Worn Out Souls
Bill stepped through the door into the bar, shaking rain off his coat. The inside of the building matched the outside… there was barely anything outside to even show it was a bar, it had been more a feeling he got as he walked past in the pouring rain. The inside was gloomy and stank of stale alcohol, though he had a sense it was larger than it looked. Though he couldn’t work out why he felt that way.
He didn’t really care. It was a bar. It was close to his home. It got him out of the rain. It saved him from walking any further in his tattered and uncomfortable shoes. He headed towards the long wooden bar and grabbed one of the many empty stools.
The lighting was just as dim at the bar. The barkeep stood at the other end and was mostly shadows and shape, though Bill had the distinct impression of being studied closely before the barkeep finally walked over and grunted at him.
“What’ll it be?”
“I’ll have a beer. No. Wait. A whiskey with tonic. Make it a double.”
The barkeep made the drink, placing in front of Bill, then grunting out the price.
Bill paid in cash, and felt slightly cheated as the barman moved away again. Wasn’t he supposed to have asked just why Bill needed a double? Wasn’t that what barkeeps did?
Bill shrugged. It wasn’t like he really wanted to share that story anyway. He sat there, sipping his drink, staring silently at the bottles lining the back of the bar. They didn’t stare back. They didn’t judge him. And he was fine with that.
* * *
Slurg kept a wary eye on the man who’d just ordered a double whiskey. There was a good chance he’d end up being a problem. Strangers coming into the bar often were, if they hung around. Human strangers, at least. Though, so far, the man hadn’t done anything to warrant Slurg throwing him out, and if necessary there were ways to deal with a human who’d seen too much.
It was still relatively early and the bar wasn’t that busy. Even when it was, most of the regular patrons would head past this first bar into the main area further back. With luck the human wouldn’t even realise there was another area. Even if he did, it was unlikely he’d try to get to it. That tended to happen more when a group stumbled on the place. And if he did… well, if he did then Slurg would deal with him.
With luck the human would feel uncomfortable and move on after he’d had one drink, maybe two. Most normal humans did. That was fine with Slurg. And fine with his patrons. In the meantime, he’d be keeping a very close eye on the newcomer.
* * *
Bill reached the bottom of his glass all too quickly, and with only a slight haze in his mind from the alcohol. He stared at it, considering. The barkeep didn’t pressure him to buy another drink or to leave, so he had time to think things through.
He knew full well that he needed to be sensible. He had no job now. He had no more money coming in. Sure, he could spend everything he had left, drink away all his cares for the next two or three weeks, but where would he be at the end of that?
He sighed. Exactly the same place he’d be within two or three months even if he didn’t spend his money on alcohol. At least this way he’d get some good nights out of it. Or at least some nights where he forgot what had happened to his life.
Besides… There was something about this bar. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he felt comfortable there. It was as if he’d managed to give the worries of his life the slip, for a little while at least. He looked up, caught the barkeep’s eye, and ordered another drink. Just a single this time.
If anything, the barkeep was even less friendly as he delivered this drink, but he hadn’t refused to serve Bill. Bill realised he actually quite liked not having to talk to anyone. Talking would lead to sharing, and to questions about his life. About those things he wanted to avoid completely, while he could.
No, the barkeep’s attitude was just fine by him. He’d been planning on drinking up and heading for one of the bars he knew. One of those he’d been heading to when he was caught in the downpour. Bars where he might run into somebody he knew, someone who’d want to talk. That suddenly felt like a terrible idea. He’d stay right where he was. In the dry. In the warm. And in the silence.
* * *
Bill jumped as a hand clapped down on his shoulder, dragging him out of the light doze he’d fallen into.
“Time to head home,” said the barkeep.
Bill blinked blearily, looking around, taking a few seconds to remember where he was. The bar around him was empty now. Other customers had come and gone during his time at the bar. He’d hoped they wouldn’t pay him any attention, and he’d been in luck. Not one of them had even said hello. But they were all gone now. No wonder the barkeep had woken him up.
“Will you get home okay?” asked the barkeep. “Do you need a cab?”
“No, I’ll be fine. My place is only a few streets from here. I’ll get home safely.”
“Yes. You will.”
It was slightly strange how the barkeep said that. As if it was a statement, rather than a wish. But then he probably just wanted Bill gone.
Bill quickly pulled on his coat, feeling embarrassed. It wasn’t like him to fall asleep in a bar. It wasn’t like him to sleep anywhere in public. But while he was embarrassed, he didn’t feel as anxious as he’d have expected. He didn’t feel anyone would have taken advantage of him while he slept, stolen from him or the like. Besides, with everything else that had happened to him, falling asleep on the bar was the least of his worries.
He double checked he’d still got his wallet and his keys, and hadn’t somehow managed to lose them somewhere in the bar, and weighed up whether he should visit the toilets one more time. He decided not. He could last until he got home, and it seemed he was already keeping the barkeep from finishing for the day.
Bill pushed himself up off the stool, then held onto the bar for a few moments as everything span around him. Once things had mostly settled down he nodded to the barkeep, then headed for the door, taking a more or less direct route.
He stepped out of the bar and discovered the rain had, if anything, got even worse. He hunched himself over in his coat, and quickly made his way towards his small flat which was only a few streets away.
His flat? Well, for a little longer. The rent was paid for another two months. After that… well, after that he didn’t care. Not at the moment. He was drunk, tired, and more relaxed than he had been in a long time.
He reached his flat, managed to let himself in on the third attempt, and closed the door behind him. He was particularly glad his was a ground floor flat so he didn’t have to tackle any stairs. He made it to the toilet, then all the way to the sofa, sat on it for just a few moments to take his shoes off… and fell fast asleep.
* * *
Slurg watched from behind the bar as the human left through the door. And as the human walked down the street, Slurg continued to watch him, following at a distance.
Not the same part of Slurg that had been standing behind the bar, and not either of the parts who were serving customers in the rear area, which was still bustling with activity. A part of Slurg that had slipped out a little earlier, just before the human had been woken up, and was waiting to watch him once he left.
Slurg had meant what he said. The human would get home safely. Slurg didn’t want a mugging or worse to bring the police sniffing around the bar, asking questions. And now he knew where the human lived.
The human hadn’t seemed to notice any strangeness in the patrons who’d come through the bar whilst he was drinking. Humans had a strange way of not seeing what was right in front of them when it was outside of what they’d expected. But they also had a habit of then piecing together tiny details they had noticed and seeing the true picture. Or a warped version of it which still meant trouble.
When the human made it into his flat and shut the door behind him, Slurg relaxed a little. With any luck he’d never see the human again.
* * *
Bill woke close to midday. His head ached, his mouth tasted so awful he couldn’t think of a suitable description for it, and somehow he’d managed to end up in his bed at some point in the night. He was still fully dressed… but at least he’d made it to bed.
He had vague memories of having stirred from sleep at least four or five times already, but turning over and drifting off each time.
Not this time. This time the competition was between staying in bed and the pressure in his bladder, and his bladder was most definitely going to win.
That got him upright and moving. After taking care of what he had to, he splashed as much cold water on his face as it took to be able to stare blearily at his reflection.
He didn’t remember much of the night before, but he felt he’d enjoyed it. Now it was daytime, and that meant making something to eat and facing the unpleasant task of trying to find a new job. One his experience suited him for. And one that would allow him to make enough money to stay at least slightly above the poverty line.
Even as he had the thought, he knew he wouldn’t be looking. He’d spent four weeks trying to find a new job, ever since he’d been laid off. And that had been the third job he’d been let go from in the last year. It had been almost impossible to find the most recent job, and then it had only lasted two months.
Not because he wasn’t good at his job. He was good! That was the reason he’d managed to get the last role. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good at his job, it was that his job was fast vanishing.
For over thirty years he’d worked hard as an advertising specialist. He knew the people of the city, the different groups, ages, and interests. He’d spent those decades getting to know them, learning what they liked and didn’t like, so he could sell them things.
And not in a dodgy used car salesman kind of way. He didn’t want to sell people things they didn’t want. What he did was make sure they got to hear about the products they did want. That was true selling. Not conning people into buying things they didn’t really want or need.
He’d been good at it. Really good at it. People had queued up for his services, and while he’d made good money, he’d mostly worked for the enjoyment. There was something about helping a company succeed by letting it reach the customers who really needed its services or goods that always made him feel good.
Times had changed. Advertising was different now. It was driven by social media, by influencers, and wasn’t targeted at the people of just his city. Adverts were targeted at people across the country or even the world. His local knowledge, his ability to put exactly the right product in front of exactly the right people in the city, had become less and less useful.
Brute force advertising, and targeting based on huge amounts of data harvested on what people used the Internet and social media for, meant the same results could be achieved for a tenth of the cost or less, and then scaled to be country wide.
Well, nearly the same results. The matching of products to people was never as good as he’d managed. People were being sold things they didn’t really need or want but could still be convinced to buy. Those paying for the advertising seemed to care less and less about that. Maybe because the customers were faceless to them, and spread over the entire world rather than localised to the city.
Bill had managed to survive for a few years on the dwindling supply of people who really cared how the advertising was handled. But that supply of people had gotten smaller and smaller as people retired, died, or were put out of business by those using the new methods of advertising.
Even if Bill did find another job now, which seemed damned unlikely, he’d be lucky if it lasted a few weeks. What was the point in putting that much time and energy into something he knew would fail.
No, better to enjoy the last of the money he had. And then… well, he really had no idea. But sooner or later he was going to face that situation. And he was damned if he was going to eke out an existence for as long as possible. If he was going out, then he was going out with a bang!
Having decided that, he washed up properly, got changed, and headed out. His first stop was to grab a few slices of pizza at a cheap diner just a few doors away from his flat. Then, with nothing else to do, he headed for the bar where he’d spent the previous evening. He couldn’t really have explained why, it just felt like the right thing to do.
* * *
Slurg looked up sharply as the door opened and a human walked in. He relaxed slightly when he realised it was the same human as the day before. At least this was an existing problem and not a new one.
Slurg had hoped the human wouldn’t return. He’d certainly hoped he wouldn’t return so early in the day. But here he was. And despite his better judgement, somehow Slurg didn’t have the heart to turn the human away.
* * *
Bill walked across to the bar, the room still as dark as the night before despite the daylight outside. It was the same barkeep as the night before, and he looked no more welcoming. But he didn’t object as Bill took a stool at the bar. The same stool he’d occupied the night before. Somehow that felt right.
Bill ordered a beer to start. It was too early to start on the whiskey, and with beers he could make his money last a little longer.
* * *
There was something peaceful about the bar, though Bill couldn’t put his finger on what. Time passed there, he could feel it doing so, but it didn’t race past. There was a rhythm. People came. People went. In a strange way it felt as if far more came than left, but the bar never became busy.
The barkeep never seemed to leave, and also seemed to have little to do. Serving the few other patrons didn’t take much of his time. Other than that he seemed to be keeping an eye on Bill. One that wasn’t exactly hostile… just wary.
The day slowly passed. At some point Bill switched from beers to whiskey. This time he managed to stay awake until it became clear it was time for him to head home. He thanked the barkeep, still the same person, and headed out.
It was strange, but even on the walk home the feeling from the bar stayed with him. He felt safe. Protected. It was silly, and probably dangerous, but it was a feeling he couldn’t have shaken off even if he’d wanted to.
* * *
Slurg nodded to himself as he saw the human, Bill he’d introduced himself as once the whiskeys started to hit, go through his flat door and close it behind him.
One aspect of Slurg. Another was still holding a would-be mugger against a wall, the mugger’s own six-inch knife pressed against their throat. Bill hadn’t even noticed the mugger slipping up behind him, and Slurg… well, he felt responsible for Bill. After all, he had allowed the human to drink all afternoon and evening, so he was partly responsible for Bill’s not being aware of his surroundings on the way home.
It wasn’t an approach he would generally take with humans. Normally he’d chase them out if they returned on a second day. But in this case it felt right, and it wasn’t as if there was anyone else working at the bar to second-guess him. That was one of the major benefits about being a hydra. Many bodies, only one mind.
Others sometimes thought that if anyone could have a decent argument with himself it would be a hydra, but the opposite was true. If anything Slurg was certain other beings spent more time arguing with themselves than he ever did.
With Bill safely home, Slurg allowed the mugger to slide down against the fence. He slammed the knife into a fence post, so hard it was buried four inches deep. The mugger would not be getting that out again, and judging by the whimpering he wouldn’t be attempting any more late-night muggings either. Not for a good while. That was fine by Slurg.
His two aspects, one by the mugger and the other near Bill’s door, turned and headed back to the bar. Slurg wondered whether he’d see the human again the next day. He was surprised to find that the idea wasn’t completely unpleasant.
* * *
Bill returned the next day, once again grabbing some pizza on the way and starting with beers. As the afternoon turned to evening he switched to whiskey again. And by ten at night he was more than merry.
He was also realising he was going through his money a lot faster than he’d planned. At this rate he had enough for another five or six visits to the bar, then he would be totally broke.
He shrugged. That was a problem for the morning. For the moment, he was more than happy to stay where he was. As he finished his whiskey the barkeep set another down, as always happened now, ready to go. Bill smiled at the barman, whose name he still didn’t know, and reached for his wallet.
“That one is on the house,” said the barkeep.
Bill stared back in surprise, then he smiled.
“That’s most kind of you! Thank you!”
The barkeep grunted and moved on. Bill sat there, still smiling but slightly confused. He hadn’t seen any signs of the barman more than grudgingly tolerating him. Maybe that was as much sign of liking someone the barkeep would ever show. He’d certainly met people like that working in bars before.
He got halfway through his drink before nature called and he took himself off to the toilets. He was struck, as he was every time he went in, at how clean and well-kept they were. They were as dimly lit as the rest of the bar, but there were no unpleasant smells and everything was pristinely clean.
That was probably partly due to the fact there were so few patrons, and oddly he couldn’t remember ever seeing any other patron going to the toilets. Then again, he really didn’t pay the others any attention and it was hard to see in the dim lighting of the bar. Which suited him just fine.
He returned, sat down with his drink, and did a double take at movement on the stool to his left. There was someone there, close enough he could see them fairly well despite the dim lighting. At least… he thought he could see them. Because what he was seeing was a very short humanoid creature. Extremely short. No more than five or six inches tall, but with the proportions of a human adult, not a baby.
The bar stool the creature sat on had been jacked up, allowing it to sit and drink from its bottle of beer which was resting on the bar. The creature had no problem lifting a bottle as tall as it was and slowly drinking.
Bill tried to study it from the corner of his eye without staring too much, then finally shrugged. He had been drinking an awful lot for three days straight now. He’d never had hallucinations before from alcohol, but what else could it possibly be? It wasn’t like the barkeep was showing any awareness of the creature, or surprise at seeing something like that there.
No, this was clearly just a hallucination. That was fine. He knew the perfect cure… he knocked back the rest of his whiskey, and asked the barkeep for another.
* * *
Slurg relaxed as Bill finished a whiskey and asked for another without commenting on his new companion. This wasn’t a situation Slurg had expected. Normally most of his patrons stuck to the much larger rear area of the bar, especially those who couldn’t easily pass for human, but the maker elves were cantankerous at the best of times, and worse when they’d been drinking.
This particular elf had decided it was going to drink in the front bar, and nothing would change its mind. That would be fine normally, but today? With a human here? That could be disastrous.
There was no doubt the human had noticed the elf. He would have to have been unconscious not to. Yet he seemed to be paying the elf almost no attention. That was fine by Slurg, though he was slightly curious over the lack of reaction.
It seemed as if the human had either decided the elf wasn’t really there, or he was so drunk he just didn’t care. Still, the situation would need to be watched closely.
* * *
Bill got through another three whiskeys, all of them doubles, in a short time. Still the creature beside him remained stubbornly real seeming. He hadn’t seen the barman interact with the creature, or provide it any more beers, but then he had headed to the toilets twice so might have missed that. He’d gone not so much because he needed to, as to give his hallucination a chance to quietly vanish whilst unobserved.
Each time he’d returned the creature was still there. Not showing any sign it had noticed him. Not reacting in any way. Just sitting there slowly drinking.
There was a sudden massive crash somewhere in the bar, followed by shouts and yells. A lot of shouts and yells. None of them coming from any part of the bar he was aware of. Bill felt a strange sense of dislocation, as if the room suddenly grew much larger than it had been. He couldn’t see anything more, but the amount of noise made it clear there was far more space than he’d realised, maybe in another room with open doors leading into it.
“That’s torn it,” said the creature beside Bill, in a surprisingly deep voice considering its size. It was still quite high-pitched, but not shrill. Bill glanced at it in surprise.
“Why?” he found himself asking, forgetting he was talking to a hallucination.
“For a start, they must have broken the ward of silence. Slurg really doesn’t like the noise from the back room filtering through to here. I’m guessing that’s what we just heard smashing.”
The creature gestured to the barkeep, who was fast vanishing into the darkness at the rear of the room, where Bill had previously thought there was only a solid wall. Bill realised it was the first time he’d seen the barkeep leave the bar.
“I hadn’t caught his name,” said Bill.
“Not surprising. He’s always cautious around people like you.”
“People like me?”
“Yes. Humans. Normal humans, that is. No offence, but you’re all mighty strange about things outside of your normal everyday experiences.”
“I… I guess so.”
“You seem alright. I’ve seen you in here the last couple of nights and you’ve not caused any trouble. You look like someone busy drowning their sorrows.”
Bill shrugged. Maybe he was talking to a hallucination, but it was polite enough. Even friendly. It seemed rude to just ignore it.
“I am,” he said.
“Thought so. Something about the way you’re sitting, and how you drink. Just like me and the rest of the maker elves. Though quite a few of my kind have a tendency to get violent when they get too drunk. That’s why I came out of there. I could see it building and I didn’t want any part of it.”
“That’s what’s going on back there? There’s a fight? Involving others like… like you?”
The creature sighed, and nodded.
“That’s what having no hope can do to you. We never used to be like this. Not in the old days. Not back when we had a purpose. We had a job, and we loved doing it. We were happy then. Now… now all we’ve got is the alcohol.”
“Tell me about it,” said Bill. “Until the money runs out. Then… then I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Maybe talking to his hallucination wasn’t such a great idea after all. It was reflecting back his own thoughts, including the fact that soon enough he’d actually have to face up to what was coming.
“Oh that sucks,” said the creature. “At least we don’t have to worry about that. Slurg won’t see us out on the streets, or without a chance to have something to drink. That’s the only thing that’s kept us alive.”
The creature drained his drink, and set it down. Bill was still marvelling at the strength it showed to lift even an empty beer bottle the same size as it was.
At that point the barkeep, Slurg, returned. He stared at Bill, studying him. No doubt wondering why he was talking to an empty barstool. Bill decided he didn’t care. He drained his own glass, and smiled at the barkeep.
“Say Slurg… is that your name? I’m sorry I haven’t asked before. Could you get us both another drink? A double whiskey for me, and whatever my new friend is having.”
The barkeep continued staring at him for several long seconds. Bill started to feel uncomfortable, realising what a ridiculous name Slurg would be, not to mention the fact he was ordering drinks for an invisible… being. The barkeep must be making his mind up on how best to throw Bill out, reclassifying him from a harmless drinker to a slightly insane drunk.
Then the barkeep nodded. He made another whiskey and pulled out a bottle of beer, cracking the cap off. He set the whiskey down in front of Bill, and the beer in front of the creature.
“No charge,” said the barkeep. “They don’t have to pay for their drinks anyway, but that was a nice gesture. Your drink is free too.”
“I…… thank you.”
The barkeep nodded and moved away. He seemed more relaxed to Bill than before, but then Bill forgot about it and to turned stare at the creature next to him. The creature he was starting to realise might actually be real.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to be rude but…… I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you before. Did you say you were a Maker Elf?”
“That’s right. That’s what we’ve always been called. It doesn’t really mean anything any more, but it’s still our name.”
“And you used to have work? Work you really enjoyed, I mean?”
“Aye, we did.”
There was a wistful air to the creature’s words, Bill thought. It swigged back some more of their drinks, then carried on speaking.
“Makers Elves we were. There never were a lot of us. Maybe a few thousand at most, but we’re down to under sixty now. Most of us have just… given up. Faded away. The rest of us just keep on drinking to numb the pain and emptiness. It doesn’t work forever. We’ll all fade away eventually. There’s nothing to keep us here.
“What was it you used to do?”
“After dark, when a shop was silent, we used to go in and help. Not just anyone. We specialised. We used to help cobblers. You know, shoemakers and shoe repairers. And always the ones who were struggling to make ends meet. The ones who worked hard but never seemed to be able to make enough to feed themselves and their families once the bills were paid.
“We’d slip into… alright, we’d break into their shops overnight, while they were sleeping. I say break in, but we never caused any damage and we never did any harm. Quite the opposite. We helped them out. No matter how good they were at making shoes, we were far better. The shoes we made looked better, weighed less, lasted longer, and brought more joy to their new owners. Not that the shoemakers we helped weren’t talented… we were just even better.”
“I’ve heard tales about you!” said Bill. “I mean, I never thought they were real. But when I was young I heard stories about you.”
“Yeah, the stories got around. They always do. We were prized really highly by those we helped. We did a damn good job, I don’t mind telling you.”
“So what changed?”
“What changed? Have you seen the things people wear on their feet these days? At best they’re poorly made. Shoddy. At worst…” The small creature shook its head. “They’re truly awful. And none of them fit properly. That’s what you get when they’re all mass produced, made at the cheapest possible cost, and people have to find the shoes that come closest to fitting them. Even the most expensive shoes have no love or attention put into them.
“It’s enough to make you cry. You’d think that in a world with such awful shoes people would crave the quality we provided. But no. Everyone wants it cheap. They want what’s fashionable. They want what their friends are wearing. They don’t want individual, bespoke, shoes like we used to make.”
Bill nodded glumly. He could certainly understand. It was very similar to what had happened to his own career.
“One day everyone wants a quality product,” he said. “Next day most people do, but not everyone. Soon after it’s just a few people who are going for quality. And even they dry up in time.”
The small elf looked up at him sharply, studied him, then nodded.
“Aye. That’s the way it goes. Something similar happened to you?”
“Yes,” said Bill. “Mine was a service rather than a product, but it was just the same.”
“Well, I won’t say I’m pleased to meet you. I’d rather neither of us were in this boat. But from one craftsman to another, here’s to the old days.”
“The old days,” said Bill, clinking his glass against the elf’s bottle of beer. “I’m Bill, by the way.”
The elf took another swig from his beer, and Bill did the same with his drink. Before long they had both finished, and just as they did the barkeep placed a fresh drink before each of them.
“Drinks are on the house tonight,” he told Bill.
Bill stared at him, not sure what to say, then just nodded and said thanks.
The barkeep nodded, then moved away.
“Slurg approves of you,” said Thomas. “There’s not many of your kind he gives even one free drink to, let alone a whole evening’s worth. No offence meant by your kind.”
Bill smiled. “None taken.”
* * *
Slurg watched as Bill and Thomas spent the next several hours drinking together. They didn’t talk much, but when they did it was clear they had a rapport. Slurg was pleased he’d made the decision to allow Bill to stay.
Of all the maker elves who were left, Thomas was the furthest along the along the path to simply giving up and fading away. And with maker elves, fading away was not a euphemism. It was the literal truth. When maker elves gave up, they spent a few days becoming ever more translucent, and then simply vanished from existence.
Slurg had seen it happen to too many of them already, and it was happening more and more often. He doubted spending time with Bill would make much difference to when Thomas did go, but at least it was a brief spark of brightness in the elf’s dark existence. That was more than worth an evening’s worth of free drinks for Bill.
* * *
Bill couldn’t really have told anyone the details of what he’d discussed with Thomas. There had been commiseration about the loss of the old days, and discussions about the finer points of each of their skills. Mostly they’d spent time in companionable silence. It was a long time since Bill had spent time with anyone who truly understood the craft and art of what he did, and while Thomas’s talents lay in a different direction he was definitely a soulmate.
The hours kept on passing, and while the area of the bar they were in was still very quiet, plenty of noise was spilling over from the section he’d never seen. He wasn’t curious about it, he simply accepted that it was… somewhat different.
And why would he want to go in there? It sounded louder, rowdier, and that wasn’t something he wanted. He had what he needed right here. The comfortable bar stool, a great companion, and a barkeep who kept the supply of drinks coming. The fact they were free drinks was the icing on the cake.
Bill was vaguely aware of people coming and going, the door opening and closing when they did, but never paid any of them any attention. Then, the door opened again… and everything changed.
It felt like electricity had jolted up his spine. He was very drunk, but he found himself sitting as upright as he could manage. He glanced towards the door at the same time as Thomas did. There was a young woman coming through the door… but it was more than just walking into the room. It was as if she’d made a grand entrance. As if the room had been waiting for her to arrive.
“Would you look at that,” said Thomas, his voice awed.
Bill was. He was completely enraptured by the woman, and he couldn’t have explained why. She was pretty enough, that was for sure, but too young for him to be interested in. And this wasn’t just the feeling of seeing someone attractive. This was physical. Like something smashing into his chest, or grabbing hold of his entire body.
“Absolutely beautiful,” whispered Thomas.
“Yes,” Bill whispered, as the young woman started to cross the room.
“Have you ever seen something so well put together?” asked Thomas.
Bill frowned, the effect broken slightly. That… well, that really wasn’t the way he would ever describe any woman. It seemed damn disrespectful.
“Hey Jadra!” shouted Thomas. “Get over here and let me have a look at that pair!”
Bill turned to Thomas. New friend or not, that was no way to ever talk about someone. And he was going to make that very clear!
“Thomas!” the young woman called back, before Bill could say anything. Her voice sent a chill down Bill’s spine. “Do you like them? I only got them today!”
“They’re wonderful! Let me get a look at them.”
Now Bill was completely confused. And finding his chest a little tight as the young woman walked towards him and Thomas.
Suddenly a heavy hand clamped on Bill’s shoulder, spinning him around on the stool. He found himself facing the barkeep.
“Here, drink this,” said Slurg.
He slammed a glass down in front of Thomas. The liquid within was smoky black, swirling and sparkling.
“What is it?” asked Thomas.
“It’s what you need to drink before you end up drooling on the floor and embarrassing yourself,” said the barkeep firmly.
Bill could feel the compulsion to turn round and stare at the young woman. It was hard to fight it, but at the same time he knew it wasn’t right. She was at least twenty years younger than him, maybe thirty. And while he’d certainly had his heart beat faster when talking to women he found very attractive, this felt like something totally different.
Before he could change his mind he grabbed the drink, put it to his lips, and forced it down his throat in one. He expected to gag, but found it surprisingly sweet and pleasant, despite its appearance.
Nothing seemed to change for a few seconds, and then the drink hit his stomach. It was as if something had been holding him in a vice and the pressure had suddenly vanished. He shivered, glanced over his shoulder at the young lady, and found while she was certainly still attractive something had changed. The compulsion, the need, the desperation, to find what he could do to make her happy had faded.
“What the hell was in that?” he asked the barkeep. “And why did I need it?”
The barkeep eyed him for a moment, clearly weighing up what to say, then spoke.
“Well, you’ve met the Makers Elves and you’re not stupid. You know the world isn’t quite as you always thought. Humans aren’t the only inhabitants. Now Jadra… well, she has an effect on people. Especially on humans. It’s not her fault. In fact, she’d be very happy to get rid of it, but she’s stuck with it. It comes with being a siren.”
Bill frowned. “A siren? Like on a police car? I don’t understand.”
Slurg sighed and shook his head. “What do they teach people these days? No. A siren. Like in the tales sailors used to tell. Luring them onto the rocks to wreck their ships. Things like that.”
“That sort of siren? I thought that was just…” He paused, then shook his head and smiled. “Just a story,” he said wryly. “There’s a lot more to the world than I ever realised, isn’t there?”
“Mayhap there is. Anyway, now you’ve had that drink you won’t end up drooling down your front as you talk to her.”
“Thank you!” said Bill, really meaning it. He hadn’t been happy at all with the way his mind and his body had been reacting.
He turned, and found that Thomas had hopped off his stool and was down on the floor, inspecting… the girl’s shoes! That’s what he’d been talking about!
“You really like them?” asked the young woman. Jadra.
“I really do,” said Thomas. They’re amazing. The craftsmanship is incredible. Someone has put some real love and attention into these.”
“I know! I found them at the craft market. I spent twenty minutes talking to the woman who made them about how she put them together.”
“Just incredible,” said Thomas. “I didn’t know anyone still made shoes like this. Or bought them.”
“There were several stalls with wonderful shoes down at the craft market,” said Jadra.
“Really?” asked Thomas. His eyes were alight. “People are creating these? That’s incredible! That means there might be work for us to do again! If the people who made these shoes are hard up then we can help them. Hell, we could stretch the meaning of hard up. We can make shoes for them which are even better than this. We’ll have a chance to get our lives back again!”
Jadra’s face fell, and Bill felt sure he knew what was coming.
“They… the only people who make these,” said Jadra. “They make them because they love to. They wouldn’t want anyone else making them, or sell shoes someone else made. The woman I was speaking to was telling me how she worked so hard on these and how pleased she was.
“They don’t do it for money as such. I think half the reason they sell them is because otherwise their houses would just be full of the things they’d made. I’m sorry, Thomas, I didn’t think. I didn’t mean to get your hopes up.”
“It’s alright,” said Thomas, though the life had gone out of his voice again. “The world has moved on. I’m really glad to have seen them, though. Even if we can’t be involved, at least I know there are still some people who make wonderful shoes, and a few people who appreciate them.”
“I’m sorry Thomas, I really am.”
“Ah, just ignore me,” said Thomas. He scrambled up onto his stool again, though he was so agile it was more as if he’d glided up it. “Go on, Jadra,” he said. “Go meet the others. Really, I’m pleased I saw the shoes. Just to warn you though, some of my fellow elves are well into the starting to fight stage. You might want to take your shoes off and pop them in your bag.”
“I will. Have a good evening.”
“You too, Jadra.”
She moved off, and the barkeep put fresh drinks down for Thomas and for Bill. A normal whiskey this time. Thomas drained most of his beer in one go, but Bill drank his whiskey more slowly, pondering what he’d just seen. Not about Jadra, incredible though she and her effect had been. His mind was working in different ways. Soon he felt he had to speak.
“You can make shoes as good as those were?” he asked carefully.
“As good as? No. Better!” replied Thomas.
“Then… forgive me if I’m asking something stupid. Why don’t you?”
“Why don’t I what?”
“Why don’t you make shoes better than that?”
“You heard her. The people who make them don’t want help.”
Bill frowned, then realised there was a complete disconnect in the conversation.
“No. Not help other people. Not make them for other people. Why don’t you just make the shoes? Then you can sell them. Or give them away. Whatever makes you feel best.”
Thomas stared at him for long seconds, then smiled weakly and shook his head.
“We can’t. It doesn’t work like that.”
“But it could change. It could work like that.”
“He means what he says,” said the barkeep, putting two more drinks down. “I think you’re well aware that you’ve strayed out of things you normally know about. Well, this is definitely something beyond what you’re used to. There’s magic at work. Magic which lets Thomas and his kind create amazing shoes, but magic which also binds them in certain ways.
“This is one of them. They can’t create the shoes themselves. They can only work on pairs of shoes that someone was already making or planning on making. With those, Thomas and his kind can help and they make them far better than they could ever have been, but they can’t just make shoes for no reason.”
“That seems… strange,” said Bill. He just managed avoid saying ridiculous.
“It is,” said Thomas. “But it’s how it is for us. Did you think it hadn’t occurred to us to try make the shoes ourselves? We tried. It never worked. We couldn’t even get them started. It’s like Jadra and her powers. It doesn’t matter how much you want to change it, you can’t.”
“That’s a damn cruel way for things to be,” said Bill. “But the people who buy those sorts of shoes are like Jadra. They buy them because they love them. Isn’t that enough?”
“No. And it is the way it is. I meant what I told Jadra, though, I am pleased to have learnt people still create shoes like that. Yes, the hope was nice while it lasted, but just knowing the things we love to create aren’t completely gone from this world… that’s a good feeling. I can be a little happier now as I fade away.”
Bill wanted to argue with him, wanted to tell Thomas that there was hope, but he couldn’t think of any valid objection. Yet he was sure there must be a solution. There just had to be!
* * *
They kept drinking for hours, but while Bill still found spending time with Thomas enjoyable something kept itching for his attention. He just couldn’t work out what. Not until he was returning from yet another visit to the toilets. With the drinks he’d downed that was a regular necessity.
Then it hit him and he stopped so suddenly he almost tripped over. He hurried back to the bar, dropped onto his seat, and took a swig from the fresh drink Slurg had left for him.
“Thomas,” he said. “When you help someone by making the shoes for them, how good do they have to be?”
“I don’t understand,” said Thomas. “What do you mean how good?”
“As cobblers. How good do they have to be? I mean, do they have to be fairly good already? Or just okay?”
“Well… that’s not it really. They’ve just got to be cobblers.”
“Really?” said Bill, excitement building. “And… and what defines a cobbler?”
“Well, they make shoes, of course.”
“So you watch over them, make sure they’ve made a few pairs of shoes, judge them as worthy?”
“No. They’re just… just someone who is trying to make shoes.”
“Trying to make shoes? Or making shoes?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, say for example I looked up some instructions and had a vague idea how to make shoes. And I wanted to make them. I was going to make them and sell them. Would that make me a cobbler? I mean, I’ve never made shoes so it might take me a long time to even make my first pair. They certainly won’t be very good at all. Probably not even good enough to sell, but I’d be trying to make them to sell. I certainly need the money. So, if I did that, would you be able to do your magic and help me?”
Thomas frowned at him.
“You’re going to become a cobbler?”
“Well, I’m not saying…”
Bill stopped speaking as the barkeep’s hand landed on his shoulder. Bull turned toward him and met Slurg’s intense gaze.
“It’s magic,” said Slurg. “If you’re trying to do what I think you are, remember that it’s magic. Words matter. The wrong words could break something so it can never be fixed. Now, are you telling Thomas you’re about to become a cobbler?”
Bill opened his mouth to answer, to say no, then paused. Slurg’s gaze was very intense. Bill thought everything through. He had been about to tell Thomas no he wasn’t becoming a cobbler but ask if it could work if he did.
But Slurg was making it very clear that the words mattered. If Bill said he wasn’t a cobbler and wasn’t going to become one, would that be a binding statement as far as the magic went? And really, what was a cobbler other than someone who was making shoes?
“Yes,” said Bill. “I am going to become a cobbler. I’m going to look up how to do it tomorrow, once I get over my hangover, and order the supplies in. And then I’m going to try and…” He broke off as Slurg cleared his throat.
“And then I’m going to start making shoes,” Bill said. “And I’m going to make them so that I can sell them. Because I will be a cobbler.”
Thomas’s eyes sparkled, and he was almost vibrating on his stool.
“You’re going to be a cobbler. One who… might appreciate some help? Rather than wanting to do every part yourself?”
“Oh, definitely! Because while I want to make shoes, the most important thing is that I have the best shoes possible to sell to people. To make people happy. So if I did receive a little help to make them better than I might be able to, and faster, then that would be absolutely perfect.”
“And you’d sell them at the craft market?”
Bill went to say yes, then paused.
“No. No I don’t think that would be fair, because the people there are doing it… they’re doing it because they love creating the shoes, and people are buying the tale of how they were created as much as the shoes themselves.”
Thomas sank down, and Bill could feel the barkeep glaring at him. That was fine. He knew what he was doing now. He was into his territory.
“No,” Bill continued. “I won’t sell them at the craft market. But there are lots of places I can sell them online. To people who would absolutely love to get such wonderful shoes. People all over the world. Even though I say it myself, I’m pretty damn good at advertising. I think I could end up building up a really large business. Except… well, I can try and work really hard to keep up with the supply of shoes I need to make, but it will be hard. Unless I had some help. Maybe a lot of help.”
“A lot of help…” breathed Thomas. “Selling wonderful shoes to people all over the world who’ll love and appreciate them.”
He looked as if he was in a trance, and when Bill glanced towards Slurg the barkeep nodded, and even cracked a slight smile.
“But… you wouldn’t just be selling the shoes? You’d really be a cobbler?” asked Thomas.
Bill could feel the moment slipping away. Thomas couldn’t let it go. He needed Bill to be a cobbler, but Bill could feel the lie of it. He couldn’t really be a cobbler. Could he?
“Of course he will,” said Slurg. “Because he’s about to setup his new business as a cobbler. In fact, he’s going to set the company up right now. Aren’t you Bill?”
“What? But? Yes! I am! Though I would need a lawyer to do that.”
“Setting up a company? As a cobbler?” said Thomas. “Yes. That would definitely make you a real cobbler. And that would mean… well, it might mean some folk could slip in overnight and help you out. Brilliant! So we just need a lawyer to get the papers drawn up, then you can start tomorrow and we… um… the helpers… can start tomorrow night!”
Bill laughed, and shrugged.
“I’m definitely up for it, but I’m not sure where we’ll find a lawyer at this time of night.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Slurg. “It just so happens that one of those drinking in the back room is a lawyer.”
“Of course!” said Thomas. “Vincent is here, isn’t he? He’ll definitely be able to sort out the paperwork.”
“Vincent? You’ve got a lawyer here? One who’ll be happy working at this time of night?”
Thomas burst out laughing, and when Bill turned his head towards Slurg, the barkeep smiled… then nodded over Bill’s shoulder.
Bill turned and did a double take. Walking towards him was… Slurg. He swung his head back again, and Slurg was still behind the bar. He swung his head the other way and Slurg was coming towards him. And with him was a man dressed in an immaculately turned out suit.
For a moment the answer was obvious. Slurg had a twin. Then Bill remembered everything else that had happened, and glanced back at the Slurg behind the bar.
“You aren’t twins, are you?” he asked.
Slurg smiled. “I like you. You’re quick on the uptake, but you don’t panic or judge. No, we’re not twins. We are just Slurg. We are… well, one creature in many bodies. That’s the best way to think of us.”
“It’s certainly a better description than his official name,” said the man in the suit, stopping by Bill. “People hear the word hydra and get completely the wrong idea. They start thinking of snake heads attached to a single body.”
Bill smiled weakly. A hydra! A creature with many heads. Of course! That probably meant there were more versions of Slurg around. Somehow the thought was… not even unsettling. It just seemed to be par for the course tonight.
“So you must be Vincent,” said Bill. “The…”
“The vampire, yes,” interrupted Vincent. “I do get tired of being introduced like that.”
“I… I was going to say the lawyer,” said Bill. “You’re a vampire?”
Vincent laughed and shook his head.
“There’s no denying it now, is there? Yes, but I won’t suck your blood. Not even as much as most lawyers do. Especially as you are helping the Maker…”
Slurg… no… both Slurgs, cleared their throats noisily and glared at Vincent.
“Forgive me, especially as you are so keen to go into business as a cobbler. I have no doubt that you will find more assistance than you might have expected. Now, I don’t have my briefcase with me, but despite the appearance of the bar, Slurg does have a mighty fine Internet connection here, a laptop he’s happy to lend out, and a printer. Give me five minutes and I’ll have your company set up. Then you will be, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a cobbler. So… what do you want to call your company?”
“Oh. Umm… I know! If the name isn’t already taken then how about Bill’s Magical Shoe Emporium?”
Vincent laughed again.
“I’m fairly sure that name hasn’t been taken. Even if it has, don’t worry, I’ll find a way to make sure you can still use it. I am a very good lawyer!”
* * *
Three weeks later, at the end of a long day spent mostly marketing and partly on making shoes, Bill shut up his new shop. It was only a street away from the bar, and was large enough to be bright and airy. It needed to be to set off the amazing shoes he found in the back room every morning. Well, close to lunchtime if he was honest. Both he and the maker elves had a tendency to be in the bar drinking until late, though some of them turned up later… after visiting the shop.
Bill walked through into the back room and looked at the several pairs of shoes he’d created himself. They were rough to the point of being almost unusable, but they were shoes. And he’d made them. He had no illusions that he would ever be able to match the skills of Thomas and the other elves, but it was curiously satisfying to finish each pair, and they were getting better. Slowly.
Bill checked everything was secure, then locked up the shop, smiling as he did so. No amount of locking up would keep Thomas and the other maker elves out, but that suited Bill and the elves just fine.
He needed to keep human intruders out. There were enough materials in the shop to make the several hundred shoes which they had orders for, and boxes for them to go in as well. Business was booming, and the elves were happy again now they could do what they lived for.
Bill had money. Not only enough to pay his bills, but he’d been able to move to a better apartment. Though still one very close to the shop… and the bar. So much had changed in the past few weeks. He had a job that was satisfying, both the selling and the occasional making. He had a local bar where he was always welcomed. And he had friends who understood the value of craftsmanship. Though of all the maker elves, Thomas was still the one Bill spent most time drinking with. Apart from anything else, most of the others could still be rather… rowdy.
Bill stepped out onto the side-walk, and smiled at the one other thing he now had. On his feet he had the most comfortable pair of shoes he’d ever worn in his life. A gift from Thomas, one that made Bill smile every time he looked down at them. Life was good. For him and the elves.
Then he checked the time, and quickly made his way to grab some pizza on the way to the bar. If he didn’t hurry he’d miss the first round… and trying to catch up with the maker elves once they got drinking was nigh on impossible! He’d tried once already… and he never wanted a hangover like that again!