Tag Archives: fantasy

Misguided, Ben Lawrence

The fire crackled, green logs spitting sap into the small inferno. A man and a woman huddled close to the fire. Their silhouettes danced around them. They sat on the cracked flagstones of a ruined tower. The rest was tumbled out around the hillock, long overgrown with moss and lichen.

The woman wore a circlet of gold on her greying hair. Her face was dominated by a hawk-like nose that kept watch over lips set in a sharp line. She wore studded leather pants, with thick riding boots and a coat of plates that had once been fine, but was now scarred and dull. On her shoulders she wore ornate pauldrons set in the likeness of a lion’s head, the eyes set with precious gemstones.

A snore came from the prone figure on the other side of the fire. She looked at the pile of blankets and creased her brow in a frown.

‘Bard’

‘…’

‘Bard!’

The man jolted awake at the Queen’s bark, grumbling under his breath. He was dressed in a much simpler fashion. Woollen pants, supple hunting boots, a dirty linen shirt and a simple leather vest. His blonde curls sat in a tousled heap on his head, giving him a youthful appearance.

The Queen’s frown deepened,

‘You are addressing Queen Ysabel of White Shore.’

‘Raise the dead with that shoutin,’ you will.’

She bristled at his lack of respect.

‘You would do well never to speak to me like that again.’

‘Aye, and you might do just as well to keep ye voice down… M’lady. No tellin’ who or what lurks in these parts at night.’

He could feel her baleful gaze drilling into him from across the fire, but she didn’t deign to retort. Probably never been told to shut her trap, he thought.

Instead, she rummaged in her pack and drew out a whetstone. Her sword lay next to her on the flagstones and now she inspected it. With a sniff of annoyance she set the stone to the blade and began honing its edge with long, purposeful strokes. The Bard watched from across the fire, the flames highlighting her movements. They were graceful, exact, and deadly, just as they had been in the battle against the Griffon that day. She did not wear the armour or sword simply for show it seemed.

He inspected his own sword. It was a utilitarian tool, solid iron with a wooden handle and a bronze cross piece. There were several nicks along its edge and some rust spots at the base of the blade. He shrugged and placed the weapon on top of his pack alongside his harp. He didn’t feel like sharpening it just now.

The night was deathly silent. No owls hooted, no critters scurried along secret paths, and the rasping sound of stone on steel set his neck and arm hairs standing on end.

‘Why sharpen it?’

‘Because it needs doing,’ she said in between strokes.

He pushed the sound to the back of his mind.

‘Why? The Griffon’s dead, the battle fought and won.’

‘This battle,’ she said, looking up at him. ‘And who are you to question the Queen of White Shore? You were hired to write a song about my victory over the Griffon. Nothing else, understand?’

He was not surprised by the shortness of her reply. He was used to being looked down on by those of higher station. Yes, they would pay him handsomely enough for a song of their brave deeds, but at any mention of a truth that was not their own, he would be discarded. Just another peasant who didn’t know how to respect his betters. What truly shocked him was her coldness.

‘That beast slaughtered a hundred of ye knights today. Their blood is nawt cold and here ye are preparing for the next battle? Why so cold, mistress?’

‘Are all Bards fools? Or just you? I would think that singing songs of great heroes all day would teach you a thing or two. There is always another battle, another war. To not recognise this is to die a fool.’

He shook his head in disbelief, his mind recalling the images of the battle against the Griffon. He saw again how the Queen had ordered her knights to charge the beast, and how the knights were cut down by the Griffon’s foul claws. All the while, she watched, searching for an opening. He saw how she had urged the last of her knights forward to their death, and how she had charged behind them, trampling those who were wounded in order to strike the killing blow.

‘Aye, I sing songs of heroes, mistress. But none so cold as you.’

She regarded him with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow, and if she hadn’t been raised a Queen, she might have chewed her lip.

‘You truly are a fool. All heroes are heartless at some point. That is the part the tales leave out.’ She reached inside her pack and withdrew the trophy she had taken from the Griffons’ corpse. It looked like a feather, but it was about half a metre long and rich gold in colour. The fibres were malleable, but he had witnessed swords shatter against them. As his eyes ran along its sleek surface, he noticed how the colours changed, from gold to bronze to brass, and at the very tip, bright silver.

‘How much do you think this is worth, Bard?’

He thought for a moment, but couldn’t think of a number high enough.

‘I don’t know, mistress.’

‘Exactly,’ she said as she twirled it in her hands, the firelight making it look like liquid gold. ‘It is priceless. It is power, and glory, and riches. And this is just one. When I harvest the rest from the Griffon’s corpse tomorrow, I will become more powerful than all the Kings on this continent. And I will start an Empire the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, my knights died. But they died an honourable death serving their Queen.’ She said this all without taking her eyes off the feather. She seemed to be somewhere else, as if in a daydream.

The Bard didn’t understand.

‘An honourable dead man is still a dead man, mistress. And you’re already a Queen. You’ve a whole kingdom, hundreds of kilometres of land and wealth. Why be an Emperor?’

She tore her gaze away from the feather, although it seemed to pain her to do so.

‘And? Hundreds will become thousands, tens of thousands. I will have it all. And no man will ever dare to question my rule again.’

He was lost for words. Granted he had always wanted a bit more. A few more coins to jingle in his pocket would have been nice. A new harp would be good if he could afford it, and he did want to settle down someday with a plump wife that would give him many sons. But she was a Queen. The idea that she could possibly want for more just did not make any sense to the Bard.

An idea struck him.

‘Do you know the history of this tower?’

‘Of course I do!’ she snapped. ‘It is the seat of the Old Empire.’

‘Right you are, mistress. But do ye know how it came to be nawt but a ruin?’

Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. A grin split his face, revealing crooked teeth.

‘Worry not, mistress, let me tell ye the tale of the great Empire of Abernia, which stretched all the lands to the north and most to the south, all of it ruled from right here in this very castle.’

‘Get on with it, Bard, I assume this tale has a point?’

‘Aye, it does. Now, the Empire was at peace, had been for years. But the King was a vain man. He loved nothing more than to sit on his throne and count his coins. Then, one day, during a feast he held as celebration for the conquest of another nation, a real threat came to his kingdom. Or at least, the news of one. A farmer crashed through the door to the great hall, weak and weary from travel. “Dragon! Great, terrible, fire breathing dragon! A vile creature, evil to the core! Please O’ wise and noble King, send your knights to slay this beast and deliver us from fear,” said he. Naturally, everyone at the feast was shocked by such news, but they were even more shocked by the King’s reaction. “Good man! Thank you for bringing word of this threat to our safety. Sit! Feast! On the morrow, I will lead my knights and slay the creature.”

“O’ Wise King, O’ brave King! God’s praise you! The creature is truly evil. It killed ten farmers with one fell sweep of its claws, and then set the buildings alight with its wicked breath.”

“Fear not, brave fellow, my knights and I will slay the beast, of that you can be assured!”

‘So, that settled, they feasted into the night and when morning came, the King and his knights and the farmer set out to find the dragon.

‘They travelled far to the south where the King’s grip on the land was not as tight. The farms he passed were far dirtier, and far poorer than the pretty ploughed fields outside his castle. “Look at what this beast has done! My poor subjects suffer greatly at the hands of its evil.” His knights agreed, but the farmer was confused. The creature had only attacked his village. These farms had not been affected and to him looked as they always had. But he didn’t say so, far be it for him to question his King.’

‘If only all men were as noble and loyal as this farmer’ remarked the Queen, voice thick with derision.

‘Aye, mistress, if only,’ the Bard replied, knowing full well the comment was aimed at him, and recalling that the Queen’s sword was now very sharp. But he continued anyway, hoping his tale would reach her. ‘When the King and his knights came upon the man’s village, ravaged and savaged as it was, they found the dragon sleeping on a pile of bones. The King ordered the charge and the battle was on. For a day and a night it raged, but finally, the beast was slain. Many brave men died in the battle, including the poor farmer.

‘As proof of his victory, the King brought back a large scale from the beast’s breast, crimson and gold in colour. Now, as I said, he was a vain man and wanted to assert his wealth and power even though he was an Emperor. He flaunted his prize and gloated with glee… And was promptly assassinated by jealous rivals.

‘Without a King, the Empire crumbled, and all because the man who had it all, wanted more.’

‘A fine tale, Bard, you obviously have some skill,’ the Queen said begrudgingly. ‘But it is a tale, nothing more than myth and legend based on an old fool.’

As he had been talking, a red sun had begun to rise. It was still an hour or so until dawn, but the first tendrils of crimson light were filtering in from the east, creeping over their camp.

The Bard’s shoulders sagged. He had failed to have an effect on the Queen. She remained stoically silent as she watched the world awaken to the new day.

Eventually, she spoke.

‘Tell me, Bard, what song have you written of me? How shall my victory over the Griffon be remembered?’

‘I haven’t written anything yet, mistress’ he lied.

‘I have seen you practice at night as we travelled from White Shore, and you have just proved you have some skill in the art. Come, sing it to me. Now.’

With a sigh he relented. He picked up his harp, plucked a few strings and adjusted them. Then, satisfied, he began to play a slow melody.

‘There once was a Queen, greedy and bold,

She went chasing legends of old.

 

For o’er yonder hill from White Shore,

There was a creature who she was sure

If not slain, would be her shame,

So she set out, to gain her fame.

 

Over high mountain and deep river,

She voyaged with barely a shiver.

 

She took a hundred knights to meet their maker,

All in the hopes that she could be greater…’

‘Enough!’ she screamed. ‘Your arrogance knows no bounds. You have insulted me beyond forgiveness this night. As Queen of White Shore, I sentence you to death.’ She rose from her sitting position, sword in hand and advanced. ‘The Lords of White Shore have always been their own headsman. Bow your head so that I may make it a clean death, though you don’t deserve one.’

The Bard scrabbled for his blade, regretting his laziness earlier in the night. She was old but experienced, and he lacked training but was young and fit. He took the guard position he had been taught as a child, feet braced apart, sword raised in front. She swung her sword in lazy arcs as she advanced, the blade whistling as it cut the air.

She feigned left then lashed out with a right-hand cut. He blocked to his left then slashed wildly, forcing her to jump backwards. She immediately stepped forward again, bringing her blade down in a swift overhead motion. He barely managed to get his blade up in time, and the force of the blow made his hand go numb. She was much stronger than he had anticipated.

He lunged forward, but his blade was easily swept aside. Overbalanced, he had no choice but to continue the motion. He knew he couldn’t bring his sword around in time, but neither could she, so he threw his fist into her chin as he careened forward.

She fell hard but instinct saved her. As soon as she hit the ground she was rolling, and his sword struck the stones where moments before her head had been. He advanced on her again and she lashed out with her heavy boots, catching him on the knee. He howled in pain and was forced to moved back, giving her enough time to regain her feet.

They had the measure of each other now and the duel settled into a steady rhythm, the clash and clang of their sword’s echoing through the pre-dawn light, giving a grim feel to the red light of morning.

Her sword sliced into the Bard’s arm, her superior skill giving her the upper hand. He grunted in pain and frustration, blood flowing freely down his arm. She advanced again and he backed away, unable to keep his sword raised. He tripped on the fire as he retreated and the Queen’s boot caught him in the chest as he struggled to maintain his balance. He sailed backwards over the fire, losing his sword as he fell, severely winded. Fighting for breath and in immense pain, he dragged himself across the ground toward the Queen’s pack. She advanced, ready to drive her sword into his exposed back.

He reached the pack and frantically rummaged. The Queen brought her sword down just as he rolled, so instead of skewering him, her sword only cut him superficially, grating as it glanced off his ribs. But he had what he had been searching for in her pack, and he drove the feather into The Queen’s neck. Blood erupted from the fatal wound and poured down the feather onto the Bard’s hand.

Her eyes widened in shock as she fell to the ground, coughing and spluttering. A pool of blood quickly formed as she clawed at her ruined neck, fighting for a breath that would not come.

The Queen of White Shore died with the Griffon’s feather still protruding from her neck, shining crimson and gold in the light of dawn.

 

 

Download a PDF of ‘Misguided’

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Valley, Anna Blackie

Marcus hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. He marvelled at how insignificant it seemed from this height. Turning his focus to what lay above him, Marcus hauled himself through the crack in the sky, the tantalising scent of fresh air luring him out of his comfort zone. Finally, he lurched over the rim of the Valley, scurrying onto a thin ledge and standing shakily, desperately pushing his aching muscles, both terrified and excited by what lay before him.

*

  The air was warm and thick, despite the relentless movement in the Valley. They had long ago realised that fresh air was not easy to come by, all breeze barred by the vast mountains that surrounded the small town. Marcus clung to the tree beside him, his fingernails digging into the soft bark. The ground trembled incessantly, the vibrations growing stronger and stronger with each passing second. Marcus analysed the movement of the earth, careful to note the way the ground folded and creased as the disturbance played out. The earth continued to shudder violently, those who were unprepared sent soaring through the air. He watched as Mr Roy, the baker, flew past him, the stout man bracing himself for the inevitable impact against the Valley wall. As suddenly as they had begun the tremors ended. Marcus’s eyes were drawn to the small crack of light shining through the top of the Valley. He watched closely, waiting for change, some movement, just a flicker of light, anything…   With a deep sigh Marcus released the tree, his fingers unfurling to reveal two large handfuls of dirty bark. He gently released the debris, opening and closing his hands in an attempt to restore the blood-flow.
‘Marcus!’ Mr Roy called from behind him. Marcus turned to watch the small man make his way back up the hill, his white apron askew, and face bright red from the effort.
‘All right there, Mr Roy?’ He called back to the baker.
‘Yes, yes, this isn’t my first disturbance you know.’ Mr Roy chided as he reached him, the bakers ruddy face glistening with a layer of sweat. ‘But you know how these things are, let your guard down for five minutes and you’re soarin’ out your kitchen window!’ Marcus laughed, life in the Valley certainly did have an element of the unexpected.
‘How’s that research of yours coming?’ Mr Roy asked as the two men walked together through the Valley.
‘Oh, you know,’ he mumbled in reply, ‘No breakthroughs yet.’
‘Well you just keep on keeping on, Marcus’ Mr Roy said, his jovial tone before suddenly turning serious, ‘If anyone can crack the code of this place, it’s you.’ With that, Mr Roy gave Marcus a firm clap on the back and made his way back into his bakery.

*

  The origin of The Valley had been speculated over for as long as there had been people inhabiting the tiny enclave. The Church of the Palm spoke of a hand that reached down into the Valley and released life onto the land. The non-believers spouted stories of people falling from the sky, of fish growing legs and emerging from the Valley’s deep, stagnant lake. Children were told tales of men sprouting from the ground, like seeds growing from the soil. Marcus seemed to be the only citizen of the Valley unable to stand the ambiguity; even as a boy he remembered questioning the fables their home was built upon, the myths and folklore not enough to satisfy his thirst for the truth. Although, it wasn’t until the arrival of disc that Marcus fully began to question the Valley, becoming desperate to know what lay outside the only reality he had ever known.

Marcus followed the outer wall of the Valley home from school, his small fingers running against the smooth barrier that surrounded him. He moved with a bounce in his step, a somewhat unexpected side-effect of the spongey Valley floor. As he grew closer to home he caught the sound of voices, the walls surrounding the town making it almost impossible to have a private conversation outdoors without your dirty laundry echoing throughout the town.
‘Do we tell him?’ he heard his father ask apprehensively.
‘Of course we tell him.’ his mother replied, ‘don’t we?’ she added with uncertainty. Marcus stopped and listened to the conversation, sure that his parents were talking about him.
‘This is just the sort of thing he’d obsess over…’
‘Well, we can’t very well hide It.’ his mother declared. Curiosity burned through him, and Marcus began to sprint towards his home, the sprung-floor of the Valley bouncing his tiny body higher and farther than he could have managed alone. He rounded the corner and spotted his house.

The small cottage hugged rocky boundary of the Valley, its walls and roof anchored to the side of the cliff. Marcus followed the sound of voices to the small garden outside. His mother and father stood in the centre of the grassed area, his younger sister Jenny hugging their father’s legs, her small body not even reaching his knee. Marcus was too excited to focus on his family, his attention immediately drawn to the object. It lay in the corner of the back-yard, squishing half of the vegetable garden. The disc was huge, at least three times the size of their house. Marcus approached it slowly, as if afraid the inanimate silver object would rear up and bite him. His family stayed quiet as they watched him inch closer, sensing the fervent excitement that lay beneath his hesitation. He walked slowly around the object, amazed by the vast size, taking its metallic sheen and the massive, stern face chiselled into its surface.
‘What do you think it is?’ he asked his parents who had silent moved to stand behind him. Marcus’s mind was reeling with possibilities of the disc’s origin, each more unlikely than the last.
‘They used to tell us stories about silver discs in school. Myths of these objects falling from the sky and crushing whole houses.’ His father told him quietly, ‘I always thought they were just fairy-tales, scary stories…’
‘Where did it come from?’ Marcus asked as he crouched down to touch the object, caressing its cold, hard surface. ‘How did it get here?’
‘It arrived while you were at school,’ Jenny announced from behind Marcus, making him jump slightly as he had been so involved in the object that he’d forgotten she was there.
‘I was lying in the garden looking up at the sky,’ she gestured to the sliver of light shining through the roof of the Valley, ‘then suddenly it got really bright, and that thing,’ she gestured to the mysterious silver disc, now glistening in the dim light, ‘started to fall towards me. I jumped up and moved, it would have squished me flat if I hadn’t!’ Jenny finished her story, beaming from ear to ear. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, the moment Marcus had been waiting for. Of course it was Jenny who saw it all go down.
‘It came from the sky?’ Marcus repeated, running the words through his head, trying to make sense of the senseless.
‘That’s what I said.’ Jenny replied, clearly miffed at Marcus’s lack of appreciation of her near-death experience. Marcus plunked himself down next to disc, not willing to give his younger sister the satisfaction of appreciating her story. Despite his overwhelming jealousy, Marcus knew he had to find out the origins of the disc.

*

The disappearance of the disc was as surprising as its arrival. Each morning Marcus had ventured out into the garden to perform his daily tests. First he measured it, struggling to reach his tape measure over the diameter of an object so much larger than himself. He often dreamed about the disc growing through the night. He would run into the garden the next morning, disappointed to discover nothing had changed. After he’d taken his measurements he would sketch the object, careful to include every detail. When the disc had first arrived Marcus left gifts of food next to it morning and evening, at least until his father had found out and stopped him, unwilling to waste the food on an inanimate object that had crushed half of their vegetable garden. Unable to provoke a reaction from the disc any other way, Marcus had begun to speak to it. He would tell it his dreams as he performed his tests, then inform it of his day at school in the afternoons. Despite the disc’s obvious inanimate nature, Marcus had become quite fond of the object and the plethora of secrets he imagined it held.

Marcus had fallen behind on his testing schedule on the morning of the disc’s disappearance. He’d been unwilling to enter the conscious realm, his dreams filled with silver objects raining from the sky, the faces etched on the discs filling his ears with stories of the world beyond the Valley. When he finally awoke and made his way outside he was greeted with a sight much more spectacular than that of his dream. An enormous hand emerged through the crack in the sky. The hand was more massive than anything Marcus had ever imagined, thousands of times bigger than the disc. The light emanating from the crack in the sky caught on the hands gargantuan surface, illuminating its full scope while darkening the valley below. Each finger was alarmingly thick, the giant fingernails grubby with dirt. Marcus stole a look at his own hand and marvelled at the similarities, unable to form a coherent thought about what was unfolding before him. A thick wrist covered in dense black hair came into Marcus’s view, lowering the hand closer and closer to the disc. The fingers flexed towards the object, reaching to capture it in its grasp. Marcus scurried to the side of his garden, sketching the scene transpiring before him, a voice in his head screaming to him, telling him this is what he had been waiting for. The hand plucked up the disc, lifting it as if it was no more than a piece of paper. Marcus watched in awe as the hand rose higher. The wrist disappeared through the crack pulling the hand and disc along with it.

Speculation as to the origin of the disc and hand ran rampant throughout the Valley. The Church of the Palm experienced an influx in their patronage, the towns’ people believing that God had finally begun to take an interest in their home, the hope being that this Almighty force may be receptive to the prayers of the people. Those of religious orientation began to pray day and night, waiting for a hand big enough to destroy them to reach down and grant their wishes. Others were less optimistic, believing the hand and the disc were signs of the apocalypse, and thus began to prepare themselves accordingly. However, as the weeks past with no sign of the hand, disc or anything else out of the ordinary (despite the regular tremors, which the people of the town had long since accepted as a fact of everyday life) the people began to forget, and soon questions of the unknown were put aside and people moved on with the mundane flow of life. All, that is, except for Marcus. The appearance of the coin had sparked something within him, a deep, searing curiosity that consumed his every waking moment. For the next five years the coin, the hand and the origin of the Valley were all he thought about.

*

Marcus had worked tirelessly to prepare himself for what lay beyond his home. He had developed strong, muscular shoulders from spelunking and climbing throughout the Valley. He had also grown to match his father’s height. At 16, Marcus was already a head taller than all the citizens of the Valley and showed no signs of a decline in his growth. As he continued to grow, he found his climbing exploits became gradually easier. His length allowed his to reach further and pull himself higher along the enclosed walls of the Valley. One day he found himself further up than he had ever been before. The view was magnificent, Marcus could see the entirety of the Valley stretched out before him, his friends and family ambling along beneath him. From this vantage he could see the overhang of the crack in the sky, like a rock shelf, certainly one that Marcus could hoist himself onto. He had no idea what would be on the other side, but he was sure that it was the key to the mystery of his home.

‘Climb out?’ She repeated incredulously, ‘How do you even know there is an out? For all we know you could get to the top and fall into nothing.’ His parents sat across the table from him; his mother ringing her hands as she spoke, while his father remained stoic and silent, apparently deep in thought.
‘There has to be something more out there, Mum’ he pleaded with her, ‘the hand, the disc, they had to have come from somewhere.’
‘But Marcus-’ she started, struggling explanation to placate her sons curiosities.
‘No Mum, we both know it’s true. There has to be more than this…’
‘He needs to go,’ his father announced.
‘What! How can you support this Jeremy?’
‘If we don’t let him go now he’s just going to find a way to do it eventually anyway, right Marcus?’
‘Yes,’ Marcus answered, avoiding his parents gaze.
‘But if he goes now and we help him prepare, then, maybe, he’ll have a better chance.’ Marcus’s mother listened incredulously, unable to accept the idea of releasing her only son into the unknown.
‘I need to know what’s out there Mum,’ Marcus told her, gripping both her hands in his, ‘If I don’t figure this out it will eat me alive.’ Tears cascaded down her face as she took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.

  *

He hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. Marcus reached out to haul himself through the hole in the sky, his aching muscles screaming in protest as he heaved his long body through the crevice and out into the open air. The sky Marcus saw as he emerged from the crack was more spectacular than he could have dreamed, the light so bright he was forced to cover his eyes. The weak rays of light that had shone down into the Valley were nothing in comparison to the huge, burning ball of bright heat that hovering miraculously on the skyline, causing Marcus’s eyes to water as he peaked at it from behind his hand. Marcus’s vision began to adjust as he took in the breathtaking view before him. He had done it. Finally, gloriously, he had done it.

Eventually he tore his eyes away from the marvel before him and looked back down towards the Valley. He could now see that his home was a deep crevice, carved into the side of what appeared to be a colossal mountain. As Marcus craned his neck backwards to take in the scope of the mountain, a deafening sound ruptured through the silence, followed by a vicious rumbling underfoot. Marcus grabbed hold of the closest ridge and clung for dear life. The disturbance outside the Valley far more violent than he could have anticipated. Around him he saw a flurry of movements. The hand appeared, Marcus watched as a long arm protruded out from behind it. A desperate excitement inside him screaming that the truth was almost known. Marcus could see now that the arm was attached to the mountain. His brain exploded with millions of attempted explanations, struggling to comprehend what he was transpiring around him. Before he had time to digest this breakthrough, he felt the shuddering increase. A sound louder than anything Marcus had ever heard broke through the air around him- a barking cough amplified to the highest extend. The violent tremor of the mountain was unrelenting. Marcus’s grip faltered and he slipped down the ledge, grappling wildly in an attempt to grab hold of the cracked opening of the Valley. Before his hands could make purchase, Marcus was flung from the mountain. Sheer terror flooded through him as he felt himself freefalling away from everything he had ever know and the answers to the mystery which he had devoted his life. As he fell backwards he looked up towards the mountain, his perspective and the shock of his imminent death allowing him to take in the enormity of what stood above him, and process what he saw him with no scepticism or fear.

A huge man, the scale of which beyond anything that Marcus could have possibly imagined stood before him, draped in the mountain that Marcus now realised to be a huge overcoat. Marcus continued to fall, the air pushing past him at a phenomenal speed, but he no longer cared. It was a man, no mountain or Valley, but the biggest man Marcus had or would ever see. A sudden wave of tranquillity washed over him as his minuscule body hurdled to the ground.

 

Download a PDF of The Valley

Tagged , , , ,

Surviving Loneliness, Timothy Hirons

The surface, tensed and drawn, split apart as the steel point drove its way into the gap, droplets from the puncture streaming into the mud. Sewing in the rain was a terrible idea. Ben, a grubby faced New-Worlder, his small hands coated in the dust of the dying world, pulled out the needle and replaced it farther down. The fact that he’d managed to find a spot with enough shelter for him to light a fire granted him an opportunity he couldn’t afford to pass up. After a few more strokes he flattened out the patch he was sewing in. It was a small, poorly cut piece of flannelette cloth from a shirt he’d scavenged a day earlier. He reclined against the large hanging rock at his back. It felt good to sit down for a while. The soles of his boots were crumbling and his socks were closer to anklets now. He began stitching up the third side of the patch, and as he did so he turned his head toward a rusty, dented camping stool beside him.

‘You know what?’ he said to the vacant chair, ‘I don’t even know how the Old-Worlders did this.’ The stool said nothing. ‘How could I? I’ve never met one,’ said Ben, pulling out the needle to examine his work. In his lap lay a cargo jacket covered in mix-matched pockets of varying materials and sizes. The newest addition had a special position just below his collar. He pulled the jacket on and placed his needle and thread into their new home.

‘There,’ he said to the stool. ‘A pocket for my pocket making kit.’ The stool remained appropriately still. Ben raised an eyebrow, ‘It’s not pointless, it’s brilliant! You’re pointless!’

‘Hello?’ Ben jumped as he heard the rasping female voice calling out from down the hill. He threw his rain-drenched blanket over the fire and flattened himself against the rock, pulling a small shard of jagged metal from his boot. ‘Is someone there?’ struggled the voice. He peeked cautiously down the slope. Just below on the Old-World highway beneath him a frail woman stumbled up the hill.

‘She sounds really sick,’ he whispered to the chair, leaning out a little farther. Before he could decide whether it was safe to approach the woman, three figures tore through the shadows beside her, knocking her to the ground. Ben watched as she kicked wildly at the figures as they dragged her down the rocky slope toward the highway. Ben turned to his stool.

‘I can’t!’ he hissed, ‘I don’t even have a gun!’ Suddenly the black sky lit up with bolts of light as the roaring of gunshots shook the stones around his feet, painting the rain in gold. Ben gritted his teeth for the sound of screaming, but heard only the woman’s voice.

‘Thank you, mister! Thank you!’ Ben peered back down the hill. He saw two people still standing; one the woman, struggling to pick herself up, and the other a man, twenty metres from her, clad in makeshift armour carrying a collection of weaponry beyond anything Ben had ever seen. The woman began to approach the man, her arms extended in gratitude as he reloaded his revolver. Ben darted from his rock and slid down the hill to her side, wrenching her away from the man.

‘Hey!’ she shouted.

‘What are you doing?’ barked Ben, ‘He’s a Wolf!’ The man ignored them and began searching the bodies. He stalked through the carnage gathering ammunition and supplies. The woman looked confused.

‘You aren’t from here are you?’ asked Ben. She shook her head. ‘You from a settlement?’

‘Diggertown,’ spluttered the woman, ‘but there’s no food there, so I left.’ Ben watched the Wolf as he picked up a can of beans from beside one of the bodies. However, upon realising he couldn’t fit it in his pocket he dropped it. The woman edged forward.

‘Excuse me… mister… would you… could I travel with you?’ she asked. The Wolf turned to face her. His scarred face was creased and wrinkled the way Ben’s fingers got when he stood in the rain and his hair was grey like it was dying.

‘Pockets?’ he asked. The woman turned out her pants. He turned away. Ben picked up the can of beans.

‘I have pockets,’ he said, placing it into his coat. ‘Most still empty,’ he added. The stranger looked him up and down, the creases stretching as he sneered.

‘Keep up,’ he growled, passing him another can. The woman watched as they began walking away.

‘What about me?’ she asked. The Wolf looked back over his shoulder.

‘Pray.’

 

The pair spoke little as they followed the highway east over the next two days, despite Ben’s best efforts, but as they came to a winding trench the Wolf finally broke his silence.

‘Stop thinking about her,’ he said.

‘You think she’ll be ok?’ said Ben.

‘No,’ said the man. Ben paused, his eyes down cast. ‘Seriously, stop.’

‘You are a Wolf, right?’ asked Ben. The man hung his head.

‘I roam, I hunt outlaws, I kill for money. So sure, why not?’ Ben furrowed his brow.

‘What’s an outlaw?’ The Wolf groaned.

‘Someone who does bad things.’

‘Doesn’t that make you an outlaw?’

‘I thought so.’ The two followed the road until it reached the remains of a town. The structures were broken down and decaying, but made from bricks, not assorted scrap. Definitely Old-World, but hardly abandoned. Barricades surrounded the gates and unmanned machine guns were posted atop a bell tower.

‘You see that crack in the wall over there?’ said the Wolf. Ben followed his finger to a point just short of the barricades.

‘Sure.’

‘Wait there until I come back.’

‘Sure thing… uh, Wolf,’ said Ben. The Wolf nodded and vaulted the barricade. Ben sprinted over to the point his companion had identified and proceeded to set up his camping chair.

‘He’s not going to kill me!’ he said to the chair. ‘You’re just jealous that I can talk to him now instead of you,’ he said. The chair was unconcerned. ‘Bah, you’ll see. If I can learn to be like him I’ll never go hungry again. I’ll be able to walk on the Old-World roads instead of around them. I won’t just be some pockets guy buying protection, I’ll be a Wolf!’ He sifted through the dirt with his finger, ‘Besides, it’d be nice to have someone to talk to for a while,’ he sighed. ‘What? No I wasn’t ignoring you,’ he said quickly, ‘I was just thinking.’

The next few minutes were marked only by gunshots, shouting and one loud bang. After a short time the Wolf returned through the barricades.

‘So I guess you finished killing the whole damn world,’ said Ben, collapsing his stool. The wolf raised an eyebrow.

‘You aren’t bringing that. Come on, I got a job for you, Pockets Guy,’ replied the Wolf, turning to leave. Ben placed the stool back down.

‘Pockets Guy?’ he asked, rounding the corner to see smoke gushing from the entrance to a building at the end of the road.

‘That’s what they call you, right? You kids who get protection from mercs by selling yourselves as pack mules,’ said the Wolf. Ben quickened his pace to keep up.

‘Sure, but why not call me ‘Ben’?’ The Wolf looked back over his shoulder.

‘You keep calling me Wolf, as if my job was my name.’ Ben nodded slowly, brow raised as though contemplating some great revelation. ‘Not that it’s wrong,’ the Wolf mused, ‘What man is more than his work?’ he said, stepping over a smouldering body, its face split and torn, erupted in the centre like a bad fruit hollowed by worms. The Wolf saw Ben grimacing. ‘Forty-fours can do amazing work,’ he said, stroking the hilt of his revolver. Ben suddenly remembered why he avoided Wolves. As they reached the entrance to the smoking building, Ben raised his head and asked.

‘Wait. Does that mean you actually have a name?’ The Wolf stopped at the door and turned, brow creased.

‘What? You think Wolves are some kind of supernatural beings?’ he chided. Ben shrugged. The Wolf shook his head in disbelief. ‘Fucking New-Worlders,’ he muttered as he entered the building.

Ben followed the Wolf through what he figured was some kind of Old-World fortress. It had two levels, each with its own walkways, and on either side were enormous chambers with tall barricades lined from end to end. An ingenious defensive strategy thought Ben, though he couldn’t understand why the barricades had items stacked on them. They came to the end of a long, broad hallway and found another such room, only this one had large letters bolted to the wall above the entrance: WOOLWORTHS.

‘Who’s Woolworth?’ asked Ben. The Wolf hung his head with a groan.

‘Just help me, and canned food only! These shelves haven’t been restocked in twenty-five years,’ he said starting to grab food off the shelves and handing it to him. Ben stared in shock at the sheer volume of supplies. Ben took a bag out of one of his larger pockets. The Wolf looked at him as if he had just pulled out a live animal.

‘What? I’m prepared,’ said Ben. The Wolf grinned and started shovelling food into the bag. ‘And if I may ask, are you planning on travelling somewhere… like, really far away?’ asked Ben, gawking at the ever growing horde. Suddenly, the Wolf stopped. He threw the last can into the bag and pulled Ben up by his collar.

‘Alright, Pockets Guy, we’re out of time. Take this bag and everything you have and follow this path to the end of the shopping centre. When you’re out follow the road by the clock tower back to the wall. Wait where I had you wait before. Don’t stop for anything or anyone. Lose my food and I skin you. Clear?’ Ben stared at him for a moment, stunned.

‘Uhhhh, what’s a shopping centre?’ he asked. A crash came from back down the way they’d come followed by frenzied voices. The Wolf growled as he pulled his assault rifle from his back. He grabbed Ben and spun him to face down the corridor.

‘Run till you hit daylight then haul ass for the crack in the wall! Move!’ he shouted. Ben began to run, but turned around for a moment when he realised the Wolf wasn’t following.

‘Aren’t you coming?’

‘You’ve got the pockets, kid, now EXFIL!’ The Wolf opened fire down the hall.

Ben ran as fast as he could manage with all the weight he was carrying. It wasn’t long before he came to the building exit. Sunlight beckoned him out and he saw the clock-tower directly ahead of him, only the machine guns were no longer vacant. The gunners sighted down immediately and opened fire. Ben launched himself down the road, swerving side to side with the weight of the bag over his shoulder. All around him the dirt sprung up like tiny volcanoes erupting around his feet. Then they stopped. Ben looked back as one of the gunners dropped from the tower with a stream of red following after. The air around him was still full of the sound of gunfire, which persisted even after he had found his spot by the wall. He dropped to the dirt with his back to the wall and looked over to his camping stool, still sitting where he’d left it.

‘Shut up,’ he barked at the chair.

Ben waited anxiously for an end to the perpetual ringing of gunfire and explosions, trying to comfort his camping stool. Presently, the Wolf returned dropping over the wall with a thud.

‘Alright, let’s go,’ he said urgently. Ben looked up at him and the trickles of blood snaking down his tattered shirt and pants. He was covered in it. His jacket and rifle were gone and his sleeves had been torn into tourniquets the way Ben had learnt in the wastes. Amid the blood Ben could make out a tattoo of a winged knife on his shoulder with the words ‘Who Dares Wins’ written across it.

‘We need to get you help,’ said Ben. The Wolf laughed.

‘Relax kid, I never die till the job’s done,’ he replied. Ben looked him up and down feeling far from comforted. He could tell from his experience treating his own injuries that he would only last a day or two.

‘Come on,’ said the Wolf, ‘Job’s not done yet.’

 

Around half a day’s walk later the two found themselves approaching a small settlement. A large signpost sat out the front reading Diggertown. Ben turned to the now pale Wolf.

‘Why are we here?’ he asked. The Wolf stopped walking.

‘So you can take those supplies to Christie at the inn. Tell her that Tom took care of her problem,’ he said. Ben nodded.

‘Shouldn’t you see the doctor?’ he asked as the Wolf began to stumble away down the street.

‘My next job was to gather medical supplies for the town,’ replied the Wolf.

‘You’re really happy to die here?’ asked Ben. The Wolf turned with something resembling a smile.

‘Don’t worry about me, kid. I’m just a piece of something that should have killed itself long ago.’ Ben watched his new friend limp away before making his way to the inn where he found a dark haired girl with the most welcoming smile he’d ever seen. He could see dozens of scars on her arms and cheeks and she had more muscle than he did, despite her slender appearance. He lifted the food onto the counter and her eyes widened.

‘Tom says he took care of a problem for you,’ said Ben. The girl’s eyes flashed at the name.

‘You’ve seen Tom? Where is he?’ she demanded. Ben took a step back in shock.

‘Uh, he’s… well he’s bleeding out down the street. He said you-’

‘Ran out of medicine. Yes we bloody did, but perhaps now we can afford to fix that,’ she said wheeling round to grab a rifle off the wall behind her along with a pouch of grenades, a knife, two bandoliers, two pistols and a pair of aviators. She moved the food behind the counter and placed a bag of coins on the counter before marching out into the street. Ben took his pay and followed her up to the entrance to the town where the other pockets guys hung out looking for work. There she stood in the middle of the street and shouted.

‘Who wants to help me raid a slaver occupied hospital out near Rippley’s Revenge?’ The street fell silent. Ben could see the Wolf reclining against a wall further down the road. He dropped his camping stool in the dust and stepped forward.

‘I’ve got pockets,’ he said displaying his jacket. Christie smiled.

‘Let’s roll, Pockets Guy.’

The End

 

Download a pdf of ‘Surviving Loneliness’

Tagged , , , ,

Paris The Incorrigible, Elise Robertson

Paris crouched cautiously in his dust bath, tossing clawfuls of the dusky earth onto his brilliant scaled back. An orange sliver of radiant sunshine dazzled the usual smut blackness of the Dragon’s Cave.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

The clamour bludgeoned Paris’ head like a meat-axe.

King Marchello, bless his beard, had commissioned an enormous beaten gold archway on the dragon’s neighbouring Midas Mountain Range.

At bath time, Paris liked to rollick about, the grainy dust removing troublesome Sprites who delighted in pinching and nipping him. And Paris had certain ideas about modesty. Not that you could see anything, of course. But it was the principle of the thing. Paris hadn’t heard any catcalls from the chainmail clad dwarf-women but it was only a matter of time.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

‘Think they can hide behind their beards,’ Paris lowered his voice darkly, ‘But I know what they’re about.’ In serious danger of a hag-ridden visage, Paris applied the Fountain-Of-Youth Face-Mask; the lilac-scented paper-strips making him resemble a tallow-faced mummy.

‘Let them laugh,’ Paris thought, clicking his teardrop talons together. ‘When they have a turkey décolleté, sandpaper skin, and bruised eye-shadows from withering in the sun and candlelight, then they’ll sit up and take notice.’

He liked to look his best before going on a raid, the better to beguile his enemies.

With bewitching bumblebee yellow eyes that could lull to sleep a gossip-mongering Cyclops, his tongue dripping with venomous words and a capacious pouch, furnished with downy feathers, perfect for poaching. Paris had earned his reputation as the Incorrigible Dragon.

*

Paris soared like an iridescent satin ribbon past Uno, a town of terraced houses with arched blue doors and iron balconies.

A prominent round peephole permitted the townsfolk to press their single golden-yellow eyes to the glass and observe their neighbours. In amongst the incessantly pruned box-hedges obtruded a stricken scarecrow Cyclops, red velvet mouth stifling a scream and an egg-yolk yellow eye glinting with shock. In his youth, Paris would mistake these decoys for flesh-and-blood, belatedly receiving an unfortunate mouthful of sawdust stuffing. The dragon licked his artful lips and fantasized about what he would eat for pudding, his favourite dish, Someone-and-Kidney Pie.

*

Paris glided over Highwayman’s Lane, phalanxed by a bank of twisted she-oak. Often on this beat, Paris would glint an heiress in her dove-white brougham carriage, embellished with gilded vines.

Twirling his glossy whiskers, the dragon would bind the maiden to the mining tracks by her lustrous tassels. If her father were of a sensible mind, a plump dowry would feed Paris’ emaciated purse.

Presently, the gravel road was mostly deserted, apart from a lone traveller.

Definitely an ogre. You could tell from the bulging, pug-like eyes, black curly chest hair and calloused bare feet. Dressed minimally in technicolour suspenders and pale rompers, he was not a figure you could easily miss.

The dragon prowled round and round the ogre, affording a panoramic view of the creature’s delectably solid flesh and vivid green veins.

He had the Mark on his forehead, of one unspeakably alone. No strings to anything or anyone. Except for a mildewed rucksack sagging with a swagman’s hoard.

‘Turn out your pockets, Veslingr!’

Sometimes the venomous words were fatal outright. Other times the barbs seeped into the bloodstream of the compelled, paralyzing the prey slow – slow – slowly.

‘Shall I shapeshift into a bridge so you can walk all over me?’ Goessohn, the ogre asked, pumping his biceps, as curved and hard as scitimars that could pitch a cyclops into the hedgerows.

Paris’ laugh rattled like rusted sleigh bells.

Most plebians worshipped the bones the dragon walked on. But Goessohn just gave a bulldog grimace, digging his chisel nails even tighter into the rucksack’s straps. No matter. Paris could wait. The dragon burnished his scales, stroking them slowly with his rough tongue.

‘I’ve heard ogres…taste like spare ribs…left to spoil…in the midday sun,’ Goessohn’s lips were tight and tingling.

Paris smirked.

‘I think I’ll take my chances.’

The dragon’s eyes devoured the stranger’s barrow-like chest, kerosene oil for his scorching stomach.

Paris unhooked the rucksack with his tail, the pain forcing Goessohn to let go at once.

Even mothballs would not have been enough to dash the feral smell of dead mourning dove, the ogre’s last meal.

Paris’ talons caressed a silver pocket watch. As the hour struck, a shadowy black panther stalked a be-silked Fairy around the clock face, the predator’s jaws tearing playfully at the Fairy’s coat tails.

Paris placed the spoils into his pouch as if the treasure was a parcel he had just received by post.

‘Blood-money…will pay with your blood – ’ Goessohn avowed, his stocky legs now drowsy and soft as dough.

Paris’ butter-yellow eyes feasted pilgrim-like upon a three-headed jade dog whose baleful, saucer-like eyes wept ethereal tears of diamonds and pearls.

Goessohn was now deer still.

The ogre’s heavy jowls sagged. He couldn’t even shiver, although his skin perspired greatly.

The dragon hissed like a rattlesnake’s tail.

Paris’ hind legs coiled like a wind-up, ready to pounce.

*

Jack Horner Hall was the country estate belonging to Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth.

A gentleman of leisure who preferred animals to people, especially when the creatures were dead and stuffed. Dorian was not the first man to marry jelly-brained alluring heiress. Argus-eyed chaperones always steering the conversation from more difficult topics.

Every morning, Sir Dorian trit-trotted his ex-racehorse Duke and his pack of foxhounds into Dearborn Forest.
A congregation of insects, reeer-reeer, raah-raah, mmh-mmh, chorused in the humid, clinging air and the mossy, glossy-barked trees.

The routine was as well oiled as a printing press.

Paris knew the estate would be empty, apart from the silent servants and gentle women-folk. Who knew what seraphim treasures lay within Jack-Horner Hall?

Paris slunk towards the front milky marble stairwell, blowing smoke rings in the footman’s face. The frog’s deep-set eyes had a downcast expression as though the dragon was beneath his notice until otherwise introduced. His face was blanched white with lead paint; two spots of rouge coloring his pimply cheeks. A great white wig wobbled like a jelly on his head, bedecked with tiny pink ribbons.

‘I am Paris the Incorrigible!’ the stalwart dragon announced, flexing his glorious heliotrope wings. ‘Thief of Reticules and Swallower of Princesses! Snatcher of Statues and Fire-Consumer of Cities!’

The frog snatched a fly from mid-air and chewed it.

‘Have you a card?’ he drawled.

‘I have a reputation infamously deserved! I need no letter of introduction here!’

Paris tore the white wig from the frog’s head and worried it, like a dog.

‘I’m bald!’ the frog cried in horror, clutching at his bare, moist crown, now divested of his mark of rank.

‘Downstairs servants are forced to take the last name of their served family,’ Paris jibbed, ‘You have always been, as you say, bald.’

‘How dare you!’ the frog croaked, his powdered visage streaking with mortified tears, ‘I could have acknowledged your reputation if you had not wounded mine!’

The frog abandoned his post and frog-marched to the distant Dearborn Forest, repeating, ‘I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t.’ He may still be there now, trying to find something to put on his head. A bird’s nest perhaps? Or a honey jar? Who knows.

Paris gave a low chuckle. All the golden pennies were falling into place.

*

Paris hadn’t meant to enter the salon.

He would rather have been Mr. Plum in the study wrenching something valuable open. The salon was eye-popping. Strawberry pink wallpaper embellished with clusters of laurel leaves lined the grand walls. A white brocade love seat with clawed mahogany lion’s feet demanded an intimate tete-a-tete. A splendid mosaic floor of a rose in full bloom suggested the gaiety of spring. An igloo of books in regimental order dominated the rest of the salon as much as a bloated toad. And the glacé cherry presiding over all this pomp and lavishness was Lady Rosalie Plum-in-the-Mouth, her plump lips pursed in surprise. She wore a rose pink, low-cut gown, the bustle a cascade of bows like rainbow farfalle pasta.

‘Please. Please. Please! Don’t eat my daughter!’ Lady Rosalie begged, hiding her face in her embroidery. ‘I know she is a tiresome headache! Just last week she spat chewing tobacco on Countess Avon’s sapphire slippers…’

Paris tossed his fierce horned head and displayed his imposing underbelly veined with spidery red-gold flame, sparkling like a birdcage glass-marble.

‘You know, if you give me your horde willingly, I might just spare your lives,’ Paris coaxed in an oily voice, as slippery and delicious as bread and dripping.

‘Wait till I’ve finished this chapter,’ a muffled voice exclaimed from behind a barricade of books, ‘I’ve just got to the part when the man declares his passionate devotion for the heroine after a lot of self-denial and misunderstandings between them.’

‘Marriage is not a fairytale,’ Rosalie scoffed, chewing lumpy toffee, her peach-like cheeks a melt-in-the-mouth distraction to the dragon. ‘But you plague me child with your plain looks and your willful, direct-talking tongue. You’ll end up an old maid, or worse a governess!’

Miss Rachel scrummaged out from piles of books, her dull face seemingly polished with olive oil and her figure devoid of curves. She was dressed in a comic sister to her mother’s gown, gold lace with a bustle, a concertina of royal purple satin.

‘Miss Ostentatious didn’t have to put up with ‘The Ice-berg’, a slow-motion kisser,’ Rachel continued, ‘Or ‘Father Time’, as appealing as Father’s stuffed vulture and a lot more free with his hands.’

Miss Rachel was a hothouse flower watered with skating parties, costumed balls, bonnet re-affixing and village walks, unused to tempests.

‘Perhaps not dear,’ Lady Rosalie sniffed, ‘but they always gained ten thousand a year, which is always a comfort.’

Paris’ steaming nostrils flared, raining sickly-smelling pumice stones on the two bewildered women.

‘You must be very tired.’ Paris commented in a measured, deep voice, fixing his ultra-dilated pupils on Lady Rosalie’s perturbed face and curling his cherry-red tail around her waist, pinning her in place.

‘Let your worries fall like water droplets into a stream.’

Miss Rachel charged into Paris’ body but the dragon just shook his prickly scales like a dog.

‘Let your troubles float into the air like a kite…And give me the keys to the master’s study.’

Lady Rosalie was known to do anything nonsensical in her sleep. Rosalie’s Sleep Talk was defensive and omniscient; ‘I am awake! You were just talking about flying pigs…’ Lady Rosalie’s Sleep Wanderings found her reclining on the grand piano, her mattress apparently being too soft. Her pink kimono folded as neat as tissue paper beside her. And so it came of no surprise when Lady Rosalie muttered groggily, ‘Stop tickling me…’ and unfurled the tarnished silver key from around her titan neck, placing it into Paris’ pearly talons.

*

Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth’s study stared.

Glass glazed eyes stared from all the four walls. A white weasel crumpled forward, its tiny teeth snarled. A tawny owl’s head twisted at an unnatural angle, its claws reaching towards the dragon. A bear lurched on its hind legs, like a boxer in the ring. The study smelt of stale cigars and violin rosin. The frescoed walls depicted hairy satyrs chasing semi-naked nymphs. The Minotaur leather lounge was low and dimpled, inviting one to sink into it. The soul of the study was a walnut roll top writing desk, littered with newspaper clippings, telegrams and a whalebone ashtray. Paris padded around, pouring over the stained glass windows, inhaling the scent of a gold-rimmed vase of hyacinths, sampling the decanter of mint liqueur and stroking the heavy brushstrokes of the still life oil paintings. The dragon’s pouch was soon bulging almost uncomfortably to overflowing.

It was then Paris saw it.

It was rare, choice, must-have.

It could hold black crepe de chine from Crème de la Crème Emporium, where poor seamstresses hand stitched mourning veils and garments for the Fairy Court. The garments were hand-woven and stitched by Cyclops, in between dripping their red-rimmed eye with eye-drops. It could hold a knotted, rose-gold ring from Raiment Forge, where the broad dwarf smiths forged and charmed spells into treasure, this ring charmed to change color with the wearer’s mood. It could hold a gilded, ivory comb from Del-noblesse, where Fairy merchants painted with precious sheets of gold leaf and twittered about their own glittering reflections. The round, metallic lid had the stamp of a faded Forget-me-not flower. Paris’ claws punctured the rubber seal. The platinum box disgorged bile-black spectres of village-children, their hair long, silky and ringleted into cherub curls. The boys each wore a blue velvet doublet embroidered with brown boats and silk stockings. The girls wore red muslin dresses laced with grape-like diadems. The children gaily formed a circle and joined dimpled hands, the girl’s wrists chaperoned by their dress sleeve’s lacy cuffs. Then they danced. It was far from rosy. They scratched like flea-ridden mad-dogs. They sweated like horses galloping around a ring. Their bodies swelled with black, fist-like welts. They coughed droplets of blood into their perfumed handkerchiefs. Then, beyond exhaustion, they fell down dead.

‘Don’t be such a namby-pamby baby,’ the children’s rasping voices teased as they vanished.

Paris’ eyes streamed lava like hose pipes and he checked his stippled armpits for the odious, bulging buboes. Paris longed for a dust bath; the dust would warm his goose-pimpled hide. Paris longed to stopper cotton wool into his blue-furred ears to block the child wraiths’ harsh, echoing voices. The dragon’s lungs pumped a firework of flame into the onyx fireplace, an armory of fire.

*

Bang!

Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth stormed into the study, trailing mud as he went.

Dorian’s features were starch white and his fists were curled into a knuckled smile.

‘You vile worm!’ Dorian bellowed, his alpha fox-hound nudging its head against his houndstooth-clad thighs.

‘The seal from the box is dwarf made. It was the one thing keeping the Pestilence contained.’

‘But surely I will be unaffected,’ Paris rumbled, his eyes lingering on his weighty pouch and smoldering scales, as a glorious talisman.

‘Against Death? Hardly,’ Sir Dorian gave a cynical snort, ‘The Pestilence doesn’t discriminate against young or old, rich or poor, high or low-born.’

The dragon’s cheeks drained bloodless. Paris’ distinguished whiskers drooped.

He no longer felt incorrigible but as weak as watered brandy.

‘By claw or by tooth, I will tar the wound I have caused!’ The dragon’s clawed hand expunged all of his hat-pin sharp fangs. ‘There is ancient magic which humans no longer care to know.’

Sir Dorian gaped, as Paris sowed the seeds of dragon teeth into the plum-pudding-scented soil of his potted palm. Thin, sleek stalks erupted towards the ceiling. Thick, thorny stems blossomed with roses, shaking out goddesses like bees from a hive.

The Furies each wore a sweeping white veil of tears, serpents entwined in their thick hair, hobnail boots with beating wings and each flourished a fiery torch.

They spoke in unison in the tone of a cracked mirror. ‘From blood you summoned us and for the shedding of blood we remain. The font of the Pestilence must be destroyed as must the perpetrator of their release…’

Paris shuddered. Cold as a vault full of gold. His empty, inflamed gums had once held a crown of teeth.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Paris The Incorrigible’

Tagged , , ,

Where Light Doesn’t Exist, Alex Chambers

Robert and Jaden were running out of ideas. It had been too long since Georgia had disappeared down the cave and black clouds were quickening overhead.

The cave was unlike any they’d seen or read about as it wasn’t made of stone but foliage. Trees sprouted up from the ground then curled and combined with leaves, bushes, and branches to make a completely solid structure, daunting the barely teenage boys standing just outside its mouth. It was lightless inside and no matter how much the two of them called, there was no echo or reply from Georgia. But the strangest of all was that the inside of the structure was significantly larger than the outside. When Robert and Jaden had dared to venture inside earlier, it became clear that they’d walked for much longer than physically possible before turning back.

Robert thought back to earlier this morning, when Georgia had pounded on his door and demanded he come see what she’d found. Jaden was dragged along when the pair chanced upon him on the way into the forest. When they had arrived, Georgia pointed down into the abyss. ‘Come on!’

‘What is it?’ Robert asked, approaching slowly. Jaden said nothing and kept his distance as Georgia grinned and began trotting into the mouth of the cave.

‘I dunno,’ she said. ‘But it goes a long way—I’m gonna see how far.’

She hadn’t said anything more. Before Robert or Jaden could even utter a protest, she’d dashed off. When she didn’t return for a few minutes, the boys tried to follow her, but found that the seemingly straight line surrounded by impossibly close-knit trees wasn’t so simple. As they walked, the path twisted and turned even though they never once changed the direction they travelled. The further they went, the more the light was swallowed by the shadows of the cavern.

Robert, now pacing back and forth at the mouth of the cave nearly an hour later, was starting to mumble to himself. ‘It’s getting late—we need to do something. I can’t believe we couldn’t stop her,’ he groaned. He’d been running his hand through his tan hair so many times now it was no longer neat.

‘Calm down,’ Jaden growled from against a tree nearby. ‘It’s Georgia’s own damn fault. Always running off and doing stupid stuff like this. I wish you hadn’t babbled to her about how ‘interesting’ this ‘strange new phenomenon’ looked either.’

‘Okay, I got a little excited,’ he admitted. ‘But this is like something out of one of my sci-fi books! There could be a whole universe in there—’

‘Please don’t start again.’ Jaden rolled his eyes and began rubbing his forehead. ‘I’m tired. This is the fourth supernatural thing we’ve had to deal with this week.’

The isolated, English countryside town of Edgeville was far from the first place anyone would’ve guessed would be a hotspot for paranormal activity, but for the past couple of months, the town’s children had found themselves embroiled in a series of strange happenings. A decrepit mansion appeared on the outskirts of town one evening and disappeared the next. Pale, ephemeral figures stalked the town’s graveyards. Objects floated and flew across rooms. And the children had had more than enough encounters with fanged, clawed and/or winged creatures that stalked them relentlessly, but always just out of the corner of their sight.

No one over the age of eighteen knew about any of this and most of the older children tried to deny it or explain it rationally. No matter what, any time an adult was called to investigate one of the strange and dangerous incidents it would vanish. Whole haunted houses would disappear. The floating spectres would evaporate just in time for the adult to miss them.

The children of Edgeville no longer slept soundly, but that didn’t stop some of them from trying to do something about it or being intrigued.

‘Do you think it goes underground?’ Robert said. ‘That would explain why it goes for so long and why it’s so dark inside.’

When he didn’t get a response, he turned to see Jaden yawning.

‘You’re still talking science-y mumbo-jumbo,’ he said.

‘Aren’t you interested?’ Robert retorted and then he added, ‘or worried?’

‘No. You don’t sound like you’re worried either.’

Robert thought for a moment, then said, ‘Are we just getting used to this, maybe?’

‘Sick of it, more like,’ Jaden huffed. ‘I mean, how many times has Georgia leapt into some dangerous situation and come out just fine with that stupid grin all over her face? And you’re treating it like a big mystery novel that you’re trying to figure out.’

‘This is a big mystery,’ Robert said. ‘And I do want to figure it out. And if we keep investigating, maybe we’ll all figure something out.’

A distant rumble of thunder came from far above. Jaden wrinkled his nose and frowned. ‘Go get Veronica. We’re not getting anything done right now.’

Most of the town’s children tried to ignore or flat-out deny that there was anything wrong, but after the incidents had started, a small band of kids had decided they’d actively explore the terrifying events that plagued their town. Veronica, as the oldest over Jaden by a few months, had been unofficially designated their leader, which meant that when Georgia got herself into trouble, it was usually Veronica who ended up organising the rescue mission.

‘Does your phone have reception out here?’ Robert asked.

‘No.’

‘Neither does mine. Stay here then, just in case Georgia comes back out. I’ll head into town…’

‘Fine by me,’ Jaden answered, sitting down at the base of the tree.

There was another, louder bang of thunder. Robert gave a thumbs-up and hurried off out of the forest.

He first swung by his own house, creeping in through the garage door and rifling through his father’s things for anything of use. As he’d hoped, he found a rope along with a heavy-duty torch. He wasted no time making a run for Veronica’s house a few streets over. He mulled over the thought of gathering up more friends for the rescue, but a flash of lightning accompanied by a dangerously close rumble caused him to decide that he was close to running out of time.

He approached the front door, first tossing the rope and torch into the bushes, and then knocked. Robert figured it’d be best to avoid any suspicious questions. The door was opened by Veronica’s father, Curtis, who greeted Robert warmly.

‘What can I do for you, Robert?’ he asked. ‘It’s looking to be a heck of a storm. Not really the right time to be off playing in the streets, eh?’

‘No sir,’ Robert answered. ‘I was actually wondering if Veronica was around. I had a, uh, spur of the moment idea. It was looking to be a good night for a movie so I wanted to see if Veronica and some other friends wanted to come over. Is she in?’

‘What a great way to spend a Saturday night! She’s home—I’ll go and get her. Just remember not to put on anything too scary. You know how she hates all those violent horror movies.’

Curtis called his daughter and departed the room. Robert managed to hold the smile on his face until Curtis left before grimacing. Veronica came treading down the stairs and frowned when she saw Robert’s expression.

‘Let me guess,’ she said. ‘Georgia?’

Robert nodded. ‘She’s in trouble.’

‘What did she annoy this time?’

‘It’s a little more complex than that bat thing she upset last week. It might be better to see for yourself. It’s in the forest.’

‘I’ll go get my coat and some good shoes,’ she sighed. She hopped back up the stairs and returned a moment later wearing a pair of pink gumboots and a baby-blue raincoat. Veronica was a year older than Robert, but nearly a foot shorter. She wasn’t as smart as Robert and she definitely wasn’t as brave or strong as Georgia, but she had a shine in her blue eyes and a posture that was tall and confident. Robert could tell by looking—even if Veronica couldn’t see it herself—that she was definitely most suited to be in charge.

‘I’ll try to explain what’s happening on the way,’ he said as they departed. He stopped a moment to retrieve his rope and torch from the garden before they jogged towards the forest. A drizzle of rain had begun to shower the pair as they fought through the trees and bushes towards their destination.

‘It’s over there,’ Robert pointed past some trees and over a hill. ‘I left Jaden there, in case Georgia came back.’

In between breaths and crashes of thunder, Robert tried to describe what the cave was to Veronica.

‘So it’s like a cave, but it’s bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside,’ she panted. ‘But it’s made of trees?’

‘Exactly!’ Robert said. ‘Think of what could be inside there. I mean, there could be anything really—’

‘Is that it?’ Veronica interrupted.

The rain had intensified, but there was no mistaking the gnarled shape of the cave a few metres away. As they hastened towards it, a flash of lightning illuminated the area. In the half-light, the cave looked more twisted and unnatural; the branches of the trees sharper and darker, but something else had caught their attention in that brief moment of sudden light.

‘Robert,’ she breathed. ‘Was that…?’

‘Yeah, I saw it too.’

Something had jolted like a startled spider into the cave, too fast for either of them to make out what it could be.

‘A deer?’ Veronica suggested.

‘Too big and too quick,’ Robert shuddered. ‘And…I think it was black. And scaly.’

‘I really hope you’re wrong. Could it have been—?’

She stopped and they flicked their heads towards each other. Robert switched on the torch and they hurried down the hill towards the cave. He swept the light over the area, scanning for any sign of Jaden. They both began to call his name, hoping he’d just fallen asleep under the tree, but it soon became clear he wasn’t answering.

‘He probably just went home, right?’ Veronica said. Her voice was quivering.

‘I told him to wait here, though,’ Robert said. ‘And I know he’s lazy, but he wouldn’t go home without Georgia.’

They both turned and looked down the looming maw of the cave. Even now, armed with the torch, Robert couldn’t see anything other than the walls of trees on either side of the path deep into the darkness. It seemed to stretch on forever.

‘Give me the torch,’ Veronica said, holding her hand out. ‘And one end of the rope.’

‘But—’

‘One of us has to stay out here,’ she explained. ‘And you’re right—Jaden wouldn’t have gone home without Georgia. If they did go home, we’d have seen them on the way here. So they’re in there.’

‘I want—’

‘I know,’ she continued. ‘I know you want to see what’s in there. That’s why I’m going in; you might get lost or distracted.’

Robert huffed, but complied. ‘If you see anything dangerous…’

‘I’m not leaving without them either,’ she said. Without another word, she faced the cave, torch in one hand and rope in the other, and began to tread cautiously into the abyss. A ways in, she started to run, calling Jaden and Georgia’s names.

Robert watched her get smaller and smaller, the rope in his hand unwinding rapidly as the light from Veronica’s torch steadily vanished from view. He was alone in the closing darkness. The sky howled and rain began to pelt him furiously. He stepped into the mouth of the cave, hoping its branches would at least keep him dry as he waited. The rope in his hand continued to unravel.

*

The walls of the cave had begun to change. Veronica could see the branches and foliage of the trees melting together to form some new substance that was a dull brown. It looked like it’d be sticky to touch, but she didn’t dare test this thought. A smell like decomposing fruit had begun to gradually rise in potency and it took all of Veronica’s willpower to avoid turning back. What was worse was that the light from her torch was steadily becoming useless. The blackness of the cave seemed so immense that her light couldn’t pierce it. The ray seemed increasingly insignificant as she ventured deeper. Her heart was thundering like the storm she had left so far behind

‘Jaden!’ she called. ‘Georgia!’

She stopped running for a moment to catch her breath and listen for a response. She thought she heard footsteps somewhere ahead, but otherwise the cave was silent.

‘Please, please, please be Jaden and Georgia.’ she muttered.

Veronica increased her pace and began calling again. The ground beneath her boots was growing warmer and softer. She dreaded the thought of aiming her torch downwards to see what was happening to it; instead she focused the light on the void before her. As she jogged along, the light occasionally illuminated the walls and Veronica noted that they were stretching further apart. Something was dripping from them without a sound. There was no way she was still in the forest.

When she called her friends again, she gasped at a sound not too far ahead. She thought it’d been a groan. She sprinted into the darkness, clutching her torch and rope and almost tripped over the slouched figure of Jaden.

‘Jaden!’ she cried. The torchlight flew over his features, telling Veronica all she needed to know: he was hurt. Blood was dripping from his nose and mouth. She shrieked, dropped the torch, and began to shake Jaden by the shoulders. Soon enough, she heard a voice from the darkness.

‘What time is it…?’

Veronica stopped and picked her torch back up to direct it to the space beside Jaden. It was Georgia, lying face-down on the ground. When she sat up, Veronica became aware that she was also injured: she had a crimson gash across her forehead.

‘Georgia?’

She blinked and shook her head, realisation setting in. ‘Oh, ‘sup, Veronica? How’d you get down here?’

‘Never mind that,’ Veronica said. ‘Help me get Jaden up—we’ve gotta go.’ She moved to shake his shoulder again, but Georgia motioned for her to step back. Without any further prompting, she began slapping Jaden repeatedly until a series of moans came from his throat.

‘Quit it, quit it!’ he snapped, jumping to his feet. ‘I’m up!’

‘Then we’re leaving,’ Veronica said, standing. ‘You can tell me what happened when we get out of here.’

‘Okay, but question,’ Georgia said, dragging herself to her feet. ‘How’d you get past that thing?’

‘Thing?’

‘Yeah, the thing with lots of legs and eyes.’

Veronica didn’t move. Jaden turned to her and could just make out her horrified expression in the torchlight. ‘You didn’t see it, did you?’

She slowly shook her head.

‘Well ya might soon,’ Georgia said, looking past her friends. Veronica held her breath and could faintly make out a scuttling sound in the direction Georgia was facing.

‘Stay close and don’t look back,’ Veronica instructed. No more words were said as the three tore back through the cave along the path of the rope.

*

It was well and truly storming now, with rain slamming down like the world was ending. The cave offered little safety from it to Robert who was now drenched. However, not once had his gaze left the direction of the darkness where he now watched his three friends charging towards him. Jaden and Georgia’s faces were covered in blood. Veronica looked like she was about to cry. They arrived and stopped in front of Robert, whose expression was a mixture of concern and joy.

For a while no one said anything, and the cacophony in the skies above was all they could hear. Then Robert jerked his thumb back behind him, towards town. ‘I’ve uh,’ he said. ‘Got some Disney movies at my place. And a heater. You guys want to come over? Tell me all about it?’

Georgia made some sort of discontent sound and Jaden shoved her.

‘Sounds great, Robert,’ Veronica sighed. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

 

Download a PDF of “Where Light Doesn’t Exist” here

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Liminality, Amy Garpendal

This road feels familiar.

The girl walks with her backpack slung low. She’s forgotten how long she’s been walking. Orange streaks across the sky as the sun sinks towards the horizon, the low angle stabbing into the girl’s eyes. She brushes her hand across her brow, wondering where her sunshades have gone. Her hand stops, and she stares at it. There are several bands tattooed between the joints of her dark fingers. Her smallest finger has, four, the next finger six, she stares at her middle finger counting and re-counting. Seven. Seven. Every time she recounts she wants to stop at six, but the seventh ring contradicts her. Seven. She shakes out her fingers and digs them through the tight curls of her hair. There must have been a tattoo parlour in the last town, she thinks, itll come back to me soon.

A nearby sign proclaims the presence of a rest-stop: Ama’s Resting Place—500m. The prairie slowly turns into scrub which then thickens into sparse forest. The turn-off lane shifts to gravel and curves around to meet a parking bay. A small cottage is set behind wooden picnic tables that fan out from the parking bay. The stones of the cottage might have once been a rich brown but the sun has softened the colour to an ashy grey. The windows are small and dirty. Its wooden door is propped open, the surrounding buttonbush creeping up and inside.

The girl walks in and is surprised. It is much more spacious than she had expected. There are several cases, some full of books, others half-filled with knickknacks and spare car parts. Racks of clothes and blankets, sagging armchairs, spinning displays of hats and mugs. There is an old refrigerator beside a large wooden bench that appears to be the paying counter. Perched behind the counter is a small Native American lady. She looks up from her book when the girl walks in. Her name-tag says ‘Ama’.

‘You lookin’ for anything in particular, girl?’

The girl doesn’t reply. She stares at the rotating mug rack in front of her, an empty space blooming in her mind. Green plastic mugs flash names at her; Alice, Amelia, Brooke, Catherine, Chloe…

‘We ain’t got yours?’

She shakes her head absently, staring, seeking, seeking. I should know this, she worries, why dont I remember this? Taylor, Tiffany, Tina, Tracey…

‘No…I don’t think so.’ She tugs on the straps of her backpack, thinking hard, shifting letters around in her head. Tiah, Teha, Teia, Theia.

Theia.

‘I’m Theia,’ she announces, swinging the display back to the beginning of the alphabet. ‘Do you have a map? I think I lost mine.’

The cottage-keeper, Ama, dog-ears her page and slips off her stool. She pulls a woven basket of maps from the far end of the counter. As Ama rifles, Theia drops her backpack to her feet undoing the straps and extracting her wallet. She flips it open and catches sight of her ID card. The smaller version of herself, blue-tipped mass of curls, full eyebrows, dark gold eyes, peers up at her. Theia hesitates then pushes the card further into her wallet and goes to fish out a twenty dollar bill. She hears a soft exclamation of victory and looks up to see Ama holding a dirty and slightly creased map. Across the counter, Ama hands her the map but doesn’t let go, instead she looks up into Theia’s golden eyes. Ama’s curiously colourless eyes bore into Theia. Her lower belly quivers and she feels as if the surrounds of her mind are warming and melting away.

A small pocket of memory opens. She’s been here before. She has stood in this place seventeen times before. Has walked this road seventeen times. Taken this task seventeen times. Failed seventeen times. Every time remembering a little less. She began with such determination, she thinks. When had she begun forgetting why she journeyed? The tattoo artist had stopped asking what she wanted done. She loses the map every time. Ama always looks at her the same. The hopelessness had crept in sometime around the ninth time and never left. She feels ill after every time she remembers. Familiar rage and frustration rises in Theia, the echo of the past seventeen times over.

Ama releases the map and her eyes. Theia blinks. Forgets.

She looks at the map in her hands. Her stomach roils.

‘Where’s the bathroom?’

‘Next to the postcards and the golf clubs.’

Theia barely makes it to the old-fashioned toilet but as soon as she braces herself above the bowl, the sickness abates. She tosses the map aside and waits, sure that the nausea will return. When it doesn’t she pulls herself up to the sink, tapping the faucet to wet her fingers. She digs her fingers into her eyes and rubs. Stars burst behind her eyelids and she sighs. Itll all make sense, she tries to reassure herself, Ill know where Im going soon. Her clothes are dusty and dirty, her grey shirt turned nearly as brown as her skin. The cuffs of her jeans are wearing away. Her boots are becoming lost under the thick grime. As she turns to leave she spies the map on the floor. Vertigo pulls her down to the cool tiles. Her head throbs and her stomach lurches. She feels like a dormant volcano trying desperately to reawaken. She presses her palms into her eyes, blocking everything out. She sits quietly. Breathing.

There’s a knock at the bathroom door.

‘You alive in there, girl?’ Ama’s voice crackles through the wood and urges Theia to her feet.

‘My name is Theia.’ She picks up the map and shoves it in the back pocket of her jeans. Ama is standing outside the door when she comes out. She hands Theia an unopened bottle of water and goes back to the counter.

Theia wanders about the racks and tables, taking tiny sips of water. A green notebook catches her attention on one of the bookshelves. She wonders what happened to her old one. She picks it up and goes over to where she left her backpack. Her snack supply is dwindling and she doesn’t have any mittens. The evenings are going to get colder. As she browses she finds a bunch of muesli bars and fingerless mittens; pale blue, yellow, some green. Why arent there any with fingers? There are several empty spaces next to the yellow ones. She takes the pale blue mittens and goes over to the paying counter.

‘Could I have two more bottles of water as well, please?’ Ama fetches them from the fridge while Theia retrieves her wallet. She spies a small cosmetic section and impulsively picks out a tube of purple lipstick. Ama rings it all up for her and Theia passes over a bill. Theia pulls out the creased map and spreads it over the counter.

‘Where about are we on here? Also could you point me towards…’ she trails off and looks away frowning. Ama peers at her intently, wondering whether the girl will remember this time. Rules dictate that no one must interfere. Even cottage-keepers.

‘Never mind.’ Theia’s voice is small, her eyes remain downcast.

Ama sighs and spins the map around. This time like so many others. She tracks down her cottage, a tiny dot along one of the lesser travelled highways. She plants an ‘X’next to it in red pencil. While Ama puts the pencil away and picks her book up, Theia picks idly at a small tear over west Nebraska, feeling hopeless. She looks up to thank Ama but the cottage-keeper avoids her eyes and turns the page of her book.

Theia gathers up her purchases and takes them and her backpack out to one of the picnic tables. She refolds all of her clothes and jams them into the bottom of the pack. She pulls on her sweater. It has a hole in the shoulder. The fingerless mittens she ends up putting on instead of having to later dig around and mess up her system. Apples that are slightly withered but still good go on top of the muesli bars and the beef jerky, next to her flashlight and bandanas. Her wallet slips into the front section so it’s easier to extract next time. She rolls up her blanket and straps it to the top of the pack. The two unopened water bottles go into the side nets. Finally she stares at the sheathed hunting knife that she still feels wary and confused about. She doesn’t remember where she got it or what it’s for. She hasn’t unsheathed it. She ends up sliding it into the rolled-up blanket, not knowing where else to put it. She’s left the green notebook and a pen out. Flipping it the notebook open, she writes her name in the front cover and the name of the rest-stop underneath. She closes it again and sticks it and the pen into her empty pocket. She stretches and looks back over to the cottage. Maybe Ill come back one day. After Ive finished. Finished

Theia hoists the backpack onto her shoulders. The gravel crackles under her boots as she walks away from Ama’s Resting Place.

*

Ama watches out the open door as Theia walks away from the cottage for the eighteenth time. She wonders how many more times she will see her come through, yet again asking for a map and gloves. Ama turns the page of her book. Her Resting Place. Her resting place for travellers. They would pull out their maps, she would strike an ‘X’, on they’d go. Then she’d see others again, twice, three times, five times. Never more.

She wonders if much will change if Theia makes it to the next town. Eighteen times. Her journey is not like the journeys of others before her. Ama thinks of the locked drawer at the base of the counter. Interfering is forbidden, she reminds herself. She turns the page of her book. Flips to the next chapter. The other travellers eventually made it. Why not Theia? Never so many repetitions. Eighteen. Perhaps this time, a small part of her mind whispers. She tugs on a small key hidden among the many necklaces around her neck.

Ama eyes the small locked drawer at the base of the counter.

She closes her book.

*

Theia looks back at Ama’s Resting Place as the gravel turns back into bitumen. The cottage stands in the desolation of the prairie, the sparse forest surrounding it softening the harshness. She has the most peculiar feeling that she’s been there before today, the buttonbush that’s creeping inside, the picnic tables, Ama. It feels the strangest kind of familiar. She looks at her mittens, the pale blue contrasting against her hands. I thought I had some red ones with fingers, she stares for a moment longer, or were they orange. Theia shakes her head and continues walking, following the road north. It feels like the right way to be walking. She knows there is somewhere she is meant to be going but there must be something broken in her br—

Her temples throb.

Broken Bow.

She gasps and rips the notebook and pen out, writing on the first page she lands. She drops to the ground, scrabbles for her map and searches, searches. Ama’s red X. Her finger follows the road north.

Broken Bow.

The prairie wind whips up and pulls at the map under her hands. She holds onto a corner desperately but the wind catches a tear and tugs. Half of the map tumbles away. Theia stumbles to her feet and runs. The wind whips the paper higher and higher. From behind her a truck horn blares. It swerves, headlights blinding her and she lurches to the side, falling into a buttonbush. The wind drops and the truck fades away into the distance.

Theia picks herself up. The prairie is quiet. She walks forward and hears the crinkle of paper under her boot. It’s half of a map. The southern half of Nebraska. Theia looks around the prairie, wondering if the other half is close by. She shrugs and folds the half up and shoves in into her bag. She pats her jeans down and frowns, she thought she had a pen tucked away somewhere. Perhaps not.

Theia dusts herself off, hikes her backpack higher, and begins to walk into the darkening dusk.

 

This road feels familiar.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Liminality’

Tagged , , ,

From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

Slipstream is a Young Adult novel, set in a parallel contemporary society, in which teenagers with ‘extra’ abilities are being recruited as part of an elite programme. At the d’Orsay Academy in central London, Scarlett, the protagonist, and her peers attend the corporation’s ‘school.’ We follow Scarlett and her three friends as they explore their new-found abilities within an organisation that is rigid about how their talents should be used. This leads to the questioning of what each of them knows about themselves, where their moral boundaries lie, and how far each of them will go to protect what is important to them. 

 

Chapter Five

‘Jeez,’ Scarlett shivered in her jacket as they gathered later that day in the courtyard, ‘this is summer?’

Conor looked a little insulted. ‘Do I look like I’m controlling the weather here? This is England, not the Outback. If you want someone to direct your complaints to, I’d suggest you blame global warming.’

He made it sound like global warming was a company with a customer services department, and she was amused by the thought. Mike interrupted them, clearly impatient to get going.

‘Why are we talking about the weather? Let’s go already,’ he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘You’ve got the picture, right?’

Scarlett nodded and pulled out the folded up image of the Manhattan comic store. She’d spent the afternoon studying the picture, ignoring the algebraic equations she was meant to be doing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ignoring the niggling voice that was telling her that this was a really bad idea. ‘Take my hand,’ she told them and Conor grabbed Lena’s hand. Scarlett bit back a smile. Mike let out a dramatic sigh and took her hand. His fingers felt a little clammy wrapped around hers and Scarlett tried to ignore the dampness. Other than that, he gave no outward sign of nerves, and for a brief second, she envied him.

‘Don’t let go, no matter what.’ Scarlett took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Letting her mind relax, she recalled Mike’s picture. She saw the store with its canvas awning and battered trim take shape in her head as the sound of cars, pedestrians and faint music drifted in. So far, so good, she told herself. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. The ground shifted, and the smells of a city that ran on smoke and gasoline brought the image in her head to life. Cracking one eye open, Scarlett peered out. The other three seemed to be holding their breaths, and Mike’s grip was becoming uncomfortable.

‘Yes!’ she said, more than a little pleased with herself. ‘You guys can open your eyes.’

The other three opened their eyes, and Mike dropped his hands, breaking their circle as soon as he spotted the store. The looks on their faces confirmed they hadn’t really believed that she could pull it off. As she stood there, smug in her achievement, the others broke away, wandering off to check out their surroundings.

‘Stay connected!’ Scarlett said, sounding sharper than she intended. Even to her, her voice sounded like it was coming from somebody else. She softened it a little. ‘At least until we get to the door, okay?’

‘Don’t you think that’s going to look a little weird? I mean, I’m fine with the holding hands thing now,’ Mike said, briefly scowling at Conor as if daring him to contradict him, and then turned back to Scarlett to continue. ‘I mean, we can’t walk in there together holding hands.’

Scarlett bit her lip. ‘We have to stay together. What happens if someone wanders off and gets caught?’

He raised an eyebrow, as if to say something, but changed his mind, and nodded his reluctant consent. He grabbed Lena’s hand and shuffled over to the store’s window. A fleeting look of jealousy crossed Conor’s face. Scarlett saw the stiffness in Lena’s body as she stood there with Mike, which loosened just a smidgeon as she let out a small giggle at something Mike said. Walking over to them, Conor unwound his scarf and handed it to Mike. ‘Here, wear this. If you’ve got something of mine, you should be okay.’ Mike looked at him, surveying him, as if waiting for the sarcastic comment to follow. Lena dropped her hand, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

‘Thanks, man.’ He shrugged and wound the scarf around his neck. The biting wind was finding its way in to the nooks and crannies, and Scarlett envied the warmth he had around his neck.

‘That was nice of you,’ she said to Conor, her voice low.

He shrugged. “Nice’ wasn’t why I did it,’ he said, giving her a sly, knowing smile.

‘Um, maybe we could go inside now?’ Mike asked them, his tone plaintive.

‘Yeah, sorry. Let’s go,’ Scarlett said as Mike, finally given permission, almost took the door off its hinges in his haste to get inside. Mike headed over to the ‘new release’ section, and, having found what he was looking for, was making strangled noises of rapturous pleasure that set Lena off in a flood of giggles. Looking around, Scarlett saw that every available space of the shop was crammed with comics, posters and young guys, hanging out, flicking through the vast selection. To her relief, nobody had given them or their appearances a second glance, and she felt her shoulders sink away from her ears a few millimeters.

‘This is seriously boring,’ Conor announced. ‘What are we meant to do now? Wait for him to finish his private moment? I’m out.’ He looked at Scarlett, as if waiting for her to disagree, given her earlier warning about staying together. She said nothing, and he smiled. ‘Let’s check out next door. Some kind of music shop, I think.’

‘Yeah, but only next door,’ Scarlett warned. They made their way over to Mike, who was poring over each page in a reverential manner that Scarlett found a little uncomfortable.

‘Hey,’ Scarlett said, keeping her voice down. They’d pretty much gotten away with being here, and the last thing she needed was her accent being picked up on. ‘We’re going next door, but we’ll be back in ten minutes, okay?’ He nodded, only half hearing her and she gestured to Lena.

‘Thank you,’ she said to Scarlett as they left. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted in there.’

‘Me neither,’ Scarlett replied, ‘so not my thing.’

The record shop was next door, and they stood aside to let someone come out, an old-school LP tucked under his arm.

‘Wow, this is totally retro,’ Scarlett said to Conor. This was more like it, she thought.

‘Tell me about it,’ Conor replied. They headed over to the ‘new music’ section and began flicking through the new releases, laughing over the photos on the covers, filled with people in lurid clothing and big hair. The look of the day seemed to be girls working bows in their hair and massive skirts, with the boys rocking gelled hair and knitted cardigans. Scarlett picked up an LP of Bobby Rydel’s Greatest Hits, looking like he’d stepped out of the movie, Grease.

Dropping it back in to its slot, she picked up a smaller 45 record and scrutinised the label. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight),’she read out loud. ‘Oh, come on. That can’t be real.’

Conor leaned over her shoulder and sniggered. ‘Where did they come up with these titles?’

Lena leaned in. ‘What do you reckon our kids will think of the stuff we listen to now?’

Scarlett shoved the LP back into the section she’d pulled it out of and pulled another one out. ‘It can’t be any worse than these,’ she told her. ‘I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door,she read. Conor joined in.

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, he told Lena, who blushed.

They traded titles back and forth for a few minutes until they were interrupted by the arrival of Mike, who looked more than a little flustered.

‘We have to go,’ he said. His eyes were glittery and red patches had stained his cheeks. He looked like he’d run five miles, not from next door.

‘Why?’ asked Scarlett, ‘where’s the fire?’ She slid the record she’d been holding back in to its slot, a small frisson of alarm shooting up from her stomach.

He glanced around. ‘We have to go, like, now, okay? I’ll explain when we get back.’

Lena and Conor had come over to see what the fuss was about. ‘What’s the deal?’ Conor said. ‘Annoy the crap out of someone else with your comic-book back-stories?’

Mike looked a little annoyed. ‘No, I didn’t, but thanks for asking. It wasn’t my fault,’ he began to elaborate but Scarlett cut him off with a wave of her hand.

‘Just stop talking now, okay?’ She saw the scowl cross his face and knew he’d stuffed up — big time. ‘You’re an idiot,’ she stated. ‘No,’ she held up one finger, ‘that’s not up for debate. I guess we need to get out of here pretty quick, then?’

‘Yeah, like now, okay?’ He glanced over to the window and they all turned to see a few of the boys from the comic shop, peering through the glass to see if he was in there.

‘Why did we go with this choice again?’ Scarlett asked nobody in particular. ‘Come on,’ she told the other two, ignoring Mike. She nodded at Conor, and as he pushed open the door, he reached behind him and linked hands with Scarlett, who grabbed Lena. Mike was lurking at the back of them all and seemed hesitant to go back out. Lena grabbed his hand and they walked out, primary-school style, onto the sidewalk. Conor’s scarf, still around Mike’s neck, snagged on the doorframe, and tugged itself free.

The boys looked down, stunned, before picking it up and talking in excited tones that didn’t sound good at all.

‘Leave it,’ Scarlett told him, ‘just keep moving.’

‘But-’ he tried to say.

‘Well, we’re stuffed now,’ Conor said, his voice sounding a little sick. ‘I think we’re going to have to make a quick exit. And we can’t do it stuck together. When I count to three, we’re going to run for that alley, okay?’ He indicated a small opening about a hundred meters ahead of them to the left.

‘Why?’ asked Mike. ‘Why can’t you just get us back from here?’ he said to Scarlett.

‘Because I can’t just stand in the middle of a sidewalk with people walking into me, can I?’ she said. ‘I need some space. And Lena’s not up to lifting all four of us just yet. So we head for the alley.’

‘Yep,’ Lena agreed. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ She glanced back at the boys. ‘Like now.’

‘Agreed,’ Mike said, his voice high with tension. Scarlett was seething. Angry with Mike, she was mostly annoyed with herself. So stupid, she thought. Conor broke the link and the four of them became visible again. Not the most discreet exit, Scarlett thought, looking around at the startled looks from the pedestrians who were disconcerted to find human-shaped roadblocks appearing in their paths. The group of boys spotted Mike on the sidewalk and began walking towards him as if he were some kind of Messiah. One of them was holding Conor’s scarf.

‘Jeez,’ Mike said, nervous. ‘This is not what I had in mind.’

‘Yeah?’ said Conor, ‘And what did you have in mind, exactly? Drop a few hints, look like the big man?’ They were moving along the sidewalk, trying not to run but not far from it. The boys were dodging pedestrians, their pace picking up.

‘Shut up, okay?’ Mike said, a little out of breath. ‘Maybe if you’d stayed in the shop with me instead of wanting to spend a little more time with your girlfriend, none of this would’ve happened and we wouldn’t be running along the street like criminals.’

Scarlett reached the alley and pulled Lena in, giving Mike an extra shove for his stupidity as he came past her. He stumbled, but didn’t say anything as he shot her a dirty look. They took a few seconds to get their breath back along a dirty brick wall, the entrance of which was partially concealed by large rubbish bins. It looked like the gods of time travel had come through for them, Scarlett thought. Nobody would think to come down here, surely. The first to recover, Mike ducked back to the entrance and peered around the corner, scanning the sidewalk. ‘I think they’re gone,’ he announced, a confident tone evident.

‘Not so fast,’ Conor said, pointing. The boys were beginning to gather, and they could hear the excited babble of noise and shouting as they tried to get Mike’s attention.

As the group advanced, Scarlett grabbed Conor’s hand. ‘Join hands,’ she instructed them all, ‘and stay quiet. This is going to be hard enough.’ They nodded and she shut her eyes, but couldn’t block out the sound of the strangled sounds of concern from around her. Focusing harder than she ever had before, she pictured her room at d’Orsay, and the world around them began to dissolve. The shouts from the boys began to fade and the ground disappeared and reappeared underneath her feet. She caught the lingering smell of her perfume and the wet towel she’d tossed over her desk chair earlier that morning. She opened her eyes with a sigh of relief.

‘We’re here,’ she told them, as the others opened their eyes, mirroring her relief. Mike looked around.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Tidiness is not your strong point, is it?’ as he took in her scattered belongings.

‘How about you keep your mouth shut?’ she countered. ‘You’re not exactly in my good books right now.’

He sat down on the edge of the bed, tossing a few clothes on to the floor as he did so. Lena took the desk chair and Conor sat on the floor, cross-legged. All three of them sat, waiting.

‘Well, that was exciting,’ Conor said, breaking the silence, sarcasm dripping from every word. ‘What’d you do to get them so wound up?’

Mike cleared his throat. ‘Nothing. I mean, I got talking to one of the guys in there and I kind of forgot they don’t know what’s going to happen. And maybe I got a bit carried away. But it’s not like I did it deliberately,’ he said to Scarlett, indignant.

‘Yeah, that makes it all okay, then,’ she told him. ‘Look, Maggie told me that if I started playing around with anything when I went time-travelling, then things here would change. So I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good.’

‘Weeeelll,’ Mike began, ‘I guess this isn’t good, either.’ He drew out the first edition of The Fantastic Four a little crumpled, from inside his jacket. For a minute, nobody spoke. Lena let out a strangled sound, and Scarlett caught her look, as though afraid of an explosion.

But Scarlett felt like someone had zapped every last bit of energy from her. All she wanted to do was throw up. Taking a few deep breaths, the others waited to see what she’d do. Lena eventually got up to sit next to her, clearly concerned at her silence, but Scarlett held up her hand to stop her, and the other girl stopped and sat down again.

‘Did I not tell you to just go and read it and then we’d come back?’ she asked Mike. ‘Why would you do that?’ All of a sudden, she felt incredibly tired. ‘That’s it for me. I’m so out of here.’ Why am I so surprised at him? He’s only doing what I knew he would. Tom would be so disappointed in her, she knew.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sounding a little contrite. ‘I didn’t think it’d make that much of a difference. I thought that you were exaggerating.’ His voice trailed off as he finally grasped the enormity of his error.

Conor shook his head. ‘Man, for a smart guy, you are seriously slow on the uptake. Why couldn’t you just leave it there?’

Mike looked miserable. ‘I couldn’t. It’s a first edition. Does this mean that I’ll have to give it back?’

Give it back? That’s what you’re worried about? Yeah, you could say that!’ Scarlett leaned over and snatched it out of his hands. ‘Give me that!’ The comic felt like it was pulsing with some kind of energy between her hands.

A knock sounded at the door, startling them.

Scarlett swallowed and opened the door. Gil was standing there, with a look that seemed to go beyond ordinary anger. He scanned over the rest of them before coming back to rest his attention on Scarlett.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. Scarlett, I’d like a word, please?’ The formality of his words belied the bristly body language, arms crossed, and a mottled pattern creeping up his neck as he bit back on elaborating.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘There’s no point delaying the inevitable. And you three,’ he said, directing his attention to the others who were now hovering in the hallway, ‘go and wait in the common room. Your Mentors are looking for you as we speak. And I’ll take that, too,’ he said, reaching for the comic. He glanced at the cover. ‘I’d have been disappointed if it’d been a DC one.’ Mike looked surprised, but closed his mouth as he saw the expression on Gil’s face. The older man sighed, as if suppressing some other emotion. ‘You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?’ he asked them, his voice holding a thread of fear in it. He looked up at her. ‘What have you done, Scarlett?’

 

Download a pdf of ‘Slipstream’

Tagged , , ,

Custodian, Lindsey Hodder

Shadows blew across the ground, gently caressing the streets of packed dirt. Ghostly echoes of the clouds that threatened to blot out the moon the shadows provided ever growing opportunities to be taken advantage of, if one wished to remain unseen. One did. Emme hovered in the meagre shadows cast by the piles of debris that were all that was left of the shipwright district. Misty clouds of wasted breath hung before her in the cold night air. She hugged her shawl tightly to her ribs as she waited for a brief break in the clouds to pass.

In… out – mist, in… out – mist; she narrated her breaths with a single minded concentration. Overhead the clouds thickened as rain began to spit down, adding a layer of damp to her freezing form. She jolted herself to movement once more. Darting from one dark shadow to the next. Always on the lookout. Always listening for a hint of activity. She swore her staccato heartbeat could be heard back through the city all the way to the citadel proper itself. It mimicked the tramping of soldier’s boots, and she shook her head at the thought. Not now. Not tonight.

She paused beside a blackened shell. Once a house, the roof was now gone – the walls dark with ash that would never wash off, no matter how hard it rained. These houses, this district, had once been the pride of the city. It had been the first thing the invaders destroyed. She shook her head again, harder this time. She had to keep her mind sharp. This was the most important part. All her care was for nothing if she was spotted now. Living on the streets she had been constantly on the wrong side of the law simply to survive. This was so much bigger than all of those times. She wouldn’t be able to wriggle her way out if she they realised what she was caught up in. She’d be thrown in one of the dungeons in the cold and damp and dark to rot and –

Shrink back against the wall. Let your eyes lose focus. Watch for movement. Count three times to one hundred. The memory of the spoken words calmed the hammering of her heart for a moment as she forced her thoughts away from capture. She wasn’t going to get caught. She ground her teeth together in frustration. She hadn’t been so jumpy since she was a kid. The rain was growing harder, the smell of burnt wood filling her nostrils as the ground was slowly soaked. She wrinkled her nose and tried not to think about that either.

She reached her third one hundred, forcing herself to make the full count despite growing winds that tore at her, lifting her hair and thrusting the cold deeper into her bones. One last glance up the street and she was satisfied she was alone, pushing off the wall with sweaty palms. One, two, three steps… her heart began racing anew. She darted across the last laneway, each step propelling her faster. The pile of rotting wood on carefully disguised hinges protested at its abrupt opening as she thrust it into the air, the screeching sound caught by the wind to echo down the street. Emme jumped down through the trapdoor, almost landing on the figure that caught the timber before it could slam back down.

‘Were you seen?’ Nicolai’s words were harsh, abrupt. She shook her head, the pounding in her ears subsiding now she was safely inside. He stood behind her as she secured the latch of the trapdoor. She could feel his glare on her as she tied the knots he couldn’t. The knots he should have re-tied after his own arrival. The reminder that she bested him, in this at least, once would have soothed her. Tonight, she hated it. ‘Are you su –’

‘I wasn’t seen!’ The words came out louder than she intended. Who was he to question her? To doubt her? The older boy’s face tensed and his arm jerked halfway to her face. His glare deepened before he closed his eyes and relaxed with conscious effort, his hand returning to his side. He hated the situation even more than she did. She turned her back and started walking deeper into the makeshift shelter. Last week he would have hit her. The strain of their situation was forcing him to civility even as it was turning her into a cowering wreck.

She didn’t make it two steps before he lunged forward to drag her back.

‘You have to convince him to stay.’ She could hear fear and anger in his voice, mingled with familiar disdain. What was he afraid of, anyway? He wasn’t going to have what she was sure would be the entirety of the continent after him. ‘He won’t listen to me. Tell him tonight’s no good.’

Emme yanked her arm out of his hand. ‘What good do you think it’ll do, huh?’ She turned and started down the corridor again, pretending it didn’t bother her even as she wrapped her arms around herself once again. The damp wool of her jacket smelt of wet ash. The entire district smelt of wet ash in the rain now. It used to smell like freshly sawn wood and drying varnish. Usually, she hated the new smell; yet another reminder of the war. Tonight she desperately wished she were back outside – anywhere but here. On the threshold of the old cellar she paused. How did you get into this mess? The sound of Nikolai’s footsteps in the hall jolted her to action. She wouldn’t let him see her moment of weakness. She hugged her ribs tighter, disgusted with herself for needing the extra comfort, and forced herself into the old cellar.

Light flickered from a sputtering candle, illuminating a frail figure hunched over an old door balanced on piles of rubble. The makeshift desk had been buried in precarious stacks of moulding paper and rotting books for months now. Paper, Elias had told her, was precious, fragile. It was meant for palaces and libraries – not the damp air by the docks. It had been the first time she’d seen books up close, though she’d tried to hide her interest. Palaces and libraries didn’t welcome the likes of her. The papers and books that had covered the desk had been a fraction of Elias’ collection. Yet they had been all the scholar could save when he fled from the citadel during the war.

Now the desk before the old man was almost empty – the books and papers burnt, though their musty smell still lingered. Emme hadn’t seen the fire-blackened base of the door that had served as his makeshift desk since they first pulled it from the wreckage of the house the next street over. Being the closest to the docks these streets had borne the brunt of the destruction, though the invaders hadn’t neglected to ruin the rest of the district. Setheyi’s famous shipyards were now ruined, holding only the crude shelters the invaders had thrown together to hold their prisoners. The shipwright district itself had been abandoned, the jagged remains serving as a ghostly reminder of just how broken the city had become. It was, Elias had explained when she had first been roped into helping him, the perfect place to hide.

The candle flame flailed in an errant gust of wind from the building storm outside. Nicolai rushed to Elias’ side as their shadows danced on the walls, fiddling with the shutters on the old lantern until the flame was strong once more. Elias remained still, his attention on the thing in front of him. Emme watched as Nicolai opened his mouth once, twice. Hovering.

‘Are you sure there’s no other way?’ Nicolai’s last ditch objection burst forth, breaking the old man’s concentration.

Elias finally turned, his eyes meeting Nicolai’s. ‘It must leave the city. It must have the best chance. There is no other way.’ His slow, careful way of talking infuriated her almost as much as Nicolai’s general manner. Elias turned to her and her annoyance faltered; the lines etched across his face were deeper than she remembered from even yesterday, the mouth turned further down at the corners. ‘Emme is its best chance.’

‘But –’

‘Alchemy is a feared art, Nicolai, you know this. Misunderstood, but its accomplishments must be saved. And my time has run short.’

Emme shivered. The thing still gave her the feeling of spiders crawling up her spine. Her brief annoyance seemed petty in the face of fear. It was suddenly so very real, what she was helping them do. She had been the one to learn the guard was getting close to locating Elias, the one that had pushed Elias’ plan into motion. She and Nicolai had debated hard that night, on the same side for once, for him to simply move his hiding place, bide his time.

The alchemist had declined, caring more for its safety than his own. He repeated his words tonight, eyes unfocused, staring past the patched walls of the cellar into a past she had no part in. ‘I am tired of hiding in the damp. I wish to see the citadel one last time.’ If she’d known what his plan had been that night she would have argued harder. If she’d known from the beginning she would have abandoned them both long before she’d grown to care for the patient old man.

Now he moved away from the worktable, holding his hand out to Emme. She crept forwards, hesitant to the last; still wary of the trust he’d managed to steal from her. Nicolai couldn’t come, for all the alchemist’s apprentice had fought to be a part of saving his master’s creation. He had even been willing to put up with her. But he was on the run as much as Elias was, though the price on his head was smaller, and the mannerisms of a privileged life made him too noticeable. Elias was too old, and he didn’t want to go. The task fell to her, the street rat who’d made the mistake of trying to steal from an alchemist. She was the hateful thing’s best chance, the one with the personality to adapt and the skills to hide in plain sight.

She stepped up to the bench. Propped up on the old vase filled with the ashes of Elias’ precious books the manikin sat with its long spindly limbs splayed across the table – the old man’s life work. She was to take it far from where it would surely be destroyed. Elias had been cast out of the citadel for daring to believe the thing possible even before the invasion, and both sides of the war had been earnestly looking for the old scholar before he could complete it. Once they learnt that he had… she would be pursued without restraint. Even in the midst of a war, the existence of such a thing was a blasphemy that must be destroyed. She was to take it out of the reach of all of them, to the place Elias had told her its protection would be ensured. Then it would no longer be her problem.

Pulling the rucksack off her back she placed it on the table beside the manikin and opened the flap. An army of spiders swarmed up her spine as the manikin picked itself up, dusted itself off, and stepped in.

 

Download a pdf of Custodian

Tagged ,

From Fae’s Labyrinth, Eva Matheson

 

‘Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine‘

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

 Bonnie is the new school councillor after the usual one ‘disappeared’. Sarah must routinely visit the councillor, due to her home situation. Hayley is Sarah’s mum’s best friend.  For the past five years she has been the carer of both Sarah, and her mum.

Harry holds his distance from Sarah in social situations, but is aware of her every move. We don’t know his true intentions yet. He is fairly good-looking, but has dulled down his looks in an effort to appear more human. He has half-human blood (as does Sarah, which she has yet to discover) and half-Fae blood, from an elfin bloodline. Harry is Scottish and Sarah is English. The setting so far, is London.

 

SARAH

 

I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. After talking to Bonnie, the school councillor, at my redundant weekly session, I was convinced the weekend holiday was not a good idea. Then after seeing Harry, talking to Harry, I felt strangely…. adventurous. It wasn’t much like butterflies in my belly, more like a whole bunch of beetles wiggling for space till I could barely stand it anymore. A blend of nerves and excitement I hadn’t felt since I was a kid going away on holidays. Long before Mum got sick. I arrived home from school, the front door creaked, and Hayley’s dogs barked from the back garden.

‘I’m doing the dishes!’

I walked to the den of a kitchen where Hayley stood facing the window.

‘Hi Hayley, looks like rain this weekend. What are your plans?’

Man I was talking fast. Hayley stopped washing the dishes, her pink-gloved hands still in the bubbles. She glanced back over her shoulder. I knew she was onto me.

‘Could you look after Mum?’ It was lame, but I pouted anyway.

‘Do you mean the whole weekend?’ Hayley went back to the dishes.

I lent my elbows on the kitchen bench next to Hayley and fiddled with the silver locket on my chain. ‘Some friends are going to the countryside. We’d be staying in their Auntie’s house, honestly.’

Hayley made a tutting sound with her tongue. She was always doing it. When she watched bad news on T.V, she tutted. If the newspaper was delivered late, she tutted. At the rising price of fuel, she tutted a lot. It was her way of disapproving of bad things, and occasionally her way of teasing the good.

She looked out the window as she washed the dishes. I followed her gaze. Mum was sitting at the table on the lawn. Her hands in her lap, her body completely still. Hayley’s two golden retrievers dozed at her feet.

‘No trouble at all Hayley. Go, pack, don’t worry about your Mum, we’ll be fine.’

I was relieved at how quickly she agreed, after all, it meant giving up her entire weekend to cook meals, bathe, walk, and put Mum to bed.

‘Thanks, I owe you,’ I replied, and squeezed my arms around her.

Hayley smiled and pulled the sink plug.

‘You can pay me back by doing your own dishes sometime!’

I grimaced as I bounced up the stairs behind her.

I didn’t pack much. Two changes of clothes, toiletries, and a book called Little Women to read for the umpteenth time. I turned the first page and read Mum’s birthday message inside. I was 11 years old then, the last birthday before she got really sick. A week later Hayley moved in.

I walked back down the stairs and that seed of guilt began to grow in my gut. How could I leave my Mum?

They were sitting at the kitchen table, the room now smelly from a slow cooked dinner. Mum stared at a wall with her hands around a cup of tea that would be cold and untouched. Hayley was chatting away about the cafe she was planning to visit for lunch the next day. Her cup was long empty. I knelt beside Mum.

‘The bus comes in ten minutes so I’d better get going… Mum?’  She looked like a fragile porcelain doll, except for the roots of silver in her hair, and the wrinkles that dolls never get.

I rested my hand on the back of her chair. Mum didn’t respond, so I touched her shoulder. She glanced over, looking at me, but her expression genuinely blank.

‘Mum, I’ll be back on Sunday. Will you be okay without me?’

She stared at me for a long moment; her blue eyes had tiny dots for pupils. Her eyes didn’t look like they even worked. Then her lashes flickered.

‘Sarah.’ She confirmed softly.

I froze. Mum hadn’t spoken in weeks, let alone recognised me.

‘Yes Mum….will you be okay here, with Hayley?’ My throat grew tight. Somehow this stopped tears.

Mum looked across the table to where Hayley sat, silhouetted by the window. Hayley was smiling back.

‘Yes.’ Barely a whisper. Then I could see in her eyes, she was fading again.

‘Pinkie promise?’ I reached my hand up, offering her my arched pinkie like I had done so many times when I was little.

Mum raised her hand and linked her finger with mine. Her mouth twitched at the corners. Then she looked to me and in the slowest motion ever, placed a warm, frail hand on the side of my face, cupping my cheek and chin.

‘I know you,’ her voice was hoarse, leaking with confusion.

I could only nod and place my hand over hers. It hurt when she was lost inside herself, and it hurt when she wasn’t.

‘I’ll be back soon. I love you Mum.’

As quickly as she had returned to the land of the living, her eyes glazed over and the porcelain doll face returned to the window. She was gone, somewhere deep inside her mind, somewhere out of my reach. I looked to Hayley, calm and collected, Mum’s best friend; and the only reason I had stayed out of foster care all these years.

‘Go Sarah, we’ll have fun, and so should you.’

I didn’t move.

‘Tut tut tut. Go.’

I nodded, and wrapped my arms around her; my throat was feeling tight again.

She was right, and it was in this moment that I realised just how wrong Bonnie was. I wasn’t being selfish like she had said.  I was just trying to be like a normal teenager with something that resembled a social life.

‘Thanks Hayley.’ I pushed my chair back. Mum didn’t react in the slightest to the scraping noise. Hayley leaned forward and gave me her serious face. She played the role of Mum, in Mum’s absence.

‘Be safe, have fun, and please don’t worry. She will be safe as long as she’s with me. I promise’.

I looked back one last time as I left the kitchen. For a moment I thought Hayley’s face seemed sad and worried, even though she gave me a smile and a wink. I hoped I wasn’t making a huge mistake.

 

HARRY

 

There she was, Bonnie, the school councillor, standing in the shadows to the rear of the platform. She was dressed in a full-length black dress; her hair fell about her shoulders, her pretty face painted with pretty make-up. She watched the small crowd entering the train station. Even in the dark she looked beautiful, and if I didn’t know better, I would have found her striking. But I did know better. I knew exactly what she was. And she was waiting for Sarah.

A water witch cleverly transformed. Naturally grotesque webbed feet, much too wide for human footwear; Bonnie wore long dresses all the time. That was my first clue. But the biggest give away was the smell leaking from her flesh.

A smell like clothes left to go damp in a laundry basket. The first time I met her, the smell was so subtle, but that odour and her feet were enough to give away her disguise. And yet, as clever as her disguise was to the inexperienced, this witch sure wasn’t good at spotting others in camouflage.

I looked at the clock on the wall above the platform. Bonnie hadn’t seen me yet, and the train would be here in five minutes, and that meant Sarah would also be arriving at any moment. I needed to get rid of the witch before she could get her claws into Sarah’s mind and convince her not to get on the train.

I knew what had to be done. It wouldn’t be the first time, and there really wasn’t any other choice.  My job was to protect Sarah and bring her to the manor where the others waited, no matter what it took. I walked lightly on my feet towards Bonnie, adjusting my backpack over my shoulder as I went. Bonnie was hidden in the dark, and distracted by her goal.

She didn’t notice me until I was standing close to her, just behind her right side. I glanced around; no one was looking our way. I pulled my dagger from my jacket pocket, and held it out of sight, but ready nonetheless. It would take only one strike through the heart, and she would be finished quickly, and quietly.

But Bonnie turned and I was caught.

‘Harry! What are you doing here?’

Bonnie smiled in a friendly sort of way, but I noticed her mouth twitch. I had caught her off guard. ‘Waiting for Sarah,’ I replied.

Her smile disappeared. She eyed me up and down with suspicion. Her eyes tore at my skin like invisible fingernails, as she tried to see if anything lay beneath my outer appearance. Is he human? Or is he not? Her eyes questioned.

I took a step closer and gripped my hidden dagger. It had to be done, now. Suddenly, Bonnie’s eyes widened, and she stumbled back.

‘Romus!  I can see you… No, please Romus, no. I will leave her alone. Please don’t do anything.’ Bonnie began to cower and shrink before my eyes.

This was murder. This was not how my clan had raised me. I had only done it once before, cornered in a cave by a pissed off red-cap goblin. It had to be him or me. Today, it was me or Bonnie.

Maybe I could let this witch walk away? I hesitated, my dagger still by my side, but Bonnie embraced my hesitation as her opportunity. Her pretty face turned grey, her smile transformed into a jaggered, diseased grin of teeth.

My arm twitched.

Bonnie whipped a hand up to the spot behind her neck and drew a long thin knife, concealed by her blanket of hair. She cocked her head, cracking her neck.

‘Oh, it feels good to be me.’

My fingers tightened around my dagger.

She was fierce in her lunge as her jaw clenched, but I was faster, and my dagger dug deep up through her ribs, destroying her heartbeat. The witch dropped to her knees as I withdrew my dagger, and in her final breath, she transformed to her true appearance. Her body was grey all over, with gills carved up and down her throat, a hunch back, twisted bony arms, and a face and chest wet as though coated in Vaseline. Her eyes were hollow now, and black, cocooned by a drawn and sagging human-ish face.

Bonnie’s knife fell to the ground with a tinkle, followed by her limp, grotesque body. No one noticed a thing tucked away in that dark corner.

I managed to control my shaking enough to wipe the grey blood matter from my dagger, onto the witch’s dress. I couldn’t help but wonder if this kill was just the beginning. There was still a long way to go. I pushed her body back against the wall. It was already shrivelling, and soon she would be just a pool of dark water and wet clothes. In my stomach, and in my head, I was queasy, and there was sweat beneath my clothes. It might have been easier if I hadn’t known her, and it didn’t help to see the gruesome corpse transformation. Then I heard the train approaching, and as I did, I watched Sarah step onto the platform, her eyes searching for friends.

I moved along the wall, concealed by the shadows. I approached Sarah far from where the witch lay.

‘Hey! I’m real happy you came,’ I smiled, and shoved my sweaty hands in my pockets.

‘Hey, Harry. So, where are the others?’ Sarah asked, glancing around.

‘They’re catching the morning train. Dunno why, they didn’t go into detail.’

I knew I was talking too fast. I was sounding contrived. I imitated a yawn.

‘Thanks for meeting me. I probably would have gone home if no one was here.’ Sarah shrugged; I thought I saw a small smile.

The train doors slid open as we talked. People were beginning to find their seats.

‘Come on. It’ll be warmer on the train.’ I reached out my hand, but I knew I shouldn’t have, not to her. It wasn’t my place, even though we were on the human side. I could hardly believe I was about to succeed in bringing Sarah back. I didn’t want to let her go. The others would be waiting. She took my hand, and we stepped inside the train.

 

SARAH

 

We sat in a strange, easy silence. The train seats were like lumpy rocks. They smelt of feet, or bad food, or both, and were structured in rows, dappled, with people all facing the wrong way. By the time the train left the city, it was so dark that I could barely see a field or a tree. Harry and I piled up our backpacks and propped our feet on them like footrests. I glanced at Harry’s reflection in the window. He looked so deep in thought. I hardly knew him, even though he’d been hanging out with my group for most of term. I’d see him at the shops and movies, or whatever was going on that weekend.

Most of the time he just sat with the boys, not that he was anything much like them. He was…kind of weird, polite in an old fashioned way, holding doors open and saying, ‘After you.’ And he always looked so serious.

‘I heard about your mum.’

‘Heard what?’ my words cracked like a whip. ‘You heard she’s brain damaged? Gone crazy? A vegetable? A retard? What?’ Oh god shut up Sarah.

Harry was staring, his mouth parted.

‘Forgive me, I didn’t mean to –’

‘Don’t.  Don’t pretend you understand.’ It was so dark outside I could only see my face in the window.

I looked back at Harry.

‘I didn’t think you had green eyes.’

Harry was staring ahead. He dropped his eyes, and turned to me.

‘I don’t. They’re brown.’

As the train rolled on, Harry got a message on his phone. I pretended to stare through the dark window, but I was carefully watching his reflection. He looked worried at first, but when his phone beeped with a reply message, he smiled.

The motion of the train was winning. I closed my heavy eyelids; it was what they wanted. I didn’t know how long I slept for, but when I woke, my head was on Harry’s shoulder, and the train was slowing.

 

Download a pdf of Fae’s Labyrinth Ch1

Tagged , ,

When the World Turned Grey, Lynda A. Calder

 

Bringer is a Young Adult Fantasy that begins in the real world and takes Jemima Jennings into the mystical world of Maladria where she meets Lamasuard Ingan and his horse, Amicus. Both of them are searching for something but they will both find more than what they are looking for.

 

When the clouds rolled in and the rain wouldn’t stop, Dad knew there was something wrong with Mum. He insisted the weather was the barometer of Mum’s moods. No one believed him. Not even me. Why should I? He was the pragmatist in our family: the engineer, the scientist. Facts only, not omens of impending doom. That was Mum’s domain: the artist, the writer, the gardener. She was the one who looked to the sky or put her hand to the dirt, and could tell you how your day would go. Anyway, only Dad had dark moods. Mum made them evaporate. She was the bright light.

No, there was nothing wrong with Mum. But what did I know, until that day when Mum finally cracked it.

 

Two more wake-up calls and then I’d get up.

Mum was so predictable. Every morning it was, ‘Jemima, dear, time to get up. Wakey, wakey, you’ll be latey.’ And she did that three times, five minutes apart.

Yes, ten more minutes. I huddled under my covers and took in the smells of cooking bacon wafting from the kitchen.

Stomp, stomp, stomp. My covers disappeared.

‘What?’ I spun around and sat up. ‘What was that?’

Mum thumped out of my bedroom door.

‘Psycho,’ I mumbled, rubbed my eyes, and swung my feet to the floor.

I don’t know how, but hair has a way of spending the night tangling itself into impenetrable knots. I tugged at the brown bird’s nest twisted down my back. CRASH! I winced at the noise from the kitchen.

I twisted up the tousled mess and shoved a beanie over it.

Lingering over a cold bowl of cereal, I eyed off the burnt bacon and eggs still filling the kitchen with grey smoke. Shards of crockery intermingled with a splatter of porridge on the lino floor.

The rain streamed down the kitchen window. Great.  Another day fighting with umbrellas and wet raincoats on public transport. But today it was really pouring; torrential.

‘It’s raining again,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ Mum said, peering out the window and clutching a steamless cup of coffee.

‘The bus is going to be crowded with wet people, again. And I’ll get soaked walking to the bus stop.’

‘Probably,’ Mum droned, not moving.

‘You could drive me to school?’

Mum spun. She blinked as though not expecting to see me sitting there. Then she returned to looking out the window, at the greyness.

‘Ask your father.’

‘Dad’s at work!’ I scraped the chair back from the table, making as much noise as possible. ‘You don’t care.’

Mum still didn’t move. She just stared. I stomped from the kitchen.

It bucketed all day; I had wet shoes. After the walk home from the bus stop, I was soaked through to the skin. Mum was still in the kitchen, staring out the window, with three half-finished cups of coffee beside her.

Water dripped from the tips of my long hair and uniform onto the kitchen floor.

‘I got wet.’

‘Mmm.’

‘I’m soaking wet and you’re just sitting there. I could get the flu. I could die.’

Mum turned, and again she blinked at seeing me in the room.

I held out my arms. Hello! Wet here! Soaked through and it’s your fault.

Mum took a deep breath and returned to the window.

‘ARGH!’ I dumped my sodden bag onto the tiles and squelched to the bathroom with an armful of dry clothes. Ah, a hot shower. The best thing after being damp all day.

Amid the welcome drops of warmth, I remembered: Miss Wendy’s today! Miss Wendy was my fastidious, perfectionist violin teacher. She wasn’t even a great violin teacher. Most other teachers have students who win Eisteddfods. Not Miss Wendy. I could have won Eisteddfods, if only she had been a better teacher.

I turned off the shower. If I could just get dressed and hide in my bedroom, maybe Mum, in her staring-out-the-window state, would forget, and not take me to another hour of useless torture with Miss Wendy.

I snuck into the hallway. No movement in the kitchen. Sliding along the wall, I backed into my bedroom. With an ear to the gap, I eased the door closed, until it clicked shut. No violin lesson! I spun in triumph. Mum stood up from my bed. My back slammed against the door.

Mum’s purse was over her shoulder, my violin case by her feet.

‘Time for violin.’

‘Why? I hate Miss Wendy. She’s annoying. She makes me do things over and over and again, and she doesn’t even tell me why!’

Mum’s nostrils flared. ‘I need you to go to violin today.’

I crossed my arms. ‘I’m not going. You can’t make me.’

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. We stood in silence. She then released that breath, slowly, through clenched lips, and sucked it back in through her nose. Her eyes snapped open. ‘Pick up the damned violin and get in the bloody car!’

Was it Mum’s first ever swear word, or was it her first ever yell? Whatever it was, I had that violin case in my hand and was in the car before I’d given it a thought.

Most parents would drop their sixteen-year-old daughter off to a violin lesson and go home or wait in the car. Not my Mum. She insisted on coming inside. She sat behind me, in the same chair, every lesson, and faced the stairs, or, more exactly, a round, stained glass window under the stairs.

The window was beautiful. It contained vibrantly coloured glass: a unique round bottomed chestnut violin with leaf ended F-holes on a field of jade-green grass framed by ruby red and golden yellow flowers. In the background, stretched violet and indigo mountains beneath a sky the colour of Mum’s eyes: cobalt blue.

When it was sunny, the picture’s colours would project onto the floor at Mum’s feet. As the lesson progressed, the colours would climb up her legs and rest on her lap.

Today, though, there was no sun and no colours. It was as grey outside as it was inside Miss Wendy’s. Yet, Mum took her seat and watched the darkened window.

There was this one music piece in particular, that Miss Wendy was forcing me to learn. I know Mum asked Miss Wendy to include it in my repertoire, but it was not on the list of ‘allowed’ pieces for my studies, yet, Miss ‘everything must be done by the rules’ Wendy was still forcing me to learn it. It was a really hard arrangement of Gustav Holst’s ‘Jupiter’. Mum loved it. I hated it. My fingers couldn’t get across the strings fast enough, and my bowing was messy and the violin squeaked and squealed. But, I’d played it enough times that I could see the music in my head without needing the manuscript in front of me.

Miss Wendy asked me to start playing ‘Jupiter’ that day.

She frowned. ‘I can tell you have not been practising every day.’

She was right. Mum hadn’t been on my case, lately, so I hadn’t practised. I hated practising; it was a waste of time.

‘Start again! No sighing.’

Yet, I sighed anyway, and looked around at Mum. At that point, I would have forgiven her for the harsh awakening that morning, and allowing me to get sodden in the rain, if she would just turn and look at me. I needed one of those encouraging smiles with her cobalt blues – that’s how Dad described her eyes, ‘the first time we met, those cobalt blues saved me. They still do.’

No. Mum’s eyes were fixed on that stained glass window under the stairs. But the gloom outside was not going to allow any coloured light to play at her feet this afternoon.

Mum! Look at me! I thought. Damn her. Snap out of it! Come on, this was stupid. Nope. She wallowed in her own private self-pity. She deserved my anger.

I jabbed my bow onto the strings and played the first few un-jolly notes. I squinted at the music, intent on making it through ‘Jupiter’s’ tricky part without Miss Wendy interrupting and telling me to repeat it again.

My shadow appeared across the score. I glanced over Miss Wendy’s shoulder at the window onto the street. No sun. Rain was still pounding the pavement. Where was the light coming from?

I played on. The light grew warmer. The paper seemed to shine as the room filled with a golden glow. Mum’s chair creaked. Bowing, I began to turn, but Miss Wendy tapped her fat 2B pencil on my music.

‘You must keep your violin pointing forward and pay attention to –’

I thought Miss Wendy was going to poke my eye out, but she thrust the pencil over my shoulder to point at the stairs.

‘No, Mrs Jennings. You must not touch my window, it is very special to – Oh no!’

It feels so clichéd to say it, but time actually seemed to slow down at that moment.

The pencil dropped from Miss Wendy’s hand and spun its long way to the thread-bare carpet. Her hands retracted to grip her face. I stopped playing and my long plait flew outwards as I turned my head. Golden light shone from under the stairs.

And then time resumed its steady progress. I could have sworn that the stained glass window was projected onto the chair where Mum had sat. But where was Mum? The room faded to the dullness of outside.

‘Mum?’ My eyes wandered the room. ‘Mum? Where are you, Mum? Miss Wendy, what happened to my Mum?’

My teacher was still frozen in her own pocket of time; her mouth open, eyes wide.

‘Miss Wendy?’

Blinking, she returned and dropped her hands. She looked me up and down. ‘Lesson over, time for you to go home.’

‘But, Miss Wendy, where’s my Mum?’

Miss Wendy already had the phone’s receiver in her hand and was dialling.

‘Mr Jennings, Sir. I need you to come and pick up your daughter. Your wife has… ah… done a very strange thing. She just walked out the front door and has disappeared down the street…’ Miss Wendy drew back the curtains to peak out onto the street. ‘Yes, she just left her car outside… No, Sir, she does not appear to be coming back. This lesson is over and I have another student coming soon. You must come and pick up your daughter now… Thank you.’

Miss Wendy’s eye’s wandered over towards the stairs and snapped back to me. ‘Pack up your things and wait on the porch. Your father is on his way.’

‘But Miss Wendy, my Mum didn’t walk out the front door.’

She puffed air from her cheeks. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, girl. Did you not see her walk past us and out the front door? That will be enough.’

With my violin shoved into its case and before I could argue, I was on the porch with the front door slammed behind me. The rain had stopped; the first time in ages. Water dripped from the leaking gutter and bounced from the tiles to spray my violin case, sneakers and calves.

Had Mum gone out the front door? Had I missed her walk past? No. Miss Wendy had pointed to the stairs, hadn’t she? But I didn’t actually see Mum walk towards the stairs. But there was light from the window; the colours projected onto the chair, even though it was grey outside. Impossible!

Dad arrived in a taxi half an hour later. No new student arrived for tuition with Miss Wendy. Dad paid the driver and beckoned me from Miss Wendy’s porch. We sat in Mum’s car, abandoned on the side of the street.

‘Dad, Miss Wendy’s lying –’

He held up his hand and shook his head.

He was silent as he drove us home. His concentration was on the road. I watched him. Was that a tear dropping from his eye, or just a drip of water?

He pulled into the driveway and his hand went for the door handle.

‘Dad, don’t you really want to know what happened to Mum?’

‘She’s gone,’ Dad said, his face downcast. With a big sigh, he opened the door.

‘Yes, she’s gone. But she didn’t go ‘out the front door’ like Miss Wendy told you. She’s lying.’

Dad turned on me. ‘It’s not nice to call someone a liar.’

‘But she is. Mum went under the stairs.’

Dad put a foot into a puddle. ‘Then Mum is gone.’

 

Download a pdf of Bringer Ch1

 

 

Tagged ,