Time To Pay

In a place far beyond knowing there is a forest so dark, so impenetrable that it is the haunt of all the creatures that live in nightmares, the things that hide in the dark and snarl at the back of cupboards and under beds. The trees in this place twist into ghastly shapes their branches reaching in desperation for the pure air and light that they can sense but never see, high, high above them in the realms of truth and beauty.

Deep in the dripping, fetid depths of this place is a small house, the door is painted blood red and the windows turn their gazes inside, drinking the feeble light that seeps through the trees and locking it within.

A lone wanderer who may stray this way would first be aware of the change in temperature, the humid warmth of the forest slides away to chill the blood and prickle the skin and the very air is thinned, as though even oxygen is begrudged to the unwary visitor. Then he would sense the threat beneath the silence and if he values his life he will turn and make away with all speed, and he will throw a prayer to his God for safe passage and the salvation of his soul.

Who lives here in the dreadful place, who could exist in such surroundings. An old, old woman lies here, the lines and wrinkles of her face hidden by the grey tangle of brittle hair that rustles on the pillow as she moves. Her eyes are deep hidden under thick lashless lids, like twin coals they roam the room seeking spirits in the dark corners and searching out the sprites and goblins that crouch and perch and scutter.

Now look, she raises a skeletal hand, the bony finger points towards the corner.

“I see you now, I see you. Come forward, show yourself.”

Beside the chimney the air thickens, shifts and coils and there is a shadow, a shade, a shape.

“Is it time, tell me is it time?”

The old crone screeches into the quiet, her voice cracks from underuse.

“Yes, witch it is time.”

As it speaks the hideous shape moves forward, the long legs striding over filthy boards, the eyes are glowing embers, the body is hidden under a cloak of rough fur, huge fangs gleam wetly in the lamplight. Nearer it comes, now the animal stench of it fills her nostrils, she gags and chokes. She clears her throat, hawking a gobbet of phlegm into the pewter pot beside the bed.

“She is coming then, now she is coming?”

“Aye and I shall collect on my promise. Two hundred years witch, two hundred and now it is time.”

“Is there nothing I can say, no bargain we can make. She is young, she is innocent, it’s not her fault.”

“Fault, fault what do I know of fault. You made your bargain now you must keep it. Move woman, move and keep your word.”

“With a scream of terror and fury the old witch rolls from the bed to the floor, instantly the flesh falls from her bones to desiccate and join the dust of ages, the old skeletons crumbles and collapses and in an instant all sign of her is gone.

The beast throws back his head, the great jaws open and he assaults the night with a howl of pure desire. He throws himself across the noisome mattress, drags the squalid covers upwards and turns his face to the door which even now creaks open. The flash of red, the scent of flowers and the bright light of purity enter hell.

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The Ducking Stool

The time of year has me digging out all my short fiction about magic (mostly black I’m afraid).  Pumpkins and supermarket dressing up costumes don’t really feel right for me but the hint of dark magic that it stirs up in my imagination is thrilling.  I do believe that there are forces out there that we should be afraid of but I also know that great injustice has been done over the ages to innocent kindly faith healers and wise women (and men of course).  I also believe strongly in what I think I can describe as Kind magic, the presence of benevolent and loving spirits all around us and as the year winds down I feel more aware of all of that.

The Ducking Stool

The cottage feels warm against the chilly evening, an oasis of peace against the threat of a summer storm.  Outside in the forest great oaks bend and complain and the willow branches whip and stir. New birdlings fluff downy feathers against the stirring air.  Mags peers into the gathering darkness and shivers.  In her arms Fulcrum purrs rubbing his velvet fur against the white skin of her throat.

“It’s a strange night puss, mischief is about.  We must bar the door and douse the lights.” The black cat leaps from her embrace and hides in the deep shadows beside the fire nook.

Reaching behind her the slender young woman collects her woolen shawl and drags it over her shoulders.  She is ill at ease and must drink chamomile tea and warm a dish of lavender oil to calm the vespers and soothe the atmosphere…

She hears them, before the first flickering flames are visible through the undergrowth she hears the muttering and the tramp of feet and she understands.  Fear spurts tears to her eyes and her fingers claw and pull at the edges of her shawl.

“Run Fulcrum, run my love.”  She opens the small rear window and the cat leaps into the night, shining jet against the fading light, he turns once, bright eyes glittering and he sees her and then he is gone.

By now the mob are at the door howling and thumping.

“Come out hag, come out lest we drag you out.”

She steps to the door.  She must speak to them, try to explain to make them understand.  The risk is great, they could fire her house, roast her in the place that has been her home, she must act.  Her hands shake, she believes that her voice may fail her.  Long months she has expected this, nights without number she has taken to her bed thanking the great spirits for their benevolence and protection but now, at last it has come.  The inevitable has happened and only clever words and any residual friendship can save her.

She opens the door.  The mob stands in a ragged circle before the cottage.  Many of the men carry weapons.  Why, she wonders have they brought clubs and sickles, do they really believe that they need them to subdue a mere girl and if their fears are realised do they believe these hand made artefacts will save them.  She shakes her head, sadness enfolds her heart and fear clenches at her gut.

Behind the men some of the women are clustered, they will be her hope – she calls to them “Mary, Mary Smith, don’t let them do this.”  Mary who had come to her with tears and quivering lips telling of lost babies and her desperate need for a child.  “Mary, who cares for your young one while you are here?”  She will not betray the trust with a direct reference but the young mother will understand and remember the small bag of herbs and the tiny bottle of oil.  “Penny, Penny Knowle, help me.”  Penny who had lusted after the farmer’s boy, he who now brandished a pig stick and a fevered flush on his brow.  Penny who had pleaded for a love potion and who had trod the aisle of the church in virginal white though the herbs Mags had mixed had taken away what she believed was her secret shame, though in truth it had been shame stopped her monthly flow and fear that had caused her nausea.  “Penny, I thought you were my friend.”

The women turn from her in fear.  Fear for themselves and their dreadful secrets, only Mags knows that the “spells” were innocent herbs and that the strength of their belief was the thing that gave them their desires.  They step into the shadows, huddling and crying, they know there is nothing they can do, she knew it too but desperation made her call to those she had thought her sisters.

Now the older men have stepped to her threshold.  They reach worked roughened hands towards her.  Old Bob uses the confusion to grab at a breast and squeeze, his hard fingers assaults her body his evil intent assaults on her spirit. Tears drip across her cheeks, all she can hope for now is the strength to bear it and for it to be over soon.

They drag her forward along the forest path, the call goes up – “Witch, Witch.”  She tries to shake her head but one of the men has her long hair wrapped around his fists and the movement rips clumps from her scalp.  She focuses on the pain, it takes her out of the horror for a moment but only for a moment because now she sees it.

The water is black oil, reeds rustle in the rising wind and the nocturnal disturbance puts up the water birds to wheel screeching and calling into the blood streaked sky.

There it is before her, they have constructed it quickly, cobbled together from old planks and a kitchen chair, the ropes drool into rippling water.  The dreadful contraption fills her eyes, the ghastly device steals her ability to breath and as they strap her roughly onto the ducking stool she knows that she is lost and her screams transcend the rising wind and her curses fly on the wings of the owl.  The water closes over her innocent head and the mob assuages its ignorant guilt with prayers to a vengeful God and words of mutual justification that will never truly wipe the dreadful memory of what they have done.

Rest in peace wise woman for the woods preserve your innocence and the lady of the moon holds your soul in safe hands.

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Another Dragon Chapter

He didn’t speak to them.  As the great dragon stormed back to his lair Verick and Phoebus cowered into the side of the mountain, Verick closed his eyes and turned his face to the rock.  He was scared to the very end of his tail. They were in trouble, big trouble.

For long moments after he had swept past, they didn’t speak, didn’t move.

Eventually Phoebus gulped and his feet kicked at the dry earth till they were covered in dust, the glowing scales dulled and dirty his gold claws nicked and scratched.  Verick nudged him, nodded towards the entrance to the cave.  He lifted his chin and gestured, “Go on, have a look.”  Phoebus shook his head just once. His stomach roiled.  They should go, they could fly down now to the Silver River and boil some fish.  They could just go back to their own place and curl in the corner and snooze.  They could do anything.  Anything would be better than being here, on this mountain with the anger of Alpheus thickening the very air that they breathed.

They didn’t hear him speak, but they felt his instruction deep down, tickling in the bottom of their ears.

“IN”.

With the barest glance between them the two whelps turned and sidled towards the darkness, Verick hung back, Phoebus pretended a stone between his toes, Verick had to cough, Phoebus had a sudden interest in the Bledger Birds who were wheeling off to the south towards the safety of the Emerald Forest.  No matter how they dawdled and procrastinated their hesitant footsteps led them onwards and into the wonder of Alpheus’ cave.

The floor was polished amber, a glowing golden pathway.  The walls were black onyx veined with silver and studded with great diamonds that reflected the shimmer of a thousand candles ranged in iron sconces drilled into the rock.  Along the edges of the footway a river of silver water tinkled and chattered as it cooled and freshened the air.  Deep inside, venous red glowed and drew them on.

The only sound was the chuckle of the water and the shush of four scaly feet as they made their way, ever more nervous, slower and slower towards the retreat of the Greatest of the Great, the mightiest of the Dragons of Orlos.

He was waiting for them.

He stood in the centre of the massive chamber where enchanted torches threw flickers of light into the dragon oil glowing in crystal tubs.

He turned to them his eyes burning in the red gold glow.

He sighed.

He didn’t want this, he wanted peace in his old age and quiet but he couldn’t be content, not when these youngsters were untutored, spoiled and wild.  He had hoped that others would do this, the wise women, the medicine men, some of the other dragons but no-one had taken on the task and now, before it was too late he must teach them, and tame them and make them what they should be.  Guardians of Orlos, Members of the Great Order of Dragon Knights and at the very least decent thoughtful beings.

Verick gave a nervous flick of his tail and upended a vat of oil.  Phoebus snickered as they stepped back from the slow river it made.

Alpheus breathed a gentle wind on the glutinous flow and the scent of warm oil filled the air as the mess dried and dispersed.  He moved away further into the cave willing the two spoiled brats to go with him.

He had his work cut out and he knew that at the bottom of it all was boredom which had ignited their desire to learn about The Other Place.  The place in the woods, gateway to Elsewhere and the darkness that dwelt there and the danger that lurked beyond.  Could he hold them back, should he?  Ignorance of Evil or knowledge of it, which would make them stronger, which would teach them best.

He didn’t know but he would need to find out.  Together they made their way along the smooth stones, the Greatest of the Great and those who must after all be made into the saviours of the kingdom.  It was a Herculean task but Alpheus knew that now it was his he must not be found wanting.

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The Witch’s Cat

The Witch’s Cat

Clarissa peeled open one eye lid, the slightly milky orb rotated in its pit, light glinted on glutinous fluid. All seemed well, she doubled her vision. In the old fireplace the logs were burned away, red embers and grey ashes shifted in the air flow under the great black pot.

Findle, slept still, his ears twitched now and again as did the shining threads of his whiskers.  She understood, deep inside the glossy black head he roamed in lands that she knew nothing of and communed with spirits beyond this realm.  For long moments she observed, her eyes piercing and her thin lips pursed. Bony fingers smoothed the glossy pelt as she pushed aside the blanket and swung  grey, mottled legs around.  Skeletal toes searched for her slippers, they had crept under the bed again and she had to hook them forward, tutting and huffing the while.

A bat shot past the uncurtained window, a dark flash against the moon.  The night creatures were stirring; they knew.  She grinned.  The owl in the pines cried out just once and Findle shifted.

“It’s alright kitty, sleep on kitty.  Sleep on my dear.”

Moonlight sliced across old boards and ran in a pewter slash up the rear wall, it was enough to illuminate the task. She must be quiet, the cat was easily disturbed and it was essential that he didn’t stretch and murmur before leaping down to set about his nightly wanderings.  He must sleep on.  It would have been easy to administer a draught of something to keep him sleeping for days but she had no way of knowing how that would tangle the pathways of his subconscious and they must be clear for she would walk them tonight, she would visit the magic places and she would become one with him, her familiar, her soul mate.

It was forbidden of course, against The Craft and surely against nature.  She could shape-shift and had become feline before but that was not enough now, now to be a witch in a cat’s coat was not enough now she must be cat, wholly. That he was young and spritely, nimble, lithe and healthy was an insult to her wasted old frame.  If she had still had her other cat, Merlin, then she would have mixed up a potion, once the cards had told her the end was coming and together they would leave and enter the darkness but this cat, full of life, filled with energy had brought forth envy.  Why should she die, fade away in pain and leave all the things that she had planned undone and he would live on, another nine times, nine incarnations, nine existences.  He would move on to another of her sisters, taking with him all her wisdom and arcane knowledge, like the cottage he would pass into other hands.  No, she wanted more and he was the answer.  This stupid human body would be no loss, it was badly designed, full of flaws and inconsistencies whereas the feline form was perfect.  The wondrous shoulders, flexing under their covering of shining silken fur, his fine head, carried proud and haughty, ears that zinged with sound and his eyes, those eyes, shining with magic in the sun and deep pools of mystery when the moon kissed them.

She dragged the pestle and mortar across the pine table, the packets and bunches of herbs were ready and she mixed them.  She measured carefully, tiny grains and minute amounts.  The grimoire that she used was fragile with age and she handled it gently but, if all went well she wouldn’t need it again after tonight.

It was ready, she lifted the goblet and strode to the bed.  Gently she woke the sleeping cat, “Hush Findle, quiet now.”  Before he could protest she squeezed the soft tissue of his cheeks and poured half of the liquid into the pink void of his mouth.  Slamming his jaws together she massaged his throat until she felt the swallow.  Now, it would be now.  With a last look around her dark home she threw back her head and gulped down the rest of the drink.

The vortex opened, the evil spiralled upwards, great beams and flashes of blood-red light spun and sparkled.  The air-filled with the smell of burning souls and the screams of the damned filled the night.  The bodies on the bed turned and flowed and melded, liquid, gas, liquid, a cloud of yellow vapour a sea of writhing serpents and then they were gone.

The sun found a deserted cottage, a rose rambled door hanging open and on the bed a small red stain but of the old witch and her beautiful cat there was never any sign again.

 

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Okay – Triple helping of dragons.

I wrote The Last Night and Return to Orlos a while ago and then this week I wrote Time for Change;  I’m wondering if this could become a thing!!  A dragon thing!!!

The Dragons of Orlos.

The Last Night 

In a country far, far away the moon sails atop the Steel Mountains painting the world with silver. Now it is the wonderful night of the dragon lights when all the juvenile dragons win their wings and find their flames. It is the greatest night of the year.

The graduating dragons line up in front of the statue of the Great King. Their glorious dragon scales are polished into gleaming iridescence, their bright dragon eyes shine with the thrill of it, it is their moment, their time and it is wonderful.

Where the dragons gather in the edges of the woods, their excitement glitters amongst the leaves but there, look there, next to Alpheus see how the darkness deepens, see how the light falls in on itself, see the blackness, blacker than a crow’s wing, blacker than the heart of a demon. Where a dragon should be there is nothingness, more than emptiness, more than a void it is nothingness.

The other dragons begin to notice, the glitter in their eyes is jittery now, they nudge and push against each other. Alpheus feels the cold, smells the strange, damp, oiliness of a dragon pit. He shuffles nearer to his neighbour…

Is this magic, is it a trick, is it simply mistiming which will come aright when Perteus the sixteenth dragon arrives, embarrassed by tardiness.  No, that cannot be. The woods know, the great Steel Mountains far away know and the night knows.  This is the magic of the dreadness, the black magic of the otherness.

They have heard of it, all in the kingdom have heard of it, but never since the time of the great King Orlos has it manifested. There have long been stories of stolen dragons, their magic and their mighty power purloined by the evil magicians of other worlds, taken and sold into slavery.  Can it be that tonight, of all nights, the malevolence has broken through from the outside and snatched the young dragon, spirited him away on the very threshold of his validation, when his potency is at it’s most intense.

They feel it, the breath of it, the scent of it, the dread of it, spiralling around them, through the woods and over the mountains. What has come here screaming on the great wind? What menace has marred this great Dragon Light Night to sear it into the memory of all who watch? What will be written in the tomes of history, and what fearful tale will the minstrel take to the court of the king. What has happened?

Alpheus feels the fear of his comrades; he drinks in their terror and subsumes their disquiet.  His mighty shoulders roll, are they not dragons? the greatest creatures that ever walked the earth.  Mightier than the grey bears that live above the snow line, braver than the saber toothed lions prowling the Forbidden Forest, are they not the chosen creatures of the Gods?  He snorts and paws at the ground, he turns his mighty head reviewing the surrounding countryside, if the magic of the dreadness is truly here then so be it, he will face it, he will destroy it and he will become the greatest hero in history.

As the others turn to him Alpheus swells in stature, he can see in their puzzled gazes that they have recognised his strength and his resolve. He alone isn’t cowed by the pit, he alone raises his great snout and breathes into the night. Mighty clouds of steam rise from his nostrils, building, building and then at last the flames of his ancestors tear into the air around him. The others gasp, they know that while the pit is amongst them they will never breathe the flames of purity but Alpheus has staked his claim, he amongst all of them has made the declaration, he has challenged the darkness and he has won.

Ah but alas, how seldom is the valour of youth tempered with wisdom and so without further reflection the bravest, the truest and the most daring of all, acts.

He turns, the moonlight gleams a million magical colours as his great body shifts, his eyes flash with stars as he steps towards the darkness. He will go, he will find their brother and save the night and the fire and the wonder will continue. With a great roar he leaps towards the nothingness and with the flash of a thousand bolts of lightening Alpheus too disappears.

In the Kingdom there must always be one hundred dragons. On this dreadful night, this fateful night, far from the woods, in the pinnacles of the Steel Mountains an old dragon takes his last great shuddering breath at the same moment as Alpheus leaps into the dragon pit. With the loss of three dragons there is no longer enough dragon spirit to maintain the Kingdom. As he leaves Alpheus takes with him the spark of their being.

The stars freeze in the sky, the rivers still and the great green oceans sleep motionless on the sparkling sands. No grass grows, no birds sing. All of life is suspended.

Alpheus catapults through the tunnel, the dark assaults his senses, the graphite walls push him onwards bouncing, turning and twisting.  As he plummets, so his body is changed, lengthened and trans-mutated by the wonder of the underworld and the goodness of the divinities and so he is rendered human in form and style.  Only the memory of his otherness remains in the dragon of his heart.

As the day claims a foreign sea shore and the birds shake and preen then a stranger walks toward the ocean.  His hair is gleaming ebony his eyes the green of the forest canopy and his skin is smooth and clear.  He is Alpheus, he is dragon made man and he will search for his brother and reclaim the Kingdom or Orlos.

But ah back in the great Kingdom nothing is known of these things and so everything sleeps and is sleeping still.

Return to Orlos 

It shouldn’t have been possible, there was no way that it could have ever been planned, but such is the wonder of the multiverse. Alphine had laid her egg many years before. It was before the dreadful Dragon Light Night which saw the great Kingdom of Orlos plunged into a state of suspended animation.

As all female dragons know, as they are all taught from childhood, there is only ever one egg, it is more precious than gold, it is more valuable than all the wondrous jewels in the treasure house at the palace. It is quite simply priceless.

The eggs must be kept safe, they must be hidden and they must be secret and it is the responsibility of the mother dragon to ensure all goes well. When the time came for her to lay her egg Alphine went to the foothills of the Iron Mountains and battled through the mighty Redwoods. Deep in the forest she found a glade, beside a stream and with soft welcoming soil. She knew, that when the egg hatched she may well be far away and so there must be water, there must be safety and there must be magic to help the tiny dragon to thrive in its first days of life.

The magic in the forest is thick, the air is heavy with it. Tiny glimmers of wonder flick between the dark branches, the enchanted stream glitters and shines as it sings its way over the gold flecked rocks. It is a place of peace and harmony and it is perfect and so Alphine digs with her great front paws. She forms a soft, dark nest, a burrow lined with love to receive and hold her egg and cradle it with the tiny, singing dragon safe and secure inside until it is time for it to hatch. What Alphine doesn’t know, can’t possibly know, is that the song in the egg is a duet, eight tiny paws twine and two baby dragons live inside the silver shell. Alphine has produced double magic and though she won’t understand for many years, it is the magic, the only magic, which can save Orlos.

She lines the earthen cradle with soft moss intertwined with fragrant flowers and then gently covers the whole with the warm soil from the glade. She doesn’t know; how can she? that as she pats the earth above the nest flat and lays a branch above it, a fold in time opens deep in the earth. Instead of waiting in the shallow depression the egg slips through the opening and slithers down the damp mud to rest far, far below. It is below the depth of the winter freezing, below the level of the summer heat and below the influence of suspended reality that curses Orlos when the dragon spirit leaves the kingdom. There it lies for many years, the tiny dragons singing their unborn songs, playing with their paws and twining and curling their tails. Their sparkling eyes open into the gloom and they wait.

With no animation in the kingdom they could have been fated to wait forever were it not for the great furnace at the centre of the sphere. The furnace is surrounded by a lake of inert Orlosium which melts once in a hundred years, at the time of the double moon, and the magical element becomes liquid. The heat from the molten sea warms the surrounding strata and the transferred warmth wraps the dragon’s egg in a blanket of tender balminess.

As the heat increases so the tiny inhabitants of the silver ovule sing the hatching song and fight their way through the ancient shell. They emerge, not to the blessed greenness of the forest floor and the tinkling giggle of fast flowing water but to the gleam of jewel specked ore and the harsh grit of a diamond studded tunnel. They move off, instinct as old as time drawing them towards the light. They claw and struggle forward, mewing a little with the effort, onward and upward until they reach the softness of earth and the tangle of tree roots. Blinking in the relative brightness they emerge to the woodland and with them bring life, and hope and joy back to the Kingdom. Two living breathing dragons, tiny they may be, but they are enough, once more there are one hundred dragons in Orlos and once more the kingdom may thrive and breathe and live.

On a beach many dimensions away an old man, silver hair falling as rain around his shoulders, faded green eyes peering from the wrinkles painted by time on his wise old visage, raises his head as he hears, faintly, echoing in the distant corners of his mind the song of the dragons of Orlos so he turns from the ocean and the light and treads, struggling at first against the pull of the sand, but stronger with each pace as he straightens and grows in strength and stature and Alpheus answers the call, just in time, oh so very nearly too late and he enters the cleft in the rocks, bows his head and awaits the whirling cyclone that will take him back to the kingdom, the storm that will speed him home…

It is written in the annals of history that because of the maternal dedication of a great mother dragon, and the magic of the underworld and the benevolence of the deities the great Kingdom of Orlos rings with laughter once more, children run in the streets and the Dragons of Orlos mount guard. That wondrous night following the hatching, they found their fire and breathed in terrible unison to light the great Dragon Light and the King looked down from his battlements and smiled on his people. What is also written, is the story that Alpheus has told, the story of his search for their brother dragon and what became of him on the night when the great pit swallowed them. It is forbidden to read the text, it is forbidden to even want to read the text but two young dragons, feted and adored as they are, feel the need to know, the need to discover the truth and with the impetuousness of cherished youngsters they begin to form a plan to formulate their ideas. They determine to know it all, to understand everything. Not the truth about their birth, that is renowned in song and story, but the truth about Perteus, the missing dragon and the reason that only Alpheus returned when the kingdom renewed and lived again.

Oh little dragons, leave it, don’t enquire where secrets are hidden, don’t pry in corners steeped in mystery. That way lies disaster.

Time For Change

Alpheus gazed down from the entrance to his cave in the Iron Mountains.  The great kingdom of Orlos stretched before him, a collage of fields and lakes, villages and, in the distance, the City.

Early morning sun had kissed the snow and painted it rose and vermillion but now the white was sprinkled with diamantes.  Air blew cold across the summit but he knew that down on the plane mirages would shimmer above the desert sands.  All was as it should be and some of the tension eased. Another bright morning, another day.

At times such as this he could almost convince himself that it would be alright and that he was worrying needlessly.  For years now things had been calm and good and Orlos had flourished.  Then he saw them, a flash of blue/green, a shimmer of gold and the flare of flame.  Alpheus sighed, there they were, two young whelps the miracle of the ages and the great worry that tore at his old dragon heart.

They flashed and flew through the morning air.  They were spoiled and feted and worshipped.  Not for them the great Dragon Night Light, no they had taken their fire early. Without the ancient controls it had simply been there for them.  They had entered the Cave of the Inferno because no-one had stopped them.  They had said the words because they could and they had taken the fire.  It was too early, before they were ready, before they had been taught their responsibilities.

They swished now above an orchard, shooting flame indiscriminately and roasting the apples on the trees, baking the pears with their breath.  As the sweet caramel aroma of cooked fruit rose on the breeze he felt anger rise and beat it back.  It wasn’t their fault.  They couldn’t be blamed for giving no thought to the fruit farmer who now had a ruined crop or the shepherd who the week before had lost half of his flock as the sheep had panicked and fled, leaping and falling into the River Gorge.  They had burned crops and destroyed woodland and yet, and yet he couldn’t believe that they were evil.  Out of control, thoughtless and dangerous but surely Phoebus and Verick weren’t evil.

He watched them turn and head towards the foothills of the Iron Mountains and knew that they would come, they would try to find him calling repeatedly to where he rested in the back of his great cave.  They wanted to talk to him, they wanted to know the truth about his past and the mystery of the last Light Night and his wanderings looking for the brother dragon.

He turned from the light and paced into the gloomy  depths of the cavern his great shoulders slumped and the gleam of his eyes dimmed with concern.  The day would come when they would be brave enough to step into his space, they would beard him in his den.

With a whistle of wings the two young dragons skimmed to a halt on the rocky ledge.  They pushed and jostled as young things will do. Phoebus carelessly ignited the branches of a small holly bush and in one moment decimated two years of struggle to grow on the inhospitable mountainside.  Not intending to be outdone Verick spun and took the few steps towards a bed of Alpine Chamomile.

“Don’t.”  Alpheus didn’t shout, he barely spoke above a whisper but the vibrations of his presence in the thin air carried the word to the ear of the whelp where it echoed and pulsed in his brain. He turned towards the cave, the entrance was empty.  He swallowed and looked to his companion who was idly charring the new grass around the base of a silver rock.  Phoebus showed no sign of having heard anything.  Verick turned back to the flowers and drew in a breath. “I said don’t.” Now the power of the words brought tears to his eyes and made his toenails tingle.  He flicked his gaze from side to side, Phoebus had moved on to melting the pebbles in the bottom of a shallow pool boiling the water and filling the air with steam.

Verick stepped backwards, and sidled towards the great dark hole in the mountainside.  Could it be that at last they would meet Alpheus, if they could only meet him face to face then, he knew, they would wheedle the story out of him.  The last great mystery and perhaps, perhaps he would take them to where the exit from boring Orlos was hidden deep in the woods.  They had searched and searched but those things hidden by magic will not be found unless they are meant to be and until now it didn’t seem that it was meant to be.  A shudder of excitement caused a tiny hiccup of flame to char the grass.  Yes, he would this day speak to Alpheus, it was time, now he would go into the cave.

He pounded across the flat space as the ground rumbled beneath his feet, at the very edge of the promontory a boulder wobbled on the loose surface. For a long moment it rocked on its uneven base but then as it began to settle Verick took a great breath and blew across the narrow space.  The boulder rocked wildly and tumbled over the ledge.  It rolled faster and faster down the steep slope taking smaller rocks, baby trees and shale with it and startling a family of bledger birds into the air where they circled screeching and crying with dismay,  their scarlet feathers blood against the snowscape. As the rock gathered pace it rived and tore at the tiny mountain flowers, flattened a small cairn and destroyed the three sided shelter erected in case of sudden squall.  All squashed, destroyed and obliterated in a matter of moments and still it rolled on towards the gathering of shepherds huts and a wooden shelter used by Feynow the medicine woman.

“Oops avalanche.” He grinned at Phoebus but the delighted expression faded as the sound of great footsteps echoed from deep inside the mountain.   The gale as Alpheus stormed from the cave and swept into the air knocked the panicked youngsters from their feet.  The huge dragon whirled into the sky and swooped earthwards  with a roar that rolled and rattled amidst the summits bending the great Pines and Bullbush Trees.  He swept in a great arc and then, fire blasting from his flaring nostrils he scourged a ditch across the face of the Alp.  Barely in time the cascading debris fell into the hollow he had made and as the last slithering stones and rocklets came to rest the air settled save for the cries of the distressed birds as they searched for their dessimated nesting place.  There was nothing that Alpheus could do for them and he watched with sad eyes as they flew towards the distant trees.  He had watched them daily, seen them mate and build and rear their young and now he knew it would be years before his mountain had recovered enough for them to return.

Above him two young dragons peered nervously down the newly scarred face of the alp and looking back to them Alpheus knew, it was time now to take them in hand.  Someone had to teach them the old ways and he knew, as he had always known deep in his soul it must be him.

Read more: Short Story: Return To Orlos | Shortbread

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A favourite

Every now and again someone reminds me of an old story and I think ah yes.  I remember.

Thanks Adam on Shortbreadstories for reminding me of this.

Greek Oranges

Michael peeled an orange for me. Late summer or more properly early autumn and we had rented a villa in Greece, seven of us all from the same year at Uni. A research trip, nominally, but the sunshine and the pool and the late warmth were a bonus. Paul didn’t come, he had been seeing practice all summer with a large animal vet near home which resulted in tickets for the races, tickets hard to come by and therefore precious that he didn’t want to waste.

Michael and James came later, driving a silly little hired car they arrived with laughter and cheap wine.

I didn’t know Michael very well, didn’t really register his presence amongst so many until he peeled the orange. It was the time of the year in Greece when the orange crop starts to comes in. Everywhere there are bowls, baskets and boxes heaped with gleaming luscious fruit. We had all gone into town and eaten at one of those little Taverna places which should be clichéd and touristy but, because the waiters really do love their sunkissed lives and because you are away from what is usual for you they gift you a special experience, out of the humdrum and spiced with just a little everyday magic.

My heel was blistered by a pair of silly holiday sandals and so when the others went off to walk the harbour and shop for dinner Michael and I loitered at the table with an extra cup of tarry coffee and a bowl of fruit.

It was easy and relaxed. The sequined ocean rippled and glinted. A tiny blue boat hovered on the horizon floating just above the water in that strange fantastic way that things do on days when the heat is too much for the earth to hold and it leaks out into mists and mirages and everything is just a little more.

I reached to the bowl of fruit and Michael’s hand was there before mine, he lifted the orange as our skin brushed. “Let me.”

His hands were sun-browned from a summer touring the islands, fishing and sailing and giving his body to the elements to do with as it would. Against the darkened skin his nails looked bleached, ivory almost. One nail, the one on his index finger was snagged, the corner missing.

He squeezed the yielding globe softening the skin and releasing the adhesion between it and the flesh inside. His thumb pressed into the rind then his long hands crawled over the surface of the fruit pulling and tearing as the peel spiralled away and fell to the table. Round and round went the long brown fingers like some strange muscular insect mesmerizing and hypnotic in the sunshine and the heat.

The peel lay in a fading orange pile against the white of the cheap plate as he tore the segments apart. Juice dripped from his hands to run and puddle on the table top. I lifted my face to his and he presented me with the prize, a crescent of sunfilled flesh juicy, sweet and warm from his touch. He lay it on my tongue, a dribble of liquid sweetness ran down my chin and he caught it with his finger end and carried it away to his own mouth. The day was hushed.

The jollity of the rest of the group returning collided with the mystery of the moment leaving me light headed and befuddled. Michael gently touched my cheek with his nail nicked finger running it towards my lips. He smiled into my confusion and then turned to walk with the others back up the hill to the villa.

The afternoon and evening were endless. Dinner of griddled tuna steaks and crispy fried potatoes was tasteless to me. Hours were passed in endless debate and discussion, idle chatter and humourless jokes. I tried to catch his eye but always there was someone between us or something to distract his attention. Eventually the day gave up its light and the late dusk fell with the song of the crickets and the buzzing of mopeds outside in the road. The group dispersed and at last, at long last I went to my room. I took my shower and smoothed my skin with oil. I sprayed perfume on my body and tied my hair with a ribbon of pink silk. My white nightdress was soft cotton and although possibly a little virginal for the occasion it was all I had and at least it was feminine rather than silly, funky or practical like so much of my nightwear.

I closed the curtains and sat on the bed reading a book of poetry. My ears were alive with listening, every creak and whisper resounded in the hush. The doors in the villa banged and creaked in turn as the others settled. Simon sneezed, Pippa laughed and blessed him it was all abnormally normal.

The night was silent, he would come soon, I was ready for the tap on the door, maybe he wouldn’t knock but rather just walk in. I crossed the tiles and made sure that the lock was off, bethought myself wanton and locked it, acknowledged my desire and unlocked it.

The hour past, he was very discreet of course making sure everyone was settled but I wished he would come. My heart had long since finished pounding and settled into a regular rhythm until a door somewhere opened and it fluttered into thrill again. The toilet flushed.

Through the long watches of the night I waited until the dawn threw a pink and pearly sheen across the ocean and the orange groves and I knew he wouldn’t come.

He left the next day with a heedless wave to return the silly car and fly back to England and his studies and his life. I am leaving later today back to Paul and I am taking with me the guiltless memory of Michael and the orange and the guilty knowledge of my traitorous desire.

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A quick repost because the Muse is being a bit reticent.

The Crusaders

 

The air in the alleyway was damp and cold, smelling of urine, rot and decay.  The old bricks were wet as his hands brushed against them and the cement under his trainers was slick with disgusting gunk.  Frankie drew away from the wall with a shudder.  Pulling his zipper closer under his chin he crept slowly towards the doorway hidden in the gloom.  His dark knitted hat sparkled slightly with moisture under the dim overhead lighting making him appear to have been sprinkled with Christmas glitter.  The thought would not have amused him, he had no patience for such stuff, tinsel and trimming, laughter, joy what place did it have in a world with all this work to do all this clearing out and cleaning up.

 

He froze as the door ahead of him swung open allowing a gale of laughter and music to assault the dank atmosphere.  A stocky man stepped out striking a match and lighting a cigarette as he let the door slam behind him.  Bouncers, bloody bouncers what good were they.  Did they clean up the detritus, did they carry out his hard, hard work.  No they were ignorant of it maybe some of them even a part of the problem in a different world and a different place.

 

Long years of practice allowed him to meld with the background, his dark clothes completely covered all his skin except for that of his face and so he dipped his head and disappeared.  Bloody hell how long can it take to smoke a cigarette.  Breathing slowly and regularly he calmed the impatience, it didn’t matter it was early he had plenty of time.

 

This wasn’t the place anyway, he had been here before, round the corner out in the main road in the lights.  He didn’t want to be in the lights, he didn’t like being seen, being looked at.  You couldn’t tell what people were thinking when they looked at you with their prying eyes.  Even the ones who smiled couldn’t be trusted it was easy to smile it meant nothing.  There was only one moment when the truth was real, when there was no subterfuge and dissembling.  That was the magic moment, that brief glimpse right down into the soul.  That was the only real truth he knew that now, had known it since he was sixteen since the first time.

 

The bouncer had finished his fag and stubbed the end out grinding it under his shoe.  He unfastened his trousers and relieved himself against the wall adding to the stink.  Once he was back inside Frankie slipped quietly passed carefully avoiding the spreading puddle that shone slightly under the security light as it trickled towards the drain.  The idle sod couldn’t even be bothered to take the few steps to the grating and pee into the sewer.

 

Not his problem, not today.  Today he had other fish to fry and he had to get a move on now it was nearly five in the morning and he had about thirty minutes walk still ahead of him down more stinking alleys and reeking back lanes.  There was rain in the air now and it felt soft, cold but gentle and pure.   He lifted his face towards the lightening sky and allowed the water to soak his skin.  It mingled with salt tears gently flowing down his cheeks.  He often cried at this point and he didn’t let it bother him.  It was reaction to the adrenalin bloodwashed through his being and it was recognition of the deep sadness that dwelt always in his soul.  Why had he been chosen, he hadn’t looked for this responsibility, he had been a quiet child and a slightly withdrawn youth but that was the only difference as far as the world was concerned.  Deep within him though was this drive to purify, to cleanse and to rid the world, as much as was possible for just one crusader, of the filth and the evil.  Born of experience and burnished by knowledge it was now his one reason to carry on.

 

He was there now and just in time, the doorway at the back of the building was open and the lights shone out down the pathway across the grave stones. The priest was on time and Frankie was pleased that the long hours of observation and surveillance had paid off.  The black cloaked figure walked away from the vicarage and towards the church.  Now in the shadow of the great edifice Frankie pounced, the knife flashed once and the gasp was low and harsh as he had expected it to be.  The blood bubbled up through the lungs and into the gullet and then was expelled out of the lying mouth as he took one more revenge and sent one more offender on the road to perdition.  He wiped the knife and wondered if he would ever be done, ever feel that he had avenged enough of them those boys, his friends the other orphans.

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I liked this

I know I am risking over exposure of this piece because I have already put it on Facebook, but you know sometimes you struggle to write anything at all and then other times the stuff falls out of your fingers in a flurry.  Well this is one of those.  I started with a pencil and notebook and so it’s like a real poem with crossings out and corrections.  Anyway, I don’t like most of my stuff and then every now and again I read something I wrote and I smile.  This made me smile

The Queen of Heaven’s Child

Tis said the Queen of heaven’s child
Was taken by a tempest wild.
In grief her eyes cried endless tears
Which fell on earth for countless years.
And so the ocean deep and wide
Swept the globe from side to side.
And under water fathoms deep
The land of all the world did sleep,
‘cept on a mountain ten miles high
A house whose chimneys touched the sky.
And there below the moulding eaves,
Resting on a bed of leaves,
The missing babe did slumber on,
Till all the life on earth was gone.
All save the wandering Albatross,
Who flew where heaving waters toss.
And when they found the missing child,
And saved him from the waters riled,
They flew on wings of grey and white,
Up into the heavenly height,
And gave the weeping queen her son,
And told her what her tears had done.
And so she bade the Albatross
To fly the oceans right across,
And beat their wings to dry the seas
From tropic sand to polar freeze.
And they must take no time to rest,
Nor make a home, nor build a nest.
So on and on and on they fly
And not until the seas are dry
And all the land is found once more
Can they rest upon the shore.
But what, you ask is their reward
For taking babies heavenward
Well, they have no need for gold
And freedom can’t be bought or sold
And so the wind, the day and night
The moon upon their wings in flight
A curious beak and flappy feet
and all the fish that they can eat.

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The Dilemma

Just another Sunday afternoon.  It isn’t though is it? This is to be THE Sunday afternoon.

Dancing rays of dust shimmer before the window, the clock ticks quietly in the corner and from the road outside come faint sounds of life.

I glance around the room, not moving my head but taking it all in.  I love this room, this house, it’s not smart but it’s clean, the furniture is an eclectic mix and so many of the pieces have memories  seeped into them.  The sideboard that belonged to Granny, the old chair that I had used to nurse the babies, back in the days when we were young and life was golden.

The dining furniture gleams and in the air is the faint scent of polish, brought out as the wood warms under the window.

I look at Bill, his head nods, eyes already closed.  The newspaper has slipped from his hands and will soon slide to the floor as it always does.  When he wakes and stands the pages will scrunch and tear and he’ll look down in surprise.  Surprise every week, and he will tut and spend the next minutes folding and flapping but it won’t work the paper will be spoiled.

I look into my heart, at what I am about to do.  I am about to tread all over the smooth pages of our lives, crease and tear at the story of our marriage and make them irreparable.  I should speak now, before he starts snoring.  I’ve delayed long enough.  I’ve promised Jim that it will be this week.  He nagged and nagged, told me that if I really love him I won’t wait any longer, I’ll tell Bill, then I will “Go Public” with our relationship, our great sin and I will pick up and pack up and go with him into an uncertain future taking my guilt and sorrow with me.

The clock chimes quietly in the corner.  The slender gold fingers glint in the sunshine, counting off the hours, the minutes until I speak and change things forever.  Beside the clock is our wedding photograph, dated now, my sparkling lace dress looking slightly ludicrous beside the one of Susan in her heavy satin bridal gown.  Just last year, one year ago this next week, the wedding where Jim touched my fingers as he passed me a glass of wine.  The warmth in his hands burning through the thin fabric of my blue, mother of the bride suit, as we danced and his whisper, his treacherous whisper slithering into my brain.

“Meet me tomorrow.  You know I’ve always fancied you, meet me by the river – please.”  And I had met him, and we had started our shameful deception and now he wants me to go and start anew with him.

Bill settles further into his chair, the cat is on his lap already sleeping.  His hair is a little dishevelled, his sweater creasing behind his back.  He sighs, a great expellation of air.  The sun slides from behind a cloud, the sudden glow lights his face.  The brightness gentles out the wrinkles for a moment he is the man in the wedding photograph, the man who carried me from the reception in his strong arms and ran to the waiting taxi, the man who was as inexperienced as I on our wedding night.  Here is the man who held my hand through the hours of labour and let the tears of joy flow unheeded when the babies were born, pink and furious and gorgeous.  Here was the man whose arms were my arbour when my sister died and whose hands held mine in the church just hours before Jim’s words crept into my head.

How strange is life.

How hard is living.

I push to the front of the chair, lean towards him.  “Bill, Bill, are you asleep?”

“Hmm, hmm what, what’s matter?”

“I just wanted to..  I needed to…”

“What’s the matter, why are you crying?”

“I just wanted to say Bill, I love you.  I love you.”

“And I love you too you silly kipper.  Oh look at the paper, look what happened.”  He glances up at me.  “Are you alright Steph? Is there something wrong?”

“No love, nothing’s wrong.  Shall I put the kettle on.”

“Yeah, go on.  I’ll just sort this paper and then later shall we walk round to Susan’s see if she’ll give her old mum and dad tea.”

“Yes, let’s, let’s do that.”

The pain is gone.  I will call Jim tomorrow and tell him, tell him that our story, Bills and mine isn’t finished yet.  I’ll tell him that I’m going to smooth out the creases.  He won’t understand but it doesn’t matter, it will stay our secret, locked away out of sight where it belongs in the darkness.

 

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Ghost Written is Kindled.

Although this hasn’t had the best reviews on Authonomy etc it is one of my favourite stories and so, taking full advantage of modern life, which means that we can publish if we believe in something the novella, Ghost Written is now available on Kindle.

Free from tomorrow for three days

Ghost Written

Amazon.com link

The cover is a picture of my father in laws squadron during the Second World War.  The book is not about him.

 

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