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…]

Balloon Science – Conclusion

balloonscience

Ben dragged his heels through the grass. It was, he was sure, a combined effect of his reluctance to be shepherded along by be-weaponed bovines and the weight of heavy thoughts. But it felt like the ground pulling at his limbs.

One of his captors chose to nudge him along with a thrust of a spear to his lower back.

Whatever form any trial took, he was convinced the sentence would be harsh. Whether he or Chloette would be able to understand it was another matter.

The Professor brushed the tips of the grass blades as she walked in front of him.

“Do you think, maybe, they want us to pay for damages?” he murmured to the back of Chloette’s head, taking care to keep his words free of rhythm so the natives wouldn’t mistake his speech for an incantation. “To their fields, I mean.”

“C’est possible.” Chloette nodded, but only turned her head far enough for a measured survey of the terrain. The Walrus had really chowed down on the ground, churning up a long narrow sea of rubble and soil across the otherwise serene savannah. “C’est possible. But what would we pay them with, hm?”

A fluffy dandelionesque seed drifted into Ben’s face, tickling his nostrils. He brushed it away quickly before it vanished up his nose. “Well, that one, um, ‘Moon Elf’ seemed pretty fired keen on some of our spare ballast. Assuming we can patch up the ship we can always load up with Moon rocks for the journey home.”

“True enough. Although I will have to assess the density and mass of locally sourced materials. And there are other factors to be calculated before we even attempt a return flight. I would not care to subject us to quite such an accelerated descent back home.” Their path crossed a bald patch in the grass. Sparse distributions of grassy clumps chomped to within an inch of their lives were all that remained as evidence that anything had ever grown in this grey bowl of dirt. Rugged and bumpy like hardened porridge, strewn with Moon rocks ranging from miniature boulders to oversized shingles, it was remarkable that any grass seeds had taken root in this stony ground. “Besides which there is much to study here and – ”

Ben stubbed a toe and stumbled over one of the Moon rocks to which his thoughts had recently referred.

He pitched forward, threw his arms out and planted a foot down to steady himself. Firm ground was firmly out of reach though.

He had taken flight.

“Huh – ?”

The throb in Ben’s big toe went quickly forgotten as he flapped his arms. His flight was that of a graceful swan struck with a poacher’s arrow. Somehow he stayed aloft.

Appreciating that his broken wings and ineffectual wings were only exacerbating his predicament, he quit flapping and surrendered to a slow spin and tumble.

His wheeling view occasionally took in upside-down glimpses of Chloette, her face an attractive picture of surprise that he might have found quite captivating if he was in any position to gaze on her for any length of time.

Unfortunately, his third or fourth glimpse of her was interrupted by the sight of a Moon Elf coming at him like some wingless bovine Pegasus. And if his similes and metaphors were a mite confused then he considered that entirely forgivable as the native barrelled into him. The collision was exactly what he’d expect from a charging bull. Not an impact he’d ever experienced but expectations of what it might be like were vivid enough and a key reason why he’d spent his life avoiding being charged by bulls.

Wingless and now windless he tumbled and rolled, now locked in unsolicited embrace with a bug-eyed Mooncow. Airborne wrestling would not take off as a sport, Ben decided, and the Moon Elf appeared to agree as it grappled him to the ground. They pitched down in grass but despite their patient descent the ground butted Ben’s back with a vigour to rival any bull.

The battering expelled the vacuum left in his lungs from the previous impact.

The cow on top of him squeezed the last remnants of life from him and he offered no resistance as he slid like a snail into hibernation.

Somewhere on the edge of a dimming universe he heard Chloette’s voice calling his name. “Ben! Ben!” She was getting closer and further away at the same time.

Vague images assaulted his dazed senses: mostly of the Moon Elf grabbing clumps of grass and stuffing them into his mouth, force-feeding him the local vegetation.

Ben assured himself it was just a random part of the dream from which he would awake in due course. Perhaps come springtime.

Yes, springtime. That would be nice.

***

Ben kicked out in panic. Jolted awake, like he’d fallen in a dream.

Phew. He’d landed on a mattress and was looking up at a bedroom ceiling. A smooth duck-egg blue ceiling with no trace of cloud.

It had all been a dream.

Falling off the Moon might’ve taken all night. If the night had chosen to entertain him with other dreams, he couldn’t recall any. Slightly disappointed that Chloette hadn’t featured, Ben sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The remains of the dream fell away in dusty flakes. He threw aside the blanket and jumped up from the mattress. Ran through a few knee-jerk and elbow-jerk stretches, then plodded to the window.

His footfalls seemed heavy, even cushioned by bedsocks. They had every day since his return to the world.

Dreams were all very well and good. But the reality of his actual journey home was not so easily rubbed from the eyes.

The window lacked for curtains to throw aside so he stood there and blinked into the early morning sunlight. Outside, Equinox and George grazed on dew-dropped lawn, near the For Sale sign Ben had hammered into the ground yesterday. The animals maintained a respectful distance from the bulk of the Walrus, parked somewhat askew across the driveway. Ben hadn’t managed to set her down inside the warehouse. Frankly it was only Chloette’s precision calculations that had delivered him to the right continent and whatever minor adjustments he’d had to make during the final approach, well, he guess he owed those to years of experience driving a wagon. But a fellow might as well harness a whale as attempt to steer a beast like the Walrus back into its kennel.

He waved to the horses and commended himself once again on the landing.

Breakfast. Then on with the day.

There was a great deal to be done. A great deal, in fact, had already been struck.

From the moment he’d regained consciousness on the Moon, events had gone surprisingly smoothly. As though the gods had buttered their feet.

But there was more steering to be done before he was properly home.

Home, as his Mum used to say in between prodding him to get out and get a job and find a place of his own, is where the heart is. Which was the reason he’d relocated here to Quatrechamps Manor.

To feel a little closer to home.

***

Tender velvet-gloved slaps had roused Ben.

A trip on the Moon could transport you far, it seemed, but being away for a while just made the return all the sweeter. Chloette leaned over him, her face shining like a bright bespectacled moon.

Ben produced a series of groggy sounds until some of them coalesced into words. “Um, how long was I out?”

“Oh, perhaps a day. Nothing more.”

He sat up so fast he almost bumped foreheads with Chloette. “A day!”

“Calme, calme. You had the wind knocked from your sails, Ben, c’est tout. I prescribed rest, but while you slept I have not been idle.”

She sat back and gestured with a sweeping arm, inviting his eyes on a slow tour of the interior of the cave.

He was in a cave. Okay, that was news.

Dim light flickered from one of the lanterns from the lounge aboard the Walrus, glinting in multiple bovine eyes. Numerous Moon-Elves had crammed themselves into this natural hovel, most of them pointing and lowing like over-stimulated cattle at a pantheon of hieroglyphics chalked on the cave walls. A few bickered over lumps of calceous Moon rock and whenever an individual won the squabble he would immediately begin adding to the hieroglyphs with his own scribbled stick figures.

Ben scanned the walls, struggling to decipher any meaning in the pictograms. Although many were a lot neater than those being scrawled right now.

“Pictures paint a thousand words, non?” Chloette flashed a smile that flickered like the lantern light. “Here, I think, we must have a few million words. And in my endeavours to establish communications I believe I have introduced the locals to ‘art’. See, they all want a turn at drawing now.”

Ben nodded slowly, encouraging comprehension to settle. “Right. So you managed to reach an understanding, then? With drawings?”

“Precisement! The art of communication.” She wagged a finger and pointed at the more sophisticated sketches. “It would appear your surmise was correct. They have very little here, as you can see, and live simple lives. So naturally they are rather fascinated by our possessions. So I have promised them more.”

“More?” Ben wondered at the Professor’s wisdom. Had she received a blow to the head while he’d been out of it? They were low on ballast at last recollection and if she intended to dupe them into believing there were more treasures in the hold, well, deceit was dangerous work.

“Yes, yes. We are short on supplies – I made certain to explain that. But I emphasised that there was always plenty more where our modest collection came from.” She indicated a circle with several landmasses mapped out within its circumference. The world, as viewed from above the sky. Some of the Moon-Elves were trying to duplicate this simple masterpiece but their freehand circles were wonkier than the coastal outlines. “It is only a matter of fetching it and delivering it here. And that, Ben, is where I would like you to come in.” Chloette tipped her head, arched an eyebrow. “You are the delivery man, are you not?”

“Um, I guess. Yes, I suppose I still am.”

“It will be tough, a great deal of work. And I must remain here.”

“What, as a hostage? No, I won’t allow – ”

A velvet-gloved finger shushed him with a gentle press to his lips. “No, no. A guarantee, of course. But I remain of my own free will. There is so much to study, so much to learn from these people – and the Moon herself, she has much to teach me.”

Ben grumbled under his breath. He would much rather be dumping the ballast and hightailing it from this blighted surface with Chloette safely aboard. The prospect, apparently to be denied him, brought to mind logistical difficulties such as how they might actually launch the Walrus without ballast, let alone achieve anything approaching a landing assuming they traversed the star-sprinkled desert between here and home.

“Listen,” said Chloette, and Ben had a feeling she was about to answer all his questions. Of course she was – she was the Professor. He believed, ultimately, she could explain anything. “It is a matter of gravity. The force of attraction possessed by any body.” Huddled so closely in this cave, Ben believed he understood perfectly. “The Moon is small, so she has little gravity, despite her other attractions. Our world is larger and rich in gravity. I am sure you feel her pull even now.” Ben had thought that was homesickness, but it made sense that there would be a scientific foundation for something so irrational. “Here, observe, the Moon-Elves are all slight of frame. An effect of minimal gravity. And as you discovered, you are capable of far greater leaps and bounds here. But what keeps them from flying away, hm?”

“Homesickness?” ventured Ben.

“Non. Grass! The grass. Moongrass possesses some form of organic force of attraction, keeping them rooted. Ruminating lends them gravity, you might say.”

Funny. Ben had never heard of greens being a key to putting on weight.

“So…” No. He didn’t have anything to add to that.

“So we have our solution to all our difficulties.”

“We do?” Ben perked up, if only because Chloette’s smile persuaded him this was his cue to perk up. “Good.”

***

Ben wandered out to the horses and interrupted their grazing. They looked a little miffed but came along passively as he led them along and harnessed them to the wagon.

He empathised some, but having been on a diet of grass for the entire journey home he was reasonably sure he would’ve welcomed a respite from feeding. Moon-grass, for all its greenness, had a sort of silvery taste. Like he was eating cutlery. And although he acquired no mass, he’d found his movements growing more sluggish and it had been increasingly difficult to haul himself out of his hammock every morning.

But there hadn’t been much to do beyond the gardening and throwing Moon rocks over the side for propulsion.

Moon-grass grew with an enthusiasm and pace not shared by most other grasses Ben had encountered. So it was a simple matter of planting seeds, nurturing them to maturity and, as the Walrus neared her destination, dining on increasing quantities of the stuff. Throughout he tried to tell himself it was as tasty as lettuce and that lettuce was something he thoroughly enjoyed.

Today, the Moon-grass effects had worn off, but he guessed his heart was a shade heavy as he hauled himself up onto the wagon and urged the horses onward with a fatigued flick of the reins. The wagon trundled past the For Sale sign. He would have to spread word about the property in town today. One of the major items on his To Do list.

Thanks to the Moon’s modest gravity, the Walrus still boasted a healthy supply of Moon rock on deck, ballast to assist the next take-off. Funds from the house sale would purchase numerous fancy items with which to delight and fascinate the Moon-Elves. Fair trade for the grass-seed and the rocks. And Ben looked forward to strolling into the office, accounting for his absence to Mr Mulbarrow and announcing that they could now include the Moon on the company’s delivery rounds.

There was one other minor item, one other minor purchase to make.

He’d dip into his own meagre savings for that one. Wouldn’t be gentlemanly at all to spend the lady’s monies on a thing such as that.

He pondered long and hard as he drove. He’d never shopped for jewellery before.

His mind, or his heart, was made up. But they’d both play games, imagining all the myriad responses he might expect from Chloette. When he showed up on the Moon and declared those four little words:

“Delivery for Professor Quatrechamps!”

A ring was a small thing. Unlikely to interfere with a balloon’s flight trajectory or whatever. But a potent disruption to the course of two lives.

Not for the first time, he wondered if his mind and his heart were mistaken in being so firmly decided to go through with this idea.

He couldn’t swear for any certainty that it was love. But it was something.

It was complicated. It wasn’t balloon science.

SAF 2015