Episode #53: The Questing Beast by Amy Griswold

March 29, 2018

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode #53 for March 29, 2018. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing these stories with you. Today we have three GlitterShip originals for you: a poem, a piece of flash fiction, and a short story for you. The poem is "Cucumber" by Penny Stirling.

 


Penny Stirling edits and embroiders in Western Australia. Their speculative fiction and poetry can be found in Lackington's, Interfictions, Strange Horizons, Heiresses of Russ, Transcendent and other venues. For aroace discussion and bird photography, follow them at www.pennystirling.com or on Twitter @numbathyal.


Cucumber

 

Penny Stirling

 

 

He lullabies my ghosts so I can sleep in,

my life-compeer, my comrade-errant,

and I risk griffin bite for his medicine.

We don't kiss or act how a couple should

and people enquire: when will we progress?

Surely we've been just friends long enough.

 

We find tracking migrating dragons

more wondrous than our hearts,

entrusting each other's lives in combat

more significant than vows,

unearthing riddle-hid treasure before rivals

more satisfying than sex;

we are closer than quest-allies

yet less physical than love-couples.

But feelings outside romance have less import

even if we are one another's most important.

Just friends.

 

He doesn't care, he says. He never cares

what allies or enemies say, he says. I say

enough! My life-partner, my peril-mate,

we are enough. But I just

have had enough. My friend, please:

matching rings, balance-enchanted.

He doesn't care, either, congratulated

for finally maturing enough.

 

We don't kiss or act how a couple should

yet people don't enquire if we will progress.

Being just spouse and spouse is enough.

 

END

 


Izzy Wasserstein teaches English at a midwestern university, writes poetry and fiction, and shares a house with several animal companions and the writer Nora E. Derrington. Her work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from ClarkesworldLady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Pseudopod and elsewhere. She is an enthusiastic member of the 2017 class of Clarion West. She likes to slowly run long distances. Her website is izzywasserstein.com


Ports of Perceptions

 

Izzy Wasserstein

 

 

 

Chase had come down with both kind of viruses, and worried Hunter had been growing distant, so Hunter suggested they indulge in some PKD. While the drug kicked in, they sprawled on the mattress in Hunter’s flat and exchanged. Hunter’s arm-ports synched with the receivers on Chase’s back and data flowed between them, which they agreed was worth the risk, despite Chase’s cold and the v0x virus still being rooted out by antivi. Chase felt Hunter’s concern turn to desire, and they explored each other and the PKD. Chase unclasped each of their right forearms, then swapped them. Hunter’s arm, which was, or had been, or would be Chase’s, moved over their bodies. They disconnected Hunter’s not-quite-legal sensory enhancer and synched it with Chase’s, and the rush was like data exchange but more immediate, more vivid. They swapped more parts as the sensory loop built between them. Soon Chase cried out for release, but Hunter let anticipation build, feeling Chase’s rising desire, which was Hunter’s. The drug worked on their flesh, their firmware, their coil of tech and limbs; it bypassed the neurons that told Chase which body was Chase’s, which Hunter’s, that told Hunter where Hunter ended and the Universe began; and so they grew into each other, their bodies and consciousnesses spreading from their node across the web. They were together. They were everywhere. When finally they collapsed and held one another, Chase said Hunter’s name, or Hunter said Chase’s, or each said their own. They lay in the tangle of each other, and Chase was Hunter and Hunter’s thoughts were Chase’s, and neither was sure where they ended and reality began. Hunter caught Chase’s cold, or had always had it, or had always been Chase. Neither cared, if indeed they had ever been separate.

END


Amy Griswold is the author (with Melissa Scott) of Death by Silver (winner of the Lambda Literary Award) and A Death at the Dionysus Club, fantasy/mystery novels set in an alternate Victorian England. Her interactive novel The Eagle's Heir (with Jo Graham) was published in 2017, and their second interactive novel Stronghold, a heroic fantasy game about defending a town and building a community, is forthcoming in 2018.


The Questing Beast

 

Amy Griswold

 

 

 

The first time Sir Palamedes is tempted to give up pursuing the Questing Beast, he is tramping through the woods on a bleak winter day, his frosty breath hanging in a white cloud each time he exhales.  His feet are sore, and his shoes are worn thin.  His horse went lame a week ago, and is returning home in the uncertain care of Palamedes' squire.  Palamedes is following the sound of distant barking, and is beginning to think the sound will drive him mad.

He is far off any beaten track, although he can see the prints of men and horses frozen into the icy turf.  They might have been following the Questing Beast themselves, overcome with wonder at a sight that Palamedes is beginning to find commonplace.  Or they might have been about some other errand entirely.  They might even now be sipping mulled wine by a warm fire at home, rather than tramping through the woods after an abominable beast.

The trees are thinning, and through them Palamedes can see the rutted track of a road.  It will be easier walking, and surely he can pick up the trail of the Beast again later.  Nothing else leaves such tracks, shaped like the hoofprints of a deer but dug deep into the turf under its monstrous weight.  Nothing else makes such a clamor, like a pack of hounds gone mad with no answering music of horns.

He smells smoke before he sees the little camp by the side of the road. A horse is picketed and cropping at the thin brown grass, and a man is warming his hands over the fire.  His shield is propped against a log, and it is by the arms more than by his travel-dirtied face that Palamedes knows him: Sir Tristan, who swore to kill Palamedes when they last met.

They have been sworn enemies for years, for reasons that begin to seem increasingly absurd. Once when Palamedes was a light-hearted youth, Iseult the Fair smiled at him, and he supposes that explains why he and Tristan must be enemies, even though Iseult has long since wedded Mark of Cornwall in obedience to her duty.  He suspects that competing for a lady's adulterous favors is less than the true spirit of chivalry.

And yet he pauses, thinking of Iseult with sunlight on her hair, her face tipped up to him as she asked him curiously about distant Babylon which he will never see again.  She did not scorn him for keeping faith with the gods of his childhood.  Perhaps she would never have married a pagan, but there can be no question of marriage, now.  If Tristan fell, and he were there to bring her the comfort she would not seek in her unloving husband's arms …

But these are unworthy thoughts.  If he steps out of the woods and declares himself, it will be to meet Tristan in battle as Tristan has long desired.  Tristan looks cold and drawn, clearly the worse for his travels, but surely no more so than Palamedes himself.  Tristan has been riding, not walking, his heavy cloak not frayed to shreds and his boots not worn parchment-thin.  It would be a fair fight, surely.

The sound of hounds baying rises over the woods, a wild familiar clamor.  Tristan lifts his head, gazes into the trees for a moment, and then turns back to warming his hands, like a man too weary to think wonders any of his concern.

Palamedes turns and sees the Questing Beast through the trees, distant but clear, its serpent's neck outstretched, its heavy leopard's body, from which the barking of hounds perpetually sounds, crouching balanced on its cloven hooves.  The beast itself is mute, no sound coming from its throat even when it opens its mouth as if to taste the air.

The voice that whispers in his head is an older one, the goddess of his childhood, Anahita-of-the-beasts.  Or perhaps there is no voice at all, only the familiar sound of his own thoughts, his only companion on his long road.

Will you keep faith with him, or with your oath? it asks.

He swore to follow the Beast, and not only at his leisure.  Palamedes turns his back on the fire, the fight, and the ease of following the road, and follows the Questing Beast, quickening his steps as the Beast begins to run.

 

The second time Sir Palamedes is tempted to stop pursuing the Questing Beast, he is riding down a well-traveled road on a warm summer evening.  He has met with many travelers, and answered their courteous inquiries with the tale of his quest, which is becoming wearisome to tell. Most of them look at him as if he is mad, which is not entirely out of the question.

The tracks of the Beast are dug deep into the mud beside the road, and he does not fear losing its trail, though it must be a day or more ahead of him.  It will sleep, for the night, and so must he.  He turns his horse's head from the road into a meadow beside a running stream.  Another traveler is camped there already, and as Palamedes dismounts he prepares to tell his story once again.

Tristan emerges from his tent, stops as he recognizes Palamedes, and stands staring, apparently at a loss for words.  He looks well-fed and well-rested this time, and certainly fit for a duel. But it feels a bit ridiculous at this point to call themselves mortal enemies, having rescued each other from perils that interfered with their duel to the death so many times that it’s clear neither of them relishes having the duel at all.

"Well met, Sir Tristan," he says.  "May I share your camp, or must we settle our differences on the field of arms first?"

"I expect it can wait until morning," Tristan says.  "Sit and have some dinner."

They share a roasted grouse and sit chewing over the bones as the stars come out.

"You've never told me how you came to hunt the Questing Beast," Tristan says.

He supposes he hasn't, although it feels as if he's told the tale to everyone in England.  "Sir Pellinore was growing old," he says.  "But he said he couldn't lay down his charge until there was a man willing to take it up, and he wouldn't lay such a thing on his sons."

"So he laid it on you?  That seems sharp dealing."

"I offered to do it," Palamedes says.  "And I suppose he thought as a stranger to these shores I wouldn't be leaving a home and responsibilities behind."  He shrugs.  "I don't regret it."

"You've had little chance of winning a lady this way, though," Tristan says, as close as Palamedes thinks they will come to speaking of Iseult.  He wonders how many years it has been since Tristan has seen her.  "Surely that must come hard."

"One hardly misses what one has never had," Palamedes says.  The memory of Iseult is a distant dream.  The reality is this, the road, the quest, and the sometime company of other knights who are willing to go some distance down his unending road at his side.  "If I have been deprived of the favors of fair ladies, I have had the friendship of the most gallant of knights."

"I hope you count me among them," Tristan says, and Palamedes does, although he is aware they still might end by shedding each other's blood on the thirsty earth.

"I would be honored," he says, and reaches out a hand to clasp Tristan's.  The other man's hand is rough and warm in his, the pulse beating hard under the skin.  It is a warm night full of possibilities.  He pulls Tristan toward him for a kiss he does not intend as brotherly.

Tristan turns his head, and it ends up a brotherly salute after all.  "You know I am a Christian knight," he says.  Palamedes spreads his hands to grant that Tristan's god may be more forgiving of adultery than of other sins of the flesh.  The blood is high in Tristan's cheeks all the same, his eyes intent.  "If you were a Christian as well …"

Palamedes breathes a laugh.  "Then you would feel it justified?"

"Well so, if it brought you to Christ."

It is a high-handed offer, and a perverse one, and still for a moment tempting.  Of all men, there are few he respects as much as Tristan, and few whose company he desires as much.  "And would you then bear me company on my quest?"

"I think you would find if you accepted baptism that there were other quests more worth the pursuing," Tristan says.  "Whether the Grail or the peace of a Christian marriage and a family."  There is wistfulness in his voice when he speaks of such comforts, which certainly Tristan has never had himself.

For a moment Palamedes is tempted himself to agree.  He does not regret his quest, it is true, but it is growing ever difficult to remember why it matters.  Friendship and ease would surely be worth putting himself in the bleeding hands of the Christian god.

There is a breath of noise that might be the murmuring of the brook, but he knows it for the distant sound of hounds barking, barely a whisper on the wind.

Are you his or mine? a voice says in the quiet of his heart, the warm implacable voice of Anahita-of-the-winds with her outstretched hands.

"I can only be as I am," Palamedes says, and stands.  "And I have tarried here too long.  If I ride through the night, I can at least get closer to my quarry."  He bows to Tristan.  "We can fight next time we meet."

"I will look forward to it," Tristan says quite courteously, and Palamedes swings himself up to the saddle and turns his horse's head into the darkness.

 

The third time Palamedes is tempted to stop pursuing the Questing Beast, he dismounts to drink at a forest stream in a crisp autumn, and raises his head to see the Questing Beast on the other side of the stream, its head bent to the water.

It is silent while drinking, as if the water calms the maddened hounds who howl from its belly.  Palamedes reaches silently for the bow hung from his saddle, and fits an arrow to the string.  He draws it back, aiming for the Beast's heart.  One clean shot will bring it down, and end his quest forever.

The Beast's eyes are closed as if in pleasure at the taste of the cool water.  Its sinuous neck lowers, and it settles down on its haunches, resting in the mossy bank.  It must be an effort to support that bulk on ill-fitted hooves, and to sleep with the noise of baying eternally in its own ears.

It is the child of a human woman, or so Pellinore told him, the child of a liar who lusted after her own brother and lay with a demon to win him.  It will never have a mate or a home.  He thinks for a moment that he knows how it must feel.

But Palamedes has friends he has loved well, and the satisfaction of having mended a hundred small hurts while on the road: he has fought monsters and found lost sheep, brought stray children back to their mothers and jousted with menacing giants.  The road has been more a reward to him than a punishment.  He wonders which it is for the Beast, and knows that he will never know.

Palamedes puts down the bow and stoops to fill his cupped hands with water.  The Beast startles at the movement, raising its serpentine head and staring at him with its unblinking eyes, its whole body poised for flight.

He holds out his hands to it, and the Beast takes one step into the water, and then another, and then lowers its head to drink.  Its flickering tongue is warm.  It stands quietly, trusting, and Palamedes knows that this is a wonder no other man has seen before him.

Would the Grail be better? a voice asks, the teasing voice of Anahita-of-the-waters.

"You know it would not," he says aloud.  The Beast raises its head sharply at the sound, the clamor of barking beginning again.  It whips its bulk around and springs away, the barking retreating through the underbrush.

Palamedes bends to drink, and then mounts his horse again, turning its head toward the sound of baying hounds.  It is a long afternoon's pursuit through the cool clear autumn air, the leaves turning to all the colors of a tapestry lit by dancing flames.

The trees thin at the edge of the wood, and when he comes out onto the road, he is somehow unsurprised to see a familiar knight riding under a familiar banner.  Tristan's face is set in lines of frustration, and Palamedes supposes that he has been trying to persuade Iseult to run away with him again, as suitably impossible a quest as any.

"Well met, Sir Tristan," he says, falling in beside him on the road.  "May I ride a little ways with you, or must we stop to have our battle?"

"We might ride on a little ways beforehand," Tristan says.  He smiles, and some few of his cares seem to lift from him.  "Have you given more thought to baptism since last we met?  It seems to me you were undecided when we spoke before."

"I was not, and I am not," Palamedes says.  "But you may go on trying to persuade me."  He spurs his horse on to a faster walk, knowing soon enough he will have to turn away from the road toward the sound of distant baying.  But for now he has a good road underfoot, and on such a fine day, he cannot think of any road he would rather be traveling.

 

END


“Cucumber” is copyright Penny Stirling 2018.

"Ports of Perceptions" is copyright Izzy Wasserstein 2018.

"The Questing Beast" is copyright Amy Griswold 2018.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

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Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint.

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