A better mousetrap

A better mousetrap

This is one of those stories where I saw the end, but I wasn’t there for the beginning. Thus it is entirely possible that this poor tale doesn’t meet my usual high standards of artistic verisimilitude. A fact for which I can only apologise.

It concerns the antics of a lady called Analyn. She was born somewhere in Uttermost Partann some time ago. Now obviously, being a gentleman I would not discuss the age of a lady, but in this case nobody really knows when she was born. Just that it was quite a long time ago. It seems that she was of humble birth, but grew to be an attractive young woman and formed a ‘liaison’ with a local necromancer.

Now in Port Naain, necromancers tend to sink to the bottom of the social scale. One rarely invites them to formal affairs, and even their own families hardly ever visit. Indeed the socially conscious necromancer will probably try and pass themselves of as some more generic sage or philosopher.

Still it’s obvious that if Analyn was enamoured of the necromancer, the necromancer was equally enamoured of her. So much so that whilst the aim of a necromancer is to cheat death, this one recognised that death has a habit of creeping up when you’re not looking and getting its own low blow in first. So he felt called upon to teach Analyn some simple skills that would enable her to earn a living and remain her young and attractive self, should he inadvertently perish.

Thus he taught her to build a better mousetrap. It was an excellent mousetrap and worked remarkably well. Admittedly its manufacture involved a few minor cantrips and perhaps even a petty conjuration or two, but nothing that he regarded as overtly magical. It was lucky he did because his small tower was discovered by ‘Villaging’ Urlan.

Now the phenomenon of the Urlan villaging expedition isn’t well know in Port Naain, but occurs all the time in Partann. Basically the Urlan have a strong code of honour and it’s not unusual for a band of them to travel together through some of the wilder parts of Partann, righting wrongs and providing justice. To be fair this justice is of a fairly arbitrary sort and normally involves those perceived to be unjust, perishing. Which I suppose is in itself justice of a sort. Social historians consider that Urlan villaging expeditions have helped fossilise Partann in its current state. The Urlan may provide justice, slay cruel tyrants and hang evil doers, but they don’t stay round to rule. So the next generation of tyrants and evil doers just grows up in place, ready for the next villaging expedition to purge them.
Without the Urlan, or so our social historians insist, there would be strife between the various evil tyrants and one would emerge victorious and unify Partann. Once Partann was unified, law and order would gradually be restored, if only because even an evil tyrant wants order so they can exploit their tax base efficiently.

Anyway, Analyn’s necromancer was slain. People might quibble about details but frankly the Urlan are a little old fashioned about rites involving the sacrifice of young virgins, whatever phase of the moon. With typical efficiency they also destroyed his tower. (Although they very competently looted it first, the Urlan are noted for their ability to get hoarded treasures circulating once more within the economy.) Analyn was thus on her own.
But whilst thrown on her own devices, thanks to her late paramour, she wasn’t without resources. She moved to the nearest village and made a mousetrap which she sold to the innkeeper to cover the cost of her room. The efficacy of the trap won her his golden opinions and his enthusiastic praises brought her other customers. She made and sold more mousetraps.
The problem is that if your mousetrap works, you only need so many and once you’ve got them, there’s no need for any more. So the maker of a successful mousetrap is, almost by the nature of their craft, itinerant. Analyn moved on.

For years she slowly made her way through Partann, one village, one farm at a time. Eventually, as with every other traveller west of the Aphices Mountains, she arrived in Port Naain. Here her still remarkably youthful appearance and her steady income won her a comfortable place in society. She was almost respectable, but not so respectable that respectability itself came to be a burden.

I met her at this point; she did some work along the various wharfs, and maintained herself in a nice house on Ropewalk. She even had a couple of servants. Because she was known to be prosperous, one of her servants was large enough to serve as a bodyguard, a deterrent to casual thieves.

Now although I’d met her briefly, we were hardly even acquaintances. Still I’d heard of the efficacy of her mousetraps and had even mentioned them to people who were bothered with rodent infestations.
Now some time after I’d first come across her I received a message from Shaleen, the chief virgin and temple dancer at the Temple of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Chastity. This sort of summons doesn’t happen often, if it happens at all to be honest. The message was delivered by a determined looking ten year old girl wearing the robes of a novice temple dancer. I opened the note to read, “Come at once with the girl.”

I shrugged, bowed to the young lady who was glaring at me with disturbing intensity and allowed myself to be led. Having my guide was a boon as once I reached the temple, guards stood back out of my way and doors were opened. Eventually I was ushered into a room where I was greeted by Shaleen, the Hierophant, and a man in plain white robes whom I couldn’t place. Shaleen introduced this individual as Father Waldone, a priest of Aea Undivided, who had just arrived from Partann. She then gestured for the priest to tell his tale.

This was long, rambling, took over an hour to tell, and involved frequent checking of notes and pointing at maps. Fortunately chairs were provided and Shaleen even had one of her novices serve us all with a red wine of some authority. So to cut a somewhat longwinded story short, Father Waldone was looking for Analyn.

It seems that her mousetraps were causing problems. The reason that they worked so well was because they were inhabited by a tiny demon, barely even an imp. This imp could emit a high pitched song, audible only to mice (and other rodents and occasionally to young children) which lured them into the trap where the imp killed them and devoured them.

The source and nature of these imps was how the priest had been able to trace them to Analyn. Apparently, in the eyes of mages, humans, indeed all creatures, are grown from plasms. A human plasm will create a human, a dog plasm will grow a dog, a demon plasm with grow a demon. But in the past, over many millennia, demons have interbred with humanity (or perhaps it’s the other way round, I confess to being somewhat hazy about that bit.) In fact it appears that demons will interbreed with pretty well anything. Not only that but once you have demon plasms in the mix, pretty well anything can be crossed with pretty well anything else. So whereas no mage working at his vats would ever expect to mix the plasms of, say, man and horse and create some viable creature. Yet if instead, he mixed man, demon, and horse, the result could well be viable. Obviously there is more to it than this, but I’m a poet, not a thaumaturge and so if you wish to know more, ask one of them. Personally I set too high a value on my soul and my sanity to delve too deeply into these areas.
But still Analyn, like all humanity, has within her an element of the demonic, and it was imps, drawn from this element, that peopled her mousetraps. Thus with thaumaturgic help Father Waldone could create a picture of the person he wanted.

Now on the positive side, this constant leeching away of the demonic within her might well have improved Analyn’s personality. On the negative side, each mouse killed gave up its life force. This, along with the flesh, was devoured by the imp, and a small portion of it was remitted to Analyn as some sort of payment. Luckily there isn’t all that much personality in mice, so the life force she received merely kept her younger than she should have been, rather than turned her into somebody with a cheese fascination.

The problem Father Waldone had uncovered was that the traps worked too well. The imps were too successful. They devoured all the mice. Now from the imp’s point of view, this wasn’t too much of a problem. The imps grew strong on the food they’d devoured and were able to cope with bigger prey. They didn’t live in the trap itself, but in some semi-detached demon realm somehow adjacent to the trap. So all they did was make the holes in the trap larger so bigger animals could be enticed in. Rats, scrats, cats, dogs, small children all fell victim to the lure of the imp’s song. Father Waldone was first alerted to the problem when he heard about a farmstead that had been abandoned and discovered a mousetrap that was regularly taking wolves.

At this point in the story, when the worthy father stopped to draw breath and refresh himself with another glass, I pointed out that this was fascinating stuff but why exactly was I involved.

“Oh,” said Shaleen, “we rather hoped you might know her.”

“I do.” I said. Why did it manage to sound apologetic?

“Good, you can guide Father Waldone there and he can exorcise Analyn and stop this process.”

“And,” Father Waldone added, a little hastily I thought, “I want to be able to get in to see her before she’s ready to receive me.”

This, as they say, bided thinking about. I knew by reputation the burly individual who acted as Analyn’s doorman.

“Then I shall need to speak to a friend. Could I have one of your novices to run an errand please?”

Shaleen merely smiled at me, “If it’s Mutt you want, I’ve already sent for him, he’s probably downstairs eating in the novices’ refectory.”

Mutt was sent for and was still wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve when he arrived. I smiled in what I hoped was a confident manner at my lady wife’s juvenile employee or associate and said, “Could you ask Mad Jez if he’d join us please, I’m calling in a favour.”

Instinctively Mutt’s hand came out, he’s somebody who appreciates payment in advance but then he stopped, grinned, and commented, “This one I’ll do for free if only because I don’t want to miss what happens.”

It was over an hour before Mad Jez arrived, and true to the tenets of hospitality the temple clings to, they fed me a decent lunch of chops with a couple of glasses of porter to wash it down.
When Mad Jez arrived he was shown straight in and glared at me. “What favour are you calling in?”

I bowed, passed him a large glass of porter and commented, “Have I not repeatedly told everybody that you are a dangerous man and not to be crossed?”

He drank of the glass in one swallow but I was ready for him and passed him another. “Was it not me who in verses delivered at the Sattir’s Drop described you as a raging bull horrocks?”

He stopped half way through his glass and stared at me. I continued, “Why in Mad Bork’s I described you as ‘the bully’s bully.”

He finished the glass and put it down. “So you want me to do something and not pay?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

In a resigned tone he asked, “What.”
I gestured to Father Waldone. “You just have to get this gentleman and myself into a house without the doorman stopping us or causing trouble.”

“Oh go on then.”

Now Mad Jez is big. He appears to be a mass of muscle and scar tissue with anger management issues. This is untrue. He manages his anger perfectly, focusing it down until it is as sharp as the blade of the axe he wears partially concealed under his jacket. The watch know he carries the axe but they also know that because he doesn’t carry it openly, he’s trying to show them some respect. They also know that because everybody else knows he’s carrying the axe, he’ll almost certainly not have to use it. Admittedly this smacks of sophistry, but it’s good enough for the watchmen trying to find an excuse not to take Mad Jez’s axe off him.

We arrived at the door of the house when Analyn lived. I knocked and stepped to one side. The doorman opened it, scowling ferociously. Jez merely stood there, stared him in the eye and raised a finger to his lips in the universally understood gesture that silence was required. The doorman seemed to shrink into himself, but remained silent.
Jez then gestured with one hand that the man should move to one side, and obligingly he did. I led Father Waldone through while Jez stood there silently intimidating the doorman.

I opened the door into what I assumed to be the parlour and found Analyn sitting reading a book. As I entered she looked enquiringly in my direction and then when the good father entered, she hastily stood. Immediately he smashed the brass head of his staff down on a table and shouted a phrase in a language I hope I don’t know. She staggered as if struck, and he pointed at her and shouted two more phrases. My first thought was she looked drawn and tired, perhaps from the shock. But after a few moments it was obvious she was aging before my eyes. Her face grew haggard; I saw her hair turn grey even as I watched. She moved forward, grasping the table to hold herself up. A woman of thirty had become a woman of seventy and the aging continued. There was a look of terror on her face as she sagged down to her knees, still clutching the table. I looked at Father Waldone wondering if this was the triumph he’d been seeking. In his face I could see only pain and compassion. As she dropped down to the floor he reached down to hold her and to pick her up; a hale man in his forties helping a frail old lady to her feet.

The process stopped, she grew no older. But then I noticed his hair turn grey. As he clung to her, his face grew more lined and his skin aged. Eventually whatever was happening seemed to stop but they still clung to each other. The Father turned to me. “Tallis, a Sedan chair, we must get this lady to the temple where she can be cared for.”

“What in the forty-seven hells has happened?”

“She has returned all the life she stole.”

“But you?”

Here he gave a little smile. “I have loaned her some of mine, I couldn’t just let her die here unloved and unmourned, without giving her a chance to settle her account with Aea.”

“Loaned?” He looked old to me, at least twenty years older than when he came in.

“I gave my life to Aea as a boy. She will account for the years I’ve spent, one way or another.”

Then with his arm tenderly around Analyn, he led her slowly out of the room. I followed, shouting ahead for Jez to get us a sedan chair.


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As a reviewer commented “The tales of Tallis Steelyard are always entertaining and this collection of short stories, plus a few poems and reminders of his other works, does not disappoint.”