[Content warning: this chapter contains a PTSD flashback that includes what could be considered body horror and self harm]
When Taric was young, nightfall brought a halt to nearly all human activity. Hearth fires provided little light beyond their intimate ring, oil lamps and rushes hardly did any better, and candles were too precious to waste.
In this new human era of steam and steel, the streets glowed with the halos of gas lamps. Even a village as small as Insbridge had a few evening strollers, while the shop girls and steel men made their way to either their beds or the pair of establishments that kept their doors open for these working souls.
It was to one of those open doors that Taric shuffled toward, head bent to watch his footing on the cobbles, slick with the afternoon’s rain. He was considered handsome when he was young; strong of feature and strong of body, with hair the deep amber of ale and a stubborn will to match. Time laced silver into his hair and etched lines in his skin alongside his scars, but he couldn’t be certain of his true age. No man caught up in the faerie wars could.
The Bacon Arms was a modest but honest establishment just off of the town commons, light glowing through its broad glass panes. The warm murmur of voices and the plink of piano keys spilled into the autumn night.
Taric stepped out of the dark chill into the warmth and light of the Bacon Arms, hesitating slightly as he realized there were more patrons than usual.
Strangers. Railway passengers. Weary and eager for a hot meal before crowding back onto the hard benches of the economy line heading for the coast.
Nevertheless, the lure of those same comforts that brought strangers into his usual sanctuary proved stronger than the discomfort of the inevitable stares.
Taric ducked his head and hoped one of his usual places tucked into the shadowed corners was unoccupied.
The Bacon Arms was once a house, the lower floor still divided into three segments with wide entryways, which thankfully left plenty of walls to put at his back. New brick met plaster ceilings with aged black beams that were likely younger than Taric.
Aggie, the server, caught his eye and gestured him over with a quick wave of a hand towel. Her frizzy brown curls escaped from her kerchief more than usual tonight, her eyes frantically pleading.
“I hate to ask it,” Aggie said, adjusting her tray against her hip, “but the Mira has been acting up all night. Could you take a look? There’s a pint in it for you.”
Taric glanced uneasily to where the automaton tapped cheerily away at the piano, framed by threadbare green velvet curtains. The Mira’s blooming skirts were ten years out of fashion and the paint on its fingertips and rosy cheeks had chipped and flaked, baring tarnished brass, but the cherry wood upright piano and its player had pride of place, lit by its own green-shaded gas lamp. To come near it meant being in full view of the entire tavern.
Taric steeled himself to say no, but somehow the desperate pinch of Aggie’s lips and the tired hope in her eyes turned it into a small nod instead. Relief washed over Aggie’s face.
“Oh, you’re a blessing,” Aggie said. “I’ll have a pint and pie ready for you when you’re done.” She gestured distractedly at the Mira and dashed to answer the demands of a customer.
Taric steeled himself and clomped to the piano and its player, which seemed to be working fine for the moment. Maybe a chain was slipping, or there was a hole in one of the pneumatic tubes. Or it was gremlins.
It was probably gremlins.
Taric flipped the switch to halt the Mira’s clockwork innards, and the cleverly articulated fingers came to rest on the yellowed ivory keys.
Now came what he’d dreaded. For a man with two legs, it was a simple matter of kneeling down and flipping up the skirts hiding the mechanisms to see what was going wrong.
Through the fabric of his trousers, Taric adjusted the tension dials on his knee joint to let the knee and ankle fold in a controlled manner. Everything below his thigh was metal and gears. He carefully lowered himself down, holding his breath until the knee cap met polished wooden floor, hoping it wouldn’t slip. Again. The staring eyes burned into his back and shoulders.
Taric felt his ears turning red, which meant his scars were also turning red. But the position held his weight and there would be no sprawling on his face this time. He kept his head ducked low as he pulled the Mira’s skirts up and out of the way.
Normally, spring driven indented steel disks directed the automaton’s playing, but an immediate problem presented itself. Two full songs were missing from the Mira’s repertoire and the mechanism for advancing to the next song was unhinged.
“Whatcha doin?” Pip planted hands on knees to bend over Taric shoulder, her gold curls escaping her newsboy cap.
“Someone got tired of the Lenola waltz.” Taric showed her the gaps that should have held the missing disks. As the clockmaker daughter, Pip had a good grasp of what made things tick.
“Hey, mister!” One of the other village kids bumped Pip aside. Jim wasn’t among the usual handful of children that would bother Taric. In fact, Jim was a bit of a bully, and right now his eyes were suspiciously bright. “How did you lose your leg?”
Pip elbowed Jim. “Mind your own nose. He’s busy.”
Jim elbowed back. “Not too busy to talk to you. So what was it?” The boy’s eager gaze returned to Taric. “Was it a sea serpent? Michaela said it was a sea serpent.”
“It was not,” Pip said disdainfully. “It was a dragon; bit it clean off.”
“There’s no such things as dragons,” Jim sneered.
Taric quietly dug into the Mira’s innards, shuffling the remaining disks to let the Mira play them smoothly and rigging it to replay them instead of hitching on the missing slots.
From the corner of his eye he searched the tavern for the source of Jim’s sudden curiosity. Jim’s father was one of those under the opinion the Iron Wars never happened and veterans like Taric were nothing but liars. Jim wasn’t the sort who asked for war stories.
But men like the one hunched three tables away did. The man had his cap slung low as he tried very hard to look like he wasn’t listening, his untouched plate nearly concealing the small notebook beside it, the pen poised in his hand. A reporter.
Reporters were one of the many new things that caught Taric off guard upon his return to human lands. Following human misery like buzzards, they had flocked to the Returned in the months after the truce. The reporters had become fewer and further between over time, but almost invariably made nuisances of themselves when they showed up.
“I stubbed my toe and broke it,” Taric said. “Days later it turned purple and swelled up like a dirigible, then turned black and fell off. Blood infection spread to my knee. Butcher had to hack it off.” It was as likely a story as anything else and closer to what someone like Jim’s father would believe. It was no truer than a dragon’s bite.
A dragon’s bite would have been easier.
Jim turned green, upper lip curling in disgust. “Knew it wasn’t a sea serpent.”
He slugged Pip in the arm and ran off straight to the reporter, who was close enough he’d probably heard the entire conversation. In alarm, the reporter tried to subtly shoo the boy away, but Jim didn’t take the hint.
“Can I get my penny now?” Jim said, thrusting out his hand.
Cheeks turning pink, the reporter paid the boy and slumped down in his chair.
Pip snorted at the exchange, but then turned to Taric with worry in her eyes. Leaning close, she said under her breath, “Is that really what happened?”
Taric mustered a small smile and a shake of his head.
Pip sat back, relieved. “I still think it was a dragon.”
Taric had no intention of disabusing her of the idea. Children liked hero stories, not horror stories.
The night was moonless and cold.
Beyond the punctuation of the each street lamp lay nothing but the void of night.
Taric hesitated on the threshold of the Bacon Arms, its warm glow at his back. He swallowed with a numb tongue, feeling old ghosts reaching up to wrap cold arms around him.
“Excuse me, sir.”
The unwelcome voice was enough to shake Taric loose from the doorway. He forged ahead into the night, disproportionately grateful for the paved road and gas street lamps.
“Sir!” The reporter scrambled to catch up to Taric’s determined strides. “Are you indeed a veteran of the Iron Wars?”
“Bug off,” Taric said tightly, eyes planted on the road before his feet. All he had to do was stay on the road from here to the smithy. The gas lamps of the village were enough to make his way back. No pitch black. No open ground to cross. No soft, malleable dirt. No reason to fear.
His body disagreed. His heart pounded as hard as any hammer, ears straining for the faint telltale of shifting earth. The sudden brush of evening breeze tightened his skin and for a moment the hairs rose on his neck because he could have sworn he heard the warning cry of “To the rocks!”
But this was Insbridge. There were no nightcrawlers here, no wild Hunts, no skinless nuckelavees, no gnawing grave diggers, no screaming bane shades, no gaping jaws lined with teeth shushing beneath the cobblestones, waiting for a breech -
“Might I have a word about your visit to fairyland?”
“No,” Taric snapped, chest tightening.
He focused grimly on planting the heel of his prosthetic foot on the downward slope of the road leading off the commons. If he stepped ball first, his knee could buckle.
“Sir, are you aware that there are those who believe the Iron Wars were nothing but a sham to cover up the misuse of government funds?”
Burning blood rushed to Taric’s face. He felt the shaking start in his shoulders. He clenched his fists and fought to keep his mind on his feet.
Any excuse to convince themselves that monsters weren’t real. They had no idea how much safer their world had become. Nor at what cost.
“Sir, are you aware of the theories that the Iron Wars were a mass psychosis induced by -”
Enough. Taric stopped abruptly in the middle of the street. The reporter nearly collided with his broad back.
Mindful of his footing, Taric turned carefully to face the man, steel in his false smile, anger overlaying his irrational fear. Anger brought heat. Anger let him fight.
“Are you afraid of the dark?” Taric said. Calmly. Rationally.
“Hardly,” the reporter said, chest puffing with pride. “Fear of the dark is for children and the weak of will.”
Taric pulled up his trouser leg, exposing brass and steel instead of flesh. “You want to know what happened to my leg. Isn’t that why you bribed that boy?”
At least the reporter had the scant grace to briefly look ashamed. But then he puffed himself up and straightened his back. “Well? Was it not true what you told him?”
“Why? Isn’t it believable enough? Because that is what has been demanded of me ever since my Return. Not true stories. Believable ones. Isn’t that so, newspaper man?”
The man pinched his lips, preparing some defensive retort.
“Because of course,” Taric continued before the man could speak, “only ‘children and the weak of will’ believe in monsters. No rational man could possibly think that the faery exist. Tell me, creature of logic and reason: was it a passing fancy that seized my foot from under the earth? Was it whimsy that sank its teeth into flesh and bone, dragging me down into the dirt? Was it mere imagination that tore away my toes and gnawed my bones?”
The reporter paled, but the mouth beneath the thin waxed mustache was set in a stubborn line.
“You want my tale to fit your narrative of mismanagement and psychosis. You want to stay in your safe little world where there are no bane shades screaming into the night, no glowing hounds with skulls for faces hunting you down. Where you can walk freely into the night with no fear of what lies beneath your feet.” Taric shuddered, clutching his arms to hold himself together, unwanted memories bubbling up thick and fast as arterial blood.
“I envy you. Because I am afraid of the dark,” Taric said darkly, advancing on the reporter. The man stumbled back a step. “I can’t sleep without stone beneath me. I can’t walk into the night without a pounding heart and sweating hands,” Taric snarled. “I can’t step out into an open field without remembering what might be waiting. I can’t forget the face of the man who died beside me, desperately trying to dig himself out of the ground when there was nothing to dig out.”
Taric swayed, closing his eyes as the memories crashed through him. Of desperately clinging to his sword like a crutch, planted in the earth to fight against the monstrous strength trying to bury him alive, while his other hand clutched his dagger, stabbing uselessly into the dirt. Stabbing. Stabbing. While the grave diggers tore apart his calf and worried at his shin like demonic dogs. Until he plunged the dagger into his own knee, sawing between bones. Tearing ligaments. Ripping flesh.
Taric’s eyes flew open to the flash of silver in the lamplight. His dagger was in his hand. The same that saved his life when he used it to cut off his own leg. He’d left it at the smithy tonight, but that never seemed to matter anymore.
Aggie hung on the cusp of the road, her arms around a wide-eyed Pip. Around her, townsfolk and strangers gawked and whispered, staring at Taric as if he’d suddenly transformed into a skinless nuckelavee.
In the reporter’s haste to scramble away from this madman, he had gone sprawling in the middle of the road. The reporter quickly picked himself up and brushed himself off, attempting to regain some dignity.
Hands shaking, Taric sheathed his dagger, ashamed that mere shadows could so easily bring back everything he’d tried so desperately to bury.
“There are things out there,” Taric said, voice trembling, “that make your nightmares into the sweetest dreams. Decide for yourself if the funds that kept such things from your door were ‘misused.’”
This time when Taric walked away, no one followed.
A faery steampunk retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.
When a fae prince comes to Taric’s door demanding twelve sets of steel dancing shoes, Taric seizes the chance to return Underhill to take back what they stole from him. The king has challenged all comers to solve the mystery of how his daughters escape their cages every night to dance their shoes to pieces. Failure to find the truth before their shoes wear through means death.