Crawlspace

Crawlspace is a collection of stories by Dave Freer and Eric Flint, who have collaborated on many novels together. This volume includes two stories from their popular Rats, Bats & Vats series. “The Genie Out of the Vat” is the novella that begins the entire cycle. “Crawlspace” is set about a century later and depicts the further evolution of the peculiar society of humans and uplifted rats and bats. Also included in the volume is a story from the massive Heirs of Alexandria series that they’ve been writing with Mercedes Lackey for more than two decades.

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Crawlspace is a collection of stories by Dave Freer and Eric Flint, who have collaborated on many novels together. This volume includes two stories from their popular Rats, Bats & Vats series. “The Genie Out of the Vat” is the novella that begins the entire cycle. “Crawlspace” is set about a century later and depicts the further evolution of the peculiar society of humans and uplifted rats and bats. Also included in the volume is a story from the massive Heirs of Alexandria series that they’ve been writing with Mercedes Lackey for more than two decades.

PIRATES OF THE SUARA SEA

The ship was on fire.

I ran down to the aft deck, where, surprise, surprise, a bunch of the Altekar crew were toasting spiky mauve crustaceans on long forks, over a fire made of ripped up deck-planks. On top of other deck-planks.

If you think that sounds unbelievably daft, then you don’t know Altekars. Sometimes I wished that I didn’t.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing!” I shouted, flinging a bucket of water which they had standing next to them at the fire.

“Cooking perga, Skipper,” said Skeer, the bosun, cheerfully. “The cook doesn’t like the smell in his galley.”

I could tell why.

It stank. Like my being here, in the middle of the Suara Sea on an old scow, a hundred light years—and twenty years too late—from where I wanted to be. “You could have burned the whole ship, you idiots.”

“Aw, Skip,” said Skeer, waving a taloned flipper at me, “There are lots more deck-planks. Maybe even… five.”

Altekars don’t count beyond four. Maybe they could if they wanted to, but they don’t. And, being amphibians they were less worried about burning the ship under them than I was. They’re good in a fight, good for getting drunk with, and good for collecting Marquat pods from the seaweed clumps. Like me, they’re not much good for anything else—which is rather why we were all here. Unlike me they never had had much need for numbers. An Altekar has an inbuilt sense of direction and location. I needed a GPS, and that meant numbers. Other than that, I tried to ignore figures too.

Then we heard a yell from the masthead lookout. “Fast boat, cap’n. Fast boat comin’ fast.”

Ten out of ten for accuracy and minus three hundred for information… but I didn’t need a lot. Out in the endless seaweed drifts of the Suara there were only two kinds of vessels: Sailboats working Marquat, and those that preyed on the sailboats. Back on Earth when I was a kid playing on a sixteen foot Hobie off Sydney, and FTL was hot news, there had been the assumption that once the galaxy was our oyster, it would be an oyster like a very large Earth: technologically advanced, and well-ordered.

About the only thing I liked about the galaxy, was that it was neither. It was big—far too big for narrow imagining—it was chaotic, and it was technologically speaking as varied as bouillabaisse. Back on the core-worlds there was an insatiable demand for Marquat pods, but interstellar transport was not cheap, so when harvesting them from hundreds of thousands of square miles of Altekar’s shallow seas, you could use locally made boats or go broke.

Unless, of course, you harvested Marquat pod boats instead of Marquat pods. Then importing a jet-drive, and the fuel for it, could pay for itself. Also the pirates cut out the middleman – the Reyno Corporation buyers in Port Carson. ReynoCo got rich, and the pirates kept the Marquat supply available during our attempts at collective action for a better deal. Piracy had been getting worse over the last few years. Neither Reyno nor the Planetary Authority seemed interested in doing much about it. So it was every ship’s crew for itself, and devil take the hindmost. “Prepare for action!” I yelled, though there was no need to do so. The Altekar crew were scattering to their stations and tasks. Bales were being strung and jettisoned, and our feeble armory run out: two locally made bronze cannon. I sprinted up to the wheelhouse and threw the wheel hard over, setting the sails belling with the cracking and creaking of booms, as we turned to run directly with the wind.

I looked at the GPS unit. Memorised the figures. Tossed it down to Skeer… Who hooked it up to the last bale of jetsam on the rope, and tossed it overboard.

On the foredeck, boarding axes and the particularly nasty snake-edged blades the Altekar fancied were readied. Fat lot of good those would be against the pirates’ beam-cannon, flechette rifles and pistols. Hand-to-hand combat the pirates would avoid. They would lie off, demast the ship, rake the decks, and gas grenade the holds, until the Altekar were dead or jumped overboard.

Sure enough, the two sleek jetboats came yowling up on the starboard side, firing at their maximum range. The water boiled ahead of our bow, and, damn them, they punched a hole through the mainsail.

Our cannon boomed on the down-roll. Darko, first mate and chief gunner both, was good. The ball missed the lead vessel by less than ten yards, showering the jetboat and its crew in warm Suara-water and seaweed, wreathing our deck in maroon Lenka smoke. Lenka, the propellant, was a kind of pollen that would even burn underwater – but it just was lousy at tossing cannonballs. It burned too hot to use twice in a row. There was no point in reloading, since the stuff would melt steel, let alone local bronze.

As the jetboats fired again, I swung the wheel hard the other way, luffing the sail. A beam-cannon blast ripped into the bottom edge of the mainsail, the uproll effectively protecting the crew. The pirates would not fire through the wooden hull. The last thing they wanted was for the ship to be sunk or the cargo to be damaged.

Darko tossed his linstock over the port side, and he followed it along with the rest of my loyal lads. I huddled down in the titanium-fullerene wheelhouse. That and the GPS were the only two pieces of Earth-made kit we had on board. The wheelhouse came as flat-pak and didn’t cost much.

The ship rolled back to reveal our empty decks to their gunners. The one vessel lay off and seared the ocean a bit, looking for the Altekar who were in the water. They boiled some seaweed and a shoal of opal-fish with the beam-cannon. They couldn’t do much harm, except to the fish. The crew would be on the bottom fifteen fathoms down by now.

The other jetboat raced in to board us. They were a hard-bitten looking bunch. Mostly New Earthers by the look of them. Tough kids from the slums that technology, progress and welfare had been unable to entirely get rid of. Out here to get rich, or just recruited for the joy of trouble and killing. They packed pistols and a small array of heavier weaponry.

They checked the hold. Cautiously peering over the edge. Altekar sailors had been known to wait in ambush down in the hold. One of the pirates held a gas grenade at the ready…

But the hold was empty, except for one small bale in the far corner. Not big enough to hide three Altekar, let alone a ship’s crew. “It’s empty! Dammit! There is no friggin’ cargo,” yelled one.

I listened happily to the cussing and swearing for a while. When one of them got to the inevitable “Let’s sink the tub.” I called out.

One of the gung-ho live-bait took a shot at the wheelhouse. The others dived for cover.

“Come out!” yelled one of them, trying to get all of himself behind the mainmast. I was almost tempted to take the .03 Lemmer flat out of my boot heel and trim his belly with a flechette. But instead I yelled. “No way. You’ll kill me.”

“We’re gonna kill you anyway, asshole,” shouted one, running for cover behind the dive-ropes. Like that would have helped.

“Then I won’t be able to tell you where we jettisoned the cargo,” I yelled back, over a fusillade of remarkable inaccuracy. If these little snots had been my boots, back in MACSA… They’d have been dead. That was the trouble with recruiting inner-city drug-gang kids.

The words finally penetrated the head of whatever passed for an officer in the pirate-crew. “Stop shooting,” he yelled.

Eventually they listened to him. Or ran out of ammunition, one of the two. “Come out, “ he yelled again. “We won’t shoot you.”

“If you do shoot me, you’ll all be a lot poorer.” I hoped that would get through to this bunch of crack-heads. One never quite knew if anything in their brains still functioned.

That was obviously worrying to their commander too. “Reiki. Manson. Keep him covered. The rest of you. Holster them.”

With a bit of grumbling, and a fair amount of argument, it happened. “Right.” He stood up from behind the strapped down water-barrels. “Now come out of there. Let’s talk. What’s a Terran doing here?”

“I got dumped by my ship,” I said. “It was this or starve. Look, I don’t want to die. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you the cargo’s GPS location, in exchange for my life and my ship.”

“Sure,” he said, too easily. “Come out of there, with your hands up, mind.”

“You’re not gonna shoot me?” I whined, staying put. “Anyway, you can’t lift the cargo with those little things,” I pointed vaguely at the other vessel hanging off on the starboard bow, with its beam-cannon trained on the ship. “You’ll have to let me take the Queen,” I pointed at my ship, “back there. And without my crew and with the wind in this quarter it’s going to take us a while. You’ll have to man the sails.”

“Queen!” the commander rolled his eyes heavenward. “Terrence,” he said to one of his crew of little scabs. “Call the ship.”

He turned back to me. “We’ve got a winch on that. And dive gear.” He started walking towards the wheelhouse.

“You just stop right there,” I snapped, forgetting myself. Once a Master Sergeant, always a Master Sergeant… He paused, halted by my tone. It gave me enough time to gather myself again. “I need some guarantees.”

“My word on it,” he said, far too easily again.

“You’ll never find it without me. And there are forty-three bales of prime Marquat pod down there,” I said.

He whistled. “Better than the last haul.”

“Better than the last three,” said one of the men who were supposedly covering the wheelhouse.

I stepped out of my titanium-fullerine weave shelter, holding the button in my hand. It was a box, a tiny battery, a green button and a red LED. That was it. Manufacturing didn’t rise to much more out here. But what you don’t tell, they don’t know.

“Frigging hell. It’s a woman,” said one of the pirates, licking his lips.

I resisted the temptation to say “now, if only you were a man, sonny.”

His friends came running up, grinning like sharks.

“Get the GPS unit,” said their commander, grabbing me where few live men had before, without invitation. He grinned cruelly. “Stupid bitch. Your back-track is on that.”

“How much do you want to bet?” I said. “And I wouldn’t do that.”

“We can, and we’re going to do anything we damn well like to you. Officers first…” He saw my hand and its contents. He let me go. He gestured at the second boat, slowly and carefully. “We’re under the other skiff’s beam-cannon. Put that down.”

“Lieutenant Koscov. It’s not in here!” shouted the member of his crew who had followed his orders to the wheelhouse.

I looked at the button I was holding down. Looked at Koscov. “I have nothing to lose. You’ve got everything to lose. If I stop pressing this button, you’ll find that out. So: you need to cut me a deal to change that. And I don’t have a lot of reasons to trust you, mister.”

“What is that thing?” he asked, eyeing the object in my hand. His crew were slithering away, like the slimeballs they were.

“Insurance,” I said. “And you just stay put. All of you. When your ship gets here she can tow the Queen along to the site. You boys can just stay on board until the cargo’s up. Then we’ll work out something that lets me get out of here alive.”

“You could join us,” said Koscov looking at the two dollar red LED light. “We’re always recruiting. The money is good.”

“I’ll consider it,” I said evenly. I was quite proud of the way I said that. I mean, I never had any formal training, like standing for office or anything.

It took a good half hour for their ship to arrive. Space-to-water job, very nice. Innocuous looking, no external armaments—well, it was quite hard to look innocent with those. Civ, thank goodness. Old military crates come onto the market every now and again, but they’re heavy with armour, not thin steel-plate, and cost a lot to fly. And they don’t have much hold space. So the Marquat pirates tend to use Civ boats, which they mostly keep on or under the water, using their radar to pick up targets for the skiffs, coming in to load up when it was all over, and then buying a few moments satellite blindness to launch off-world. This place was officially a Terran dependancy, but there is always someone on the take.

A bit more talky-talk and they hooked us up on the long cable from our chain locker. If the Queen Anne’s Revenge had been a floating bomb they’d have been quite safe. My hostages were a little less happy about it.

“Look… Captain Van Vyss might just decide to blow you… and us, away when he has the GPS reference,” said Koscov uneasily.

I shrugged. “You better point out that I might have lied to him. He won’t know for sure until his divers have the stuff hooked up.”

“Uh. Did you lie…?”

“That’s for me to know. Tell him that I want to know if his word is any better than yours,” I grinned nastily at him. “Oh, and tell him we dropped in two strings. I’ll start with the first one.”

“Uh. Look, Van Vyss could just decide we’re expendable once he gets that cargo of yours,” said the lieutenant

I raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were always recruiting? I guess I can see why. I reckon that skiff of yours is my best bet. You might consider coming with me, sweetie. Because the man is not likely to be too pleased with you.”

Lieutenant Koscov was just a little startled by the idea. And seriously weighing it. There is one born every minute. Maybe I am one too. “Look,” he said wheedlingly. “I can cut you a deal. You want off-world…”

“Can’t. That’s why I’m stuck here, sunshine. My heart won’t take the G-stresses. That’s why I got dumped.” It was a good story. Better than “I fought on the losing side, the systems eventually picked up on my fake ID, and I barely had time to skip out of Port Carson on a Marquat boat which then had the misfortune to get taken by pirates.” Sometimes being a “war criminal” is a matter of perspective. The Corporates won. The Free World Alliance lost.

The ship lowered its stern loading door to allow a diver to drop into the water. “One diver?” I said scathingly. “Even Altekars go down in threes. There are a lot of murkies down here.”

“Murkies? You mean the water?” asked the lieutenant.

I rolled my eyes. “The Suara Sea does look more like thin soup than seawater, Lieutenant Koscov. But that’s seaweed and plankton. I mean Mercosaurus something-or-other. Just big teeth on a long neck and no brains. Fast and nasty. They’ll even eat Altekars. You boys are new to this, aren’t you?”

“We’ve been here for two months. Never had any incidents,” said Koscov, telling me what I wanted to know. They’d have a nearly full hold, and a lot of Altekar blood on their hands.

“Yeah? And how much time have you spent in the water?” I asked, scathingly. “Better tell that captain of yours.”

So he did. And a few minutes later the remains of a diver drifted up. I looked at it dispassionately. “I guess someone should have listened.”

It took a bit of time for the next lot to go over the side. In a bunch. They were armed with knives and a couple of makeshift harpoons. Heh.

A few minutes later the rope they’d taken down with them was tugged. Someone hooked it up to a winch. A couple of minutes later they hauled up the first of the bales from the Queen.

Koscov chose that moment to get clever. Tried to grab the button. I poked him in the solar plexus and, as he folded, I pushed him into one of his dumb friends and tossed the button at another one, dropping down next to the wheelhouse before the explosions began.

The way to pirate’s heart is through his chest. And judging by this one’s behaviour he didn’t love me much. So I took the .03 out of my boot heel and let an exploding flechette open the way through his chest for me. He was sweet, in the dumb-bunny boot sense. I got three of the others too, before Skeer and his crew caught up with the rest. Darko and his lads were butchering the survivors on the sinking ship. The Lenka pollen charges they’d hauled up had filled their cargo-loading bay with hot shrapnel. Made closing it unlikely.

My Altekar lads didn’t have many New Earthers trying to stop them boarding. Okay, the pirates on the ship were less helpless than the bunch of stupid inner-city boys diving had been, but their ship was sinking, the hull burned through by a Lenka limpet. The skiffs and their beam-cannons were matchwood. We really would get the charges right one of these days. That was a lot of good loot wasted.

“Nice shooting skipper!” yelled Skeer, cheerfully. “Better than the first time, eh.”

“That was because you jumped left when you should have jumped right,” I said. The first time I’d been a desperate passenger, and the pirates had taken the ship unawares. Skeer and Darko were just Marquat divers back then, and it had been an ugly fight with very few survivors. That time I hadn’t been expecting it. Times changed. “Let’s go. Darko breaks too much if we leave him to himself.” One of the lads passed me the rebreather that used be one of the pirate-divers’ possessions before they had to try knife fighting at fifteen fathoms.

Me and the boys dived over the side and headed for their ship. I can’t swim as fast as an Altekar, but they helped me along.

We swam in through the hull-breach that we’d melted through with the limpet mine. That was always a bit tricky because there were sharp bits of metal and the water was sucking, but we got in fine; well, without any major loss of blood. The water was doing a good job of flushing the rats out, but having us come up behind them suddenly added a new dimension to the fight. The city-boys had guns and emergency lighting. We had vision tailored for sight in soupy water, knives, axes, some .3 flechettes and surprise. Not everything in life is fair. I think they found taking on sail ships with jet-boats and beam-cannon was more fun. They preferred it being unfair that way around, it seemed, listening to their screaming.

The emergency lights dimmed. I gritted my teeth. Engineering and the bridge were always our first target. Okay. External aerials went first, outside, but the inside of a 22nd century ship was an unfamiliar place to the Altekar. Things went wrong. There is always something that you don’t expect in a fight. That’s reality, as the first bunch of overconfident pirates found out, when they’d targeted an Altekar Marquat boat with a stowaway Marine Master Sergeant.

The ship lurched. Yeah. I was right. Someone had tried to initiate launch – despite the ship being half-full of water, with compromised hull-integrity and probably with open cargo-bay doors. Oh, and three hundred tons of Queen Anne’s Revenge hooked up to the spaceship by a good solid braided palkar cable. And a fair amount of the ship’s electrical and electronic systems suffering from Suara seawater. Sure death. Still… she was starting to boost, and that would be sure death for all of us too.

The ship was already making a lot of seriously unhappy mechanical noises. Well, I was no Altekar; I knew where engineering and the bridge were on a space-craft. The former was closer, and, as the pirate vessel swayed and sucked to get free of the water, I led Skeer and the lads there. We blew the door, and I took out the crewman huddled behind the generator.

Generators were valuable loot, but I had no hesitation in dropping a Lenka charge into it, before we ran like hell.

The Lenka blast and death of her lift-generator smacked us down in the corridor, but at least it wasn’t free-fall. As well as killing us all, free-fall would have wrecked my ship, and I would have been a really upset ghost. Judging by the force of the impact, we couldn’t have been more than twenty feet clear of the water. Of course the lights were completely down now. There was just the emergency wall-glow trace, reflecting off even more water swirling in.

Still. The dark is better for knife-work than shooting.

We blew a few airtight doors, and the ship continued to settle. The Suara is only about twenty fathoms at its deepest, and around here fifteen fa’am was the norm. So that left a piece of their ship sticking out above the sea’s surface. We had to use a Lenka charge to blow a hole in it to haul the last of them out of there. In the meanwhile Skeer had the lads get some ropes down to their cargo hold. There was a good supply of other people’s Marquat pods there.

We started loading while Darko winkled the last of the raiders out of their holes. There was still a lot of good looting of 22nd century goods on the ship. Those were worth more than Marquat, here on Altekar. It’d take us a week to strip her.

I was supervising the loading when they brought Captain Van Vyss over to the Queen Anne’s Revenge. They’d found him in a lifepod, which, lucky for us, he’d failed to launch. Sometimes luck breaks your way.

I looked the sorry piece of work over. “I thought there couldn’t be too many Van Vysses out there,” I said, remembering him all too well. Mowing down people who couldn’t get to you to fight back was something he’d done well for the Corporates. He hadn’t changed much in peace-time.

“Look,” he began, “I’m worth more to you alive than I am dead. You can get a good ransom for me.” Then he recognised me. “Bonney!”

He’d kept his cool until then. Now beads of cold sweat stood out on his forehead. “I call myself Teach these days,” I said conversationally. “More appropriate, I think. A nice pun, and better ship-name. Now, who would be prepared to pay a ransom for you, ex-Commodore Van Vyss?”

He was too scared to play his cards properly. It was amazing what a bad reputation could do for you. The Corporates had done well at lying off in space and pounding colonies until they surrendered. Might have gone on working too if the Free Worlders hadn’t found out what happened to the colonists who had surrendered. So: when they pounded Macquarie’s settlement to pieces, Master Sergeant Anne Bonney had been waiting for them when they landed, with a lot of people who hadn’t been in the settlement. I hadn’t changed that much either. Well, Macquarie was lifeless slag, and I was a war criminal as a result. I’d let Van Vyss get away that time. And he’d testified against me.

He still seemed to think that he could be lucky twice. But fear made him stupid this time. He named names. Gave details about certain well-placed administrators and officials in the Reyno Corporation. Now he offered me very large sums, instead of trading on my honor and the status of prisoners of war. Of course Marquat-pod harvesters don’t make much money, but some people get very rich out of the trade. Isn’t that always the truth?

“Well, Van Vyss,” I said when he’d finally finished, when he thought he was going to jump the trap. “I’ll have to go through your cabin and log details to confirm it, but it could be even more profitable than the last few of our prizes have been.”

“Oh yes. Look, Bonney. We could use you,” he said, desperately eager.

“Yeah. You could. Of course it would cost you.”

He sang a little more about his contacts.

So I turned to Darko. “Got the plank ready? Or did you use it for cooking perga?”

“Got another one,” said Darko, cheerfully.

I knew the next part. “Got lots, maybe even five,” I said, grinning wryly. You had to learn to fit in with the Altekar.

Van Vyss didn’t speak Altekar, and only understood ‘five’. I guess it meant as much to him as the number did to the Altekar, because he didn’t even try to fight or run.

Altekar can’t count, but you can count on them. Someone had chummed the opal-fish in close. We were lying off maybe three hundred yards from Van Vyss’s sunken ship. The water shimmered with hungry little fish. “One of the problems with modern pirates is that they don’t learn enough history,” I said, as he was prodded with sharp snaky-blades onto the plank out over the bright water, “With a name like mine, I took an interest. If you’d recruited anyone other than dropout illiterates, they’d never have taken on a ship called Queen Anne’s Revenge.”

What was happening finally sank in to Van Vyss. “But all the money, Bonney!” he squalled.

“Wasn’t worth your life,” I said, prodding him forward. I’d been terribly disappointed to find out that walking the plank was one of the pirate myths, and had rarely happened. Well. We had changed that. “I don’t think there is enough money in the universe, Van Vyss. And anyway, you and your friends might have talked to their other friends. And then my friends would have paid for it. I’ve been there before, in case you forget, and I learned my lesson. No, you pirates will just have to keep getting lost with all hands. It’ll get harder to recruit as fewer of your gutter-sweepings come back from the Suara, and the price of Marquat will rise without the pirate supply undercutting it. But we’ll give your friends a call.”

***

So we pulled up a few spare deck planks and toasted some perga on long forks on the aft deck, and drank Nash Rum (you really don’t want to know) while the opal-fish and the meer-crabs pulled Van Vyss’s corpse apart. Tomorrow we’d give a call to his backers to come and fetch the rich cargo he had stolen, before his ship’s hull was damaged.

Okay, so the ship was on fire. But we had at least another five deck-planks.

RED FIDDLER

“The darkness fades into fields of light, and it is time I was away, love.”

The singer sat down while her voice and its magic still echoed around the fake wooden beams. There was a thin patter of applause. Thin, because the Curragh of Kildare Bar and Grill was finally near empty, after another night of music and far too much draft beer.

Rúadan began to put away his fiddle, since it was time he got out of here. Daylight was close, and daylight always seemed to bring on awkward questions. It was quite strange in a way. Here he was in mortal lands, far away from the twilight of Underhill… but he remained a creature of half-light.

As strange as the Curragh of Kildare. Since the day he’d been sent here, there’d always been a shebeen, or a bar, or a drinking place of some sort on this spot. It was a good place to play his fiddle o’ nights, where the patrons would buy him a beer or three, and not remember him too well in the morning.

He hauled out his old blackthorn pipe and began stuffing it. Moira, clearing ashtrays, grinned at him. “You’re not going to smoke that vile stuff in here again are you, Red? Last time it set off the sprinkler system.”

Rúadan smiled. Moira was a barmaid, and over the centuries he’d met enough of them. He usually tried to stay on good terms with barmaids. They were definitely never the butt of his jokes. When you cadge drinks a lot, it makes every kind of sense not to use barmaids as victims. Besides, he’d found he liked girls who were good at fending off a drunk with one elbow while counting change, taking an order and smiling at the next customer. And they had had enough confidences betrayed to them to not exercise their curiosities too far about old fiddle-players.

The trouble was that this Moira was a bit out of the run of the mill, and maybe wasn’t hearing enough slurred stories about wives who didn’t understand. She’d asked him questions. That was never a good sign.

“Smoke is necessary for a good shebeen,” he answered, putting a match to his pipe.

“Why? It’s supposed to be banned here. It is in Ireland.” She lifted as pretty a chin as he’d seen on a colleen for many a year. He’d seen a lot, and most of them gave him even more of a crick in the neck than this one.

“For atmosphere.”

“That doesn’t just mean smoke, you know. That’s what the shamrocks and green table cloths are for. And the music.”

“Aye. The music is right enough.”

This imitation of old Ireland would have been funny if it had been any less accurate—or any more so. The spirit of the music was dead on, somehow. It wasn’t that the singers were all great—or even necessarily good—or that some of the players didn’t make a horse’s butt out of the old tunes. But the heartbreak and laughter in it were right. And this piece of earth had always liked his fiddling.

It loved the singing. The magic that leaked through from Underhill—his reason for being (to put it politely) “posted” to a place so far from the Node Groves of the New World—was centered on this spot. It needed a protector.

So he’d been told, anyway. To himself, Rúadan admitted it could have just been that the high court wanted to get rid of him. The problem was that the Lords and Princes of Faerie didn’t have much of a sense of humor.

He blew a smoke ring. “Of course no real shebeen in the old days had ever wasted aught on ‘atmosphere’ beyond a peat-turf fire and no chimney beyond a hole in the roof. Not a big hole, either. I’m just making up for it. A good boozing-ken needs to be smoky and badly lit. It makes the lasses look better.”

He did not add and non-human fiddlers have to work less hard on their seeming, although that was true too.

“I always wondered what you smoked in that thing. All is revealed! Peat. What it smells like it, anyway.” She balanced used glasses onto her overfull tray. “We’ve made progress since then. We’ve got dimmer switches.”

“Generally speaking, progress is something I approve of,” said Rúadan, as he shrugged on his tatty maroon velvet coat. It was true enough. Progress meant beer with no lumps in it, and foam rubber, which was a long step up from a pile of leaves for sleeping on. “But this is a misstep, I’d be thinking. The pub’ll lose money.”

She shrugged. “Strange crowd tonight, Red. A lot of them weren’t really drinking anyway, let alone smoking.”

That was the thing about barmaids. They had as keen an eye for the crowd as an entertainer did. “Aye. And some of them didn’t join in with ‘Wild Rover’.” He shrugged. “Well, it’s a good night that I’ll bid you, dear.”

He picked up his fiddle-case and pulled on his old hat. It had once been a rich burgundy hue, but, like most of his working clothes, it was elderly. Red and old, tradition demanded.

She grinned tiredly. “You can put the accent away, Red. I’m not one of the punters.”

He winked and walked out into the cool night air. Sure enough, the sky was beginning to pale, over the dark mass of the forest. Well, it wasn’t far to his tree. He passed through the parking lot, and into the forest that backed onto it.

***

Moira watched him walk away. He was an odd one! The boss claimed they tolerated having a fiddle-playing bum around the place out of charity. Moira thought the SOB boss wouldn’t know charity if it bit him on the leg. But apparently the old fellow had been busking here back when the Curragh opened. Someone had said he used to play outside the Bavaria-Keller, that used to be on the spot. Old Red appeared to know every Celtic folk song ever written. And if he asked for or got any pay, beyond a few pints, then the boss’ mother had known who his father was.

Still, he didn’t complain, and in this country you had to look out for yourself. He appeared to live—quite illegally—somewhere in the Tsitsikamma forest reserve, though no one knew where. But, then, there were elephants living in there that no one had seen, other than their tracks, for five years.

Some of the girls were afraid of him. He had a rough tongue, true enough. But although he had pulled a few terrible practical jokes, she’d yet to see him do more than frighten someone. And he liked it if you gave him as good you got. Nice old geezer, if you could take him. She wondered, vaguely, what brought him here. And where he went to every day. One of the waiters had tried to follow him once, but got lost and bitten by a snake.

✽✽✽

The girl was sitting beside the path, crying. Rúadan recognized her at once. She was the lass with the mass of blond ringlets that had been sitting with the fellow in the leather jacket—who’d just sat through Wild Rover, without even joining in on the “nay, no never no more!”

It was late and he’d prefer to be abed, but he’d always had a soft spot for a pretty face. “And what’s this then?” he said squatting down next to her. “The path is slippery enough without you wetting it up further.”

“Will you hide me?” she whispered, desperately. “I think he’s still looking for me.”

Sure enough, there was a crash back in the bushes and she clutched onto his jacket, eyes wild with fear.

Rúadan had to laugh. To try this here of all places—and with the Faer Dhaerg of all the creatures of Faerie.

“Be easy, dearie.” He bounded away up the trail, his long tail uncoiling.

The fool had a gun; a handgun of some sort. Rúadan had never been close enough to examine one properly, but as far as he knew they were ineffectual against insubstantial illusions of light and air. Rúadan sent his shadows chasing, leaping and jeering from behind the twisted branches. The wood was filled with dead men’s laughter. Many’s the man would have started running at this point.

Leather-jacket’s gun gave him more courage than was good for him. He fired at a movement. And then again, the muzzle-flash bright in the tree-shadow.

Rúadan watched from the darkness, almost behind him now. “You could hurt someone, you know,” said the Red Man, throwing his voice, and sending a branch crashing down on the leather-jacketed gunman.

The idiot fired into the canopy repeatedly, frightening the treetop birds into cawing panic. Ah, well. With any luck, with all this noise, the young woman would have run away by now. Along with every other living thing in this part of the forest.

The tip of Rúadan’s tail twitched as he watched the gunman walk toward the bushes. The Faer Dhaerg sent an illusionary girl to show herself there again. Leather-jacket shot at that too and blundered forward.

Rúadan’s eyes narrowed. The human deserved this.

The gunman screamed as he fell. Rúadan beamed in satisfaction and went to look over the edge of the little gully.

“Muddy and thorny enough for you?” he asked the human who was pulling himself out of the stream. He was covered in duckweed and ripped by brambles. Rúadan had spotted where the fool’s weapon had landed. The Faer Dhaerg wasn’t going to touch that thing of cold iron, of course. But he had nothing against putting a river boulder on top of it, nearly squashing the human’s reaching fingers. He leapt away, and let the human see him, properly.

The man wasn’t a runaway, anyway. He tried to retrieve his gun. After all, the furry, blue-nosed, red-faced man blowing a raspberry from the nearby rockwall was barely three foot high. Leather-jacket grabbed the rock and heaved…

It didn’t move, since it must have weighed half a ton. But his tormentor did—fast. He was on Leather-jacket’s collar, twisting his ears and depositing a bird’s egg down his neck. A quick slap on the back, and Rúadan was off up the bank. He tossed another rock—a small one, though—down on the fellow as a parting gift.

Suddenly the human seemed to realize that he could be in trouble. A slow thinker, obviously. He started to run.

Rúadan harried him, driving him through thickets and thorn bushes. He sent him sprawling over tree-roots. He pelted him with sticks and wild figs. Eventually, the gunman made it to the road margin, which was also Rúadan’s border. The magic grew thin after that, so Rúadan let him go. Leather-jacket nearly fell under a car’s wheels, anyway. Hooting and swerving, the vehicle drove past. Rúadan had to laugh again. It was Moira’s little brown bug-car. A “Beetle” she called it. “Smelly,” Rúadan called it.

And then he realized that his life had just gotten more complicated.

Moira had screeched to halt and was reversing. She got out. “Are you all right?” she asked, as the former gunman staggered to his feet.

Rúadan flicked his tail up under his jacket and pulled his glamour around him. It was a bad time for it, since the sun was nearly up. At this time of year, sunrise was at 4:00 AM. Still, it was necessary.

He stepped out of the bushes, “Moira. Leave him be.”

She blinked at him. “Red? He’s hurt. Give me a hand to get him in the car.”

Scratched, bleeding, muddy, in jeans that were more shreds than fabric, and missing one shoe, the man did look like he’d been in an accident.

“I hurt him,” admitted Rúadan. “He was chasing some lass around in the woods. With a gun.”

Rúadan realized then that he should have moved faster or chased the fellow deeper into the forest, because leather-jacket had hauled a switchblade knife out of his pocket. A flick and bright steel gleamed in the new sunlight.

“Come any closer and the girl gets hurt,” snarled the fellow, waving the knife around. And then, to Moira whom he’d grabbed with the other hand, “Gimme the keys before I cut you.”

“They’re in my bag,” she said, calmly fishing in a leather shoulder-bag that would have done for a military campaign. She drew out a bunch and held them out to him. As he let go of her to take them, she swung the bag by its strap. It hit him across the head, as her knee caught him in the groin.

He was a tough lad. He buckled, but didn’t go down. Moira had the sense to back off.

Leather-jacket took a step after her. Rúadan tensed his fingers, tightening on the blackthorn stick. One more step, and the human would know what came of threatening a friend of the Faer Dhaerg…

“Come and show me what a fine hero you are!” taunted Rúadan, letting him see his tail and the skull-topped blackthorn shillelagh. “Or is it only women you can fight?”

Leather-jacket stopped. “The hell with you.” He turned and ran to the little beetle-car, and was in the driving seat and doing a U-turn before you could say “Knockmealgarten.” The elderly brown car did not have the wherewithal to race away from the scene, but the thief did his best.

Turning, Rúadan saw that Moira had sat herself down. By the looks of it, she was fainting. Well, he’d nothing against those that fainted after the fact. She was, by a stroke of fortune, now inside his limits. He was not at his strongest here, so far from the blocked node he was supposed to watch, but he could carry a little bitty thing like a barmaid easily enough. And he’d better see if the other lass was still in the wood. Problems never came singly, did they?

***

Moira blinked. The last she’d been aware of was Red threatening some thug who’d then run off with her car. Now…

She was lying on a mattress in a dimly lit place. She sat up, found her feet. She was in a tiny room of some sort, without windows or a door. Light, such as it was, came in through a small round hole higher up. Dimly she could make out a battered copper kettle that would have fetched a fortune at an antique fair, some wooden pegs with clothes hung on them, and Red’s battered fiddle-case.

She was bright enough to figure that this must be the old fiddler’s mysterious den. Well… So she’d be the one who finally got to see where he hid himself. Pity it had to cost her car, she thought bitterly.

A crack opened in the far wall, and Red stumped in with a girl. The one with the blond ringlets and the bad taste in lipstick-color, who hadn’t joined in with Wild Rover.

“You’re awake and you haven’t even put the kettle on?” he said, grumpily. “Well, there’s some bottles of beer in the corner. For emergencies.”

“I can’t sit around drinking beer! I need to do something about my car…” She fumbled in her handbag, producing a cell-phone.

“No reception,” he said apologetically. “Anyway, your stinker ran out of fuel about a hundred and fifty yards from the Curragh. It was the best I could do. Too much iron in it otherwise.”

She sat down on the mattress again with a thump. It was covered with a tatty quilt in, needless to say, shades of red. “Best you could do? I filled it up yesterday.”

He shrugged and snagged three bottles of beer from a nook. “I’m sorry. I owe you. Mind, if you hadn’t interfered I’d have had only one problem.”

He pointed with a thumb at the terrified-looking blond, while he popped the top and handed her a beer. “Here, drink this and take heart, and tell me what happened without so much tears and clutching of my finery.” He patted his scruffy old coat.

Moira had to laugh. Only Red could call that old jacket “finery.”

“I don’t drink beer,” Blond ringlets said tearfully. “I don’t like it.”

“‘Tis a cruel world,” replied Red, unsympathetically. “Drink it anyway, hating every mouthful, for the good it does you.” He cracked open the other bottles and handed one to Moira.

She took a long pull on it, reflecting what an odd fellow the fiddler was, now that she saw him in daylight. He was short, plump and scruffy with a long nose and sharp, mischievous eyes. And his face was nearly as ruddy as his clothes. He always wore red and tatty clothes. A variety of them.

The blond was—fair enough—distressed. If she’d been assaulted by that thug, it was hardly surprising, reflected Moira. She’d fainted herself, although that was something she’d have to have a word with old Red about keeping quiet. A barmaid couldn’t have stories like that getting around.

He must have carried her here, she realized. Either his hideout must have been very close or he must be inhumanly strong. And then, like a set of tumblers falling into place with that last thought, she understood.

This wasn’t a shack—it was a hollow tree. Too much iron…

It wasn’t possible. Granny’s O’Hara tales were just for kids! Red, three foot high fiddlers with tails and skulls on their blackthorn sticks who lived in hollow trees did not exist! She looked at one and spluttered as beer fizzed up her nose.

Red produced a large handkerchief from one of his capacious pockets, and handed it to her. It was vermilion with a yellow border, and both clean and neatly folded.

“Waste o’ good beer,” he said disapprovingly. He raised an eyebrow and shook his head meaningfully. “It’s why I avoid daylight. Let’s say no more of it while we’ve got guests. Now, Missy, do I have to feed you some of my poteen to get a rational explanation out of you as to why you don’t want to be shown the route to the Curragh. I’m thinking yon boyfriend of yours will likely be far away by now.”

“He wasn’t my boyfriend! And even if he’s run, the others will be waiting.” She was getting through the beer quite well for someone who didn’t like it.

Moira bit her lip. If she’d somehow fallen in with Granny’s “fair folk”…

“I could use that poteen,” she announced firmly. “And the rest of your story—who is looking for you? That bunch who weren’t singing or drinking?”

Blond ringlets nodded. “They were waiting for John. My boyfriend. He was supposed to bring the stuff. Only he didn’t show up. He’s run off with their money,” she said, bitterly.

***

The story finally came out, lubricated by a few lava-like mouthfuls of clear liquid from an unlabeled bottle. It was the tale, Moira decided, of a dim bimbo and a rotten-egg boyfriend she should have left years back. He’d gotten himself into debt with a gambling syndicate. Then tried to buy his way out with an offer of several kilos of coke at wholesale prices. The gambling-boss bit. He’d provided half the money up-front. And demanded a hostage as surety. The exchange was supposed to have happened in the Curragh last night.

He hadn’t showed up. And Susan—the blond—had been taken to the woods. Her executioner had orders to rape her and kill her, to make it look like a sex-crime. She’d gotten away when he’d tripped over a tree-root, and lost him in the darkness. Then, when she’d been too exhausted to run any more, Red had arrived on the scene.

The criminal gang knew she was alive, and that there were witnesses. Moira reckoned that blond-curls Susan should change her name to collateral damage. “Why don’t you go to the police,” she suggested unhopefully.

The girl started like a frightened deer—a reaction totally out of proportion with the efficacy of the local cops. “I… I can’t do that. What am I going to tell them? They can’t protect me.”

That was true enough, Moira thought sourly. The local cops couldn’t catch anything more dangerous than a cold, so far as she could tell. They certainly hadn’t been able to catch the creeps who’d burgled her apartment. Besides, what could blondie tell them? She’d run away from a guy who’d planned to rape and kill her?

Evidence? Witnesses? Besides, those Manolo Blahnik stilettos showed no sign of being run in. The girl looked too much like a fashion plate.

“Now, there’s no need for panic,” said Red peaceably. “Or for involving these pollis-fellows. I daresay I’ll think of something. In the meanwhile, you’re safe here. No one has ever found my home, unless I let them.”

Moira stood up. “I need to get my car and some sleep. Drugs and murders are all very well, but I’ve got a job to be at and rent to pay.” She had owned a pair of Manolo Blahniks once. She needed to talk to Red. Without an audience.

Red nodded. “I’ll take you along then. You’ll be all right here, Susan,” he said, reassuringly.

It was a tree, sure enough. A huge yellowwood, hundreds of years old. The crack they stepped out of snapped shut behind them.

Moira waited until they were some distance from the tree before stopping. “There’s something wrong with her story, Red.”

He stopped too and took a deep pull on that vile old pipe of his. Whatever he was smoking, it wasn’t tobacco—or any other weed she’d smelled. He blew a perfect smoke-ring around an early bee. “And what’s that?”

“Her shoes. No one can run in those things, not without kicking them off. And her face. Are you telling me she didn’t even get scratched running through the undergrowth? Besides, someone who has gambled all their money away wouldn’t be buying new Manolo Blahniks, now would they?”

“Ach. I thought I was smelling a tracery of magic about her. A cleverly laid on trap,” he said with admiration, and resumed walking.

“Magic? There’s no such thi…” she reconsidered. “Who are you, Red?”

He looked quizzically back at her. “Don’t you mean ‘what are you’? I’m the Faer Dhaerg. The red man.”

“Like a sort of leprechaun?”

He looked faintly offended. “That’s even more of an insult than ‘the Rat-boy’ those lowlifes from Leinster landed me with. I am what I am, despite the fact that children of men have given me many names.”

“So what do I call you? ‘Red’ seems wrong somehow.”

He puffed on his pipe. “You always were the one for the asking of too many questions. Rúadan Mac Parthalón was the first name I was given. I still think of myself as that. But Red’s fine by me. It’s a fair translation.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“A little drinking. A bit of fiddling. I brew some poteen once in a while.”

She stamped her foot. He grinned. “Ach. I’m a guardsman of sorts. The door is closed, but the Seelie Court wouldn’t be after having someone open it by accident. It leads out into chaos lands, and could be a powerful source of trouble. Enough magic leaks around the edges to keep me in good health. Also, it got me out of Underhill, which was not a bad thing from their point of view. And mine, I’m thinking.”

They’d arrived at the road-margin and her Beetle. He hadn’t even bothered to close the door. Lowlife! A good thing they’d come along this early before most people were about. It was a pretty safe area, but people weren’t above a bit of petty theft from an unlocked car. True, she had her cellphone, wallet and her tape-recorder with her, in her bag. There really wasn’t much worth stealing in the brown-job.

The key was still in the ignition. In fact, it was still turned on. She swore. So were the lights. The rattletrap’s battery would be flat by now. Well, a tank of petrol and scrounging a jumpstart was better than losing her car. Still, it left her with a problem. It was five in the morning and her flat on the outskirts of George was a good fifteen miles away. The Curragh would be empty and locked up by now, and she couldn’t think of a friend who’d like to have a lift scrounged off them at five in the morning, although phoning her ex was tempting.

The red fiddler had plainly had the same thought. “I’ve a spare mattress,” he said gruffly. “And I owe you for pointing out a thing that might have tripped me up.”

“A pot of gold would do nicely,” she said, grinning.

He shook his head. “And what would I be doing with one of those, then? I’m not a leprechaun. I’ll stretch to breakfast and a bed. Besides, I’d not mind an extra eye on that lass.”

“She’s stuck in your tree, isn’t she?”

“Ah. And there is a temptation to leave her there. But it’s a fine old tree, and it’s not her, but what’s at the back of this that needs to be dealt with. For now I think we can harvest a few mushrooms for breakfast,” he finished cheerfully.

He showed her which ones to pick—several deadly looking ones—and made her avoid some that just about had eat me written on them. He made a basket for the mushrooms from his shabby coat, and they walked back to his unremarkable tree.

The crack opened, and blond-Susan fell out. “I couldn’t get out,” she said accusingly.

“And your foes couldn’t get in,” said her host. “We brought some breakfast.”

He cooked mushrooms and bacon—cut from a whole side with a brass-bladed knife, on a fire inside the tree. And then he made herbal tea, a kind for each of them. Moira had to admit it was fragrant and nasty. She quietly poured most of it out when no one was looking.

Susan had, it appeared, recovered from her earlier fright. She was sweetness and light now, handing teas around and praising the food. By the time they’d eaten and drunk—and Moira had belatedly remembered the injunction on eating fairy food—all Moira wanted to do was sleep. Red produced another mattress and a tatty patchwork quilt. And yet another. By then she’d got her head around the fact that the tree was bigger inside than out. Or they’d shrunk.

She didn’t care. All she wanted was sleep.

Her dreams were troubled.

THE WITCH’S MURDER

Dave Freer and Eric Flint

Brother Mascoli knew that he made an unimpressive figure in his much washed and faded cassock. The monk of the Peterine order of Saint Hypatia was a small man, as plain and unassuming as the wooden cross from around his neck, which he held aloft in an effort to try and cool the mob.

“Burn her!”

The crowd carried pitchforks, kitchen knives, staves and burning brands. If the door they’d been attacking held out for much longer they would probably set fire to the house.

Mascoli clambered awkwardly onto an empty barrel, which allowed him to look over the heads of the mob. The chant that had attracted his attention, and brought him running to the scene as fast as his old legs would carry him, had begun to pick up again. He held up his hands for quiet.

“Brothers! Sisters! Cease! What are you doing?”

“We’re here to burn the witch!” said a tall man, with a slight cast to his eye, from the middle of mob. “She’s a pagan, a devil-worshipper and a murderess!”

In the villages and small towns along the marshy fringes of the Venetian Lagoon there was a reasonable chance that most of the people were half-pagan themselves. This mob was unlikely to be any exception. Not a half a mile outside the town he’d passed a little shrine to two-headed Janus at the crossroads. The two faces of the old idol were weather-etched into mere featureless rounded shapes. But it was well tended, with a fresh offering of flowers. He’d spotted some drops of fresh blood on the ground, near it, and gone to look closely.

If there was blood sacrifice, the church would intervene. But Mascoli had found the true culprit soon enough. A torn bladder, plainly from a fresh blood-sausage that had gone awry, discarded on the nearby pathway to a lonely farmhouse. There was a lot of pig-killing at this time of year, as the peasant farmers got ready for the winter. If he hadn’t stopped to investigate, he would have reached the small town in daylight, before the mob had assembled.

Yes, they were a half-pagan lot, here. Not that the entire population wouldn’t all be in church, praying devoutly and taking communion on Sunday. It was just that old ways and beliefs clung among the peasantry. The marshes had been the last redoubt for many people over the centuries, for pagans too. The twisted muddy reed-fringed waterways had hidden many things over the years, including witches and non-human creatures. Brother Mascoli knew, well enough, that some of them were black indeed.

He also knew that others were not. They came through the consecrated wards of the water-chapel to visit him, to seek healing.

Another thing struck him. The accent of the accuser had Milanese overtones, if he was any judge. He turned his mild gaze on the man. “And who are you, Sir, that make such accusations? You sound a foreigner to these parts.”

It must have been the right thing to say, because the crowd hushed. Villages—and this one straddled the divide where locals would proudly call it a town, and outsiders would call it a village—were insular places. Strangers could take generations to integrate completely.

The fellow started, as if surprised that he should even be asked. “I am Dottore Sarbucco. This is my home,” there was an infinitesimal pause, “now. I am from Milan, some years back, before I came here seeking quietness and my health. But we are here to deal with this witch-woman! She has murdered Vincente! Killed him by her black arts. Brother, is it not written that you shall not suffer a witch to live? We must haul her hence or roast her in her vile nest before she escapes!”

The crowd yelled its approval.

Mascoli held up his hands for calm again. “Friends, please! The church and the law have their own methods for dealing with those who abuse magic. It is not for us to pre-empt God’s justice.”

The monk felt very alone there, perched above sixty villagers. Still, he had been a preacher and healer to the rough canal folk and the non-human denizens of the marshes for forty years. He was not about to be cowed. “Go home. Let the Podesta and the priest come to me, and also this woman’s accusers. We will try the truth of this matter. There will be no rough justice served here this evening.”

“Podesta’s drunk,” said one of crowd, with a knowing chuckle. “You won’t get sense out of him before sext tomorrow.”

“And Father Baritto has gone to give the last rites to old Fili,” said another. “It’s all of five miles to the farm. He’ll not be back tonight.”

A man came thrusting through the crowd, whacking people aside with a rough crutch. He was not someone Brother Mascoli would want to stand in the way of, at least, not by what one could see in the torchlight. His broad face was marred by several scars and was further adorned by a crooked broken nose. He still had all his teeth, though, and he was grinning.

A path opened in front of him. Plainly, once they realized who was coming through, the villagers had no desire to stand in his way.

“Good day, Brother,” he said, as if this were a chance meeting in the course of a pleasant evening stroll. “Carlo Palinni at your service. I am newly retired here, from service in the army of Padua. I have a small pension-job as assistant to the Podesta, and the receiver of messages from the Doge’s messengers.”

He grimaced and patted the crutch. “I am not much use as a soldier these days. Can I be of assistance?”

Brother Mascoli eyed him with both relief and trepidation. The man was offering to help but he looked more like a criminal himself. Mascoli had tended those, as he tended the wounds of any who entered his small run-down chapel. That was why he was here now: he’d come from Venice, with a very scanty purse of silver, to buy certain herbs and simples from a woman of this town on the eastern fringe of the lagoon. Winter was creeping in and with the winter fogs came the coughs and chest complaints, especially from the bridge brats. What they needed was food, warmth and a dry place to sleep, but all he had to offer was treatment for the coughs and his prayers. He was never sure how effective the former was.

One of the city’s closet Strega—at least, Mascoli was sure that he was—had pointed him at this source. This very house, on the edge of the village, unless he was mistaken. It meant that there was a genuine likelihood that the woman trapped inside actually was a witch, or at least a worker of magics.

“Can you clarify this situation?” he asked gently.

“I would, but I’m new here myself,” said the old soldier. “Very new. I only arrived here the day before yesterday. I heard the noise and came to see. I’ve already noticed that there’s not usually much noise in these parts after dark.”

The last was said dryly. The soldier pointed with his crutch. “You. Pox-doctor. Sarbucco. And you. Wine-draper. What’s your name again? Lampara. You stay here and tell us what this is all about. We will deal with it. The rest of you go home. Now.”

There was something so very final and firm about that “Now” that the edges of the crowd began to melt away into the twilight even as he said it. A few of the crowd stood irresolutely and then suddenly found reason to be elsewhere when they realized that they’d be standing there on their own.

The soldier snagged a pitch-dipped brand from a departing villager. It cast a ruddy light on the two men who remained. Mascoli was sure that he saw someone else lurking in the shadows. The hint of a skirt, perhaps.

The man the soldier had called “pox-doctor” looked absolutely furious. The other, Lampara, looked as if he had sampled too freely of his own wares. Actually, the whole group had reeked of wine. One or two had been reeling drunk as they’d staggered off. That in itself was not necessarily odd, except for the circumstances. It was early and in the middle of the week, with no feast day or holiday in sight.

“Now,” said the soldier, grimacing as he straightened his leg and sat down on the step of the house. “What’s all this about?”

“Murder!” said the innkeeper Lampara, “and she’s the only one who could have done it.” His voice shook slightly, and there was no mistaking the genuine horror in it.

“You should not have stopped us,” said Sarbucco angrily. “She can reach through walls to kill with black magics. She killed Vincente! She murdered him in a locked room. She is evil to the core.”

Brother Mascoli had very keen hearing. He was sure that he heard an outraged sniff at this comment, from somewhere behind him. “We are not murderers. And evil cannot triumph over God and the law,” he said tranquilly, although in his heart he knew evil could sometimes defeat the law, at least.

By the brief snort and the shake of his shoulders, the old soldier didn’t believe it either.

“Tell us, exactly, what we are dealing with,” said Palinni. “And then if needs be we’ll haul the suspect out and keep her for the Podesta in the morning. Well, after sext bell.”

“You must come and see,” said the innkeeper eagerly. “It is in my back room. I keep it for… uh, private business. It has no windows. Only the one door made of good oak. Three fingers thick, at least. And it was locked from the inside, when Vincente began screaming. He screamed her name. Over and over. We all heard him.”

Lampara shuddered and crossed himself. “It was very horrible, brother. When we came in he was lying there, face down in a great pool of blood. Dead!”

“And he was alone in the chamber, Brother,” said Sarbucco. “The witch killed him, as surely as I stand here. Half the town must have heard him accuse her, as we tried to break the door down. The testimony of a dying man cannot be denied.”

“Well,” said the soldier, grunting as he stood up. “There is that. I’ve known it to be wrong at times, though.”

Palinni reached into his pocket and produced a large bunch of keys. A very large bunch for an honest man to just happen to have in his pocket. Then he frowned as he looked at the door. “I should have guessed,” he said grumpily. “Not locked. Barred.”

He knocked hard on the door. “Come out. They’ve all gone.”

“No. Go away,” said the woman behind the door, who had plainly been listening at the crack. There was a thin edge of hysteria in her voice.

“Signora, if you don’t open the door they’ll burn you out,” said the soldier. “I know the ways of the mob. They’ll drink some more courage and come back.”

“And if I do come out these liars will burn me anyway. I swear I had nothing to do with the death of that fool Vincente Trazzoria. I did not even know he was dead until they came hunting me like a pack of mad dogs. I will die in my own home.” There was definitely a sob at the end of her statement.

“Sister,” said Mascoli, in the gentle voice he usually kept for treating hurt children. “I am Brother Mascoli, a Sibling of the Order of Saint Hypatia. I prevented the mob from killing you earlier. Surprise was on my side then. It will not be again. Come out, and we will escort you to a place where you can stay safely, at least until you are given a fair trial. If you have truly done no ill, then you have nothing to fear. Magic leaves its own traces and I am skilled at detecting those.”

After a moment, there was the sound of a heavy bar being lifted. And then came another pause. “The Podesta may not accept such evidence.”

“Accept it or not,” growled the soldier. “Come out and down to the cells. That way you will at least live until tomorrow.”

The bar was lifted, and the door pushed slightly open. Frightened dark eyes peered at them from around the edge of it, making sure that the mob was not hiding in the darkness.

“Witch,” hissed Sarbucco. She spat at his shoes. The innkeeper looked terrified, as if he would like to melt back into the darkness.

“Take her arm,” said the soldier to the innkeeper, preventing his hasty departure and pushing him forward with his crutch. “I would, but it is awkward with this thing.”

They walked down the dark street, with shutters snapping closed as they went, until they came to the building in the middle of the town which plainly served as the prison, courthouse and residence for such forces of Venice’s law as watched over this backwater of her empire. It was, by local standards, quite impressive—two stories, of brick and mortar and with a tiled roof.

The soldier rapped on the door with his crutch. At length it was unlocked and they were faced by a sleepy plump man with blond hair, carrying an arquebus. He blinked at the party. “Signor Carlo?”

“It’s not San Marco come back down from heaven,” said Palinni. “Let us in, Karg. We’ve got a prisoner for the cells.”

Like most of the Schiopettieri who served as the Republic’s police, this one was apparently a German mercenary. Karg swung open the door and let them into the stone-flagged room.

Coming into the light, Brother Mascoli could see their prisoner properly for the first time, and understood why she was suspected of being a witch and trafficking with the devil. She was quite beautiful, in truth; but also, in the back country where women flowered young and were old crones at thirty-five, too old to be considered that attractive by most villagers. Judging by the tiny lines around her eyes, she was at least forty years old. She carried herself far too upright, too, for a commoner. Her dark hair was straight and lustrous, with just one or two strands of white.

“You two, go home,” said the old soldier, pointing to the innkeeper and the doctor. “Karg, see the lady to a cell.”

Palinni was used to giving orders, Brother Mascoli thought, looking at the man thoughtfully. If he was to have suspected any man of murder, it would be this one. He turned to leave.

“Where are you off to, Brother?” asked Palinni.

“I thought I would fulfil my promise and go to the room where the unfortunate man was murdered, and see if there was any magic used, and if there are traces left as to who might have done it. And then I was going to the church. I wrote to Fr. Baritto and he promised me a bed. He is away, but perhaps there is a housekeeper…”

“Lives alone,” supplied Karg. “But the sacristan can let you in. If it is not unlocked. There’s not much crime hereabouts.”

“Other than murders and witch-burning mobs just as soon as I arrive,” said the old soldier. “Well, lead on, Brother. Not too fast. I am a bit slower than I should be on this pin. Lock up after us, Karg.”

“Is it wise? The mob may come here,” said Mascoli. This place was more of a fortress than the women’s house been, but one man and one arquebus seemed scanty defence.

“We’re only two doors down from the inn. We’ll hear if anything happens, and I’ve never let murder or dead bodies in a pool of blood put me off my supper, which I haven’t had yet.” Palinni spoke with casual disregard for the finer feelings of his companions. “Let’s go. You can tell me how you came here just in time to stop a witch-burning, and I’ll see if there is enough copper, and piety, in my purse to buy you supper.”

He looked critically at the Hypatian monk. “Piety is in short supply, but it’s feed you or let a strong breeze blow you away.”

Mascoli had resigned himself to a cold night and an empty stomach, being no stranger to either, and he was rather taken aback by the rough kindness behind the comment. This Carlo Palinni was not quite what he’d first taken him to be. He gave orders far too confidently to have been just a foot soldier, although his appearance did not suggest anything else.

“Let us go then, Signor Palinni. I confess it has been some time since I ate. And the sooner we get to the body the better. I am a healer. I have seen many ailments and wounds, and know a little of what could kill a man.”

“Better and better. I’ll add a glass of wine to the meal.” The old soldier was stumping along next him with quite a turn of speed, despite his comments about how his leg slowed him up.

✽✽✽

The inn was crowded, with many of the faces that Mascoli had seen in the mob. That in itself was also unusual, as money for drinking was sparse in villages. But perhaps the excitement had brought them out.

There was a sudden silence as they walked in. It was not hard to guess what the topic of conversation had been.

“Lampara,” said Palinni. “Give us two plates of food, and some of that wine of yours. The red from Signor Forli’s vineyards, not the rubbish you tried to give me the first night I was here. And you can take us to look at the body while you get the food ready.”

“But Signor Carlo,” protested Lampara, “I have closed up that part of the inn. There is another door in the passage. I… I thought it best that he lay there until Father Baritto gets here. It is the dead. You should not gawk at the dead.”

“You fat fraud. You’d sell tickets to your grandmother’s funeral,” said the soldier, genially. “I wonder what gave you this idea.”

“The Dottore…” He looked at the soldier’s face and nodded. “I will get the key.”

As he scurried away, Mascoli looked curiously at his companion. “For a man who has barely been in town for two days, you know a remarkable amount about the locals. Who makes the good wine. People’s names…”

“You learn to be quick about learning both as a soldier,” said the man, thrusting people aside with his crutch, and heading them towards a nondescript door at the back of the common-room. “Especially about the wine.”

The innkeeper joined them with a large key and opened it. The passage behind was as black as the very pits of hell. Mascoli took a rush dip from a pile in the corner and kindled it from a simple lamp, just wicks thrust into a clay bowl of olive oil, perched in the sconce. They walked down the cool passage, which sloped distinctly.

“This is a cellar?”

“Yes. It was,” said Lampara. “But I no longer use it for that purpose. It serves for guests who want a private place away from the common room.”

Walking down the cool passage, Brother Mascoli had to wonder just who in such a village would want such privacy? A tryst for lovers seemed unlikely, not if they had to enter through the common room. Such places were often used by conspirators or heretical sects or the practitioners of the kinds of magic that was best not revealed to the sun.

“Who was this Vincente?” he asked. “A local man?”

The innkeeper scowled. “He was born here, yes. But he went off to Venice just as soon as he could find a boat to carry him. He came back after the war with Milan full of big stories about how he’d been a galley oarsman and been to Outremer. His father was dead then and he got the two farms out Fruili way.”

“A wealthy man?”

The innkeeper snorted. “Only if you count his debts as wealth. He was a gambler. One doesn’t like to speak ill of the dead, but he wasn’t even a good gambler. He owed money to nearly everyone. But he said he’d had a good coup.”

He sighed. “He promised me… And now I’ll never see my money either.”

They came to the broken door. The wood itself had been splintered rather than the heavy old lock.

Mascoli pushed it inwards and lifted the tallow-dipped rush to look at the blood on the flagged floor.

He could only look at the blood because there was no body.

There was quite a lot of blood, though.

The inn-keeper’s eyes widened in horror. “He was dead!” he exclaimed, his voice shaking. “I saw him myself. Half the town saw him. Dottore Sarbucco examined him. Felt for a pulse in his neck. He was dead!”

Palinni was already prowling around the room. “Well, either you were mistaken or someone moved the body. When did you lock the outer door?”

“On my honor, straight after the last person left. I went and hung the key up behind the bar. Magro, you can ask him, he said to me ‘we are going to kill a witch and you still hang the key up’.

“He called me an old woman,” added the innkeeper indignantly. “The Dottore told me to lock it. But no one calls him an old woman.”

“Magro’s a fool. Can’t tell a jackass from an old woman,” said the soldier. “You hung the key up where everyone in this little town knows you always hang it, I’ll wager? In the same place as you’ve hung it for the last twenty years, belike.”

The innkeeper nodded.

“When we leave here, you’ll lock it again. This time I’ll keep the key.”

Palinni turned to Brother Mascoli who was kneeling on the floor next to the small table and the pool of blood. “Well, Hypatian? Praying for the dear departed?” There was a hint of amusement in his voice.

Mascoli shook his head. “Looking at the blood, Signor Carlo. It is very little, if the man bled to death. Of course he may have bled internally.”

“Hmm. It’s an odd place for a man to sit alone, for no reason,” said Carlo, stumping over to the table. “What was he doing in here?”

The innkeeper tried to look blank but only managed to look evasive. “I do not ask,” he said, throwing his hands up. “It is the customer’s business.”

“Perhaps you should go and wash those hands, Pontius,” said Brother Mascoli, allowing his thoughts to escape his lips. He would have to do penance for that, but it was obvious something was awry here.

He took four candles from his frayed pouch, and began to carefully set them out at the cardinal points. If some dark magic had left its residue here the wards would provide some protection.

The innkeeper blinked at him. “My name is Paolo, not Pontius.”

“Well, Paolo-Pontius,” said the soldier, “get along with you and see how that woman of yours is doing with a plate of food for us. How long will you be, master monk?”

“It will take but a short while,” said Mascoli, and began to chalk the seven lines of enclosure, chanting from the psalms as he did so. But even as he did it, he knew it for a waste of labor. Nothing more magical than a dried salamander being struck into flame had ever happened down here, he’d warrant. There was none of the faint taint to the air that magic always brought to his nostrils. A smell not unlike that of a tinker’s solder, which he had been told that most people were unaware of.

A little while later he knew the definite truth. None of the tell-tale signs of magical workings were here. But he was still left with the feeling evil had been done in this room.

“He did not die by magic,” he said to Carlo and two or three of the tavern-louts who had sneaked down the passage to gawk.

Carlo nodded. “I assume that that’s why someone removed the body.”

Brother Mascoli found himself nodding in reply. He knelt, soaked up a little of the blood onto a shred of linen, and put it into a small bottle in his pouch. He caught the questing gaze of the soldier. “There may be someone with hunting dogs,” he explained.

“Clever. I had not thought of that. Of course it will depend on the victim dripping blood. I’ll see to it in the morning. Let’s get some food into you.”

Brother Mascoli followed him to a hot plate of bollo misto. His companion ate too, in silence, as they listened to the inn’s patrons telling increasingly grisly stories about what was behind the locked door. The large, simple key, Brother Mascoli noted, Carlo Palinni had carefully put in his pouch. The wine, an inky Barbera, was too like the blood on the floor for comfort. After he had eaten, one of the locals escorted him to the sacristan, who took him to a truckle-bed that had been prepared for him.

He knelt, prayed and gratefully lay down on it. He’d walked a long way that day. He could have come all the way by boat, but such a passage was beyond his slender means. There were other, better uses for the little bit of silver he had with him. He was tired, but sleep was far from him. He wondered if it had occurred to anyone, his crippled escort or anyone else, that the missing body implied that the murderer had had at least one accomplice. The woman had not killed the fellow by magic, if she had killed him at all. Troubling thoughts about Carlo Palinni crossed his mind, too, until he drifted into an uneasy sleep.