Have you noticed that whilst we might have petty thieves, lesser nobility and minor poets, you never get a lesser demonologist? It seems that demonology isn’t so much a path you saunter down as a precipice you plunge off. One moment you’re a moderately respected scholar, the next you’re a stooped and shuffling figure with only a passing grasp of hygiene or even basic cleanliness. Not only that but an increase in knowledge of the eldritch always seems to involve losing the ability to shave. Add this to the usual symptoms one sees in those who spent too much time in the presence of liquid mercury and you have somebody who is more likely to need the services of an exorcist than a poet.
So by and large, these darker mages are people I rarely have professional dealings with. We inhabit entirely different worlds, although frankly I suspect I can have as much difficulty maintaining order amongst my patrons as any demonologist has with the foul denizens of the hells he disports himself in. Still I have the reassuring thought that whilst my patrons are probably better with a cutting remark than any of his demons, as well as having longer memories for a slight, they are still unlikely to tear you limb from limb and use bits of you to decorate the walls.
Even so, the dark does creep upon us, even in Port Naain. For example it was reported to me that Mutt and his confederates had been seen setting fire to bundles of old rags in the gutter. This surprised me; the rag pickers of Port Naain have been known to make off with your dropped handkerchief before it even hit the ground.
I quizzed Mutt about this and he was unusually taciturn, even by his own demanding standards. Finally he merely said, “Some rags were attacking a rag picker.”
I must have looked surprised. But I certainly give voice to my doubts. Still he continued. “Drew blood, cut him up bad.”
Eventually and after some considerable time I drew from him the explanation that now they were patrolling the area they considered their own. One of the boys would attempt to pin the rags with a stick. Then a maiden would approach the pile. In all candour virginity is about the only thing they have in any quantity and for once they’d found a use for it. If the rags strained to attack the maiden, they would immediately set fire to them. In Mutt’s own words, “Coz if they attacks maidens then they wants burning.”
Setting aside any quibble about the use of the word ‘wants’ I merely pointed out that I would be extremely surprised if the rag picker was a virgin. Fortunately Mutt could see my honest perplexity. “He disturbed one as was feeding. We found a dead kid in the rags.” I decided not to suggest that the child had just died and the rag picker had inadvertently found the body.
After some thought I decided that I’d just leave Mutt to get on with it. After all it was unlikely he’d take much notice of my opinion on these matters anyway.
I thought no more about it until a while later when I was performing at Mistress Arbelle’s house. It was a winter’s evening, dark outside but snug in the salon. But still all good things come to an end and as I went out into the night Mistress Arbelle asked me if I would do her a favour. I bowed low and asked how I could help. (Note the wise poet manages to say neither yes or no until he has had the favour described to him in inappropriate detail.) She asked if I could drop in on my way home and check her brother, Artal, was keeping well. He’d been studying in the old family home and had rather dropped out of society. I had vaguely known Artal some years previously, so at least I’d hope to recognise him. So I agreed to drop in and see him. She thanked me and pressed a lantern on me, “Because he’s prone to forget the time and the house might be in darkness.”
So, with head held high and lantern trimmed to give a low light, I set off. I left Three Mills and took a back lane which winds between the Commercial area and Dilbrook. The house was along this lane.
I was climbing slowly, the Commercial area spills over the lower slopes of the ridge whose crest is graced by the municipal buildings such as the Lunatic Asylum and the Council of Sinecurists’ building. Finally I came to the house. It was set back a little from its neighbours, and I had to approach it along a narrow drive. Even by the light of the lantern I could see that the garden was in some disarray. It looked like the aftermath of a disastrously windy washing day with the washing strewn about the place. I came to the front door and knocked but there was no response. I knocked again and waited. Finally I turned the lantern up full and ventured round the back. The entire house was in darkness. I was about to return to tell Mistress Arbelle that her brother must be travelling when I noticed a scullery window hanging open. I approached it with some caution and peered inside. It didn’t look to have been forced, merely left open. After a moment’s thought I decided somebody ought to make sure the house was alright even if the master wasn’t home. I climbed in through the window and with lantern held high in front of me I started to explore. The house was a total shambles. It appeared that Artal managed to avoid the need to dust by the simple expedient of covering every available surface with the tattered remains of old dust sheets. Finally I found myself in a study. Here there were no dustsheets, but shelf after shelf of books.
I am a poet and a man of letters; of course I looked at the books. How could I not look at them, take them down off the shelves and flick through them? The pages felt strange to my fingers and turned strangely within my grasp as if trying to escape. The words seemed to dance and twirl on the page, and when I concentrated and attempted to read something then I immediately desisted because no sane mind could have grappled with those concepts. I ventured further, beyond the study was a workroom, with sinks, vats and a floor set with symbols I didn’t recognise in patterns I refuse to think about. Here there were more dustsheets, scattered largely at random. In the middle of the room was a wing-backed armchair. I walked round it and from the front I could discern the shape of a man, hunched and drooling, with two skeletal hands gripping the arms of the armchair. The occupier of the chair seemed to notice me and raised its face to look at me. The face, gaunt though it was, was that of Artal. He stared at me as a feral beast might, then I realised he was tensing as if to spring. I stepped back just as he brought his head forward as if to bite me, but from his mouth came a bifurcated tongue. It flickered toward me and I jumped back to avoid it, colliding with a low table. I fell backwards dropping the lantern and as I rolled off the table I found myself entangled in a dustsheet. No matter how much I struggled the sheet seemed to tangle itself more tightly about me, and I was almost entirely trapped when I realised I could see a patch of brightness through the sheet. I threw my weight in that direction and discovered, to my discomfort, the brightness was caused by flames; my casually discarded lantern had set fire to something.
Suddenly as I neared the flames, the sheet that I had got myself entangled in fell off me and left me sprawled near the flames. Around me by the light of the flames I could see dust sheets moving away from me. Artal seemed fused with his chair, he hissed and tried to reach me with his tongue. I grabbed one of the sheets, wrapped it round a poker and thrust it into the flames. There was a scream that ripped through me as the thing caught fire. It writhed and twisted on the poker. Brandishing the flames in front of me I made for the scullery. Whenever a dustsheet came near me I held the flames to it. The house and everything in it was as dry as dust and I could hear the flames roaring behind me. I threw my blazing poker into the nearest mass of sheets and fled, diving through the scullery window. I gasped the cold night air, turned and thought to see one of the dust sheets trying to follow me out of the window. Hastily I pushed it shut and then fled round to the front of the house. By now the flames had taken hold and had already broken through the wooden shingles on the roof. I watched briefly from the road, joined by several passers-by who like me were mesmerised by the scene. The flames were in colours I cannot describe and seemed to show scenes that are best not talked about. Then the roof crashed in and the flames rose a full twenty feet above the tops of the walls. Without a word, the bystanders and I fled into the night.
After some thought I decided I really ought to see Mistress Arbelle. So next morning I arrived a little early for formal visiting. She seemed to accept my story of how I had found the house empty except for some vagrants who had fled at my approach, disturbing their cooking fire which had got out of control, burning down the house.
Yet whilst I had been waiting for her to see me, the parlour maid had had me wait in an antechamber. Off this there were three rooms that I’d never entered. All three had their furniture covered in dustsheets. I would have thought no more about it had not one of the sheets nearest the door been soiled as if dragged over wet cobbles. Not only had that but they all smelt of smoke.
As an aside, should anybody be the slightest bit interested, there is now a collection of Tallis Steelyard stories available for purchase.
Tallis Steelyard, shower me with gold and other stories.