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Need

I’ve always had a creative hobby.
Always.
I’ve always had a need to create *something*, only the medium changes. The need is a background hum to my life. It’s such a part of me that it took me 37 years to notice it.
This is an oddly settling realisation.

Booshus had an ambivalent relationship with storms.  He loved to watch them from the castle walls, stalking around on their lightning legs and bellowing about how massive and terrifying they were.  He found their boorish arrogance charming, much like the queen thought of the king, he suspected.  Although since the incident with the dryad, he was certainly less boorish than he had been – as well as a good deal thinner.  The queen had him on a strict and healthy diet, and the castle was being rebuilt slowly but surely.  The storms, however, also came with destruction and, Booshus found, headaches; with the especially excitable ones.  The headaches were easy to deal with.  Chewing willow bark and draping a damp cloth over his forehead usually alleviated the worst of the ache, but the destruction was something else.

It was usually the trees that got struck by lightning, since Booshus had persuaded the king to install the palace turrets with lightning rods.  It was an idea he got from a merchant passing through from somewhere very far away to somewhere even further away.  And whilst the king eventually threw the merchant out of the castle because he decided he didn’t like his accent, he and Booshus got on very well.  The notion of giving the lightning a road to travel down instead of having it wander willy- nilly through the palace blowing the tops of towers was one the king was astonishingly resistant to.  Booshus could only conclude that the king was suspicious of the idea’s origin.  The poor trees, though, could not really fit lightning rods to their topmost branches, so every now and again, one of them would be struck.

In his travels through the forest one day, Booshus encountered a weeping dryad by her blasted oak, and asked her what had happened.  She explained how the lightning was hotter than the fiery sun, and boiled her poor tree’s sap to death.  He was very sympathetic to the poor creature, and brought her a pot of honey and cream the next day.  She appreciated his gesture so that she offered him a limb from her tree as a thank you, to make use of as he pleased.

Booshus was bowled over by this, and thanked the dryad profusely.  The dryad was unusually gracious, though, and told him that it didn’t really matter all that much, since the tree was now quite dead, and the beetles couldn’t eat it all, for goodness sake!

When Booshus got this massive limb home, it sat in the corner of his rooms for some time whist he decided what to do with it.  His assistant Vernon gave him several increasingly confused looks as the limb just sat there, day after day.  Eventually, he asked Booshus what was going on, and Booshus explained that he was trying to make up his mind what to do with this limb.  It wasn’t nearly straight enough to make a bow, or even arrows out of.  He didn’t have the skill of a carpenter, and as it was a special log – being both lightning- touched and from the tree of a dryad – he didn’t really want anyone else messing about with it, either.

Vernon shrugged.  ‘Well, master – we need more books – why not make the log into books, so it can help us keep all our hard- won knowledge safe?’

‘Vernon, you’re as genius!  I knew there was a reason I took you on!’  Booshus gave Vernon a great smacking kiss, and then they rolled their sleeves up and started work.

It was a very long, involved, exhausting and boring work to make paper.  It took them weeks of hard work to get the paper they needed.  Luckily, all was quiet everywhere else since the court had gone off to the seaside for the summer.  Booshus and Vernon hadn’t gone because Booshus didn’t like sand very much (unless he was using it as a tool or a raw material) and Vernon burned easily in the sun.  There was time for them to get on with it, without the king wandering in every five minutes to demand this or that stupid thing be done as soon as possible.  Booshus loved that the king provided him with space and resources to pursue his studies and train Vernon, but wished that sometimes he would just leave them alone.

At the end of the work they had piles of paper that was all ready to bind into books.  This took a lot more work, but wasn’t nearly so labour- intensive as actually making the paper.

At the end of their weeks of work, Booshus and Vernon had a large pile of blank- paged books into which they could record knowledge, studies, observations, musings and theories and, in the case of Vernon, multiple doodles in the margins which were the result of Booshus’ tendency to rhapsodise about any given subject he was passionate about.  Vernon was, after all, still a young man and still learning how to learn.  His concentration had a marked tendency to wander to the outer reaches of his consciousness when his present brain had absorbed all it could for that day.  Booshus was well aware of this tendency, but he was also aware of his own tendency to fierce concentration to the exclusion of all else, so he didn’t mind all that much.

Vernon was, it must be said, a pretty good artist, and he did keep one of the new notebooks back just for himself, so he could sketch and doodle in his free time, should he so chose.  It wasn’t that he failed to notify Booshus of this – it’s just that Booshus didn’t really notice that he’d left one book behind when he’d moved the stack to their shared study.  Vernon just assumed that Booshus had left it for his use.  He was pleased, too, since it was the fattest of the books and, as he discovered when he opened it, it contained the finest paper.  Indeed, Vernon went to thank Booshus for this handsome gift, but when he got to the laboratory where Booshus was ensconced, it turned out that he was conducting a particularly interesting experiment, and it totally slipped his mind.  Again and again, Vernon thought, ‘I really must thank Booshus for that book!’ and never remembered to when he actually saw Booshus.  Eventually, when the court returned from their summer retreat, it slipped Vernon’s mind completely, since the king had a whole new set of fanciful ideas and questions brought back as a consequence of random and half- drunken conversations and arguments with the courtiers, and Booshus and Vernon were rushed off their feet finding answers.  The queen was also threatening that next year at least one, if not both, of Booshus and Vernon should go with the court since, in their absence, the king had been plaguing the life out of her with esoteric questions that she had no answers to, when all she wanted to do was read by the shore in the shade of the trees.

And so the darker days of the year approached, and the equinox festival loomed.  The courtiers were excited since it was yet another excuse to get drunk and party, but this time, they got to do it in costume.  Whilst Booshus and Vernon continued to study, the rest of the castle was awash with sequins and fabrics and papier- maché and paint whilst everyone competed in costume design and outrageousness.  On equinox eve, when the world was poised on the brink of tipping from light to dark, from summer to winter and balanced on the cusp of living and dead, the ball took place in the silvery blue light of a full moon.

Drunken courtiers tend to be a noisy bunch, so when the party really got going, Booshus threw in the towel.  ‘That’s it, Vernon – I can’t think straight any more.  That lot are driving me nuts.  We’ll look at this again in the morning.  I’m going to go and find an empty bedchamber on the other side of the castle, put a pillow over my head, and get some sleep.  I suggest that if you don’t plan on joining the party that you do the same.  You’ll never get any sleep otherwise.’

Vernon wandered over to the window and looked down into the courtyard.  There was a long table down one side, filled to groaning with huge platters and tureens of food.  Around the perimeter of the courtyard were trestle tables where people chattered and laughed, or shrieked and yelled depending on their level of inebriation, and the cleared area in the middle was full of bodies dancing patterns to the lively music being played by some musicians situated on a balcony on the other side of the courtyard.  It was a riot of colour and strange movements and shapes thanks to the exuberant and, in some instances, frankly terrifying costumes.  ‘Actually, master, I think I’ll stay and watch the court at play for a while, if it’s all the same to you?’

‘Heh, do what you like, lad.  Go join them and get some food if you want.’

‘But I haven’t got a costume.’

Booshus joined him at the window, just as a particularly drunken courtier let out a particularly insane cackle.  ‘Really – who on earth do you think is going to notice?’

With a wry smile, Vernon said, ‘I admit you make a very sharp point there, master.’

‘Meh.  Do whatever you like lad.  No-one’s going to bother you tonight.  Unless it’s to make you get drunk with them, that is.’  He yawned hugely.  ‘I’m off, anyway.  I seem to remember the queen mother’s suite has nice thick walls and a nice comfy bed.’

‘How do you know that?’

Booshus grinned.  ‘That would be telling, now wouldn’t it?’  He laughed at the expression on Vernon’s face.  ‘Oh don’t look so shocked, Vernon – she used to let me stay in the suite’s spare bedroom on nights of the equinox ball when I was an apprentice.  She couldn’t stand the racket, either.  G’night.’

‘Yeah, goodnight, master.’

Vernon sat at the window with his notebook in hand, idly doodling as he watched the revellers below.  When one of his doodles threatened to spread out all over his carefully researched notes, however, her decided that it was time to bring out the big… er… cannons.  So he laid his notebook on the desk and went and fetched his sketchbook.  Ensconced on the wide window ledge, Vernon spent a very happy hour sketching by moonlight all the outrageous costumes that the courtiers were wearing.  There were lions and tigers and satyrs and centaurs and mermaids and peacocks and many more beautiful and terrible things besides.  He was so lost in the moonlit sketches and the torch lit revellers’ antics that he only noticed how cold and hungry he was when his hand seized up and refused to work halfway through the sketch of a giant (really the lord chamberlain on stilts).  As already noted, Vernon was a young man, and not quite finished yet – he still had many areas in need of improvement.  Two of those that gave him occasional trouble were impulse control and tidiness.  Therefore, when he emerged from his artistic zone, his first thought was “Cold / Hungry!”, and his second was dictated by the first thought and by the sight of the groaning table in the courtyard.  It was “Food / Warm!”

This was all his body needed to propel him at some considerable speed from his perch at the window down into the courtyard, leaving his sketching tools where they lay, and the shutters draughtily open.

Downstairs, the party was in full swing, and Vernon had to push and shove and duck and dance his way around all the costumes taking up so much space before he could get to the buffet table.  He’d been in the castle less than a year, so this was his first equinox ball.  It turned out to be a terribly informal affair, with everyone expected to help themselves from the platters and tureens on the table, even the king and queen.  The only place that still had servants actually serving was at the far end of the buffet table, where all the alcohol was.  This was mainly because the queen found it distasteful to drink from a punchbowl that someone else had already dunked their head in to drink from the source, as it were.  So the drinks were to be ordered by a shout or, in the case of some of the more drunken revellers, a point and a garbled slur.  Vernon walked along the table, weaving in and out of bodies and piling his plate high with all sorts of goodies.  He then collected a mug of wine from the makeshift bar and went to find a table.  He credited his ability to weave through the throng without spilling his wine or food to his time walking in the forests with Booshus to find potion ingredients .  He finally managed to find a place at a table on the edge of the dancing area, and watched the intricate patterns of the dancers whilst he wolfed down his plateful.  The plate was large, and it had been piled high, so by the time he’d finished and was sweeping up the crumbs with a finger, his hunger was more or less satisfied.  He sipped his wine and watched the dancers more closely; his fingers started twitching to sketch the shapes and movement.  He cursed, remembering that he’d left his notebook on the windowsill.  Glancing up to the windowsill where he’d left it, he thought his eyes were going fuzzy from the alcohol, though he’d only drunk one mug so far.  Rubbing his eyes, he looked again.  There was definitely a faint bluish haze surrounding the window, particularly centred on the windowsill.

Oh, dear.  This could not be a good thing.

Hurrying back through the throng, Vernon almost screamed with frustration.  The press of costumed bodies was tighter than ever before, and several times, he had to evade grasping hands and invitations to dance, or be more… intimate.  Finally he made the stairs, bounding up them two at a time, despite the heavy load he carried from the plate of food he had just eaten.  He was rather uncomfortable, but managed to ignore it.  Skidding into the study, he rushed over to the window, where the blue haze was still hovering.  He realised that it centred on his sketchbook, and his stomach twisted as he saw that the pages it lay open at, though he had almost filled them with sketches before rushing off to the party, were now once again pristine.  He knew also that the book hadn’t rearranged its pages as stiff, spine- open books are sometimes wont to do, since there was his quill, resting in the gully between the pages.  The blot that should have left was not in evidence, either.  Just the pen and blank paper.  Looking at the wash of equinox moonlight across the pages made from a lightning struck dryad tree, he cursed long and loud whilst he grabbed the book and shut it with hasty movements, taking it away from the window.  He lit a candle at one of the desks, and used it to examine the rest of the book.  Everything else seemed to be there – just excepting the pages he’d been sketching on when he abandoned the book and left it to the tender mercies of the moon’s light.  He racked his brains to try and remember what he had been sketching when his hand had cramped.  He remembered a tiger, a manticore, a giant fish, a gryphon, and that he’d stopped half way through the drawing of the lord chamberlain on stilts.  His train of thought was interrupted by screams from the courtyard below.

Dashing to the window, he nearly lost the food he had so recently consumed.  Stomping around in the courtyard below were a pair of legs higher than a tall man, leading up to a body that was not there, save for a shimmering suggestion of body, arms and head.  Unfortunately, where the body stopped at the waist was crowned with a pile of viscera that glistened redly, even in the moonlight.  As the legs moved, the pile wobbled and swayed until one part broke loose and started to slither toward the ground.  Its momentum carried it further until there was a large pile of guts on the ground, yet still attached somewhere inside the half- giant.  The guts tangled and tripped the legs, and they landed on  a nearby table, sending hastily abandoned food and drink flying, and flailing about in the mess and the wreckage.  There was a fair bit of screaming and running going on, not to mention vomiting as those who had had too much good cheer suddenly found it sour in their stomach.  All three activities increased dramatically when a gryphon came bounding out of the shadows and began to tear at the viscera with its sharp beak, sending great globs of meat flying around.  Vernon was dreading the next part and, sure enough, a manticore now came bounding out of the shadows, and it and the gryphon began to squabble and then really fight, about who should have best pickings from the giant half-corpse.  The castle now rang with the screams and clangs and crashes of a very large number of half- drunk and all- the- way- drunk people barricading themselves in to their respective rooms, apartments and other living quarters.  Vernon watched as the castle guard shut all the access off to the courtyard and started raining arrows, spears and various other missiles down on to the flailing conglomeration of monsters.  Nothing seemed to touch them.  Every arrow or spear or what not that looked like it ought to deliver a fatal blow just seemed to pass through them as if they were not there.  But they were still knocking tables and chairs flying as they all wrestled together.  It wasn’t long before there was a crash and the door of the laboratory burst open to admit a panting and somewhat wild- eyed king.

‘Where’s Booshus?’ he demanded after looking straight through Vernon a couple of times as he searched the rooms.

‘I’m not sure, your majesty, but I think he might be in the queen mother’s rooms.’

‘What in the name of all the gods is he doing there?  She’s been dead for nigh on twenty years!’

‘Um…   he went there to get some sleep, majesty.  What with the party and everything.’

‘I don’t care if he’s such a killjoy he has to hide away from a party but for heaven’s sake, why isn’t he here now?’

‘Actually, I am,’ said a bleary- eyed, tousle- haired and night shirted Booshus.  ‘What on earth is going on?  Can’t a fellow get a decent night’s sl… oh, hello, your majesty.  What’s all the kerfuffle?’

‘Booshus, there are monsters in the courtyard disrupting my party!  What are you going to do about it?’

Booshus blinked in surprise and then wandered over to the window to have a look.  ‘Are there really?  Oh, bless my soul, so there are!  Gosh – they do look angry!’

‘Not nearly as angry as I will be if you don’t find a way to get rid of the wretched things!’ bellowed the king.

‘Indeed, your majesty.  Well, I see that the men at arms have the creatures contained, even if they can’t actually dispatch them for the moment…’  here he yawned hugely, ‘…oh, do excuse me…  that would seem to indicate that we have a little thinking time.’  He began to usher the king toward the door.

‘You had better make sure this gets sorted, Booshus – I know you’re behind this somehow!’ said the king, as he was practically pushed out of the door and it slammed behind him.

Booshus listened at the door until he heard the noise of the king’s footsteps retreating, and then he turned to Vernon, his tiredness vanishing and becoming immediately all business.  Vernon wondered if the sleepy head had been an act to put the king off the scent.  ‘Now then, Vernon – why don’t you explain to me what’s been going on?  I assume that it’s something to do with that book which you are clutching so tightly that your knuckles have gone white?’

‘Um…  I have a feeling it might, master.’

Booshus narrowed his eyes.  ‘All right then, Vernon.  Tell me everything that happened after I left you this evening.’

So Vernon did.  He explained about the sketching, and going down to the party because he was cold and hungry, seeing the blue haze around the window, and returning to the rooms to find the empty pages.

Then he told Booshus what happened next, with the giant legs and the manticore and the gryphon that, by the sound of it, were still tearing chunks out of each other in the courtyard below.

Booshus listened to all this with intense concentration.  ‘Hmmm.  May I see that book, lad?’

Vernon slid the book over the table to Booshus, and then waited in nervous dread as Booshus leafed through the drawings it contained, making vague humming noises.

‘These are good, lad.  Very good.  You have a rare talent here.’

‘Oh, erm… thanks?’

‘You’re welcome.  The book, though.  The book is interesting too.  It seems to me I’ve seen it before?’

Vernon hung his head, and stuttered and stammered his way through the explanation of how he had come to be using this particular book for art instead of science.

‘I see.  Well – it’s water under the bridge now, I think.  These things can’t be helped.  However, this is the last time that you leave any uncertainty hanging between us, Vernon.  Are we clear on this?’

The steel in Booshus’s normally tranquil and often mildly dreamy gaze took Vernon aback and nailed him to his chair.  ‘Yes master.  Yes of course!  Please, I’m sorry, master.  It was a mistake.  I really, really won’t…’

Booshus waved him quiet.  ‘Yes, yes.  Apology accepted, as long as you treat it like any other lesson and bloody well learn from it.  The problem we have now is: what are we going to do about these creatures?’

‘Master?’

‘Well we can’t very well leave them in the courtyard rolling around and causing a nuisance, can we?  I mean, look at them!’

Vernon got up and went back to the window.  The three creatures were still locked in mortal combat.

‘What do you notice about them, Vernon?’

Vernon wrinkled his forehead as he examined the thrashing melee for a moment.  And then his expression cleared.  They’re tearing chunks out of each other, but none of them are dying.  Or even bleeding!’

‘Exactly!  These are magical creatures with unusual properties, and can’t be killed just any old way, as our dear friend the captain of the guard has so ably demonstrated.  At some length.  So – how do we get rid of them? Think, lad!’

‘Well… h’m… a magical creature, if summoned by a spell, can be banished by the reversal of that spell.  But these weren’t exactly summoned by a spell.’

‘Think what they were summoned by, then.’

‘Erm… moonlight?

‘Yes.  And?

‘Ink?  And paper.’

‘Good, Vernon, good.  You’re getting a bit closer.  Just think about that ink and paper, though.’

‘Well we made it from the dryad’s tree which got struck by… oh!’  Vernon’s eyes widened.  The growing sense that his master already knew how to deal with this problem and was leading him around by the nose melted away as the pieces began to come together in his mind.

Booshus smiled.

‘All right then, lad – spell it out, please.’

Vernon spoke slowly as the ideas were still coalescing in his mind.  ‘So – if we banish magical creatures by reversing the spell that summoned them, let the lightning dryad paper and the ink and the moonlight stand for the spell that summoned them?’  He looked to Booshus for approval, who merely nodded and said, ‘Go on.’

‘So that follows that if we destroy the paper and ink, we should destroy the creatures, too?’

‘Excellent.  How?’

‘By burning it!’ shouted Vernon, in triumph.

‘No.’ said Booshus, frowning.  Vernon’s face fell as Booshus went on, ‘This is special paper.  See?’  He held the book over the nearest candle and, whilst the flames licked round it like hungry snakes and singed the leather cover, the paper just would not catch.  ‘This is paper that was at least partly formed by the terrifying heat of the lightning.  It was so hot that it instantly boiled the sap and made the tree explode, don’t forget.  How on earth do you think we’re going to make fire that hot? ‘

Vernon’s head had sunk into his shoulders, where he remained for some time.  Booshus waited.  Soon, though, Vernon looked up.  ‘Hang on a minute.  Don’t you have that machine…  thingy?’

Booshus grinned.  ‘Well done, lad!  Let’s go and fetch it, shall we?’

It took a while, and much puffing and panting, but they finally managed to extract the bulky equipment from a store- room down the corridor and get it set up in the lab.  The book was standing on a wooden platform between two towers with needles extending from them and pointing inwards.  There were all sorts of complicated things going on in and around the contraption, but the most prominent thing was the large wheel with the handle sticking out of one side.  The wheel was so heavy, in fact, that the handle was long enough for two people to stand side by side as they held it.  Which Booshus and Vernon duly did.

‘Right, come on then – put your back into it.’ said Booshus, and they began to turn the gigantic, heavy wheel.  There was more grunting and swearing by the two of them as they heaved with all their might to get it going.  Vernon was just wondering if Booshus had forgotten to oil the thing when it started to move.  Once they had broken the inertia, it became easier and easier to turn the wheel as it went faster and faster, the quiet humming from the contraption rose in volume until it was distinctly audible, and then the hairs on the backs of their arms began to prickle and stand up.

‘I think it’s about time we went and stood on that board over there, Vernon.’

Vernon heartily agreed and skipped as far away from the machine as he could go.  The whirring continued as the flywheel on the contraption continued to turn.  Booshus stepped away too and, taking up a long wooden stick he’d laid by handy, poked something on the machine.  There was a huge flash and a bang which threw both of them to the floor.  It took a moment for them to recover and sit up.

The flywheel was still going, and there was now a continuous spark of lightning arcing between the two needles and the centre of the book which stood between them.  Amazingly, the book was still in one piece, if you count being charred beyond recognition with a gaping hole in the middle as “in one piece”.  But there was, apart from the ringing in their ears, total silence.

Rushing to the window, the wizard and his apprentice gazed out into the courtyard.  The moon had gone down now, but the promise of dawn was staining the sky, and there was enough torchlight still flickering that they could see, where once there had been a pile of thrashing limbs, fur, feathers, tails, beak and teeth, there was now a stone statue that had two heads, two tails, four wings, and ten legs.

‘Great!’ said Vernon, brightly.  ‘It worked… sort of.  But what now?  Won’t the king be rather angry, still?’

‘Why ever would he be, lad?’

‘Well, master.  The creatures are no longer destroying the castle, but there’s that great big statue there.’

‘Everyone loves a statue, Vernon.’

‘Well, yes – but it’s really ugly!’

Booshus chuckled.  ‘We’re not quite finished Vernon.  But we’re going to have to wait a moment for the finale.’

‘What finale?’

‘Things forged in moonlight, my lad, very often will not survive in the bright light of day.  Especially not if they’re already damaged.  Watch.’

As Booshus spoke, the sun peeped over the brow of the nearby hills and its light began to creep across the courtyard.  When it reached the multi limbed statue, it began to disintegrate where the sun’s light touched it.

Once it was nothing but a pile of sand, Booshus sighed.  ‘Well – at least there’s one good thing that’s come out of this.’

‘What’s that?’

‘When winter comes around, and then spring follows, we always need sandbags for when the snowmelt starts trying to drown the castle.  At least we won’t have to haul it up from the bottom of the quarry this year.’

26) Deep

Once upon a time, I was a married woman.  That lasted quite a few years.  I gave Matt everything.  I loved him and looked after him and worked my arse off at two jobs so he could finish off his studies and become a high- powered, highly- paid lawyer.  Unfortunately, when he achieved his goal, he decided that I was bad for his image, so he ditched me for a younger, prettier, less brainy version.  Bit of a bad move on his part, really, since one of his rivals had developed a soft spot for me.

I did quite well in the divorce.

Since the settlement and maintenance were most satisfactory, and since I’d been working at two jobs for the best part of the last ten years, I decided that I owed myself a good long holiday somewhere warm and interesting.  My friends all agreed emphatically that this was a very good idea.  They were mostly somewhat surprised, however, when the long sunny holiday that I chose to take was rather a busman’s holiday on an archaeological dig in Egypt.  It was a corporately funded dig which civilians could pay to join, but one was required to have some sort of academic qualification that at least went somewhere close to digging for ancient artefacts.  This way, the company paying for the dig had to pay for less expensive academics.  They just paid a few very well, and they got the job of herding around the enthusiastic amateurs who generally got to do the donkey work.  And pay for the privilege.  It was a win- win situation for the company, really, whoever they were.  If I’m honest, I didn’t really care.  Before I ended up paying my darling ex’s way through uni, I had managed to get a first class degree in Egyptology, so they were very pleased to welcome me aboard.

Oddly enough, despite studying Egyptology, I had never actually visited Egypt, nor had I ever really considered what I would do with my degree once I had finished it.  I studied it because going to university was still regarded as the pinnacle of achievement in our family, and that was what I was interested in.  I had been applying for jobs in museums when matt had decided that he needed a spousal upgrade, so I thought it was about time that I went to the place I had studied for so long.

I met Evan Johnson on the dig.  He was tall and tanned and strong and dusty and funny and clever.  The first time I opened my mouth to speak to him, I squeaked, blushed, cleared my throat and blamed the dust and the heat.  He didn’t bat an eyelid.

It took less than a week of flirting to persuade me that going for a moonlight walk a little way into the desert was the absolutely most perfect thing that I could possibly do at that moment, especially if it was with him.  We made it as far as the first outcrop of rocks before we were tearing each others’ clothes off.  I was an easy mark; I knew and I didn’t care.  As a matter of fact, I embraced my easy mark- ness with a whole and joyful heart.

God, the dig was exciting!  We were in a secluded valley far from the nearest town, but we had supplies brought in regularly, and we were near to an oasis.  It was gorgeous.  Floating in the water at night looking up at the stars made me feel like I was floating through the universe.  By day we would sift through the rocky soil to find artefacts from the settlement that was here in ancient times.  By night we would eat, drink and be merry, and Evan and I would sneak off and have sex in different places in the surrounding desert.  We weren’t the only ones doing that either, I might add.  It wasn’t jackals making those shrieking noises, let me tell you.

There was only one fly in the ointment, and that was the tomb.  It had been discovered a couple of weeks before my arrival, and everyone was on fire with curiosity about it.  Unfortunately Brian, the head archaeologist, wouldn’t let anyone near it.  Apparently, they’d gone in when they’d uncovered it and found that it was unusual in some way, though no- one would say in what way, and now they were waiting for some particular expert or other to finish their current project so they can come over and have a look at it.  It was rumoured that it would be upwards of a month before they would be available.  In the mean time, Brian had had a sturdy wooden door fixed over the entrance and added an even sturdier padlock to make sure that no enthusiastic amateurs went nosing around in there for “just a little look”.  I was as desperate to get inside as anyone else, and one evening, bemoaned my frustration to Evan.  The following evening, we snuck off into the desert when everyone else was busily engaged in a game of charades.  I was surprised when he began leading me toward the rock face where the tomb entrance was.  When I asked him where we were going, since there wasn’t much cover on this side of the camp, he grinned at me and slipped something from his pocket.  It gleamed dully in the starlight, and it took me a moment to work out that he had the key to the door covering the tomb entrance.

I asked him where he got it.  I was excited and horrified in equal measure – I didn’t want to get thrown off the dig, after all.

He chuckled and told me that Brian is a heavy sleeper.

We made our way to the tomb door, and just like that, we were in.

Shutting the door behind us, Evan pulled out his torch and shone it down the passage carved directly into the rock.  It was long and square, and sloped down very gently into the earth.  Carnal thoughts forgotten now, I followed him, and we made our slow way down.  I was utterly thrilled.  I was in an ancient Egyptian tomb and, judging by the decorations on the walls, it was definitely the tomb of some rich bugger.  It seemed to take us a long time to reach the end of the passage, passing several sealed up side chambers as we did so.  The passage turned several corners, and it sort of felt like we were spiralling down into the bowels of the earth.  When we finally did reach the end, I was disappointed.  There was just a blank wall in front of us.  I must have showed it on my face, as Evan chuckled again and told me to press one of the stones in the wall of the passage.  Dubious, I gave it a half- hearted push and, to my surprise and delight, it sank into the wall and the blank rock in front of us moved aside to reveal a chamber.  I think I may have made a noise like ‘squee’ when that happened.  I was so eager, I rushed in like a fool, and Evan strolled in behind me.

The decorations were amazing, mesmerising.  Hieroglyphs everywhere, exquisite representations of Anubis and Osiris decorated each wall.  It was as I was busily looking at these that the torchlight flickered and swung crazily and then the world went black.

 ###

The world is still black.  The only reason that I can see to write in this journal at all is because I’m using the light of my phone’s screen.  It’s quite bright in the absolute dark of this tomb.  I also used my phone’s light to read the hieroglyphs on the walls.  My understanding is shaky at best, but as far as I can decipher, it’s not a burial chamber, it’s a space for ritual sacrifice.  According to what I can make out, the sacrificing of life in this chamber will bestow… something on the person providing the sacrifice.  I can’t work out quite what it means, but it’s something like great power or eternal life, or some other such bullshit.  But the intended recipient of the …gift or whatever it is… cannot have blood on their hands.  So the sacrifice either has to starve to death, or take their own life.

He left a knife in the corner.

On the dingy attic floor of his tall and narrow terraced house, The Magnificent Malcom sat in the middle of a ritual circle, surrounded by dust and memories.  All around him were brightly- painted and glittering contraptions.  They glinted dully in the sunlight filtered through the years of green grime on the skylight.  Forty years of a career lay in drifts and heaps around him, jumbled higgledy piggledy as they had been the day he had moved here ten years ago.  He’d always meant to sort them out, the tricks and traps and boxes that did so many mundane and amazing things.  It’s like everything else, he thought.  It all depends on which side you’re standing.  To him, they were functional things.  Sometimes, he was even able to see the works.  But sitting in the audience?  That was a different kettle of fish altogether.  Hundreds, even thousands, of bright eyes, round with wonder, had not seen the mechanism working.  But these days everything was mundane.  And without Doreen to help him work that elusive magic, what was he?  Who was he?  Just one more sad old man, pottering about as he tried to make his pension last as it was supposed to.

He’d got rid of Doreen’s stuff when he’d moved here.  The idea was to get away from the memories of the life they’d had; to try and alleviate the crushing grief he felt every time he smelled a trace of her perfume on something he’d not used in a while, or the undented pillow next to his.  He’d taken to making a hollow in it before he went to sleep, just so he could pretend, if only for a moment.  So he’d moved to a different house, a different town, a different life.  He was a member of a bowls club, now.  He took evening classes in pottery, French and cookery.  Afternoon classes in art.  He wasn’t all that good at any of them, but they filled the hours.  Most of Doreen’s things he’d sold, given away or donated to charity.  There was just one thing he’d kept.

In his hands was a small box.  Opening it, he took out the contents with as much care as he could muster.  The daisy chain was shrivelled and brittle with age.  He remembered the day she’d made it so well.  The sun was bright and warm; the breeze was rustling the leaves of the willow tree above them as they sat picnicking on the riverbank.  It was a lifetime ago, but he still remembered the way the sun had shone from her hair, and the way her clever fingers fashioned the daisy chain.  She wore it all day.  When he kissed her for the very first time, it caught on one of his buttons, and he noticed only just in time to save it breaking.  She’d taken it off before they left the riverbank, and he didn’t think she’d seen him scoop it up and slip it into his jacket pocket.  It was the one thing he had kept.  The last part of Doreen that he just couldn’t let go of.  It was the touchstone that reminded him that she had been real, and she had loved him for forty seven years.

He spoke the words, and crushed the daisy chain to dust in his fist.

As he wept, several miles away, a hospital coma patient’s eyes flickered and then opened.  As the girl’s parents cried out in joy and wonder, she spoke her first word for months.

‘Granddad?  Where’s granddad?  I thought I heard him crying.’

48) The Brown Man

Once upon a time there was a forest, and in this forest there lived a brown man.  The man had not always been brown, but living in the forest had made him so.  The brown man had not always lived in the forest, but during the time that he had lived there, he had made himself a part of it.  His skin was brown from working in the sun in his small vegetable gardens scattered here and there among the surrounding trees, wherever he could find a large enough clearing.  Where he could not find a clearing, the trees had very kindly permitted him to make one.  In return, he cared for the trees as well as his vegetable gardens, and he took as little meat as he needed to manage on, using the whole animal whenever he caught one.  The brown man’s clothes were also brown, stained with a combination of mud from the forest floor and certain plants that grew here and there among the trees.  Sometimes, he also used the bark of the trees themselves.  This also helped to keep the moths at bay.   The brown man’s hair was long and shaggy, as was his beard.  Both were tawny with hints of red and gold, and his eyes shone clear blue from his sun browned face.

The brown man lived alone and far from people by his own choice.  As a young man, he had lived among people.  He had eaten and drunk, loved and laughed, worked and played among other people.  He had eventually done all of these things with one very special person.  She had taken his heart, and then she took his joy, by smashing his heart open on the cobbles of the street.  So the brown man had picked up the pieces of his heart, and forsworn people.  He had packed his meagre possessions into a small cart (with his heart wrapped in a small cloth in his pocket), and he had left the town where he grew up for a small cave in the deep woods.  He did not look back.

His first winter in the woods was very hard.  Somehow, he kept warm and fed, and when the spring arrived, and new green shoots began to show, his heart began to heal; just a little.  All through that spring and summer, he worked hard on his gardens.  He extended the cave, so that by the end of the summer, he had a house built into the side of the rock, using the cave as a storage room at the back.  During the summer, he had gained enough courage to take the few coins he had saved and some crude yet beautiful utensils he had carved from the wood of the cleared trees, and took them to the market in the nearest village to sell.  It was overwhelming for him to be among so many people after so many months alone.  But he managed.  With the coins he saved and the money he made, he bought supplies.  He also bought some chickens and a nanny goat, and took them all back to his house in the woods.  Though it was a long trek, the brown man did not want to stay in the house overnight, so it was a long way past the middle of the night before he made his way home.

The next day, he set about widening the large clearing in front of his home into a meadow for the goats to live in.  He made sure that the chickens knew he had food for them, and crossed his fingers before setting them free to roam as they would.  To his relief, they stayed close by and began laying eggs in sheltered places for him.  The goat too decided that she liked this place she had been brought to and stayed.

The final thing the brown man did that year was to build a beehive.  It stood empty for some time, until the brown man began to despair that bees would ever pass by.  One day in late summer, though, the brown man was working in one of his gardens when he heard a low and unmistakeable hum.  He straightened his back and saw the sky darken as a large swarm of bees approached.  Instantly, the brown man shouted loud to the queen bee, inviting her majesty and her subjects to come and stay with him.  The queen bee was intrigued, and so came down to investigate this creature that was larger than her, less hairy, but almost the same colour.  They spoke for a while and, after investigating the hive, the queen bee decided that it was suitable for she and her subjects to reside in.  So they moved in, and their rent was to be the excess honey that they made, to bring a little sweetness to the brown man’s life.

Once the brown man had his goat, his chickens and his bees, his second winter in the woods was easier.   He piled brushwood up around the beehive, to help keep the bees warm, and brought the chickens and the goat inside with him when the winter was deathly cold (on the understanding that the chickens and the goat did not raid the store cave and ruin the winter supplies.

As there was little to do in the winter, the brown man spent much of his time carving, making arrows for his bow, and improving the house set into the rock face.  By the end of winter, he had a very comfortable home, was a very proficient fletcher, and had many beautiful carvings to trade for coin and supplies.

The brown man began to love his life in the woods.  At first, his move there had been one of necessity.  But by the second spring, when the world was yellow and white and bright acid green, he took out his heart from the small carved box he had made for it and looked at it in the clean bright sunlight.  All of the pieces were there, and some of them were beginning to stick together, but it was still a long way from healed.  So he would leave it in the warm sunshine every day, in the hope that it would heal a little more.  By the end of that summer, his heart was looking much better, but the healing still had a little way to go.  So he put it back into its box, tucked it in a corner on a high shelf, and made the house cosy for the coming winter.

The winter was bad.  It was long and wet and cold and dark.  The brown man had made a mistake when he stored some of his supplies, so when he came to use one sack of food in the very deepest, darkest part of the winter, he found it to be spoiled.  The winter was lean after that.  Not as lean as the first, but lean enough.

The following spring was a long time in coming, so when it did finally arrive, the forest rejoiced in a riot of colour and birdsong.  The brown man rejoiced with it.  His heart felt much lighter when he took the box down from the high shelf.  Blowing the dust from it, he opened the lid and looked at his heart again.  It was all once again in one piece.  True, there were still small openings that had yet to close completely, and it was an odd shape from all of the scar tissue where it had knitted itself back together.  But it was together, and the brown man smiled.  He continued to leave it in the sunshine, in the hope that the sun could perhaps erase some of the scarring and make it look a little more normal.

Despite the awful winter, the brown man had still found time for his carving and arrow making, and so had lots of wares to sell when he headed to the market.

It seemed that his work had grown in fame since he had last been to the market.  As he set up his stall, several people greeted him and asked after his health.  He found himself in the unfamiliar position of having to converse with people.  Living so far into the forest, the only time he spoke was to the chickens and the goat and to the bees when sadness or joy troubled his poor healing heart.  His voice was therefore a little rusty to begin with.  By the time he had finished setting up his stall, however, and his neighbour in the market had bought him a pot of good brown ale, the brown man found conversation much easier.   He even shared a joke with several of the stallholders.

He sold all of his carvings and arrows, that day, and several people asked him if he had more.  Some even tried to buy commissions.  The brown man was very flattered by this, but humbly explained that this was only a hobby, and he had so much work to do that he would not have time until the winter.  Many people left with promises to return the following spring to buy his wares again, and the brown man was very flattered.

Spirits high, purse full, and heart very nearly healed, the brown man decided to accept the invitation of his neighbour to eat a meal in the nearby inn, and to stay the night should he become too merry to walk all the way back to his house in the forest that night.  He had a good meal, and enough ale to make him merry, and he enjoyed the company of his fellow market traders.  As they were all relaxing and smoking pipes and talking after their meal, the brown man saw a young woman come hurrying into the inn from outside, and disappearing through the door to the kitchen.  She had beautiful long russet hair which swung in a plait almost to her shapely waist.  The brown man’s breath caught for a moment, and he felt his scarred and still not completely healed heart miss a beat in its box on the shelf in the house in the forest.  He wondered who she was.

He did not have to wonder long, however, as the young woman emerged from the kitchens tying an apron around her curves, and the innkeeper’s wife walked out behind her.  The resemblance was unmistakeable.

As the innkeeper’s daughter began to clear the tables, the brown man asked one of his companions about her, how she was not married and still waiting tables for her father.  He received a sad story in return.  It seemed that some time ago, the inn had played host to an extremely truculent and curmudgeonly old man.  Nothing was good enough for him, and despite how the innkeeper, his wife and their daughter tried, they could not make him happy.  The night he stayed, he drank enough ale to fell and ox and, as a result, felt extremely ill the next day.  He had insisted that the meat the innkeeper served him was off, and so he cursed the innkeeper’s daughter in revenge.  No- one in the village knew what the curse entailed.  All they knew was that from dawn to dusk, the innkeeper’s daughter was not to be found.  All knew about the curse, so no young man would court her, in case he became contaminated with the curse, too.

The brown man found this strange, and sad, and curious.  However, he was too polite to ask any further of his companions, the innkeeper or his wife.  And certainly not of his daughter.  As the evening wore on, the brown man continued to enjoy himself, and to talk to his companions, and to watch the innkeeper’s daughter who, he was delighted and somewhat discomfited to discover, watched him right back.

When he awoke in his comfortable bed in the inn the next morning, the brown man found that his head was not nearly as sore as he had expected it to be, considering that he had spent the previous night drinking, but had not done that previously for well over two years.  Still – he drank lots of water, chewed willow bark, and made his way down to the common room to eat breakfast and be on his way.  The innkeeper’s daughter, of course, was not in evidence, and the brown man found that this saddened him more than he would have expected.

When he returned to his house in the forest, the goat, the chickens and the bees all greeted him heartily, and demanded to know where he had been for so long.  He told them of his market success, and of his night in the inn, and they were happy for him, that he was perhaps learning to enjoy the company of other people again.  Only the bees were worried, for it was only the bees that he told of the innkeeper’s daughter and his sadness that she had not been there when he left.

As it turned out, the brown man did not have to do as much that spring and summer, and so he had more time to spend carving and fletching.  The memory of the previous winter’s shortages were still heavy on his mind, so he resolved to make enough things to sell that he could go to the market once again, in order to by a few extra supplies and some better storage containers.

So it was that on a golden autumn day, he was once again setting out his stall at the market.  People were surprised and mostly delighted to see him back so soon, and his work fetched as high a price as it did in the spring.  This time, he agreed to take commissions and need no persuasion to stay at the inn overnight again.  Indeed, it was part of his intention to stay at the inn again, though he guarded that intention carefully even from himself, his scarred heart still knew that somewhere far inside there was a hope that he may see the innkeeper’s daughter again.

And so he did.  Not long after the sun had set deep red through the chill autumn air, the innkeeper’s daughter came hurrying in, bringing the smell of bonfire smoke and the promise of frost with her.  The brown man did not hear her enter, but he caught the smells of the forest in this unfamiliar setting, and his eyes immediately found her.  She caught his gaze, blushed, smiled a small smile, and hurried into the kitchen.

All evening, it seemed that the innkeeper’s daughter avoided their table whenever she could.  This puzzled the brown man, especially given the glances she kept casting his way.  But he thought that she must have a reason and speculated that she may be shy.  He again found himself more disappointed than he thought he should be, so tried to brush the feeling aside.  When he awoke in the morning she was, as before, nowhere to be found.  He returned to his house in the forest and prepared for the coming winter.

The winter was cold again, but this time it was dry.  Day after day of clear blue skies and night after night of blazing stars and hoar frosts hardened the ground to iron.  The forest creatures hid themselves away to preserve their warmth, and so the brown man had little luck hunting.  He had plenty of supplies, but it was all vegetable food.  He began to crave red meat as one possessed by the spirit of a wolf.  He knew that he could survive the winter on what he had, but it did not stop him craving.

One fine morning, he set out on what he was sure would be another fruitless hunt when, not fifty paces beyond the meadow, he spied something through the trees.  It was a deer with red-brown fur, just lying on the ground.  His heat leapt as he imagined steaks and stews, rugs and sinews, tools and glue and more steaks and stews.  Creeping closer though, to get a better look at the animal, and a better shot if necessary, he noticed several things.  First, he noticed that the deer was alive.  Second, he noticed that it was not lying, but sitting awkwardly with one leg splayed out in front, and that the splayed leg was undeniably injured.

The brown man sighed.  Yes, he craved meat, but he craved meat that he had caught fairly (or as fairly as he could manage, given he had no natural weapons and the ones he could make really gave him somewhat of an advantage.).  A deer that could hear and run was one thing, but a deer that was injured?  That awakened his paradoxical need to help, whether he would normally consider the animal to be food or not.  Defeated by his own compassion, he went and fetched his small handcart because, strong as he was, he could not carry an injured doe all the way back to his house without injuring her more.

The doe was peculiarly docile as he took her back to his house.  He assumed that she was in shock, so he put her in the cave with the goat and the chickens for company, made her comfortable on a pile of fresh straw, bound her injured leg, and then left her to be quiet for a while.  He did not dare go out hunting now, in case the doe came out of her stupor and became distressed, so he built the fire up and sat in his chair nearby to carve.

Every now and again, he would glance up, but it seemed the doe had gone to sleep.  At first, the brown man was unsure if she had died of her injuries, but he saw her flank rise and fall, and concluded that she was merely asleep.  Thus, the day passed away.  At some point, the calm crackling and heat of the fire also lulled the brown man into sleep.  When he awoke, it was just after sunset, and the room was dark save the glow from the embers of the fire.  He glanced over to where the doe had lain, and rubbed his sleep troubled eyes.  When he looked again, he determined that he was not dreaming, and that the doe no longer looked like a doe.  Where the doe had been was a naked young woman.  She lay with her back to him, but he recognised the long russet hair shrouding her back like a cloak.  The firelight made it even ruddier and it shone like burnished copper.  As he stared, the innkeeper’s daughter sighed in her sleep and rolled over.  Unfortunately, this jostled her injured arm, and she woke with a moan.  Immediately, she sat up, and then hunched her body with a yelp of pain.  This jolted the brown man from his gaze at her fair and freckled curves, and he leapt from his chair scattering wood shavings in order to fetch a blanket so she may cover herself.

Blushing furiously, she thanked him for his kindness and apologised for her imposition.  The brown man would hear nothing of it, and solicitously offered the red woman clothes and food, which she managed to accept with grace and dignity which belied her recent nakedness.

Suitably clothed, she sat at his table and ate his vegetable stew.  They talked long into the night, and delighted in each other’s wits and philosophies.  They laughed a very great deal.

It was far into the night, and both were yawning when the brown man offered to take the red woman home the following day.  She thanked him for his offer, but begged to be allowed to impose on his hospitality a while longer, until her arm healed.  The brown man was, of course, delighted, but was puzzled.  The red woman explained that her curse compelled her to remain in the forest by day, and as her father had little use for her anyway, she would not be welcome at the inn whilst she had only one arm.

The brown man was shocked and angered by this, but he kept himself as calm as he could.  However, his anger made him bold enough to ask why her parents could not care for their only daughter.

The red woman replied that for certain, her mother would care for her, but that her father would make this impossible, as he blamed her for the curse laid on her by the curmudgeon.

The brown man asked how this could be, and was aghast as the red woman related the true nature of the curse.

The red woman’s father had always been disappointed in the fact that he had no sons to take over the running of the inn, only a single daughter.  He decided that the only way the red girl would be any use to him was if he sold her as a bride to some rich man who would not only take away this useless girl, but pay her father a lot of money for the privilege.  Having made enquiries, the innkeeper selected a suitable candidate and offered his daughter to him.  The candidate was the curmudgeon.  The innkeeper had, however, neglected to tell the red girl of his plan so when the curmudgeon turned up demanding that she pack her bags and be away the girl was, of course, horrified.  She refused to marry the curmudgeon, and there was a huge argument about it.  The red girl ran away into the forest so she could not be compelled to go with the curmudgeon and her father plied the curmudgeon with alcohol to soften the blow of rejection.  Sadly, however, the curmudgeon was a mean drunk, and so he cursed the red girl.  Now she was a woman, yet no-one would have her, and her father was stuck with her for the foreseeable future.

She looked so sad that the brown man moved around the table and gathered her into his arms, trying to shield her from the memory of her father’s callousness, and her own indignity and rejection.  He wished aloud that there was something he could do to break the foul curse.

The red woman laughed through her tears and said there was only one thing that could break the curse.  She had to eat the heart of a man whilst he still lived, and watched.

She felt the brown man stiffen, and then felt rejection once more as he released her and turned away.  She sat back in her chair and wept afresh.

Through her tears, she saw the brown man place something on the table in front of her.  It was a dusty box.  She stifled her sobs and wiped her eyes, to look into his face and try to decipher this odd gesture.

Not breaking her gaze, he reached out, lifted the lid, and said, “Eat, for it is freely given.  It will be tough and stringy, for it is full of scars, and has done me little good.  Maybe it will do more for you.”

The red woman reached into the box and took out the brown man’s heart.  Her eyes streaming with a new kind of tears, she smiled and took her first bite.

As she did so, the brown man felt a beat in his chest, and he smiled too.

55) Manumission

The world was filled with the quiet rustle of desiccated vegetation, the hum of night time insects taking up their shift, and the increasingly sleepy murmur of birds settling down for the night.  Sara perched on a wall on the very lip of the valley, gazing over the late summer landscape.  She existed only in the moment, and time stretched to fill the universe from end to end with the sweet dusty smell of balmy air and a hint of petrichor on the breeze.  Sure enough, the faintest whisper of thunder rumbled from the head of the valley, and focussed Sara’s gaze back on the here and now.

She smiled.  Turning her head, she watched the bruised clouds stalk down the valley. The advancing edge of the storm blew erratic gusts of wind before it, setting her hair flying around her head.  As the storm drew closer, each flash of lightning and roll of thunder widened her smile a little more until, by the time the storm hit, Sara’s lips were drawn back in a fierce snarl of savage joy.  Soaked to the skin in seconds, she raised her face to the heavens and let the rain wash her clean.

Tingles and shivers racing up and down her spine; she stretched her head forward, hunched and then arched her back.  She could feel them.  They were always there, but at times like this, she couldn’t ignore them.  Phantom wings drew and stretched from her spine, spreading and sweeping the rain soaked air.

With two beats, she was airborne, a cloud of black smoke, swooping between land and sky, laughing and twisting in the stormy air currents.

Her balletic revels were cut short when she felt the thread.  It was what she had been waiting for on the lip of the valley, yet still she loosed a frustrated curse into the storm before she gave one more elegant twist through the air, and then was all business.  Her flight was economical and swift as she headed for the house.  Reeling her in, the thread pulled more strongly until she was arrowing through the deep evening air and straight to the threshold of the house she needed.

Sometime during her flight, the storm had passed over, leaving the deep blue evening washed clean and dripping in the aftermath.  The threshold belonged to a house nestled within a small cluster of cottages sheltered in the valley bottom.  The lone streetlight in the cluster shone orange on the facades, and glinted from the wet road.  In the stillness, Sara laid her hand flat on the door.  There was a tickle in her palm, and then a click, and the door swung open without a sound.

Sara crossed the threshold, folding and settling her wings to her back – a barely detectable cloak of shadow cowled her head and shoulders, swathing down to puddle on the floor around her feet.

The hallway was cluttered and cramped with lifetimes, and now she was so close, she could feel every shining moment of those years with every step she took down the narrow hall.  The stairs at the end did not creak as she set foot on each tread, and she made her silent way along the landing to the door at the end.  Walking in to the small room, she perched on the edge of the bed.

‘Bernard.’

At her soft voice, the man sleeping in the bed shifted a little.

‘Bernard.’

She watched his face, lines etched deep by the many years of his time on earth.  His mouth twitched a little, then his brow.  And then his eyes slid open just a fraction.

Sarah smiled.  ‘Hello, Bernard.  Thought you weren’t going to come to me for a minute.’

Bernard’s lips moved, and a ragged exhalation followed.  He licked his lips, swallowed, and tried again.  ‘Today, is it?’

Sara glanced at the window.  ‘Well – tonight, really, but yes.  It’s now.’

Bernard’s eyes widened a little.  ‘Now?’

Sara’s smile became sympathetic at the note of panic in his voice.  ‘Yes, Bernard.  It’s now.  It’s why I’m here.  You knew that.’

Bernard was regaining his voice rapidly.  ‘Well, yes, but…  Now?  Now- now?’

The note of panic had morphed into something resembling a mixture of desperation and resignation.

‘I know it won’t make you feel any better, but it’s always too soon, Bernard.  It’s always a surprise no matter how long you’ve known.  Honestly, if anyone says, “Too long, where the hell have you been”?  well, they’ve had problems that I’m not sure even I can help with.  But I try, anyway.’

‘But what about…?’  Bernard glanced across to the other side of the bed.  Mary shifted in her sleep.

Sara looked him in the eyes.  ‘She’s strong, Bernard.  Stronger than you might think.  Stronger than she thinks, too.’

‘Who’s going to look after her now, though?’

It was a good job that Sara had hardened her heart long ago.  Otherwise the sadness in Bernard’s voice would have shattered it.  Not for the first time, either.

‘Bernard, please believe me.  Mary is a very capable woman.  Not even she believes it.  But she is, and she will be.  She’s going to be very sad, and she’s going to miss you horribly.  But she will live.  And believe it or not, she will learn to take joy in the world again.’

‘Will I be able to see her?’

‘I can’t answer that.’

Bernard turned around to look at Sara again.  The panic and desperation was all gone, now.  In its place was only resignation.  ‘Can’t or won’t?’

‘Can’t.’

He held her gaze for an eternity.  Then he blinked, and nodded once.  Turned around to his wife of forty three years, and kissed her on the cheek.

‘Take care of yourself, Mary.  I love you.’

 

52) (untitled)

Permeating the basement, the sour reek of unwashed flesh was enough to make anyone’s eyes water.

I waved my hand in front of my face.  ‘Jesus, Carl, don’t you ever wash?’

I glared at him, sprawled on the sofa in the flickering half- light of the muted telly in the corner.  He gave the question due consideration, his thousand- yard stare drifting off somewhere beyond the ceiling, before he grinned, shrugged and said, ‘Sometimes.  When I can be arsed.  It’s not like anyone else is going to mind, is it?  I mean,’ he went on, smirking now, ‘It’s not like anyone else can really tell, is it?’

With a very great deal of effort, I managed not to growl.  The litany in my head rumbling, ‘I will not conform to stereotypes.  I will not conform to stereotypes.’  Aloud I said, in what I thought was a remarkably measured manner given such provocation, ‘Actually, Carl, I think even a ninety-year old coke addict could smell you about now.  For the love of god, go have a shower and put some clean clothes on.’

‘God, you do like to nag, don’t you, little sister?  What is it, time of the month?’

I lost it.  ‘Fuck off, Carl!  That wasn’t even funny the first time you said it – let alone the…’ I made a quick mental calculation, ‘…one hundred and seventh.  Now just fuck off and have a shower and don’t make me breathe your stink.  Or I might just rip your fucking leg off tonight.’

‘All right, all right!  Jeesus!  Look at me go…here I go…’ he slowly levered himself off the couch and headed for the door in the corner of the room that led to the small en- suite.  When the door shut behind him, I went around opening the long, narrow, ceiling- level windows that let out directly on to the garden at earth level.  I breathed in the clean scent of grass and soil for a moment before I steeled myself to turn back around and face the basement again.

I slumped on the couch, elbows on knees and head I my hands.  God I hated how I got when it was this close.  I didn’t normally swear all that much, I was generally a placid and easygoing sort; quick to forgive and quicker to laugh.  But during my time of the month?  Not so much.   Carl knew it, too, and worse he knew every single button to push.  I steeled myself for the next twenty- four hours – they were always hell.  It was a special, personal kind of hell; one that actually saddled me with Carl during the very time I could stand to be around him the least.

Still, it was a punishment of sorts.  How very cosmic.   I often thought of the sick joke the universe played on me.  It’s not even like I’m vegetarian or anything, I just…  I don’t really like hurting stuff.  Well, not all the time.  Just that one night a month.  My ears twitched to a tapping sound and my head whipped around to follow the progress of a large beetle across the floor.  The clattering of its minute feet was no louder than it ought to be – I was just better able to hear it.  I tuned the beetle and Carl’s shower noises out as best I could and focussed on the noise of the breeze through the grass outside of the windows and beyond that, the pine trees on the edge of the property.  The wind was definitely getting up which could be both a blessing and a curse.  I loved the sound of the wind through the trees and, depending what mood I was in, it could either calm or energise me.  However, if it was in the wrong direction, it could bring scents of the farms to the south of the city, and that could in turn bring trouble.

But we’d deal with that when it happened.  If it happened.  To be fair, it was quite unlikely to, since despite his remarkably dubious personal hygiene and almost supernaturally irritating ways, Carl was very good at his job.  And his job was, in a nutshell, looking after me and making sure I didn’t kill anyone.

The abrupt cessation of the shower water alerted me to the fact that Carl would shortly emerge from the bathroom, so I went to the kitchenette and began making tea.  I filled the kettle and switched it on, then grabbed some cups, a teabag and some honey.  I dumped a good dollop in each cup, and then dropped my teabag into mine.  Next, I bent down and retrieved a plastic bag full of powdery brown stuff from the fridge, holding my breath as I unrolled it and spooned some of the contents into Carl’s mug with as much care as I could muster.  I really didn’t want any of this stuff to accidentally encounter my mucous membranes, especially not this close to full moon.  Carl needed it, though, if I was to have any chance of not killing him.  It was fun to watch his face as he drank it, though.  I always did my very best not to giggle.  I was pouring water on the powdered mushroom as Carl exited the bathroom, towelling himself dry.  Fortunately he had remembered to wrap a second towel around his waist this time; he didn’t always remember, and it wasn’t something I really wanted to see.

Don’t get me wrong – he’s not all that bad looking.  In fact, he’s pretty easy on the eye, most of the time.  He certainly has absolutely no trouble getting girls.  But he’s my brother.  Well – half- brother, really.  He was already a toddler when mum and dad met, but it’s never really made all that much of a difference.  He’s always looked after me, even while he’s always irritated the life out of me.  Usually on purpose.

‘Come on, hurry up,’ I chided as he slurped his foul- tasting and smelling concoction.

‘Ugh, I’m going as fast as I can!’ he protested between gulps and grimaces.

‘If you don’t go any faster, Millie’s going to think we’ve forgotten her.  You know what she’s like.’

This time he pulled a different face.  Poor Millie – she really didn’t deserve this.  Younger than any of us, bouncier than anyone I’ve ever met, and with a massive crush on Carl.  How he ended up looking after her too – she’s only a distant cousin, after all – I’m not entirely sure.  Family politics are a total bitch.  I winced inwardly at the unintended pun, and then glanced at my watch.

‘Jesus, Carl, will you look at the time.  Get a bloody move on!’

My teeth must have already been growing as he certainly shifted after that.

Soon enough, we were driving on to the forecourt of Millie’s place.  A charming example of neo-brutalism, the tower block soared up into the afternoon sky, gleaming orange in the long light.  Twenty stories of the antithesis of joy watched us as we waited, engine idling, for the inevitable whirlwind to emerge from the partially- boarded up main entrance.  She wasn’t long.  After all, she lives right up at the very top, and has a good view of the approach road.  She always watches when she knows were coming.  Sure enough, a minute or so after we pulled up, Millie came bounding out of the doors in a flurry of wild hair and wilder clothes.  God alone knows where she got her dress sense, but there was always a very personal tilt to Millie’s wardrobe.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who was set on becoming an artist (a very sensible career choice, all things considered) had such an idiosyncratic approach to apparel.  My musings were cut short as she yanked the back door open and practically threw herself and her overnight bag into the back seat.

‘Hiyaaaa!  How’s it going?  Where are we going tonight?  Oh, nice perfume, Em!  What is it?  No, wait, lemme guess…’ she leaned forward and sniffed a huge lungful of my neck, so hard it tickled.

I pushed her away, laughing.  ‘Well, Miss Supernose?’

She mulled it over for a moment or two. ‘Hmmm… grass… earth… concrete… fungus… wood… socks…  Carl’s basement, right?’  She was grinning like a loon.

‘Yep.’ said Carl in a smug tone.  ‘See, Emma?  It’s only you that doesn’t like it in there.  Millie likes it.  Ergo, you’re a freak.’

I gave him a Look.  He grinned wider.  ‘OK – even more of a freak than science first thought.’

This time, I couldn’t stop a quiet rumble.  Carl just laughed – he knew I had to control myself in front of Millie.  Set a good example or some such bullshit.  I think that was probably why she ended up stuck with me and Carl.  Me to give her a role model within reach of her, and Carl with the looks, charm and experience to keep her in line if the older female role model idea didn’t work.  Between us, we just about managed to contain her wilder urges.  She was actually getting much better at controlling herself without our intervention, but she still had a way to go yet.  Poor kid had only been at it less than a year, after all.  Some other branches of the family came along even sooner than hers – god alone knew how they handled some of their youngsters.

My thoughts were interrupted as Millie demanded the radio be turned on, and the car was filled with the sound of three people howling along to some catchy but ten- a- penny pop songs as it sped on through the long late afternoon light.

We were heading for somewhere outside the city.  Somewhere in the wooded hills where there would be as little chance to encounter people as possible, and as much chance for dinner as possible.  Millie was very hungry- I could see it in her fever- bright eyes.  The younger ones were always hungry.  Jesus, I remembered what it was like for me for the first year or so – I had a gnawing emptiness that seemed like it was destined never to be filled.  I ate every last scrap and still looked around for more.  Fortunately, my appetite had settled and refined a little.  It still makes me shudder with revulsion when I think of the things I used to eat.  Hey – even we are allowed to be snobs.  I prefer to call it discerning refinement, though.

The radio programme had changed to jazz, which none of us really knew but was still a pleasant accompaniment to the balmy evening air coming through the open car windows, so we’d turned it down and Millie was making a determined effort to talk Carl’s ear off.  Looking at the state of her teeth, I thought she might chew his ear off if we didn’t get where we were going soon.  Mind you, I could smell the mushroom tea permeating Carl and oozing from his pores, so I didn’t think there would be any actual chewing going on.  Just metaphorical chewing.  Still, it was getting later, and we still hadn’t cleared the city.  Traffic wasn’t normally a problem, but there’d been a big accident somewhere strategic and it had slowed us to a crawl for a while.  We were on our way out now though, and looked likely to make it. The worried glances between me and Carl had abated, and were just beginning to turn to relief when Carl said, ‘Oh, shit.’

‘Oh, shit what, Carl?  Why are we pulling over?  Now is not the time.’

Carl’s voice was very calm, very even, and all the more worrying for that.  ‘I agree wholeheartedly with that Em, but unfortunately, we don’t have much choice in the matter.  There’s something wrong with the car.  I think the throttle cable has gone.’

‘Oh, shit.’

‘That’s bad, isn’t it?’ said a small voice from the back seat.

‘Yes, Millie.  Yes it is.’  He parked the car at the side of the road.  I looked around us.  We were in a run down part of the city – lots of boarded- up shops and dilapidated looking buildings.  Surprisingly clean – none of the piles of rubbish bags and crap you might expect – it just looked completely knackered.  ‘Oh, shit.’  I said again.

Carl checked his watch.  ‘Right.  We’ve got a bit less than two hours.  So we can either sit here “Oh shit”ing, or we can come up with a few ideas.  Breakdown service is out, obviously – that will take far too long, and I certainly can’t fix it.’

‘Well we can’t make it on foot – it’s bloody miles away still.  What else?  Taxi?’

‘In this part of the city?  All the way out there?  Besides, I haven’t got any money on me.’

‘Me neither.’

We subsided in feverish thought as to what we could do to alleviate the imminent disaster.

‘Er…’  Millie’s voice was uncharacteristically timid.  We turned to look at her.  ‘Er, well… my cousin Reynard lives not far from here.  And he’s a butcher.’

My ears pricked up at this.  I felt them.  I also noticed myself not asking the most important question.  The one I should have asked but was almost unable to as inexorable tide of hunger rose in me.  The one Carl asked.

‘Is it safe?’

Millie frowned at the column of the gearstick.  It looked like thinking was getting more difficult for her, which meant that our situation was getting more desperate.

‘I think…  I think he’s got a cellar…?’

Carl took a gentle hold of Millie’s chin and raised it so that she was looking into his eyes as he said, ‘Millie, love, stay with me, now – I need you to think carefully. Can you do that?’

She nodded, squinting a little.

‘Millie, this cellar of your cousin Reynard – does it have a sturdy door that locks?’

‘I think… yes it does.  We had to put Uncle Mike in there once.  He had a broken leg.  He made ever such a noise…’

Carl looked at me.  ‘Right.  Grab Millie, I’ll grab the bags.  Let’s go.’

Oh, god – I’d always hated a furtive run through the streets – it made me feel like a criminal.  However, at this stage of the evening, avoiding our fellow earth- dwellers became absolutely necessary.  Not least for the way we looked.  I glanced over at Millie as we scurried.  And there was no other word for what we were doing.  Scurrying.  She was already beginning to look like she could do with a good session with the Epilady.  A glance down at my own arms confirmed that I was not much better.  I wished I’d remembered to wear long sleeves, but then I had not been planning on a mad dash through unfamiliar city streets as the sunset light turned the dusty air around us to blood.

It took us ten minutes of increasingly desperate scurrying to reach cousin Reynard’s shop.

The shop occupied the front of the building and, so I gathered from Millie’s increasingly incoherent ramblings, Reynard lived above and behind the shop in the rest of the building.  Right then, I wouldn’t have cared if he’d have lived in a tree house, as long as he had somewhere safe for us to spend the night.

When the door opened in response to Millie’s frantic knockings, Reynard proved to be as foxy as his name.  Clearly, he hadn’t inherited the full gamut of freakish genes, but there was still definitely a whiff of the canidae about him.  A shock of russet curls above a densely- freckled face with slanted eyes and a turned- up nose regarded us first with suspicion, and then with recognition.

‘Mini Millie!  Long time no see!  What brings you and your,’ here he gave us a sharp once- over, ‘friends to my door?’

‘We need help, Ren.’  The lack of niceties was not lost on any of us older ones.  ‘Can we use your cellar?’

Ren’s expression immediately morphed to one of solicitous concern as he ushered us inside without a word.  As he led us through the house, Carl made the introductions, explanations and requests.

‘We broke down not far from here.  Should have been out of the city ages ago but traffic was snarled…’  He trailed off whilst Ren made sympathetic noises.  ‘Anyway – I’m sure you know how close they are – and how hungry – so we need somewhere…’

‘No problem at all!’ said Ren.  ‘You’ve come to the right place.  Lucky you were in the area really.  I haven’t really seen Mini for years – just the odd family gathering.  I’m surprised she remembered…  Anyway – she did, and that’s all that matters.  Here we are.’

We had gone down a couple of passageways, past and through several doors, down a flight of stairs and along a short corridor to arrive here, and now we were faced with the door. It almost deserved q capital letter it was so very… unforgiving.  Everything was riveted, the hinges seemed to be hidden in the frame, and there was a small observation port at eye level.  Millie and I were going to spend the night behind it.

It was almost comedic, but mostly a bit uncomfortable, how Ren opened the door with such a chivalrous flourish and bowed us inside.  The cellar wasn’t much.  A bare room with no windows or vents, merely a small drain at the lowest point of a dipped floor.  Even in my semi coherent state, I was [pleasantly surprised by the fact that there was no unpleasant smell – and that the air was surprisingly fresh – though I noticed that there was almost an inch of clearance under the door, so I guessed this must provide the ventilation.  Not much ventilation but then, beggars can rarely be choosers.

Millie and I had a good look around and fully familiarised ourselves with the place we would be spending the next however many hours (I could rarely be bothered to work out how long it was.  After all, I’d know for sure when it was over, even if Millie would still be a bit spaced out.  It takes time and practice to regain one’s faculties as swiftly as I could.   Meanwhile, the boys disappeared, and returned not long after, each carrying half a pig.  Millie’s head snapped around so fast I was afraid she’d do herself a mischief.  However, I admired the restraint she showed in not immediately going for the meat.  Even I self- consciously wiped the corners of my mouth to make sure that I wasn’t drooling.  With a negligent air, the two halves of carcass were heaved over the threshold, each landing with a dull thud on the bare concrete floor.  As the boys bade us a good evening and closed the door, even en as Millie and I each made our way toward a separate carcass, I wondered how Ren kept the floor so clean.

###

It was hours later.  I was judging not only by the feeling of time’s passage, but by how full my belly was.  I remembered tearing into the easily available meat; utterly ravenous as I always was.  I remembered pacing the walls with Millie for quite some time and then, finally deciding that not only was there no way to escape this strange cave in which we found ourselves.  The sudden weariness I felt helped make it a very easy decision to lie down and sleep, if only in order to digest this enormous meal I had eaten…

I’m not sure what woke me.  It might have been the hiss of the observation port opening; it might have been the low murmur of Ren’s voice.  I couldn’t really see him from the angle I lay at, and was still feeling a little woozy, so I lay still, eyes half open, and drifted a little.  Through the half-sleep, I heard Ren’s voice.   the sounds didn’t really mean a huge amount to me in the state that I was in, but a couple of phrases he used nagged at me enough that I dragged myself further toward consciousness than I had been and certainly closer than I wanted to be.  Until I heard, ‘…drugged.  Yeah – sleeping like puppies, they are.’  His voice dripped with contempt, and even in my semi conscious, semi coherent state, it chilled me. ‘No, no – he’s no problem.  Absolute pushover.  Dropped some rohypnol into his drink… no… no I didn’t.’  He chuckled.  ‘Yeah, yeah whatever – maybe later, you know?  Probably stinks like wet dog, anyway.  I’ll think about it.  Meantime, how about you get your arse down here and we sort this shit out?  …No I can’t.  You know I don’t keep that stuff around… yeah… sensitive… yeah.  Ok.  See you in twenty.’

Motherfucker had turned supergrass and sold us out to the hunters.  In a brief moment of white- hot rage I realised that this was why we had been assigned to care for Millie.  There weren’t enough of her own family left who were suitable for the job.  They had all disappeared, one by one, and it was generally assumed that the disappearances were due to individuals going feral and running off to the northern woods.  Apparently, the general consensus was wrong.

Millie let out a grunting sigh.  There was a silence from behind the door, and then a click and slide.  The door swung inward slowly.  I lay still and kept my breathing deep and even as Reynard slowly entered the room.  I felt him glance my way, and then back toward Millie.

I should note here that legends about us are largely incorrect.  We remain pretty much humanoid – we don’t grow snouts or paws or any of that desperate old crap.  But our musculo- skeletal structure does undergo subtle shifts – improving the functional strength and efficiency of our bodies – and our teeth lengthen and somehow seem to sharpen.  None of the family has yet to work out how this happens, but we are understandably reticent about consulting medical professionals.  We also experience accelerated hair growth and moulting.  The sheer energy it takes for our bodies to go through all of these changes in such a short time goes a long way to explaining the ravenous hunger that affects us.  On a completely facile side note, I find it’s a great way to burn excess calories each month, even if only for one night.

Reynard walked very quietly over to where Millie lay, toward the back of the cellar.  Crouching down, he stared at her, muttering to himself.  ‘Well well well, Mini Millie look at you.  Who’d have thought you’d turn out so well?  Damn shame you also turned out to be a fucking bitch like the rest of them.  Such a pathetically common fate for someone so… fine…’  He reached out a hand and stroked down her flank.  ‘I think I must have put more of that stuff in there than I meant to.  Oh, well – since you’re going to be out for a good long while, I might as well enjoy it.  Wanted to do this for years, you prick- teasing little bitch…’  To my absolute horror, the hand that was stroking Millie’s side ceased stroking and began to grope, whilst he tugged at his belt buckle with the other.  A moment later, he growled in frustration and began to yank at his belt with both hands.

I barely heard the snarl gather in my throat as my body moved like a spring and I launched myself at his back, fastening my teeth on his neck.  Unfortunately, the snarl forewarned him that I wasn’t as out as he thought, so he half- turned as I leapt, and I didn’t get quite where I was aiming for.  Still, I tore a chunk out of the junction between his shoulder and neck as he pushed me away.  Having so recently fed, I didn’t stop to chew but spat as I rolled away so my mouth was empty for the next attack.  As soon as I had my feet under me, I leapt again.  This time, however, he was expecting me, and he had a long metal spike which I hadn’t seen him bring in.  He was waving it with one hand whilst clamping his hand over the fresh wound in his neck with the other.  As he lashed out wildly, it got caught in my upper arm.  My aim, however, was truer.  This time, I got him exactly where I wanted to.  Gouts of crimson painted the walls in pretty arcs, and his screams died fairly quickly.  Not him, though.  I hamstrung him and let him bleed out on his own cellar floor, whilst I gritted my teeth and yanked the metal spike from my arm.  Hauling Millie’s still- unconscious but mercifully inviolate body over my shoulder, I headed up the stairs.

I found Carl passed out upstairs, tied to a chair. The smell of whiskey and some sort of sedative lay heavy on him, mixing with the still- potent mushroom residue.  I laid Millie on the floor as comfortably as I could and then I untied Carl, touching his bare skin as little as possible, and laying him nearby.  And then I went downstairs and waited.

I’m not proud of what I did to that silver- bullet- toting shitbag that came calling, but by the time I’d finished with him, I’d used up every last one of those vicious little nerve- bombs, and he’d told me everything I needed to know about the local Hunter coterie.  I left him pretty much as I’d left darling cousin Reynard.  It was a good job tomorrow was Sunday, I reflected, as I retrieved my mobile phone and gave my dad a call.  The clean- up crew would have nearly twenty- four hours to do their sterling work.  As I stared toward the pinkening dawn, I reflected I’d done them a favour, really.  We were getting so good at managing our condition that they’d barely had anything to do for absolutely ages.  Definitely time for them to stretch their talents.  The physical cleanup crew, anyway.  The IT bods were always on high alert, even if it was only scouring the ether for references to us, detecting possible threats, and engaging in their subtle games of misdirection.  Well – who am I to argue?  It keeps them entertained, bless them.

There’s a lot of the family out there.  Far more of us than you would think or could ever guess.  We’re around, but we’re much more discreet these days than we ever were in the past.  We’re smart, you see.  Whatever clueless idiot said that you can’t teach and old dog new tricks had clearly never met my dad.

The saints of the shadow bible haunt me.  A lifetime of misdeeds and malfeasance leave them inhabiting the cave behind my eyes.  They stalk me by day but especially at night – each blink a flicker of what is to come, each sleep merely a theatre to show endless images of suffering and cruel laughter.  Their naked screams clink from ice cubes slowly melting into burning liquor.  The irony of fire and ice anaesthetic bringing the disease before it numbs is not lost on me.  Night after night I have tried to drown them in vodka, whiskey, gin and more, but nothing will stop them.  Indeed, the alcohol loosens my mind and makes the transition so much easier.  So I let them come.  I open the doors of my mind, settle in the battered and worn armchair, close my eyes, and watch the parade.  Behind my eyes, the desperate and the despicable dance, march, trudge and crawl through my mind.  They skitter and scuttle and spread filth as they go.  They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and so it is.  As my familiarity with the deeds of a long and rotten life grows, so does my contempt for the body that houses and feeds the mind.  The saints show me, one by one, what they are.  One by one, I acknowledge the time I spent in my devotions to them, and the pieces of my soul that they own.  The saints of lust, of anger, of greed and of fear.  The saints of power and control, the saints of nefarious cunning and selfish gain.  All laugh at my pitiful attempts to own and slay them for they know, far better than I ever will, what I am, what I have been, and what I always will be.  They squeeze my soul as they hold it in their withered hands.  As they shred it night after night in unending litany of revulsion and disgust.  They shred my soul and then hang the wisps and tatters of it all over the gaudy gains of a life badly spent.

‘This is what your soul has bought,’ they whisper to me.  ‘This is what you sold your own life and so many others to obtain.  Are you not proud?  Do you not gloat over your legacy of pain and shattering?’

I am not proud.  Nor do I gloat.  Not any more.  Now I have an old man’s knowledge of what is truly valuable, I realise I have nothing.  Nothing but the saints of the shadow bible, singing me to my last sleep with their shrieking lullaby.

50) Baby’s Gotta Eat

In the end, it was so easy that a trained monkey with a sack could have done it.  It’s quite clear that neither the curator nor the staff had any idea what sort of thing they had on their hands.  It wasn’t even in a case, for goodness sake!  It was just sitting there in some tatty natural history display marked ‘possible dinosaur egg fossil: origins unknown’.

If only they knew.

I may or may not have permitted myself a small smile as I slipped it into my rucksack.  They let me bring a rucksack in!  I was honestly having difficulty believing my luck.  Straightening up, I composed my features and continued to look around the other exhibits.  Room after room of sad, moth eaten displays, shrouded in dust and seeming not to have been updated since the early nineteen- eighties.  It was unsurprising that despite the howling storm outside I was almost the only person in there.  The only other visitor and I crossed paths occasionally as we wandered around the jumbled and confusing rooms.  I found it odd, actually, how we kept crossing paths.  Odd and rather awkward.  I took him for some sort of foreign tourist.  Strange, ill-fitting khaki shorts, two cameras slung around his somewhat rotund torso, a messenger bag, pork pie hat, and dark glasses.  Indoors.  On a foul and gloomy day.  And endless, endless photos.  I could hear the clicks echoing off every wall and glass cabinet as I made my way around the exhibits.  We always seemed to cross paths in doorways or particularly narrow spaces between displays of… oh goodness only knew what bits of rotted wood purporting to be part of this or that famous ship either made or wrecked within a fifty mile radius of this forgotten little hole in the coast.

I decided that it was time to leave.

Calm and casual, I strolled out past the security guard on the main door into the deep porch sheltering the front entrance from the ravages of the storm beyond.  I watched the rain flying sideways for a moment.  Normally, I would shiver at a sight like that; rain always looks cold to me whether it’s tropical or arctic. Not today, though.  Today I was on fire with a combination of satisfaction and anticipation, ably assisted by an outside source.  In a gesture habitual and by now almost unconscious, my hand rose to my chest, where the pendant was concealed under my clothes, radiating a gentle warmth.  I could almost see the pulsing red glow through my clothes.  It radiated warmth through my chest and torso as I pressed it to my skin.  I felt my heart pump the heated blood to my fingertips and, a moment or two later, to my toe tips.

The rattling of the museum door behind me dragged me from my warm reverie and I hastily turned up the collar of my coat and headed into the storm before I got caught in yet another narrow space with that tourist.

I walked briskly to the bus stop a few streets over but the timetable there told me that the bus wasn’t actually due for at least another half an hour, possibly more given the erratic nature of the local service.  I sighed and shivered as water began to trickle down the back of my neck.  I could have got home another way, but I wanted to preserve my resources.  If things went according to plan I was going to need everything I had fairly soon.  I headed to a nearby cafe for a warm and a cuppa.

Once there, I ordered a bowl of stew as well, realising how hungry I was.  Anticipation of what I was to do had stolen my appetite since yesterday morning and now I was famished.

I was half way through the bowl of stew when the bell on the door of the café jingled and the tourist from the museum walked in.  I was beginning to get a bad feeling about this man, so I turned as far away in my seat as I could, hunching over my bowl.  My suspicions were confirmed when he brought his drink from the counter straight to my table and sat down opposite me.  He was still wearing those stupid glasses even though the sky had darkened even more since we left the museum.  It was disconcerting seeing my distorted reflection staring back from the places where his eyes should have been.

How could I have been so stupid?

I watched the realisation wash over my reflection, and the mouth below broke into an unpleasant smile.

I let resignation creep into my tone.  ‘How?’

He lowered the shades just enough so that I and no- one else in the café could see the dull red burn where his eyes should be.  If he was human.  One of them flickered briefly in a wink. ‘Oh, you know we have our ways.’

‘Yeah, clever.  What now?’

‘Now you hand them over, of course.  Or I leave you as a smear of ash on the linoleum.’

I ground my teeth together. ‘Fine.  Not here, though.  If something goes wrong I don’t want to draw attention.’

‘What could possibly go wrong?  You give them freely or I take them and you suffer the consequences.’

I knew he wouldn’t, though.  Things like this pendant are far too unstable to just rip from their symbiont without the proper words.  The resultant explosion would take out everything within a half-mile radius, including him, the pendant itself, and the thing he was really after.  The thing which I’d evidently picked up from the museum moments before he’d found it.  He knew I wouldn’t say the words until I was satisfied we were in a place that it wouldn’t matter if I made a mistake in my pronunciation.

He clicked his fingers.

Instantly, I was sitting on my arse in amongst the sodden heather on the moor above the town., with him standing above me, grinning like a simpleton.  Damn, they thought they were so clever, these things.

Fine.

I stood up. Fortunately, the wind had abated somewhat.  Unfortunately, the rain seemed to be trying to make up for that.  Shivering, I faced my adversary in his stupid dark glasses, and his stupid pork pie hat, and his stupid khaki shorts.

‘You’ve got really shit dress sense, you know.  You do know that, don’t you?’

‘Just get on with it, please.’

‘Fine.’

I reached into the neck of my clothing and brought out my beautiful glowing amulet.  I pulled a sad face and just looked at it for a moment, the rain gently sizzling as it hit the surface.  It had been with me such a long time.  I knew it so intimately, including its language.  A thing of great power, so it was.  And here was this creature demanding that I hand it over as if it were just a stone.

I came back to myself as my adversary cleared his throat.  I glared at him, and then held my hand out; uttering the words I needed to.

His greedy hand grasped the pendant, and his whole body froze.

‘It’s quite interesting,’ I said to his frozen form, ‘that in the language of this particular pendant, the words for “go to” and “bind” are very similar.  So similar, in fact, that it’s really, really easy to get them confused.’  I glanced down into the town below, and saw the bus pulling away from the bus stop.  On time after all, then.  Damn.  Oh well.  I clicked my fingers.

Back in my basement, I stood my adversary in a corner as I towelled my hair dry.  The rest of me wouldn’t take too long to dry, due to the heat being kicked out by my specially constructed furnace.  I retrieved the “fossil egg” from my rucksack, and weighed it in my hand.  Deceptively light for what I knew it contained.  There was no doubt now, either, as I could see a hairline crack or two forming before my eyes in the heat of the room.  Smiling, I tossed the thing into the flames and kicked the door shut.

I turned to my adversary, still smiling.  ‘You know, I’m really glad you came, after all.  You don’t know how much work you’ve saved me.’  This was punctuated by a small explosion from the furnace. ‘After all,’ I continued as I opened the door and a head covered in white-hot scales snaked out, ‘Even baby dragons have to eat something…’

49) Booshus and the Dryad

Once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a wizard who made magical potions for the king. Day in, day out, all he would do was make foul- smelling concoctions to cater to the whimsical wishes of the highest authority in the land. The list of demands made by his majesty was endless.
‘Booshus,’ he said one day, balefully eyeing his vast paunch in the mirror, ‘The queen is nagging me about my belly again. She says it’s so big that she can’t find my… er… waist… any more.’ Booshus coughed discreetly and assured the king that he had a recipe for just the thing. Unfortunately, it needed to be taken three times a day. With food. The king, of course, was delighted to have even more of an excuse to eat. Especially when the queen gently pointed out that his appetite was getting out of hand. He would wear a mournful expression and insist, ‘But my dear, Booshus said I have to!’
And then poor Booshus had the queen chewing his ear about it. Not only about the increased eating that the king was doing (‘Can you say “counter-productive”, Booshus?!’ she yelled), but also about the dreadful smell that subsequently emanated from the royal water closet.
‘A thousand apologies, highness, but even the best remedies have their side effects!’
This cut no mustard with the queen.
‘Booshus, I want you to come up with a concoction that will make the king less rotund and also less smelly. Goodness me, it’s bad enough as it is, without you making things worse!’
Booshus bowed his way out of the room, promising that he would work on an alternative.
Long into the deep dark night, Booshus worked. And the next night, and the next night, and the next, trying out formula after formula on his assistant, Vernon. Poor Vernon went all sorts of strange colours, and did all sorts of strange things as he tested each potion.
Meanwhile the king, of course, continued to eat, and to smell, and the queen began to worry for the king’s health. His face was getting redder, his breath shorter, and his legs less useful.
Eventually, the wizard and his deputy thought they may have hit upon a solution.
‘About jolly well time!’ said the exasperated queen when Booshus arrived in the throne room the following morning, trailing a noticeably thinner Vernon in his wake.
‘What does it do?’ asked the king.
‘It will induce a wish or a need to exercise, your majesty.’
The king pulled a face.
‘I’m not at all sure that I like the sound of that.’
The queen’s lips went white as she pressed them together in exasperation. Turning her head, she murmured in the king’s ear. Booshus couldn’t hear what she said, but her tone was unmistakeably clipped.
The king sighed, and waved a pudgy, beringed hand. ‘Oh, very well then. Give it here.’
Booshus took the royal goblet and poured a small amount of the potion into it. It landed in the bottom with a fizz. The king took the goblet and regarded the liquid with deep suspicion.
‘Are you sure about this, Booshus? It looks a bit lively.’
‘Absolutely, majesty. I tested it on Vernon, and as you can see he’s perfectly fine.’
Vernon smiled weakly.
‘There’s not very much of it, is there?’ said the queen.
‘No, highness. It’s potent stuff, and I wouldn’t want to do the king a mischief. It’s best to start these things slowly, after all.’
The king sipped at the liquid, and pulled a face again. ‘Tastes foul!’
Booshus lowered his head. ‘A thousand apologies, majesty. I did try to make it taste better, but it just mucked up the formula.’
The king turned his head to see the queen glaring at him. ‘Oh very well.’ He threw the rest back in one gulp – there wasn’t much there, after all – and the court held its breath.
#
Several weeks later, things were going well. The king was moving much more, eating less, and generally looking a lot better. This meant that the queen and, by extension, the court were a lot happier.
Unfortunately, however, this was not to last. The king, ever on the look out for more of everything, began to allow his greedy nature to get the better of him. So instead of demanding more food, he now began to demand more of the potion, so he would be compelled to do more exercise. He would exercise every chance he got. The palace staff often found him running circuits around the palace at midnight. By the time the king was scaling the castle walls in order to get to bed at night, instead of taking the stairs, the queen had enough. She came storming into Booshus’ laboratory and had her bodyguards drag him and Vernon to a wood just outside of the palace grounds. There, they were met with the extraordinary sight of the king, stripped to the waist and swinging the woodsman’s axe for all he was worth. His face was filled with the zeal of the recent convert, and Booshus’ heart sank. They were in a clearing filled with recent tree stumps and sawdust.
‘Well? What do you plan to do about this, Booshus?’ demanded the queen. ‘Your cursed potion has brought him to this!’ She looked close to tears.
Booshus was utterly helpless. He, just like everyone else, was a subject of the king. When the king demanded more potion, Booshus had to supply it come what may, and all of his warnings about using it to excess fell on deaf ears. He was about to explain his position to the queen (with a simmering resentment that she made him do so at all since she, more than anyone at all, was well aware of the childlike whims of the king), when there was a tremendous creaking, crackling and snapping noise, and the tree the king was hacking at like a man possessed made its majestic way to the ground, knocking leaves and branches from the surrounding trees as it fell. It bounced once before it settled to the floor and, in the silence that followed, a despairing wail cut through he forest canopy.
A tiny figure materialised, standing on the ravaged stump of the once-great tree the king had so recently felled, and all of the people in the newly- created glade took one step back. Booshus had never seen such rage contained in any form, let alone such a tiny and perfect one.
‘You… you… you unbelievable OAF!’ shrieked the figure.
Astonished though the king was, there was no way on earth that he would stand for such an affront to his dignity.
‘Young lady, how dare you? I am your king, and you will address me as “your majesty”!’
‘Young? Are you blind as well as stupid? I am four hundred years old. Just the same as my tree which you so callously cut down!’
Uh- oh. Booshus suddenly realised that this tiny person was no ordinary woodland sprite. The king in his potion- induced eagerness to exercise had gone and cut down the personal tree of one of the forest’s dryads – a notoriously capricious and hot- tempered bunch at the best of times, never mind when some idiot has just cut down their bond- tree. He began to back away, very slowly.
Unfortunately, his rearward progress was arrested, literally, by one of the king’s bodyguards grabbing his shoulder.
‘Dunno where you think you’re going, sunshine,’ rumbled the guard, ‘I reckon his majesty and her highness are going to want a word with you fairly soon.’
Booshus sagged in the guard’s grip. He knew that the situation was not really his fault. Equally though, he was quite aware that royalty is never wrong, and they are usually pretty much incapable of accepting the consequences of their actions if those consequences are distasteful.
The dryad was still shrieking at the king, and then there was a flash and a boom, and the dryad was gone. The king picked up his axe, and began to walk back toward the palace, with the queen following close behind, trying in vain to get her husband’s attention.
Unsure of what to do next, the royal couple’s bodyguards followed, dragging Booshus and Vernon along with them. The king was walking rapidly and the bodyguards had many pairs of legs to sort out between them, including those of two somewhat reluctant detainees, so they fell behind rather quickly. By the time they caught up with the king and queen, they had reached the palace, and a very odd sight greeted them.
The king was standing at one corner of the palace, swinging his axe at the walls. Stone chips were flying everywhere, and the queen was standing off to one side, out of range of the debris’ swift accumulation, wringing her hands and exhorting the king to stop. This lasted until she saw Booshus.
‘You! This is all your fault you jumped- up cocktail waiter! Thanks to you and your damnable potions, that tree- dwelling hussy has cursed the king to chop down the palace with the same axe he used to cut down her home!’
Privately, Booshus thought that this was a pretty fair tit-for-tat but of course, he rather liked his head where it was so he kept the thought to himself. There was nothing really that he could say, so he remained quiet as he and Vernon were marched to the palace dungeons.
There they sat for days, listening to the sound of the king chopping at the palace walls with his enchanted axe. Eventually, the queen came down to see him. She was a changed woman.
‘Booshus, I don’t know what to do! My poor husband can’t stop in his labours, and the palace is slowly being reduced to rubble.’
‘Well, your highness, it’s said that dryads can be appeased by offering them oil, milk or honey. Perhaps we could try that?’
The queen brightened, and immediately started issuing orders to her chamberlain, who was waiting outside the door. The palace store rooms were mercifully undamaged as yet, so in very short order there was a wagon sitting just inside the palace courtyard, groaning with milk churns, barrels of the finest cooking oil, and hundreds of jars of honey from the palace apiary. Rumour had it that the bees were most disgruntled; the cows had expressed relief along with the milk, and the olive trees whispered only among themselves.
The king’s curse seemed to have had a rather profoiund effect on the queen, too. Instead of sending a minion to deliver the cartload of goodies to the dryad, she actually went herself (even though she insisted that Booshus drive), leaving her bodyguards behind. When the head bodyguard protested this, she asked him to look at the king and then tell her what exactly the kings bodyguards did or indeed could do, to stop the dryad doing whatever she jolly well pleased. The bodyguard was most unhappy and by the time they reached the newly created clearing, Booshus was pretty sure that they had an unseen escort.
At the sight of the dryad sitting sulkily on her stump, Booshus had a feeling that the interview would not go too well, despite the groaning cart.
It didn’t. despite the dryad having her hand almost wrist- deep in a honey jar for quite a lot of the time, and a very sticky face, she still railed against greedy and oafish kings who did just what they jolly well liked with no thought or consideration for anyone other than themselves. When the queen pointed out that the palace housed far more people than just the king, the dryad shrugged, and the sighed.
‘All right, fine. You can keep some of your stupid palace for the rest of the people to live in. but only so’s they can look after the bees and the cows and the trees. And I want more of this.’ Here she waved a sticky hand at the cart. ‘The king still needs to be punished, but I suppose he only needs to chop down the royal bit of the palace. The rest of it can stay. And I want regular deliveries so I can keep my strength up whilst I help my poor darling to grow strong again.’ Here she glanced sadly at the stump she was sitting on. Amazingly, since they had been talking, leafy shoots had started emerging from the stump and trunk of the felled tree. Booshus had wondered what she needed all the honey for. He still didn’t know what she wanted the milk and oil for, but he didn’t dare ask.

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