(Posted for my short story archives, in full.)

jabberwocky

“The Jabberwock are lethal creatures, perfect for guardians of treasure. Vicious and cunning, there is no deadlier foe,” the shopkeeper said.

The sorcerer considered, staring thoughtfully around the magic shop. He’d browsed thoroughly before he came to the counter and summoned the shopkeeper to ask for his available hoard-guards. No sense in patronizing a poorly stocked shop, after all. So he’d seen all the crystals glimmering in the dim light, the murky potions swirling in glass stoppered jars, dry and yellowing bones, herbs hanging from the rafters, and odd objects lurking in shadowy corners, but he studied them all again.

“I don’t know,” he said finally. “Aren’t the Jabberwock a little… old-fashioned?”

“Jabberwock have never gone out of style, sir,” the shopkeeper said, a hint of wounded pride in his tone. “But if they don’t suit your needs… We have dragons, trolls, and ogres. And for the subtle shopper… sirens, basilisks, and banshees.”

“No, my treasure is flammable, no fire-breathers. And no one will respect me if I set a siren on my hoard. I suppose I’ll take a Jabberwock.”

“Excellent choice,” the shopkeeper pulled out a beautifully embossed silver flute from a drawer behind his counter. Carrying it, he walked over to the shop’s single window, a large, shuttered opening that dominated a wall of the store.

He threw the shutters wide, the late afternoon sun streaming inside in brilliant swathes. “You play it thus,” he said, and blew three notes, slow and steady, twisting to show the sorcerer his finger placement.

The last note faded, and silence fell.

It stretched, and the sorcerer glanced at the shopkeeper, who was gazing out the shop’s window, fingers folded around the flute. He seemed content to watch the trees, leaves ruffled in the wind, and wait.

So the sorcerer waited too.

After several long moments, something large made the trees toss as they were shoved aside, and a massive shadow loomed out of them before stepping into the light.

The sorcerer blinked, surprised and impressed despite himself. The Jabberwock towered above them, long neck carrying its head up high, baring its sharp teeth and deadly claws.

“This is Daisy,” the shopkeeper said. “Daisy, this is Magnus the Magnificent. He needs a guardian.”

The Jabberwock burbled, stomping closer and bending to study the sorcerer closely. She peered at him from one crimson eye, and then the other. Magnus expected the breath blowing hotly on his face to smell rank, of rotted meat and spoiled blood. But the Jabberwock’s breath smelled mostly like cut grass, with a hint of copper underneath.

Finally, she nodded, and settled down on the grass, wrapping her tail neatly around herself.

“Daisy will work for you,” the shopkeeper handed Magnus the silver flute. “Use this to summon her to the location of your treasure.”

The sorcerer took the flute, touching the holes in order to make sure he recalled the notes.

“And…” the shopkeeper paused. “Don’t forget to pay her. I’m not responsible for her actions if you don’t.”

Magnus stared at the mountain of muscle and sharp edges curled up outside the shop. “Yes, I don’t imagine I’ll be doing that, thank you.”

“Wise man,” the shopkeeper nodded. “Will you be wanting anything else today?”

The sorcerer shook his head, and settled into the process of bargaining for Daisy’s hiring fee. His heart wasn’t in it today, and he knew he overpaid by the smile brightening the shopkeeper’s eyes, though the other man’s expression remained blandly friendly. But Magnus had never seen a Jabberwock before, and he was more touched by the experience than he expected. He’d met dragons before, the young violent and stupid, the old wily and cruel, and he’d expected to see something similar in the Jabberwock’s burning bright red eyes.

But in Daisy’s eyes—and what a name for a monster!—he’d seen a wise and thoughtful consideration, a calm judgment.

Shaking off his thoughts, he exited the store, heading toward where he had left his construct horse. Crafted of metal and leather, the construct gleamed in the sun, light catching the bronze leaf and vine inlay on its neck, head, and legs. He checked the saddle attachments before mounting, legs resting comfortably on the leather covering the horse’s back.

He turned his horse’s head in the direction of the road, and pressed his heels to the buttons set under the leather. Moving in a precise, smooth walk, the construct picked up the pace as he pressed his heels twice more, shifting to ground-eating gallop.

Behind him, he heard heavy footfalls, and glanced back to see the Jabberwock galumphing after him, running through the trees parallel to the road.

As he traveled, stopping for meals, other necessary breaks, and overnight at several inns, Magnus caught glimpses of her fine-scaled, mottled green and brown hide, gleaming dully in the light like snake skin, or of her bright ruby-red eyes winking in the light. And often he heard her, crashing through the undergrowth, or the sudden noisy eruption of frantic birds flinging themselves into the air as she passed.

Finally, he reached his destination, a lonely tower set atop a jagged spire of rocky cliffs. Picking a way up the sides would be nearly impossible, with long stretches of smooth rock without footholds, jutting overhangs, stretches of sharp rocks, unstable areas that triggered deadly rockslides, and the enormous raptors that lived in the spires, large enough to carry off a man to their nests.

Magnus fed them a cow a month to patrol those cliffs, and so far no one had climbed the rocks to his tower, though thieves had gotten in by other means. As a bonus, the birds carried away anyone who died on the rocks. Some sorcerers might feel that rotting corpses and moldering bones created a warning atmosphere, but Magnus had never been overly fond of the smell of decay.

He halted his horse at one of the tunnel openings in the cliff base, and swiveled to peer back into the forest behind him. It ended some distance from the cliffs, the soil turning rocky and thin, supporting patches of grass and moss clinging to life, and nothing else.

The Jabberwock was nowhere in sight.

Feeling a little ridiculous, he called, “Daisy?”

No reply, no rustle from the trees.

“Daisy?” he called again, louder.

Silence.

A brief rummage in his saddlebags turned up the silver flute, and he played the three notes, and waited.

Moments later, he saw the tree tops tossing, and the Jabberwock slid out between the trunks, the bloody haunch of a deer caught in her jaws. She paused as soon as she was clear of the branches, and dropped the haunch to the rocks, ripping off great bites, flesh and hide tearing, bones crunching under her powerful teeth.

The last swallow traveled in a noticeable lump down her long throat, and she rubbed her bloody muzzle on a patch of grass, before taking several surprisingly dainty nibbles of a nearby bush. The scraggly shrub disappeared under even these small mouthfuls, sheared neatly to a stub of a trunk.

Daisy crossed the distance between her and the sorcerer with flowing and lightning-quick strides, so fast Magnus recoiled in his saddle. His construct, without the nerves of a living horse, stood steady under him as the Jabberwock loomed above him.

Cocking her head to the side, to study him again out of one eye, the Jabberwock burbled inquiringly.

“I need you to stay close to me in the caves,” Magnus said, wondering if she understood him. The intelligence he saw in her eyes could be a mere illusion.

But the Jabberwock nodded.

The caves he’d carved into the rock, shored up with magic and metal supports, were more than large enough for the Jabberwock to pass through, and so Magnus rode his horse into them. Daisy followed closely, and when he glanced back to check on her, not trusting his ears in the weird echoes of the caves, she was studying the way intently.

As they emerged from the darkness into the bright light bathing the exposed cliff-top, the Jabberwock stretched her wings and neck, enjoying the freedom from the tunnels. A yawning roar echoed from her throat, bouncing off the rocks and startling the cattle in their pens. Daisy shook her head, and folded her long legs neatly under herself, wrapping her tail around her bulk, and peering down at the sorcerer.

“This is my tower, where I keep some of my treasure. I want you to monitor the forest beyond the tunnels, the tunnels themselves, and patrol the base of the tower. Can you do that?”

The Jabberwock gave her sinuous nod, head bobbing up and down on her serpentine neck.

“You will be free to roam the area, so long as you don’t let thieves by. And you are welcome to hunt the woods, but I will supply food, so long as it is reasonable.” Magnus surveyed the mass of tightly packed muscle before him, wondering if those wings were functional or decorative. If the Jabberwock could fly, she likely burned a great deal of calories.

Daisy huffed, craning her neck to study the cattle, who had settled, since the wind blew the wrong way to carry her scent to them. She scraped the dirt smooth with the side of her long fingered front feet, and then folded down her claws until one protruded.

Carefully, she dragged that talon through the dirt she had smoothed, forming a neat number two in the dirt, and under it, a circle next to the word ‘moon.’

“Two every full moon?” Magnus repeated. “Is that enough?”

Daisy snorted, tipping her head to fix him with one eye, before tapping her foot to the words she had written.

“Very well, I suppose you know best,” Magnus said, though he made a mental note to have his herder constructs keep a careful count of his cattle. If Daisy had lowered her answer to increase her pay, and planned to steal from him, she’d soon learn it was a poor choice.

“I will pay you every year, with bonuses for a job well done,” he continued. “Do you prefer gold or gems? Or something else?”

The Jabberwock scraped the dirt smooth again, and wrote another word slowly in the crumbling dirt.

Magnus blinked down at it, reading it again and again, disbelieving his eyes.

She’d written the word that magicians used for a powerful healing crystal, not one of the handful of nicknames commoners had for them. Underneath she wrote the name of a long-lasting light crystal, one that created a burst of fire, and another that would rust any metal near it to dust within minutes.

“Those are… all obtainable…” Magnus said after a long moment. “We can negotiate the amounts at the end of a year, but I will pay you one of each of those, at the least. Is that acceptable?”

The Jabberwock nodded again, and raked her claws through the dirt, obliterating the words she’d written and leaving a space that looked similar to the patches around it, a random tumble of dirt.

“Let me show you what you’ll be guarding,” Magnus said, leading her up to the tower. She’d never fit inside the halls, but she stood patiently on the elevation disk he used to lift them to the top of the tower, and he gestured through a window he flung open with a spell to the room full of his treasures.

Rare spell books, and others full of esoteric knowledge about poisons, medicines, magical beasts, and other secrets filled shelves lining the wall, sharing space with magical artifacts, and a few beautiful pieces of metal and jewels. On the floor stood a large wooden trunk banded in metal, the wood thick and scarred from years of mistreatment, but stubbornly whole.

“My most precious treasures are in that trunk,” Magnus said, pulling a chain from his neck. “It takes three keys to open it.”

Daisy bobbed her head.

“I am entrusting these to you,” he held out two ornate metal keys, one gleaming darkly, the other a bright silvery metal.

Delicately, the Jabberwock caught the chain on one claw, and pulled it to her body, her long neck dipping down and blocking his view. When she set her foot back on the ground, the keys and chain weren’t dangling from it.

Magnus wondered where she had put the keys, but decided it probably didn’t matter. On her somewhere was far more secure than in a spot she had to guard, and if he couldn’t see it, neither would people trying to steal his possessions.

After a few weeks buried in his work, the sorcerer realized he hadn’t seen Daisy once since he had brought her to his tower. Bemused, he went looking for her, wandering through his tunnels and then returning to circle the base of his tower.

He paused, staring up at his tower, frowning. Had she left?

Something nudged him from behind.

Magnus froze, and slowly, carefully, looked over his shoulder. Stretched on the ground behind him, weaving between rocks, and hardly visible except for the end that twitched in the air next to him, was a long fine-scaled tail.

Crouched in a circle of boulders, a coating of dust dulling the gleam of her brown and green hide so she looked remarkably like a stone, was the Jabberwock. Her head poked out over the top of a boulder, watching him.

She chortled, and then ducked back out of view.

Magnus could only imagine the surprise on some thief’s face when she rose up from those boulders, wings spread. In fact, he was almost looking forward to it.

“Carry on,” he said, with a dignified nod, and made another circuit around his tower, before heading inside. When he glanced out the door, even knowing where the Jabberwock was, he couldn’t see her among the rocks.

Daisy appeared for her monthly cows, and he caught occasional glimpses of her if he searched especially hard. Otherwise, life continued the same. Two and a half months into her guardianship, he heard screaming, and she came galumphing into view, a man clutched in one foot.

Holding the man in front of her, she skidded to a half, throwing up dust.

Magnus watched as she extended the man forward, and gave him a little shake. When he didn’t stop screaming, she shook him again, hissing like a teakettle.

The screaming cut off abruptly, though the sorcerer could still hear the man panting.

Daisy delicately pressed him into a sitting position, long scaled front feet banding his rib cage.

“Thank you, Daisy. Were there others?” Magnus asked.

Daisy nodded, snapped her jaws twice, and then shook her head.

“It ate them! Kiff and Pol! The blood and the screamin’ and the teeth! Monster!” The man glared at Magnus, dirty and bleeding from a few cuts, but still indignant.

“You were trying to steal from me,” Magnus said, crossing his arms. “What did you think would happen? A stern warning?”

“It didn’t have ta eat us!” He began railing against the general injustice of the world, the evilness of rich wizards who wouldn’t miss some of their dusty hoard anyway, and the vile nature of monsters that ate human beings.

Daisy gave him another firm shake to cut off the stream of invective.

“What now?” the thief asked, after he’d caught his breath.

“You tell me who you were stealing for, and what you were after,” Magnus said, and though he swore he wouldn’t, the man eventually did, without more than the threat of Daisy’s sharp teeth and claws.

“Are you still hungry?” Magnus asked, after the man was finished.

He groaned, but didn’t start yelling again.

Daisy shook her head.

“Very well, then. Follow me,” Magnus headed toward his tower. “Since you were so eager to see inside, I will indulge you.”

That made the man start screaming and squirming again, but two of Magnus’ human-shaped constructs stomped out of the tower door and each took an arm, and carried him inside between them, feet dangling several inches from the ground.

Daisy burbled as Magnus started to close the door.

“Yes?”

She carefully drew an abstract but recognizable horse outline in the dust.

“They have horses?”

Nod.

“Where are they?”

Daisy pointed to the forest, toward the left, and held up four fingers.

“I will send some constructs after them,” the sorcerer said, and Daisy nodded and raced away, in the opposite direction. The constructs returned with the horses, as well as discarded pieces of armor, and an impressive array of weapons, all pocked with rust, and stained a viscous dark red with Jabberwock blood.

Magnus frowned at the evidence of a battle, unable to recall any damage to Daisy. But then again, he realized, she likely had healing crystals in her possession.

More than halfway into Daisy’s year of service, she turned away a solitary thief without violence, the young woman running in such a blind panic she hit a sapling, breaking it as she fell. Daisy, watching, made a huffing noise that sounded suspiciously like laughter.

On a crisp winter afternoon several weeks later, Magnus felt a wave of power washing out from the base of the cliffs. He set the book he was holding down, and raced outside, locking the door behind him with a flick of his hand. A quick spell sent him speeding down the sheer face of the cliff in a controlled plummet.

Safely on solid ground, he cast a locator spell, which led him to Daisy curled up in a not far past the entrance to a tunnel, a powerful sleep spell in the form of a web of light banding around her body, keeping her unconscious. It would continue to do so for months, if left alone.

Magnus growled. “That’s unnecessary.” He wrapped a sharp blade of power around his finger, and tried to snap one of the lines. It resisted for a moment, then parted.

Stepping back, he considered the spell as a whole, to decide the quickest way to free the Jabberwock. If he had to cut all the lines, whoever had done this to Daisy would get away.

A claw twitched.

The sorcerer frowned. She shouldn’t be able to throw the spell off so quickly, not with only one string broken.

The claw twitched again, and then the whole foot moved, talons scratching against the cave floor.

Quickly, Magnus severed all the lines he could reach, and retreated to safety as Daisy flexed, stretched, and stood. The remaining strands flew away from her as she threw her wings wide and roared.

She swept her head around, sniffling in great gusts of air, and then took off down the tunnels. Within moments, he couldn’t even hear her heavy footfalls.

“Nothing that big should be able to move so fast,” Magnus muttered.

Instead of following her, he flew back up to his tower, bypassing the tunnels again, summoned humanoid constructs to ring the base of his home, and waited. Sounds echoed from the mouth of the tunnels—enraged roars, human screams, and a variety of bangs and thuds.

After a while, the noises grew louder, and a group of riders thundered out of the cave, their horses lathered with sweat and wide-eyed in panic. The reason for that panic came running behind them, roaring.

“Stop!” Magnus yelled.

The riders, a group of knights in armor, pulled their horses to a halt, the animals dancing in their fervent desire to be away from the Jabberwock.

But their riders wanted as badly not to walk into the embrace of the metal constructs standing watchfully behind Magnus, glowing white eyes trained on the group. Their large arms, sturdy armored bodies, and sharp spikes made the outcome of a clash unlikely to end in the favor of flesh and bone combatants.

Racing forward, Daisy snatched one of the knights right off his horse, and hissed at the group, sketching a key in the dirt with large angry strokes.

The knights murmured at this sign of intelligence from what they had clearly assumed was a dumb beast.

Daisy’s jaws gaped open inches from the knight’s head, and she tapped the key image twice, tail thrashing with impatience.

“Call back your beast, sorcerer. We will return her prize!” A knight called.

With a grumble, Daisy set the man on the ground, though she did not release him. She pointed at a set of rocks about halfway between her and the group, off to one side.

One of the knights glanced at Magnus, his gaze passing over each construct in turn before returning to the Jabberwock before them. His shoulders slumped, and he pulled two metal keys out from a pouch tucked into his clothes, and carried them slowly over to the stones, setting them down on the top of the largest boulder.

Daisy slid over to the rock, the man clutched in one front-foot, keeping an eye on the group. She scooped the keys up, lifted them glinting to the light, and snorted, satisfied. The Jabberwock, her keys returned, let out a howl of joy.

The knights had to rein in their horses, which tried again to escape the sound Daisy made.

She shook her head, and rattled her wings before carefully setting the knight on the ground, this time releasing him. He blinked, sitting in the dirt, stunned and shaken as Daisy prowled in a half-circle so she stood between the cave and the knights.

She cocked her head to the side and burbled at Magnus, the lilting sound rising in a question.

“They’ve done no permanent harm,” Magnus said. “If they leave now, you may let them live.” He would set protective measures on Daisy to prevent another group from using such tactics. She was already resistant to magic, and he would never have expected thieves to bring such a powerful and complex spell.

He was sure one of his rivals was behind the attempt, but he had better ways of discovering which one than questioning the group. If he set them free, he could follow them back to their master.

Daisy nodded, and shuffled to stand between the group and the castle. She planted her feet solidly, spreading her wings and holding her head high, and began scooting forward, moving ponderously, unlike her usual rolling gait.

After a few steps, she huffed threateningly at the group of knights standing before her. They backed up, watching her warily, and she prowled after. Magnus watched through the eyes of several rat constructs, the images displayed on a flat piece of crystal, as she herded them out of the caves.

Once the knights reached the open air, she curled up just inside the tunnel, and waited. Her crimson eyes glowed as she watched their every move, and they hurried through bandaging their wounds before setting off through the woods, bedraggled and dejected.

Daisy stayed for some time, listening to the forest, and then picked her way through the tunnels, carefully eradicating every marker and trace they had left behind.

Once again she tucked a key into one of the special folds in her skin, but this time, she hid the second one in a blind corner of the tunnels, high up in a notch she carved carefully into the rock, and stopped with a chunk of stone so no glints would betray it in the torch light.

Satisfied, she set out on a patrol, checking the corners and heights to ensure nothing was wrong. No one would get by her again.

Magnus smiled, pleased with her determination, and returned to his studies, the images from a wolf construct flickering on the crystal, as it followed the riders through the trees.

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About Caitlin Stern

I have a MA in English, and have so many fantasy/urban fantasy WIPs it's not even funny. I'm an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, biography, fiction, and anything else that catches my interest. I collect books, and bookmarks I find that are visually appealing and useful.

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