What can I say? We have a guest, my writer friend Jim, Webster, along with the inimitable, the one and only Tallis Steelyard who is here to tell us a little tale. Thank you Tallis and Jim, for stepping in and giving me something to share with everyone at the end of a week when gastroenteritis has left me short. On you go, Tallis.
A Charming Child.
Having your illusions shattered can be hard at times. One clings to them with the tenacity of a shipwrecked sailor who grasps the spar with a death grip. They are all you have to help you navigate the storms of life. But one has to be brave and when the evidence is presented, one has to admit the new reality into your life.
Thus one evening, as I dined with Shena, my lady wife, and Mutt, I learned something new. Now Mutt is aged about ten and has accepted some element of domestication to become Shena’s employee. That being said, he has his own extensive business interests within the city, and appears to maintain a group of street children who look to him as their master and provider. As we ate I commented that Avia Hassenbut was a charming child. Mutt just looked at me as if I were a total idiot and said, in terms of obvious admiration, “She’s devious is that one.”
This surprised me as Avia and Mutt hardly move in the same social circles, but there again I have learned never to disregard Mutt’s comments. So I asked him to elucidate. The story he told struck me as so far fetched that I felt the need to check the facts. Alas it is largely true, and it is this largely true version I shall now recount.
It seems Avia had taken against her nurse. Whether she felt that at the advanced age of eight or nine she ought to have a governess I don’t know. Perhaps nurse had in some way crossed her, but Avia decided that nurse must go.
Now a lesser daughter would undoubtedly have approached her father, wheedled and pleaded, and achieved little. But Avia was cut from different cloth. She was prepared to plan. The first thing she did was look at her potential assets and allies. She turned her attention to Dame Ballot’s School for young persons of breeding. This was an exclusive academy, by which I mean expensive. Perhaps a score of children attended and were given a solid grounding in the basics, (reading, writing, rhetoric, accountancy, character assassination and social climbing.) Now one of her little playmates was Tonks Valin. He was the son and possible heir of ‘Barbarity’ Valin, extortioner, racketeer and thug. Old ‘Barbarity’s current wife, known universally as Mistress Valin, had decided that it wouldn’t hurt if the family moved up in society and had enrolled Tonks with Dame Ballot. Society in Port Naain can be fluid at times; it’s barely two generations since they last hanged an Oeltang for brigandry. So Avia had Tonks invited to her house to play, and whilst there she introduced him to the litter of puppies that had just been born to one of her father’s hunting dogs. With parental permission, Tonks was promised a puppy and from that point onwards he was Avia’s most devoted servant.
At this point it appears that I enter the picture. Madam Hassenbut was a patron of mine, and one afternoon I was asked if I could keep Avia amused for an hour because her parents had to spend time with lawyers, attorneys and similar such individuals. I realise that this doesn’t really fall within the duties one should expect of your poet, but one does try to help a patron so I agreed. It was a wet afternoon and I kept Avia amused by playing a storytelling game. One of us would start, the other would continue the story, and we’d take turns trying to bring it to a suitable conclusion. Time flew by so fast that frankly I was surprised when Madam Hassenbut came into the room and apologised for being away for two hours. She was generous with both her praise and her silver and I hadn’t got it in my heart to complain.
Obviously I must have given Avia ideas, because a fortnight later I was asked by Mistress Valin if I would organise a children’s entertainment for her. Now let me state, categorically, that I am not a children’s entertainer, I am a poet. But to be honest I have always felt that it was wise to oblige free-spending patrons, especially if they might take refusal badly.
Now I confess to being both surprised and relieved when I discovered that there were only a handful of children, which included Tonks and Avia. I’d dreaded there being a horde of the screaming little beggars. Four or five is manageable. So I sat down and asked what they would like. Avia piped up immediately and asked me to tell them a story.
She smiled a little slyly and said, “The dark tale of Bethom baby eater and her gang.”
I smiled back. This was one of the stories we’d built up together when we’d played the game, and I’d promised that one day I would show her how to tell it properly. Indeed I quoted one of the ancients to her, “I’ll add plenty of corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”
So I told the story. I wove it into Port Naain, mentioning places, hinting a people, tying it to dates and places and generally doing the job properly. The children loved it. So, apparently did the adults.
What I haven’t mentioned is that each child (with the exception of Avia) was accompanied by a couple of heavies who acted as bodyguards. They were there purely to ensure nobody got any silly ideas about kidnapping expensive children. They sat around the room, drinking fruit juice and eating cake and trying to look fierce in a restrained and domesticated manner. Of course they listened to the story, and seemed to enjoy it at least as much as the children. Indeed so much were they enjoying it that I brought them into it, tying in details such as the disappearance of Bouncer Queel and the unexplained death of Blabs Joggan.
I finished the story in the usual way. “And so children, even today nobody knows who Bethom baby eater is or who is in her dark gang. But luckily you’ve got such good men to protect you.” This remark had assorted heavies sitting up a little straighter and surreptitiously checking the placement of concealed weapons. Then I concluded with, “Which is lucky really because more than babies, Bethom especially loves to eat rich children because they’re so tender and nicely fed and taste delightfully sweet.”
Personally I thought no more about it, but apparently one of the little horrors had nightmares about Bethom the baby eater. Mother summed a thug to ask what on earth had been going on, and the thug recounted my story. He didn’t do it word for word, or mother would have recognised it as the elegantly constructed tale that it was. No he told it in his own words which made it more real. Mother, not entirely convinced talked to other mothers. Of course they’d all got a similar version from their own hired bruisers and so Bethom became real.
Once Avia knew that the story had spread, she too had nightmares. Hers were more specific. She woke up screaming that Nurse was a cousin of Bethom baby eater. Madam Hassenbut have never heard of this person but thought it wise to check with Mistress Valin. The tale she was told was enough to chill the heart of any mother. When a few simple checks showed that nurse did indeed have a cousin called Bethom, (a ladies’ hairdresser in Avitas), nurse was dismissed with a month’s salary in lieu of notice.
It has to be said that I take a degree of comfort from the thought that by the time young Avia comes into her full powers, I will almost certainly be safely dead. It’ll be up to Mutt and his generation to cope with her. I wish him joy in it.
Thank you Tallis, that was awesome! Jim, do you have anything to add?
I do. You might not realise that Tallis Steelyard has just produced his second book of stories and anecdotes. This is book, ‘Tallis Steelyard, a harsh winter, and other stories,’ is available from the first of June.
The book is available to all discerning readers at £0.99 from
or $1.28 from
Were Tallis less busy he’d doubtless remember to thank me, Jim Webster, for the efforts I make on his behalf. But you know what it is with someone like Tallis who is constantly in demand. So I just get on with writing his stuff down for him and from time to time making collections of his wit, wisdom and jumbled musings available for a grateful public.
Tallis does have a blog, it is apparently de rigueur now for all writers. It is available at
Riding in on his coattails I’ll merely mention that my own books can be seen at Jim Webster’s Amazon page:
Thank you, Tallis and Jim.