"This marvelous short fiction retrospective testifies to the breadth of Williams's creativity."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Within these pages you will find such delightful and curious things as a strange storytelling vampire, two woefully-overmatched angels, a dragon in cahoots with a knight and a witch, an ineptly duplicitous fish, the loyal robot butler of Werner Von Secondstage Booster, and the Greatest Wizard of All (disputed).
From his epic fantasy series, including Memory Sorrow and Thorn—which George R. R. Martin cited as an inspiration for Game of Thrones—to the classic novel Tailchaser's Song, Tad Williams has mastered every genre he has set his pen to. Here are the stories that showcase the exhilarating breadth of Williams' imagination, hearkening back to such classic fantasists as J. R. R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Peter S. Beagle, and beyond. Whether you are a devoted reader of his longer works, already a devotee of his short fiction, or even new to his writing entirely, The Very Best of Tad Williams is the perfect place to discover one of the most talented and versatile authors writing at any length today.
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About the Author
Tad Williams is an internationally bestselling fantasy and science fiction author whose work includes Tailchaser's Song, The War of the Flowers, Caliban's Hour, and the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn; Shadowmarch; and Otherland series. He is also the author of a miniseries called The Next, published by DC Comics and Tailchaser's Song is currently being adapted as a CG-animated feature film. Williams lives in Soquel, California.
Read an Excerpt
The Very Best of Tad Williams
By Tad Williams
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2014 Tad Williams
All rights reserved.
The Old Scale Game
"Flee or be broiled to crackling! Those are your only choices!" The monster rustled in the depths of the cave. Its voice was loud because it was large, and dry because centuries of breathing deadly fire had roughened its throat.
"Neither, if you please." The man in armor waited as patiently as he could, hoping he was far enough back from the entrance that he would not actually broil if the tenor of conversation failed to improve. "I wish to discuss a proposition."
"A what?" The outrage was unfeigned. "I had heard that there were knights abroad in this miserable modern age who practiced such perversities, but I never dreamed I should ever suffer such a foul offer myself! Prepare to be radiantly heated, young fool!"
"I am not remotely young, and I don't think I'm a fool either," the knight said. "And it's not that kind of proposition. Ye gods, fellow, I haven't even seen you yet, not to mention the smell of you is not pleasing, at least to a human being."
When the dragon spoke after a longish silence, there was perhaps a touch of hurt feelings in its voice. "Ah. Not that kind of proposition." Another pause. "How do I know that when I come out you will not attempt to slay me?"
"If I felt sure I could slay you, I wouldn't be here talking. I give you my word as a knight that you are safe from me as long as you offer me no harm."
"Hmmmph." That noise, accompanied by a puff of steam, was followed shortly by the sound of something long and scaly dragging itself over stone as the dragon emerged from the cave. The knight noted that, although the great worm had clearly seen better days, his scales dingy and nicked, his color decidedly less than robust, he was still quite big enough and probably quite hot enough to keep negotiation more appealing than attack.
"I am Guldhogg," declared the worm, each word echoing sonorously across the hillside. "Why do you seek me? Have you grown tired of living?"
"Tired of starving, to be quite frank, and even recreational drinking is beginning to lose its charms." The knight made a courtly bow. "My name is Sir Blivet of no fixed address, until recently a retired (and impoverished) dragon slayer. This was not a happy state of affairs—in fact, I had recently begun to consider a serious return to strong drink—but lately it's worsened. I've been dragged out of retirement by the people of Handselmansby in order to destroy you—they offered me a rather interesting sum ..."
The dragon reared to nearly the height of the treetops. "You coward! You have foresworn yourself!" He made a rumbling noise, and a cloud of fire belched from his jaws, but before the stream of flame had gone more than a few feet Guldhogg began to cough. The fire flickered and died. A puff of steam, more wisp than cloud, floated up into the morning sky. "Just a m-m-moment," the dragon said. "Give me a chance to c-c-catch my breath, f-foul knight." He had stopped coughing, but had begun hiccoughing instead. At each explosion another steampuff spun lazily into the air. "Honestly, I will broil you very ..." Hiccough. "I will ..." Hiccough. "Broil you very thoroughly ..." Again, a hiccough.
"Noble Guldhogg, most vintage of worms, spare me this tosh." Sir Blivet sat down on the ground. He had not even drawn his sword. "The people of Handselmansby may not know you are old and unwell, but I do. You could no more broil me than you could earn a cardinal's red hat from the pontiff of Rome."
"Knight of a dog!" The dragon drew himself up once more. "Hmmmph. I mean: Dog of a knight! Perhaps I do have a bit of a problem with my flame just now, but I can still destroy you! Have I not my claws and teeth, or at least most of them? Can I not fly, with a fair tailwind and occasional stops for rest? Do not think me so easily defeated, insulting and unkind human person."
"I agree, mighty Guldhogg. You are still a formidable foe, even in your age and infirmity."
"Yes! Yes, I am!" The dragon leaned forward, his great yellow eyes narrowing. When he spoke, he sounded a bit worried. "Am I really such a laughingstock? The time was once when Guldhogg's name was enough to set women screaming and children crying."
"And it still is," said Sir Blivet. "The ... falloff in your skills is not widely known. In fact, the only reason it's known to me is because I did a little investigation as I was trying to think of some way I could avoid fighting you. Because ..." Blivet removed his helmet, revealing hair and beard that, although it could have been called salt-and-pepper, contained far more salt than pepper. Furthermore, although the hair on his head might once have covered a large territory, it had now largely conceded the front and top of the knight's scalp and was retreating rather hurriedly toward the back of his head. "As you can see—and which contributes not a little to the unhappy state of my own affairs—I am not so young myself."
Guldhogg squinted. "By my great scaly ancestors, you aren't, are you?"
"No. I really didn't want anything to do with this whole thing, but poverty makes powerful arguments."
The beast shook his long head. "So despite what the advancing years have done to you, Sir Knight, you decided to attack a poor old dragon. For shame, sir. For shame."
"Oh, for the love of my good Lord Jesu!" The man in the tarnished suit of armor shook his head in irritation. "Don't you listen? I just said I don't want to fight you. In fact, I would like to offer a bargain—a mutually beneficial bargain, at that. Will you pay proper attention?"
Guldhogg's eyes narrowed again, but this time it seemed to be in careful thought instead of suspicion. At last the great worm nodded.
"I will listen, Sir Knight."
"Call me Sir Blivet. Or even just Blivet. After all, we're going to be working together."
The wealthy burghers of Handselmansby, an up-and-coming market town whose Chamber of Commerce had aspirations to make it another Shoebury, or even a Thetford, threw a small celebration for Blivet at the Rump and Hock Inn, with a no-host mead bar and finger foods.
"Handselmansby is grateful for your courage and prowess, good sir knight," said the mayor as he handed over the promised bag of gold. "But if you destroyed the terrible worm Guldhogg, where is its carcass?"
"Ah," said Blivet. "Yes. You see, although my last blow was a mortal one, the fell beast had just enough strength to fly away, leaking blood and fire in what I promise you was a very unsurvivable sort of way."
As the knight reached the five-mile post on the road out of Handselmansby a large shadow dropped from the sky and landed with an awkward thump beside him. It took Guldhogg a few moments to catch his breath before he could speak—he clearly hadn't done much flying in recent years. "So it went well? They gave you the money?"
"Yes. And I have already divided it in half." Blivet showed him the sacks and offered him one. "Here is your share."
Guldhogg spilled some gold into his immense clawed forepaw. "Lovely. I haven't had any of this shiny stuff for a bit. Not quite enough to lie on top of, of course, but better than nothing." He sighed. "The only problem is, of course, now I've got nowhere to keep it. Having been driven out of the Greater Handselmansby Area, I mean. Where my cave was."
Sir Blivet nodded. "I agree, that is unfortunate, but I'm certain you can find a new home somewhere else in the greater Danelaw. In fact, I'll need to find a new place myself, because otherwise once the news of my successful dragon slaying spreads I'll have people banging on my door every week with new quests. I doubt I shall be so lucky again in finding a reasonable partner, and I no longer have any interest in real anti-monster combat—those days are far, far behind me. To be honest I want only to find a small but regular source of income so I can settle down and enjoy my golden years. Maybe I'd even take a wife ..."
Guldhogg looked a bit hurt. "You seek a new and reasonable partner, Sir Blivet? I would like to think of myself as more than just reasonable—in fact, I flatter myself that I gave more than was even bargained for. Did I not spout fire most impressively above the treetops so the townsfolk could see how fierce was our battle? Did I not bellow and roar until the welkin itself shook as if it were fevered? And now I am without a home and, except for this gold, just as in want of an income as you are."
"I've never really known what a welkin is, so I'll take your word on that part," Blivet said politely. "But otherwise you are completely correct, honorable Guldhogg: you were a more than amenable opponent, and should we ever find ourselves in a position to do something like this again ..."
After a long silent interval had passed, the dragon cleared his throat, loosing a tiny, hot cumulus. "You seem to have stopped in mid-sentence. Did you forget what you were going to say?"
"No. Come along with me for a while," says Blivet, climbing up into his saddle. "I have just had an idea I would like to discuss with you, but I would prefer we were not observed here together, counting the people of Handselmansby's money."
Over the next few years, East Anglia and the Danelaw were beset with a terrible rash of dragonings. Although no citizens were killed, a great deal of property loss occurred, especially the theft of sheep and other edible creatures. The famous dragonslayer Sir Blivet found himself in constant demand from Benfleet all the way up to Torksey and beyond. Even the King of York asked Blivet to intervene when a particularly unpleasant monster (called the Wheezing Worm by the frightened townsfolk) took up residence in Kirkham Gorge. The veteran dragon-foe was able to drive the creature out again in only a matter of days, and was rewarded handsomely by the king for it, at which point the knight modestly quit York again.
Oddly, as these new boom years for monster hunting continued, they did not seem to benefit other dragonslayers quite as much as they did Sir Blivet. When Percy of Pevensey and Gwydion Big-Axe came searching for the beasts who were causing so much unhappiness in the East Midlands, they could find scarcely a trace, despite Sir Blivet's willingness to tell them exactly where to look. The two great western wormhunters rode away disappointed, as did many others. Only Blivet seemed able to locate the beasts, and soon he could scarcely rid one area of its wormish scourge before being called to help another dragon-troubled populace, often quite close by. It seemed the dragon peril was spreading, and the knight spent far more time on his horse than under a roof.
"To be honest, Guldhogg, my friend," Blivet admitted to the dragon one day in their forest camp, "I'm getting a bit tired of this whole dodge." They were taking a break, having just finished adding their latest fees to a pile of chests and caskets so heavy with coin they now needed a horse-drawn wagon just to haul it all from town to town and vale to vale. "Not that it hasn't been fun."
Guldhogg nodded as he nibbled on a side of mutton. "I know what you mean, Bliv, old man. I wonder if we don't need to expand our territory a bit. I swear I'm seeing the same peasants over and over."
"Well, one peasant does look much like another," Blivet explained. "Especially when they're pointing up at one and screaming. They're like foot soldiers that way."
"It's not just that. I think some of them recognized me during the last job. A family that must have moved here from Barrowby—you remember Barrowby, don't you?"
"Where you stole the chancellor's horse out of his stable and left the bones on his roof?"
"That's the place. Anyway, when I flew over the town here yesterday, spouting fire and bellowing, I heard this fellow originally from Barrowby shout, 'I've seen that bloody dragon before!' Quite rude, really."
"Indeed." Blivet stared at his pile of gold where it sat on the wagon. He frowned, considering. "So you recommend pastures new?"
"Seems like a good idea. Don't want to push our luck."
But Blivet was tugging at his beard, still troubled. "Yes, but as I was saying, Guldhogg, it goes further than that for me. I'm a bit weary of all this tramping around. The idea of moving on to the south, or out to the West Midlands ... well, to be honest, I think I'd rather have some peace and stability—maybe even find a nice woman my age and settle down. We've made almost enough money. One more job should secure both our financial futures." He paused. "In fact, I believe I can even see a way we might fulfill both tasks at once—a last top-up of our bank accounts as well as a permanent residence for both of us! How is that for dispatching several birds with one projectile?"
"A home for both of us? I'm touched, Blivet. But how?"
"The thing is, although you are by far the most profitable of them, you're not the only beast who has been making things difcult for folk around here. This is Tenth Century England, after all—a few years ago I could scarcely stand up and stretch without nudging a wyvern or a griffin or somesuch. They've all gotten a bit scarcer now, but there are still a good few other monsters scattered around the island."
"Of course," says Guldhogg. "I know that. It's one of the reasons people don't seem surprised when I keep turning up in new places pretending to be a different dragon than the last time. Honestly, Blivet, you sound as though you're unhappy there are still a few of us left."
The knight leaned close, although there was nobody in sight for miles across the windswept heath. "Just a few miles down the road, near Fiskhaven by the coast, dwells a terrible ogre by the name of Ljotunir."
"What a strange name!" said Guldhogg.
"Yes, well, the point is, he's apparently a nasty fellow who's got the town of Fiskhaven all upset. I'm told it's a lovely place, clean sea air, several very nice beachfront castles going for rock-bottom prices since the collapse of the dried herring market. And Ljotunir is tough but not invincible. He's about twelve feet tall and quite strong, of course, but not fireproof ... if you see where I'm going."
"No," said Guldhogg a bit sourly. "No, Bliv, my dear old bodkin, I'm afraid I don't."
"Simple enough, Guld, my reptilian chum. We can't settle down because everywhere we go, I make a big show of driving you away or even killing you. That means you can't very well hang around with me afterward. But if we can drive away this ogre together ... well, we'll be paid handsomely again, but this time you won't have done any harm, so we'll both be able to stay on in Fiskhaven. We can buy a castle and land, settle down, and enjoy the fruits of our partnership—" he gestured to the heavily laden wagon, "—in peace and quiet, and even more importantly in one place, as befits individuals of our mature and sensible years. No more tramping."
"And what am I supposed to eat?" asked Guldhogg. "After all, it is devouring the local livestock that usually makes me dracona non grata in the first place." The great worm suddenly grew fretful. "You don't really think my presence is noxious, do you, Blivvy? I mean, we've known each other a while now. You can speak sooth."
"You are lovely company," the knight said firmly. "Only the shortsighted, the dragon-bigoted, or the just plain rude would suggest otherwise. But you didn't let me finish describing my plan, which includes provision for your sustenance. We have money, Guldy. Once the ogre has been dispatched, we will settle in Fiskhaven and become farmers! We'll buy sheep and raise them. You may eat as many as you need, as long as you leave the little ones to grow up into bigger ones—then there will always be more sheep to eat. That's how farming works, you know."
"Really? That's marvelous!" Guldhogg shook his great scaly head. "What will they think of next?"
The battle with the terrible ogre Ljotunir raged for days, ending at last in the hills high above Fiskhaven, so that the whole of the vale rang with the sounds of combat. When it was over and Sir Blivet was about to go down to the town and collect his ogre-slaying money, he noticed that Guldhogg looked preoccupied, even sad.
"What's wrong, dear old chum?"
"It's the ogre. He's so miserable!" Guldhogg nodded toward Ljotunir, who was sitting against the trunk of an oak tree, making loud snuffling sounds.
Blivet took off his heavy helmet and walked across the clearing to where Ljotunir sat—the tree was leaning alarmingly from the weight. The monster's cheeks were indeed wet with tears. "What ails you, good sir ogre?" Sir Blivet asked. "Are you regretting having settled for a one-quarter share? You understand that the risk of this business is ours, don't you? And that we have built up our reputation over several years? But perhaps instead you are mourning your lost reputation as an unbeatable and fearsome giant?"
Excerpted from The Very Best of Tad Williams by Tad Williams. Copyright © 2014 Tad Williams. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Old Scale Game
The Storm Door
The Stranger’s Hands
Child of an Ancient City
The Boy Detective of Oz: An Otherland Story
Three Duets for Virgin and Nosehorn
Diary of a Dragon
Not with a Whimper, Either
Some Thoughts Re: Dark Destroyer
Z is for...
Monsieur Vergalant’s Canard
The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of
Fish Between Friends
Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air
A Stark and Wormy Knight
And Ministers of Grace