One For the Road

As penance for being a day late (and we won’t even discuss dollars short), I’m posting a new story from the annals of the Black Dog. If I ever get around to doing a revised edition, I’ll add this one.

One For the Road

Casey was looking a little down in the mouth when she started her shift. Granted, it’s not always obvious when a banshee is feeling down. They tend to be a bit morbid in the best of times, but with Casey there was always a hint of joy hanging around her.

Not tonight.

Most folk wouldn’t notice, but then I’m not most folk. Name’s Bitsy, by the way. I’m a wisp. You know, those faintly glowing blue lights that sometimes lead travelers astray? Yeah, that’s rubbish. Mostly we’re out and about on our own business, and if someone is silly enough to follow a strange light in the woods? As I see things, they get what they deserve. I was at the Black Dog that evening, even though wisps can’t drink. Where would we put it? I go there for the company and conversation, and Casey is one of my favorite people.

Anyway, she was looking gloomy, even for a banshee, and especially for a part-time mixologist named Casey. It took a little convincing to get her to open up, but eventually she spilled.

“There was a death In the American branch of the O’Tooles,” she said. “I’m their banshee, so I had to be there. Obligations.”

“If I didn’t understand the relationship of a banshee to the family they’re attached to, I’d almost think you were reluctant.”

Casey shrugged. “I always care,” she said. “In a way, the O’Tooles really are my family. But humans are mayflies, you know? None of them live longer than the blink of a cat’s eye, by comparison. But this old guy…well, he lasted longer than most.”

I was having a suspicion. “Did you…meet him?”

 “Sometimes I’d attend the wakes. It’s not against the rules, strictly speaking, and usually no one notices me, but he had the Sight. He knew what I was. We had a drink together. Just a drink. Writer’s Tears. Turned out that was his favorite. He was young then.”

“I gather this happened more than once?”

She shrugged again. “As I said, he lived a long time for a human. We attended a lot of wakes. Always the same drink. If the wake didn’t have it, he brought it himself. I…I liked him. He wasn’t afraid of me. I don’t think he was afraid of anything, even death, except maybe not living the way he chose, on his own terms. But then it was his time. I went to the wake. His own wake and they didn’t have his favorite spirit.”

Casey frowned, then rummaged behind the bar, finally producing a dusty bottle. “Haven’t opened this since the leanan sidhe was here last.” She poured a shot, placed it on the bar. “Sometimes humans find this place, so if you can, Liam O’Toole, this is for you.”

Casey put the bottle away. When she turned back, the tumbler was empty. She glared at me. “Did you?”

“You know I can’t.”

She blinked. “Oh, right.”

She smiled then. “One for the road.”

©2021 Richard Parks

Regarding Tolkien, But Not Really

This is a new story set in the Black Dog Pub. It’s not in the collection for temporal reasons. Namely it wasn’t written when I released the book.

My name’s Casey. I’m the bartender here at the Black Dog pub…well, one of them. Neegan’s the other. I’m a banshee. Neegan…actually, I’m not sure what Neegan is. Tall, good-looking guy. Maybe I’ll ask him one of these days, but I digress.

The subject came up when I was talking to Tim the Clurachaun. You might notice him if you stumble into the Black Dog. Short guy, even for a fae. Wears a red vest. Like their drink, clurachauns, so he’s often here. Oh, and a word of advice—never make a bar bet with a clurachaun. Trust me on this.

Anyway, one evening Tim was on his usual stool muttering into his beer. Or maybe he was scrying, you never know. Finally he puts his chin on the bar and stares into the golden brew.

“’All that is gold does not glitter,’” he says, and I couldn’t help myself.

“’Not all those who wander are lost.’ You read Tolkien?”

“Not a bad storyteller, for a human,” Tim says, “though he had elves all wrong. They’re about as ethereal and wise as a kick in the arse.”

“What about the Seelie Court?”

Tim grunted. “I was referring to the Seelie Court. The Unseelie Court is worse, if more fun.”

Most fae are at least casually associated with one Court or the other. As a banshee I’m usually lumped in with the Unseelie bunch. Not sure why. Foretelling death is a useful service, and it’s not as if I actually kill anybody. Now, if you were talking about my Scottish cousins the baobhan-sith, you’d have a case. Those girls have a taste for blood. Good dancers, though.

Tim drained his beer, ordered another. “Speaking of Tolkien, I don’t envy humans at all…and I very much envy them.”

“At the same time?” I said, wiping a glass. “Not possible.”

Tim nodded, looking morose. “I know. Probably why it keeps happening.”

“How do you not envy them?”

“They have the lifespans of mayflies, by comparison. Most of them go through that short life in a fog, seldom with any sort of a clue what’s really happening around them.”

“And how do you very much envy them?”

He sighed. “They make stuff up.”

I frowned. “Really? That’s it?”

“Casey, darlin’, when we tell a story, it’s something that actually happened, if exaggerated. When they tell a story, they take a kernel of truth and blow it up into an entire myth! Nothing bends reality like a good myth, and they are myth machines!  Like Yeats and the Leannan Sidhe, or that Tolkien fellow. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of his high and mighty elves that don’t exist shows up here one day. The fact that you and I are having this conversation right now might be due to one of them making stuff up.”

“Scary thought.”

Tim does get into the foolishness when he’s into his cups. Still, next chance I get I will ask Neegan what the heck he is.

Just in case.

©2021 Richard Parks

Royal Dilemma

Once upon a time there was a rich and powerful kingdom which no one remembers.

One might ask “If they’re totally forgotten, how can you tell us a story about them?” Simple—the kingdom may be forgotten but its stories are not. Kingdoms eventually fall, cultures collapse, but all stories need to continue is someone to tell them, and someone to hear. That’s me and you.

Now the monarch of this kingdom had a dilemma. His ancestors had long since realized automatically handing the crown to their eldest child made no sense. Maybe one accident of birth made those children royalty, but it was asking far too much of providence to grant that any one of them could be suited for the crown.

No, anyone wishing to inherit the throne had to show they had the right qualities. In a family with a lot of offspring, this was no easy feat, and often involved poison, sharp implements, and long falls from high towers. The current monarch had been relatively lucky; he only had one sister and had tricked her into joining a convent. Now he could feel his time growing short and he needed to choose an heir.

He didn’t have one.

Oh, he’d had children, right enough. His late Queen had been safely delivered of five of them: two girls, three boys. The girls were too much alike and thus managed to poison each other at the same tea party. One truly promising lad eliminated both of his older brothers in one epic but completely fake hunting accident, only to die himself one year later in a real one.

His Majesty was certainly not oblivious to the irony of the situation, but the problem remained.

“The system usually works but does not take the whims of fate into account.”

His Majesty’s only option was to send out a call to the other kingdoms in the realm, offering the throne to second and third sons and daughters of their ruling houses, since most royalty of the area was either closely or distantly related. Unfortunately, the other kingdoms were quite aware of the conditions in place to win that particular throne, and on the day set for the arrival of the candidates, only one young man appeared.

He was hardy-looking fellow dressed in forest green and carried a longbow in his hand and arrows in his belt. The king looked him up and down and pointed out the obvious.

“You do not look like a prince,” he said.

“I am the only son of a princess, and thus a prince,” the young man said.

“Who then is your mother? Do I know her?”

“You should. You once tricked her into a nunnery. She escaped. You won’t.”

With that the young man drew his bow and loosed an arrow so quickly that no guard had time to react. Even after the arrow struck him, the king could not stop smiling.

“My heir,” he said, as the light faded, “The system still works.”

©2021 Richard Parks

Confession Time

I am a writer, so it should go without saying that I’m a reader. Show me a writer who didn’t start as a reader and I’ll show you someone painting by numbers and connecting the dots.

On the other hand, or foot, or whatever—there’s more than one kind of reader. Most true readers start as the voracious sort, and I certainly did. Once I learned that those black ink spots meant something, there was no stopping me. Storybooks, philosophy, cereal boxes, whatever. Put it in front of me and I’d read it. I wouldn’t always understand it, mind, but at the time this hardly mattered.

That’s fairly common among readers. Later, after that initial insane rush, we start to specialize…or drift, depending on your point of view. We start to recognize that certain forms “speak” to us more. It may be a phase, it may be lifelong. I started with books and later moved to an intense affair with comics when I had a bit more discretionary income and could, you know, acquire things that weren’t already in the family library. I came into that about the time Jack Kirby moved to DC and started the New Gods series. But all good and bad things come to an end, and if you’re lucky, new good things appear (and bad, whether  you’re lucky or not) and by college I was back to books. LOTR and The Earthsea (at the time) Trilogy. Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith and those echoes of the pulp era. HPL, REH.

And then…well, my true bent manifested. Turns out I am a butterfly. I go to whatever catches my attention. I am not focused. Some readers make it a point to, say, read the Romantics and ignore everything else until they’re done, then move on. I can’t do that. I go back, I go forward. I read collections and novels by current writers. I go back to things I’ve missed. Bear in mind, this is for pleasure. There’s also writerly research, which is another subject entirely. It can be and often is pleasurable, but that’s not the reason you go there. You need to know about something and try to find out what you don’t know. You go where you think that information is.

Just another way of saying I am haphazard in the extreme. For instance, I’ve managed to read ULYSSES, but not FINNEGAN’S WAKE. I’ve read Eddison’s THE WORM OUROBOROS but not Morris’ THE WELL AT WORLD’S END. You get the idea.

So the confession part. I, a fantasist, have never read George Macdonald. At all. This is something I feel a sharp need to address. So I’ve acquired copies of THE GOLDEN KEY and PHANTASTES.

Which, at the very minimum, will tell me what, if anything I’ve missed. Other than, you know, almost everything.

In the Palace of the Jade Lion

While we’re all waiting on larger matters, I decided to do a solo issue of a novelette of mine, In the Palace of the Jade Lion ,  which originally appeared in BCS some years ago.

This one isn’t part of any series or ever will be. The story was complete in itself. Even now as I reread it for the formatting and final edit, I realize it is a very hopeful, optimistic story. While that’s usually my attitude, any particular work is going to go the way it needs to go, and things don’t always work out. This one needed to go exactly as it did, and considering how everything else is going at the moment, it’s more than a little refreshing.

Regardless, it’s on pre-order as we speak, going live on June 15th. This is the online description:

It’s normal to fear a ghost. What’s not normal is marrying one.

Xu Jian is just a poor scholar. An official post in the north of the country is a great opportunity. It is also a great danger. The road north is infested with bandits, and worse, it winds through a land of spirits.

Ghosts crave a human’s life force like the thirsty are drawn to water. When he inadvertently trespasses on the tomb of the beautiful Lady Green Willow and her servants, he is doomed.

Or, perhaps not.

Lady Green Willow is a gentle spirit who does not want to harm Xu Jian, yet her nature as a ghost doesn’t leave any option.

Until he offers her one: marry him. Take his life force only in small doses which he can replenish, until the balance of her yin and yang energy is restored.

In short, make her human again.

A wild plan, but will it work?

Even if it does, how will they survive the attention of a greedy king who wants the only possession Lady Green Willow retains from her past life, the one and only thing she cannot give up without being utterly destroyed?

Perhaps a smart ghost and a smart human, together, might find a way. Maybe.”