by Sean Monaghan
As Shev clawed his way through the ruined floorboards into the music room, he got a splinter in his thumb. Still waist-deep in the hole he pulled the splinter with his teeth. He sucked on the sore thumb for a moment.
Somewhere deeper in the structure someone shouted.
“You can’t be in here,” a cello said. Rosewood and yew, it leant back in a stand. Out of tune.
“Quiet you,” Shev forced his way out onto the floor. Other instruments looked on: a clarinet, a small rack of piccolos, a bassoon with an oboe, a dozen violins on hooks, some violas, and more cellos. At the back, near the gray steel door, stood some timpani and other drums. The room reeked of oil and polish.
Shev was getting tired of these rescues. Twits who had no sense, getting themselves in stupid situations.
Still, it paid.
In the middle, only ten feet from Shev’s ruinous hole, lay the harpsichord. Deep green with an elegantly curved side, the instrument glowered at him. Precise carvings covered the legs. The lid lay closed.
“You should leave,” the harpsichord said, its voice a crisp plinking sound. The piccolos rattled, like metal birds twittering in a cage.
“I’ll only be a minute,” Shev said. Long enough to find the elf.
Shev lay his axe on the floor. Surveying the room, he knew some of the instruments would fetch a fine price in the markets in Korbarth or Thettle or Tanglethorn. Or even off-world. A lot of the visiting traders were offering high prices. Especially for the living. Whether instruments or trees or rocks or bicycles.
“Scat,” the double bass told him.
“Funny,” Shev said. “Now for the drums to tell me to ‘beat it’.”
“They don’t have a sense of humor,” the harpsichord said.
“Sure. Open up.” Shev lifted the lid. It squeaked like an old gate. The harpsichord howled.
All Shev had to do was find the elf and get out. He heard shouts from below. Something clanked on the door. Like a ring of keys.
He didn’t have long.
Flicking on his flashlight he shone the beam around the interior.
“Outhara,” he said. “Come on.” Shev whistled to draw the little creature out.
The key clicked in the door’s lock. The lock groaned.
“Come on, little one,” Shev said.
“What’s in it for us?” a tiny voice said.
‘Us’? Shev thought.
“This is a rescue,” he said.
“It’s not,” the harpsichord said. “He’s a thief.”
“Are you?” Outhara stepped out onto the strings. He was little more than two inches tall, in a green outfit with black boots. Shev saw a glint of reflection from a tiny wristwatch.
The door shuddered. It began moving inward.
“You should come now,” Shev said.
“Don’t go,” the harpsichord said. Several other instruments joined in a chorus of pleading.
“Tell me,” Outhara said.
Shev sighed. “Yes, I’m a thief, but that’s my other job. Today I’m taking you home.”
The door swung wide. Two palace guards filled the gap. They wore regular tight-cut blue uniforms, and both carried slasers.
“Hi,” Shev said. “There’s been a break-in.”
They didn’t hesitate. One took two steps and stopped. The other marched across the floor. Straight at Shev.
“Home?” Outhara said.
“Sallow Hills Estate.” Shev stepped left, keeping the instrument between himself and the guard. She was taller than he, heavier too. He wouldn’t last long against her, even without the slaser.
“But my family,” Outhara said.
“Family?” Shev glanced into the strings. A female elf stepped up to join Outhara. Three half-sized version came with her.
“Well that’s new,” Shev said.
“Get him,” the cello said.
“They can’t hear you,” Shev said. “Unless you’re being played.
“We hear them fine,” the female guard said.
The other instruments started calling encouragement like a rabid basketball crowd. De-fense.
Shev sighed. Pick up the elf, that was the job. Not a family. Not with guards could talk to the music.
“Listen,” Shev said, still moving around the harpsichord. He was conscious of putting his back to the guard at the door. Too easy to get slasered that way.
Shev stepped back around the double bass. He picked up the cello by the neck. The instrument groaned. Almost like the door.
“That’s your plan?” the guard said.
Shev extended the cello’s spike. He wished he’d kept hold of the axe.
The other instruments wailed and screeched. One of the agitated violins fell from its peg, landing with a hollow clunk.
“That’s on you,” the guard at the door said.
“Acknowledged,” Shev said.
“We all come,” Outhara said, “or none of us.”
“That’s fine.” Shev kept the cello raised. “I’ll take care of these two and I can take you home.”
The guard at the door laughed. Shev stepped towards the harpsichord. He kept the spike up. “I’m just retrieving Outhara and his family,” he said.
“Sure,” the guard said. She moved fast. Feinted and batted the cello away. She jabbed.
The slaser struck. It felt like every nerve in his body jerked from its root. They all connected back to his pain center.
Shev slammed flat on his back.
Hours later, still shivering from the shock, Shev sat on the hard wooden bench in a stone cell. It was a biocut hollow in the bedrock under the castle. The walls showed shallow, scalloped indentations where the cyber-algae had eaten away at the rock. That was the kind of thing you could do if you were in no particular hurry. The castle was at least five hundred years old.
Shev rubbed his shoulder where the slaser had barbed him. The skin was still tender.
In the cell next door someone groaned.
Shev got up and went to his cell’s iron grate door. “Buddy?” he said.
He only got more groaning in response.
“Back away from the door,” a guard growled.
“What time is it?” Shev said. He’d already blown his schedule. And he hadn’t even got the elf.
How had that happened? A whole family?
“Quiet down. Feeding time is at feeding time.”
Hours passed before the meal came. ‘Meal’ being a generous description for the gray, lumpy slop. It smelled rotten. Shev ate it anyway. Never one to turn up a free meal.
The groaning next door continued.
After dark Shev picked the lock using his four shoelace aglets. A simple mechanical thing, the lock still took longer than he wanted.
When the door slid open he half-expected alarms to start blaring.
Silence, but for the groaning. It gave Shev an idea. Working fast he picked the lock on the groaner’s cell door.
The man lifted his head from the bunk and looked at Shev with another groan.
“Come on, Buddy,” Shev said. “I need your help here.”
More groans. The guy rolled over and Shev smelled whiskey. He hauled the drunk to his feet – accompanied by more groaning – and dragged him through the door.
The jail was just six cells, three on a side. Four empty. One end of the gap between was a stone wall, the other a solid steel door.
Shev knew he couldn’t pick that lock. He drew the drunk up in front of himself and rapped on the door. It didn’t make much of a sound.
They had some sensors but nothing much in the way of cameras. Imaging tech took its time getting here. And it was still expensive. He wouldn’t have gotten this far in Ajax or Estetar.
The door buzzed. It opened slowly outward. As soon as the gap was wide enough, Shev shoved the drunk. The man staggered through.
Exactly as Shev had hoped, the guards – two of them –grabbed the man. He belched.
Shev sped out. He tripped the first guard. As the man fell, Shev relieved him of his weapon. A little pulse pistol. Shev squeezed the trigger and the other guard went down. Shaking the way Shev had from the slaser.
The drunk collapsed on top.
Shev took the other weapon and the guard’s access disk. As he stood, Shev saw five more guards facing him.
In a half-circle, they all had their weapons trained on him.
“Hey,” he said. “I had to try, right?”
They shot the guns from his hands. The weapons clattered to the floor. His hands stung and Shev smelled burning skin
“All right. I give up.”
The biggest guard came forward and slammed Shev to the floor. Dazed, he felt manacles close over his wrists.
Shev had grown up in old Silester in what had once been the English Channel. The land remained swampy and boggy. Reclaimed for the most part, industrialists excited by the possibility of creating a permanent land link from England to France.
He’d first gone off-world when he was seventeen. A month-long posting with a group of marines to Eddgu – a newly-made world at the expansion edges undergoing colonization.
It hadn’t taken him long to figure out space travel wasn’t for him. At twenty-two he’d settled on Cloister, a rustic place that reminded him of Earth. Unwilling to face the multi-leap trip to home, he’d chosen the place that made him least homesick.
He couldn’t quite remember how he’d shifted from security to thievery. Perhaps it was a natural transition, his talents lending themselves more to skullduggery than to watching banks of screens for hours on end.
The trouble was that he ended up in places like this. It wasn’t his first time in a cell. Might not be his last, either.
“Hey?” a voice said. From the window.
Shev stood and looked. The harpsichord elf. Standing on the stone between the iron bars. The little creature seemed even smaller than before.
“Can you get us home?” it said, casting nervous glances outside. Dawn creeping up, it was growing light outdoors.
“If I can get out of here,” Shev said.
“Oh, that’s easy. Least of our troubles.”
The elf continued to shrink even after it had freed Shev. It sat on his shoulder as Shev ran through the hallways.
“We’re heading back to the music room,” Shev said.
“So how come you’re getting smaller?”
“Connection broke. Takes a while to re-establish.”
“Maybe a week.”
“Just from coming to break me out?”
“Yep. I think they’ve found out you’re missing.”
Puffing already, Shev put on an extra burst of speed. The elf had magicked the locks and put the guard to sleep.
That didn’t mean it had the wherewithal to influence the whole castle. What power it did have was diminishing by the moment.
Shev kept running.
“How did they get you here?” he said. He knew how he’d planned to get it back: the flyer he had parked at the structure’s moat.
“In a harpsichord,” the elf said. “They trapped me and sealed me in. Bound it up with cables and tape.”
“Whoa,” Shev said. “Serious.”
“Why did they do it?”
“Usual story. Prince trying to impress a princess.”
“Seen that before.”
Shev rounded a corner. Six guards stood shoulder to shoulder across the hallway.
Facing the other way.
As one they turned.
“Ooops,” the elf said.
Shev stopped. He held his hands up. “Guys,” he said. “All good, huh?”
“Go left,” the elf whispered. “Doorway.”
Shev saw the gap. He darted through as the guards’ guns took aim.
A narrow stairway. Shev followed the stairs up.
“Should have closed the door,” the elf said.
Shev heard thumps from behind. The guards shouted for him to stop.
Two floors up, Shev exited the stairway. He came into the room where he’d started. He closed and bolted the door.
“We’re right under the music room,” the elf said.
Shev’s ladder had been removed. The hole in the ceiling was still there.
No way to reach it.
Someone started pounding on the stairway door.
“That won’t hold them for long,” the elf said.
“Can your family come down?”
The elf called for them. A strange high-pitched keening sound.
Followed by silence. No response.
Shev went to the window to look out. In the distance beyond the city’s margins, the forest rolled to the horizon. It was eighty feet to the ground.
He blinked. His flyer was missing. It had been parked in back of the stables.
“They’re not calling back,” the elf said.
“Has someone moved them?”
“The harpsichord is still there.”
From outside Shev heard a stuttering sound. An engine.
His flyer. It sounded off, misfiring.
It shot up from around the side of the structure.
The pounding continued. The door began to splinter.
The flyer rose up under the window. No one inside. The cockpit’s interior sparkled.
The flyer’s door swung open.
At the same instant the stairway door exploded into the room.
“Get in,” the female elf said. She looked tiny, standing on the driver’s seat. Light glistened from the air around her fingertips.
“Stop there,” a guard yelled.
The aircar rocked. Powered not by its engine, but by her magic. Riding its engine the vehicle would hover as steady as a rock.
It was only three feet away. Shev got into the window ledge.
“Stop there. Get down.”
Eighty feet to the ground.
He rolled as he landed on the seat. The flyer bucked and dropped.
He heard gunfire.
The flyer kept dropping. Bullets ricocheted from the bodywork.
Falling, weightless, Shev shot his hand at the controls. He missed. The aircon blasted him.
Shev tried again.
This time he hit the flight controls. The flyer clanked. It stabilized. Gained altitude.
“Well,” the elf said.
Another bullet spanged from the hull.
Shev scrambled around into the driver’s seat. The female elf had climbed up to the dash. Three little elves sat with her.
“We’re getting weak,” she said. “Away from the instrument.”
“That’s going to be all right,” Shev said. He adjusted the stabilizers and engaged the thrust. The flyer shot ahead over the city and towards the forest.
“My husband?” she said.
“Here.” The elf climbed from the gap between the door and the passenger seat. “I’m okay.”
Shev pushed the throttle to the margin. His flyer was faster than anything that might pursue them.
“I’ll have you all home in an hour,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”
“From my whole family,” Outhara leapt up to the dash with the others.
“Well,” Shev said. “I couldn’t have done it without your help.” He smiled. He was used to simpering, witless rescuees. The elf family were more than worth it. “I’ll rescue you anytime.”
The pair looked at each other and laughed. “And we’ll rescue you too.”
Shev smiled as they left the city behind and sped away over the forest.
“The Harpsichord Elf” (© Sean Monaghan) was published in Issue 1 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.