Lucky is the unluckiest troll in the Hole: a massive cave system which has provided sanctuary for trolls like Lucky since his great-great-great-grandpappy Grimblade's time. But now there's a newcomer - Lucky's sister has married an elven woman - and with the elf's arrival, the peace between trolls and the outside world threatens to come crashing down. (This episode is part 1 of 2)
Lucky is the unluckiest troll in the Hole: a massive cave system which has provided sanctuary for trolls like Lucky since his great-great-great-grandpappy Grimblade's time. But now there's a newcomer - Lucky's sister has married an elven woman - and with the elf's arrival, the peace between trolls and the outside world threatens to come crashing down.
Stories from the Hearth is an immersive storytelling experience featuring truly original fiction backed by thoughtfully produced soundscapes. The aim of this podcast is to rekindle its listeners' love for the ancient art of storytelling (and story-listening), and to bring some small escapism to the frantic energies of the modern world.
Caveworm will conclude in Episode #12 out Sunday 29th August 2021 (29.08.21)
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Welcome to Stories From The Hearth, the podcast for tall tales and fantastical fiction, short stories the likes of which you might once have heard a wandering bard tell, to a group of villagers, gathered around the fire. Each episode will feature a brand-new story, written and performed by me: Calum Bannerman. Historical, romantic, science fiction, or fantasy; these are tales to transport you, doorways into another world...
A shout-out to two of my top-tier patrons today: to my sister Ruathy Bannerman, and to my brother Mullaidh. Thank you both so much.
Today's episode is the first ever pure fantasy story which I've written for this podcast. I'm really excited to get into it, and I hope you enjoy it.
This is Episode Eleven: Caveworm (Part One)
At night, I hear the wail of scolding water, the blinding white of flames through the forest, and the crackle of pinecones, burning like so much laughter.
. . .
My mother, may the gods rest her soul, used to tease me about it.
Grimspawn the Unlucky, she called me, until the whole cavern resounded with the call. In fact, I can’t recall a time when I was ever anything but Grimspawn the Unlucky. These days I’m known as ‘Lucky’ for short, despite we trolls’ disinclination toward irony.
My real name is Grimspawn Greasebucket, in keeping with the names of my sisters, Grimspawn Sloptrough, Grimspawn Bloodgutter, and Grimspawn Gorechest (the eldest and most famous). Together, we live in a place called the Hole. A massive cave network supporting hundreds of families, named for its distinct entranceway: a wide and smoothly-carved hole stretching against the earth, the chalk-white of its rim easily recognisable amidst the rich emerald of surrounding grass.
Legend has it that my great-great-great-grandpappy, Grimblade the Unshakable, discovered the Hole when out hunting one day – nearly fell right in and broke his neck, or so the story goes; which isn’t hard to believe, seeing as the Hole is flat to the ground and hidden deep in the Old Forest, in a small, sun-kissed clearing. Well, thankfully grandpappy Grimblade didn’t fall in, but settled the area instead, and began hewing the great spiral staircase, which we still use to this day.
The Hole burrows straight down into the earth for about one hundred and fifty feet, ending in a cool, translucent underground lake. The lake, at high noon on Mid Sommar’s Day, when the sun arcs for a few stunning minutes directly above us, sparkles as if its bed were beset with a million diamonds, and in that light it appears not deep blue, but a passionate, lively pink. Those trolls less in touch with their feelings say that the lake on Mid Sommar swells with the blood of conquered foes. I, on the other hand, would sooner liken the lake’s dancing waves of fuchsia and scarlet to the blood of family, or of new love.
You see, contrary to popular opinion, not all trolls are bloodthirsty, murderous goons with half a brain cell to a family. In fact, I might go so far as to say that most trolls are today quite peaceful, and generally well-educated. Granted, many of us still glory in the battle stories of older generations; heck, you’ve already heard the names of my sisters and me, so I’m sure even you have already made some assumptions. But the truth is, since before even grandpappy Grimblade’s time there’s been little cause for violence: not between neighbouring troll clans, nor even between trolls and the Unmentionables.
(Unmentionables. You’ll hear that phrase more than once in this story, since it is thanks to them I’m having to tell it.)
When I was growing up, and memory of the terrible purges into which my grandpappy Grimblade was born had all but faded from memory, we called the Unmentionables by their given names – Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling. We even struck up trade with some of the closest Unmentionable settlements. By the time I came along, it wasn’t uncommon for adolescent trolls to leave the Hole for a year or two, exploring and settling in Unmentionable towns and villages; forming friendships; joining beings from other species in fleeting, thrillingly experimental affairs.
There were even a few trolls who never returned to the Hole.
And, like I say, for a long time our relationship with the outside world flourished. We learned the Unmentionables’ languages (not fluently, but enough to get by), we traded them our mined metals, and they traded us their wheat. Generations came and went, and memory of all the hurt and sorrow of yesteryear slipped from our collective conscience. Trolls laid down their battle-axes, and took up scythes, pickaxes, lutes, harps, cards, and game-pieces.
Sure, we kept our names and sang the old songs, but at some point a day came when not one of those who sat around singing Before I take my fella t’ bed, I’ll rest my axe in a Dwarven head! had ever actually been in a fight, let alone taken a head.
That was that, and none of it seemed likely to change. Why would it? When peace was so profitable, so enjoyable.
My adolescence (which for we trolls is the period between our fiftieth and eightieth birthdays) was a truly happy time. With puberty seemed to come a measure more control over my gangly body, a mite more coordination between my wide-set eyes and suddenly blooming, bulging hands. Sure, everyone still new me as Lucky, the unluckiest troll in the Hole, but somehow not even that could stop my surging ego, my swelling self-confidence. I spent those rosy years chasing boys, flirting with girls, smooching middles, exploring the countryside, spying on Unmentionable towns, and querying the strange feelings I felt toward their folk (so strange! so white! so hairy! so slow and small!), playing grab-ass with friends and even learning to play the flute (badly) in a bid to win the heart of a jaw-dislocatingly strong young troll, by the name of Shinsplint Stumpsucker (to no avail).
My mother, well into her third century, watched on bemused – happy at last to see a generation raised free from the inherited grief which had characterised her own childhood. My sisters, on the other claw, paid me little mind, perhaps a little ashamed of my hopeless clumsiness and infamous misfortune.
My two twin sisters, Sloptrough and Bloodgutter, are the hunters of the family. They were blessed with forearms which would’ve been wasted on anything but a bowstring. Growing up, they spent most of every day spearfishing in Holebottom Lake, deer hunting in the Old Forest, or eating the spoils of their work.
My eldest sister Grimspawn Gorechest, however, couldn’t have skinned a coney to save her life (as my mother would’ve put it). She was, quite undeniably – despite how much I might have liked to deny it to the hordes of glaikit, lovestruck devotees – beautiful.
Now, I should like to stop for a second and tell you a little about the role of beauty in troll society, except… there’s really not much to tell. You see, trolls don’t have much of an eye for it. There are certain markers of attraction between trolls, sure: bone density, baldness, skin thickness, strength (of course), the number, size, shape and position of one’s scars. You know, the usual stuff. But beauty, per say? Not really.
And yet somehow, my sister Gorechest was beautiful; in ways which surpassed trolldom.
Gorechest was shorter than most trolls, slenderer too, with hands one might even call dainty (so long as they were out of earshot). Across her breasts was spattered a bright splosh of berry-red hair: a birthmark for which she was gifted her name, and for which she was all the more unique, given trolls’ general hairlessness. Her eyes, though, were even more unusual. In them were concentric circles of alternating blue and gold; particularly startling to a species whose members, uniformly and universally, had eyes as dark and black as pitch.
You might think, given what we trolls tend to look for in a potential mate, that a troll like my sister Gorechest would have been considered ugly, if anything.
There had indeed been some speculation at the time of her birth as to the strangeness of her appearance. Apparently my mother had recently returned from a distant Unmentionable city, with no baby-daddy in sight. However, no record of cross-species pollination had ever existed as far as the Hole’s elders were concerned, and in time those who grew up alongside my sister began to see not only past her abnormalities, but deeper into them. They found in Gorechest a sort of exotic pull. And once it had sunk its claws into them, it would not let go.
To cut an unnecessarily long story short, my sister – far from being made an outcast like I – was never short of admirers. I imagine Sloptrough and Bloodgutter would have been more bitter about it, if they hadn’t done quite so well mopping up the surplus of horny men, women, and middles who followed Gorechest around like lost dragon pups.
Then, when Gorechest hit one hundred, something happened which had never happened before. Something which should never have happened in the first place.
My sister, having tired of sleeping and re-sleeping with all of the trolls she felt the Hole had to offer, took a pilgrimage to the nearby Unmentionable town of Eldritch.
She was gone but two months before she returned, arm in arm with an Elven wife.
. . .
I remember the day clearly.
The Hole reverberated with the sound of rain, drumming against the surface of the lake below; the mouth-watering scent of mildew in the air. It had been raining for a month straight, ever since Gorechest had left, and by this point some of the families inhabiting the lowermost caves were forced to temporarily relocate. What few possessions trolls tend to keep were, for these folk, waterlogged or swept away. Their relocation meant that soon everyone in the Hole was pressed for space. And, as I’m sure you can imagine, space is kind of at a premium for beings ten feet tall, and weighing on average around fifty stone.
As such, the atmosphere was already quite fraught when in swanned my sister Gorechest with her newly wed bride, Diaphony Le Viol, the elf.
Now, the arrival of Gorechest and Diaphony was problematic for several reasons. Firstly, nobody, and I mean nobody married (monogamy being for suckers), let alone married an Unmentionable. Secondly, no one was quite sure why Gorechest had married Diaphony Le Viol, since although some trolls had experimented sexually with the non-troll species, such consanguinities (as I’ve already mentioned) had never before proved fruitful. But most disastrously of all was this: since the discovery of, and founding of the community within the Hole, no-one from outside had ever been shown its location. This was a matter of almost religious sanctity for the pacifistic trolls of the Hole. It was a rule which had never before been broken, and as such, had no punishment prescribed to its breaking.
By delving into the long and terrible history of my people, I could illuminate for you in great detail just exactly why we of the Hole kept our home so secret. But I don’t need to, because what I am about to tell you will enlighten you, perhaps even moreso than you should like.
For what it’s worth, I blame myself.
. . .
‘You know, Lucky, you should come with me tomorrow.’
Diaphony’s trollish had improved quite considerably, and at first I was a little distracted by it. She pronounced ‘Lucky’ just like my mum. I blushed. Her eyes – green rings surrounding even deeper green pupils – shone in the silken light, filtered through the gentle waterfall which acted as a curtain to our cave entrance. As Diaphony spoke, her fingers worked away at Gorechest’s chainmail, unlinking rusted hoops for to polish them; every now and then bringing a gentle, milk white hand up to reposition a strand of loose hair behind her pointed ear. Her dress, a pale, semi-transparent lilac, clung enticingly to her frame.
‘Wha-… sorry, what?’ I replied, lowering my gaze.
‘I said you should come with me tomorrow, back to Eldritch.’ She chuckled softly at my expression. ‘It’s my mother and father’s twelve hundredth anniversary – a dozen centuries, can you believe it?’
I said I couldn’t. I wondered how anyone could stand to be with only one other person for twelve hundred years. I wondered whether Diaphony Le Viol wanted the same for she and my sister Gorechest.
The pair had been together for a year at this point, eleven months of which they’d spent in the Hole: enduring for a long time the stares and hushed whispers, avoidance tactics and outright disdain of their neighbours. Over the last few months, however, the response to Diaphony’s presence had transformed: from talk-of-the-cave to mild curiosity, and now at last to a sort of begrudging acceptance.
Not once in all those months had she expressed any desire to return to her hometown.
‘I don’t know Diaphony…’ I began, though already I could feel the planted seed begin to germinate.
‘Oh, come on, scaredy-goat!’ Diaphony goaded. ‘Don’t you want to see the world? It’s not everyday a troll gets an invite to an Elven dozen-century anniversary party!’
I frowned a little at her use of the word ‘troll’.
‘You know what I mean.’ Her voice softened. ‘It’ll be fun, I promise. Please?’
‘Daph…’ From the corner of my eye I saw her smile, and marvelled at the delicate ivory of her teeth (so uniform and small, small as her pinkie nail, and not at all like the mashed and pitted gnashers of trolls).
Diaphony tugged at my elbow, her arms locked round it like they might around a tree branch she was climbing.
‘Pleaaase,’ she fawned. ‘It would make me so happy, plus I’d be glad for the company: the road to Eldritch has been known to host bandits in its time, and I’d so love to see a big strong troll like you in action.’
There it was again, ‘troll’.
‘Fat lot of use I’d be,’ I said, managing to spill my drink down my front as I did, as if demonstrating for her my lucklessness. ‘Anyway, what about Gorechest?’
‘Your sister? She’s refusing to come on account of the baby.’
(My nephew, Grimphony Halftroll, had been born to the pair just two months earlier, after a sudden, painful, and previously-thought-impossible feat of childbirth, which had surprised the two mothers just as much as the rest of the Hole. And yet which had, oddly enough, kind of cemented Diaphony’s place in the troll community.)
‘Yeah, fair,’ I grunted, wiping at the sticky liquid saturating my loincloth. Then, after a moment’s thought. ‘Don’t you want to introduce wee Grimph to your parents?’
Diaphony’s smile twitched and faded. It returned with a sardonic laugh. ‘Hah. No, we’re not quite there…’
I nodded. ‘But you want me to come…’
‘Oh yes. Absolutely! You’ll be the talk of the town! Come on, what’s there to lose? We’re used to trolls visiting Eldritch, it’s… I… we just think they might not be ready to see a halftroll, you know?’
I had to admit, it made a sort of sense. It also nagged at me, like an itch you can’t quite reach. Still, I’d lived across the cave from Diaphony for nearly a year now. She was like a sister to me, and here she was offering me the chance to see the outside world through the eyes of an Unmentionable – an experience I thought probably no other troll in living memory, excepting Gorechest of course, had experienced.
The germinating seed broke the surface of my mind in a tiny, curling shoot of green. A green to match those cajoling eyes, I thought.
Finally, I raised my gaze to meet hers, unable to stifle a smile.
‘Alright,’ I said. ‘I’ll come.’
Diaphony whooped and clapped her hands, her enthusiasm infectious.
We danced a silly jig together then, Diaphony Le Viol leading me best as she could, laughing uproariously when I tripped over my own feet, or bashed my head off the cave ceiling.
And for the first time in my life I remember a feeling of freedom from self-consciousness. A feeling of acceptance and a love from this strange being, who had so ingratiated herself within our community.
I remember thinking how liberating a feeling that was.
I remember hoping it would last forever.
. . .
As it turned out, the road to Eldritch was entirely free of bandits. In fact, it was quite busy, once we joined it south of Old Forest, and soon we were passing rest stops, road-side inns, and an abundance of quietly grazing livestock – wee white blobs of wool framed against the iron grey of a distant mountain range.
To either side of the road, wide and well-kept, spring flowers bloomed. Profusions of bluecaps, whitebills, thorny clouddown, and the riotously colourful parmalians, of which no two petals looked the same; sort of like snowflakes.
The road to Eldritch was so idyllic, it did dawn on me that Diaphony had probably been lying about the bandits, just to make me feel more useful. Which wouldn’t have mattered, if the Grimspawn family battle-axe I had strapped to my back hadn’t been attracting so much attention.
Wandering trolls might no longer have been as rare a sight as they had been a few centuries ago, but before we even reached the town, I was beginning to suspect Diaphony had also been exaggerating the degree to which her people were accustomed to our presence. The market stalls of chirpy, ruddy-cheeked halfling hawkers, erected at regular intervals along the thoroughfare, would go suddenly silent as we passed, purveyors conspicuously guarding their wares, whilst customers clutched their money belts to them. (Presumably unaware that money means nothing to a Hole troll).
Dwarves – a zealous species – passed us in long lines of solemn, chanting pilgrims, garbed all in black despite the spring heat. As they passed, their chants grew perceptibly louder, the glare of eyes from under heavy hoods bearing down upon me with the weight of judgement.
After a night spent at a roadside inn (where I was granted a room only at the insistence of Diaphony, who as you’ll have noticed by now can be quite persuasive), we reached the town of Eldritch.
I’d never seen anything like it.
If my species’ ability to bore massive, complex cave dwellings out of the earth’s mantle was impressive, then the ability of Unmentionables to build into the sky was equally so.
Eldritch lay at the confluence of two broiling rivers, the Sen and Argo, and was raised on a giant earthwork foundation, slanted so that entrance to the town could only be gained from the rear. The buildings closest to the highest point of the earthwork finished next to a steep drop, below which the Sen and Argo joined to become the Arjen – the same river which many miles back east fed into a number of smaller streams and brooks, which in turn nurtured Old Forest, and the Hole.
Atop the highest hill of the surrounding valley, we stopped to catch our breath.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
‘It certainly is impressive,’ I replied after a while.
It seemed to me strange that, with so much land around, the founders of Eldritch had decided not to spread out across the valley, and had instead piled buildings on top of buildings, winding streets on top of winding streets, as if aiming for the heavens.
But then, you must remember that I had no grasp of the concept of war, nor of military strategy, and could not at the time understand that Eldritch, like so many ancient Unmentionable settlements, had been designed with an eye for defence.
The roofs of the buildings were all a matte, mossy green, their walls constructed of wood (it was an Elven town, after all). The wood varied in hue, but tended toward the swirling richness of chestnut. From the rooves of the highest buildings (which were also the grandest in construction, often several times the size of those further down the hill) I could just make out the undulation of cloth in the breeze. Flags, according to Diaphony, each of which corresponded to an important Eldritch family. (Diaphony giggled and slapped me on the back when I asked what made one family more important than another.) On them, she said, were pictures, which told each family’s story. She promised she’d point out the flags of House Le Viol when we got closer.
At the very highest point of Eldritch – atop a radiant, four-storey building made of beech wood: blonde and commanding above the darker hues of the houses below – something caught my eye. As the sun peeked out from behind some high-flying clouds, it glanced off something atop that tall, imposing structure. The silvery glint sang across the valley floor, and standing on the hill I fancied I could hear it.
‘What’s that?’ I said, pointing stupidly in the direction of Eldritch.
‘Oh!’ Diaphony beamed. ‘That’s the staff of Mage Syspin II!’ Then, at a blank look from me, ‘Syspin? No? Syspin the Arcane? Syspin, Saviour of Eldritch?’ I shook my head. Diaphony inhaled. ‘Really? Oh, wow! His father, Syspin I, he built our town, and Syspin II well, he saved it when… well he…’ Diaphony frowned ever so slightly, and so unused were her porcelain features to the expression, that not a single wrinkle showed on her forehead. She thought for a while, and then turned her gaze back to me, the light in her eyes a degree colder. ‘Suffice to say,’ she continued, ‘he was a real hero. That’s his staff there, on the highest tower of the keep, said still to contain some of his magic – ward off invaders and such.’ Then she chuckled, ‘you best watch out!’
Diaphony seemed to think this a great joke, and made a show of prodding me in playfight. I tried a smile, but there was something in the way. Something tugging at me, nagging at me. An emptiness in my brain, filled only with the name of that Eldritchian mage.
. . .
Eldritch was entered via a run of surprisingly squat timber doors, positioned one after the other at the corners of a steeply winding path below the town. From the lowermost of these doors, the town reared up before us like some sudden mountain, and by the time we reached the last (and most intricately carved) of the doors, the rising hulk of Eldritch had blotted out the sun, casting us in a cool, if slightly unsettling shadow.
It only occurred to me at this point that the doors weren’t squat at all, but would in fact have appeared quite large and grand, imposing even, to an Unmentionable – elf, dwarf, or halfling. In fact, in each entranceway was set a smaller wicket gate, presumably to further impress upon the diminutive peoples of the Unmentionable species the perceived immensity of the town. It was through these wickets which most traffic seemed to pass, and it was with no small degree of surprise which the gatekeepers found themselves having to open each door in its entirety, to let me through.
‘I’m guessing the architect wasn’t a troll, then…’ I said to Diaphony, raising my voice ever so slightly.
She chuckled. ‘No, not quite.’
To my great surprise, my sister’s wife and I were heralded into town.
‘Lady Diaphony Seguesta Penchantress Duville of the House Le Viol, and…’ there was a brief pause, ‘Lord Grimspawn… Greizschbouqet of the Alt Forest, here to attend the Twelve Hundredth Anniversary celebrations of our most noble and tolerant benefactors, the Duke and Duchess Pensentia and Prisadora La Viol.’
The herald’s announcement was accompanied by a modest smattering of fanfare.
‘How do they know where I’m from?’ I asked Diaphony, once I’d regained my senses.
She waved away my question.
‘Oh, I wrote ahead!’
Taking my arm, Lady Diaphony Seguesta Penchantress Duville of the House Le Viol hurried me up and through a wideset archway of marble-veined stone (one of only two examples of stonework in the entire city, she informed me excitedly). The street onto which we emerged was narrow and tall, the buildings at least as tall as me, if not doubly so, with numerous tiny alleyways in between every other house, leading visitors to streets above via impossibly delicate ladders.
Catching me looking at the steps, Diaphony giggled.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll go the long way round; all the better to show you my home!’
Had we confined ourselves to the western side of town, I might have been fooled into thinking that Eldritch was a quiet, peaceful place to live. Just as peaceful (if not more so) than the Hole. Else, I would have assumed that all these buildings were for show, or for some purpose other than habitation, and that the town was in fact only as populous as a small village.
Hark, not so.
It turned out that the residents of Eldritch were in fact just taking part in the anniversary celebrations, on the sunny side of town. This side, the west side, would only become busy again when the day tipped into afternoon, and the sun tipped with it. For the duration of the morning, however, only the plazas and concourses, covered markets, towers, grand houses, tumbling steps, fountains, and parks of the east side were in use.
And in use they were.
I quickly lost count of the faces, blurring in and out of focus as they danced and ran, strolled and clinked their overflowing glasses all around me, in dizzying wave after dizzying wave of revelry.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we trolls know a thing or two about parties. But given the nature of our dwellings, and the relative paucity of available party space in the Hole, we tended to celebrate by standing at the entrances to our caves and hollering across the expanse of the main drop, visiting (by way of climbing) the caves of relatives and close friends, but tending to conduct fairly sedentary shindigs.
The party currently underway in Eldritch was, by comparison, nauseatingly fluid.
As we pressed through the crowds, which began parting at my presence, my head swam with the strength of the colours and sounds, movements and smells. Unmentionables tended to put their meat to flame, in a practice I’d learned from Diaphony was called ‘cooking’; and whilst I’d grown somewhat used to the smell of cooked meat back in the Hole (since Diaphony insisted her kind did not have the capacity to ingest raw animal), the heady mix of game and fowl sizzling, simmering, and spitting on the open fires of Eldritch Town was beginning to make me feel queasy.
The music, too, was strange, with gently lilting harmonies sung to the tunes of ethereal instruments, and whispering winds. The words of the songs were of course largely unintelligible since I’d shown only cursory interest in learning the Elven language. Thus, so too were the words painted in big silver letters on the green and yellow banners strung across the streets, unintelligible, and those etched into the wooden lintels of shopfronts, and those used in the conversations, descending into whispers or, worse, raised to shouting as Diaphony and I walked by.
I realised then that there is nothing quite so lonely as a language barrier.
Rounding a corner on the midmost tier of Eldritch’s east side, we emerged into a wide, lowcut oval area with a babbling fountain in its centre. The square was paved in that same bluish stone with which the western archway had been made, and wherever the thronging mass of people parted, sunlight licked the stone and made it shine.
Currently, mid-morning was climbing toward noon, and the apex of the sun’s strength. The clouds which had earlier revealed to me the staff of Mage Syspin II were now entirely gone from the sky, and with nothing between the sun and me, I felt as if I should soon bake like the suckling pigs of the food vendors.
My skin, heavier and thicker than any other living species, dark grey-green and as weathered and lined as the skin of the Unmentionables was smooth and pearlescent, was beginning to crack and dry out. In the Hole, I was used to the darkness (as all trolls naturally are), and could hydrate my body as and when needed, thanks to Holebottom Lake and the streams which turned to waterfalls at the lip of the Hole.
Under the heat of that Eldritch sun, my skin seemed tight and uncomfortable, restrictive even so that my breathing became laboured, and areas where various parts of me came into contact with each other – my armpits, inner thighs, where my breasts met my stomach – suddenly chafed. I gritted my teeth against the discomfort. Grunted against the pain.
Presently, Diaphony nudged me.
‘Hey, don’t go anywhere, okay?’ As she spoke, she hopped from foot to foot, bobbing her tiny head in time with the band on the other side of the square, wisps of her straw-coloured hair languorous in the absence of a breeze. As she disappeared into the crowd of wide-eyed and pointing partygoers, meekly I nodded.
With Diaphony gone, the chatter around me fluttered, first quieting to individual conversations, then rising again, becoming even louder than before as the gathered gossipers decided that I mustn’t speak their language.
Still, I’d have had to have been as dim as some of the dimmest trolls I knew, not to pick out bits and pieces from the general clamour.
‘By Pan, look at his eyes!’
‘No place for a beast…’
‘Wonder if they have thoughts of their own? Never seen one before…’
‘Show their bare breasts like that, so Avant Garde…’
‘Good God, the stench!’
‘Touch it, I dare you… Go on!’
The Unmentionables, garbed gaily in layers of lavishly dyed cloth, stitched with gold and copper thread or beset by jewels, eyeballed me like a prize pig. Dressed only in a loincloth, I felt embarrassed by my body for the first time in my life.
I hugged my arms about my chest, ensuring my nipples – the apparent focus of much attention – were covered beneath my forearms. I heard a gaggle of women by the fountain laugh loudly, and my heartbeat quickened.
Were they laughing at me? They were certainly staring at me.
My head beat to the pounding heat of the sun.
By the women’s side, I was suddenly struck by the shimmering water of the fountain. So intoxicating was the sight of the water that I hardly paid any notice to the meticulous stonework, carved and decorated with beasts and gargoyles (else I might have recognised who the beasts were modelled after).
From a spout at the top of the fountain, a dazzlingly clear stream shot into the air about three or four feet – a bolt of silver in the sunlight – before falling back on itself to splash first into one small basin, then flowing over into a larger one below. And on, and on, in mesmerising waves of mercurial liquid, to fall at the last into a wide, glittering pool, circling the central pillar. There, the water came to a rest, and on its surface the sun fell in dazzling bands of quicksilver and gold.
Diaphony and I had been marching under wide skies since sunrise, and by now I was quite exhausted. Around me hordes of drunken alien revellers surged and shrieked, and as the tumult rose, so too did my bodily discomfort reach fever pitch. Never greater had any sense of homesickness been than in that moment, stranded in a sea of white faces, their smiles too perfect to be sincere. All that I had for the comfort of home was that shimmering, enticing pool of cool, cool water.
Its reflection pulled me in.
I confess to say that before I knew what I was doing, I was half-walking, half-staggering toward the base of that fountain, my scorched skin roaring, nay, screaming for hydration.
As I plunged myself waist deep into the chill waters, a wave of instantaneous relief washed over me. The clammy contortion around my genitals loosened and breathed; my thighs, rubbed red raw, felt as two fires mercifully extinguished. Dipping my bald and baking head beneath the surface of the pool, feeling the icy relief of its fingers massaging my scalp, the raucous sounds of mirth and merrymaking were for but a blissful second drowned to silence.
And as I lay beneath the surface, in that liminal world that is the underwater, I experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude toward the townspeople of Eldritch. Or, more accurately, Eldritch’s town planners, for in that moment I felt sure that they had installed this bathing pool as an otherwise uncharacteristic concession to needs of their cave-dwelling neighbours.
My feeling of gratitude did not, however, last long.
Breaking the surface of the water, refreshed at long last, I emerged into a scene entirely changed.
The band, perched on their stage overlooking the lower levels of Eldritch, had stopped playing. The dancers stopped dancing. Even the beer drinkers had paused in their drinking, some with pint glasses raised halfway to their lips. And every single pair of eyes in the square were trained on me.
My breathing, having recovered momentarily in the water, faltered again; the air struggling to leave my chest, and me struggling to replace it.
Eventually, the stillness broke.
A young, knavish boy, his eyes wide with intrigue, and not a jot of trepidation, laughed.
Soon, others joined him, until the square was reanimated, pulsating with a life renewed and imbued with hilarity and with mockery. Soon, as those less impressed by my exploits reigned in their senses, the laughter turned to anger, the air filling with shouts of appal and disbelief.
‘What’s he doing!?’
‘He’ll start drinking it next!’
‘What an animal!’
‘Look! The beast’s found a watering hole!’
‘Least it might wash him of the stink!’
‘Where are the mages?’
‘We have to call the mages!’
‘Where are they?’
‘Look! Here they come!’
End of Part One.
Thank you for listening to this month's Stories from the Hearth. We'll pick back up with Lucky's story, and find out what happens in the conclusion of Caveworm in Part Two, next month. If you liked what you heard today, please do subscribe, rate this podcast on Apple Podcasts or iTunes, or whichever app you use, and share it with friends, family, and anyone else you know who could use just a half hour's respite from the monotony of the everyday. If you wish to support the podcast, please head to my Patreon by hitting the link in the description. There you can get perks such as early access, bonus episodes, behind-the-scenes content, shout-outs, and more. And speaking of shout-outs, a couple more: thank you so much to my mum Vivian Bannerman, and to my gran and papa Sandy and Jane. You can check out the podcast’s Instagram, Twitter, and website also via the links below. Story episodes are released once a month, on the last Sunday of every month. The conclusion to Caveworm will be out on Sunday the 29th of August. Keep your eyes peeled in the meantime for additional episodes in The Wandering Bard, which is my historical series looking into the history of storytelling and the people behind it. Until next time, I’ve been Calum Bannerman, and you’ve been listening to Stories From The Hearth.