Tag Archives: Fantasy

A Dab Hand At

The sky was black when first he came to me. A carrier in the night; the last survivor from a long forgotten era. An orphan of chance.

I was standing by the window – cloak misting around my shoulders – gazing out upon the deep when a man’s face loomed out of the fallow fields in front of me and pressed itself against the glass. The birds outside had long since taken up their grisly chorus – far fouler creatures than they would now be stirring, and so I rushed to admit the man into the safety of my abode.

What madness might have driven him to venture out at night? thought I as I strode to unlock the chain. What ill thoughts have led him to my door?

The stranger wasted no time, but burst past the threshold and into the light. From his build he must have been a man from the North; tall and broad as the mighty oak. His face was shaped like a King of Old, with a firm brow and keen eyes that shone in the dark. His nose was bent in ways that whispered ‘magic’ and there was a wiry growth of hair atop his lip. He seemed confused and would not look at me at first. Now here, now there, he roved about the room, in the very depths of some demented nightmare, muttering of secret desecrations, of restless motives and of the fall of man.

Suddenly, as if at last aware of his surroundings, he stopped his pacing. Then he turned to me and at once threw himself upon my mercy. He began to beseech me, first in the tongue of his mother, then in the tongue of mine, that I might be persuaded to aid him in his quest. White-knuckled, he grasped at the foot of my robes. I recognised nothing about his features, but I could not shake the thought that we had met before; that somehow he and I were brothers. I agreed to help him if I could.

Words failing him, the stricken man pressed a dirtied roll of parchment into my hands. Deed done, he sank back onto the floor. With trembling fingers I opened the parchment. It read as follows: Knowest thou the origin of the phrase – ‘a dab hand at…?’

Surprised, I turned to the man for elucidation, but I found a corpse where life had been. In a twisted act of kindness, death had chalked a smile upon his face. He had faded from this life trusting that I, the foremost scholar of the age, would be able to penetrate the mystery and return peace to the Kingdom of Man. It was clear to me what was at stake. I knew I could not fail.

Yet fail I did. I could find nothing of the phrase in the scrolls, save a tenuous mention regarding a link between ‘dab’ and ‘dapper’, scarcely enough to risk a mention. At the fundamental moment my mind had failed me. There seemed nothing I could do.

The sun did not rise that morning, nor has it risen since. Tonight I am to lead the men of Skia, the last great protectors of the Truth, against the forces of Despair. It is likely I shall fail. I give this account that any reading it might know the quest that claimed the life of my brother, and of so many after him, still burns brightly within my breast. I will conquer the Truth, in this life or the next. And then, when all is done, I will at last be able to answer that smile, which has haunted me to the ending of my days.

This fable is based on true events. My friend Tom, whose wonderful poetry can be found here, text me asking if I could shed any light on the phrase ‘a dab hand at’. As you can see, I couldn’t. I hope you can forgive me, and that this ridiculous excuse for a story has sufficed in place of information.

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Filed under Idioms & Their Origins