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“In Which Wintertide Suffered an Interruption” by Axel Kelly

The Burgermaster’s Keep in the city of Poms Fritz is an awkward place to climb into, even with two legs. For someone with one leg, it’s likely to be somewhat more difficult. If, however, you’re a Scarecrow like me with only a single shovel-handle as a leg, then it’s well-nigh impossible. 

“Careful, young Cedric!” Uncle Wilson whispered, as I tried – again – to hop my way up the wall. “We mustn’t be discovered!”

“Easy for you to say,” I muttered. “You have two legs, and gumboots on the end of ‘em by jingo. But not me – my father thought two legs would be an extravagance. ‘You’ve got a shovel-handle, young Cedric! That’s luxury! I have to make do with a single bamboo cane!’.” 

Uncle Wilson nodded. “Dear old Turnip was a good brother but, as you know to your cost, too thrifty by far. But you must make allowances for him. He was Brought Low By A Pot-Head.”

I stifled a sigh. If I had to hear that old story one more time… Quite frankly, I haven’t a notion why Scarecrows with straw heads like mine feud with those who use upturned flower-pots for heads. And I can’t for the life of me see why everyone assumes that everything bad in my late father’s life happened because he courted a girl from their side for a few weeks.

“Now come on, young Cedric! We must to the top of the wall! The Burgermaster’s tyranny cannot be endured!”

I tried to climb – then slipped yet again, as my leg failed to find purchase. “Oh, dash and confound it!”

There was a meaningful cough from behind us. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” 

I looked down. My friend Zaza Pilchard, the Eminently Sensible Sorceress, was levitating slowly beside the wall. 

“I can easily lift the pair of you,” she said, floating past me. “This insistence on scaling the wall is ridiculous.” Her remark was strongly punctuated, as a curl shot out of the top of her hat and pointed accusingly at the pair of us.

“Madam!” Uncle Wilson hissed. “We are attempting a daring, nay, heroic venture! Tradition demands – BY JINGO!” He emitted the latter in a sort of minor explosion, as he was seized and along with myself was borne magically upwards.

“You were saying?” Zaza asked. 

Uncle Wilson huffed, but shook his head. “Very well,” he continued, “but we must hurry! Wintertide is almost upon us, and my hopping machines haven’t delivered one single thing yet!”

I shook my head, but squared my shoulders and checked that my wooden sword was ready. “And you’ve really no idea why the Burgermaster impounded the Hoppers?” I asked for about the seventh time.

“No idea whatsoever, me boy! They were doing absolutely perfectly deliverin’ post between here and the Kingdom of the Ham. It was when I declared they’d be deliverin’ gifts and cards free of charge, that he impounded the bally lot! Well, here in the city, anyway – there’s some in the Ham, but not enough to handle deliveries elsewhere.”

If it’d been up to me, I’d have impounded Uncle Wilson’s Hoppers as a public menace long ago. Somehow, in his long-standing quest to create a flying machine, he’d hit upon them as a compromise.  Huge ramshackle machines, they bounded across the landscape by means of gigantic springs and firework rockets. I knew for a fact that a mob of angry farmers had tried to burn down the Old Lighthouse where Uncle Wilson lived, after the blundering machines had smashed their fences and stampeded their cattle once too often.

The King of the Ham had cleverly decided that they’d work perfectly as postage vehicles. On seeing their success in Ham, Poms Fritz and other nearby realms had followed suit. But now, there’d been the impounding. 

Zaza set us down gently on the wall of the Keep. Looking down for a moment, I beheld the gigantic golden chip that stood at the heart of the city, now all hung with festive decorations. Then I turned back to the Keep.  

“There they are, Uncle Wilson!” I hissed, pointing below. Sure enough, I could see twenty Hoppers parked in the courtyard. Then I blinked in surprise, as I caught sight of the golden hat of the Burgermaster. He was walking through Uncle Wilson’s strange craft, surrounded by a bunch of bodyguards. I couldn’t quite see clearly, but it looked as though there was someone else with him.

Uncle Wilson growled angrily. “THIEF!” he roared at the top of his lungs. 

Zaza and myself both groaned loudly as the Burgermaster looked up. Then, before either of us could react, Uncle Wilson leapt into the courtyard. I gasped in horror, but he yanked a cord on his shoulder bag. A strange triangular cloth thing suddenly flapped out above him, that kept him suspended and made him fall more slowly. As the Burgermaster’s guards looked up, he flung down a brass sphere. A noxious vapour with a horrific smell of onions filled the air, making the Burgermaster’s men yell and rub at their eyes.

It was, perhaps, unfortunate that Uncle Wilson’s device carried him right into the cloud, making him cough and splutter as the Burgermaster looked up in bemusement. 

Zaza sighed. “All that mucking about with science, when magic is readily available!” Hat twirling in agitation, she muttered the words of a spell. Then both of us were lifting up again and floating downwards. 

“Right!” she boomed as we descended and I drew my sword. “I’m not a fan of these machines, but they do seem to do the trick where delivering the post is concerned, and they were earmarked for delivering presents to children for Wintertide so unless you want a reputation as a particularly mean Burgermaster…”

“Hand…achoo! Hem…owwww! Over at once!” Uncle Wilson gasped, eyes still running from his onion bomb.

The Burgermaster stepped forward, folding his arms. “I will not! Not until you make restitution!”

“Restitution for what?” demanded Uncle Wilson. 

“You know what for, Herr Professor! Don’t try to…”

“Don’t, Papa!” The small voice sounded urgently.

The Burgermaster turned quickly. We all froze, as a little girl with a bow in her hair stepped forward. “It’s alright, really! I don’t want to be greedy.”

“You’re not being greedy, not at all.” The Burgermaster picked the little girl up gently. 

“You see, Professor, around the time you were first perfecting your hopping machine, my Annaliese here wrote to you. Last year, she’d insisted on donating some of her toys to the orphanage, and afterwards she made some good friends there. Her letter asked if her friends at the Poms Fritz orphanage could have a ride on the machine as a Wintertide present. You refused, calling it ‘a frivolous use of a scientific wonder’.”

Myself and Zaza turned, as one, to look at Uncle Wilson, who shifted uneasily. “I…I did? I, well, I don’t remember…” He paused. “Wait, that was you who’d written it? I thought it was from someone considerably older – if I’d known…”

“It broke her heart,” the Burgermaster broke in grimly. “And then, when you announced your intention to use them to deliver Wintertide gifts gratis! What makes that not frivolous and my daughter’s request ‘frivolous’? Aside from the fact that one probably gets you more publicity than the other.”

“Papa, you didn’t have to take the Hoppers,” Annaliese pleaded. “I don’t want other people to not get their presents.”

“You really called that frivolous, Uncle Wilson?” I asked.

“I…eh, at the time maybe, but I wouldn’t have if I’d known! And by the time the Hoppers were perfected, I’d forgotten about it.”

“I could believe that,” Zaza said, hat slumping tiredly. “You should see his desk,” she added to Annaliese. “He mislaid his designs for the self-sharpening pencil for over two months, apparently, and only found them because he wanted to invent a self-tidying desk and went looking for blank paper.”

I nodded. “He’s been known to lose his own Wintertide presents and only find them months later.”

“Yes, yes, thank you!” Uncle Wilson grimaced. “Young lady, at the time you wrote, the Hopper was still in the testing stages, it would have been highly dangerous…”

“So you do remember it?” 

I bit my lip. Annaliese looked as though she was trying very hard to be stoic, but her eyes were glistening. Stepping over beside Uncle Wilson, I nudged him. Rather firmly. I think that got the point across, though perhaps the sharp kick Zaza gave him worked even better.

He cleared his throat portentously. “I…I’m sorry, young lady. I should have been more courteous. I can be…ah…rather terse when in the middle of matters scientific, and given your command of language and neat hand-writing, I thought you were older. I honestly forgot about your letter, after they’d been perfected.” 

He paused, making mental calculations. “I think that I could spare five Hoppers, to give rides to all of the orphans in the orphanage, the day after tomorrow? As well as yourself…”

He didn’t get any further as Annaliese ran at him and hugged him.  “Thank you!”

“No, thank you for reminding me.” Uncle Wilson smiled graciously.

I smiled too, and even Zaza laughed before casting a spell to begin a light fall of snow. Wintertide, it seemed, was off to a good start.

Axel Kelly got bitten by the writing bug very early in life, though he’d like to think his writing has improved since he started. He also got bitten by the sci-fi and fantasy bugs early in life too, thanks to his family. Originally from West Cork, he now lives in Dublin, working for the Civil Service. Axel has been a member of Cupán Fae for two and a half years and has contributed to Cupán Fae Anthologies: Dublin’s Fierce City, Fierce Mighty, Fierce New World, Fierce & Proud, and Fiercepunk.

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