Estelle lives a simple life, her needs easily met with the gratitude of those she serves. Her wagon provides shelter and purpose with the magic contained in the simple walls. Colic, her snub-winged drake, provides companionship and pulls the wagon.
Inquisitors threaten her peaceful existence with accusations and threats. Estelle faces them not with sword, but with her wits.
If you love fantasy and books, check out Flame Breaker.
A beautiful day, at least up until the point when three black horses with uniformed riders came pounding down the forest trail and surrounded Estelle’s modest wagon. Colic, her snub-winged drake, hissed in alarm and tried to twist around in the harness. Estelle hissed back.
“Still yourself! You silly lizard!”
Colic glared at her with one golden eye and slowly pressed his entire green-scaled self down into the muddy path.
Not bandits, these men. Estelle could tell that much by the quality of their cloth. The red suits and black neck ties cinched their identity. Inquisitors. Trouble-makers by another name. Thugs, some said and she never disagreed. Gold thread hemmed the cloak of their leader. A small concession to vanity that identified the leader to her. Not that she wondered. He placed his horse right in front of Colic. Ignoring the drake which under other circumstances wouldn’t mind a nice bite of horse flesh. He sat straight, all ruddy fat in the face and contempt in his narrowed eyes. The tall dark evergreens surrounding the path served as mute witnesses to the encounter.
Pity they lacked eyes or tongues. A matter that might change, should circumstances require it.
The Inquisitor raised on black-gloved hand and pointed at the wagon behind her. “What sort of cargo do you haul, mother?”
“No brat ever escaped my loins,” Estelle said. “Neither am I a merchant to haul cargo. My home, that’s all I carry like the snail with its shell.”
“You lie, lady. Poorly, I might add. Best you confess now and avoid the screws.”
So mote it be. “Fly your pole somewhere else, Inquisitor. Nothing I carry concerns such as you.”
The ruddy bastard laughed. Fat cheeks shaking. More chuckles from the two lesser inquisitors on either side. The leader leaned forward, saddle creaking. Colic sneezed. The horse whinnied and jerked back. The inquisitor nearly tumbled forward from the saddle, only just catching himself his horse’s neck. He straightened up and his already red cheeks burned like coals in a fire.
He waved a hand at his men. “Search it!”
Estelle held up her hand. “Warrant? I’ve seen none.”
He started to lean forward and his eyes glanced down at Colic. He stopped and pressed a hand to his chest. “I am the official representative of the Magistrate. Surely no one with legitimate business would refuse to cooperate? Resisting could be construed as probably cause.”
“Your tongue wiggles more than my lizard’s –”
“– and isn’t nearly as truthful. Any search of my dwelling requires the presentation of a warrant. I don’t need your men pawing through my underthings.”
He stared at her and she looked back giving neither an inch or any obvious offense. His stupidity remained the primary question. He raised a hand and rubbed at the side of his head.
“I’ve heard reports of dangerous books appearing in otherwise wholesome communities.”
“Dangerous? In what way? Are these books more prone than others to cause paper cuts?”
His eyes narrowed. “You claim to know nothing of these reports?”
“First I’ve heard. Who makes these claims?”
“Citizens of good standing wishing for their children to remain safe.”
“From paper cuts?”
“From dangerous ideas. Blasphemy. Black arts,” he said. “Your wagon might transport many such books.”
Estelle shrugged. “Any books I transport are my own and dangerous only to ignorance. Are you seeking something to read?”
He pointed at her. “Trading in forbidden books brings substantial penalties.”
“How fortunate we are to live in a free society,” Estelle said. “Many miles I must cover before dark, if I may continue?”
A cluck of the tongue and a flick of the reins sent his horse side-stepping out of her path. Colic rose up and yawned, displaying an impressive array of teeth. Estelle whistled and the drake lunched into motion, pulling her and the wagon away from the inquisitors. She waved cheerfully as she passed.
Her destination for the night? Raven’s Craw. Another dozen or so miles down the road from the site of her encounter with the Inquisitors. Not a direct shot, either. At the crossroads she took the path heading South, South-West. Left the tall trees behind, replaced by mounded prairie. The mounds rose up in general about as high as her wagon. The road wiggled back and forth between the mounds, cutting in the sides of some. As bumpy as a toad’s behind but much prettier. Wildflowers covered the mounds and all over bees, birds and dragonfly-riding fairies flew around the mounds. A squadron of fairies buzzed her wagon twice. On the second pass pelting her with grass seed. No harm in it. A perfunctory welcome, nothing more.
Nothing much at Raven’s Craw of note except the mill and the steamer dock. By the time Estelle rolled into town the sun hung low above the prairie and the buildings cast long shadows. Beside the mill and the dock warehouses the town included one hotel, a general store, a small school building, doctor’s office and the houses of those calling the place home. So few people came to town by road that Estelle’s arrival soon filled the streets. From little ones running around in nothing but diapers to the oldest watching from windows and porches. These people knew her. Mothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins and all the rest. Word spread through town faster than a fire. At the center of town a junction of the prairie road and the road to the steamer docks created a sort of town square. Estelle’s whistle and sharp flick of the reins brought Colic to a stop.
Colic raised his throat and let out a ear-scratching warble that drew shrieks and laughter from the children already gathering with their arm-loads of branches. With the children stood many adults and most all carried arm-loads of branches. Colic snapped his tail, a loud whip-crack that split the air. Twice. A third time and the crowd stilled in anticipation. Time to take the stage, then.
Estelle rose up from her bench, trusting Colic not to jerk the wagon and send her sprawling. She clutched her hands to her chest. When she spoke her voice rang out over the gathered townsfolk.
“Good evening, my what a welcome! It warms the heart. I see many bundles of twigs and branches here.” She looked a fair-haired young girl standing bravely near Colic. “Who can tell me the purpose of these sticks?”
The little girl spoke up, her voice like the piping of birds. “Books! Books! Books!”
Laughter spread among those gathered. Estelle nodded. “Very wise, young one. Books, indeed. If someone will help an old woman down from this perch, let’s see what we can do.”
A broad-shouldered young man with coal-stained hands came to her aid. She held his fine, strong callused hand and made her way down the folding steps from the bench to earth below. He smiled down at her, showing a mouth full of straight teeth.
“Looking at you warms this woman’s heart and makes me wish for the return of my lost years,” she said.
“Surely there aren’t too many years lost,” he replied.
She swatted his shoulder. “Flatterer.”
More laughter from the crowd. Estelle walked to the side of the wagon. She beckoned to the little girl who spoke earlier. “Since you answered so smartly, you may be first.”
The girl walked over clutching her bundle of branches. “I’d like a book please.”
“Of course. What’s your name?”
“Okay, Missie, whisper what you want in my ear here and we’ll see what we can do.” Estelle bent down.
The sweet child leaned in close. She cupped tiny hands to her mouth. “Alice, if I may?”
Estelle winked at her. “I think that is possible. Let’s feed the hopper.”
Along the bright green wooden side of the wagon was a red hatch. Estelle unlatched it and pulled it open, revealing a long drawer. She bent and picked up the little girl around the waist and hoisted her up. No, not so many years lost, in truth.
“Feed the hopper!”
Missie tossed her branches into the hopper. Estelle set her down and shoved it closed. She reached into her cloak and produced a short fat wand of gleaming oak. She whispered to the wand and then shoved it into a hole in the wagon beside the hopper. The wagon shook. Crunching and grinding noises sounded inside like as if she kept a beaver to eat the wood. A moment later the noises ceased. Then a loud thunk, as if something fell. Estelle bent and lifted Missie once more.
“Open the hopper, see what’s inside.”
With both hands Missie pulled the red hopper open. She shrieked and reached inside, lifting out a brightly colored book. She held it up and a murmur of delight passed through the crowd. Estelle brought Missie down and nestled the child on her hip.
“May I see?”
“Yes.” Missie held the book so that she could see the cover.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I believe you will enjoy this book a good deal.”
Missie nodded enthusiastically and hugged the book to her chest. Estelle let her down and turned to the crowd. “I see much fuel for my hopper. Who will be next?”
A boy with hair curly and dark as night stepped forward with a small bundle of twigs. Estelle beckoned him close. “Your name, son?”
“Okay, Patun. What sort of book do you seek? Whisper it here in my ear.”
Estelle bent down.
“Fishing book, so I can catch fish for my ma.”
Estelle patted his head. “That’s a good boy.” She pulled the hopper out and held out her hands. The boy handed her the branches. She tossed them in and then pulled the oak peg from the slot. She whispered to it and shoved it back into the hole. Then she pushed the hopper closed.
Once again the wagon shook and trembled. Colic snorted and settled. The wagon fell silent again. Estelle opened the hoper and pulled out a book. The bright picture on the front showed a man with a pole and line in hand. The Art & Craft of Fishing. She handed it to Patun.
“Gee, thanks!” He shot off running with the book. The crowd parted and like a pebble dropped in a pond he vanished.
Estelle smiled. “Everyone will have a chance. Who’s next?”
“I’ll try your wagon,” a voice rang out. A voice she recognized having heard it not so many hours before.
She turned and sure enough, the inquisitors on their horses. The ruddy-faced leader swung down from the saddle. Up front of the wagon Colic twisted his long head to see around the wagon. He sneezed loudly. The inquisitor reached into his shirt and pulled out a blue sheet of paper. He held it up in the air.
“By order of the Magistrate, as stated in this warrant, I intend to search this wagon and confiscate anything illegal. Clearly this lady runs a scam of sorts and I promise the good people of Raven’s Claw that I will uncover the truth and her accomplice inside.”
Estelle held out her hand. “I’ll see that warrant which you did not produce when you stopped me only hours ago outside of Raven’s Craw.”
He smiled nastily and slipped the paper back into his shirt. If he heard her correction he gave no sign of it. “I’ll not have you tossing the warrant into your device there to be torn to pieces.”
“I only seek to verify the wording of the warrant.”
The crowd’s murmuring grew louder. The inquisitor cocked his head at the other two, who moved their horses up, nudging the crowd back from the wagon. The protests grew louder.
“Clear off, all of you! By order of the Magistrate, return to your business elsewhere!”
Some among the crowd moved back. Others drew off a bit and spoke among themselves. No one really left, Estelle noted.
“Inquisitor, what do they call you?”
“Harris, lady. Now open the wagon for inspection.”
Estelle walked to the end of the wagon and opened the small door at the rear. “Look, if it will give end to this business, Inquisitor Harris. Only you, and I trust you’ll not damage what few things I own.”
Inquisitor Harris swung down from his horse. Grunted when his boots hit the ground. He briefly placed a hand on his back. Then he stomped over to the wagon and leaned in the small door.
“As you see,” Estelle said. “Only my meager bed and little else.”
The Inquisitor rifled through the few books she kept on her small bedside shelf. He lifted the mattress and knocked his knuckles against the wood. Then he straightened and bent to look beneath the wagon. He came up scratching at the side of his head.
“What manner of sorcery is this?” Inquisitor Harris faced her. He shook his hand at the wagon. “How is it that these books are produced?”
“Another demonstration, perhaps?” Estelle looked at the Raven’s Craw townsfolk, none had gone far. She beckoned to another child. “Lad, come here with your branches.”
The fair-haired boy walked over to her, his mother close behind with a wrinkled brow. She kept touching the boy’s shoulders. Estelle smiled. “Worry not, mother. The good Inquisitor Harris aims only to safeguard this town and its people. We will reassure him.”
She crouched down in front of the boy. “What are you called?”
“Okay, Ricky. What book would you like?”
He shrugged. “I dunno.”
“What sorts of things do you like?”
Ricky smiled. “Bears.”
His mother touched his shoulder again. “He’s always going on about bears.”
“I know just the thing.” Estelle took the branches from the boy and stood. She held them out towards the Inquisitor. “Inquisitor Harris, perhaps you’d care to do the honors?”
He took the small bundle. Estelle went to the hopper in the side of the wagon. Inquisitor Harris jerked his head at one of his men. “Watch inside.”
The man in question dismounted and went to the open door at the rear. Estelle drew open the hopper, then pulled the oak peg from the hole. She whispered to the peg and then shoved it back into the hole.
“Toss in the branches, Inquisitor.”
Inquisitor Harris tossed in the branches. She pushed in the hopper. The wagon started to shake. The crunching and grinding noises started. Up front Colic sneezed. Inquisitor Harris took a step back. He looked to his man at the rear of the wagon.
“What do you see?”
The shaking and noise reached its peak and then stopped. The wagon settled down. Estelle gestured to the hopper. “If you will, Inquisitor Harris?”
He rubbed his jaw then stepped up to the wagon. He grabbed the round knob on the front of the hopper and pulled it out. He reached in and lifted out a book. He looked at the front cover.
Estelle reached up and took the book from the Inquisitor’s hand. She held it out to Ricky. “A very special bear.”
“Thank you!” Ricky hugged the book.
His mother looked at Estelle. “Thank you.” She looked to the Inquisitor. “Thank you, sir. Come on Ricky. Let’s go home and you can read your book.”
Inquisitor Harris raised his hand. “People of Raven’s Craw! Bring those branches here!”
Excited voices rose up. The people drew in closer. Inquisitor Harris beamed at the assembled crowd clutching their bundles of sticks and twigs. Abruptly his smile vanished like a drop of water on a hot stove. “Toss your branches at the base of this wagon!”
Cries of protests rang out. He held up his hands. “This woman trades in forbidden books. Her mechanism, this infernal wagon, must be destroyed!”
The young man that had helped her down from the wagon stepped forward. “Inquisitor, do not do this.”
Inquisitor Harris shook his head. “I do this for your sake, lad. And the good of this town.” He motioned to his men. “The branches, now.”
The third inquisitor dismounted, then he and one at the rear of the wagon went among the people. They snatched the branches and twigs away and threw them at the base of the wagon. Colic rose up and started to pull the wagon away.
Inquisitor Harris drew his sword. “Still the beast or I’ll still him for good.”
Estelle hissed at Colic. “Be still, you brute. Let me release your harness, you daft creature.”
She left the inquisitors to their wood-piling and went to the front to release Colic. He came free snapping his tail like a whip. She patted his ugly scaled head. “Don’t worry about it.”
Estelle motioned to the young man with the coal-stained hands. He joined her. “Yes, lady?”
“Please watch this stupid drake. Make sure he doesn’t do anything injurious.”
Estelle left the drake in the care of the young man and went back to the wagon and the inquisitors. Inquisitor Harris held up a hand at her approach. “Do not interfere. This device must be destroyed.”
“You trade in forbidden books!”
“What books? I give the books freely, it costs me nothing. There’s no trade involved.”
“You receive nothing?”
“Their gratitude, nothing more. My needs are simple and easily met.”
“It matters not.” Inquisitor Harris pulled out a match from a pocket along with a flask. “Such a device might produce dangerous books as easily as a children’s book.”
“And who decides? You? I believe we live in a free society. Isn’t that what we claim? I only give people what they ask for. Freedom to read what they wish, surely that’s the foundation of any free society.”
“Security is the foundation of a free society.” Inquisitor Harris flipped the cap on the flask and splashed the contents on the piles of branches. He struck the match and dropped it onto the pile. Flames spread blue and yellow across the branches. Cries of dismay rang out from the crowd.
Estelle walked around to the rear of the wagon. None made any move to stop her. She hurried and climbed inside. She heard Inquisitor Harris shout something but didn’t wait. Up front, strapped to the side of the wagon she pulled down a red cylinder. She scooted back out and slid out of the wagon. A cheer went up from the crowd. Inquisitor Harris grabbed her arm.
“Foolish woman! What is so worth your life?”
“Knowledge, books.” Estelle pulled away. She pulled a silver pin from the top of the cylinder and pointed the nozzle at the flames. A cloud of white vapor shot out, engulfing the flames. She worked her way along the pile until every last flame was extinguished. Excited murmurs spread through the crowd and became cheers. The people of Raven’s Craw started clapping. Colic snapped his tail three times.
Inquisitor Harris caught up with her. “What is that device?”
“A fire extinguisher,” Estelle said. “It is very useful dealing with fires. Inquisitor, have you considered that there might be many useful books you might ask for? Things that might help you in areas other than persecuting someone like me?”
His eyes narrowed. “What sort of books?”
“Leadership, tactics, books on all sorts of instruments you might find useful?”
Inquisitor Harris stroked his jaw. “Perhaps I should confiscate the wagon, and keep it for myself.”
Estelle shook her head. “It works only for me.”
“I could take you, along with the wagon.”
“You could and find I have forgotten how to make it work.” Estelle smiled. “Inquisitor Harris, do not make your job harder! Ask for a book and I shall happily provide it to you, as I do anyone who asks. Not in trade, or from coercion. Perhaps one final demonstration?”
When he made no move to stop her Estelle pulled open the hoper. She picked up scorched branches from the pile and threw them in. She took out the peg, whispered to it and put it back. Then she closed the hopper. As before the wagon shook. When the noise and shaking ceased she opened the hopper and pulled out a book. Without looking at the title she handed it to Inquisitor Harris.
Color drained from his ruddy fat face. He looked up at her, back to the book, then shoved the book into his vest. He waved his hand at the other inquisitors. “Mount up! By order of the magistrate this woman shall be free to continue her business, unfettered and unencumbered.”
Inquisitor Harris mounted his own horse when his man led it over. He mounted up and then rode away without another word. Estelle chuckled and turned to the crowd.
“Where were we, then?”
Dew covered the mounded prairie grass the next morning when she stepped outside her wagon and stretched. From atop one of the mounds beside the wagon Colic lifted his scaled head and blinked sleepily. The wagon creaked behind her. Strong young arms wrapped around her waist.
“Must you leave so soon?”
Estelle reached up and patted Martin’s, the young man of the coal-stained hands, face. “Yes, but I shall return. People will want more books.”
“It never stops, does it?”
She leaned against his solid chest. “I hope not.”
Above the mounded prairie the sun rose again with the promise of a new day.
This story is the 49th weekly short story release, written in May 2010, and originally released under a pen name. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Two for Death.