Haven – Conclusion

paradise

Over several days, Verity grew suspicious of Norris as he seemed to emulate her in more than just attire. He took to inventory like a fish to water, absolutely thrilled to partake in the stock-take of coconuts on the trees and livestock in the rock pools. Why, he even laid out sticks on a section of beach, arranging them in columns to record daily incomings and outgoings. Food and other materials consumed, food and other materials produced.

Eventually, Verity had to conclude that he was a man after her own heart and not trying to ingratiate himself with her at all. And he did not appear to be after her, despite her strolling around in a bikini. He was simply more interested in other figures. A quality that rendered him more attractive. Until he began to complain of the heat and pared his robes down to a pair of swimming trunks. He revealed a sunken chest that even the most fearless pirates would be unlikely to seek out.

Oh well, he seemed pleasant enough. Quite shy and quiet-spoken. Only really becoming animated when discussing numbers and assessing his array of stick-fenced columns on the beach.

And they revealed a strange truth.

While Verity adjusted to the presence of Norris, the island made its own adjustments.

More fish swam in the lagoon. More shellfish congregated in the rock pools. More fruits and coconuts sprouted on the trees. Paradise had grown more bountiful to accommodate the population boom.

Well, she supposed, that was one reason to continue to call it Paradise.

One thing Norris proved was as incapable as her of construction work. Together, they did manage to whittle and craft some tools and erect a ramshackle shack. A shack which, overnight, passed from ramshackle to tumbledown.

Useless.

But Verity could hardly be mad at Norris for a gap in his skill set that she shared. They would just have to muddle on together as best they could.

They marked the passing days with their regular meetings at the beach columns, reviewing and checking the quantities and agreeing the forecast for their tomorrows, most of which would be the same as their todays.

But there was a sort of mathematical harmony to that, something they could both appreciate over a half-coconut cup of coconut milk. They made it a bit of a ritual.

Norris proposed a coconut clock. Some device that might deliver one bobbing coconut into a rock pool on every seventh incoming wave. But they agreed it probably required a greater grasp of mechanics than either of them possessed.

Besides, Paradise was running smoothly enough with their admittedly imprecise means of time-keeping.

Until Day Twelve.

Day Twelve, when another newcomer splashed down in the lagoon.

She waded ashore and introduced herself as Jennifer. She was blind as a bat and explained how her spectacles had slipped from her nose as she struck the water. Without them she looked stunning and Verity just knew that when she fashioned her black robes with silver trim into a bikini she would have a fantastic figure.

Paradise was getting crowded.

***

Lionel Follymeister knocked on the door.

The cottage looked innocuous enough. Quaint, even, with a fuller head of thatch than him. But there were reasons to be on his guard. And not only the house’s remote location in these sombre woods.

A short doughball of a man appeared at the door, ready with a congenial smile. Which he shucked like a snake shed its skin. “Oh. It’s you. I suppose you had best come in.” He wore robes of crimson and a steepled hat tall enough to warrant its own golden spire. “Wipe your feet.”

Lionel did as bidden and followed his grudging host inside. The quaint exterior gave way to dinginess and clutter. Shelves full of books, books serving as shelves. And all manner of arcane instruments and ingredients inhabited every surface. A cat curled in the dust on the mantelpiece and it raised its head to peer at the visitor. And revealed itself to be a cat composed of dust. A fact which made its gaze seem sleepier than that of most felines.

Lionel tried to ignore its disapproving scrutiny.

“Now, allow me to introduce myself – ”

“I know who you are.” The warlock bustled around an especially unruly bureau, unearthing a hefty ledger from an ancient civilisation of scrolls and other documents. “Although I’m wondering what took you so long. I received your stupid notice of inspection three months ago.”

Lionel straightened his glasses and rearranged his own robes. “Now, really, Mister Salzpfeffer, you mean to tell me you have seen no other assessors?”

“Not a blasted one.” Salzpfeffer waddled over to the nearest table as though heavy with a large meal in addition to the burden of the ledger. He swept some of the junk aside and dropped the book on the table. It puffed up cirrus of dust. “The paths through these woods are treacherous. It’s one of the reasons I live here. Tends to deter unwanted callers.”

“Right. Well, I understand your work is important and I will try to keep the duration of my stay to a minimum.” Lionel cleared his throat and advanced to the table. “But you must understand, this is a matter of law. Hexes and Magicks Revenue Collections is a serious business.”

“Bah.” Salzpfeffer stomped off to the fireplace to pet his dustkitty. “It’s a damned stupid law. Tax on magic. It’s an offence to practitioners, is what it is.”

“The law is the law. And after all, we require only a very small percentage of the magic energies expended throughout the year to be directed to the government coffers.” Lionel tapped the ledger. “Now, can I take it that these are your up to date accounts? Every spell woven, every charm and/or hex cast?”

Salzpfeffer grumbled. His dustmog growled. “I think you’ll find everything in there to your satisfaction.”

Lionel flipped open the book.

The pages were blank. The columns empty.

But as he turned leaf after leaf, searching, the paper developed an enticing blue hue. And the dust – the dust danced across the pages, circling to form an island of sand…

***

Lionel – yes, he was fairly sure his name was Lionel – flapped the voluminous sleeves of his black robes with silver trim. But they failed to keep him airborne.

He fell and fell like year-end profits in an off-season tourist spot. And hit the blue with an almighty splash.

He kicked and swam to the surface. Only to discover he could stand. The water was not nearly as deep as when he’d plunged into it.

Most strange. Where was he? He had no idea. Where had he come from? Also vague.

He waded towards the beach where a group of about a dozen people had gathered. All in black bathing costumes with silver trim.

An attractive brown-haired woman stepped forward to greet him.

“Hello. I’m Verity,” she said. “Welcome to Paradise.”

 

 

SAF 2016

Haven – Part One

paradise

Paradise was a lonely place.

Beautiful. But lonely.

Verity took strolls along the beach every day. An hour’s leisurely walk would take her full circle around the shores of the island and, if she elected to slip off her shoes, finagle soft smooth-grained sand between her toes. Which she would then wash away with a paddle in the glittering shallows of the lagoon. Every day.

At least, as far as she could estimate. There was no night and the sun never moved in the sky.

But she had a very reliable body clock and by adhering to a routine she had been able to create what could be counted as a day.

Approximately eight hours’ sleep. Then Hour One: breakfast on fruit and coconut milk. Followed by her stroll. Then two hours – or what she gauged to be two hours – of scribing in the sand, mostly drawings of the kind of shelter she would like to build for herself out of trees and foliage if she ever acquired the tools to cut them down. Then a lunchtime attempt to spear fish with a stick of bamboo she had broken off for herself that first day she had landed here.

Fishing was not always successful, not least because she had not yet sharpened her bamboo, and so she often went without lunch. But it didn’t matter as long as she devoted the same amount of time to the activity.

Whether fed or not, she would then spend three hours running inventory on the trees and bushes that covered the island interior. Then she would gather shellfish and a salty but edible weed from the rock pools and sit down to dinner. After which she would write a short story in the sand, a tale for her to read back to herself at bedtime.

Between all this and a handful of other assorted activities she had no trouble filling her time. But such days as she created still felt very empty.

Until the day the man fell from the sky.

He splashed down in the water not far from shore and she watched him flap and flounder for a bit before he realised the lagoon was only waist-deep and he could safely wade to the beach. Which he did and then stood dripping into the sand, while his black robes with silver trim hung about him, sodden and lightly adorned with seaweed.

Verity hadn’t had lunch that day and the seaweed was the edible kind. So she was sorely tempted to pick pieces off the man’s robe and snack while he dried off. But really, he might consider such an act terribly forward and she did not wish to give him the wrong impression.

He was not ugly. He possessed a rather flat, inoffensive face with a moustache that had been careful to grow only so far in order not to provoke any strong reactions either way. He seemed polite enough as he reached up to doff his hat – before discovering that he had lost his headwear in the splash down.

All the same, Verity did not wish to broker any relations beyond civility. She thought it very unfair if the gods intended this gentleman as her mate since she would much rather have been presented with a choice. Not merely handed one prospective husband from the sky and expected to make do.

“Uh, hello,” said the man. He flapped the sleeves of his robes to shake out a little excess water, then proffered a handshake.

Verity smiled and advanced close enough to shake his fingertips. “Hello,” she said. And wondered if she should add more. “I’m Verity,” she said finally – and trusted that did not sound too forward.

Honestly, she had quite forgotten all the social graces. She must have been here alone for longer than she thought.

“Ah. Verity. I’m – allow me to introduce myself – I am – that is to say – I think I am – yes, I’m reasonably sure my name is Norris.”

“Norris,” repeated Verity. “That’s so funny.”

“It is?”

“Oh, not your name. No, it’s perfectly – ” Perfectly what? Lovely? Hardly. “Fine. Perfectly fine name,” she decided. And hoped he believed her. “No, it’s only that for days and days after I arrived here, I couldn’t remember my name. Odd, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes, I should say so. Slight memory loss – from hitting the water, I suppose.”

“Hmm.”

Verity’s mind wandered on from names to the black robes with silver trim in which her castaway was attired. She was struck both by their familiarity and a sudden consciousness that she was comparatively underdressed. After days of sweltering on this well-baked island in the sun she had torn up her robes and re-fashioned them into a bikini. She glanced down at herself and it reminded her that it too was black with silver trim.

Interesting.

But if Norris thought that turning up in a matching outfit would guarantee him a mate, then he was sorely mistaken.

Still, there was no denying the simple fact that he was here. On her island. Which meant adjustments would have to be made. Adjustments to her daily timetable. Adjustments to everything.

“Well,” she said, “welcome to – ” She realised she hadn’t yet named it officially. “Paradise.” Why not? “Paradise. First of all, you’ll be wanting to dry off. And then we had better talk inventory.”

“Inventory?” said Norris.

“Yes. This is an island economy with limited produce and, between you and me, no industry. And now a population that has doubled. Also, between you and me.”

Norris appeared to enjoy the joke. “Why, I would love nothing more than to take inventory with you.”

“Whoa! Steady on there!” Verity showed him her palm.

Even in Paradise, men wanted to move too fast. She was here first and this was her island. She wasn’t about to stand for any funny business.

She turned and led the way up the beach. If nothing else, Norris might have some DIY skills and assist her in constructing a sturdy shelter.

He trudged after her, squelching and dripping, but otherwise good enough to keep quiet for now. Which was something. Because in the short space of their conversation Verity had lost all track of time.

Now she was going to have to start all over again from Hour One. Which would mean breakfasting again. This time with company.

What kind of screwy Paradise was this?

 

 

 

[To Be Concluded…]

Nechronometer – Conclusion

skullclock

Three of the clock. Too long to wait.

And furthermore it would not be enough.

Cadaverus heard the thunk of the heavy man’s steps on the stairs. Like the tock of a mahogany clock. Counting down to his doom. The big fellow with the axe, coming for him. Coming to destroy his life’s work.

No! It would not be!

Thunk. Thunk.

Two more stairs. Thunk. A third.

The house measured time. But gauges, dials, any measuring devices at all were made to be set.

Thunk. Thunk.

Man and axe. Two steps closer.

Cadaverus pulled one lever, unlocking the mechanism, then another to override the machine’s complaints. He ran to the wheel at the end of the row of levers. And grasped the crank handle. It was meant only for minor adjustments, corrections for when cogs’ teeth wore down and gears slipped and time was lost. But Cadaverus Helskur turned the wheel onward. Winding and winding as though life depended upon it. Winding, winding, winding, as though adding on years with every second.

Thunk. Thunk.

Helskur cranked the wheel round and round. Gears turned. Cogs ground their teeth.

The house struck Three. Four. Five.

Thunk. Thunk.

The house struck Six. Seven.

Thunk. Thunk. The boots on the stairs struck two more.

The clock door creaked open once, twice, thrice. Released figures onto the landing.

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiins!”

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurgh!”

“Foooooooooooooooooooooooood!”

Thunk. Thunk.

Helskur cranked and cranked. Time and the house wound on and on. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven of the clock.

Thunk.

The final footstep. The big man crested the landing. He turned to examine the suspended symbol. Weighed his axe, appraising his chances of cutting the symbol down. Then turned to face the alcove and the metal clank and clank of Helskur’s frantic cranking.

Cadaverus Helskur met the man’s gaze. But completed the final turn of the wheel.

The house struck Twelve of the clock.

Mid-day. Noon had arrived at about Three.

It was possible Helskur had damaged the mechanism. It was a calculated risk. Damage could be repaired. Whereas, once subjected to the attentions of that rusting axe blade, he could not.

He shrank into his alcove, hurting his back as he pressed against the levers. The big man advanced a single slow step. And raised his axe.

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiins!”

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurgh!”

“Foooooooooooooooooooooooood!”

“Fleeeesssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhh!”

“Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaat!”

“Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuumaaaaaan!”

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrggh!”

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiins!”

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaats!”

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiins!”

Ten pained, starved voices travelled the landing. Ten at Twelve of the clock. Noon at Three. The house was broken.

The big bald axeman turned again to face the shambling army of undead. His eyes widened as he appeared to count their number. They came as a jostling, grasping pack. Cold, hungry beggars reaching to warm their hands and hearts on human flesh.

The big man braced himself for battle.

Ferocity and fear competed in his eyes.

He was large. There was no telling how many he might cut down before he was ultimately overpowered.

That was the calculated risk.

Except Helskur could not do the calculations. He could only hang back in shadow and watch.

*

Gears turned. Cogs ground their teeth.

Away along the main landing, a door creaked open. Club-feet dragged across floorboards, one pair scraping, encased in boots of rusted steel plate. A formidable addition to the mechanism. It had been an inspired notion, to suit the big man in armour.

Although he was no longer a man. Technically speaking.

“Braaaaaaaaaiiiiiins!”

“Uuuuuuuuurrrrrgh!”

“Braaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiins!”

“Meeeeeeeeeeeeeat!”

The moans echoed around the hall and Cadaverus Helskur listened to the undead dragging their upright carcasses in their circuit of the landing.

Four.

In the end, the big man with the axe had felled four. The perfect number. The house was a very precise mechanism.

Helskur bent to his notes and scratched away with his pen. There were more modifications to be made, perfections to be perfected.

Tonight, he was determined to work long into the small hours of morning.

Undisturbed.

*

Sisily tread the boards, her stomach hollow with hunger. She delivered her monosyllabic line, over and over, drawling it out for all its worth.

It was the same show, mornings, matinees and evenings. The same part, the same line.

There were long waits in the wings. And she always followed Grievance out onto the stage. The house was their theatre, the shadows their audience.

Time marched on.

And twice daily the whole troupe appeared together.

Life after death, it turned out, was a lot like life. Just more of the same.

 

 

SAF 2016

Nechronometer – Part Five

skullclock

Livier backed up, allowing Sisily to back up further. The two undead – zombies? – was that what they were? – dragged their feet like they wore leaden slippers. But Sisily, although she glanced down, failed to register what manner of footwear they’d chosen for their nightime walk.

Zombies. Dead. Undead. Whatever they might be, they were real. And suddenly the mat at the entrance made horrible sense.

UNWELCOME.

They were coming to ungreet the uninvited guests. Coming to say their dead hellos. An unwelcome.

“Get back! Back, I say!” commanded Livier like a nervous priest.

“I am!” Sisily told him. But every time she retreated she bumped up against Livier’s midriff. And the two undead advanced, reaching, clutching, grasping. Like rotten, mouldering grandparents seeking to draw her in for an embrace. Or a foul-stenched, slippery-lipped kiss.

“Not you! Them! Those – things!”

Livier couldn’t say the word.

Zombies.

“Zombies!” Sisily hollered. Forcing the word out in a trembling scream. Making it more real for her. Real for everybody.

“What – what do we do?” Derby Brown whimpered.

A zombie lunged, swiping at Sisily’s face with an emaciated claw. Livier backed up several paces at once, snatching Sisily and pulling her back with him.

“Somebody get up those stairs!” Benevolence Wisheart strode forward, swinging one of her capacious carpet bags.

She let go at the end of a third, hefty swing and sent it flying at the lead zombie. The luggage struck it in its hollowed abdomen. It hissed through a set of teeth like lichen-clad stones in old-meat gums. And staggered under the baggage blow. Knocked its fellow creature into a backward stumble. Both somehow remained upright.

Dead things really ought to be more inclined to lie down.

“Run up those stairs and grab one of those holy symbols!”

Benevolence was right. “I’ll go,” volunteered Sisily.

The zombies steadied themselves and recommenced their advance.

“You’ll never be able to pull that down. It’s on chains,” Wallis Fringe pointed out. “Grievance! You should go.”

Grievance shot looks around the troupe. He stomped away, around the base of the bone tree – then broke off towards the left of the hall.

“What are you doing, man?” protested Wallis.

A zombie lurched forward again, arms outstretched and reaching for that fateful hug with Sisily. The other zombie, just a few paces behind, tripped over the carpet bag. It toppled, arms flailing, and dominoed into its unfriend.

The lead zombie staggered, pitching straight at Sisily. She screamed and darted aside. Its wizened hands latched onto the frilled front of Livier’s blouse. One or two rotten fingernails popped loose, but the remainder dug into the fabric.

Livier backed away and away, swatting at the hanger-on but without wanting to make any actual physical contact. Attached by its claws, the zombie was towed along by Livier’s quiversome stomach.

The second zombie steered itself towards Sisily.

Benevolence thundered in to intercept, now armed with one of the umbrellas, battered and broken by the storm, but still serviceable as a weapon. She beat at the creature with this ragged, flapping object. It appeared unbothered but the assault disrupted its plans to feast on Sisily.

It turned its arms towards its attacker. And gnashed its teeth.

A deafening clatter all but stopped Sisily’s heart. Lightning flared through the hall, but the noise was not the work of the storm. Grievance marched from the left of the hall, leaving a fallen suit of armour in his wake. But carrying the empty knight’s battleaxe.

The blade was dull and rusted. But the sight of it – the sight of Grievance – raised a cheer in Sisily’s heart.

The big man swung the axe high and, covering the distance in a few brisk strides, brought it down on Benevolence’s foe. Then he turned and headed for the one still being tugged around the hall by Livier.

Sidily screamed. Again.

She knew it wasn’t strong or independent or doing her gender proud, but she couldn’t help it. One of the few things more horrible than an undead person was the sight of a dead undead person, freshly hacked with a battleaxe. If relative shrillness of screams was any gauge, then Derby Brown was doing his gender even less proud.

Sisily shouldn’t have felt better for that. But she did. A bit.

She reined in her breathing and did her best to look anywhere but the gorier directions.

Grievance, the axe hanging in his hand, blade dripping, wandered past on a mission to the stairs.

“Grievance? Where are you going?”

As much as she didn’t wish to see the axe, she wanted Greivance close.

“Symbol,” he said. And gestured to the landing. “In case there’s any more.”

***

Damn. Damn. Damn.

Cadaverus Helskur was now doomed to face the intruders alone. Until three of the clock.

And the biggest of the unwanted guests was coming his way.

 

[To Be Concluded…]

Nechronometer – Part Four

skullclock

Cadaverus Helskur simmered in darkness. From his alcove he had a serviceable view over the main hall. And it was not a pleasing one.

These self-invited guests, these trespassers muddied and dampened his cold, inhospitable flagstones. Two of them, even now, wiped their footwear, infested with outside-matter, on his UNWELCOME rug.

The house sent the clear message from every corner. He might as well have daubed plague warnings on the doorposts and these infiltrators would have ignored the signs and traipsed in regardless.

He snarled under the next rumble of thunder. Two half-eaten figures shambled past his alcove on another circuit of the landing.

He tracked their dragging walk all the way to the end, where they locked dead gazes on the hanging holy symbol. Shying from its pious presence, they turned the corner and shuffled on their way to the next bend and the next symbol.

Helskur’s closest estimate was that they had completed fifteen circuits since setting forth. Half-past two of the clock.

Accuracy. Greater precision. That was what Helskur craved. The house was a masterpiece but it would need to measure time in finer increments if it was to be a master timepiece.

Such was the essence and thrust of his latest notes. Refinements and modifications, beyond the house striking the hours.

He had considered some provocation of the undeceased vocal cords. When first released, the uncreatures celebrated their dimly perceived freedom with their mournful, hungering song. But these two had since fallen silent, shuffling on and on, round and round in their clockwise trek.

Perhaps if the undead had moaned louder, they might have scared the unwanted back out into the arms of the storm.

But no. They remained silent as corpses.

And below in the hall the intruders intruded. Shepherded by this one female, they availed themselves of all the absence of facilities the hall provided. Setting their baggage down here and there, offloading their rain-soaked coats, tugging and kicking off their boots and unpacking their bedrolls. Making themselves right at home.

These people. Ignorant. Human. They would probably make themselves at home in a grave with no sense of the impropriety or offence.

Helskur burned.

Half past two of the clock and – he sighted the two patrollers now working their way across the opposite side of the landing – half a circuit.

Too long to wait for three of the clock. Too long to endure invaders tainting the stones and driving the chill into retreat with their warm blood and breath.

Helskur counted the humans.

Six souls.

Living outnumbered the undead by three to one.

But Helskur knew their type.

Somewhere distant, far before the house counted time, before its gears had ground through their first hour, Helskur had experienced pieces of an outside life. Society. Theatre. These humans belonged to that artistic breed. Sensitive, emotional, weak. They pretended to live. For a living. And people who had little lives paid coin to watch these people enact pretend lives. Actors. Yes, that was their breed. Pretend living. Parading the boards with as much claim to real life as the undead who toured the house every hour, on the hour.

Yes, weak. Timid of real life, they would be utterly terrified of real death.

Helskur would not, could not, wait to see them scatter and run from his house.

Bending low, he pressed himself to the wall and crept along it to the row of levers that filled the next alcove.

He pulled on one of the levers. Mechanisms clanked and grated. Time protesting the change.

The holy symbol of Meloch travelled the ceiling rail, clattering like a train, from the corner of the landing to the head of the stairs.

Down in the hall, the troupe of the pretend living looked up, anxious and alarmed by the mechanical noises.

The symbol locked into place with a slight bump and swung like a deadened wind chime. Mute and musicless.

Lightning ignited the landing. Just as the two undead shambled towards the symbol. Confronted with its divine radiance, they turned and trudged down the stairs.

*

Sisily gasped. After calling out for anyone at home, the sight of the two figures descending the stairs was unexpected and strangely disconcerting.

She realised she’d much preferred seeing them up on the landing. The holy symbol’s sudden movement had startled her and her friends. Perhaps it had also startled these two in their sleepwalk.

They stared. Eyes wide open but devoid of life. Blind? Maybe that was why they held their arms outstretched before them as they trudged down the steps. One by one. By one. By one.

Sisily backed up – into Livier.

And in the next flare of lightning she saw the decayed grins of the two somnambulists.

Sisily stared, helpless, at the remnant flesh clinging to the skulls of the shambling figures. They stared back. And their lifeless eyes seemed to see her well enough.

They advanced on the troupe, rotten hands clutching and grasping.

Livier screamed a shrill womanly scream.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Nechronometer – Part Three

skullclock

Lightning scratched every surface with silver fingernails. Sisily’s heart skipped a beat, but it was the shadows that jumped. They dashed to the deepest corners. Although they returned quickly enough. This house belonged to them and they would not be driven away for long.

She hummed to herself. An inoffensive ditty she recalled from some show she couldn’t remember. Nothing loud or emphatic enough to disturb the hosts.

She searched the landing for any signs of the movement she’d thought she’d glimpsed before. But the gallery was too broad a circle, ringing the entire hall. And the lightning scratches were too brief. She had to peer at one specific arc of landing at a time.

Sisily shook her head. Why trouble herself? If there were anyone wandering around up there, then surely they would have seen and heard the arrivals. Once again, she nibbled her lip and fretted about the damage Grievance had done to the door. The man had been drenched and frustrated and his massive frame caged a terrible temper.

Never mind, she told herself. We’ll leave what we can for the damages. And perhaps she should write a small note of apology. Not to mention make sure the troupe were all on their best behaviour while sheltering here overnight.

Behind her, fuss and fluster filled the doorway as a handful of normally exuberant and colourful egos dragged themselves and their baggage in out of the storm. The exuberance and colour was heavily diluted under a layer of damp and sodden clothing and they quarrelled over who should enter first.

Eventually, chivalry won, with Livier Revoir claiming ladies before gentlemen and reminding everyone of his various tour-de-force performances as the leading lady in all their plays. Clustering in his impressive wake came scrawny Derby Brown, pecking at the air like a nervous chicken; Benevolence Wisheart, their grand old dame of stone, living proof that one could grow to resemble a gargoyle and yet retain a kindly disposition; young Wallis Fringe, with his handsomeness that was never dashing, but rather just sat around and posed on his face. He flicked his rebellious hair out of his eyes and curdled his creamy-smooth features in disgust as he was confronted by their prospective lodgings. Finally, Grievance tramped inside, depositing the last of the bags on the UNWELCOME mat.

“Lords and saints preserve us from this filthy night!” implored Livier. Loud enough for the shadows at the very back to hear – and possibly enough to make them flinch. “What manner of stage have you brought us to, Sisily, darling?”

Grievance nudged Livier aside and grabbed the hat stand, which he then proceeded to re-purpose as a bar to brace the broken door closed. It worked – just. Although the storm hissed and spat breezes through the gaps.

“Please, Livier, do try to be nice about the house. This is someone’s home and we are all guests.”

Benevolence’s point was well made but invoked only a puff from Livier.

“Uninvited guests at that,” added Sisily.

“Uninvited, but not unwelcome, I am sure,” argued Livier. He hadn’t looked down at the mat yet. He rubbed his hands vigorously, warming them before dipping into his pockets for one of his hip-flasks. A generous swig and his spirits were restored. “Look at the place. Lit like a church, holy symbols hanging hither and thither. Why, our host must be a religious and highly charitable sort. Hallooooooooooooo!” he called out, as though yodelling from the highest peak. “I shall gladly shake him by the hand, once my own have been sufficiently warmed over a crackling hearth.”

“Good luck finding one of those,” said Wallis. “At best we may find a crumbling one.”

“Nonsense, my boy. Now, let us away to our rooms. I may require some assistance lighting my fire, but I’m sure we will find a hearth in every chamber.”

He strode towards the staircase.

“No, Livier, wait. I – ” Sisily trotted after their leading lady and arrested him with a hand on his arm. “The thing is, I promised our host – assuming he heard me – that we would be no imposition. That we would bed down here in the hall. Think of it. All the charm and adventure of camping without the need to be outdoors. It’ll be fun.”

“Fun?” Livier appeared horrified. “And what, pray, are we to warm ourselves over? My bones are soaked.” In line with his organs, Sisily didn’t wonder.

“Why, with modest tipples and fireside tales. Without the fireside.” She applied gentle pressure, attempting to guide him away from the stairs and any idea of claiming a bedroom.

He gazed forlornly aloft, fixated on the landing like a child mourning a lost kite stuck in a tree.

“Oh,” he said, all of a sudden. Lightning flashed and a smile lit his face. He waved. “Halloooooooooo!”

Sisily glanced.

In the last slice of vanished lightning, she spied her moving shadows. Two figures in slow procession along the landing, their arms oddly outstretched.

Sleepwalkers? she wondered.

And instantly doubted herself. As well as Grievance’s wisdom in barring the front door.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Nechronometer – Part Two

skullclock

The storm blew in with them, coughing wind and wet over the heavy rug. Hood drooped over her face, Sisily cast her gaze down at the pitch-black letters seared into the mat:

UNWELCOME

A message for all and sundry, not only for strangers seeking shelter from an ill-tempered night. She flipped her hood back and scanned the hall for clues to the sort of host who would greet all visitors in such a manner.

The room spoke grave volumes with its voice of stone and shadows and its heart-stopping centrepiece.

A tree of bone in a hall of decay.

Branches, some blanched ivory, others yellowed or sharp-splintered, others still caked in cemetery dirt, rose in a knobble-jointed tangle to the high, hollow vaults of the ceiling. They clutched at the rotting rafters.

Banisters flanked the staircase and lined the landing like broken wooden teeth. Suits of rusted armour stood sentinel in alcoves. Pictures hung on panels, paint surrendering to cankerous moulds, portraits of ancient men and women riddled with smallpox, courtesy of armies of creative woodworm.

Sisily shivered. The damp and blowing wind at her back suddenly seemed quite warm. Her company had chanced upon the wrong port in this storm.

“I think we had best leave,” she said to the man loitering beside her. He was built like a wall and could’ve provided shelter singlehanded if positioned better. His fists had taken care of the mansion’s door and Sisily felt bad about that – until she had seen the interior. “We’ll have a bit of a whip-round and leave some coin for the damages.”

“Place looks deserted, if you ask me.”

“I’m not so sure.”

When every recess and cranny housed the promise of a ghost, a property did not deserve the title of ‘deserted’. Abandoned, perhaps. Sisily hoped they would be abandoning it shortly. Even the drafts seemed to chase and flap around in a panic like trapped birds hunting for the way out. She empathised.

“I’ll tell the others we’re moving on. They won’t like it.”

“Thank you, Grievance.”

They would not like it one bit. The wheel on their company’s carriage had surrendered to a pot hole and they were on foot. With no sight of another house within the next mile.

Grievance moved and for the briefest of moments his bulk blocked out the worst of the storm’s breath.

A fleeting spell of illusory warmth mingled with regret at having to leave the prospect of even this gloomiest of shelters.

Sisily half-turned. And glimpsed a movement up on the landing. Where some of the darkest shadows roosted. But also where lightning flashed and set something shimmering.

“Grievance,” she called. “Wait.”

It didn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, but she wanted to see it again. Grievance planted himself to her left and watched with her, without any idea of what she had seen.

Together they waited out the thunder rumble. Together they waited out the silence. Together they fixed searching gazes in similar directions as the lighting flared again.

There!

Shining gold.

The Holy Symbol of Meloch dangled like a large pendant over one corner of the landing. It twirled in the draft. Unbidden, Sisily’s eyes flicked to the opposite corner. The storm stole away the lightning, ever so miserly with its illumination, but she could swear she saw another symbol. Something – a shape – hung in approximately the equivalent position in that corner in any case. The very next stab of lightning confirmed it as another symbol of Meloch.

“Implies the owner’s a religious sort.”

Sisily nodded. “I know. It’s not great news.” Her company were an uncouth lot, too fond of strong liquor and colourful language. They had been thrown out of temple festivals for staging impious and improper plays. But if a devout follower of Meloch abided here and could be persuaded to let them weather a single night under his or her roof, Sisily was sure her troupe of players could stomach a priestly host for so short a time. If their host preached unduly at them, why, they could simply smile and nod and down another snifter of the good stuff.

“Tell them we’ll stay. Fetch them in.”

“Righto.” Grievance shambled outside.

“Hullo? Hullo there? Cooooooooeeeeeeeee!” Sisily called to the remotest wings of the house. “Listen, we’re in a fix! We only wish to hole up for the night! It’s hellish out there! We have bedrolls! So we can doss down in your hall if that’s okay! We’ll be perfectly comfortable!”

The holy symbols flashed again in the lightning. An answering welcome of sorts.

True, the UNWELCOME mat and the tree of bone – and a good many other qualities besides – argued to the contrary. But perhaps the bones were some memorial to family ancestors. And the mat – well, perhaps a side-effect of a more recent family bereavement. And it was entirely understandable for anyone to shun company under such circumstances.

Whatever the case, the house felt safer and a bit – a tiny bit – more inviting with the serene benevolence of Meloch to watch over them.

A passable sanctuary, Sisily hoped.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

The Princess And The Flea – Part One

PrincessViola

“Your Highness, Your Highness, let down your hair!”

Leo looked up at the tower, searching for signs of life in the lone, lofty window just below the parapet. He half-hoped to find nobody at home, what with feeling a touch silly reciting such lines. Honestly, the ritualistic drivel one had to spout in the interests of heroism and adventure… Well, it beggared belief.

The window gazed down on him, unblinking. Behind him, Zephyr stamped fresh impatient hoofprints in the lawn.

Leo sighed. Here we go again. “Your Highness, Your Highness, let down your hair.”

Open sesame, he tossed in as an afterthought. No stir, no motion, no shadow above the sill.

Zephyr snorted. Leo fired the horse a sympathetic glance. “One more try, girl, and then we shall depart.”

He began to suspect the gravel-bearded fellow in the tavern had thrown him a false ball of yarn. The man had spun his tale with conviction and had gained nothing but the cost of an ale for his information. So if he were a confidence trickster, he was not in it for the money. The tower and gardens were just as he had described: clean, lichenless stone needling a tapestry of low cloud; shrubs and bushes pared back to allow the lawns breathing room and nothing overgrown. The man had confessed to having laboured here as gardener for a month or so. Now, Leo could’ve wished he had slackened off the job and left some helpful climbing plants clinging to the sides of the tower.

But no.

“Your Highness, Your Highness, let down your hair.”

There was another possibility, of course.

Leo De Lacey had encountered his share of princesses and more than several who liked to keep gentlemen waiting. Some barely deserved the title of Highness. At least this one, if she were real and in residence, earned herself that much from the altitude of her lodgings alone.

Leo counted to five, then walked over t take hold of Zephyr’s reins.

“Oh! Hello! Sorry, I was – !”

Leo halted. He patted his horse’s neck before about-facing and peering up at the window. Which was now occupied by a pretty head and shoulders. A head, he was quick to note, that sported a decidedly clipped coiffure. The lawn underfoot had not been mown more thoroughly.

Leo’s moustache twitched involuntarily. But with his Musketeer’s resolve, he demoted surprise to the rank and file and accorded the princess a bow, complete with a full doffing of his plumed hat.

“Your Highness.” He supposed in light of her shorn scalp he had best switch to an unscripted approach. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Leopold De Lacey, Captain of the Mayoral Musketeers of the city of Tortenschloss. And I am here to rescue you.”

“Me? Really?” The royal cheeks flushed a warm pink and she giggled. She massaged random patches of what little hair she possessed, as though suddenly self-conscious. “That’s very kind of you. But I’m afraid someone may have misled you slightly. Particularly on that bit about – what was it? – well, you know, all that funny stuff about letting down hair.”

Ah, so she had heard that well enough. Wonderful. “Forgive me, I was informed there was a princess here in this very tower, that she was blessed with the most glorious long hair and that she was in need of aid. I am, in addition to a soldier, an adventurer, you see, and it would not be in my nature to disregard such information.”

“Oh yes, yes, yes.” She shone a smile down on him. “I quite understand. But it’s Princess Viola you want. I’m only her maidservant.” The girl waved. “Tisha. Pleased to meet you< Leopold De Lacey.”

“And likewise, Miss Tisha.” Leo stroked his moustache. For reasons best known to itself, it still possessed an impulse to twitch. “And could Princess Viola be enticed to let down her hair then? Otherwise, I see little chance of my climbing to her aid.”

Tisha giggled. She clamped a hand over her mouth, settling her attack of the humours. “Oh no, I shouldn’t think so. No. She’s – she’s extremely precious about her – hair.”

“I – see.”

Leo scanned the grounds. He supposed he might amass sticks and shrubbery, pile them at the base of the tower. Perhaps hope to find hand holds higher up the tower wall. Given the smoothness of construction within eyeshot he would likely have to collect a lot of materials.

“Oh, don’t worry! I’ll think of something. Oh, yes, wait, I’ll let down some string. We have oodles of string.”

“Um?” said Leo, but the girl vanished from the window. Probably for the best, because he found he had a few too many questions.

The ensuing quiet stretched and stretched. To the extent that Leo wondered if it might solidify somehow and he might be able to climb that.

“Hello?” he called up.

“Sorry! Just making sure the knots are secure! There we are!”

Tisha’s face reappeared at the window and she tossed out a length of string. Followed swiftly by more and more. Most of it was colourful – gold, silvers, reds, pinks, yellows, greens. Fancy.

And firm. Leo tugged at the line as soon as it dangled within reach. Thick, fat rope would have filled him with greater confidence, but the line proved resistant to the heaviest of pulls. He shrugged and fired a potential farewell glance at Zephyr.

“If you must break,” he told the string of strings, “sooner would be best.”

Planting boot against wall, he started to climb.

Hand over hand, he could scarcely feel the slender string in his gloved grip, but the knots held fast. With effort of will, he demoted his unease back to the ranks alongside his earlier surprise and pressed on with his ascent. His sheathed sabre swung and batted the stone occasionally. He idly wondered to what the maid had anchored this line, but reasoned that, string willing, he would discover that soon enough.

Perhaps sooner than expected. When he eventually allowed himself to look up, he found he had only a few more feet to go. The window sill seemed to gesture like a broad beckoning hand, encouraging him to come on, come on.

A face leaned out over the edge. Watching his progress with wide, fascinated and slightly affronted eyes. Owlish ears, puffs of tawny and snowy fur, a tiny chocolate-orange button nose that helped complete an expression perfectly poised between inquisitive and indignant.

“Viola,” called Tisha, “come in from there.”

Turning, Princess Viola swished a bushy tail of black and tan and disappeared inside.

On this Highness, Leo had apparently failed to make a good first impression.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

 

Conjured

harpypic

WHOOSH!

Light. Soaring blue. Splashes of green.

Wooded grove. Leaf-carpeted floor.

Spilled blood rains in all directions. Swords clang on breastplates. Murderous yells war with tortured screams.

This is the world that rushes to meet me. There in my first blink my vision is assaulted and overwhelmed. Senses reel like the sky above. It’s all a bit dizzy-making and yet, through the confusion, I understand my purpose.

Battle.

First things first: to tell allies from enemies. Friends from foes.

The ugly ones, I’m thinking, are the bad guys. Also, they smell bad. They snort and growl as they swing their axes and mist the forest with the stench of clogged drainpipes. Mulch and dead things lodged in their porcine nostrils or stuck between their gnarled ebony tusks.

I swoop like a winged bolt at their chieftain. At least, I presume his feather-and-mammoth-hair crested helmet signifies leadership status.

Unimportant. Details, details. Push them to the back of my mind as I dive at his squinty pig-eyes and dig in with my talons.

He squeals and stamps about, flails with his battleaxe and buries its blade in the shoulder of his nearest comrade.

I flap away, climb and spin. Seeking out my next target.

Below, my allies press their attack.

Their captain, a warrior, all cut and thrust and long black hair. His sword razors through the chaos of foes, unleashes a fountain of enemy blood on his black leathers and shiny breastplate. The spray shares itself freely. Left, speckling the gladiator. Bronze-skinned and bronze-helmed, he twirls a spear like a parade baton, casts a net and drives the speartip deep into his struggling catch. The spray splatters right too, showering the Merman, with his seaweed beard and fishscale armour. He lifts a flailing, squealing foe on the prongs of his trident.

Behind them, safe from the blood and gore, a purple-coated gentleman dances and reels and gambols. A bard, surprisingly spry for a man of such well-wintered hair, he pulls on the strings of his lute like many triggers on one gun, firing discordant musics into the enemy ranks. Disoriented, they swing their weapons to this anti-rhythm, their strikes missing by similar margins to the notes.

And there, to the very rear of this party of heroes, stands the druid. My master. I know him without knowing his name. There is a bond between us, invisible like the force between archer’s bow and loosed arrow. I am anchored somehow to this man’s will. Propelled on a wave of his thoughts. This unassuming mouse-haired youth with no colour to his cheeks and a chin that has sown some seeds of a beard.

There, he directs me. My next target.

I whirl. I dive. I screech. It is a shrill, drilling sound, strikes the enemy full in the faces like a storm of panic. So I do it again. To lesser effect this second time, but still enjoyable.

I rip into their midst. I am a rag in a violent wind, fringed with claws. I peck and snap and bite. Sink my fangs into an exposed snout. Taste fatty blood before I flap aside. My bite victim drops his axe to clasp two gauntleted paws over his bleeding proboscis. I leave him to his pains and my allies and flit to my next target.

“SLAY THAT THING!”

The order is a ferocious roar. I search about for the roarer, but it doesn’t occur that the ‘thing’ is me – until bolt after bolt whistles my way. Flocks of bolts, trying to stab and peck me out of the air. I dance and dip and dodge. To the disordered beat of the bard’s tuneless tune. I screech.

And dive into the attack.

At the crossbows. At the pig-visaged crossbowyers reloading their weapons.

My friends – my allies – chop and charge and forge their way through the front ranks. Carving a path through armoured meat. Fat fingers fumble at crossbows but two – three – swing weapons up and let fly. Here they come! Dip, dodge!

Screech!

A barbed bolt clips my right wing. My dive breaks into a spin. The world turns. Fast.

I fall. Tumble into the thick of the enemy. I scratch and claw. I lash out and dig in with talons. Blades and fists slash at me. I sink in a crush of enemies, all fighting for a final, fatal handhold around my throat.

Trident prongs jut through a nearby chest. The enemy buckles backwards, grasping uselessly. A net snares another two, drags them clear of me. A longsword chops at legs, fells two enemies like fat trees.

My friends, my allies. To my rescue.

I drop to the ground. Land on my feet.

I preen. Test my wounded wing with my tongue. It’s not mortal. I will live.

I look up, searching for my master.

I –

No green. No blue. Darkness.

 

***

“What in seven hells was that thing?” grouched Hamilkar. He couldn’t help it. His gravel-lined throat made his every utterance sound grouchy.

“An Imp-Eagle,” Eldermead the Druid informed his captain.

“Impeagle?” asked Mistlethwaite, perhaps wondering how to fit that into his ballad of this minor battle.

“Imp-Eagle,” repeated Eldermead with appropriate emphasis. “Very handy in a pinch.”

“Not bad. Bought us a distraction or two anyway.” Hamilkar snatched up a clump of grass and wiped his sword. He stooped to search the corpse of the Chieftain. “Anyway, chalk up another win for the good guys. One more dead tyrant.”

“Indeed,” said Eldermead.

Tyrants. Terrible sorts. Always using innocent creatures for their own gain.

Thank heavens, he thought, for us good guys. And wished he could clear his conscience as easily as Hamilkar cleaned his blade.

Next time he summoned an Imp-Eagle – or any creature – he promised himself he would at least give it a name.

 

SAF 2016

Game Of Scones – Part One

gameofscones

Granvil Sourcrust pounded on his latest baby with flour-dusted knuckles. Grabbed it up and flung it around, then slapped it down on the bench and resumed the beating.

Had the dough been an enemy prisoner in a castle dungeon it would’ve betrayed its kingdom by now, declared its gods false and sold its family to spare itself further punishment. Assuming it had breath left to speak.

There was such a thing, thought Mythany, as kneading something too much. But voicing her opinion on Granvil’s methods was one sure way to get a rise out of him. He was the boss. He was the Pastryarch.

She was only his daughter.

People always made her day when they told her how she was the spitting image of her mother. But mum had left her in father’s care and it worried her that might have abandoned her to one inevitable outcome. Every day he instilled in her some new facet of the trade. Was he also training her to be more like him? Shaping her like that ball of dough?

His blood was up, damsoning his cheeks. And even the wart bulging beside his right ear purpled like a ripe plum. Almost a perfect match for the emblem on his otherwise pristine chef’s surcoat: the family crest of a thumb, sticking up from a pie dish and tipped with a juicy plum. A symbol intended as a guarantor of the customer’s approval on finding the fresh fruits with which his pies and pastries usually overflowed. But to Mythany, often as not, it looked like the result of a clumsy carpenter’s accident with a hammer. She imagined the plum throbbing, much as her father’s veins did now. Mythany’s breast-pocket sported an identical badge, but her hat, currently crumpled on her head like a cloth meringue, was plain white. Crowns were the birthright of kings, her father always said, but a hat with the family sigil had to be earned.

He grinned now, loving his craft with abandon. But his bad teeth, like a crude stone hedgerow cobbled together in a rush, painted a fierce expression. As though he enjoyed the violence. As though, maybe, he imagined he was hammering out some picture of the ‘Old Woman’ he’d glimpsed in the dough. As though his business was revenge, not bakery.

Mythany observed him in action. Studying as closely as she dared. Flinching at the heftiest thumps, when blizzards of flour would blast her eyes and powder her shoulders. If not for the hat, it wouldn’t take long for this business to turn her hair white. It amused her, the idea of the hat as protection against such a symptom of premature ageing. Because when she donned it in the morning and adjusted its set for the day’s work ahead, the mirror added a handful of years to her reflection and showed her a grown woman.

The hat, in that sense, was an enchanted item that worked its magic in two directions at once.

Done with his victim, Granvil flopped the limp remains onto the bench and grabbed the rolling pin. Which he immediately thrust at Mythany. “Here,” he puffed and wiped a sleeve across his sweaty chin. His pudgy nose was swollen on the inside – inflated sinuses, he claimed – and he was always short of air, even without the exertion. “Roll it out. Eighth of an inch.” He gestured at the assortment of pastry cutters, jumbled in the tray at the end of the bench. “Cut it into six-inch circles. Twelve perfect circles, we’ll want.”

Laboured words, struggling breaths. The combination was all it took to render such a big man fragile. Fear melted into feeling sorry for him and she accepted the roller with a dutiful nod and a kindly smile.

“That’s my girl,” he said. And lumbered off like a hippo with a bad hip, heading for the larder. “Need to fetch the fruit. Eggs and milk for the custard. What else, what else…”

Mythany listened to his mutterings fading beyond the larder door as she dusted her hands and coated the roller with flour. She rested the rolling pin atop the dough, flattened her palms over the handles and pushed. Firm, but gentle. Conscious of the bruising it had received, she was convinced she could coax more co-operation out of it with tender pressures. If she managed to create those circles to father’s precise specifications, he might – he just might – allow her to apply the fillings. And in – what? – a month or six, perhaps, she might advance to the folding and crimping.

Granvil Sourcrust’s Fruit-and-Custard Crescent-Moon Pasties were his premium speciality. A host of house specialities lined the shelves in the shop like a colourful sweet-and-savoury pageant, fondant flags and batter buntings. Wafting delicious drafts through the doorway and singing like sirens of smell, drawing unsuspecting passers-by onto the rock-cakes and other heavenly fates. But the Crescent-Moon Pasties were the princes among his signature treats, assured of his personal touch at every stage.

Although only the other day Mythany swore she’d heard him saying to Mrs Pillory, dropping in to pick up an order for her annual Women’s Association banquet, ‘almost every stage’. Acknowledging her so far minor contributions, such as beating the eggs, sprinkling the icing sugar and, most of all, washing the bowls and pastry cutters and so on. And today, the rolling out the pastry.

She wondered if her promotion might come sooner than she’d thought. And she wondered why. She shot a puzzled glance over her shoulder towards the larder.

Her father had fallen awfully quiet.

Mythany knew he could be very picky over the fruits, but he wasn’t normally gone this long. In any case, his mutterings by now ought to have evolved into the humming of random tunes. Usually a catchy ditty caught from one of the bards and buskers who would station themselves outside the shop in hopes of receiving a rejected pastry as a free lunch. But all she could hear were the murmured conversations of staff and customers out in the shop.

“Father?”

The larder doorway merely gaped emptily, a rectangular mouth frozen in surprise.

Or fear.

Then came a heart-stopping crash.

Unholy clatter like the roof caving in, but Mythany knew it was collapsing shelves and something hitting the floor. Something heavy.

Something that set her running.

Between the abandoned dough and the larder doorway, she pictured the disaster scene a hundred times. But the sight, when she burst in on it, dropped her to her knees.

Inheritance struck like a bolt through the heart.

[To Be Continued…]