed. She should have guessed both her unusually blonde hair and minstrel mentor had given her away. Ivor offered a hand to help her into the saddle.
“Of course,” she said, and sprang lightly into the saddle, sitting properly, for a lady, and settling her harp onto her lap.
He laughed, not at all offended she had not needed his assistance. “I feel like I know you though we have never met. He would arrive at our court with stories of your skill and power. Will you play?” He nodded to the harp as he began to lead the horse and Hawkins followed, panting lightly with what Eleanor believed to be a smile on his canine face.
Eleanor played, but did not work in any magic. Kilrick often told her he bragged of her ability, but she never truly believed him. She realized Ivor spoke as she played, and forced herself to pay attention to him.
“Kilrick often spoke of you and your sister,” Ivor said. “Sunshine and Stormcloud.” He stopped, cleared his throat. “That was long ago. I’m sure she has outgrown such characteristics.”
Not at all, Eleanor thought, but did not say. It was wise to be wary of Tari’s dark moods.
A few children played in the dirt and one or two faces appeared in the windows as they entered the village. Most of the villagers were working the fields or at the castle to help prepare and serve the hoped for feast. Ivor led them past the straw thatched cottages and up the hill to the castle.
“Once I see you safely home, I’ll ask for permission to hunt that scoundrel,” Ivor said, changing the subject.
They were expected, of course; or Ivor was, Eleanor thought. The man at the gate stuck his head inside and hollered their approach. Eleanor’s father appeared at the entrance to the armory, where he had evidently been lurking, staying near the front gate to be on hand for Ivor’s arrival.
He blinked to see Ivor on foot and Eleanor mounted, but greeted them warmly enough. “Welcome! Welcome, Sir Ivor! You honor us with your presence.”
“The honor is mine, Sir Baris,” Ivor said. After the two men shook hands he led his horse to the mounting block and helped Eleanor dismount. She allowed him to for the sake of propriety.
“I see you’ve met my youngest. Tari waits in the hall with refreshments, eager to make your acquaintance.”
“I look forward to it,” said Ivor. “Yet an outlaw has strayed onto your lands. Hawkins has the scent and I beg your leave to bring him to you for justice before the pleasure of meeting Lady Tari.”
“What? An outlaw on my land? But –“ Father looked to the door of the keep as if he could see his daughter waiting inside. “Surely it could wait for a moment.”
Ivor bowed. “It shall be done as you wish, of course. But he threatened your daughter, and I’d not like to risk his escape.”
“Threatened -? Who -? Eleanor?” Father’s face grew red. “You’ve the right of it, Sir. Give me but a minute.” He strode around the keep, shouting for his horse.
As they thundered out Tari came to stand on the steps to the great hall. She wore her best clothes, and her dark hair was bound with gold. She questioned one of the guards and he answered her.
Eleanor could not hear their words, but Tari’s eyes narrowed. She lifted her chin, straightened her back, and returned to the hall.
Eleanor tried to talk with Tari, but her sister refused to answer. Tari sat in her chair at the high dais, not moving even as the sun slipped past noon, started down the sky, and the shadows crept over her.
The men returned past dinner. They led a flood of people into the hall. Cheerful, Father spurned the spread bread and cheese still laid out to welcome Ivor. “Meat!” he called. “Bring forth the feast! Bring out the ale! Tonight we celebrate!” He gestured extravagantly, presenting Ivor to the gathered guards and servants. Not sure why they were expected to cheer, they cheered nonetheless.
“Eleanor child,” Father called, “you are avenged. Ivor brought the scum to ground and he now decorates the southern great oak.”
The gathered folk cheered again. Ivor actually blushed and looked uncomfortable.
“Tari,” Father beckoned to his eldest daughter. “Come and meet your husband. A woman must count herself lucky with such a mate.”
Eleanor noted of Father’s easy laughter. He treats Ivor as family, she thought, without his having met Tari. The hunt went well indeed. She felt a rush of relief, she would get a chance to try the higher magic!
Tari came forward, back and face rigid. As she stepped into the light she relaxed and curtseyed gracefully. “Welcome to our Hall, Sir Ivor,” she said.
Ivor bowed. “My thanks.”
Before he could say more, Father called again for food, and chaos engulfed the hall as servants lit torches and candles. Trays of food were brought in and flagons of ale. Fresh rushes were strewn on the floor. All was done at a frenzied pace that prevented any other interaction.
Tari and Ivor sat together at the high table, Father on Ivor’s other side, Eleanor on the other side of Tari. Family and friends, already waiting should a wedding be announced, filled the rest of the hall.
They made much of the young knight. Tari fawned over his handsome appearance, his strong limbs, and the favor he held with the King. As she should, thought Eleanor, for she would spend her life as his wife.
The incident with the poacher must have affected her, for her impression of Ivor was a jumble of emotions and disjointed images. She wanted a clearer picture, so studied him closely. He was handsome, she admitted. He spoke well, and was modest.
“Hsssss.” Eleanor blinked and realized Tari was glaring at her. She wondered what would make her sister so angry. “Do not stare,” Tari whispered.
Ivor leaned over, looked past Tari and spoke to her. “Tell me something of the minstrel mages. Is it true they can raise the dead?”
Eleanor felt herself blush. “No. If the spirit remains, a powerful minstrel can sing a link, create a binding, if you will, that allows the spirit to influence the body, but that is all.”
Looking puzzled, Ivor asked, “But if the spirit controls the body, how is this not life?”
“The spirit remains outside the body, acting as a player controls a puppet. And the minstrel must be very powerful indeed, or the link is weak, and the spirit can do no more than make the body twitch.”
“Enough,” said Tari. “Ivor doesn’t need to be bored with such worthless drivel.”
“But I have always been fascinated by the subject,” Ivor said. “And I lack magic so Kilrick never told enough to satisfy my curiosity.” Tari looked as though she had eaten her own words and they did not agree with her. Ivor asked Eleanor another question. “But they can bind living people to their will?”
“No, My Lord,” Eleanor said, casting her eyes down so as not to meet his eyes. “They can create emotion; fleeting feelings for the most part. Most can only make you happy while they play. Only a few can go beyond and make the effect last longer.”
“Yet it is said Linwood could sing the end of war.”
Eleanor nodded. “And he was without equal. Only he could sing the higher magic – Joy, Love, and Peace.”
“And you? It is said you have talent?”
Eleanor could almost feel Tari’s glare, and wished Ivor would desist. Yet he had asked, so good manners compelled her to answer. “I have talent, yes,” she said. Pride made her lift her head and glance at Tari. She smiled to her sister’s glare and said, “I had hoped to sing Love at your wedding.”
Ivor looked to Tari, back at Eleanor. “And that would have…?”
“Helped you to love each other,” said Eleanor.
“We shall hardly need your help,” said Tari.
Eleanor swallowed, nodded agreement and looked down again.
“Is Love difficult?” Ivor asked.
“Only Justice is harder,” Eleanor whispered.
“We shall be spared your failure,” said Tari. “Kilrick will play for us.” She turned her back to converse with Ivor.
Others had a say in who would play at the wedding, Father and Ivor; but if Tari opposed her it would be difficult to convince them otherwise. She would have to try.
“I will play at your wedding,” she whispered. The feast lasted long into the night, but Tari made sure Ivor did not speak to her again.
“Will you walk with me, sister?” Tari asked.
“It is early,” said Eleanor. She normally rose with the sun, but Tari tarried longer in bed. The sun had not risen far above the horizon, yet here stood her sister, already dressed for the cool morning. “But if you wish, I will walk.”
Tari relaxed, even smiled. “Good. Let us go down to the bridge. I love the sound of running water.”
Eleanor fetched her own cloak and the two walked together to the river.
“Sir Ivor will make a fine husband, don’t you think?” asked Tari.
“Yes,” said Eleanor.
“He has the King’s favor.”
“Hawkins was a gift from the King.”
“Hawkins?” Tari evidently did not know the name.
“You know him so well, sister,” said Tari as they reached the river. They started up the arch of the stone bridge.
Eleanor shook her head. Something in Tari’s tone made her uneasy. By rights Tari should be happy. Not only would Ivor be a fine husband but their marriage would allow her access to court. Why then, did she sound bitter? “I only met him yesterday,” Eleanor said.
“He seems taken with you,” said Tari, and stopped at the top of the bridge. She ran her hand along the low stone railing, flicked a stray leaf into the swift current below. “Show me where the poacher stood. Can you see it from here?”
“I think so,” Eleanor said. She stepped closer to the rail and pointed. “There, just past the willow in that meadow.” She felt a sharp shove in her back and staggered. She twisted, grabbed at Tari’s hand, catching it briefly before Tari yanked free. The stone rail pressed against her legs as she pitched backwards. Tari’s triumphant grin flashed away and she saw trees – clouds – sky – stone then cold water dashed the air from her lungs and closed over her head.
She kicked instinctively, forcing herself up toward the rippling silver surface and above. Coughing, she struggled to call out. “Help me, sister! Give me your hand!”
Tari laughed. “I already did!” Running water washed away the sounds of her words as the current pulled Eleanor under both the bridge and the surface. The world seemed dark in those shadows, and when she kicked again to reach air, she fetched up against a rock and took in water instead. She tried to hold to the rock, but the current dragged her free and down, down underwater and down river.
Heavy with water, her clothes encumbered her. She caromed off more rocks, each time taking water into her lungs. She labored to force it out, but the pressure of the river prevented it. She felt weak.
The water-filtered sunlight swirled in her vision. Once the rapids cast her up and she saw the grey arch against the green forest. She knew the white dot at the top was her sister, yet it meant nothing. She was too weak to hold the slippery rocks, and the river sucked her down again.
She rose up, lifting above the water, being pulled by a force not her own. Her feet trailed the water, but left no wake. In front of her something raced under the water, twisting around obstacles, diving deep, and coming back near the surface. She matched its pace, disoriented, unsure if this could be some strange dream, for she did not feel the sharp tang of reality.
The rapids ended, and the object rose up, floating where she could see it. That’s me, she thought. She lay face down, arms outstretched and her sleeves billowing out like wings. Her golden hair spread in a nimbus about her head. I’m dead.
She drifted down river, following her body. I’ve been murdered, she thought, by my sister.
She passed beyond her father’s lands. She tried to call to a pair of fishers casting their lines, but they could not hear her, nor did they notice her body. All that day she ran downstream. Occasionally she stopped to keep her corpse company as it caught on a branch, but it always broke free as if it had somewhere it needed to be, and it dragged her along with it.
Finally the river threw her into a side channel where she bobbed gently, but caught on a fallen branch and travelled no further.
Time passed. How much she did not know, for she did not pay attention to the travels of the sun. A road ran nearby, and she heard, and even saw travelers, but none could see her, and none came to the riverbank to see her body.
Finally a lone traveler slowed. Come! cried Eleanor. He did not hear, but stopped nonetheless. She knew this man! Come! she cried, oh, come and find me!
Kilrick drew a flask from his pack and took a long pull. He set down his pack and the harp he carried and walked to the river. He spied her body.
“What is this?” he said aloud. His face betrayed the moment he realized what floated in the river, and he scrambled down the bank. He slowed, clearly realizing whoever floated could not be saved, but he waded in, holding onto a small tree with one hand as he stretched to pull her body to him.
“No, no, no,” he said, as if some premonition crossed his mind that he would deny, but as he turned the body over a low moan escaped his lips. “Eleanor! It cannot be!”
Eleanor tried to speak. Kilrick! Sing me a voice. Give me control of my body! Let me name my murderer! He did not answer.
She tried again, My sister did this! She pushed me from the bridge and watched me drown! Still he did not answer.
He struggled to bring her out of the water and up the steep bank, not an easy task for the old minstrel. He kept moaning, small sounds of sorrow as he pulled her body over the bank and let her dead hand fall.
Let others sorrow, she implored him. Give me voice!
Kilrick’s head rose, “You are still here, aren’t you, Eleanor? The river runs quickly this time of year, and what would take me days to walk you did in one.” He drew his harp from his pack. He laid trembling hands on the strings and played an awkward tune.
Eleanor strained to speak, to move. Only her spirit did; her body remained motionless. More! Play more!
He did. He kept playing, gaining confidence as his hands found their way over the strings, and he began to sing quietly. He pitched the words to match the music, and she felt stronger.
Eleanor drew in her breath and wailed. Frustrated, she cuffed him on the shoulder. Her hand passed through him. She turned and kicked her body.
The body twitched, slightly, as her foot made contact. She drifted back a pace. Shocked out of her anger, she kicked again.
Kilrick noticed the body twitch. “Yes, you are still here. What terrible accident brought you here?”
None! Eleanor cried. I was pushed! But no sound escaped her, either body or spirit. She grabbed her head and wrenched it. Her fingers stirred her hair, but she could not move her head. Sing more! Sing me more strength!
Kilrick sang again, and she could see his emotion. He poured his shock and sorrow into the music. She felt stronger, and this time when she strained to move her body, it did, very slightly.
The harp slipped from Kilrick’s hand. “I can do no more,” he gasped. “I am too weak a minstrel for this task.”
Eleanor wailed. If only she had her own voice. Kilrick only gave her the power to twitch and move her hair. And that gave her an idea, so she began to shape her wet hair into shapes and letters. Kilrick gasped and studied what she made…
“When this is done I shall never sing again,” Kilrick said, clearly mindful of her listening. He approached Father’s castle. Days had passed since Tari murdered her. If plans had not changed, it was the day Tari would marry Ivor, and Kilrick had promised to sing. “Linwood could not do what you wish to do.”
Festive banners flew from the castle. The folk, however, seemed strangely somber in spite of their bright dress. It was as if some underlying sorrow sapped the joy from the day.
I would have sung you Love, Sister, so all your married days would be happy. She drifted after Kilrick, her feet not quite touching the ground, seen by none, heard by none. Together they entered the great hall where another feast was laid, and Tari and Ivor shared the raised table alone.
Father seemed to have aged. He looked sunken, his beard unkempt. He held a goblet loosely, and Eleanor could see his eyes were bloodshot. “Play for us,” he said when he saw Kilrick.
Kilrick turned his head, this way and that. His lips trembled and he closed his eyes. A tear ran down his cheek.
“Do you cry, Sir Minstrel?” asked Tari, leaning forward in her seat. “She meant so much to you?”
“I weep for us all, My Lady,” said Kilrick.
“But this is a day of joy also. For not two hours past I married Sir Ivor. Sing for joy, Minstrel.” She tilted her head up. “Do as my Father says, and play.”
“Would you have her here?” Kilrick asked.
“Can you sing her back to life?” Tari asked. “Can you sing away my father’s grief? Can you sing me back in time to avoid this tragic accident?”
You know he can’t, Eleanor said. She trembled with anger.
“If you can not do these things, then sing us something happy,” Tari commanded. “There should be joy this day.”
Kilrick pulled a harp from his pack and laid it on the long table. Eleanor drifted closer to it as the others leaned forward. “I’ve never seen a harp like that.” Murmurs scuttled through the hall, nobody willing to offend by speaking aloud, but all curious.
“A curious harp,” said Father. “It looks to be made of ivory. And those golden strings remind me… ” He took a long drink from his goblet.
“What will you play, Kilrick?” asked Ivor.
“A song like no other. This song shall beget songs.” He looked toward the harp and Eleanor, his expression pained.
I said I would play at your wedding, sister, said Eleanor, and so I shall.
She stretched out her hands and began to play. The others gasped, shrank back. She knew they could not see her, they could not hear her, but they could hear the notes she played on the harp made from her body and strung with her hair.
She saw the fear and awe on their faces as she wove magic into her melody. They knew the light, high notes to be her, and the dark notes her sister. They heard the sun and shade, and the running water.
She drew the bridge in their minds, and there a sister’s jealousy struck a dissonant chord. The music tumbled and took them down where it flowed into them like water so they knew what it was like to drown while the dark notes of the sister hung overhead, unmoved.
She drew the rapids, and the swirling water, and the long stretch of the river as the light notes faded until they died completely, and another tune was thrown up on the riverbank.
They did not know that stretch of river, yet they gasped as though cast up themselves and gazed at the harp before them, the beloved body so grievously wronged.
Eleanor rested as Father wept.
And she drew herself up and put her hands to the harp again. A banshee wail filled the hall and none mistook it. The music demanded Justice for betrayal and murder. Refined, pure, demanding; she played Justice. She poured all her strength into it; it was her accusation, her plea, and her testament.
Nobody moved when she finished. Had it been enough? Yes, her music told her tale, she played Justice, but had it been enough?
A breeze stirred the banners, the first thing to move. Tari lifted her head, her face pale. Nobody else stirred, it was as if, for a moment, she was the only one alive. She took a deep breath, calmed herself, and Eleanor knew she planned to face down any trouble.
Others drew themselves from the music. Here and there they turned their heads away. Ivor shook himself like a man waking.
Tari laid her hand on his arm and said in a light voice, “A curious tune, curiously played.”
He pulled his arm away and stood.
“It means nothing,” Tari said. “The music has disturbed you. Have some wine.”
Every face was turned from her now. Ivor held out his hand to forestall Tari speaking again. “My Lord?” he asked, his face troubled.
“It is a trick! Merely a trick that puts ideas in our heads!” Tari sounded desperate but the others acted like she hadn’t spoken at all.
Father lifted his head; tears streaming down his face. He locked eyes with Ivor. “Bind her,” he said, his voice barely audible. “Bind her,” he repeated, now more strongly, “take her to the river, and throw her in. Let Justice be done.”
About the Author
Jim began inventing stories to keep himself occupied during the school day, and later, as all good writers, created stories for the entertainment and delight of his children. He is a regular attendee of the World Fantasy Convention and in 2010 was accepted to attend the prestigious Odyssey Writing Workshop. In 2013, 2015, and 2017, Jim was invited back to participate in the Never Ending Odyssey, a continuation of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Since that time, Jim has been published in numerous magazines, most recently publishing his short story series “Mongoose and Meerkat” as an ongoing serial in Cirsova Magazine.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards.
She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs Toasted Cake.
Find her at tinaconnolly.com.
About the Artist
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm where he tripped in the fog as a teenager, fleeing a police drone after curfew. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental.
He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including not so long ago on this podcast, with episode 364, “Remember to Breathe”. He’s even an indentured servant I MEAN WILLING VOLUNTEER in the PodCastle slush mines, digging for the shiniest stories to present to the castle dragon in exchange for one more day of not being eaten.
You can keep up with the rest of it at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.