The Little Drummer Boy

She wandered about the house, idly fluffing tinsel and blowing off stray glitter. The tree twinkled in the window and she paused a moment, pondering. Her mother had always told her never to put her tree in the window; ‘It’s just showing off… a lack of taste. It attracts the wrong sort’. She’d never been very specific on that point, but her tone was the one reserved for those who had the audacity to rise out of the ‘normal’ pile. For years Mari had followed the tradition, bound on all sides by many of her mother’s pretensions wrapped in adages. This year was different and she had to admit, it was mostly because she was bored rigid.

In the last few days before Yule she would usually be baking frantically, the kitchen a dumping ground for every conceivable mince pie variation, pudding concoction and cake experiment she could get her spoon into. Not this year, not with her very own conception cooking and due out of the oven before the New Year. She wasn’t a weakling, terrified to move in case it damaged the sleeping babe; she was simply exhausted.

Instead she had ended up decorating the house with the same dedication she gave her baking and there was barely a space free of glitz and holly, sparkle and mistletoe. She’d spent a couple of days shifting the tree around until some spark of rebellion, a need to start anew with the new life, placed it firmly in the large bay window of the front room.

Gazing at the slightly drunken fairy, seemingly uncomfortably pinioned aloft, Mari heard a thunk. She turned, trying to locate the sound and had to steady herself on a chair back, her girth unsettling her balance. Silence settled firmly over everything and she took to pacing through the ground floor once more.

She still wasn’t quite used to her childhood home suddenly becoming her domain. It had always been ruled by the iron will of her mother. Shoes off the second you came through the door and stood on the mat. Elbows off the table. Bed made before you were even dressed. No boys brought home. All dates inspected during a ‘tea’ for said purpose. So many other rules that Mari had spent her youth creeping from foot to foot, almost silent and dateless because she couldn’t face putting any boy through the ordeal of ‘tea’.

When her mother had suddenly announced, Mari at the start of her 7th month, that she was going to live with her sister, Maud, in California, there had been a long moment of speechlessness. Gladys had then informed her daughter that the house was hers to caretake until Gladys died; then it would be hers alone, mortgage free. Inside two weeks, Mari was installed and Gladys was a ghost under the Cali sun.

Mari desperately wanted to change the furniture, but so far had managed only to rip off all the plastic protectors. She still fought the urge to instantly make beds and dust constantly, but chances were that would fade when baby arrived and she had no time for such nonsense. On which thought she trekked upstairs, shoved open what had once been the door to her bedroom and surveyed the nursery she had created.

Art school had been the saving of Mari. Away from home, with no restrictions, she had spent the first three months drinking, partying and saying yes to any boy who looked in her direction. Joel had been her salvation. One of the ‘catches’ in her year, his art was of the sublime to look at, impossible to understand school and it was rumoured he was already on several shortlists for patrons and awards. He turned up at Mari’s flat one day, dragged her hungover form to a greasy spoon and shoved a full English and copious amounts of coffee into her.

Whilst he fork-fed her eggs and tilted coffee over her lips, he’d berated her for wasting her prodigious talent, told her he wasn’t going to let her do so any more and set her straight on a few realities she wasn’t sober enough or honest enough to face alone. By the time she left the school she had a job with a very exclusive interior designer who adored her fresh ideas, and she was married to Joel, living with him in an exquisite penthouse in one of the nicer parts of the city.

Now there was a mini them, due as close to Yule and a new year, new life mentality as they could manage, given the vagaries of conception. They’d agreed to stay in the house, give up the flat to save money for baby and nappies and college, but Joel couldn’t get away from his final commission before the holidays; an unfinished mural in a church at Christmas wasn’t really the thing. She hadn’t minded, pouring her efforts into the nursery which exuded warmth and light, colour and impatience as she leaned on the door frame. The only room she’d dared change so far.

She dropped wearily into the rocking chair, set within easy reach of the yellow robed cot, and let the wealth of cushions pillow her aching back. The walls were a riot of fluffy animals, fairies, gnomes, abundant trees and innumerable flowers all laced together with sparkling streams, achieved with subtle applications of glitter. The window blinds were blue with a blazing sun for daytime and deepest midnight bedecked with stars for sleepy times.

Mari felt herself drifting to sleep, which often happened as soon as she sat down. Her eyes flicked open on hearing a thud, followed by two more. Probably Maisy, next-door’s cat who liked to try all the windows in case she could sneak in and sleep in the washing basket. Her eyes slid shut. Thud. Thud thud thud.

She shoved herself out of the chair with an effort and crossed to the door, looking along the length of the hall toward the airing cupboard. Thud thud. Thud thud thud. Mari felt there was almost a rhythm to the sounds. Daft cat was probably stuck. The sounds returned again and again, varying the beats, but becoming steadily louder, insistent.

Finding no cat on her upstairs tour, Mari set off downstairs. She slipped on the fourth stair from the bottom, felt her heart stop as she began to fall and grabbed frantically for the bannister. She achieved a less than graceful descent onto her behind, landing with a jarring bump, but no obvious damage. Having barely managed the process of hauling herself back up, she slumped into the front room and dropped onto the sofa. Staring at the tree in the bay window, listening to the thumps, now in a constant pattern – Parrupapumpum, ruppa pum pum, ruppa pum pum, she sighed.

With no energy to search for the cat she shuffled her phone off the table and considered dialling Anne, her neighbour who was on standby. Whilst pondering if it was worth sending Anne into a panic she noted the picture on the opposite wall jump slightly. A terrible print of some bluebell wood, it bounced out, a good inch off the wall, settled again. The phone forgotten in her hand, Mari watched the picture dance two, three times more and then bounce straight off its hook, clattering to the floor.

Could the cat be stuck inside the walls? Was it, gods forbid, a rat? The thumping was definitely louder. Perhaps a pipe having problems in the freezing cold? About to lever herself to her feet, she dropped the phone and gasped as pain shot across her stomach, tensed her body and then dropped her back to the sofa, exhausted. ‘Not now, no, not now’ she muttered; ‘Not until Joel gets back, please’.

Staring at the lighter patch on the wall she rode out three more waves of pain which seemed to resonate with the thumping in the walls. Phone! Get Anne! Ring Joel. Parrupapumpum. Pain. Tense, relax, breathe. Breathe like the midwife taught. Ruppapumpum, ruppapumpum.

The wall began to move. Gods, let it be some delirium caused by the pain. Breathe. Parrupapumpum. Breathe. Phone. It had slid into the bay, fairy lights twinkling on its mute screen. She couldn’t get up, couldn’t reach. Pain.

The wall pressed outward. Hands. A face. Moulded in unfaded wallpaper. Parapapumpum, ruppapumpum, ruppapumpum. Breathe like the… breathing with the drumming, breathing through the pain, watching the face in the wall. Watching it burst through.

Figures began to stream through the room, dancing, singing, piping, drumming. Wings fluttered, voices sang in dulcet melodies. The air shimmered, sparkled, showed light and laughter. A man and woman, waltzed in the centre of the maelstrom, diadems on their brows. They halted for the most minute moment at Mari’s sofa, smiled, blew kisses, spoke blessings on mother and child before whirling away in scents of pine, holly, mistletoe and fresh snow. They swept through the room, passed through the tree in the window causing its lights to shake and jitter and vanished.

In the sudden silence Mari, stunned into forgetfulness of her pain, heard one final sound; the panting of someone running to catch up. A young boy burst from the wall, his drum bouncing wildly off his chest, eyes wide. Mari pointed to the tree and he fled after his troup. Reaching the tree, he looked back, looked down.

‘My phone’ Mari managed as another wave took her.

Confused for a moment, looking about, the child caught her gaze, directed at the phone and picked it up. Hesitant, he stepped lightly to her, his drum beating a faint tattoo on his chest as he moved, and dropped the phone into her open hand.

‘Thank you’ she murmured.

He smiled, gently beat out a final ruppapumpum and then set his drum and sticks under the tree before disappearing into the lights.

As Mari called up Anne’s number she smiled at the tree in the window;

‘Mum, I reckon you were wrong. Trees in windows attract just the right sort.”

My favourite version of the song

 

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Ponyhenge

In a group I belong to someone posted this wonderful news piece. I instantly had this story in my head and I pass it on to you. Ponyhenge link

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Troy shifted in the long grass, shading his eyes against the crystal bright glare of the summer sky. The sun poured liquid gold over the field where he lay, his nose wriggling and twitching from the drifting hay dust. This was his favourite week of the year. The workers had been out, the field scythed, the hay bundled and stacked into towering mounds to the accompaniment of baling songs, laughing children and the scent of the first barrel of apple cider. Now the world lay still, only the shifting, whirling eddies of seeds and dust occasionally causing ripples of animation.

Yes, this was the best time. No school, no having to watch Cassie – his mother had taken his sister to stay with Aunt Gracey for the duration of harvest – and a mountain range of cut stalks in pillowy, prickly landscapes for him to burrow into, scale and simply sleep against under blazing blue skies laced with the occasional departing V of geese. He scratched his neck, dislodging stray stalks from his nape, caught in the ever so slightly longer than school allowed hair; hair burnished golden by hours of sun, glowing against the deep tan of his skin. His elbows dug around, seeking new resting places, his feet tunnelled into the stalks laying bent over, missed by the scythes but to be gleaned on the morrow. Tomorrow, when his peace would be shattered, the fields cleared, the haystacks tossed onto carts and trundled into barns to serve as winter banquets for cosseted cattle.

Troy had let sleep take him. Waking, he had rolled onto his stomach, sneezed and almost missed the slight shuffle. He sat up, expecting Davy or Alfie, the other members of his summer gang, to appear around the stack, always ready to rough and tumble, wrestle and run on their last day of freedom before school cut back in with its heavy load of sitting, listening, rules and restrictions. Nothing stirred. A late swift shrieked far overhead and he could hear a small creature in the stack, a mouse or shrew, scuffling about, but no-one dived on him, called him out. He got to his feet, cautiously circling the stack, wary of an ambush, but the field was empty.

He guessed it was about an hour til dinner, the first fading up of dusky pinks and purples feathering the clouds. He started toward the hedgerow, heading for the five-bar gate which gave onto the rutted track he could follow to the farmhouse yard. He stooped to pluck a stray cornstalk for chewing thoughtfully on his way. It made him think of Huck Finn, last year’s required reading, the book cover depicting a kid with bare feet dangling in a stream, rod in hand, hat tipped over his eyes and a long straw jauntily poking from the corner of his lazily smiling lips.

The thought of water caused a powerful pull on his being. Tomorrow there would be no running to the brook to bathe tired feet, only thick, sweaty school socks and uncomfortable new term shoes. He knew he would be in deep when he turned up late for dinner, maybe even supper, but he ignored the gate and began to run. His bare feet kicked up dust and husks, an occasional surprised bird flaring into the air with indignant cries, and he had to swerve and hurdle once as a sinuous adder protested the disturbance with a sharp strike, but he could already smell the brook, that damp, delicious warmth rising from cold water on summer-heated riverbank.

He skidded to a halt, toes buried deep in the loamy mud of the bank and simply stared. Across the brook – which babbled on obliviously, stones and tiny fish glittering and glimmering as the sleepy sun dripped deepening shades of gold and magenta into the flow – the long grass rippled, stilled and rippled again. Troy’s heart thudded fast, his breath coming hard from his run, but now quickened with a trickle of fear. Whatever was shifting the grass was too big to be a rabbit or even a fox. His dad’s warnings about wild hogs crossed his mind but skittered off the slick fear his deeper mind radiated – stories of assorted big cats, loosed by accident or design; occasional escapees who made their homes in the wild woods.

He stepped back, easing round the bole of a huge oak and into the shadows there. He knew the thing could probably smell him but putting a tree between him and produced the courage to peer out. He breathed out in tiny wisps, not wanting to make a sound as the grass parted… and then he clapped a hand over his mouth in a hurried attempt to stop his exhalation, something between a laugh and a gasp of shock.

Across the brook a horse worked its way forward, maneuvered its head and neck down and took a long drink from the brook. Nothing unusual there, Troy’s brain tried to affirm, frantically over-riding the other voice which silently yelled ‘ But it’s bright blue with pink spots and walks on skis! Tell me that’s not a wooden rocking horse!’ It was. There was no way Troy could look at the creature gently rocking back and forth, securing a drink with each forward rock, stringy wool mane, still retaining a few sparkles, flipping back and forth in unison with the rocking.

Troy looked closer, noting the broken ear, the scratched and battered paint-work, the tail – which swished idly as evening midges closed in – threadbare and the splinters revealing raw patches on the rockers. This was a horse which had seen action, a legion of kids having sat that worn saddle, feet in stirrups now thin enough to break at the slightest pressure. A workhorse; the phrase his grandpa had used to describe the plough animals, or an elderly but still productive milker. Could be, but whatever its age and history, Troy finally faced the facts, it was a child’s toy and had no right moving around on its own or drinking with wooden throat from a babbling brook.

He hovered uncertainly. What to do? The horse decided for him. Apparently careless of, or blind to, the boy’s presence, it steadily rocked itself to face back into the woods and began to move away. Troy paused, gave a glance back across the fields to the lights beginning to flicker into being at home, caught that decrepit tail vanishing between thickly growing ferns and answered the call of his curiosity. He dug his shoes out of his rucksack – now containing only the remnants of a cheese sandwich and a few carrot sticks his mother insisted he eat but he usually left for the field creatures, stuffed his feet into them and hurried over the brook, slipping through the ferns with that noiseless ease given only to the young adventurer.

He followed the trail of bent foliage. The horse’s passage occasionally diverted onto a rabbit track or fox path, but kept to an unbeaten track most of the time. The light was fading from the sky and Troy was beginning to worry he would lose the way to shadows before the mystery was solved, speeding up until he was only a couple of paces behind the steadily progressing horse but he needn’t have fretted. The horse rocked out into a clearing and took to a path which led through thinning trees. The shrubs and ground cover lessened and more light, now the dimming of twilight, crept through to show the way.

The horse ambled out into a huge open space. Stepping from beneath the canopy, Troy saw he was in Mr Browning’s back acre, a pasture which the elderly man was too old to tend any more and had let run wild. He couldn’t move, simply gazing transfixed as the horse rocked on… going to join all the others.

The pasture – when had anyone, any human, last been out here – was rimmed with tall grass, almost high enough to conceal Troy’s ten year old frame but he discovered, as he pushed forward, the centre was close-cropped, probably literally and filled with horses. They were a motley herd seeming of every shape, size and description. Battered rocking horses nuzzled beside elegant carousel horses. Tiny ponies on rollers stood happily beside two plaster horses he vaguely remembered had once fronted the town park gates. Every hue, every material, from china to wood and beyond was represented and the herd was gathered around the circle.

It’s like that stone place, Troy thought to himself, Stonehenge, that was it. This was Ponyhenge, complete with inner and outer circles and what might even be described as a processional way.

He hadn’t been aware of moving, slowly joining the myriad equine life in the pasture. A snow-white carousel horse, its pole a swirl of pink and red, edged aside, allowing the boy to stand between it and the rocking horse he had followed. Troy made no sound, only watched in wonder as the horses turned in a single movement and gazed down the processional way. A tatty pony on two worn runners slipped up the way. As the herd – and one entranced child – followed its progress into the centre of the henge a pale glow began to coalesce at its side. The glow intensified, a form emerging; the most beautiful, graceful white horse Troy had ever seen stood beside the worn pony and nuzzled it gently.

The pony raised a head with balding mane and one blinded eye, but oh it was proud. It had earned every patch and scar, each wound a testament to a child’s joy. It whinnied, a long, mournful sound which was echoed by every horse in the pasture. The white apparition raised it’s beautiful head and sounded a long call which was taken up in turn. The sound was soft, low, but filled with a soulful joy and Troy felt lifted, tears brightening his eyes.

The chorus rose and fell for a few moments but was cut off suddenly, all heads turning to the sky, now dark enough to show the first twinkle of stars. A second glow began at the feet of the old horse, rising in a lazy spiral high into the sky above the pasture. With a gentle, but firm nudge from the white beauty, the little horse rolled onto what was now a filmy white slope. Troy watched its slow progress up and up, around and around and suddenly understood.

The slope ended and Troy knew that constellation, The Plough, and he watched as a brilliant flash of light drew a portal, a door opening between the arms of the Plough. The pony reached the door, paused, whinnied once, and in that moment Troy was certain he saw it repaired, as perfect as the day it had been given to its first child, then it vanished inside the light which winked out. The herd gave voice as one, a call of joy and farewell and then all was still.

Troy was at once aware of the white horse. It skimmed the ground, stopped before him and gazed at him for a long moment. Troy was instantly nervous, blurting out the only sound he had made all evening;

‘Thank you. Thank you for letting me stay, letting me see.’

Somehow, in his innocence, he chose the right words, he felt it in the softening of that golden gaze, saw it in the slight nod of a perfectly formed head… and knew no more.

They found him the next morning, his parents frantic, scolding and hugging him by turns. They assumed he had fallen asleep whilst out making the most of his last day of freedom, but Troy knew better. He couldn’t tell, never would, but he kept that joy through his life, especially on star-filled nights when the Plough blazed in the skies above him.

Cat Man Do

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That’s my cat, Little Juan, also known as Small, because he is! My words today were Quirky, Elicit, and Shocking, and I have used a second of the ‘ridiculous first lines’ to start the story off.

I may have accidentally sort of adopted five cats.

Joe stared at Sarah, momentarily lost for words. He was used to her quirky lifestyle, her Boho chic, her multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-cat house with fairy garden and half-finished nude statues – leftovers from her sculpting craze – and even her job as a life model at the local uni. He didn’t think there was anything left she could spring on him, but seriously…

“Sort of?”

Joe knew he was clutching at straws but the words were ambiguous, if he believed they were. He tried not eye the picnic hamper over her arm and the faint and very familiar sounds coming from within.

“Well, Carrie said her Aunt’s cat, Mittens had had kittens and she couldn’t keep them and if no-one took them they were going to the vet to be put down and she was desperate and I have all this room and I love cats and they were so very cute and I promised I’d help Carrie out and…

A particularly mournful whine issued from the hamper. Sarah popped it onto the kitchen table – already festooned with her latest mania, a whirlwind of decoupage necessities – snapped the lid open and smiled beatifically as five bundles of fur scrambled over each other to be the first out of the hated prison. With a sinking feeling, Joe watched her face, and accepted that they now had five more cats. A vibrant ginger male tried diligently to shove a white sibling onto the floor whilst three black and white variations staggered purposefully toward a pot of glue and started scattering the piles of paper clippings in every direction after Sarah removed the potential meal of the glue-pot.

“Aren’t they just adorable?” she crooned and Joe nodded resignedly, helping her remove the little fluffballs onto the floor where the piddling and pooing commenced.

It was truly shocking, Joe reflected, how oblivious Sarah was when it came to real world situations. He already knew it would be he who remembered to change the litter trays, search outlying corners for stray ‘offerings’ and make sure the little cuties got the right amount of feed. Left to her own devices in the past, Sarah had blocked the loo by carelessly tipping litter tray contents into it on a regular basis, been completely bamboozled by the ‘strange smell’ which turned out to be several days worth of offerings left under the sink by her elderly tabby who was all but a perfect circle from being overfed. The crafty beast had soon cottoned on to the fact that if he made enough of a nuisance of himself Sarah would feed him. He did it constantly, not to mention the titbits which he could elicit from Sarah’s plate at meal times. Seeing him trying to get off his back, like a turned turtle, was both horrifying and guiltily amusing.

A couple of days later, Joe’s agency sent him out to fill in for staff at a local nursing home. As he trundled about, delivering mid-morning snacks and drinks, he paused before a closed door. It was unusual to see any door shut in Appledays, not even the owner hid away. Joe gently rapped his knuckles against the polished wood, listened and heard nothing. A passing carer, looking approachably efficient in her apple green uniform with apple-shaped name tag, shook her head.

“Wouldn’t bother. She never opens her door. Only creeps out to grab her meal trays when no-one is around.”

“Why?”

“No idea. Sorry, I have to give Mr Belling his bath.”

Joe pondered, rapped on the door a couple more times and had to admit defeat before his beverages got cold. Still, finishing his round and dropping the cart back to the kitchen, he felt an itch to know more about the hermit of room 53.

He got lucky. Shift over, he was heading to the office to clock out and see if they wanted him for another day when he bumped into Clara Diller, owner and head honcho at Appledays.

“Do you have a moment?” he asked.

She paused, eyed him, clearly dredging her mind for his name, gave up and settled for a winning smile.

“Joe” he offered, “Just been told I’ll be covering for Sharon, for three months?”

“Ah, Joe, of course. What can I do for you?”

“I was wondering about the lady in 53? I’m told she never leaves her room, or opens her door.”

“I believe that’s so. Poor lady, a very sad case. I can understand her withdrawal from society. We do like to allow our clients to choose their lifestyle as much as possible so we do not disturb her.”

“May I ask what happened to her?”

Clara gave a furtive glance up and down the corridor and pulled Joe into the alcove created by a set of external doors.

“We’re not supposed to discuss patients with temps, but you are clearly a proper carer in the truest sense of the word. Anna Davies, room 53, came to us a year ago. Aged 72 she had been running a rescue for cats at her home. No-one knew she had the beginnings of dementia as she is alone in the world. A proper cat-lady, they were her friends as much as her charges. The house was a little dilapidated, the electrics not what they should have been, her burgeoning confusion meaning she avoided contact with people who might have helped her out, and something sparked a fire. It was out of control before she or anyone else knew anything about it. The firemen rescued her at the last minute and she was hospitalised with smoke inhalation. Sadly, though thankfully there were only three cats at the house during the fire, the animals could not be rescued. When they finally told her, she became convinced it was all her fault and simply stopped speaking or interacting with anyone.”

“That’s tragic!” Joe exclaimed, but later he was sure, even then, the germ of an idea had begun to sprout.

Over the next week, Joe began wooing the silent presence in room 53. Every morning and afternoon he dropped off a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits on a tray outside the door and called cheerfully.

“Tea’s up, Mrs Anna.”

The staff were amused when every day passed with no response, no tea drunk or biscuit nibbled, but Joe was sure he could make a difference. He was right. The following Monday a note was trapped by the upturned, empty teacup.

Mrs Anna belongs in The King & I. Just Anna, and I prefer Earl Grey.

Joe bought the tea out of his own money and his idea crystallised around a pretty flowered china teapot he spotted in a second hand store. He bought it, borrowed a tea-cosy from his nana and set to work with a will. For two weeks he dropped off the tea in the teapot, under the cosy, and alternated the items on the plate. Sponge cake and cucumber sandwiches were acceptable and vanished quietly. Garibaldis (‘Squashed fly biscuits, I think not!’ read the note) and fish paste (Really, young man?) got the desired reactions. When he had three solid weeks of interaction under his belt, even if the door remained firmly closed, Joe was ready.

On the final Saturday of the month he ambled along, barely able to keep a grin off his face. He was surprised but pleased to see Anna’s door cracked, just a little. He did not presume to step inside, simply following his normal routine, calling that her treats were outside, very gently setting the tray on the table by her door. He walked away with an ‘I’ll be back in a half hour, Anna’ and slowed, waiting. He heard the door creak open a little, the rattle of the teacup in the saucer and then a slight squeak of surprise.

“Young man! Come here!”

Joe turned, schooling his face and took in the almost poker-face breaking sight of a delicate fairy of an elderly lady with a fluff of white hair staring at the ball of furious white fluff that had shot out from under the tea cosy and up her arm to sit spitting with venom if not power on her shoulder.

“Where on earth did you get that, Anna?” he inquired.

“It certainly isn’t mine!” she responded sharply, “Take it away and…”

It was that precise moment when the kitten tried to climb inside the sensible, high-buttoned neck of her blouse, failed, tumbled down her front and was caught by her surprisingly fast hands before it could thud to the floor. It fixed huge blue eyes on her pale green ones and purred fit to bust.

“I’ll get someone to take it to the local shelter.” Joe offered, reaching for the now curled up and falling asleep beastie she held gingerly against her chest. Her hesitation was all he needed to know he’d done the right thing.

“Will he be rehomed?” she asked, her voice rusty with disuse, her eyes now on his, looking for reassurance.

“I expect so. I don’t think they put them down.”

“Are you sure?”

Joe didn’t think she was aware of how she was now curling the little furball protectively to her, slightly turning away from Joe.

“Not really, but there’s no-one to care for him here…”

It was enough. Anna, straightened her back, lifted her chin and she was suddenly in command.

“Young man, do you have a name?” This seemed to be an after-thought, as if her lack of social interaction caused the need to know someone’s name to come as a surprise, and Joe supplied it quickly, “Joe, I want you to go fetch me kitten food, a litter tray, a water bowl….”

The list went on for some time and Joe almost skipped down the corridor as Anna vanished back into her room, her absorption with the kitten causing her to forget to shut her door, her voice low and crooning as she rocked the little miracle worker in her hands.

Rounding the corner he stopped short, confronted by a crowd of staff led by Clara. He was about to go on the defensive when they broke into quiet applause and several stepped forward to shake his hand, including Clara.

“You are a natural, Joe. Thank you on behalf of Anna, who will no doubt never say that to you, obsessed as she will be with that creature. I would like to offer you a permanent position; let’s face it, I’m going to need someone to run round after Anna and her new acquisition!”

Later, walking home on a cloud of happiness, Joe had a sudden thought. What on earth was he going to tell Sarah?!

Kicking Up a Stink

A while back I came across a post (which I can’t find!) listing several ‘ridiculous first lines’. What follows came from that idea. I wish I could give credit to whoever actually wrote this first line, but it wasn’t detailed in the original post either. My three words for today were Dictate, Audition and Mantle. I’m sure the Bard is spinning in his grave somewhere, and for that I apologise 😀

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Romeo and Juliet the musical

“So what if I broke my arm? I’m still doing it!”

Olive tried, without much success, to hide her grimace as sharp pain shot through her elbow and down to her wrist. She stood with arms crossed, elbows resting in hands, trying for nonchalant and achieving ‘I need morphine, stat!’

“Let it go, m’dear” Max, the director stared down at her from the stage, “Nowhere do I recall the immortal bard waxing lyrical about the plaster cast ‘pon Juliet’s fair limb. Cali will step up.”

“No!”

Olive couldn’t hold the outburst back. Calipheni – and that sure as sausages wasn’t her given name! – had been bucking for the role since Theatre Almara had decided to stage Romeo and Juliet in honour of the Brad’s nationwide celebrations. Despite her flirting with Max, and schmoozing with the other cast members, Cali had been blown out of the water by Olive’s audition and Max had had no option but to deny her the lead. Relegated to ‘girlfriend of Tybalt’, Cali had slouched, scowled and snivelled through a month of rehearsals. Olive could see the cow grinning openly in the wings,occasionally simpering at Max who relished the attention.

Under the pitying gaze of Max and malicious wink from Cali, Olive stormed out of the theatre and headed home. She swallowed a couple of painkillers and threw herself into bed. Her dreams were storm-tossed, her sheets knotted enough that she could have scaled them to the fabled balcony. She rolled over, landed squarely on her cast and woke up screaming. Gary raced into the bedroom, hair mussed from sleep – he was on nights and had been unaware of his flat-mate coming back – wearing nought but skimpy boxers. This would normally have set Olive’s heart to gallop, but the searing lightning in her arm had welled water in her eyes and she could barely think, let alone see.

Gary hurried forward, shook a couple of tablets from the bottle next to the bed, poured water and handed her both. Glancing at her cinched in face, pain turning her upon herself, he nodded.

“I’ll put tea on, give you a minute.”

She was grateful, but the initial agony had receded enough to allow her a moment of appreciation as his rear vanished toward the kitchen. One day, she promised herself, I will tell him how I feel, and damn the consequences.

She gave herself five minutes to settle her aching, shattered bones before following Gary to the kitchen. A cup of lemon tea sat on the counter, replete with a good chunk of fresh ginger. Gary grinned and pushed the squeezy bottle of honey to her.

“Isn’t honey good against bacteria?”

“I have a shattered wrist and elbow, not necrotizing fasciiti.”

“Get you!” Gary arched an eyebrow, “Got a role as a nurse?”

“I wish. Or at least a patient. I can bring my own props.”

She sighed, resting the offending cast on the counter and stirred her tea with a finger.

“Something wrong?”

Gary was good at sensing her moods; it’s what made him her perfect flatmate… and maybe perfect man.

“Aside from being supplanted by Cali as Juliet you mean?”

“Oh, Oli, that sucks. I’ll get the wine.”

“I’ll get the ice cream.”

In a truly Golden Girls moment, they sat opposite each other, large glasses of red to hand, spooning alternately from a massive tub of cookie dough ice cream and methodically began to take apart Max and Cali. The more they drank, the more childish the insults became until they were both crying with laughter, hiccuping and snorting wine everywhere.

“Maybe she’ll just trip over that ridiculous Rapunzel wig she wants to wear and fall arse over tit off the balcony, flattening that narcissistic moron they’re getting in to play Romeo. Two birds, one prat-fall.”

They howled some more, then Gary’s face stilled, his hand reached across the counter and he held her gaze with that level of sincerity only available to the extremely drunk. Slurring happily, he mumbled;

“I think you should kill her.”

“Huh? Gawd, I think that’s a bit much, mate.”

“Nah, you gotta show ’em you don’t take no crap from no director, no tinpot little wannabe. They can’t dictate who’s fit to play Juliet!”

“Death’s a bit overboard!”

“Tha’s it!”

Gary leapt up, fell backwards over his stool and landed flat on his behind,laughing all the while. He waved his hands about, conducting some invisible orchestra as he tried to rise, gave it up as a lost cause and grabbed Olive’s ankles. She plopped down beside him, vaguely aware of good fortune as she hit the beanbag he’d missed.

“Wha’s it?” she enquired,leaning a head heavy with wine on his – very broad and muscular she noted – shoulder.

“The dead bit.”

“Can’t really kill her, Gary. I keep tellin’ you!”

“Can kill her career.”

“Huh?”

“What you fink would happen if an assident occurred during the big dead bit? Somefin’ that freaked out Lyle McBigstar and embarrassed her so much she’d never set foot on a stage again?”

“Like what?”

Drunkenly unaware of his pantomiming furtive peering around the room, Gary began to whisper in Olive’s ear and she sprouted a sozzled, wicked smile.

Three days later, Olive had managed to convince Max and Cali that she was resigned to her fate. She told them she was content to be backstage, making alterations and last minute repairs to the costumes. She was too. Despite the headaches and bleary recall she and Gary had pieced together the drunken plan, honed it and gone online. They’d found the item they’d wanted, read the reviews until they’d found one where almost every client had complained about the fragility of the container and bought a box to twelve. The test – because all plans must be tested, Gary had insisted – proved exactly how perfect their choice had been. Even now, two days after the event, Olive was sure she was still sensing the after-effects.

She draped the elaborate white gown with the faux fur mantle over her lap, took up her scissors and clipped a small hole in the bodice. With a quick look around, certain no-one was watching, she slipped a slender glass vial into the hole and proceeded to sew it closed, adding a fresh row of beads over the patch. They might even help ensure that wicked little prop would smash on cue. Grinning, Olive manoeuvred the dress back onto its hanger, hung it on the rail and went in search of Cali. She wasn’t surprised to find her smothering Lyle McDoogan, star of three series of low budget sci-fi, but a big hit with the ladies – at least in his own mind – and unhappy when Olive sidled up and interrupted.

“Sorry, Cali, but you need to get into costume. Max sent me to find you.”

Cali simpered for another minute or so, Lyle lapping it up and then stalked ahead of Olive back to her dressing room. Olive was only able to hold on to her temper because of her secret, Cali more than happy to treat her like Cinderella, bidding her back and forth with no consideration for her broken state.

Olive saw her through the first two acts and found herself shaking as the final act and the ‘dead scene’ as she had come to think of it thanks to Gary, loomed large. Cali cursed at her when she fumbled the bodice buttons but Olive held tight, battened down her sharp retorts and sent her victim out to her death. She hovered in the wings, scanning the audience, spotting Gary three rows back, a grin plastered across his handsome face and decided tonight would be the night. She returned her attention as the words she awaited floated across the hushed auditorium;

“… Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And, lips, O you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss…”

Lyle clasped Cali to his chest and Olive was sure she heard the tiny tinkle as the stink bomb exploded between the lovers. Lyle recoiled, dropping Cali who tumbled onto the floor, her eyes streaming, her face the colour of beetroot as Lyle roared;

“By Christ, what did you eat? You stink!”

Without warning, Cali threw up and Lyle, his boots covered in some vile mix of slimming powder and sushi, returned the favour, unintentionally aiming it straight down Cali’s cleavage. The audience were screaming laughter, Max was an apoplectic purple in the other wings, and Gary caught Olive’s eye, sending her into paroxysms of breathless giggles. The first two rows were rising, falling over each other in their eagerness to get away from the waves of stench rolling off the stage. The fact that they were the invited bigwigs and press was not lost on anyone. Cali now sat in a wailing, stinking heap centre stage as the curtain slowly began to fall.

Olive slipped away, reached the stage door and hurried outside. Gary caught her arm, swept her up, hugged her and then paused;

“… Arise fair Olive, and kill the envious Cali, who is already sick and pale with grief…”

Olive sagged against him, helpless with laughter which only slowed to a halt as Gary caught her chin on his finger, tilted her face to his and whispered;

“It is my lady, it is my love.” before kissing her gently.

Follow That Fox

Foxy

(This was a prompt from the Writers Circle which I have only just got round to! Today’s three words were Munch, Succinct and Hallowed.)

Brenda sat on the park bench trying to decide what to munch first. The first bright day of spring had coaxed her from her writing desk in an attempt to blow away the winter webs. She’d grabbed a handful of treats from the larder, stuffed them into the deep pockets of her overcoat and headed out, happily drinking in the swathes of bluebells in gardens and under trees, random clumps, probably bird-sown, brightening dismal grey pavements and barren earth.

Her meanderings had led her to the park. Park was really too succinct a term for the acres of grass and woodland, fish-laden ponds, rose gardens and topiary-topped mazes which tumbled together to form Manorfield Meadows. Once upon a time there had been a grand house at the centre of it all, but two decades ago it had been hit by lightning. The ensuing fire had left the building unsafe and it had been razed by the council. Crumbling mosaic floors were all that remained, fast being overgrown and returned to nature by the rampant flora of the park.

Ambling around a fish pond, having her usual giggle at the outsized ‘tackle’ of Neptune – who formed the central fountain – she’d selected a wrought iron bench and turned her face up to the light with its promise of heat to come. Rummaging through her pockets she pulled out a chocolate bar and a shop-bought wrap. In a festival mood, she set the wrap on the bench and tore open the chocolate, savouring the first couple of bites and leaning back with closed eyes.

She wasn’t sure what senses had fired in her brain but later, telling the tale to disbelieving friends, she would say ‘…and that’s when I saw the fox.’ Perhaps it was the vague movement of air by her hand as it rested on the bench beside the wrap, or the minute skitter of claws on the gravel path, maybe even the faintest wiffle of a nose, but as she brought her head down, opened her eyes and looked she was just in time to watch a bushy-tailed flash of ginger-red vanishing into the shrubbery to her left. Her wrap was gone.

Something urged her up, nudged her into following the wake of the vanished fox. It was a puzzle. Walking toward the bushes she frowned, it wasn’t as if she particularly wanted or needed the food. Scrunching over and parting the thick leaves and branches she shook her head in confusion; she had no desire to chase down a crafty beastie who’d only taken advantage of her inattention. Shouldering her way through the undergrowth to the other side she sighed deeply; Mr Fox was probably far hungrier than she so why the heck was she following him… or her?

The far side of the bushes planted her in the large open space where the manor ruins lay. Along one side of the square was a high wall, repaired and extended with stones taken from the house rubble. Opposite lay the entrance to one of the spectacular rose gardens, the White Triangle. Furthest away, beyond the ruins was the willow hurdle fence which bounded the cherry orchard. A tangle of burgeoning grass and wild-flowers carpeted the entire area, gently burying the mosaics she knew lay at her feet as she advanced, scanning for any movement.

Wind riffled through a pile of leaves which a gardener had raked ready for a bonfire. Amongst the dark browns, dusky reds and feathery veined leaf skeletons, Brenda caught sight of something beige. It was so out of place that it took her a moment to understand what she was looking at; the cardboard box her wrap had been in. She walked over, scooped it up and smiled at the ripped packaging., clearly devoid of its contents.

‘Nice job, Mr Foxy. Enjoy’

She wondered idly if it was foxy baby season, her fauna knowledge not as hot as her flora. She grinned at the idea of a huddle of baby foxes chowing down on hoisin duck and tucked the rubbish back in her pocket.

In no particular hurry to return to a stuffy writing room – despite a looming deadline – she rambled amongst the mosaics, picking out the odd figure or pattern. The sun burst free of the great puffs of cloud and she felt her spirits sing in response, slipping out of her coat, setting it on the clearest patch of mosaics and dropping down onto it. Almost instantly she felt the ground give out under her and fell through in a rainbow cloud of tesserae. Looking up she noted a small black button, realised it was a nose and succumbed to absolute bewilderment as the fox looked over the ragged lip of the hole, stepped back, launched itself and landed neatly on her chest as her back hit the floor.

Fortunately for them both, the earth was slightly moist and yielded just enough for the pair to sustain nothing more than a bruise or two for Brenda and a dog-like shake from head to toe for the fox. They eyed each other for a while, she at a loss as to why the creature had jumped in with her and why it wasn’t running; the fox simply looked at her.

“So, Mr Foxy, what now, huh?”

The fox gave a final shiver, dislodging a couple of tesserae from its tail, turned around and headed off into what Brenda now realised was a low tunnel. The lip of the hole above was clearly out of reach. She suspected Mr Fox had been using an old rabbit burrow or something and had weakened it enough that when she’d dropped down it had simply given up the ghost. Brenda gave a resigned shrug when waving her mobile about gained her exactly zero bars, no connection whatsoever. Dropping onto all fours she giggled, wondering if Mr Foxy was as puzzled by her as she was by him; by this odd creature which fell through the earth and then copied his way of moving.

She dragged her phone out of her pocket, set it to light her way and started after the last whiskers of tail she could see rapidly vanishing into the gloom ahead. As she crawled, fervently hoping the tunnel would widen and allow her to stand before her jeans wore through at the knees, Brenda wondered where they were. She knew they were beneath the old manor, but where? Had it had cellars, somewhere to store ice or wine or the kinds of exotica only found in ridiculously rich peoples houses? Was it some ancient escape route, like the priest holes she had learned about in school? A way to the chapel on the edge of the grounds perhaps?

Just as the tunnel finally gained six feet in height and widened into a cavernous space, Brenda caught sight of Mr Foxy again. He appeared to be waiting for her.

“Thanks, friend” she said softly, “It occurs to me that you probably know your way around here pretty well. No chance you can lead me out huh?”

The fox did a head-tilt, studied her, gave a small yip and trotted off down a new passage. Brenda took a moment to look around, recognising the hundreds of pigeon-holes along the walls as wooden wine racks, sadly devoid of bottles, but thick with dust and larger webs than she was comfortable with. Hoping spider season didn’t coincide with foxy baby season, she followed her furry friend.

Intermittent waving of her phone only showed more webs and passages mysteriously heading off either side as the pair trotted along. Brenda was getting a little worried about her battery, beginning to wonder of following a dumb animal had really been the smartest thing to do. Should she turn around, head back to the hole and start yelling? Surely someone would hear her; lots of people walked their dogs, played ball games or simply wandered in the park. The fox seemed oblivious, ambling onward but she couldn’t deny he had a certain determination in the set of his head, his unswaying gait, not once bothering to look into the openings leading who knew where. Perhaps he wasn’t so dumb.

As if reacting to her thoughts, the fox paused, looked back over his shoulder, yipped and planted his feet firmly, coming to a dead stop. Moving forward, wondering why he wasn’t, Brenda tried to go around him, but found herself balked. Although his eyes seemed apologetic, the fox would not let her into the room she could just make out ahead. She tried a couple more times until, with a slightly annoyed tone to his yip, the fox firmly herded Brenda toward the left of the passage, trying to get her into a new offshoot. Brenda managed to get a single flare of light into the forbidden room and let herself be herded once she caught a glimpse of what lay beyond – a little pool of reddish-ginger fur, two little noses and a scatter of wrap crumbs.

“Ok, I get you” she soothed, backing into the new tunnel, “Go see to your kids. Thanks for your help.”

The fox gave a wide-mouthed grin- or it could have been a yawn – yipped twice and returned to his furballs. Brenda turned to the tunnel, headed down it and gave a short yelp of her own. Unexpected water, probably a drip from one of the fountains, a rusting pipe not yet found, sluiced over what turned out to be large cobbles and Brenda ended up on her behind, sliding as the tunnel took a slope downward. She was dumped unceremoniously into a dimly lit room, her phone skittering across the stones and flickering off.

Cursing roundly, Brenda shoved onto her feet, retrieved her phone – now completely dead – and stood still. She had some vague idea from previous research on an article about caving that her eyes needed to acclimatise to the slight, greenish light. She turned slowly, letting her eyes graze the stone walls, the solid rafters of the wooden ceiling… the very large and sturdy looking door! She hurtled over to it, flung it open – it protested with an ear-scratching creak – and had to slam her hands over her eyes as brilliant sunlight flooded over her. Readjusted, she took in yet another stone room, but this one lit by large windows which were disorientating as they were set into the ceiling, another massive door set into the far wall.

Wondering where she had ended up Brenda finally addressed the elephant in the room, an enormous marble sarcophagus. She all but tiptoed around it,trying to decide if she could safely touch the cold marble. An errant wisp of wind decided for her, shifting a layer of dust which revealed what she thought might be writing. She jammed her hand in to the pocket of her coat and used it clear the last of the dust, allowing her to read the inscription.

‘You who reached this hallowed ground,

Who trod a path in darkness bound,

Are granted here my greatest gift,

When the candle lit you lift’

Brenda read the words twice more, feeling like she was in some terrible b-movie. Really? Hidden treasures? Led there by a thieving fox? Despite her cynicism, she found her gaze surveying the room. In a remote corner, a shelf was set into the angle of the wall. On it sat a yellowed candle, beside a flint. Her heartbeat increasing, Brenda fumbled a few times then finally managed enough of a spark to light the wick. She turned, held up the flickering, inadequate light and instantly saw the second shelf in the corner closest to the door she had entered.

Crossing the room the candle flared hugely, and before it settled she saw the dust-crusted tome laying there. She set the candle on the shelf, gently ran her hand over the dry leather cover and read the title;

‘The Quest’

Carefully loosing the leather straps, she opened the book and gasped. Within, nestled in the cavity left by carving out the centre of the book, lay a small brown bowl, ancient even to her eyes. A tiny scroll, no bigger than her palm lay within. She released the ribbon binding it and read;

‘You came this far, will you take the last step?

Fill my gift with water.

Are you brave enough to speak to me?’

It was signed with the symbol of the goddess. Brenda reverently tucked both bowl and scroll into her coat and headed through the final door, barely aware of emerging into the old chapel, her thoughts only on reaching home, water and a quiet place to speak with her Mother.

In the room behind, a fox became woman, scooped up her kits and slipped quietly between the plains, pleased with the new soul in her world.

Changing Room

Amy hovered over the hanger. It held an extremely pretty top, all handkerchief hems and gauzy floatiness in multiple shades of pink.

Just do it.’ she admonished herself, tired of her inability to shop without hurdle after hurdle ruining the day. With Herculean effort, she grasped the hanger and took it from the rail, although she couldn’t prevent the furtive little glance around to see who was judging her. She scurried through the store wondering why they insisted on packing the rails so close that it was nearly impossible not to end up hooked to something and trailing scattered items behind you.

Faltering to a stop before the changing rooms, Amy came close to letting the hanger drop onto the returns rail and running for the main entrance. It wasn’t so much the warning signs about only two items, or how Big Brother watched over you – in this case the eyes belonged to teen-aged girl who stood in the doorway passing studied judgement on each client whilst steadily chewing her thumbnail- but a single word above the uncurtained entryway;

Communal Changing Area’

Amy stared at that one word, hovering mid-stride between the girl and the abyss beyond, well aware of the derision behind those highly made up eyes which swept lazily over Amy’s outsized duffle coat and clumping army boots. Communal? She looked back over her shoulder, surveying the store, trying desperately to decided how likely it was there would be other shoppers within. Wednesday afternoon before the schools and offices let out, usually only pensioners pottering around and complaining about the flimsy nature of undergarments today. The store looked deserted, Amy moving on just in time to forestall a snarky comment from Big Sister.

It was every bit as awful as Amy had expected. Floor to ceiling mirrors lined every wall, not a curtain or cubicle in sight. It was also blissfully empty. Amy dumped her backpack in the furthest corner from the entrance, hung the delicious top on the nearest hook and shrugged out of her coat. She kept her eyes carefully on her boots, practiced in the art of never looking in a mirror. Coat joined bag, sharply followed by the shapeless jumper she’d nabbed from her brother’s cupboard; a fit-inducing shade of mustard yellow – the reason Graham wouldn’t wear it and how Amy had managed to ‘liberate it for herself; she knew it was vile, but when you were twenty stone you took what you could get.

With almost reverential care, she slipped the top from its hanger, delighting in the airy lightness of the fabric, letting it run through her usually clumsy fingers with a shiver of anticipation. It really looked like it might just fit and she couldn’t recall every owning, let alone wearing, something so fairylike and wispy.

‘Even if you don’t buy it’ she giggled to herself, ‘At least you’ll know what it looks and feels like to wear girly clothes.’

She slipped it over her head with infinite slowness, terrified the all too familiar sound of shredding fabric would fill the room and bring Big Sister running, but all was well. The soft, lacy material slipped over her hot skin like a cooling wave, made her skin flush with ticklish prickles, settling about her with elegant drapes. It felt like nothing she had ever experienced and it gave her enough courage to do something she hadn’t done in ten years.

Shaking a little, she lifted her eyes to the mirror with deliberate slowness. A slight smile touched her lips at this strange vision. The top gave her the illusion of delicacy, an ephemeral quality, the pink hues lending warmth to her pale skin. She could nearly believe the top was something she could wear, out, in the street, perhaps to a coffee bar, where she could sip idly at the blackest of coffees, mysterious and alone at a table until Nigel from media studies happened by, stunned to see a vision of loveliness and intrigue he had never known, stepping over to her table, leaning in…

“Holy crap! Watch out girls, it’s a bit of a squeeze in here. Budge up there. I’m sure you can spare a couple of feet for us four. Suck it up, Madame Mountain.”

Amy froze in horror, her happy little daydream shattering about her with the screech of Katrina’s jibes. Why her? Why now? All summer vacation Amy had managed to avoid the ‘popular’ girls and it had been a slice of paradise. No teasing, no bullying, not a word. She should have known it had been too good to last. Now everything was ruined. No point buying the top. Every time she wore it she would hear Katrina and that hated nickname, one the entire college used thanks to the bitch queen of Lingford and her three little groupies.

She dropped her eyes to her feet, frantically figuring out a method of escape. She’d have to run out with the top on, she couldn’t bear the thought of trying to change. She leaned down, trying to grab for her coat and bag and was pulled up short, that sound of her nightmares exploding behind her; the top was ripping at the seams with a high scratchy sound which seared across her brain.

“Hold up there, Madame Mountain. Where you going? Not gonna give us a twirl?”

Katrina tugged, trying – and Amy had a self-aware moment of painful clarity when she knew Katrina could never budge her victim – and failing to spin Amy. The seams gave out and the garment fell to the floor in two neat little heaps. Katrina laughed raucously, pointing at the heaps;

“That’s what you get for buying cheap flabric.”

As the laughter of all four grew at this last jab, Amy’s temper began to rise. Visions of the last three years flashed through her mind, filling her mental vision with incident after painful scene. It wasn’t fair. She wasn’t stupid. She knew it was her own fault she was the size of a house, but that didn’t give this evil little shrew the right to make her life steadily more miserable. It wasn’t Amy’s fault she had been born special, that that specialness had isolated her, turned her lack of friends and unhappiness into a constant existence in front of the fridge or larder to assuage her broken emotions. She couldn’t help her bloody genes!

With an ear-piercing scream, Amy let her guard down. All the years of scientific research, of lessons in how to control her mental capacity, her ‘special gift’ as the lab called it, crumbled into dust and the scream rose in pitch. It climbed, sliding effortlessly up the scale until the four girls were cowering against the furthest wall, unable to move, to run away from the sound which was beginning to cause blood to trickle delicately from their ears. Their hands clamped to their heads, whimpers escaped their lips and still the scream rose, reaching for that single perfect moment. It came.

The scream cut off as suddenly as it had begun and the four girls sagged in relief; a relief which lasted a split second. Amy smiled lazily, her eyes flicking around the room , watching in satisfaction as terror flared in the girls who had destroyed her single moment of pure peace. There was only a slow blink and then the mirrors exploded. Shards flew around the screaming girls whose abject fear meant they did not see how the pieces floated, shifted, curled, not one fractured sliver catching them. Instead they coalesced into a cloud before Amy. Her head tilted, she studied them for a moment, watched Katrina eye the door and tense to run then unleashed her cloud of razor-sharp knives.

The mirror fragments hurtled across the room, the girls flying upright beginning to run, but Amy was ready. Half the cloud split off and raced in front of the herd, like dogs controlling sheep. The remaining pieces became a precision formation which methodically sheered through every item of clothing the girls wore. In seconds their designer clothes were expensive rags in heaps about their feet, all four cowering naked as the day they were born. Amy laughed, a tone of simple joy and pointed at the exit.

“Run!” she whispered, her menace and intent putting fresh panic into the group. They were clearly torn between the need to get away from this crazy girl with her army of mirror knives and running naked into the store. The latter won as Amy gathered her forces into a single cloud once more, freeing the way ahead of her prey. They ran.

Amy grinned and sent the mirrors pieces swiftly behind the girls, forcing them through and out of the store into the main street where she let them be herded into a circle once more, back to back, everything they were displayed for the main street of the town to eye at their leisure. Pretty certain there would be no more bullying, at least from that quarter, Amy quietly laid twenty dollars beside the checkout and left. It was money well spent, she decided, and headed back to the research facility to own up to her slip in control.

Hammer

Kyle gazed down into the shadowed vale and sighed. He suspected there would be little help in the hamlet. From between the great oaks he caught flickering candlelight, tiny, cold beacons glimpsed between closed shutters. A swift pan across the darkening area told him there could be no more than a dozen dwellings. To the east a flat patch of darkness spoke to pasture; straining his ears he could detect faint lowing of cattle. To the west light moved, strobing across more open space; an inhabitant walking by a staked fence, probably wheat or corn fields. A larger patch of light flared for a moment and darkened, the walker entering a home.

Kyle spurred his horse, Admiral, forward. They were both tired and the great beast snorted, bucking by way of complaint. Kyle patted the muscled neck and soothed;

“I know, old man, believe me I know. If you have gods pray to them. We need all the help we can get.”

Admiral flicked an ear back, listened, snorted shortly, and returned his attention to the stony path which ran down into the valley. Kyle smiled softly. Admiral had been with him a decade and they understood each other; there would be no more bucking tonight. The land about rustled in a warm summer wind, trees and scrub hiding the variety of beasts and birds which scurried or called into the dusk. Kyle could have relaxed, enjoyed it, but for his urgency; there was little time left to fulfill his mission.

Clattering along the road into a small circle of weathered huts he was surprised to see a door flung wide and a handful of men spill onto the road. He tensed, Admiral hoofing up angry little puffs of dirt whilst the men approached. Dressed in homespun with no visible weapons, even displaying a smile or two, Kyle was curious as to why this welcoming party was willing to open their doors after dark. With war and famine rife, folk tended to be insular, suspicious of all. He steadied Admiral and gave a bow of his head to the closest of the men.

“I wish you good evening, and swear no harm is meant by my coming.”

“We are aware, my Lord Sumner. We were told to watch for you.”

“Is that so? And who is it can predict my wanderings?”

The slight edge in Kyle’s voice caused momentary flinching in the group, but the largest, and probably oldest, man stepped forward and raised a hand in token of peace.

“We have a seer, my lord. He came three summers ago, told us to watch for the coming of a knight on a great charger and to guide him to one who can help.”

“I would speak with this man.”

“Forgive us, but that cannot be. Just three days ago the seer left. He headed into the mountains and none of our trackers have been able to find a trace of him.”

“Convenient.”

Kyle’s suspicions were growing and the elder seemed to understand. He shooed the other men inside – Kyle realised it was a crude inn, a sea of anxious, curious faces swimming briefly into view as the men disappeared inside on a strong waft of ale – signed for Kyle to follow him and trotted off down the road. Reassured, for what harm could really come from a bent elder with shuffling gait and blind stick, Kyle urged Admiral into a trot and followed. They had not far to go as a child could have thrown a stone from one end of the hamlet to the other, and quickly came upon a bend in the road which opened into a cobbled yard and a swell of heat and orange light.

For a moment Kyle could not figure how a forge, a working smithy, could have been hidden from him with such heat and light, but a hulking shape emerged from the light causing Kyle to look up; a oak planked roof prevented even a chink of light escaping. His next thought was more worrying; why would a smith want to hide his presence?

“Because there are those who would use my abilities in ways I do not appreciate.”

The voice was a growl, but held no threat Kyle could detect. It belonged to a man who exceeded Kyle’s six feet by another foot and yet was as slender as as willow. No sign of bulging muscles, bushy brows and leather apron here. Instead his long frame was draped in a pristine white cloak, hood settled over a head of fine blond hair, and elegant fingered hands, revealed as one was offered to Kyle.

He slipped off of Admiral and accepted the gesture, tempering his customary powerful grasp and a little annoyed to hear the man chuckle.

“Have no fear, my lord, though I may look frail for the work I do, soon you will understand not all power comes from the muscles in the body, nor all strength. My name is Sephir. Welcome to my home.”

He held the grip a little longer, firm and unhurried, his pale grey eyes fixed on Kyle’s blue, before leaving go suddenly and sweeping into the light from the forge. Only then did Kyle notice the elder had vanished, presumably back to the inn to gossip. He shrugged, looped Admiral’s rein to a hitching post with a stern admonishment to stay put and headed into the high heat after Sephir.

Once past the usual fixings of a smithy, the raging fire, the anvil and a multitude of metal implements, a heavy door stood open. Stepping through Sephir called, his voice a low grumble;

“Close it, if you will.”

Another flicker of annoyance coursed through Kyle, long since accustomed to lackeys who dealt with doors, but he was still on shaky ground and compliance in the home of another was usually the best option until all angles had been measured. He noted with some amazement how much cooler it was within, the door seeming to block most of the heat.

“A neat trick” he smiled taking a seat in the carved wooden chair offered him.

“Indeed, but it is not tricks you seek. Kyle Sumner, Lord of Southwold.”

“You seem to know much about business you have no right to, good Sephir.”

Kyle accepted the mug of ale, but did not drink. Again he felt a twinge of temper at the superior smile and condescending head bob from this strange man, but Sephir gave no sign of acknowledgement. Something in Kyle made him think this man was more than he seemed and he had no intention of remaining in the dark. He rested a hand lightly on the sword at his side, eyed the man and questioned.

“Perhaps you would care to tell me what you know and how a smith in the back of nowhere comes to know such things at all?”

Sephir rested an elbow on the mantle, nodded and gazed into the glowing embers of the hearth.

“I am no fool, Lord Sumner. I was educated by the peoples of Jarfor.”

“You’re a magician?”

“I do not like or use the term, but it is commonly used. I studied under Master Tyria whilst he was head of the university. In my final days I was given a task. That task was to be ready to aid you when our paths crossed. To that end I was also given a companion, a minor godling who posed as a seer. Together we prepared to watch your progress and await your arrival.”

“You have the aid of the gods and yet you have allowed my to wander at this task for almost a decade?”

“We were warned not to interfere, only to wait. You follow Athramere, god of soldiers. You believe in him, yes?”

“Of course.”

Kyle clutched absently at the amulet hanging at his waist, a vial of blessed water from the temple of Athramere wrapped in cloth stitched with magical signs by the sisters of the temple.

“And how often has he helped you, my lord? How often as he directly intervened in your life? And yet still you believe and follow his ways. The gods do what they will, and it is not for mere mortals to question that.”

Kyle rose, a little put out by the lecture – one he had heard often enough whilst training with the king’s men, at the capitol, Sidarthron – and began to pace. Sephir settled onto a low stool by the hearth and poked the embers a little, giving the younger man time to think and assemble his questions.

“Why did the seer leave? Did he not see my arrival? Should he not have been here to conclude this business?”

“I say again, none can know the minds of the gods. I was told you would reach us in three days. The seer was gone when the village awoke. In truth, there was no more for him to do. Your business is now with me.”

“And what do you know of my business, master magician? Why do you hide here in the guise of a smith?”

“It seemed fitting; you will understand soon. As to your business, you are the supreme agent of King Graniere’s rule. There is no spy in the whole of the realm who does not ultimately answer to you. None other has the ear of the king at any hour, or know his thoughts as you. Your name is spoken with as much fear as respect. Not that you have need to dirty your hands these days, my lord.”

“So far, so much anyone could know.”

Sephir rose, walked to a large chest, threw up the lid and rummaged as he spoke.

“My task is simple, though your mission is complex. The king gave you orders almost ten years ago. He told you to find the message his father left and I have that message here.”

Sephir had spoken only truth. Graniere’s father had been a devious man, full of self-importance and wickedness. Graniere had been a fourth son, never intended for the throne. Only the plague and battle losses of his older heirs had left the father no choice, but he had taken such a dislike to the quiet Graniere that he had set in motion troubles which had dogged the entirety of Graniere’s reign. War and famine had become the norm due to a series of letters, written and sent by the dying king in the days before his death. Neither Graniere or Kyle understood why the man had wished such death and destruction on the kingdom, but it had come to pass with astonishing swiftness. The letters set off rumours of hostile advances which caused running battles on borders. These battles pulled men out of the fields and into the front-line leaving crops untended. They failed with alarming regularity and the lack of diplomatic relations with neighbouring kingdoms had led to a lack of imports. The kingdom was being starved out of existence as surely as its men were being wiped from the earth in fields of blood. The only glimmer of hope had been a gleeful whisper from the blue lips of the instigator;

“You’ll never find the hammer.”

The new king and his closest companion were the only ones who knew of the message, but ten years of searching had left them on the verge of despair, close to disbelief. It could all have been a final trick by a bitter, twisted old man. Staring at the roll of sacking in Sephir’s hands Kyle felt a surge of optimism, but he suppressed it with the ruthless experience gained over a decade of disappointment. Sephir came forward and placed the roll in Kyle’s hands, he finding it hard not to tremble a little.

“My task is completed. May you complete your part with speed, Lord Sumner for time grows short.”

Unable to bring himself to look at the contents of the sacking without Graniere’s presence, Kyle had thanked Sephir, promising to seek him out to talk further when all was resolved, sprinted for Admiral and fled back to Sidarthron. Side by side before the throne Ganiere had never been able to ascend and make his own, the king had cut the cords and shaken out the contents from the sacking. He’d staggered a little under unexpected weight, Kyle shooting out a hand to steady him, both staring aghast at the hammer in the king’s hands. It was beyond ordinary, just a wooden handle and a mallet head. No matter how carefully they scrutinized it there were no runes, no magic words or signs, no aid to tell them what to do or how to wield it.

Kyle watched, a second too slow to catch his king before he wheeled and stormed through the castle, guards, servants and nobles alike falling over themselves to get out of his way. No words passed his lips, the surest sign Kyle could have about his friend’s, fury. Graniere had always been most dangerous when words were done. Trailing behind, unwilling to get in the way of that danger, unless it threatened the king’s person, Kyle followed Graniere to the crypt of the chapel. He gaped in horror as Graniere wound up the hammer, swinging it in shorter and tighter arcs until sharply released. It flew through the space between and hurtled into the facing stone of his father’s tomb, shattering the flowery lines describing conquests and triumphs, the space resounding with clattering stone. The hammer was retrieved, wound, thrown, again and again until the tomb lay in ruins, the marble coffin within revealed.

Kyle shot forward, staying Graniere’s hand, his tone apologetic but relieved to see the mists clearing from the eyes of his friend.

“My king, cease, I ask you. Do not free what remains. You do not need to see that.”

There was a long moment of indecision, of tension, but Kyle felt it all rush out of the other man, the hammer falling with a dead thud to the floor.

“A final jest, Kyle. Our hope is gone.”

There was nothing to say, no comfort to give after ten years of pain and misery. Kyle’s eyes travelled over the clutter of stone, a small wave of angry joy filling his heart at the the thought of the man’s memorial lying in pieces. A flutter of white caught his eye. He bent, tugged and pulled free a linen sack which seemed to have fallen free with the stone.

“What have you there?” Graniere asked and Kyle handed it over.

“It bears the seal of your father.”

Graniere released his dagger and slit the material, a scroll falling loose. He was about to break the wax seal, clearly stamped by his father’s regnal ring, but Kyle once more stayed his hand. Something had flashed through his mind, some rogue thought which told him it was vital the seal remain unbroken for the present.

“Not yet.” It felt as if words were pouring into his mind from outside, the words not his own, “Call the lords together. Have them all present. Only then should the seal be broken. Let them see it as we found it.”

Frowning slightly, Graniere acquiesced.

A week later the great and good from all the surrounding realms gathered in the throne room. Graniere broke the seal under their watchful eyes and read the contents aloud. It proved to be the final words of his father, an admission of his manipulations, of the lies and rumours which had brought the realms to war and decimation. There were voices raised in protest, accusations of trickery in an attempt to make false peace, but they were silenced in an instant. A flash of orange light filled the throne and a shape appeared there. Kyle started forward, but Sephir raised a hand.

“I still mean you no harm, Kyle Sumner, nor your king or any present. However, I am tired of the petty wars and tribulations brought about by this pathetic man. It ends now. You will obey me and make peace, lasting peace.”

There were more shouts, asking by what authority Sephir could speak so to the assembled nobility, and in the split second before Sephir rose and took on his true form, Kyle knew him and fell to his knees.

“See me, know me, and obey me.”

Chants of Athramere swelled to fill the room, the god towering over them all in full golden armour, sapphire encrusted sword, Daniether the Bringer of Justice, held high above his head. A garble of promises chased each other through the charged atmosphere, and he smiled at Kyle, words forming once more in the stunned man’s mind.

“I charge you with finishing your task, Kyle. You now serve a greater master. Build my peace.”

And he was gone, bewildered men sinking into chairs all around the room. Kyle rose, took Graniere’s arm and led him up the dais, seating him gently on the throne.

“It is time you took your place, my king.”

Rock Life

I came across this post a while ago  and knew there was a story in  it somewhere. This is the tale, of Kyle, and Duck and Rockridge.

He was just Duck. Kyle didn’t know why, had never asked.. The sky was blue, grass was green and the old guy on the corner was Duck. Kyle had heard just about every legend concerning the man in the blue overalls, bowler hat and toeless shoes. Not sandals, but shoes with the toe cut out to show unexpectedly manicured nails. Come whatever season, Duck would be on the corner, a hand-rolled cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, three days worth of stubble prickling the air and a fluff of grey hair straying from under the bowler hat. Kyle knew it couldn’t be the case, but that cigarette always seemed to be at the exact degree of burned down and the stubble had the equally mystical ability to remain unchanged.

Kyle had lived in Rockridge for all of his twenty-five years. He’d toddled past Duck, hand in hand with his parents, scooted by on his trike, his bike, eventually sauntering along with a girl on his arm, his own cigarette thrusting jauntily into the world. He’d come to share a nod and sometimes a wink with Duck by that stage although they hadn’t progressed to words. There was something reassuring about Duck’s permanence. Kyle often thought he was a little like the ravens at that Tower place. Some teacher had told them the myth about the Tower falling if the ravens should ever leave. Kyle could easily imagine Rockridge becoming a ghost town, slowly crumbling back into the desert should Duck take it into his head to move on or – gods forfend – die.

That day was different. Kyle had slouched his way down to the corner, slightly concerned that the cigarette ash gathering at his shirt pocket was not giving the ‘cool’ effect he aimed for, when a rusty scrape of sound snapped his head up.

“Young man?”

For a long moment Kyle’s brain refused to process the input. Duck didn’t speak; at least not to anyone under the age of sixty. He took an occasional beer with the codgers from the bowling league, could sometimes be seen discoursing with the old professor who’d retired to Rockridge and, once in a blue moon, he would attend the weekly tea dance at the community centre and stun the over 60-s into silent adoration as he whirled blue rinse after blue rinse around the polished boards with the effortless grace of a prima ballerina.

“Sir?”

Kyle stopped, hovering a good six feet away, not wanting to appear a fool if he had misheard.

“Care to buy me a coffee and hear some advice?”

Kyle didn’t like the sound of that. When people of Duck’s age mentioned advice it usually started with ‘Back in my day’ and ended with ‘… and that is what’s wrong with you young folk today.’ But this was Duck; Duck the legend who had – for some obscure reason – chosen to talk to a young person, to Kyle. Deciding it was an opportunity too rare and exciting to miss, Kyle shrugged and gave a bit of a nod, desperate not to appear overeager and gauche.

They idled to Betty’s cafe, Kyle’s heart beating a shade too hard, grabbed a corner table and ordered strong black coffee. Kyle failed utterly to suppress a grimace as he sipped the thick brew and Duck shook his head, uttering a creaking chuckle.

“Lesson one, kid, be your own person. Why did you order coffee when you don’t drink it?”

“I… How do you know I don’t?”

“There’s not much in this town that gets by me, kiddo. Go order something you want to drink and don’t let me see you pandering to someone like that again.”

Kyle ordered a mineral water, and admitted to himself that this wasn’t what he had expected. Not that he had ever had a real idea of what might happen, but whatever it was it wasn’t this.

Seated once more, Kyle glanced up and was pinioned by the faded grey gaze. He was being considered, weighed, judged and he urgently prayed he would not be found wanting. Duck gave a nod, sat back and smiled, revealing a set of gleaming white dentures.

“I’ve waited a long time for you, Kyle.”

“Me?”

“Uh-yup. I have something to teach you and something for you to do when you have learned.”

“I’m not so great at the whole learning thing. I …”

“You dropped out of school at 14. You just about learned to read. Numbers still elude you. You haven’t got the patience or will to hold down even the most menial job. You bounce from girl to girl, drug to drink, and have a string of debts as long as a lone-shark’s baseball bat. I told you, there isn’t much I don’t get to know in Rockridge.”

“So what use am I to you?”

“Follow me and discover your purpose, Kyle.”

Duck got up, flipped a handful of coins onto the table and left. Kyle had the beginnings of a suspicion concerning Duck, old time religion and enforced atonement, but he scurried out of the cafe and caught up to the old man as he turned the corner. He had a surprising turn of speed for someone bent over with age and often seen using a cane and hitching his left leg. In silence they trod the familiar pavements but Kyle noticed heads turning, even a car slowing and a gaping face behind the glass of the driver’s door. Would this garner him respect in the town? Here he was, strolling along in the spring sunshine, stride for stride with the legend that was Duck. Surely people would have to see him now, give some attention to the man who was the chosen of Duck?

“Is what they think so important to you, Kyle?”

His stride faltered for a second, although Duck didn’t miss a beat. Damn, the man could read his mind!

“Don’t be a fool” Duck shook his head, “Reading people’s body language, watching their eyes and the thoughts in their faces isn’t supernatural. It’s a trick anyone can learn, even you, Kyle.”

They continued, Duck silent, his footfalls purposeful, Kyle silent but his mind a whirl, his footsteps uneven, distracted. He was considering Duck’s words. Was it so very important that he have respect, or at least some recognition, from the people of Rockridge? He couldn’t deny it was, but why? For all his life, Kyle’s thoughts had been shallow, flittering things which never settled or had gravitas. Something about walking with Duck, this strangeness, this jerk out of normality, had acted as a weight and pinned down one particular answer; because he was a no-one, a nothing, a man of no importance with only the most tenuous bindings. Rockridge barely knew he existed and that caused a stirring in his core, a ruffling and a yearning to be someone and have people look at him, not past or through.

He was still digesting this sudden revelation when his body registered a change of atmosphere. A hot wind gusted through his hair and his feet fought harder for purchase. They’d hit the edge of the desert and even early spring was several degrees hotter than was comfortable. Sand shifted restlessly under his sneakers and he cast a quick glance at Duck but there was no break in his stride and they moved ahead for another thirty minutes accompanied by the screech of raptors overhead and the riffle of sand drifting in the wind, building and destroying dunes.

They crested a rise and Duck stopped abruptly. Kyle came up beside him and followed his line of sight. A shallow valley lay before them with only two striking features. One was a small tent, canvas thrown roughly over four corner poles which faced across the valley from a point ten feet away. The second was a set of graduated rocks which strung in a slate grey chain across the area before the tent. Kyle counted ten rocks growing from roughly the size of a hen’s egg to the largest, easily the girth of a tractor tire.

“What’s this about?” he asked, but Duck walked steadily down the slope and disappeared into the tent. Kyle was forced to follow.

Inside the tent he found Duck, a three-legged stool and a lidded box. Duck lifted the lid of the latter and showed Kyle an array of bottled water, tinned food and a can opener. He then sat on the stool, leaned forward and pulled back a square of the tent fabric which revealed a small window onto the valley beyond.

“This is where you will learn what I have to teach. Watch. Look out the window.”

Duck stilled, sitting upright and yet completely relaxed. Kyle couldn’t pick out a single twitch of tension as he concentrated on Duck then transferred his attention to the small window cut into the tent. Sand shifted, rippling, flattening, piling, blowing in sudden swirls. No clouds cast shade, no creatures moved and the stillness caught Kyle off-guard. Out of nowhere the smallest rock began a slow slide. It dragged a groove through the sand, cutting a path away from the tent. Kyle stood, mouth agape, his mind searching for explanations. Rocks did not move by themselves but there was nothing out there, no-one out there and the damn rock was moving, now picking up speed, scything forward at an easy walking pace. Kyle turned to Duck, a question forming on his lips, but Duck’s eyes were close and he seemed in deep thought, unaware of Kyle’s presence. Over the next ten minutes all ten rocks moved, a creeping army heading out into the desert with unspecified purpose.

Kyle slipped from the tent, approached the smallest rock, now a good twenty feet away from the tent, and put his foot on it. Despite applying all his weight he could not stop its inexorable forward motion. He flung himself against the largest rock, trying bodily to halt its progress but with equally impossible results; they could not be stopped.

Back inside the tent Duck had risen and was stretching out his back with a great deal of audible pops and cracks. He grinned at Kyle on the younger man’s slow, stunned return.

“Haven’t sat there in many a year. These old bones don’t appreciate the abuse. So, kiddo, impressed?”

“I am, but I don’t know why… or how.”

“This is the bit where I need you to put words like impossible, unbelievable and tricks out of your mind; preferably before I explain. Just accept that what you saw and what I am about to say are simply the truth and we will get along much faster.”

“Oh…kay.” Kyle was hesitant to give up his power so readily but he needed an explanation.

“More years back than I wanna think about there was an old guy in town called Axel. Dunno where he came from. In the end, I dunno where he went. In the middle he taught me how to shift those stones”

“What for?”

Kyle couldn’t help it, the words tumbling over his lips before he could clam his mouth shut. Duck frowned, rolled his eyes and continued.

“Hush up, son; just listen. I’m now gonna teach you, because one of Axel’s last conversations with me included the instruction that I was to pass it on when I found the right person. For whatever reason, the vibes say you are it. For however long it takes, you are gonna sit in this tent and learn until you can shift those stones in your sleep without giving it a single thought. You will listen to my instructions, I will leave, and I will only see you again when you come back to town. That return will be down to you, Kyle. You can fail at this, like you have done so often before, or you can stick it out and come see me when you can prove you learned the lesson.”

“Then what?”

“That’s for then. For now, go sit on that stool.”

Feeling more than a little like a kid on a naughty step, Kyle sat and waited. Duck considered him for a long moment and then uttered a single line.

“Tell those stones to move.”

With that he turned and walked out of the tent. By the time Kyle had quit spluttering and thought to get up and chase down this jester of a man, Duck had disappeared. Kyle realised two things; first that he had no idea where he was, and second he had even less about how to get back to town. He felt in his jacket, hauled out his mobile and swore fluently. No signal at all. He spent the cliched amount of time wandering around, aiming his phone at various parts of the open, empty sky, swore some more and retreated inside the tent.

Seated on the stool, sipping absently from a bottle of water fished out of the lidded box, Kyle found himself facing an uncomfortable idea. Not only had the stones returned to their original position, without so much as a sigh of effort from Duck, presumably, but he had no idea how to get them to move. Tell them to move? Seriously? Damn crazy old geezer! For a while Kyle considered the notion that Duck would leave Kyle out there until nightfall then come get him, chuckling, feeling full of himself for his little ‘jest’, but night bled into the empty sky and Kyle understood he was on his own.

He slept, restless, on the sandy tent floor, woke still tired and plonked himself back on the stool, idly nibbling at a snack bar. He stared at the stones, wandered around the tent a few times waving his mobile about, sat and stared some more, ate a tin of beans, found a can into which he was clearly meant to relieve himself, stared, sat, slept.

A week later, Kyle had given up on the mobile and had taken to simply sitting. He had become convinced that copying Duck’s posture when he had first moved the stones would somehow be the answer. He did this for another week.

By week three he had occasional thoughts about where people must think he was, if they thought at all, but most of his attention was given to the stones. He was beginning to understand their stillness, their dense, solid, permanent nature.

Week four brought a small revelation, as well as a vague awareness of dwindling water supplies. Although the stones were hard and heavy, the sand beneath was akin to a river, rippling, flowing, ever in motion.

On the first morning of week five Kyle gave his attention to the sand beneath the smallest rock. He watched it shift, swirl, move, and silently began a crooning chant aimed at the recalcitrant rock sitting in the sand stream;

“Let go. Be weightless in the stream. Learn to flow.”

He repeated and repeated and repeated the line. Two days later, he reached frantically for water he had neglected in his mediation, swallowed it slowly, and gazed at the smallest rock with a happy smile. He watched it gently slip away from the tent, smoothly carried in a stream of sand. He looked away, eyed the next stone and resumed his gazing through the window of the tent.

On the next Sunday evening, a smidge before his days kicked into week seven, Kyle left the tent, turned toward Rockridge and spoke silently to the sand.

“Take me home.”

Beneath his feet the sand shifted, drew away and a clear path of deep grey stepping stones led him back to the edge of the wasteland, left him where his feet regained familiar territory. Kyle wandered slowly to the corner, Duck greeting him with a proffered cigarette and a nod.

“Done?”

“Done?”

“Understood?”

“I hope so.”

“I’ll be gone when you wake.”

Kyle nodded, aware of sadness, tinged with smiles, accepting the key Duck slipped into his hand. Duck leaned back against the wall, Kyle companionably beside him, both staring into the streets of Rockridge.

“I’m leaving my place to you, Kyle. You better look after it, the town more tan my trailer. I don’t wanna think about how many years you’d screw up if you get it wrong.”

“I won’t.”

“Ya know, I think that’s the truth. Be strong, Kyle.”

Kyle nodded, touched hands with Duck and watched him walk away. The baton was passed. Now it was Kyle’s job to keep Rockridge ticking over. He understood. He saw why this little backwater was so peaceful, so lacking in crime, and violence, so filled with down-home happiness and goodwill. It was a wellspring. People grew in Rockridge, they were nurtured, taught, guided, and when the time was right they were gently shown where to go in the world, to the places where love, friendship and happiness were most needed; pebbles in the stream of life, rolling and rubbing up against all the other unhappy, misguided pebbles and putting things right, one rock at a time.

Binkivash

DSCF3071

(This post is part of my Blogging 101 thing, also Word of the Day from Facebook, in red, and Daily Prompt from WordPress- Now You See Me)

Milly swept her duster over the window-sill with a smile. She enjoyed caretaking the church, but time spent in the bell tower was especially precious. The seclusion gave her mind time to settle, away from kids, husband, a million and one things which demanded her constant attention. The narrow windows, reminding her strongly of arrow-slits, gave an uninterrupted view over Carbury; a rural idyll of cows, fields, woodland and scattered cottages close to still pools and tumbling streams. She’d lived there all her life but never tired of the landscape, of letting her mind fly free over the unending vista. She sighed, taking in a lungful of pure air before leaning forward a little to pull the window closed; open windows led to a belfry full of pigeons!

A slight movement in the graveyard below caught her eye. Some wild thing rustling through the low hedge fences which partitioned various sections of the cemetery; the heartbreaking children’s section, awash with teddies and balloons, a fairground adjacent to the sombre university of ancient experience which was the plague pit, grassed over but dotted with teetering headstones inscribed with dozens of eroding names. Graveyards were perfect hunting grounds for wildlife and Milly turned away as whatever sought its evening meal continued to rustle through the leaves and branches.

She walked softly down the winding stairs and back to the tiny cupboard where cleaning supplies were stored . She carefully packed away broom and mop, polish and cloth, latched the door and slipped out the side entrance, carefully locking it behind her. The day Reverend Thomas has given her that key had been one of the best in her life. Not only did it demonstrate how she was trusted, perhaps even respected, at least a little, but also it had signalled her freedom. For three nights a week, as dusk fell, she had time, space, peace, room to be Milly. Storing the key in a deep, zipped pocket in her holdall she crunched down the gravelled path toward the lychgate. The kissing gate they’d called it when she had been in school, girls running through it with boys in hot pursuit, guaranteed a kiss if the catch was made.

Giggling at memories, Milly reached for the gate and paused. To her side she caught a sound matching the rustling movement she had seen from the bell-tower. The well-clipped yew hedge shivered, parted briefly to reveal a tangle of branches, then stilled. Curious, the odd movement grasping her imagination, Milly crouched and reached, parting the branches a little. Enmeshed deep within the bush lay a shoe. A man’s shoe, slightly battered, scuffed on the toe, its laces frayed, and pinned firmly on the end of a branch. Guessing a mouse was sussing the shoe out as a possible hiding place, Milly made to rise.. then a small hand grabbed the heel of the shoe and began tugging.

Her first thought was ‘why is there a child in the yew hedge’ as the hand was no bigger than that of her five year-old son. This thought was closely followed by a slight flush and a stir of unease. A child of that age would surely not know such curses! The profane language continued a while longer, then Milly coughed, in the hopes she could interrupt the flow and find out what was going on.
“Hello?” She ventured, “Erm… can I help you?”
The commotion in the hedge ceased. Silence fell. This was followed by the sound of scuffling, a grunt, and then the shoe shot out of the hedge and landed at her feet. She bent to retrieve it, but froze as a figure shot out of the bush shrieking indignantly;
“Don’t you touch that. It’s mine!”

Milly stumbled back, bumped up against the gate-post and stared, mouth agape. The little figure, barely reaching her knee, glared up at her, clutching the shoe tight against its heaving chest, its bright red hair a thicket of leaves and curls and a few yew berries. A livid scratch marked its cheek below furious green eyes. It wore the absolute epitome of gnomish attire, red jacket, blue trousers, pointed blue hat; it could have stepped straight out of a book about gnomes she’d owned as a child. A brown sack bumped against its back when it straightened up, clearly trying to regain its dignity, no easy task when the average cat can look down on you.

“I am a god, mortal female! I need no help from the likes of you.”
Milly snapped her mouth shut, blinked and realised the little man was still there. Still clutching his shoe. Still there…
“Isn’t that shoe too big for you?”
It was the gnome’s turn to seem confused. It raised the shoe, buffed the toe on his sleeve and shoved it over his shoulder into the sack.
“I tell you I am a god and you want to know about a shoe? What kind of idiot are you?”
“One who doesn’t literally look like I’ve been pulled through a hedge backwards playing with a tatty old shoe.”
The pair glared at each other for a minute before Milly relented, her curiosity well and truly captured.

“Are you really a god?”
“I am.”
“Of what?”
His face fell into a frown, but he rallied quickly.
“I am the great and powerful Binkivash. Cower before me mortal!”
“Really?” Milly eyed him dubiously and he had the good grace to look away and drag his booted foot about in the dust like a child caught in a lie.
“Yes?”
“Great and powerful? Did you steal that from the Wizard of Oz?”
“They stole it from me! I…”
Milly was using The Stare on him. Not even a great and powerful gnome god can withstand the power of a mother’s Stare.
“Fine. I am a god though.”
“A gnome god?”
“No. a human one. I’m the god of writers.”

Milly motioned to a bench by the garden of remembrance.
“Shall we sit? Talk a little?”
Once they were ensconced Milly started afresh.
“I am very pleased to meet you Binkivash. Forgive my reaction, but you are truly the most ostrobogulus sight I have ever come across. The god of writers? I thought there were some Greek muses for that?”
“Stuck up trollops the lot of ’em” Binkivash snarled, “Too good to get their hands dirty doing the actual work of godding.”
“Don’t gods just wave their hands about, say some words, that sort of thing, if they want something to happen?”
“Don’t believe everything you read in the Iliad. Some poor fool has to go out and make sure the physical items are in place for the ‘major’ gods stuff to work!”
“Someone like you maybe? Does the shoe have something to do with this?”

By way of answer Binkivash drew the sack off his back and tipped its contents onto the bench. Sweeping his arm across the assorted items he asked,
“What do you see?”
Milly took in the strange assortment. Aside from the shoe, there was a plastic bag, a piece of string with a faded label attached to it, a purple butterfly hair slide, 3 unmatched socks and a half empty box of bendy straws.
“Rubbish? Useless items? Leftovers from a jumble sale?”
“Nope. These are inspiration.” he took in Milly’s puzzlement and continued with a grin, “Ever seen a plastic bag caught in a tree? A shoe by the side of the motorway? A half-empty box of something odd where it has no right to be?”
Milly nodded, thinking of countless times they had been bombing along the motorway and she’d seen a single shoe on the verge. Binkivash chuckled.
“I can tell you exactly what you are thinking right now.”
“No you cannot.”
“You’re wondering how all those single shoes get where you see them. Why the bag ended up in that tree. Who left a half empty box of fizzy sweets between the railway tracks.”
“Yes, I’ve wondered it lots of times, but what’s that got to do with writing?”
“Sometimes the sleet of inspiration needs a kick in the rear to get it going. You’re not a writer so these strange things don’t mean anything more than a brief wonderment to you, but if a writer sees these things it will spark their imagination. They will begin writing about something because of what they see. My job is to put the right things in the right places for the right people to see.”
“Why? Don’t writers see inspiration in everything, pretty much?”

Binkivash sat back, having shuffled all his items into the sack and set it beside him.
“They do, but sometimes there is a story which needs to be written. The gods find it hard to reach mortals these days. They rarely listen. Most of them don’t even believe gods exist!” his head shake and deep frown showed the little god’s patent disapproval, “Even you, sitting here talking to me, a god, there’s a part of your brain trying to tell you that this is a dream, you’ve fallen asleep in the church and when you wake up you’ll grin at how silly your sleeping mind can be.”
“I think I believe more than not, if that helps any, Binkivash.” Milly offered and he seemed somewhat mollified.
“Thank you. It’s not just a phrase, a passing thought, you know; gods really do get stronger the more people show their belief in them.”
Milly offered her hand and as they shook she spoke;
“I promise faithfully to always believe in you, Binkivash, god of writers. Just remember me when you are all powerful.”
He chuckled, winked and continued his narrative.

“As I said, sometimes there are tales which need to be told. Do you think Tolkien came up with Middle Earth all by himself? Or Rowling, Hogwarts? Right now, for the last century or so actually, the gods have quietly been campaigning to restore belief in them; belief in magic and creatures such as fairies and vampires and every form of life this world prefers to think a cute folk tale or scary myth. Great writers are being constantly inspired by little prods from the realm of the gods. The balance needs to be restored before the distance between fae and mortal becomes too great to be bridged.”
He paused, sighed and Milly’s heart wrenched with the appeal in his eyes.
“Imagine what this world would be like without the magical, lady. Imagine no fantasy, no mystery, no magic, nothing to balance out the steel and data. No rainbow and glimpse of a pot of gold on the other side of the scales to technology. No angel to balance out the demon. No myth to temper the fact. That’s what we’re working on, and that’s why I was stuck in a yew hedge trying to get back the shoe I dropped when I got chased by a fox.”

He slumped and Milly gently placed her hand over his.
“What can I do, Binkivash? I’m not a writer…?”
“Tell tales… What’s your name, mortal lady?”
“Millicent.. well everyone calls me Milly.”
“Tell tales, Milly. Keep telling them. Teach your children how to keep alive the tales of magic and mystery, the myths, legends and might be that lie just outside the mortal realm. Celebrate all the gods, every goddess. Put a fairy on top of your tree. A frog prince in your pond. An angel over their beds, a demon under them – for there must be balance. The boogeyman in the closet must have a hero to slay him. Do that, Milly. Tell tales and help others to tell tales. Be a part of the army of the gods and maybe, one day, we’ll see writers become the gods who returned magic and mystery to the world which was fading to grey.”

He jumped up, slung his sack over his shoulder, and bowed slightly.
“Must you go?” Milly knelt before him and he endured her impulsive hug.
“I have shoes to secrete, Milly. Think of me when you read the story it creates, and tell that story to your children, your grandchildren.”
He ran off, vanished in an instant and Milly stood for a while, a little forlorn, startling when he reappeared at her feet.
“Here”
He shoved a book into her hand and vanished again before she could respond. She looked down and smiled, discovering he had left her with a small leather book entitled ‘The History and Lore of the Higher Races’. A note was stuck to the front page, written in rune-like script:
‘Read the bit about Gnomes first – Binkivash’
She tucked the book into her pocket and headed for the gate. Time to go home and read her boys a bedtime story.

Why am I here?

The eternal question! In this case, I am working my way through Blogging 101 (I’m already a week behind!) and the first thing is to do this introduction.

Why am I here?

I’m not doing a diary or a blog about a particular subject, like fashion or cooking or whatever; that is most definitely not my thing. I am here to share my writing, my short stories.

Who do I want to reach?

Readers. Simple really. I’m not here looking for advice or critiques or how to improve guides and the like. I am here to share stories with readers. I know lots of writers are readers but I am not aiming to preach to the converted (not that I am looking to exclude anyone ). I want to reach people who like to read a story for the pleasure of reading.

Who am I?

A writer. I write mostly fantasy, but I will write on anything and everything which comes to my mind. I have an ever ready cast of characters who populate my mental Green Room and I love to write a story. I am wordy, descriptive, often wander off on tangents and rarely write happy endings. I am well known for at least one death per story, immediate or connected at a distance. Greenlake is my fantasy universe where lots of my stories happen – very much based in fantasy, magic, gods and goddesses, fae creatures and a sprinkling of humans if needed.

I think that will do for now as this is only a quick first assignment 😉