Pipe and Slippers: Tales From Steampunk’d Lancaster
Good evening and welcome to my awe-inspiring aethenaeum of praiseworthy pamphlets…or as some ridiculous personages have dubbed it – my lovely library.
I am the ghost known as Perilous Wight and here in the bowels of the city of Lancaster, in the disused tunnels of an underground train system that never was, I have made it my mission to collect every book that our self-proclaimed ‘supreme ruler f the universe’ and his mincing minions have banned from the bookshelves of the new world.
But this is not a public thoroughfare! If you have wandered in here on the ill-advice of that incorrigible octopus and its unnerving Gentleman Friend, let me advise you not to be so easily lured into a parlour by strange creatures promising cake. Well, you will find nothing sweet and alluring down here; here there is only the dark and the damp, the flickering of candlelight and the ceaseless toil of a man who did not re-animate from the dead to be pestered by people wanting bedtime stories!
But wait…what’s that you have tucked away under your arm there? A bottle of vintage port eh? Oh…. well, yes perhaps it is about time I put my feet up for a while, pipe and slippers and a little drop of something, the day has, after all been a long one. And I suppose I could read a very little something,
like this perhaps… I have been tirelessly working over the summer, interviewing, stalking … I mean studying… the Hex Slingers of Lancaster, compiling an anthropological study of the lives of those who use magic illegally in the curated back-alley fight clubs – why and how have they come to their present situation? What are their stories? Well, here at least, is one of them…
TALES OF STEAMPUNK’D LANCASTER
SERIES 1: TALES OF THE HEX SLINGERS
TALE THE FOURTH: by ALLISON SHEPHERD
“My brooch!” I yelled as Mariah’s twinklepuff slam hit me full force in the chest
and sent me hurtling backwards into the wooden crates at the makeshift
gayelle’s edge. I hadn’t anticipated Mariah’s last pattern and was now
scrambling to catch my breath and get back on my feet. My brooch had ripped
off my bolero as the twinklepuff spell had infused the fibres of the old velvet.
My grandmother had made that brooch for me from the cogs of a broken toy
train and an old yuletide ornament. She’d fashioned the cogs into an owl tying
them together with copper wire, and using tiny emerald crystals pulled off the
bauble for the eyes. Every afternoon after school I’d go to her rag-and-bone
shop tucked away down a narrow cobblestone alley to wait for my parents.
She’d make a pot of Earl Grey with leaves from her “secret supplier” and tell
me stories of when her mother baked double-layered sponge cakes with
strawberry jam filling, and lighter-than-air profiteroles filled with sweet gooey
cream. “Earl Grey.” “Strawberry jam.” “Profiteroles.” I hadn’t heard those
words in almost a decade. My owl brooch had become my talisman, my
connection to my past.
I tried to stand but sat down quickly as my vision blurred. Mariah? This
powerful? I couldn’t understand; she was a third-rate slinger at best, over
estimating both her charms and her spells. Something was different. The
sophistication of the twinklepuff weavings and glitter were not her. Someone
was helping raise the level of her usually amorphous, sloppily put together
concoctions. Who? And why?
It was odd when Mariah had drawn the wildcard for our slingoff but I had
missed a few of the preliminary fights when I had gone out of town. Maybe
she’d improved and been bumped up a couple garnets, I thought. This was my
livelihood, and sometimes it’s better to shut up and sling. Now, as I sat
befuddled trying to clear my head and weave my threads, I saw a glint of silver-
black emanating from Mariah’s perfectly poised hands. Mariah who could
barely make a pattern for a pink-and-gold unicorn spell slinging an
onyxmirrorpearl? With advanced finger positions? I sat spellbound and the
omp smacked me flat. Blood gushed out of my nose, ruby red against my white
pin-tucked shirtwaist. Before I lost consciousness, I saw Emily, the bookie,
collecting from the disgruntled gamblers.
Gill found my brooch, the emerald crystals winking in the twilight-find spell he
cast. The healers had tried to revive me right away but the omp had proved
beautifully formed and knocked me out for hours. I lost my deposit and got
nothing for the night. According to Gill, Emily had been apologetic but could do
nothing as an unexpected large bet against me had her scrambling for gilt. Gill
had taken me home and tucked me up in bed with a hot water bottle, three
pillows and my favourite fluffy wrap. I was still in bed when he came back with
my brooch. I tried to sit up but the wave of nausea had me lying back gingerly
on the pillows. I closed my eyes clutching my owl, my fingers tracing the
notches along the cogs, and started to cry.
My parents were wizards, of course, fighting for Queen and country. They truly
believed that magic should be controlled and out of the hands of ‘ordinary’
people. My parents were strong weavers but by the time they disappeared (of
course) my abilities were rudimentary at best. I’d become a trope: orphan,
living with my grandmother, no magic. But as with my favourite fairy tales, this
was simply the beginning of the story.
My parents had taken an assignment to escort our Queen to Boss Town for a
diplomatic sojourn, or that was what the official correspondence claimed. We
knew better: an excuse for the elite to sample new-fangled sweet marvels and
magiscience tea twists. Mum and dad couldn’t say too much but they were
more tight-lipped than usual as they hugged me goodbye and dropped me off
at Gran’s. We never saw them again. I was fourteen.
Gran moved in with me. I finished school at sixteen and tried out for the
apprentice wizard programme. I didn’t qualify even though my parents had
been senior civil servants. Apparently, according to the report, I didn’t have the
“right attitude, and my spells were nonexistent.” Gran and I eked out a living
from the shop. I met Quelin her “tea supplier,” a jovial smuggler who was able
to find the choicest leaves for us, and sometimes, just sometimes, the tiniest
silver-sprinkled cupcakes. He’d never tell where he got them but always
tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger, “It’s best you don’t know, my
darling,” he’d say, “because if anything happened to me, you might be running
for your life from some nasty bits.” He’d glance across at Gran, who would
pretend to be engrossed with a length of glitterwool handicraft, or checking
her numbers in the accounts book. They thought I never noticed but I always
I had turned seventeen the year of the Youshallnevereatcake Spring, a short-
lived, half-hearted coup d’etat by a handful of boisterous youngsters. It was
quashed by the wizards within hours, the rebels marched through the streets
to the palace courts. I rushed home to tell Gran only to find her in the garden,
sitting in her favourite chair under the willow tree, a cold cup of Earl Grey in
her lap. She looked as though she were taking an afternoon nap, the breeze
ruffling her mop of curls. I clasped her inert hands, and wept.
I started hex slinging in the underground circuit soon after.
Of course my latent abilities eventually showed up, stronger than either of my
parents but without proper training and guidance, it was a mess. My early
slingoffs were either a triumph of a knockout, or me vomiting an endless
stream of bile in a dank corner, a side-effect of using pure, raw magic. Through
practice, and more practice, and much much more vomiting, I learnt to control
and weave almost beautiful hexes. I found a circle of friends who helped me in
the nine years since Gran died: Gill, Emily, Jendra. And I still ran the shop. It
didn’t make much but had become a safe place for us to meet to try out new
patterns and concoctions, catch up on gossip and, yes, of course, find a way to
bring back tea, cakes and magic: we’d been denied our right to a free life for
As I clutched my brooch in my hand, tears streaming down my face confusing
Gill to no end, I realised that Mariah’s win tonight had shifted our timetable. It
hadn’t been subtle, literally a punch to my gut. Someone had wanted our
attention. No longer was our light-hearted, drinking-after-a-slingoff chant of
“Tea, Cake, Magic For All!” a someday cake-in-the-sky dream; someone, or
someones, wanted us ready now. And I was terrified.
Allison Shepherd enjoys reading and writing speculative fiction, especially paranormal romance. She teaches at the medical school at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and has had her work published in bmj Medical Humanities, Tales From the Fluffy Bunny, and is upcoming in Lycan Valley Press Publications “Darkling’s Beasts and Brews”. https://mh.bmj.com/content/43/3/e33 https://www.amazon.com/Tales-Fluffy-Bunny-Various-Authors/dp/1942450699