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Fiction

The Faerie Cony-Catcher

Young Woman in a Garden: stories by Delia Sherman

This story also appears in YOUNG WOMAN IN A GARDEN, a new short story collection by Delia Sherman. It’s available now from Small Beer Press.

In London town, in the reign of good Queen Bess that was called Gloriana, there lived a young man named Nicholas Cantier. Now it came to pass that this Nick Cantier served out his term as apprentice jeweler and goldsmith under one Master Spilman, jeweler by appointment to the Queen’s Grace herself, and was made journeyman of his guild. For that Nick was a clever young man, his master would have been glad for him to continue on where he was; yet Nick was not fain thereof, Master Spilman being as ill a master of men as he was skilled master of his trade. And Nick bethought him thus besides: that London was like unto the boundless sea where Leviathan may dwell unnoted, save by such small fish as he may snap up to stay his mighty hunger: such small fish as Nicholas Cantier. Better he seek out some backwater in the provinces where, puffed up by city ways, he might perchance pass for a pike and snap up spratlings on his own account.

So thought Nick. And on a bright May morning, he packed up such tools as he might call his own—as a pitch block and a mallet, and some small steel chisels and punches and saw blades and blank rings of copper—that he might make shift to earn his way to Oxford. Nick put his tools in a pack, with clean hosen and a shirt and a pair of soft leather shoon, and that was all his worldly wealth strapped upon his back, saving only a jewel that he had designed and made himself to be his passport. This jewel was in the shape of a maid, her breasts and belly all one lucent pearl, her skirt and open jacket of bright enamel, and her fair face of silver burnished with gold. On her fantastic hair perched a tiny golden crown, and Nick had meant her for the Faerie Queene of Master Spenser’s poem, fair Gloriana.

Upon this precious Gloriana did Nick’s life and livelihood depend. Being a prudent lad in the main, and bethinking him of London’s traps and dangers, Nick considered where he might bestow it that he fall not prey to those foists and rufflers who might take it from him by stealth or by force. The safest place, thought he, would be his codpiece, where no man nor woman might meddle without his yard raise the alarm. Yet the jewel was large and cold and hard against those softer jewels that dwelt more commonly therein, and so Nick bound it across his belly with a band of linen and took leave of his fellows and set out northward to seek his fortune.

Now this Nick Cantier was a lusty youth of nearly twenty, with a fine, open face and curls of nut-brown hair that sprang from his brow; yet notwithstanding his comely form, he was as much a virgin on that May morning as the Queen herself. For Master Spilman was the hardest of taskmasters, and between his eagle eye and his adder cane and his arch-episcopal piety, his apprentices perforce lived out the terms of their bonds as chaste as Popish monks. On this the first day of his freedom, young Nick’s eye roved hither and thither, touching here a slender waist and there a dimpled cheek, wondering what delights might not lie beneath this petticoat or that snowy kerchief. And so it was that a Setter came upon him unaware and sought to persuade him to drink a pot of ale together, having just found xii pence in a gutter and it being ill luck to keep found money and Nick’s face putting him in mind of his father’s youngest son, dead of an ague this two year and more. Nick let him run on, through this excuse for scraping acquaintance and that, and when the hopeful Cony-catcher had rolled to a stop, like a cart at the foot of a hill, he said unto him:

“I see I must have a care to the cut of my coat, if rogues, taking me for a country cony, think me meet for skinning. Nay, I’ll not drink with ye, nor play with ye neither, lest ye so ferret-claw me at cards that ye leave me as bare of coin as an ape of a tail.”

Upon hearing which, the Setter called down a murrain upon milk-fed pups who imagined themselves sly dogs, and withdrew into the company of two men appareled like honest and substantial citizens, whom Nicholas took to be the Setter’s Verser and Barnacle, all ready to play their parts in cozening honest men out of all they carried, and a little more beside. And he bit his thumb at them and laughed and made his way through the streets of London, from Lombard Street to Clerkenwell in the northern liberties of the city, where the houses were set back from the road in gardens and fields and the taverns spilled out of doors in benches and stools, so that toss-pots might air their drunken heads.

‘Twas coming on for noon by this time, and Nick’s steps were slower than they had been, and his mind dwelt more on bread and ale than on cony-catchers and villains.

In this hungry, drowsy frame of mind, he passed an alehouse where his eye chanced to light upon a woman tricked up like a lady in a rich-guarded gown and a deep starched ruff. Catching his glance, she sent it back again saucily, with a wink and a roll of her shoulders that lifted her white breasts like ships on a wave. She plucked him by the sleeve and said, “How now, my friend, you look wondrous down i’ the mouth. What want you? Wine? Company?”—all with such a meaning look, such a waving of her skirts and a hoisting of her breasts that Nick’s yard, fain to salute her, flew its scarlet colors in his cheeks.

“The truth is, mistress, that I’ve walked far this day, and am sorely hungered.”

“Hungered, is it?” She flirted her eyes at him, giving the word a dozen meanings not writ in any grammar. “Shall feed thy hunger then, aye, and sate thy thirst, too, and that right speedily.” And she led him in at the alehouse door to a little room within, where she closed the door and, thrusting herself close up against him, busied her hands about his body and her lips about his mouth. As luck would have it, her breath was foul, and it blew upon Nick’s heat, cooling him enough to recognize that her hands sought not his pleasure, but his purse, upon which he thrust her from him.

“Nay, mistress,” he said, all flushed and panting. “Thy meat and drink are dear, if they cost me my purse.”

Knowing by his words that she was discovered, she spent no time in denying her trade, but set up a caterwauling would wake the dead, calling upon one John to help her. But Nick, if not altogether wise, was quick and strong, and bolted from the vixen’s den ’ere the dog-fox answered her call.

So running, Nick came shortly to the last few houses that clung to the outskirts of the city and stopped at a tavern to refresh him with honest meat and drink. And as he drank his ale and pondered his late escape, the image of his own foolishness dimmed and the image of the doxy’s beauty grew more bright, until the one eclipsed the other quite, persuading him that any young man in whom the blood ran hot would have fallen into her trap, aye, and been skinned, drawn, and roasted to a turn, as ’twere in very sooth a long-eared cony. It was his own cleverness, he thought, led him to smoke her out. So Nick, having persuaded himself that he was a sly dog after all, rose from the tavern and went to Hampstead Heath, which was the end of the world to him. And as he stepped over the world’s edge and onto the northward road, his heart lifted for joy, and he sang right merrily as he strode along, as pleased with himself as the cock that imagineth his crowing bring the sun from the sea.

And so he walked and so he sang until by and by he came upon a country lass sitting on a stone. Heedful of his late lesson, he quickly cast his eye about him for signs of some high lawyer or ruffler lurking ready to spring the trap. But the lass sought noways to lure him, nor did she accost him, nor lift her dark head from contemplating her foot that was cocked up on her knee. Her gown of gray kersey was hiked up to her thigh and her sleeves rolled to her elbows, so that Nick could see her naked arms, sinewy and lean and nut-brown with sun, and her leg like muddy ivory.

“Gie ye good-den, fair maid,” said he, and then could say no more, for when she raised her face to him, his breath stopped in his throat. It was not, perhaps, the fairest he’d seen, being gypsy-dark, with cheeks and nose that showed the bone. But her black eyes were wide and soft as a hind’s and the curve of her mouth made as sweet a bow as Cupid’s own.

“Good-den to thee,” she answered him, low-voiced as a throstle. “Ye come at a good hour to my aid. For here is a thorn in my foot and I, for want of a pin, unable to have it out.”

The next moment he knelt at her side; the moment after, her foot was in his hand. He found the thorn and winkled it out with the point of his knife while the lass clutched at his shoulder, hissing between her teeth as the thorn yielded, sighing as he wiped away the single ruby of blood with his kerchief and bound it round her foot.

“I thank thee, good youth,” she said, leaning closer. “An thou wilt, I’ll give thee such a reward for thy kindness as will give thee cause to thank me anon.” She turned her hand to his neck, and stroked the bare flesh there, smiling in his face the while, her breath as sweet as an orchard in spring.

Nick felt his cheek burn hot above her hand and his heart grow large in his chest. This were luck indeed, and better than all the trulls in London. “Fair maid,” he said, “I would not kiss thee beside the common way.”

She laughed. “Lift me then and carry me to the hollow, hard by yonder hill, where we may embrace, if it pleaseth thee, without fear of meddling eye.”

Nick’s manhood then informed him that it would please him well, observing the which, the maiden smiled and held up her arms to him, and he lifted her, light as a faggot of sticks but soft and supple as Spanish leather withal, and bore her to a hollow under a hill that was round and green and warm in the May sun. And he lay her down and did off his pack and set it by her head, that he might keep it close to hand, rejoicing that his jewel was not in his codpiece, and then he fell to kissing her lips and stroking her soft, soft throat. Her breasts were small as a child’s under her gown; yet she moaned most womanly when he pressed them, and writhed against him like a snake, and he made bold to pull up her petticoats to discover the treasure they hid. Coyly, she slapped his hand away once and again, yet never ceased to kiss and toy with open lip, the while her tongue like a darting fish urged him to unlace his codpiece that was grown wondrous tight. Seeing what he was about, she put her hand down to help him, so that he was like to perish e’er he achieved the gates of Heaven. Then, when he was all but sped, she pulled him headlong on top of her.

He was not home, though very near it as he thrust at her skirts bunched up between her thighs. Though his plunging breached not her cunny-burrow, it did breach the hill itself, and he and his gypsy-lass tumbled arse-over-neck to lie broken-breathed in the midst of a great candle-lit hall upon a Turkey carpet, with skirts and legs and slippered feet standing in ranks upon it to his right hand and his left, and a gentle air stroking warm fingers across his naked arse. Nick shut his eyes, praying that this vision were merely the lively exhalation of his lust. And then a laugh like a golden bell fell upon his ear, and was hunted through a hundred mocking changes in a ring of melodious laughter, and he knew this to be sober reality, or something enough like it that he’d best ope his eyes and lace up his hose.

All this filled no more than the space of a breath, though it seemed to Nick an age of the world had passed before he’d succeeded in packing up his yard and scrambling to his feet to confront the owners of the skirts and the slippered feet and the bell-like laughter that yet pealed over his head. And in that age, the thought was planted and nurtured and harvested in full ripeness, that his hosts were of faerie-kind. He knew they were too fair to be human men and women, their skins white nacre, their hair spun sunlight or moonlight or fire bound back from their wide brows by fillets of precious stones no less hard and bright than their emerald or sapphire eyes. The women went bare-bosomed as Amazons, the living jewels of their perfect breasts coffered in open gowns of bright silk. The men wore jewels in their ears, and at their forks, fantastic codpieces in the shapes of cockerels and wolves and rams with curling horns. They were splendid beyond imagining, a masque to put the Queen’s most magnificent Revels to shame.

As Nick stood in amaze, he heard the voice of his coy mistress say, “‘Twere well, Nicholas Cantier, if thou wouldst turn and make thy bow.”

With a glare for she who had brought him to this pass, Nick turned him to face a woman sat upon a throne. Even were she seated upon a joint-stool, he must have known her, for her breasts and face were more lucent and fair than pearl, her open jacket and skirt a glory of gemstones, and upon her fantastic hair perched a gold crown, as like to the jewel in his bosom as twopence to a groat. Nick gaped like that same small fish his fancy had painted him erewhile, hooked and pulled gasping to land. Then his knees, wiser than his head, gave way to prostrate him at the royal feet of Elfland.

“Well, friend Nicholas,” said the Faerie Queen. “Heartily are you welcome to our court. Raise him, Peasecod, and let him approach our throne.”

Nick felt a tug on his elbow, and wrenched his dazzled eyes from the figure of the Faerie Queen to see his wanton lass bending over him. “To thy feet, my heart,” she murmured. “And, as thou holdest dear thy soul, see that neither meat nor drink pass thy lips.”

“Well, Peasecod?” asked the Queen, and there was that in her musical voice that propelled Nick to his feet and down the Turkey carpet to stand trembling before her.

“Be welcome,” said the Queen again, “and take your ease. Peasecod, bring a stool and a cup for our guest, and let the musicians play and our court dance for his pleasure.”

There followed an hour as strange as any madman might imagine or poet sing, wherein Nicholas Cantier sat upon a gilded stool at the knees of the Queen of Elfland and watched her court pace through their faerie measures. In his hand he held a golden cup crusted with gems, and the liquor within sent forth a savor of roses and apples that promised an immortal vintage. But as oft as he, half fainting, lifted the cup, so often did a pair of fingers pinch him at the ankle, and so often did he look down to see the faerie lass Peasecod crouching at his feet with her skirts spread out to hide the motions of her hand. Once she glanced up at him, her soft eyes drowned in tears like pansies in rain, and he knew that she was sorry for her part in luring him here.

When the dancing was over and done, the Queen of Elfland turned to Nick and said, “Good friend Nicholas, we would crave a boon of thee in return for this our fair entertainment.”

At which Nick replied, “I am at your pleasure, madam. Yet have I not taken any thing from you save words and laughter.”

“‘Tis true, friend Nicholas, that thou hast scorned to drink our Faerie wine. And yet hast thou seen our faerie revels, that is a sight any poet in London would give his last breath to see.”

“I am no poet, madam, but a humble journeyman goldsmith.”

“That, too, is true. And for that thou art something better than humble at thy trade, I will do thee the honor of accepting that jewel in my image thou bearest bound against thy breast.”

Then it seemed to Nick that the Lady might have his last breath after all, for his heart suspended himself in his throat. Wildly looked he upon Gloriana’s face, fair and cold and eager as the trull’s he had escaped erewhile, and then upon the court of Elfland that watched him as he were a monkey or a dancing bear. At his feet, he saw the dark-haired lass Peasecod, set apart from the rest by her mean garments and her dusky skin, the only comfortable thing in all that discomfortable splendor. She smiled into his eyes, and made a little motion with her hand, like a fishwife who must chaffer by signs against the crowd’s commotion. And Nicholas took courage at her sign, and fetched up a deep breath, and said:

“Fair Majesty, the jewel is but a shadow or counterfeit of your radiant beauty. And yet ’tis all my stock in trade. I cannot render all my wares to you, were I never so fain to do you pleasure.”

The Queen of Elfland drew her delicate brows like kissing moths over her nose. “Beware, young Nicholas, how thou triest our good will. Were we minded, we might turn thee into a lizard or a slow-worm, and take thy jewel resistless.”

“Pardon, dread Queen, but if you might take my jewel by force, you might have taken it ere now. I think I must give it you—or sell it you—by mine own unforced will.”

A silence fell, ominous and dark as a thundercloud. All Elfland held its breath, awaiting the royal storm. Then the sun broke through again, the Faerie Queen smiled, and her watchful court murmured to one another, as those who watch a bout at swords will murmur when the less skilled fencer maketh a lucky hit.

“Thou hast the right of it, friend Nicholas: we do confess it. Come, then. The Queen of Elfland will turn huswife, and chaffer with thee.”

Nick clasped his arms about his knee and addressed the lady thus: “I will be frank with you, Serenity. My master, when he saw the jewel, advised me that I should not part withal for less than fifty golden crowns, and that not until I’d bought with it a master goldsmith’s good opinion and a place at his shop. Fifty-five crowns, then, will buy the jewel from me, and not a farthing less.”

The Lady tapped her white hand on her knee. “Then thy master is a fool, or thou a rogue and liar. The bauble is worth no more than fifteen golden crowns. But for that we are a compassionate prince, and thy complaint being just, we will give thee twenty, and not a farthing more.”

“Forty-five,” said Nick. “I might sell it to Master Spenser for twice the sum, as a fair portrait of Gloriana, with a description of the faerie court, should he wish to write another book.”

“Twenty-five,” said the Queen. “Ungrateful wretch. ’Twas I sent the dream inspired the jewel.”

“All the more reason to pay a fair price for it,” said Nick. “Forty.”

This shot struck in the gold. The Queen frowned and sighed and shook her head and said, “Thirty. And a warrant, signed by our own royal hand, naming thee jeweler by appointment to Gloriana, by cause of a pendant thou didst make at her behest.”

It was a fair offer. Nick pondered a moment, saw Peasecod grinning up at him with open joy, her cheeks dusky red and her eyes alight, and said: “Done, my Queen, if only you will add thereto your attendant nymph, Peasecod, to be my companion, if she will.”

At this Gloriana laughed aloud, and all the court of Elfland laughed with her, peal upon peal at the mortal’s presumption. Peasecod alone of the bright throng did not laugh, but rose to stand by Nicholas’ side and pressed his hand in hers. She was brown and wild as a young deer, and it seemed to Nick that the Queen of Elfland herself, in all her glory of moony breasts and arching neck, was not so fair as this one slender, black-browed faerie maid.

When Gloriana had somewhat recovered her power of speech, she said: “Friend Nicholas, I thank thee; for I have not laughed so heartily this many a long day. Take thy faerie lover and thy faerie gold and thy faerie warrant and depart unharmed from hence. But for that thou hast dared to rob the Faerie Queen of this her servant, we lay this weird on thee, that if thou say thy Peasecod nay, at bed or at board for the space of four-and-twenty mortal hours, then thy gold shall turn to leaves, thy warrant to filth, and thy lover to dumb stone.”

At this, Peasecod’s smile grew dim, and up spoke she and said, “Madam, this is too hard.”

“Peace,” said Gloriana, and Peasecod bowed her head. “Nicholas,” said the Queen, “we commence to grow weary of this play. Give us the jewel and take thy price and go thy ways.”

So Nick did off his doublet and his shirt and unwound the band of linen from about his waist and fetched out a little leathern purse and loosed its strings and tipped out into his hand the precious thing upon which he had expended all his love and his art. And loathe was he to part withal, the first-fruits of his labor.

“Thou shalt make another, my heart, and fairer yet than this,” whispered Peasecod in his ear, and so he laid it into Elfland’s royal hand, and bowed, and in that moment he was back in the hollow under the green hill, his pack at his feet, half naked, shocked as by a lightning bolt, and alone. Before he could draw breath to make his moan, Peasecod appeared beside him with his shirt and doublet on her arm, a pack at her back, and a heavy purse at her waist, that she detached and gave to him with his clothes. Fain would he have sealed his bargain then and there, but Peasecod begging prettily that they might seek more comfort than might be found on a tussock of grass, he could not say her nay. Nor did he regret his weird that gave her the whip hand in this, for the night drew on apace, and he found himself sore hungered and athirst, as though he’d sojourned beneath the hill for longer than the hour he thought. And indeed ’twas a day and a night and a day again since he’d seen the faerie girl upon the heath, for time doth gallop with the faerie kind, who heed not its passing. And so Peasecod told him as they trudged northward in the gloaming, and picked him early berries to stay his present hunger, and found him clear water to stay his thirst, so that he was inclined to think very well of his bargain, and of his own cleverness that had made it.

And so they walked until they came to a tavern, where Nick called for dinner and a chamber, all of the best, and pressed a golden noble into the host’s palm, whereat the goodman stared and said such a coin would buy his whole house and all his ale, and still he’d not have coin to change it. And Nick, flushed with gold and lust, told him to keep all as a gift upon the giver’s wedding day. Whereat Peasecod blushed and cast down her eyes as any decent bride, though the goodman saw she wore no ring and her legs and feet were bare and mired from the road. Yet he gave them of his best, both meat and drink, and put them to bed in his finest chamber, with a fire in the grate because gold is gold, and a rose upon the pillow because he remembered what it was to be young.

The door being closed and latched, Nicholas took Peasecod in his arms and drank of her mouth as ’twere a well and he dying of thirst. And then he bore her to the bed and laid her down and began to unlace her gown that he might see her naked. But she said unto him, “Stay, Nicholas Cantier, and leave me my modesty yet a while. But do thou off thy clothes, and I vow thou shalt not lack for pleasure.”

Then young Nick gnawed his lip and pondered in himself whether taking off her clothes by force would be saying her nay—some part of which showed in his face, for she took his hand to her mouth and tickled the palm with her tongue, all the while looking roguishly upon him, so that he smiled upon her and let her do her will, which was to strip his doublet and shirt from him, to run her fingers and her tongue across his chest, to lap and pinch at his nipples until he gasped, to stroke and tease him, and finally to release his rod and take it in her hand and then into her mouth. Poor Nick, who had never dreamed of such tricks, was like to die of ecstasy. He twisted his hands in her long hair as pleasure came upon him like an annealing fire, and then he lay spent, with Peasecod’s head upon his bosom, and all her dark hair spread across his belly like a blanket of silk.

After a while she raised herself, and with great tenderness kissed him upon the mouth and said, “I have no regret of this bargain, my heart, whatever follows after.”

And from his drowsy state he answered her, “Why, what should follow after but joy and content and perchance a babe to dandle upon my knee?”

She smiled and said, “What indeed? Come, discover me,” and lay back upon the pillow and opened her arms to him.

For a little while, he was content to kiss and toy with lips and neck, and let her body be. But soon he tired of this game, the need once again growing upon him to uncover her secret places and to plumb their mysteries. He put his hand beneath her skirts, stroking her thigh that was smooth as pearl and quivered under his touch as it drew near to that mossy dell he had long dreamed of. With quickening breath, he felt springing hair, and then his fingers encountered an obstruction, a wand or rod, smooth as the thigh, but rigid, and burning hot. In his shock, he squeezed it, and Peasecod gave a moan, whereupon Nick would have withdrawn his hand, and that right speedily, had not his faerie lover gasped, “Wilt thou now nay-say me?”

Nick groaned and squeezed again. The rod he held pulsed, and his own yard stirred in ready sympathy. Nick raised himself on his elbow and looked down into Peasecod’s face—wherein warred lust and fear, man and woman—and thought, not altogether clearly, upon his answer. Words might turn like snakes to bite their tails, and Nick was of no mind to be misunderstood. For answer then, he tightened his grip upon those fair and ruddy jewels that Peasecod brought to his marriage-portion, and so wrought with them that the eyes rolled back in his lover’s head, and he expired upon a sigh. Yet rose he again at Nick’s insistent kissing, and threw off his skirts and stays and his smock of fine linen to show his body, slender and hard as Nick’s own, yet smooth and fair as any lady’s that bathes in ass’s milk and honey. And so they sported night-long until the rising sun blew pure gold leaf upon their tumbled bed, where they lay entwined and, for the moment, spent.

“I were well served if thou shouldst cast me out, once the four-and-twenty hours are past,” said Peasecod mournfully.

“And what would be the good of that?” asked Nick.

“More good than if I stayed with thee, a thing nor man nor woman, nor human nor faerie kind.”

“As to the latter, I cannot tell, but as to the former, I say that thou art both, and I the richer for thy doubleness. Wait,” said Nick, and scrambled from the bed and opened his pack and took out a blank ring of copper and his block of pitch and his small steel tools. And he worked the ring into the pitch and, within a brace of minutes, had incised upon it a pea-vine from which you might pick peas in season, so like nature was the work. And returning to the bed where Peasecod lay watching, slipped it upon his left hand.

Peasecod turned the ring upon his finger, wondering. “Thou dost not hate me, then, for that I tricked and cozened thee?”

Nick smiled and drew his hand down his lover’s flank, taut ivory to his touch, and said, “There are some hours yet left, I think, to the term of my bond. Art thou so eager, love, to become dumb stone that thou must be asking me questions that beg to be answered ‘No?’ Know then, that I rejoice in being thy cony, and only wish that thou mayst catch me as often as may be, if all thy practices be as pleasant as this by which thou hast bound me to thee.”

And so they rose and made their ways to Oxford town, where Nicholas made such wise use of his faerie gold and his faerie commission as to keep his faerie lover in comfort all the days of their lives.

Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman writes stories and novels for younger readers and adults. Her most recent short stories have appeared in Datlow and Windling’s anthology Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells and Jonathan Strahan’s Under My Hat. Her collection of short stories, Young Woman in a Garden, was published by Small Beer Press. She has written three novels for adults: Through a Brazen Mirror, The Porcelain Dove, and The Fall of the Kings (with Ellen Kushner). Novels for younger readers are Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, Norton Award-winning The Freedom Maze, and The Evil Wizard Smallbone. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching, editing, knitting, and cooking. Though she loves to travel, home base is a rambling apartment in New York City with spouse Ellen Kushner and far too many pieces of paper.