Story and Painting by
The planet Skye, colonized during the first Diaspora, is downspin from Earth along the galactic arm. Out here, proximate to the infinite abyss and far from the centers of civilization, the rules of physics seem to stretch, and science has an arcane flavor to it. Anything possible is probable. Myths and legends abound.
I was having a pint in Robbie’s Dirk, a wee pub on a rocky coast made mysterious by twilight and two alabaster moons. Inside, in the close confines and dim atmosphere, the smell of dark beer and good whiskey warred with tobacco smoke and the gossip of old men. I felt right at home.
We waited for Otis Magee.
To my companions, curmudgeons and scallywags all, cadging drinks is a sport. To Otis Magee it’s an art form. Three nights ago he told us if ever again we saw him, he’d be buying. We were well into our cups at the time, Otis not the least of us, and his unlikely announcement made us laugh. Nefarious speculation about his latest scheme led to earlier Otis scams and fiddles, every tale a bigger lie than the last, and we generally had a fine time at his expense. Otis left in a huff.
His absence was conspicuous the next night. We put it down to pride. The night after, Robbie’s Dirk did not open. We trudged up the coast to Harry’s Harp.
So for a third night, we waited for Otis Magee.
Moira Bryce, the Dirk’s owner and barkeep, said not a word about her failure to open the night before. She’d been surly all evening. Gus Durie dared to grab her elbow as she passed by. “Moira lass, are you all right? You seem—em—not yourself.”
“Don’t be daft!” She jerked her elbow loose.
Gus met questioning looks around the table. “Her eyes look different. There’s something not quite right about her mouth.” By way of apology he added, “I’ve known her all her life and half of mine.”
Before argument on the subject could commence Otis Magee walked in, sparse and grizzled as charred chicken bones, with red rimmed eyes a dusting of brimstone about him. He looked the room over, rubbed his eyes with hairy knuckles and said, “I’m half undone. I’ve been though Fairie, and come back Fey-touched and forever changed.”
“Let’s hope for the better,” Gus ventured.
Otis gave him a disgusted grunt, settled into his accustomed chair with a sigh, lifted two fingers like a gentleman and ordered a pint. It took us by surprise when Moira jumped right up, said “Right away Ser,” and hopped to it.
Otis smiled when Moira placed a mug in front of him and behold, Moira smiled back. Gus thumped the table with the flat of his hand. “That’s it!” he cried, pointing at Moira’s face, “She’s up to something!” Moira singed his whiskers with a look and retreated to her place behind the bar.
“Well Magee,” Gus grumped, hoping to deflect attention, “let’s have it.”
Otis drained his mug, licked foam from his upper lip and placed the empty before him. I smiled to myself. A tall tale is always worth a beer. I nodded to Moira and circled a finger in the air, meaning refills for all. Round one to Otis. So to speak.
“I’ve been through Fairie,” he repeated, “and come home haunted.” He paused, and I could almost hear him counting the beat. The man knows how to work a room. “Haunted?” two voices asked in tandem. Otis would have to drink faster to keep up with the possibilities. He tapped the side of his nose. “If a man knows where, he can enter the Magic Realm. I do and I did. I wrapped black linen across my eyes, tied tight the knot, and walked backwards through Fairie. A mortal will age a hundred years if he doesn’t walk through backwards and blindfolded.”
“Must’ve been easy for you,” Gus commented, not unkindly.
“I took the chance because there are places in Skye that can be found no other way. But I did not plug my ears, and black linen over them was not enough. My soul will be forever troubled by Fairie music, sad and sweet and impossible to forget. I hear it even now. It took tremendous will to keep my hands from my blindfold, I was that tempted.”
“Bet your tin ear helped,” I chimed in. Otis speared me with a look. “You’ve heard me talk of giants who live over hill, in secret castles impossible to find. Well then. Beyond Fairie lies the valley of another world, unknown to mapmakers on Skye. In that valley there is a castle. And a giant.”
“Giants!” Gus snorted.
Otis pursed his mouth and back pedaled. “Not a big giant,” he temporized, “a little giant, a pocket giant.” But he’d lost forward momentum, and I saw my chance. “You claimed you’d be buying when next we saw you.”
“So I said, Harry Riley, and so I will.” He patted a hand in the air, meaning back off and shut up. “I approached the castle unseen and shimmied up a drainpipe to an open window. Where I saw what you won’t believe.”
“We will when you ante up a round,” somebody muttered.
Otis ignored him. “I saw a wizard in a red robe, a mage nine feet tall, working dark magic. He brandished a wand that scorched lines of fire in the air. He threw reeking philters into a bowl where blue flame flared and smoke curled high. He intoned obscene and terrifying words and called a demon out of Hell.”
“Aye! Not the whole demon, mind, only his head, floating in a nimbus of soulless light. I trembled at the sight and feared to lose my hold on the window’s ledge, and in my panic I did something stupid.”
“Ran screaming into the night?”
“I scrambled over the sill and hid behind the drapes.” Magee’s voice dropped to a scraping whisper, “Now here’s the heart of it. The mage recited an ancient incantation, and that devil’s spawn began to spit gold coins from the furnace of hell, coins that burned his mouth and seared his lips. I heard the spatter and pop, like bacon sizzling. I gagged from the stench of burning, putrid flesh.”
Otis took a deep breath to help him face his memories. “The demon screamed and the soaking evil of that unholy sound drove me to my knees. A squirming horror battered my soul. I would be gibbering still, but for the Fairy music. I was protected, you see. Fate had armored me. My soul was already tortured.” His eyes narrowed as he timed his words, watching Gus drink. “Aye, my sanity and soul were saved, but my balls were shriveled.” Gus sputtered beer up his nose. We laughed, mostly in relief.
Otis smiled briefly and picked up the tale; “The demon moaned incoherent pain. The coins fell into a crucible to melt. The mage chanted and capered until the crucible brimmed. He teetered, sweating and breathless, on the edge of exhaustion’s formless cliff. He raised trembling arms, croaked out the last of his spell, and fell to the floor in a faint. The nimbus dimmed. The fading demon spat a final coin with deliberate aim and demonic precision. The coin bounced off the crucible’s rim and rolled across the floor to me. When it touched the drapes they burst into flames. I yanked the drapes down and smothered the fire. I used long handled tongs to place the coin in the crucible before it charred through the floor.”
Otis hunched over his mug, as if to tell a secret. “I prevented a conflagration. I saved the unconscious mage from a horrible death. I deserved a reward.” He continued in a wheedling tone meant to be persuasive, “That coin was the size of my open palm. That crucible was big as this table. He wouldn’t, couldn’t miss the little I took! I used a slag skimmer to pour molten gold out the window into a rain barrel, and I left before the mage awoke.” He leaned back looking relieved, like he’d just confessed a sin. He called to Moira for the promised pints. We cheered. Otis wasn’t known for generosity.
Moira had a different plan. She brought a tray of shots and a bottle of single malt whiskey, best in the known universe, the very reason I’d come to Skye. She handed them round and raised one herself. “Here’s to you, lads, and to Robbie’s Dirk.” She grinned, proving Gus correct and her earlier grouch but an act. “If you want another drink after, Moira Bryce doesn’t work here anymore. I sold the damned place! You lot can bugger off!” She leered at Otis.
Another might have slugged the shot back, but Moira had too much respect for the whiskey. She sipped with solemn reverence. We all did, suspending every human drama for a few minutes of unalloyed pleasure. I could smell incense and see halos. I heard celestial voices.
Minutes passed, while we silently contemplated the brewer’s art and Moira’s announcement. Moira slipped out the door without goodbye or regret. Heads turned, one by one, to look at Otis Magee.
Otis had been talking about buying Robbie’s Dirk for weeks. It was to be his grandest cadge; the ultimate finesse. But Moira had the last laugh. Otis was flummoxed. “I didn’t buy the pub! I was going to, this very evening, lock, stock and building!” He reached into his pocket, drew forth a fistful of gold and poured it across the table.
In the uncertain light, ruddy yellow nuggets gleamed like torch-lit royal treasure. We all hunched closer, and felt the spell of avarice upon us.
“There!” Otis exclaimed with belligerent pride, “It broke into pellets when it hit cold water. I meant to buy the Dirk with it.” A dark comprehension suffused his face, smothering his disappointment. “Which one of you black hearted back stabbing bald faced bastards did this to me? Who bought Robbie’s Dirk?”
I didn’t say anything. He’d find out in the traditional way when I painted the door.
That very door slammed open, drawing our eyes from the gold. A giant squeezed through the opening, turning his shoulders to fit, scraping the lintel and jams. He wriggled in and crouched, bent nearly double, his back scraping the ceiling.
Nine feet tall did not begin to describe him. He had shoulders to shame a gorilla, a buffalo for a chest and arms thick as mastiffs. He crowded the air from the room. He took a long, careful look at half a score of terrified people and brought his eyes to rest on Otis. Otis turned the color of porridge and jerked to his feet, knocking the table over and scattering gold.
“Pick it up,” the giant growled at Otis. He gave me a short nod. “Help him, if you would.” I would. We all would. We did, eager to mollify, anxious to please, trying not to pee our pants.
I dropped several gold bits into a hand the size of the doorstep. In a moment he had the rest, which he tucked away. “I’ll be going now.” He reached out and clamped a massive fist around Otis’ arm. “You’ll be coming along.” Otis fluttered like a dying moth.
“Wait!” I cried out before I had sense enough not to. “Wait! You’ve come this far. You’re in my pub. Have a pint.”
The giant paused. “A pint?”
“A cask then, a barrel. Give me back my luck. You take it with you if you leave without a drink!” Daringly I added, “My name is Harry.”
The giant, mage man or monster, gave a sharp nod of assent, and rapped his skull on a crossbeam.
“Frederick,” he groaned, rubbing his skull. “Call me Frederick. Because it’s not a little name.” It seemed he had a sense of humor. Otis stopped struggling. With death no longer looking imminent, hope and nerve returned. “Let me go. You have your gold! How’d you find me anyway?!”
“Fee fi fo fum,” Frederick chanted, touching his nose. This gleaned a couple of nervous chuckles from the room. Otis turned indignant. “I don’t smell!” Which was not exactly true.
Frederick laughed, a rumble that echoed off the walls like thunder down the valley. He sat cross legged on the floor to ease his back and neck. Otis sat on the floor too, unable to do otherwise. We pushed the tables against the wall and turned the chairs up on them to give the pocket giant room.
I rinsed out the gallon tip jar, filled it with dark beer and carried it to Frederick, who smiled, and we all relaxed a wee bit. Gus dared to fill mugs for the rest of us.
Frederick chugged half a gallon, and life in Robbie’s Dirk normalized some. “I followed the taint of the gold,” Frederick explained, flaring his nostrils and tapping his nose again. “I use devil’s gold to make counter-spells, like using snake venom to make antidote. In this next door dimension, your mortal realm, the devil’s gold is cursed. Anything bartered for it will rot or turn to dust; any service bought will become betrayal. This little thief has brought you trouble and grief.” He gave Otis a shake that rattled his bones and crossed his eyes.
“He claimed it was a reward, for saving you and your castle.”
Frederick’s eyes grew large, redundant as that sounds. “Did he now? Did he say, as I lay stretched upon the floor, that he thumped my head with a poker? Did he say he set my drapes afire while pouring gold out the window?” Otis shrank in his boots. “He put your world at risk. He trespassed in mine. He’s guilty of assault, theft, and illegal entry. And peeping through windows. He must pay for his crimes.” Frederick finished his beer, regained his resolve, said goodbye politely enough, and squirmed his way back through the door, dragging Otis Magee.
I followed them out. “What punishment?” I asked, “What penalty will Otis bear?” There was little else I could do.
“Oh, he will serve my household a while,” Frederick tossed Otis over his shoulder like a sack of oats, “‘till he learns better manners. You’ll see him again, if he lives. And me too. Thanks for the beer.” He strode away, taking giant steps. Otis kicked and screamed to no effect. I ran into the pub and right back out again with a bar towel, for Otis to cover his eyes if they passed through Fairie. But they were gone.
If ever you find yourself on Skye, stop by. A tall tale is always worth a beer. You can look for pocket giants, and I’ll show you the tiny bead of gold I found in a corner. I keep it in a mug behind the bar, never to be bartered or sold.
The name of the pub is still Robbie’s Dirk. I painted the door blue.
Bio: Domenic diCiacca was born in Edinburg Scotland on the low end of the Royal Mile. He used to live in a mining town in Northern Ontario, Canada, and now lives in mid-Missouri with a red-head, a dozen horses, and too many damn cats. His hobby is making his wife laugh. His book (along with co-authors D.J. diCiacca and T. Neason) Bumble Keep Orphans Society, will be on Kindle beginning in March.