Stories from the Hearth

Caveworm: 2/2 (Fantasy Drama) - Story #9

Episode Summary

Reaching the elven town of Eldritch, it soon became clear to Lucky the troll that their kind was unwanted. Now, Lucky is set to face an even greater threat: a sect of zealous mages whose singular purpose is to bring about the extinction of the trollish race. Where has Lucky's sister-in-law Diaphony Le Viol disappeared to? How will trollish pacifism stand up to elven aggression? Find out how this family-friendly, queer fantasy epic concludes in Caveworm: Part Two. (This episode is part 2 of 2)

Episode Notes

Reaching the elven town of Eldritch, it soon became clear to Lucky the troll that their kind was unwanted. Now, Lucky is set to face an even greater threat: a sect of zealous mages whose singular purpose is to bring about the extinction of the trollish race. Where has Lucky's sister-in-law Diaphony Le Viol disappeared to? How will trollish pacifism stand up to elven aggression? Find out how this family-friendly, queer fantasy epic concludes in Caveworm: Part Two. (This episode is part 2 of 2)

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. Stories is the brainchild of queer punk poet, environmentalist, and anarchist Cal Bannerman. Vive l'art!

Episode #13 out Sunday 26th September 2021 (26.09.21)

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Episode Transcription

Last time on Stories from the Hearth: These days though, I’m known as Lucky for short. My real name is Grimspawn Greasebucket, in keeping with the names of my sisters. Together, we live in a place called the Hole. When I was growing up, we called the Unmentionables by their given names: elf, dwarf, halfling. When Gorechest hit one hundred [she] 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. The arrival of Gorechest and Diaphony was problematic for several reasons, but most disastrously of all was… since the discovery of, and founding of a community within the Hole, no one from outside had ever been shown its location. “You know Lucky, you should come with me tomorrow back to Eldritch. It’s my mother and father’s twelve-hundredth anniversary.” Eldritch was entered a run of surprisingly squat timber doors. From the lowermost of these doors, the town reared up before us like some sudden mountain. By the time we reached the last and most intricately carved of them, the rising bulk of Eldritch has blotted out the sun. To my great surprise, my sister’s wife and I were heralded into town: “Lady Diaphony Seguesta Penchantress Du Ville of the House Le Viol, and Lord Grimspawn… Greizschbouqet.” Quickly I lost count of the faces, blurring in and out of focus as the danced and ran, strolled and clinked their overflowing glasses all around me. Under the heat of that Eldritch sun, my skin seemed tight and uncomfortable. I grit my teeth against the discomfort. Grunted against the pain. [I was] suddenly struck by the shimmering water of the fountain. As I plunged myself waist deep into the chill waters, a wave of instantaneous relief washed over me, and ever single pair of eyes in the square were trained on me. “What’s he doing? He’ll start drinking it next. Oh, what an animal! Haha, look, the beast’s found a watering hole! Marshmuck! Where are the mages? Argh, caveworm! We have to call the mages! Pig, mages, brute, mages, where are they, where are they? Savages. Will somebody please go and get the bloody – look! Look! Here they come!”

 

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 a fire. Each episode will feature a brand-new story, written and performed by me: Calum Bannerman., and accompanied by a thoughtfully-produced soundscape. Whether it’s historical, romantic, science fiction, or fantasy; these are tales to transport you, doorways into another world.

 

I’m really excited to get into this episode with you. This is the second and final part in Caveworm, which is a fantasy story I wanted to write with a bit of a twist. I’m a massive, massive fan of fantasy. I grew up reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from J.R.R. Tolkien, and in later life I’ve got really into Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy. But all sorts of fantasy in all sorts of media interests me. I love Studio Ghibli. I have a big Princess Mononoke tattoo. I have eleven scroll – the same one written on the One Ring from Lord of the Rings – looping around my forearm. Fantasy means the world to me; it’s inspired me to write, and it’s inspired me to make this podcast. However, I always felt with fantasy that too much of it stuck to the tropes, too much of it stuck to what had been done before. Of course, some of those tropes make sense. The characters of goblins, elves, halflings, trolls, orcs, which by and large were popularised (if not created) by Tolkien, are great – they’re so good that: why meddle with them. Of course you can! You can tweak them, you can add to them if you like. But they exist for a reason. What I wanted to do was to examine the relationships between them in a way I hadn’t seen done before, and for me, of course – as this podcast tends toward – that had to be in a queer way. I wanted to take these relationships and examine them from a queer perspective. What if cave trolls were not the violent, aggressive, stupid characters that we’ve always seen them to be? What if they were, in essence, queer? What if they were pacifistic, and in fact an oppressed minority who were simply running from that oppression. What if they burrowed into the ground to literally escape the oppression of… coming from people like elves, halflings, and dwarves. So that was the focus of this story. Of course, at the same time, I just wanted to tell a good story. That’s always my aim. I love good stories, and even though they might have a queer or political bent to them, even though they might want to tell something else in the subtext, or have a message with them, ultimately I just want to tell a good story, which is why last time we ended on a real cliff-hanger. Lucky, visiting the elven town of Eldritch alongside their sister-in-law Diaphony Le Viol, suddenly find that they are perhaps not as welcome as they were led to believe they would be. In fact, perhaps the peace which exists between trolls and the Unmentionables is much more fragile than they could ever have imagined.

 

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Now, let’s get on with the episode. This is Episode Twelve: Caveworm Part Two.

 

I stood dazed, unable to comprehend what was happening. Unable to understand why anyone would be ridiculed simply for swimming. My eyes glazed over, looking out at a sea of gaping mouths and teary cheeks, fingers pointed at me in rage, belly’s clutched in mirth. 

            Frantically, I looked around for Diaphony, but whether I could have even picked her out from amongst the swell of oddly pale and drawn, long-eared faces I am still unsure. Certainly, I did not see her, and she did not come barrelling down out of the crowd to my rescue.

            Suddenly, the jeering assembly fell quiet once again.

            Into their midst strode a procession of white-clad people in long, flowing robes, each carrying a staff in their hands (it was quite impossible to identify their sex, and I wondered then whether they had one or not). The white-robed people were all taller by a good few inches than the next tallest Eldritchian, and I recalled a group Diaphony had reverentially referred to as the ‘High Elves’.

            The procession parted the waves of merrymakers like hunting dogs through a herd of deer. At its front, the group was led by a figure taller even than they. The figure was dressed in a scarlet robe as bright and lurid as blood, on which was painted in white a gnarled staff of witcherywood. Around their waist was fixed a belt, and from it dangled a circumference of strange, emaciated things, blackened and unrecognisable.

            For some reason, my heart hurt to see them.

            Unlike their followers, this one wore their hood down, revealing a long, lustrous mane of navy-black. Tucked beneath the hair, emerging to cross their forehead, was a circlet of lapis lazuli. Only then did I notice that their eyes, too – unlike Diaphony’s green on green – were of that same radiant blue, surrounding pupils as golden as the sun. The being’s face was taught, contorted into a well-managed scowl. 

            As the procession reached the fountain, the white-clad followers of this central figure fanned out around me, arcing with the shape of the water feature so as to cover me from all but one side. 

            I felt my hackles rise.

            For a moment, I contemplated shouting for Diaphony, thinking that if anyone could make sense of what was happening, or mollify any offended parties, then surely it should be her: daughter of those most noble and tolerant benefactors, the Duke and Duchess Pensentia and Prisadora Le Viol. But even as I was thinking this, I finally found Diaphony in the crowd, on the frontlines of the receding townsfolk, horror and anticipation on her face. She saw me looking and blinked, before retreating at a fair clip through the crowd.

            The leader of the zealots (as I now took them to be, the embroidered staff on their robes aligning in my mind with that of the shining staff, glinting atop Eldritch), flicked their wrist. In response, the other mages tilted their staffs toward me in a synchronised movement. 

            My heart rate and breathing was erratic, my mind suddenly pushed into overdrive.

            I still had the Grimspawn family axe on my back, though I’d never used it before, and whilst the new arrivals were tall for Unmentionables, I was still taller by far, and supposing they were ignorant of how fast a troll can run when the need arises, I reckoned I could probably still make a solid break for it. 

            As I moved to leap from the fountain, one hand reaching for my axe, the mage in the blood-red gown flicked their wrist once more.

            Suddenly, I felt corralled with ropes, as if lassoed around my neck, arms, and chest, and across my shoulders a huge weight fell. Staggeringly heavy, the wind was knocked instantly from me. My vision began to constrict, the circle of clear sight growing smaller and smaller. Still I saw the white-robed mages further lower their staffs. My knees buckled under me. From outside my own body, helplessly I watched myself fall; dragged by those invisible ropes, pressed by that ginormous weight toward the ground. 

            My chest hit the stone boundary of the fountain with such force that the mortar cracked asunder, and the stone crumbled. Through the stone dike my body hew a breach, and over me, under me, along my taught and powerless limbs the fountain’s water spilled, flooding the square and hissing softly into steam where it met the sun-hot flagstones.

            Gradually, I felt the constriction of the invisible ropes loosen, though still the weight across my shoulders remained; more than enough to keep me grounded, so exhausted was I. 

            And then the leader of the mages spoke.

            ‘You should not have come here, caveworm.’

            As they spoke, I heard two versions of every word: one spoken in the high, bouncing language of the elves, and another in my own tongue, growling and thick as tree sap.

            Their voice reminded me of a hornet sting, so acutely sharp as to concentrate the senses, followed by the throb of one’s body acclimatising to the poison. I sensed that this resemblance was not confined to metaphor, but was somehow an intended quality.

            Attempting to respond, I found that my throat closed up whenever I tried to speak. I was forced to give up, if only to breathe.

            ‘How dare you muddy our holy waters with your vile hide? How dare you show your face here again?’

            Wait, I thought, did they say again?

            A chorus of jeers and whistles came from the gathered crowd, who seemed to know their role in this production as if it were not the first time they had held it.

            ‘You were foolish to return, and to return with the Lady Diaphony Duville as well,’ they scoffed, ‘as if to rub our noses in the filth of your carnality.’ The tall, sneering being spat, and I felt the phlegm hit me behind the ear. The crowd cheered.

            ‘No, I- I’m not-’ I tried, able for a moment to muster speech. As soon as the words had passed my lips, however, my throat tightened further than before, and for several long seconds I could not breath at all. My eyes bulged, my face turned puce.

            A peel of laughter rippled through the crowd.

            ‘Down, dog!’ Spat the high mage. ‘Your kind have extended themselves too far!’ They stabbed the base of their staff at the stone tiles. ‘To think of all our species has been through, we should have seen this coming.’

            Then, turning to the crowd, though still speaking by whichever means I could understand them, the mage said: ‘Did we not warn you this would happen? Did you not see the warning signs? Trolls emerging again after all these centuries, trading with you, walking with you, befriending you, stealing you away to make corrupt, depraved, perverted sex upon you, bending your will to theirs? Foolish were our forefathers and we not to pursue the Great Cleansing to its divine conclusion, to rid the earth once and for all of these… these beasts!’

            The sting of the mage’s voice throbbed now in my ears, as if tightening around my brain – a lapis lazuli circlet of blinding pain. As they delivered their speech to the now frightened and angering masses, they unfastened their belt of curious ornaments and raised it above them.

            ‘Thesefilthy beasts!’ they screamed, and now, too late, finally I recognised what it was which adorned the mage’s girdle. 

            Each decoration was about the size of my fist, dessicated and dried as leather; black as soot. The ornaments were attached to the belt by hooks, pierced through things I now saw to be ears. The mage held aloft a belt of shrunken troll heads.

 

I tried to scream, but no sound would come out. I tried to move, to crawl for the ankles of my tormentor, but I could not; the weight across my shoulders as dreadful as ever. 

            I thought then of my sisters, Gorechest, Sloptrough, and Bloodgutter, of my mother and our home, of the way the lake at the bottom of our Hole shone pink as roses under the Mid Sommar sun, and of the sound of our songs, echoing fondly around the cavern walls.

            I thought of all of the trolls I’d known, who’d set out to explore the world and never returned. And I thought of how we’d lambasted them as turncoats and traitors, never guessing the gruesome reality of their fate.

            ‘Well?’ shrieked the mage, the cleric, the priest and conductor of this horrendous orchestra, the choir of which was a tangled mass of drunk and lusting townsfolk. ‘What say you?’ The crowd roared. ‘Have you finally had enough?’ Their roar grew toward crescendo. ‘Our glorious benefactors, whom we are gathered here to celebrate, brought the Great Cleansing to an end when in their youth, believing their work to be finished.’ The crescendo grew closer, till it felt as if my eardrums should burst. ‘What say we do the House of Le Viol the greatest honour yet?’

            The mage swung around to face me, their gore-coloured robes burling like a mist of blood about their feet. They flung their belt of corpse-less heads to land by my eyes, used their magic to peel my eyelids back, forcing me to gaze into the empty sockets of my kinfolk.

            ‘WHAT SAY WE FOLLOW THIS CAVEWORM BACK TO ITS HOLE?’

            The tremendous shrieking of the crowd reached new plains of sound. Though pinioned by the staffs of the mage and their cronies, still I screamed. I screamed for all I was worth. I screamed until my throat was closed again. From somewhere out of sight, a staff swung down and with an ugly crack caught me behind the ear. Then all went black.

 

. . .

 

I awoke to the soaring, verdant evergreens of home.

            My eyes blurry, it took me a moment to read the deepening hues as forest, bark, and bracken. The air about me was still, though a light breeze played against my skin, and I thought what a relief it was to feel the approach of storm weather after a day of such unrelenting sun.

            Gradually, one thought tripping after the other like drunkards down a tunnel, my brain caught up to itself, and to the front of my mind rushed images of Eldritch square; of leering faces, wide, pink mouths, eyes bright as gold, and of laughter, cold and merciless as hail. 

            As memory pushed aside the throbbing at the base of my skull, suddenly I realised what me being home – here, in the Old Forest – actually meant, and my heart sank.

            I tried to move. Unsurprisingly, I could not. Tilting slightly, I found myself strapped to a gurney, arms and legs bound several times over by leather and iron, a taught, thick collar around my neck. I struggled against the restraints, but it was hopeless.

            To my left, I heard a black chuckle.

            ‘Hah, that’s the ogre awake.’ The voice was unassuming, banal; uninterested even. The speaker prodded me in the stomach with one end of a staff. ‘Just in time to see the show, marshmuck!’ Another slither of laughter. Then, to another figure also out of sight, the voice said: ‘Go fetch Yeshin High Priest, they’ll want a word with the beast.’

            The stretcher to which I was shackled was tilted at almost ninety degrees to the ground, my feet some two feet from the mossy rock. We must have been atop a hill or cliff somewhere, for I was positioned so as to look out across a sea of green, soaring pines stretching far as the eye could see. It was dusk, and on the horizon only the slimmest band of silvered yellow remained. The rest of the sky had turned mauve, deepening to a bruised purple off to the west – the direction from which I assumed the storm must be coming.

            Behind my gurney, I could hear a dozen whispered conversations, and the hushed, hasty movements of people at work. I could not make out any words I recognised. In fact, even those I could pick out seemed alien, more nuanced and richer, somehow, than common elvish. 

            My eyes, last accustomed to the sheer white of an Eldritch drenched in sun, took a while adjusting to the gloom of evening. For the time being I was left alone, and so I focused on my breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth – just like the twins had taught me, during some short-lived period of familial harmony, what felt like a lifetime ago. 

            Slowly, my heartrate decreased, and the panic in my chest subsided long enough for me to start thinking. 

            I’d spent over a century in these woods, in the heart of a forest so dense and winding, so seemingly uniform and yet ceaselessly changing as to be impenetrable to outsiders. I knew it, as they say, like the scars on my chest (which for we trolls was to say: intimately). And yet rarely had I seen the Old Forest from such an angle. 

            As far as I knew, there was only one place in the whole wood you might climb so high: a curiously monolithic stalagmite of igneous rock, towering and tree-topped and bursting from the earth like a solid geyser of stone; a place we trolls called the Spear. And yet, we could not be there, atop the Spear, for that would mean that…

            My breath caught in my chest. I cast my eyes across the forest floor again, hoping I was mistaken. In the looming darkness, I thought at first that I was wrong. All too briefly, I allowed myself a little hope.

            But then I saw it, and at the back of my throat I tasted bile.

            About two hundred feet away, down amongst the canopy and barely visible, was a patch of forest slightly darker than the rest. Focusing on it, one could just spy a ring of treeless space; a circle of emptiness amongst an endless ocean of pine; a clearing. A clearing surrounding the entrance to the Hole.

 

Suddenly, I remembered the hornet voice of the mage. I remembered their rallying cry, and though I knew not how, I realised that finally I knew why I was here, and what was about to happen too.

            Once again, I began struggling against the chains and straps which held me, grunting and growling as my efforts came to nothing, and my frustrations mounted. From my peripheries, I watched as the veins beneath my skin rose up like flooding rivers.

            But before I could do much more, I felt myself stiffen. 

            To this day I cannot describe exactly how it feels, to have your bones turned to lead, your muscles frozen; to suddenly find yourself under the spell of magic, to realise that no matter how tall or broad or strong you are, to a skilled enough mage you are but a worm, wriggling helplessly in the mud of a cupped hand. 

            ‘Have you worked it out yet, puswart?’ 

            To my right, the high mage called Yeshin sauntered into view, their blue-black hair undulating gently in the rising breeze. They kept their eyes from me, surveying the land below.

            ‘Well?’

            ‘Screw you.’ I managed, but the mage only laughed.

            ‘Still no, then. Shame, I was honestly starting to think there was more between your ears than between theirs.’ Almost absentmindedly, Yeshin fingered the gnarled heads of former trolls, hanging from their belt. ‘You put up quite an impressive defence against my verity spell; it was akin to drawing blood from a stone for a while there.’

            The priest’s mockery conjured an image in my mind; blurry at first, slowly it drew into focus, along with a gutting sensation like heartache, only stronger. I saw a room, filthy with animal matter and dried blood, dripping in crusted fronds from a low-ceiling. Chains on the walls, on every surface. An iron grate. No windows. I remembered the clogging smell of damp in my nostrils, the burn as of hot ash beneath the skin. I remembered Yeshin’s teeth flashing white. And the pain. Lots of pain.

            ‘Ah, you do remember. And to think your kind prides themselves so highly for their loyalty.’ The mage laughed again, the sound like nails across unglazed pottery. 

            ‘I would never –’ I began. 

            Yeshin spun round, their eyes dancing, golden pupils ablaze. With a flick of their wrist my gurney lurched toward the ground, stopping when my face was brought close to theirs. The mage grabbed my jaw in their hand, pushing the sharpened nails of their thumb and forefinger into my cheeks.

            ‘Oh, but you did, you gutless worm. You told me everything. You brought us here!’ They gestured around them, to the mossy cliff edge on which we were stood, to the lapping waves of pine needles far below.

            ‘No… Diaphony; I…’

            ‘Diaphony?’ the mage screamed. ‘I should part your tongue from your mouth, that you may never utter the name of her Highness again. I would have taken your tongue in the cells, if only you beasts could write your confessions.’ The mage snarled, his eyes wild. ‘Of course, we still had some fun with you…’

            Glitching images of the cell roared across my brain, and in my ears echoed the sound of screams. My screams. With a winded sensation, I felt a searing pain across my chest; though when the remembered sights and sounds finally faded, that terrible pain remained.

            Fighting against the heaviness imposed upon me, I strained my neck against the collar and looked down... Down at the place where my breasts should have hung: small and supple, unchanged yet by parenthood. Instead, My chest comprised two giant bloody welts, congealing yellow and green as the untreated wounds began to fester.

            The pain was bitter and evil, the slow realisation like a noose, tightening around my future. I felt robbed; I felt undone; I felt… removed: the image of me no longer matching the conscience. I remembered the first time I’d laid eyes on my sister’s son Grimphony, and the butterflies I’d felt in my stomach. And I began to cry. 

            Yeshin High Priest scoffed. Leaning closer, they spat in my face. Then they took their staff and pressed it slowly, forcefully into the wound of my breastless chest. 

            Something came over me then and for the first time in my life I felt a compulsion to genuine violence. Instinctively, I snapped my jaws, and managed just to graze the mage’s nose. 

            Yeshin reeled and growled furiously. Before they could respond, however, they were interrupted by the arrival of another Eldritchian wizard.

            ‘Your Highness, it is almost ready.’

            A light changed in Yeshin’s eyes, their expression changing from anger to something I thought I recognised as hunger.

            ‘Very good,’ they replied. Then, turning to me: ‘I shall deal with you later. First, there’s something I’d like you to see.’

 

Slowly, Yeshin spun my gurney around. Now, with my back to the cliff edge, I saw the source of those hushed voices, speaking that strange and archaic language. 

            Around a low-burning pit of ember and coal were gathered perhaps twenty mages, all clothed in the same white robes I’d first seen in the town square. Each of them had their staff tilted toward the glowing fire, and as I listened, I realised that their whispers were an incantation. It had an almost melodic quality, and for a moment I admit I felt enchanted, drawn toward the arcane by the same hypnosis they saw in the depths of their fire. Their hoods were up, and in the gloom of descending night I could not see their faces. 

            Presently, I watched something curious occur in the heart of the hearth. As the mages’ chant grew louder, fraction by fraction, the fire seemed to contract. The outer embers burned out and became first orange, then white, then black as charcoal. Quicker now, the death of the fire moved inwards toward the centre, in slowly pulsing waves, the heat of the coals rising and falling with the mages’ chant. 

            At last, the mages’ chant risen from whisper to bass howl, only one coal remained. 

            I watched it intently, truly transfixed now, waiting expectantly for it to extinguish and grow cold as its cousins had done. 

            When the mages’ song came abruptly to an end, however, the last burning ember did not go out. Instead it raged, glowed as bright as a living star in the inky darkness of our shadows.

            The circle of magi backed slowly away from the firepit. One or two of them actually sloughed to the ground, exhausted, and a number required the help of their colleagues to walk, staggering and shuffling off into the night. 

            Without a word, Yeshin High Priest strode to the edge of the pit. 

            Muttering something inaudible, they lowered the end of their staff – the end bloodied by my chest – tentatively toward the ember. For a moment, the clamour of the wind stopped, as if Time herself had paused. I watched Yeshin grit their teeth, brace their muscles against some invisible strain. And then the moment passed, and when they raised their staff again, the fire was fused with the witcherywood, though the staff itself appeared unaffected by the heat. 

            By the breathy light of Yeshin’s staff, I saw their face twitch, excitement and wonder as raw in their cheeks as in the face of a child, gifted its first sword. 

            ‘Weather Master,’ called Yeshin High Priest, without taking their eyes from their staff, ‘tell me the good news.’ They grinned, enjoying the drama.

            Out of sight behind me, back by the cliff edge, came a high and whining drawl, translated for me still by that invisible magic.

            ‘The storm is overhead, Your Highness. The time is ripe.’

            ‘Wonderful,’ replied Yeshin, catching my eye. ‘Just wonderful.’

            The High Priest whispered an order to an underling, keeping both hands on their staff. The underling nodded and gingerly they approached me. Once more, my gurney was turned to face the cliff-edge.

            The forest below was now all but lost to the night, the sky overhead a furious swirling mass of cloud and pressure, the mantle straining like oxen against the plough. 

            I watched the wind, ferocious now on the valley floor, tearing at the limbs of Old Forest, and I thought of how it feels to be safe inside the Hole on nights like this, listening to the mournful howl of the air as it courses over, and of the creaking boughs as they bend, ageless and unconcerned. 

            On the edge of the pillar we call the Spear, Yeshin High Priest of Eldritch turned to me. 

            ‘It took my forefathers centuries to perfect the art of killing your kind, did you know that?’ 

            I wanted to roar, to scream, to hurl myself at this being in all its sanctimonious posturing, to fall with it to its death.

            ‘And do you know what they discovered?’ continued the mage, ‘Can you guess which method they found most effective?’ 

            I tasted vomit in my mouth. Yeshin’s eyes flashed.

            ‘I’ll show you, shall I?’

            And with that, the mage raised up their shining staff to the heavens. When they spoke, their voice rent the very air asunder.

            ‘Ignisia!

            From the tip of Yeshin’s staff shot a pulse of light so bright that sometimes, even to this day, when I close my eyes I can still see it cut its course across the sky. The beam seared through the blackness, trailing phosphorescent white, and disappeared into the cloud cover some distance out.

            Only when the shock of the light subsided, and I could at last reopen my eyes, did I see that the arcane ember set in Yeshin’s staff, was gone…

            For a long, aching moment, nothing happened. I think even the High Priest began to doubt themself as for a second the storm seemed to subside, and the night grew quiet.

            But then it happened.

            High above the Hole, where the storm head was darkest, clouds began to contort. They grew more and more clarified, as some inner light blossomed, and I watched them swirl like a whirlpool in the sky. Soon, the maelstrom was grown so giant that its outer fringes must have extended far, far behind me, perhaps even to the boundaries of Old Forest, many miles from its terrible eye – that omnipotent watcher, that vulture circling high above my home. 

            As the clouds grew brighter, the light suddenly changed. It flashed now, sparking in the centre, then to the left and right, the sparks growing more and more frequent, becoming a conglomerate of violent action: red, orange, white, and gold.

            By my side, Yeshin trembled with anticipation.

            All of a sudden, the breath was drawn out of the world. I felt completely weightless, poised as if afore the gates of heaven, indulged at last in the beatific joy of redemption, and through me washed a wave of elation.

            Then the earth sighed, and the elation passed, and from out of the sky came a terrible column of fire.

 

The heat of the fire hit me a fraction of a second before the sound – a roaring, sucking sound which seemed to encompass everything. 

            The heat was stupendous, actually impressive even in the moment, despite the horror of the spectacle. 

            And its speed.

            The column of fire flew out of the heavens like some hellish spear, reaching the tallest of the treetops less than a second after it appeared. 

            A second later, I saw by its incredible light exactly where it was headed, and a second after that, I watched with disbelieving eyes as the High Priest Yeshin’s inferno broke the clearing above my home, and continued on down, plunging its swelling, twisting, magnificent body of oxygen-sapping flame into the heart of the Hole.

            Only then did I notice I was screaming, that I had been screaming for some time, for my throat suddenly wrenched with a dry pain, hoarse from the effort. I could not hear myself, though. I could see Yeshin shouting triumphantly into the wind and I could not hear them, either. 

            The only sound was that of fire meeting water. The dreadful, human wail and hiss of burning water as the conflagration cast down from the sky met the lake at the bottom of the Hole.

            All around the lip of the Hole, I watched as trees my great-great-great-grandpappy Grimblade the Unshakable had planted, now with boles as thick as boulders, went up in a lick of flame and ash faster than a match. I watched as the fire leapt from tree to tree of Old Forest, working out in a circle from the terrible source, which still lunged and stabbed at my home. I watched the blinding white of those flames, heard the monstrous crackle of pinecones, rippling through the night like so much elven laughter.

            Yeshin turned to me then, their staff still raised to the sky, and smiled.

 

They felt, rather than heard the thud of the first arrow, as it plunged up to the shaft in their thigh. I felt the thrill of the second as it flew close to my ear, to lodge itself in Yeshin’s shoulder.

            The mage stumbled back. On their face they wore a curious expression, like a wild horse feeling the bite of bit and bridle for the first time. Their staff arm was still free but failing now, and as they struggled to keep it raised aloft I watched – tears pouring from my eyes in a deluge – as the column of fire wavered. 

            As the fire faltered, the great roar of its consumption hushed for a second, and in the hush I heard behind me a different kind of maelstrom. I heard the clash of metal on metal, and the ugly drowned sound of metal on meat. I heard more arrows, whistling through the air – their chorus a kinder version of the incantation with which this entire sorry episode was begun. And I heard the arrows find their mark in the howling screams of elven mages, taken by surprise; screaming like children: frightened, lost, so lonely at the end; realising too late that they must each face death alone, privately, without succour or support. And I heard the gurgle of blood, frothing in their throats, turning pink as it mixed with saliva. 

            Pink, the colour of conquered enemies, the colour of roses, the colour of Holebottom Lake on Mid Sommar’s Day. 

            At the cliff’s edge, Yeshin High Priest of Eldritch sank to their knees. There came a familiar voice by my ear.

            ‘I’m so sorry, Lucky, so sorry. But it’s over now.’

            I felt the straps around my wrists and ankles loosen, the chain around my throat clank as someone beat at its lock. 

            ‘Look,’ said the voice of Diaphony Le Viol, as I fell free of the gurney. ‘I brought your sisters.’

            In the orange glow of a forest on fire, Sloptrough Grimspawn pulled an arrow from the chest of a dead mage, and held it out to her twin, Bloodgutter. The tip of the dart, slick with blood, glinted in the light of the dying inferno, already beginning to recede into the clouds. Bloodgutter nocked her arrow to the string of her hunting bow, her movements careful and measured. But before she drew the bow, she turned to a third figure, half-hidden in shadow.

            ‘Here,’ barked Bloodgutter, ‘I think this is yours.’

            As the figure stepped forward to receive the bow, there came a small gasp from the fallen mage. 

            ‘It’s… it’s you.’ Yeshin said.

            Gorechest Grimspawn – my eldest sister, wife of Diaphony of Eldritch – nodded, her expression unreadable; the shock of red hair on her chest its own tiny forest fire. Ignoring the mage, Gorechest turned to me.

            ‘Seems you’ve had the misfortune of meeting the fabled Yeshin, eh, little sibling?’ 

            ‘But… but I thought – I thought they were…’ babbled the mage.

            ‘Some of your kind have a harder time telling us apart than others,’ replied my sister, and I saw her squeeze Diaphony’s hand. ‘We never wanted this, you know. We only wanted the space to exist, the freedom to live. Why couldn’t you grant us that, huh?’

            Gorechest made fast the nock of the arrow against the string. She flexed her shoulders.

            ‘Is it so hard to accept that there are ways to live beside your own? Must all the creatures of this earth exist as you do, or not at all?’

            The mage was rocking back and forth at the precipice, one hand still on their staff, the other raised, palm outward, pleading. 

            ‘Your teachings die with you, Yeshin.’ It was Diaphony’s turn to speak. ‘As the teachings of your father should have died with him. To think I ever saw Syspin as a hero. To think I believed the lies my people told. No more, Yeshin.’

            Diaphony Le Viol’s voice cracked. She turned from the mage, her former kinsman, and gently she squeezed my sister’s arm. Gorechest looked at me.

            ‘Anything you want to say, Lucky?’

            I turned to Yeshin, saw the fear in their eyes. It brought me no joy.

            ‘Caveworm,’ I said, holding the mage’s gaze, ‘is a term of endearment where I’m from.’

            The mage looked blankly at me. My sisters Sloptrough and Bloodgutter laughed, and shook their heads. 

            Gorechest drew her bow, pulling the string taught so that it came to a rest across her cheek; the arrow parallel to her collarbone, its bloodied tip laid coolly across her knuckles. 

            The dart punctured the mage’s skull at the bridge of the nose, and passed straight through, feather fletching sailing into the night, slick with the mage’s brains. 

            Finally lifeless, Yeshin’s body slumped backwards after the arrow. They tumbled off the cliff in a crumpled mass of meat and bone, no more menacing than a bag of offal, no more powerful than a slaughtered goat. 

            And as their staff splintered on the rocks below, the very last of the mages’ spell was broken. The storm clouds, once home to that unholy inferno, sighed with the relief of the dying, and spilled their precious rain across the land, scorched and glowing.

 

. . .

 

My mother, may the gods rest her soul, used to tease me about it.

            Grimspawn the Unlucky, she called me, or Lucky for short. Lucky my sister-in-law sounded the alarm in time. Lucky my blood-sisters were brave enough to rescue me. Lucky no trolls lost their lives.

            Still, luck or no luck, it hardly makes a difference to me. For up on the cliff edge that night, as the sky tore asunder and the mad mage conjured hellfire from the heavens, I watched my home burn. And in that moment I believed that all I had known, all I had ever loved, burned with it.

            So now, when I close my eyes at night, I hear the wail and hiss of burning water, I see the blinding white of flames in the forest, and I hear the terrible crackle of pinecones, like so much laughter. And I weep.

Thank you for listening to Stories From The Hearth. This episode marks the end in the Caveworm story, and I really, really hope that you enjoyed it. I was trying to do something a little bit different with this one, and I’m really proud with how it came out. I love the characters, I love performing it – especially the character voices. Although, I will tell you: it was not easy to do the Yeshin one all the way through, my voice is quite a bit raw at this point. Next month’s episode is going to be something completely different to this month’s. We’re getting back to some good old, realistically-grounded historical fiction, except – as always – with a little twist. It’s going to be set in the small, wooded, lakeside town of Elk, in Poland, in the aftermath of World War Two. I’m really excited to get to it, and I just want to thank everybody that listens to this episode for their continued support. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to pay attention to what a small, independent podcaster like me has to say. If you’re enjoying what you hear, please, please rate and review the podcast on iTunes and Apple Podcasts if you can. If you’re an Android user like me, then don’t worry, go and rate it and review it on whatever podcast app you use instead. If you can’t do any of those, just tell yours friend about it. Word of mouth is so much more important than I think we give credit for. If you’d like to support the podcast, then please join me on Patreon, where you can get perks ranging from early access, behind-the-scenes, bonus content, shout-outs, physical copies of every episode, commissions sent to you by mail (that means original short stories written by me for you, specifically, and sent to you by mail). There’s lots more there as well. You can visit the Patreon by just hitting the link down below. I’d like to thank two of my other top-tier patrons, who’ve subscribed to a tier which gives them shout-outs at the end of every episode. To my mum, Vivian Bannerman, and to my gran and papa, Sandy and Jane. Thank you all so much. If you’d like to check out the podcast’s Twitter, or Instagram, or website, there are links below, and if you’d like to get in touch, just send me an email to storiesfromthehearthpodcast@gmail.com. Also, keep your eyes peeled for episodes of The Wandering Bard, which is my historical, educational series looking at storytelling and the people behind it, which I release through this podcast, Stories from the Hearth, on the second Sunday of every month. Until next time, I’ve been Calum Bannerman, and you’ve been listening to Stories from the Hearth.