Fiction Fursday/A Trip to Belgium Part One

Hello, friends! It’s been a while, and it’s also late and I for that I apologise. I reckon I’ve got a writing routine sorted out once again and I’m feeling positive about my various projects. I’m actually gearing up to take part in NaNoWriMo this year, which is exciting!

Today’s story was prompted by Esther Newton. Esther suggested that I write a story where a man goes to sleep and wakes up 100 years in the past. What happens to him and whether or not he returns was to be left up to me. Well, the historian in me awoke with excitement at the prospect and I started brainstorming right away! As I began writing out my ideas, I soon came to the realisation that the story could not be contained to one blog post, and so I plan on writing it in three parts. The subject matter will be dark at times, and I will do my best to treat it with tact and research my ideas as much as I can. So, thank you, Esther, for such an inspiring prompt!

Here is Part One of my story. I hope you enjoy the beginning of this tale.

P.S. If you would like to get involved and suggest a prompt for me to use in the future, please feel free to do so and leave a comment below!

 

A Trip to Belgium

Part One: 1916

By Adam Dixon

 

Derek draped his red tie over the back of his chair and stretched. He was pleased with his day’s work and he had no doubt that his client would be too. He could almost hear the old crone rasping down the telephone in delight once he told her that her accounts were all in order. Then would come the much-deserved praise and Derek would once again justify the hefty quarterly bonuses he was receiving. He rubbed his stomach, thinking of the fine meals he would soon be enjoying, courtesy of the company, of course.

“I’ll have to get on with it and book a flight, soon,” Derek said to himself, sitting on his wide bed as he undid his trousers. He kicked off his expensive shoes and wriggled out of his clothes, lying back luxuriously with a deep sigh.

“Where to this time?” he mused, scratching at his five o’clock shadow. He’d see to that in the morning, it didn’t pay for his clients to see him unshaven. “I can’t believe Rome was five months ago already!” He smiled at the thought of his holiday, remembering the bustling streets with their exquisite architecture and the fragrant restaurants beckoning to him. He stared up at his custom light fittings and ran a hand through his greying hair.

“Germany this time? No…France? Yeah…France would be nice! Or Belgium! I could visit Antwerp again, maybe with a trip to Bruges somewhere along the line!” He chuckled at the thought of the raised eyebrows when he told his colleagues his choice. They would have chosen Paris, or continued on to Spain. Derek liked to be different; he thought it made him seem interesting. For a moment, Derek’s mind slipped and he wondered if he should invite Sandra to come with him, but he dispelled it angrily. He traced the ring-less finger on his left hand, blocking out the wounds which were still hurting even after five years.

“I ought to do something for mum, too,” Derek thought, refusing to think about Sandra. “Maybe I’ll pay for her to get her roof fixed…I ought to have done that weeks ago…” Derek felt guilty and promised himself that he would do just that on his next payday. Yawning, Derek shuffled around until he had slipped under his duvet. Sleep claimed him quickly, and he didn’t bother to turn out the light.

 

“Derek Webley, get up this instant!” A shrill voice shouted in Derek’s ear. He jerked awake, squinting as daylight poured in through the open curtains. Confused and a little afraid, Derek sat up. An old woman dressed in simple clothing of a woollen blouse and a long, ragged dress bustled about his room, her slippers scuffing the floorboards. Floorboards? Derek’s room had a cream carpet…

“You left the bleedin’ candle on as well! You’ll set the house alight one of these days!” the woman continued, gesturing towards a melted stump of candlewax on his desk. Derek frowned. How had that gotten there? He noticed with shock that his room looked completely different. It was the same large size, but the walls were missing the decadent paintings and the tasteful blue wallpaper. His bed was smaller too, the duvet replaced by a single, creased blanket and the memory-foam mattress gone in favour of an inch-thick monstrosity of discomfort. Derek was perplexed, and then he recognised the intruder as she turned towards him.

“Mum, what are you doing here? What’s going on?” Derek spluttered. His eyes flicked towards her clothes. “And what are you wearing?!”

“None of your lip now, Derek!” his mother scolded, wrenching open his wardrobe and pulling out a shirt and trousers. “Here you are, put these on. Quickly!” She tossed the clothes at Derek, who was staring in disbelief. He touched the clothes and snorted.

“I can’t go anywhere dressed in these!” he said, smirking. “I think these clothes went out with Queen Victoria! Where did you get them from? A joke shop, maybe?”

“I said no lip, Derek!” his mother snapped, placing her hands on her hips and tapping her foot on the floorboards. “Now get up, get dressed and get yourself down to the town hall! I’ll not have any son of mine shirking his duty!”

“What are you talking about?” Derek swung his legs from his bed and started in surprise at his long woollen pyjamas. “What am I wearing?!” He was aghast. “Who dressed me in these? Why didn’t I wake up?”

“Derek Henry Webley, get your backside out of bed and put those clothes on this instant!” His mother spat, her face the picture of frustration. Derek obeyed, wondering which one of his friends had thought up this elaborate prank. Whoever it was, they had done a sterling job getting his no-nonsense mother on board! As he pulled on the moth-eaten trousers and starchy shirt he wondered whether or not he was dreaming. He followed his mother out of the bedroom and onto the landing, where he let out a cry of astonishment.

“The house! What have you done to it?” he asked, staring wildly at the plain flooring and bland wallpaper. “This is getting ridiculous now! How’ve you managed this while I’ve been asleep? It looks like something out of the 1920’s!” Derek’s mother stopped at the top of the stairs and turned to face him. She did not look impressed.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to, sonny,” she said with her lips curled in distaste. “I know exactly what you’re doing! I’ll not have you pretending to be mad in order to get out of your duty! The law’s the law and everyone who can hold a gun has do their bit, so don’t even think about it!”

“Mad? Gun? What are you talking about?” Derek said. His mother tutted and seized his wrists, dragging him down the staircase. Even that was different: he had been rather proud of the blue carpet which had run over the steps like a soft, comfortable ocean. It was now bare and in quite desperate need of a varnishing. How had they managed it?

A few minutes later Derek was being led by the hand through the street as he scratched at his uncomfortable trousers. Derek’s eyes were wide and his mouth was agape at its transformation. There seemed to be fewer houses and there were no cars on the road. The air smelled clean, lacking the pervasive odour of exhaust fumes. Derek was sure that he could detect a whiff of manure, too. He stared at people who were dressed in similarly dated clothes to himself. The majority of the men were sporting moustaches and wore hats, and the women wore long dresses and sensible shoes. Derek couldn’t see a hint of make-up on a single face! Strangely, he also noticed that there were no young men around. Lots of men, to be sure, but all of them older than himself, walking with grim faces and troubled expressions. He became convinced that he must be dreaming; no prank could be that elaborate!

“Come on, Derek! Don’t dawdle!” his mother said, tugging at his wrists. “You must be on time and you must look keen!”

“Mum, why were you in my house?” Derek asked. He’d had lucid dreams before but he couldn’t recall ever feeling so immersed in one. He thought he’d try to make some sense of it before he woke up.

“Hark at you! Your house, indeed!” his mother snorted. “It’s a bit late to start putting on airs, my lad! Now shut your mouth and stop dilly-dallying! Maybe today you can prove to me and that harlot, Sandra, that you are a real man!” Derek blinked in shock and complied, more confused than ever. His subconscious was certainly giving him a beating this time! They approached the town hall, a grand old building which, incredibly, looked brand new. Its grey stones and red bricks were clean and its doors were wide open, admitting and ejecting streams of men like twin rivers. Derek’s mother shoved him through the door and into the bustling foyer. There was no opportunity to admire the resplendent interior of the building due to the amount of men barging into one another. The air was filled with the sounds of shouting, cursing, coughing and an occasional bray of laughter. Derek was jostled to and fro by several disgruntled people before being confronted by an aging man in an Army uniform. He appeared to be one of several such men in the building and they were all clutching sheaves of papers and pencils. The man’s face was red and his voice was hoarse as if he had been shouting all morning.

“You there! You look game enough, who are you?” The man pointed a wrinkled finger at Derek, his steely eyes sizing him up.  Even his white moustache looked irritated. “Name, age and occupation!”

“Erm, Derek Webley,” Derek said, bewildered. “42 years old. Erm, I’m an accountant.”

“Hmph! What took you so long to join up, Webley? It’s two months since the law changed, have you no shame, man?”

“I’m sorry, but I’ve no idea who you are or what you’re talking about,” Derek said, smiling in what he hoped was a friendly, embarrassed way. The thin man’s face contorted and he shook with fury.

“This is no time to act the fool, Webley!” he shouted, jabbing at Derek’s chest with his skeletal fingers. “Our boys abroad need support and that means they need your help, God save ‘em! I am Major Harold Beaumont and it’s my job to make sure spineless idiots like yourself get out there and provide it! Now, your address and dependents, Webley!”

“Dependents?” Derek frowned.

“Yes, man, dependents!” Beaumont cried, his eyebrows knitting together like angry clouds. “Do you have a wife or children to keep?”

“Erm…no, sir,” Derek said, probing his ring finger again. “And..erm…I live on 42 London Road.” Beaumont nodded and wrote the information down on a form in neat, efficient handwriting. He cast his eyes over Derek once again.

“Do you have any physical ailments, Webley? Bad knees, poor eyesight, weak chest, that sort of thing.”

“Erm, no, sir, I don’t think so. Bit of an expansive waistline these days, if that counts!” Derek attempted another smile. Beaumont’s stony face made it clear that it did not count.

“So, you are unmarried, you have no children to support and you are in fine physical condition for a man of your age. Good God, Webley, the Army is crying out for men like you and if my eyes didn’t deceive me you needed to be dragged here today by your mother! You’re a bloody disgrace, man!”

“Now hang on a minute!” Derek said, his irritation growing. “I’m unused to be spoken to in that tone, Beaumont, and I don’t much appreciate it!” Beaumont barked a hoarse laugh.

“Ah! Perhaps you do have some spine then, Webley!” he said with a wry smile. “That is a relief! But if my remarks upset you then you’d better prepare yourself for a good hiding during your training! Man alive, the drill sergeants will have grand time with you!”

“Training? Wha-“ Derek began. He was cut off by a wave from Beaumont.

“Yes, Webley, your training,” he said curtly, already scanning the room for other men to berate. “A vehicle will collect you tomorrow at 06:00 hours to transport you to your nearest facility and you will be readied for warfare. In six weeks you will be sent over to France or Belgium, depending on where you are needed. Ordinarily training should take three months, but our boys are being pushed hard by Jerry and we can’t spare the time. Good luck, Webley, and God be with you out there.” Before Derek could offer further protestation, Beaumont had marched off and seized another man by the shoulder, barking into his ear at the same time. Derek stood in the foyer of the town hall and stared after the old man, his mind racing. He hoped he would wake up soon, the dream was feeling a bit too real…

“Derek!” a deep voice called. A familiar face approached Derek in the foyer.

“James!” he exclaimed, reaching out to seize the offered hand. “I’m bloody pleased to see you here! Maybe you can help me clarify this madness before I wake up!”

James Johnson nodded, his usually jovial face creased with worry. James had worked alongside Derek for almost ten years and they were frequent drinking buddies.

“It is surreal, isn’t it?” James said, glancing around the packed building. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like once we actually get out there. The stories we’ve heard, and the damned lists growing weekly…over by Christmas, they said, and it’s been two years…the world has gone mad, Derek.” Derek was shocked by James’s tone, and he followed him back into the street wondering how to respond. He was feeling uneasy and more than a little bit frightened. He hoped he would wake up soon…

“Derek! James!” another voice called, and a tall woman with raven-black hair came hurrying towards them. Derek smiled at her, feeling relieved.

“Ah, Mary, it’s good to see you here,” he said warmly, amused at her prim attire. Mary Rutherford had often been wearing more revealing clothes whenever Derek had seen her around the office. Her husband, Barry, (another drinking buddy), worked with them and they had gotten to know Mary well through him. What had inspired Derek to dream about her in that way?

“My God, you’ve both joined up, too, haven’t you?” Mary said, her almond eyes wide and her hands clasped under her chin.

“That’s right,” James said with a shrug. “Can’t avoid it these days.”

“I see…” Mary looked at both of them, her eyes brimming with tears. “Well…you two be careful out there, please. I’ve…not heard from Barry in nearly three weeks…he’s never left it this long before and I…I…” Mary broke off, her shoulders shaking with sobs.

“Mary! What’s the matter?” Derek asked, alarmed. He touched her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Mary looked up at him, blinking tears from her eyes. She managed a weak smile.

“Barry…said he was being sent into France,” she whispered. “Couldn’t say much more than that, obviously…but I fear the worst, Derek…oh Lord, please be careful! G-goodbye and G-god bless!” With that Mary hurried away, her snuffling cries receding into the distance.

“Barry’s not one to make her worry,” James said, rubbing his temples. “That’s not good news…another one gone. That makes four so far. Damned lucky it isn’t more, if you ask me.”

“F-four?” Derek stammered. A tight ball of horror was forming in the pit of his stomach. James nodded.

“Yes, four. I still can’t quite believe that Harry and Paul, are gone…they were so keen to volunteer… Poor blighters…not long out of school, either. David was a shock as well, and his childr- damn, you haven’t heard about David yet! Oh, I’m so stupid!” James smacked his forehead with his palm and looked contrite. “I’m sorry to have to tell you like this, Derek…but Sally and I heard from Deidre last week…she told us that David has been killed in Ypres.”

“D-dead?” Derek whispered. “All four of them?” Harry and Paul had been the enthusiastic graduates they had taken on at their office, and David had been a reliable worker who was prone to making crude jokes.

“I’m still trying to deny it, too.” James said wearily. “I keep hoping that this is all a twisted nightmare and that I’ll wake up soon…” He clapped a resigned hand on Derek’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. Derek could see the anguish in his friends’ face.

“I’d best be home, Derek. I…need to tell Sally and the children that…my country needs me…I’ll see you tomorrow, I suppose.” James turned and walked away, leaving Derek speechless. His mind seemed to work in slow motion, his reasoning taking long, sluggish steps as if it were moving through treacle. The horror in his stomach had swollen to the size of a canon-ball and threatened to burst from his chest. No, it had to be a dream, he thought desperately, it had to be a dream

Derek staggered as the full realisation of what was happening came crashing into him like a tidal wave. He wasn’t dreaming! He had woken up in 1916 and had been conscripted to fight overseas! He began to blubber, moving around the streets like a drunk, reaching out to strangers in their strange clothes and imploring them to help him.

“Please, I don’t belong here!” he said, grabbing shocked men and women by their sleeves. “Please, there has been a mistake! I’m from the future! I’m from the future! I shouldn’t be here!”

“Poor devil has lost his mind!” one woman said in a hushed voice to a wide-eyed little boy.

“Hmph! Pull yourself together, man!” barked an elderly gentleman in a grey coat. “This town needs you! I’d be over there too if I weren’t so damned old!”

“But, but…” Derek cast to and fro, seeking any understanding in the faces of those around him. He was met only with anger, embarrassment and amusement. Finally, he hung his head in defeat. Derek trudged back down the unfamiliar-yet-familiar streets towards the home that was no longer his. As he walked, a single thought penetrated his anguished daze and he began to chuckle despite himself.

“I did say I wanted to go to Belgium!” he said with tears in his eyes. “I should’ve kept my big mouth shut! Oh Christ…” His tears fell and splashed onto his itching trousers. Derek shambled homeward, his feet heavy as they bore him closer to hell on earth.

 

 

 

 

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Fiction Fursday/Re-blog

I’m afraid to say that I have failed this week in my commitment to writing a new story. I’ve just started a new job and things are still up in the air from my recent move. These are terrible excuses and I am a hypocrite for citing them as they shouldn’t have stopped me from writing, so for that I apologise. I even had a great prompt from the lovely Esther Newton work with, but I still managed to slack off.

However, I still wanted to post something, so I have decided to give an older story a dusting off this week. Last year, I wrote a story which I was very pleased with called “Fair Emma“. Some of you may have read this story already, but those of you who are new to my blog may not have come across it. I enjoyed writing it immensely and got a positive response from those who read it. I will leave a link to the original post and the first two paragraphs below, if you are interested in reading it. I hope you enjoy if you do.

Again, apologies for the lack of fresh material. I will be back on form next Thursday, I promise!

 

Fair Emma

By Adam Dixon

The streets of Whitechapel were deathly quiet that night. The street lamps were sparse and their feeble glow barely penetrated the November mist. There were shadows on every corner, and in one of them lurked a solitary, patient woman. Jackie stood motionless, her eyes on the small lodgings across the street. Standing on street corners had become a familiar occupation of hers of late, but she was not there for her trade. A fellow night-worker was completing a transaction with a client, and they had entered the small house less than half an hour ago. She stood calmly, her gaze boring into the wooden door just yards in front of her.

Soon, a man staggered outside, cursing loudly as he caught his foot on the door frame. He almost tripped, but somehow managed to remain upright and wobbled off into the night, belching out a bawdy song and chuckling to himself. After a few minutes the street was silent once again, and Jackie slowly approached the house. It was in a state of disrepair, with the door a little off its hinges and one of the panes of glass broken in the window next to it. Raising a gloved hand, Jackie knocked softly on the door.

Here is the link to the original post. Thanks for reading!

P.S. I just realised that I wrote this story in order to be featured on Esther’s blog! What a strange coincidence!

 

Fiction Fursday/A Crisis in Alexandria

 Today’s story comes from a suggestion by Geoff Le Pard. Geoff suggested that I write a story featuring a known historical figure who is attempting to deal with a crisis. This ended up being a very intersting idea, and I decided to take a bit of creative liberty and write a short alterntive history piece. 

I hope you enjoy what I have been able to come up with. Thanks again  Geoff! 

P.S. If anyone would like to offer me a prompt for another week, please let me know in the comments. Thanks! 

 

A Crisis in Alexandria

By Adam Dixon

The time had come. Alexandria had fallen and Egypt was under Roman control. The muffled, distant sounds of marching and shouted orders could be heard outside the palace. Cleopatra cursed the pompous Octavian with all of her fury. How dare he treat her this way? Tucked away in her own palace like some precious ornament, guarded by one of his pets! It was a disgrace and an affront to all of the Gods! Indeed, the heathen had strayed too far this time, as all knew that the Pharaoh of Egypt was a living God herself…

A God, perhaps, but still a defeated one. Cleopatra was forced to recognise that fact. Her grand plans for Egypt and her Ptolemaic dynasty had crumbled around her, leaving her choking in its dust. Even her unions and alliances with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius had not been enough. She had been cast aside by the politicians of Rome like an empty flagon; the toga-wearing, wine-addled old men had branded her a traitor once Antonius had fallen from favour. Octavian had wasted no time sending his troops to her shores, and for once even Antonius’ skills as a general had not been enough to keep her safe. Now Antonius himself was dead and Cleopatra faced humiliation back in Rome as part of Octavian’s Triumph. This was a crisis beyond which she had ever faced, but a solution had presented itself nonetheless.

“Your Excellency, it is time,” Iras, her maidservant urged, pulling Cleopatra from her thoughts. Cleopatra looked at the prone woman and nodded.

“Let us proceed, then,” she replied, her voice calm and steady, never betraying the unease which gripped her heart. Another servant, Charmion, flowed up to her and began to remove Cleopatra’s clothes. Her exquisite robes of state were as light as they were beautiful, and all who gazed upon the wearer knew of her power. They slipped from her sun-bronzed body and left her standing naked before them, the coolness of the room raising goose bumps on her skin. Bearing children had had its consequences, but Cleopatra was fortunate to have retained her sensuous figure. Octavian, infuriatingly, had been able to resist her charms; Cleopatra knew that if she had been younger this would not have been the case. Once she was stripped, Charmion helped Cleopatra to dress in the simple garb of a common Egyptian woman, hiding her face with a scarf and tucking her lustrous dark hair into it. A third maid, young and beautiful, stepped forward and looked expectantly at Cleopatra’s feet. Even when dressed improperly her servants knew it was not wise to look upon a Pharaoh directly.

“Dress her,” Cleopatra commanded, watching with a mixture of emotions as her servant was helped into her gorgeous robes. The girl was radiant despite her low birth, reminding Cleopatra strikingly of herself. That was good, that was the desired effect. Once she was dressed, Iras completed the look by placing Cleopatra’s ornate diadem atop the woman’s head, and Cleopatra almost gasped as it caught the evening sunlight in its dazzling perfection. By the Gods, was that how flawless she had looked whilst wearing it? If so, it was little wonder that she inspired the awe of her people!

“You are certain that the fool Epaphroditus is not at his post?” Cleopatra demanded. The woman Charmion bowed her head and spoke to her toes.

“Yes, Excellency,” her reply was meek. “My sister has him adequately… occupied.” Cleopatra nodded. If there was one thing she knew about Romans it was that they were rarely impervious to the allure of Egyptian women.

“You did not tell her what is afoot, as I commanded?”

“No, my Pharaoh. She knows not what we plan…”

“Good,” Cleopatra said, turning away from the pain in the girl’s face. She could not waver now!

“Everything is in place. Lie down and proceed as planned.” The imposter nodded and glided over to the divan. She lay down on the cushions, taking a moment to delve her fingers into them and enjoy the luxury. Cleopatra allowed it. After all, the woman would never have known such decadence, and the Gods knew that she deserved it. The woman glanced at the goblet on the marble table next to her and reached for it with a trembling hand. She lifted the heavy golden vessel, watching the dark purple liquid slop to and fro as she fought to keep her hand steady. The rich, sweet aroma of the wine filled the room as it was disturbed, with the pungent scent of deadly opiates lurking beneath. Iras and Charmion each took identical goblets and raised them to their lips, their faces white and their eyes on the ground. Cleopatra understood their fear. It was all she could do to hold her tongue and not beg them to stop. Instead, she addressed them in a regal tone.

“Loyal servants, you may gaze upon me,” she said, spreading her arms wide. The women gasped as one, their eyes remaining on the floor.

“I shall not harm you,” Cleopatra continued, her voice strong and commanding. “Look upon me and know that I am grateful to you.” Hesitantly, and with excruciating doubt the three women looked up at Cleopatra. Their eyes were full of fear, but also of pride. They were proud to aid their queen in such a way. Cleopatra felt her own pride swell her chest and dampen her eyes. By the Gods, those women were strong! Egypt could never fall if lowly servants possessed such bravery! Cleopatra smiled with an air of finality and nodded. The three women returned the nod and drained their wine as one.

The potion took effect immediately. The women gasped and spasmed, their goblets crashing to the floor. They clutched their stomachs and groaned, squeezing their eyes shut. Then they were still. Iras and Charmion fell to the floor, their young bodies slapping the polished stone and sending a jarring sensation up Cleopatra’s spine. Her imposter lay on her back, her features relaxed and her posture reclining. In death she looked beautiful, as flawless as any Pharaoh before her. Cleopatra touched a hand to her mouth and realised that she was weeping. That was only right, for those women deserved the tears of a God. She took a deep, shuddering breath and surveyed the scene with cold eyes. Everything had gone according to plan. There was only one detail left to secure.

Picking up a woven basket filled with figs, Cleopatra probed here and there with a gentle hand. Soon she felt movement beneath the fruit. Steeling herself, she plunged her hand into the basket and pulled out a wriggling, angry serpent. The asp was as dark as night and hissed and spat within her grasp. Cleopatra grimaced and tossed the snake towards the corpse of her servant. The asp opened its mouth and latched its fangs onto the woman’s breast, twisting its scaly body as it clung to her. Cleopatra observed it with a mixture of revulsion and excitement. Now her plan would succeed! Now her legacy was guaranteed!

Wiping the tears from her cheeks Cleopatra made to leave the chamber. She paused at the gilded door, listening. Satisfied that her guard was absent she pushed the door open and stole from the palace like a thief in the night. She left her home behind and made for the ocean, where her daughters had procured a ship for her. It was most undignified to flee in this manner, but she had done it once before. The Gods only knew what was in store for her now, but she had ensured that history would not forget her.

The Second Coming of Olympus

Zeus walked carefully across the charred wasteland, both awed and repulsed by the world he once knew. The soles of his feet burned from contact with the scorched earth and he stepped over hundreds of blackened corpses as he made his way towards the ocean. A breath of wind which was far too warm brought the putrid scents of decay and harsh chemicals to his nostrils, making him grimace. The planet he loved had until now teemed with life and its population had grown impossibly high. It had seemed as if there were more humans on earth than there were leaves in the trees at one point, but now there were none.

Zeus had been amazed at the progress of humanity; amazed, and fiercely proud. Long gone were the days when the King of the Olympians had felt anger towards them for turning their back on the gods. Unruly children rebelled as they grew, and Zeus knew this fact all too well. In fact, abandonment had given him the opportunity for self-reflection and consideration, and he now clearly saw where the Olympians had gone wrong. If they had spent less time enjoying the fruits of the earth and basking in their own glory they may have retained the respect of their creation. Only Hades had remained occupied over the millennia, and even he had become overwhelmed…

But oh, how far they had come! Discoveries had been made that were beyond the comprehension of the gods themselves! For what paltry gifts could the Olympians offer mankind in the wake of such treasures of science and technology? No, they had realised early on that they must become obsolete. The world had become bigger than Greece and stretched further in the minds of men than Persia and Egypt. Men were hungry for discovery and adventure, and quickly threw off the shackles of Mount Olympus.

But who could have predicted this? Zeus stood silently among the rubble and ash which had once been Athens and gazed out towards the ocean. There were no sounds anymore, save for the sighing of the waves. The Aegean Sea had swollen beyond all proportion until it now lapped against the foot of Lykavittos Hill. Zeus waded out into the warm, stinking water and moved past the ruined shells of houses and restaurants. The waves were black with soot and detritus bobbed sadly in them; Zeus noted the wings of aeroplanes, missile casings and shredded tyres. Floating among them were the irradiated corpses of millions of sea creatures, rotting in the blistering heat of the nuclear fallout. Zeus shook his head, running a hand through his long, matted beard. His brother, Poseidon, had been the most deeply affected by the carnage, so much so that he had not uttered a word for centuries. Zeus feared he may never speak again.

So, the hubris of mankind had proven to be its downfall and the long-forgotten gods were the last beings standing. Should that be considered a victory? Zeus could see nothing victorious about the circumstances. The planet was broken, of that there was no doubt. But could it be fixed? Zeus had spoken to his brethren and they were in agreement; they would come out of their long, long dormancy and reclaim dominion over the world. They would have a Second Coming, so to speak, and in doing so would create life on earth again. This time, however, they would learn from their mistakes; there would be no more toying with their favourites, no more jealousy and no more intrigue and betrayal between them. They would secure that cursed Box and Hephaestus would bind it in the strongest chains he could forge. They would also take steps to ensure that Prometheus would never again be left alone with fire…

Zeus was confident about his plan. The Olympians would flex their dulled muscles and be almighty once again! They would create a new world in which they and other lifeforms could prosper forevermore, and this time it would be completely untainted by the fury of mankind. Zeus took a last, lingering look at the engorged Aegean before striding back towards Mount Olympus. There was a great deal of work to be done.

Fiction Fursday/Stonefur the Mighty

Today sees my first proper Fiction Fursday attempt! This story was suggested by Jason over at Aethereal Engineer. Jason is a brilliant writer of short fiction so of course he sent me away last week with a fantastic idea. He suggested that I write a story with fantasy elements in it but set it in a world with technology or culture no further advanced than the Neolithic period. I realised as I was halfway through writing this that I was more than likely being influenced by Jason’s own epic story, The Old Man of the Elder Trees, which is a brilliant read. This realisation gave me pause but I decided to finish it nonetheless. I hope that doesn’t mean I’ve cheated!

Anyway, it was great fun to write a fantasy story again and I hope you all enjoy what I came up with. It’s a bit longer than my recent stories but I hope it’s exciting enough to keep your interest! Pop by next week for another Fiction Fursday, and if you’d like to suggest something for me to write about in the coming weeks then please write it in the comments section.

Stonefur the Mighty

By Adam Dixon

Winter’s fingertips had started to brush the land, signalling its rapid approach. Jeb shivered as a bitter wind swept through the trees, rustling the leaves and snatching at his hair and beard. He and his brothers moved through the forest as one, their bare feet treading silently upon the grass. The four men were clothed only in hide loincloths to maximise their freedom of movement; they would need to be very fast that day. Jeb hoped that the green daub the Shaman had provided would mask his scent as he had promised. He and his brothers were covered in the sticky mixture, giving them the added effect of camouflage whilst they hunted. Their quarry still had sharp ears so stealth was necessary too, but any advantage offered to them had been seized upon.

Jeb’s brothers each carried a spear made from a sturdy tree branch with a sharpened flint blade tied to it. Jeb carried the only bow and his quiver contained just four arrows. The blades and arrowheads had been fashioned over the course of two days, requiring patience and multiple attempts before success. The experience had served as a stark reminder that their people were not hunters anymore and that cultivating the earth and raising cattle had softened their warrior’s edge. No matter, they had skill enough to do what was needed that day. Jeb grimaced and hoped that the Shaman would hold up his end of their bargain; this was dangerous work for mere promises.

They soon reached the clearing they had been guided towards. A stream flowed through the forest to the north, meandering around a pile of rocks and fallen trees. Lying upon the largest trunk at a distance of one hundred paces was the biggest wolf Jeb had ever seen. It was as tall as a horse and as wide as a bull, its lithe muscles visible beneath its white-flecked grey fur. Jeb stared, transfixed by the beauty of the animal and by the icy fear which caressed his limbs. He had never seen a Great Wolf before and he was humbled and scared. He instantly regretted his task but shook it from his mind with grim determination and held his fear at bay. This needed to be done. Stonefur the Mighty must be brought down that day.

Jeb signalled to his brothers with one fist raised, not taking his eyes from the resting wolf. He saw them fan out in different directions to form a rough semi-circle around the beast. Jeb noted with appreciation that their limbs were poised and ready and their eyes were alert. He knew they were prepared for whatever may happen. Offering a silent plea to the gods and goddesses to watch over them, Jeb signalled again and crouched down. Stocky Horeb and slender Orrin moved forwards, no longer muffling their steps. Jeb notched an arrow to his bow and pulled the string back, sighting the beast along the shaft. The men advanced fifteen paces before the Great Wolf looked up. Its yellow eyes glared across the clearing at the two humans, noting their raised spears. Stonefur growled deeply as a warning and raised itself up on its powerful legs, preparing to spring. Jeb released his held breath and fired.

As the bowstring snapped Stonefur’s eyes flicked towards the sound. It tried to leap from the trunk and out of the line of fire but Jeb’s aim was true and the arrow buried itself in the Great Wolf’s shoulder. The beast bellowed in fury and landed on the ground as blood welled up and stained its fur. Roaring it tensed its hind legs and bounded towards the humans. The events of the next few seconds seemed to pass in slow motion. Jeb blew a shrill note and Horeb and Orrin ran off in opposite directions. His third brother, Jonas, charged forwards and hurled his spear. Again Stonefur attempted to dodge the attack but was caught by surprise. The hefty projectile slammed itself into the wolf’s side as it twisted mid-charge, the force of it knocking it back a step. Another furious roar rang out into the forest, causing nearby birds to take off from their perches in fright. Jeb fired another arrow as the wolf turned towards the now unarmed Jonas, causing only a superficial wound in Stonefur’s left ear. This bought his brother enough time to draw his flint axe from his belt. Usually that axe would be used to chop firewood, but its purpose was far more dangerous that day. Jeb whistled again and Horeb and Orrin drew their arms back for a throw. Their spears flew across the clearing, both finding their mark. Stonefur yelped and whimpered, blood pouring from wounds in its right hind leg and left shoulder. It was still in the fight, though, dislodging the offending weapons as it leaped towards Jonas. Jeb’s next arrow flew over Stonefur’s head and he watched in horror as Jonas was rammed to the ground. The man screamed and tried to ready his axe, but Stonefur was upon him and crushed his head with one snap of his jaws. With fangs painted crimson with blood Stonefur turned to face the archer. Jeb fired his final arrow, dropping the bow as it flew and snatching up his own axe. The arrow launched itself into Stonefur’s chest, forcing a pained roar from its mighty throat.

Jeb rushed forwards, yelling at the top his lungs. Stonefur bound towards him with terrible speed. Jeb waited until it had launched itself into the air before diving forwards into a roll. He felt the wolf’s gigantic frame pass over him, his feet touching the hard muscle in its stomach as he spun. He came out of the roll in a sprint and dashed towards his brothers. Stonefur skidded to a halt and turned, panting. Its eyes flicked between the three men as they approached with their axes drawn and determination in their faces. Jeb noted that its haunches were trembling and his eyes were misting over; it was shaken and the loss of blood was slowing it down. Stonefur shook its head and growled, seeming to become drowsy. Jeb and his brothers began to spread out. The wolf backed up towards the trees, its growls and warning snaps becoming weaker. It glanced at the thick forest and seemed to make a calculation. Before it could make a run for it Jeb and his brothers charged, screeching as they swung their axes at the beast. Stonefur roared and lunged at Jeb, who leaped back nimbly before driving a fierce blow home. His axe bit deep into Stonefur’s solid shoulder and the thin blade snapped. Jeb backed off, holding the now-useless weapon raised. Stonefur’s yellow eyes met Jeb’s and an understanding flickered between them; the wolf was acknowledging defeat. Jeb felt his chest constrict as a wave of compassion and deep respect welled up inside him. Horeb and Orrin continued to rain blows on to the dying wolf, who collapsed with a thud, blood matting its fur. Once it fell the two men also backed away, exchanging glances with Jeb. Jeb raised a hand to them.

“It is done,” he panted. “We need fight no more, my brothers.” The two men nodded, and Orrin ran back to Jonas. He knelt before the dead man, tears leaking from his eyes and soaking into his beard.

“Poor Jonas,” he said, his voice croaking. He turned his face away from the crushed remains. “He was always too keen to fight. At least his sons can be proud of him now.”

“Aye, brother, that they can,” Jeb said softly, still watching Stonefur. He felt sorrow at Jonas’ death but he felt the need to honour his killer. The wolf’s golden eyes had closed and its breathing was becoming shallow. Jeb knelt down beside its great head and laid a hand on its snout. Stonefur twitched at the contact but did not open its eyes.

“You fought well, Great One,” Jeb said. “It was our honour to do battle with you this day.” A weak growl issued forth from Stonefur’s throat and then it lay still. Stonefur the Mighty was dead.

***

Later that day as the sun lowered itself into the embrace of the horizon, Jeb made his way up a steep mountain slope. He had scrubbed the green daub from his body and was dressed in his hides and furs to combat the chill in the air. He carried a heavy blood-stained sack made from skins over one shoulder and a shallow clay bowl in the other. Crimson blood slopped to and fro as he walked but Jeb was careful not to spill a single drop. After walking a good distance the ground began to level out and Jeb stopped to rest. Gazing around him he noted the height he had reached; he could see the tops of trees from the forest and distant smoke rising from his tribe’s dwellings. Jeb dropped into a crouch and closed his eyes, meditating on the events of the day.

“You have returned, tribesman,” a thin voice spoke. Jeb opened his eyes and saw that the Shaman had appeared in front of him. He stood up cautiously, wondering how the man always managed to move without a sound. The Shaman was very old, that much was immediate and obvious. His hair and beard were grey, a feature which awed Jeb as not even his grandfather had lived to see his hair change colour so completely. The man’s limbs were still strong, but he showed signs of arthritis and carried a gnarled staff to aid him as he walked. His green eyes were still sharp and intense, reminding Jeb of the keen awareness of the hawk. He was dressed in loose animal skins and bracelets made from bone rattled on his wrists.

“I have, Wise One,” Jeb said, stepping forward. He placed the blood-filled bowl on the ground before the Shaman’s feet before reaching into the sack. Using both hands, Jeb lifted the massive head of Stonefur the Mighty from within, grunting with the effort. To his surprise the old man dropped his staff and lifted it from Jeb’s hands as if it were no heavier than an infant. The Shaman stared down at the Great Wolf’s remains, a wild light touching his eyes and an unpleasant smile creeping across his face.

“Oh, tribesman, you have done me a great service today!” The Shaman rasped, his voice charged with emotion. “This wolf has plagued my waking thoughts for nearly twenty years! A good fight he gave you, of that I am certain!”

“He did, Wise One,” Jeb said flatly. “My brother, Jonas, died during the fight. At nine-and-twenty his final days were approaching, but he was a good man, brave and strong.” He left the accusation hanging in the air. The Shaman ignored it. Jeb sighed and shrugged.

“Now that it is done, I must ask you something, Wise One,” Jeb said. “Why did you require our aid to vanquish the Great Wolf? Surely your magic would have been sufficient to bring him down?” Again, Jeb aimed the accusation carefully. The Shaman snorted and glanced up at him, scorn in his eyes.

“Fool! Of course it would!” he snarled. “But the beast and I had an accord! We were never to directly oppose one another, not that it is your business to know such things! You required aid for your people and I required the death of the Great Wolf, there is nothing else to say.”

“As you say, Wise One,” Jeb replied wearily. “I have kept my end of our bargain and now I beg that you keep yours.”

“Yes, yes, of course I shall!” The Shaman scratched his beard in irritation, supporting the huge head with one hand. “My word is my honour, as it is for you. Come to my dwelling, tribesman Jeb, and bring the blood with you.” Jeb scooped up the bowl and trotted after the Shaman, who was talking to the bloody remains he approached a hidden cleft on the mountainside.

“Ahh, I finally have you, Stonefur! Heehee, but you have given me the run-around all these years! Heeheehee! If only you had stayed with me instead of insisting that you be with ‘your kind’! We could have accomplished so much together! You foolish old dog, you!” Jeb walked on in silence and thought about poor Jonas. He had little desire to speak with the old man who had demanded so much from him. He wanted this ordeal to be over so he could return to his wife and children. The Shaman squeezed through the cleft and moved into darkness. Jeb followed, pressing his chest against a wall of stone in order to keep moving. The stone was cold and jagged, ripping Jeb’s clothes and nicking his skin as he pressed on. After several claustrophobic minutes Jeb emerged into a wide opening within the mountain, blinking as a burning torch appeared by his head. As Jeb shielded his eyes and allowed them to adjust he became aware of the Shaman muttering somewhere nearby. He squinted through the amber glow and saw the old man crouched by a fire-pit, the blackened ashes of a small fire piled inside the stones. The Shaman was pouring the blood of Stonefur onto the mound in sprinkles, chanting and moaning in an alien language. Jeb moved away from the torch on the cave wall and watched the Shaman with interest. Suddenly, the Shaman thrust out a hand.

“Give me your necklace,” he commanded. Jeb hesitated. The necklace he wore boasted the fangs of several wolves and bears connected by a length of twine, each one coloured differently with age. It was a necklace which had been added to and passed down through the male side of his family for six generations.

“Give it to me, man!” The Shaman barked, his sharp eyes glaring at Jeb. “Lest you wish me to stop and let the wolves rip your tribe apart this winter!” Jeb tore the necklace from around his throat and tossed it to the Shaman. The man caught it deftly and continued his chanting. He placed the necklace on to the blood-soaked ashes reverently, waving his bony fingers in weird movements over it. Without warning the mound caught fire, ashes and all, with a bright green flame leaping up to the low ceiling of the cave. Jeb’s brain told him that it was impossible but his eyes grew wide as he watched. He set his jaw tightly as the trophies of his ancestors blackened as the dancing flames licked them, tasted them. The Shaman went on chanting from his crouched position, his eyes closed and his voice low. A pungent smell filled Jeb’s nostrils as the Shaman worked, forcing him to cover his nose with his hand. Ten minutes passed and the flames flickered away to nothingness. The necklace had joined the ashes. The Shaman rose to his feet.

“It is done,” the old man said solemnly. “The spell I have cast will keep the wolf packs and bears away from your dwelling throughout the winter, no matter how hungry the beasts become. They will wither and starve rather than invade your lands. Your tribe will be safe.” Jeb released a breath he didn’t realise he had been holding.

“Thank you, Wise One,” he said, bowing low. “My tribe and I are forever in your debt.”

“No, you are not,” the Shaman said bluntly, staring at the smouldering ash pile. “We made a bargain and both sides were kept, there is no debt. Now, please leave me. I wish to be alone.” Jeb nodded and retreated back the way he had come. As he left the darkness of the tunnel and stepped out into the fading light of the evening, he chanced a peek over his shoulder. The cleft in the mountain had disappeared; he would not be able to locate the Shaman again. Jeb shrugged and began the long walk back to his family. A great weight was lifted from him and he felt happy in the knowledge that his family would be safe. They would bury Jonas that night and continue their existence unmolested by the hunger of wild beasts. As he walked, Jeb whispered a prayer for the Great Wolf Stonefur the Mighty, and bade the gods treat him and his brother as warriors in the afterlife. They deserved that much.

A – Z Challenge Day 18

Today’s suggestion comes from my dear old mum! Yes, yes, I know, it’s not very rock and roll to get Mummy Dearest involved one’s projects, but personally I couldn’t give a monkey’s about that! My mum has given me plenty of encouragement with my writing and I am very pleased that she wanted to help me out directly this time. Also, I’m not very rock and roll anyway, so nothing changes!

Anyway, today’s word is “RANCID”. One can only speculate where this suggestion came from…I do hope it’s not a character association! I like the word a lot and decided to use it today. Thanks again, Mum!

Here’s what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

RANCID

By Adam Dixon

Tobias squinted up at the midday sun and cursed the torturous sphere with every ounce of vehemence he could muster. Even the stone block he was sitting on was warming up, much to his dismay. He lifted a bony hand to his face and wiped the remnants of a rotten tomato from his left eye, wincing as he felt a tender spot on his cheek.

“That must be from the potatoes the washer-women were throwing,” he muttered to himself. “Damn good shot, that one! Nearly bowled me over!” He looked down at himself and sighed in resignation. He was covered from head to foot with an array of interesting and disgusting detritus, some of which could be readily identified. He could see that tomatoes, onions, potatoes, apples and even turnips had been pulverised against his arms and body, making him slick with stinking, sticky juices. Almost all of them had been rotten, which was something of a blessing because the few unripe projectiles among them had left him battered and bruised. Tobias attempted to make his legs more comfortable, but the wooden stocks clamped around his ankles gave him no such freedom. He supposed that he should be grateful that he hadn’t been placed in the pillory instead; at least he could mostly shield his head this way.

“How I long for the days of greater acceptance!” Tobias cast his dejected expression Heaven-ward once again. “Oh Lord, why must I be humiliated so? I did no harm to anyone with my antics! It was only a dress…” He trailed off into silence miserably. With all the great strides men were making in science, technology and enlightenment theory it baffled Tobias that an old man deciding to wear women’s clothes in his own house could cause such an uproar. There was no need for all this, surely! At least the villagers had retired for the afternoon…

Tobias glanced up as he heard giggling and approaching footsteps. He saw three local boys, none of them more than seven years old, creeping steadily towards him carrying dirty sacks over their shoulders.

“Oh, what fresh terrors await me, now?” Tobias cried aloud, causing the boys to stop suddenly. They were about ten feet away from the stocks and for a moment they looked doubtful over their purpose. However, this hesitation was quickly dispelled when the largest of the three dropped his sack and plunged a hand into it. He pulled out a suspicious brown substance and tossed it right at the helpless Tobias. It was not a particularly good throw as it hit him in the thigh, but no sooner had it made an impact the other two boys were following suit. As they flung double-handfuls of the stuff at Tobias he realised with horror and disgust what it was. It was manure!

“You little wretches! You stop this at once!” he roared, flinging his arms in front of his face. “By the Lord Almighty, if I weren’t trapped in here I’d give you such a thrashing! STOP!”

The boys began laughing uproariously, continuing to pelt the impotent Tobias as he bellowed at them. When they had exhausted their ammunition they stood still, staring in wonder at their accomplishment. Tobias was covered in steaming brown muck, his fury so intense that he was incapable of coherent speech. He waved his arms about madly, shaking off bits of manure as he did so. The boys ran off laughing, slapping each other on the back and congratulating themselves for a job well done. Tobias lowered his arms and looked at himself again. He was appalled by the sight and had never felt so humiliated.

“All for a bloody dress!” He managed to squeak out once his throat had loosened a little bit, his eyes wide and his breathing heavy. After a few minutes he had calmed down enough to feel miserable again, so he slumped forwards, resting his filthy head in his filthier hands.

“Oh, Lord!” he groaned. “It will take me days to wash out the smell!” He looked up at the sky again, his face scorched by the sun. “I don’t suppose there is any chance of a spot of rain soon?” He asked hopefully. As he stared upwards, he heard more footsteps approaching. The three young boys were coming back, and they were puffing and panting as they supported a large bucket between them. A pale yellow liquid slopped to and fro as the bucket swung with their movements. Tobias almost laughed!

“Oh, but what a big mouth I appear to have!” he said as he braced himself. He only hoped this day would end soon!

A – Z Challenge Day 5

Day 5 is here! With it comes my next prompt from Kate, and once again it is a brilliant one. Today’s word is “EFFERVESCENT”. You probably reacted the same way I did: a raised eyebrow accompanied by an appreciative nod. An excellent suggestion which stumped me for a little while. An idea formed once I decided to think slightly outside the proverbial box, and a sinister little narrative formed in my head.

So, consider that a brief disclaimer. THIS ONE IS DARK! Based on true events, too.

Here’s what I came up with.

EFFERVESCENT

By Adam Dixon

It’s just like the fizz from a glass of champagne, that’s all. John tried to fix that thought into his head as he continued pouring and the hissing filled his ears. Yes, just like champagne. The lovely, crisp bubbles that make it such a wonderful drink. What’s that word that fellow from the golf club used to describe it? That’s right, ‘effervescent’. Capital word, that one. I must use it more often! Beastly chap, though. Must avoid him in the future…

John continued holding the image in his mind as the noise from the within the oil drum intensified. It served the dual purpose of distracting him from what he was doing as well as motivating him to keep going. Think of the bubbly, John old boy, that’s the ticket! He also daydreamed of the next few meetings at Cheltenham and Ascot, and he noted that it wouldn’t be long until the Derby came around again, either. He could almost smell the cigarette smoke in the stalls, almost hear the excited babbling of the commentator and the thundering of hooves…

Eventually, the smell became unbearable and John was forced to vacate his workshop. The putrid odour of burning flesh had crept past the barrier of his gas mask, stinging his nostrils and making him heave. At least he’d finished pouring the acid this time; he was certainly becoming very efficient with his tasks. This time it had all been so easy! Well, practice makes perfect, Haigh old boy! John smirked behind the mask and moved away from the drum, scooping up the valuables he had liberated from the corpse. Mrs Durand-Deacon had certainly been a decadent old crone; he held in his hands three jewel-encrusted gold rings, a beautiful pearl necklace and a Persian lamb fur coat. He had, of course, relieved her purse of its contents as well and to the merry tune of several pound notes and a handful of shillings. A fine haul, indeed!

John placed his hoard into his attaché case before straightening up and steeling himself for his final task. He marched back to the drum and picked up its heavy lid. He paused for a moment, taking a final look upon the old widow. With her ludicrous hair style and claw-like false nails, Olive Durand-Deacon looked as ridiculous in death as she had done in life as far as John was concerned. He was aware of the strange new fashion trends which had sprung up once the war was over, but he couldn’t see that particular one catching on. People had better things to spend their money on, what with rationing still in place! Better things, like champagne…

John curled his lip contemptuously before slamming the lid down. He dusted his hands off, enjoying the squeak his rubber gloves made as he did so. He’d return in two days and poor, dotty Olive would be just a drum of sludge, waiting to be poured onto the adjoining patch of ground outside his workshop. The rains would then come and wash away every last trace of her. He’d try to make the money last a bit longer this time; he had gotten rather reckless with the capital he’d gained from the deaths of the Hendersons…

John unlocked the doors to his workshop and strode out into the street, pulling his mask off and breathing in deep lung-fulls of the chilly February air. The air cooled the sweat on his brow and the damp patches under his arms; moving the old crone had been hard work despite her short stature. Moving the dead weights was always the most strenuous part. He stood for a moment, ridding the smell of the burning woman from his nostrils and methodically removing his gloves and apron. As he did this he thought about all the places he would be visiting shortly with Durand-Deacon’s money in his pocket. First and foremost, he would be paying his pawnbroker a call. The rings alone ought to fetch a fine price! John thought gleefully. He’d checked them once he was out in the light to make sure that he hadn’t damaged them; he had been forced to pry them from the dead woman’s swollen fingers with his teeth. They were perfectly alright, sparkling gaily in the meagre winter sun. John smiled and walked to his car, whistling a merry tune as he did so. My thanks to you, dear departed Olive! John thought as he started the engine. I’ll raise a toast to your memory very soon! With that, John stepped on the accelerator and drove back in the direction of London, feeling very pleased with his afternoon’s work.

 

A – Z Challenge Day 4

It’s the fourth day of this April’s blog challenge and my prompt comes once again from Kate. Her suggestion for ‘D’ is “DRAGOON”.

This one was a bit of a head-scratcher, if I’m honest! I had a few ideas flit in and out of my mind as I pondered this word, but none of them seemed to want to stick around. Here is what did decide to cling on. I hope I did the word justice.

 

DRAGOON

By Adam Dixon

“Interesting thing about the Battle of Waterloo is that nobody’s sure about what time it began,” Albert said, gazing off into the distance, as he so often did when he was thinking. Debbie smiled and shook her head. She should have known that her granddad would start rattling off his impromptu history lessons as soon as they got going. Debbie was taking Albert to the theatre, and he looked very fine in his old grey suit. Albert had joked that evening that the grey “really brings out the white in my hair!” and Debbie had laughed and laughed. Shame about the silly tie, though, Debbie thought, casting a critical eye over the canary-yellow monstrosity. They were sat on a busy carriage on the Tube, and upon pulling out from Waterloo station Albert had begun his lesson.

“Is that so?” Debbie said as she settled into her seat. She loved to hear Albert talk about history; he did it so much better than any of her lecturers.

“Indeed it is, m’dear,” Albert said, nodding slowly as he continued to stare at nothing in particular. “It was fought on 18th June 1815, a Sunday, if you’re interested, in what’s now Belgium. They know all that stuff, but no-one is exactly sure of the time the French attacked. You see, Wellington’s dispatches say that ol’ Napoleon marched at ten o’clock that morning, but others say it didn’t start ‘til half-past eleven. It’s always bothered me that they never recorded somethin’ so important to the history of it all.”

“Do armies usually record the time battle begin, granddad?” Debbie asked.

“Oh yes!” Albert said eagerly, focusing his rheumy eyes on Debbie at last. “Each battle is a piece of history, m’dear! What good is it if history isn’t properly recorded, eh?”

“I think more people are interested in the fighting itself, to be honest, granddad,” Debbie replied, smoothing her blue dress and checking her cream handbag. She’d chosen the handbag because it had belonged to her grandmother. Albert laughed and slapped his knees, causing several nearby commuters to jump and gape at him in astonishment.

“Oh, I expect you’re right about that, Debora!” he chuckled, winking at her. Debbie smiled; Albert was the only person who called her Debora. “I know that I always used to! I was always askin’ my history teachers about the armies and the fightin’ when I was just a lad! Earned me a canin’ or two, it did, all ‘cos I didn’t want to hear about the politics! By the way, did I ever tell you that one of your ancestors was actually at Waterloo?” Debbie shook her head and leaned forwards, interested. A few of their ruffled fellow passengers glanced up too.

“Well, he was,” Albert grinned proudly and adjusted his huge jam-jar glasses. “His name was Thomas, and he was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. He was there that day two hundred years ago, facin’ down Napoleon with his comrades. I looked him up a long time ago; he’s mentioned in the records!” Albert’s eyes glittered with infectious excitement.

“That’s amazing!” Debbie said, returning his grin. “Was he a soldier then?”

“Yep,” Albert nodded. “He was a dragoon, actually, one of those who fought on horseback. He must’ve been quite a good’un too, ‘cos he was part of the King’s First Dragoon Guards. Nice bit of family history there, m’dear!” Albert winked at Debbie, who gazed at him in wonder.

“Wow…” she breathed. “What did the King’s Dragoons do? Were they important to the battle?”

“Oh yes, in their own way,” Albert answered thoughtfully. “They were part a larger cavalry Brigade who were part of a huge charge against the French early that afternoon. They played their part, fightin’ in various places through the day, but many of them died before the battle was over. Our ancestor, Thomas, included. He was killed by cannon-fire, accordin’ to the records.”

“Oh…” Debbie didn’t know what to say. She felt a little sad and strangely proud of this hitherto unknown family member who had fought in a war that her generation cared so little about.

“Yes, it’s a shame,” Albert said, rubbing his nose with a liver-spotted hand. “But it doesn’t stop me enjoyin’ the story. Why, when my ol’ grandfather told me that when I was a nipper, I’d spend hours out in the garden playin’ at being a dragoon like Thomas.” He smiled at the memory and laughed a little.

“I’d gallop round on my imaginary horse and pretend I was fightin’ alongside Wellington all day long! I’d bully my younger brothers into bein’ French infantry, and I’d ride them down and lay about them with a stick! I used to get such a wallop from my mum when I’d get too into it an’ knock one of them over!” Albert broke off, laughing, and Debbie lent her own giggles to the sound. Some of the passengers nearby were smiling as they pretended not to be listening.

“That does sound like you, granddad!” Debbie said, laying a hand on his leg and giving it an affectionate squeeze. “I bet you’d have made a fine dragoon, too.” She added with a smile. They travelled the rest of their journey in a happy silence, and their thoughts were filled with scenes from old battle and of a familiar-looking man galloping amongst it on a magnificent horse. Debbie imagined that he looked a bit like her granddad, and that he waved his sabre bravely as he galloped down the hill towards the French infantry as the cannons fired upon them. She promised herself that she would learn more about the Battle of Waterloo after that night was over. She would go to her university library and borrow some books on the subject and she and Albert would pore over them together. He’d love that, and she’d urge him to tell her all the other stories he knew about the Battle. She could hardly wait.

A – Z Challenge Day 3

Third day of the April Challenge already! Blimey, I think it ought to slow down a bit!

Today’s word was once again provided by the wonderful Kate, and the word is “CONCUBINE”. Again, this is a great suggestion and not at all what I was expecting as a prompt, but it began to spark ideas in my brain almost right away. The idea which caught the kindling was that of ancient Greece and their penchant for concubines, and I was able to coax it into a blaze.

Here’s what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

CONCUBINE

By Adam Dixon

Cassandra stood at the foot of the marble steps leading up to the palace, closing her eyes to better feel the breeze on her skin. She tilted her head back, enjoying its cool fingers caressing her hair. It had been a long journey from Troy and she was grateful to be back on dry land. She had had some misgivings about travelling to Mycanae, and her main concern had been its queen. Queen Clytemnestra had been awaiting the return of King Agamemnon, and she would surely not be pleased to learn that her husband would be bringing home another woman. Cassandra was Agamemnon’s concubine and had borne him twin sons during the Trojan campaign, but she was essentially just a trophy. Worrying over the queen’s reaction to the news had given Cassandra dozens of sleepless nights during their voyage and she had prayed to all the gods of Olympus that they give her the courage to face her. However, to her great surprise Clytemnestra seemed to already know about her. She welcomed Cassandra to Mycanae warmly and immediately offered her a place to bathe before the feast. Cassandra had been taken aback and had declined with what she hoped was the proper degree of humility. She had remained behind as the King was escorted inside his palace, preferring to collect herself before following him.

As she stood enjoying the breeze, she began to feel as if she were being watched. She opened her eyes and saw a tall, lithe man leaning against a pillar not ten feet from where she stood, staring at her with an unsettling look on his face. Cassandra felt her skin crawl and she cleared her throat loudly before turning towards him. She did not know him, but she recognised him by his description; his cold blue eyes, hooked nose and curled blond hair marked him as Aegisthus, the former ruler of Mycenae. Cassandra wondered why he was there in the first place, since Agamemnon and his brother had jointly forced Aegisthus from the throne years before.

“Good day to you, my lord,” Casssandra said nervously, bowing her head slightly. “I do apologise, I thought I was alone.”

“No apology is necessary, my lady,” Aegisthus replied coolly, his eyes gliding along Cassandra’s hips and thighs. “I am merely taking some air before the celebrations begin. You are the King’s prize, are you not?”

Cassandra frowned and adjusted her robe. She disliked having his eyes all over her, it made her feel unclean.

“I suppose I am at that, my lord,” she answered curtly, hoping she didn’t sound too brusque. Her grip on the politics of Mycenae was slight and she didn’t know how powerful this man was. She would tread carefully.

“To the victor go the spoils,” Aegisthus quoted with a sneer. He stood up straight and flexed his fingers. Cassandra had been around soldiers enough to recognise it as a pre-combat technique, performed almost without thought.

“Tell me,” Aegisthus stepped towards Cassandra, a terrible gleam in his eyes. “Are the rumours surrounding you true? Are you truly a Seer?” Cassandra took a step backwards, moving away from the stairs and back towards the shaded garden.

“They are…my lord,” she said hesitantly. “Mother Hera gifted me with Foresight, although its usefulness has been overstated, I fear.”

“Curious…” Aegisthus took another step closer, scratching at his chin thoughtfully. “I heard that your Talent is often ignored, and at the detriment of those who do so. Is that true also?” Cassandra grew fearful at this line of questioning, and attempted to change the subject.

“So, the King prepares for his feast,” she stammered, looking down at her sandals. “It promises to be a great event, with no expenses spared by the Queen on food and wine.”

“Hmm? Oh…yes,” Aegisthus seemed irritated by the deflection. “The Queen intends to provide a welcome which the King will never forget. It will go down in history, mark my words!” He gave a low chuckle which chilled Cassandra to the bone. As she stood wondering what to say next, a Vision sprung upon her without warning. As though through a blood-tainted window, Cassandra saw the King emerging naked from his bath with Clytemnestra holding a towel nearby. As Agamemnon steps forward, Clytemnestra tosses the towel over the King’s head. The King roars in surprise, for the towel has been weighted down at its corners, blinding and trapping him. A heartbeat later, Aegisthus runs forward from behind a screen wielding a sword which he plunges into the King’s chest. Agamemnon’s screams echoed in Cassandra’s ears and the present world flashed back into sight, the Vision leaving her weak and breathless. She fell to her knees, gasping and looking up at Aegisthus in horror. The man watched her, his smiling growing ever wider as Cassandra’s fear rose like a black flower in her heart.

“Guards!” She spluttered hoarsely. “Guards, help! A traitor is among us! Protect the King!” Aegisthus descended the stairs in four quick leaps and struck Cassandra hard with his fist. She fell onto her back and the world swam as her mouth filled with blood.

“It’s too late, my little whore!” Aegisthus snarled, wiping his knuckles on his tunic. “The events are already in motion and you cannot stop them! Enjoy your last moments whilst you can, for the Queen has plans for you!” He spat in Cassandra’s face before bounding back up the stairs and disappearing into the palace.

Cassandra groaned and struggled to sit up. Her vision was blurred and her limbs were weakened from her Vision. She attempted to call the guards again, but her voice would not obey her. She wept bitterly as she realised that nobody would believe her anyway. Nobody ever believed her…

Minutes later a cry of alarm was raised within the palace, and then the fighting began.

High and Mighty, High and Dry

Picture found on https://pixabay.com/

High and Mighty, High and Dry

By Adam Dixon

Lady Sophia grasped the wooden railing as the Emerald Nypmh crashed into the rocks. The ship recoiled with an awful shattering of wood and the shock jolted dozens of passengers as they flocked to the deck. Lady Sophia screamed as she was lifted from her feet, her hip colliding painfully with the railing. As she righted herself and chanced a peek out into the ocean, a second, more violent impact wrenched her fingers from the railing and flung her overboard. She hit the water seconds later and the air was driven from her lungs. She cast about to and fro in a frenzy, salt water stinging her eyes and filling her nostrils. With an effort she broke the surface in time to gulp a mouthful of air before she was dragged back under. Her voluminous silken gown was trapping her limbs and pulling her down into the green depths. She struggled desperately, her heartbeat booming in her ears. She cried out in terror and the ocean rushed into her throat. She choked and thrashed, and everything went black.

The next thing Lady Sophia became aware of was a rhythmic pounding on her chest. She felt water being forced from her lungs into her throat and she began to cough and splutter. She heard gulls screeching and the sound of crashing waves as she ejected the salty water from her mouth and her nose. Strong hands turned her on to her side and she continued coughing and retching with her head hanging limply from her shoulders.

“Go on, miss, get it all out,” a voice said gently. A man’s voice. After what seemed like an age Lady Sophia was able to sit up. Squinting against the sunlight with her chest heaving, she looked at her rescuer. She saw a rough-looking man with a large nose and a square jaw crouched next to her, also soaking wet. He was at least twenty years younger than her, and his brown eyes were gazing at her with concern.

“You a’right, miss?” Lady Sophia noted with some distaste that he sounded like a commoner. She nodded slowly. He man smiled in relief, exposing uneven, brown teeth.

“Thank the Lawd!” He exclaimed. “I fort you was a goner for sure! The name’s Simpson, John Simpson. At yer service.” He thrust a large, calloused hand towards her. Lady Sophia regarded the hand with a mixture of astonishment and revulsion. She cleared her throat painfully.

“Yes, well, you have my thanks, Mister Simpson,” she croaked. Drawing herself up and attempting to find her learned poise, she glanced around. They were on a tiny island, essentially no more than a collection of rocks. Debris from the shipwreck floated nearby: a broken mast here, a plank from a deck there. The wreck itself was nowhere to be seen; it must have sunk beneath the surface.

“What in the name of the Almighty happened, Simpson?” Lady Sophia demanded. “How did the ship befall such a tragedy? More importantly, where are we?” Simpson’s smile faltered and he lowered his arm.

“Can’t say, miss,” he said. “I reckon we’s a few leagues away from the Indies. The Cap’n shouted somethin’ ‘bout rocks beneath the surface, an’ the next thing I know I was overboard on the port side. I spotted this ‘ere island an’ I made straight for it. I saw you thrashin’ about an’ I couldn’t just leave ya. I’d have ‘elped more if I could, honest to God, but most were trapped on board.” Lady Sophia paled.

“Trapped…” she whispered. “Have you noticed any other survivors?” Simpson shook his head sadly. “Dear God…” They sat in silence for some time, the gravity of the situation settling on their shoulders like a leaden weight. Finally, Simpson stood up.

“Well, we’re still ‘ere, praise the Lawd,” he announced, rubbing his hands together. “An’ we’d best not waste ‘Is mercy. We’ll need t’find some way t’catch fish, if there’s any t’be found. We oughta try an’ pinch summa that driftwood, an’ all. ‘Praps we can build a fire ‘an…”

“What, pray tell, do you mean by ‘we’?” Lady Sophia interrupted. Simpson stopped, frowning in confusion.

“Well, miss,” he said. “I mean you an’ me, o’ course.”

“First of all,” Lady Sophia said, her voice cutting. “It is ‘you and I’, and secondly, you must be out of your mind if you expect me to lower myself to manual labour,” she spat the words as if they had a foul taste. “And thirdly, I am not a “miss”, I am the Countess Sophia Hartford of Essex and I am to be addressed as ‘My Lady’. You would do well to know your place, Simpson, and perhaps then we shall deduce a reasonable way to escape from this dreadful island.”

Simpson’s jaw had fallen open. He stood for a moment in silence, stunned by the onslaught.

“Well?” Lady Sophia demanded, folding her arms. “What say you? Are you a simpleton, man?”

“No, I ain’t,” Simpson began slowly. “I ain’t a simpleton, milady, but you ‘ave knocked me back a fair bit, I’ll grant ya.”

Lady Sophia was incredulous. “How so? Surely even the simplest commoner knows how to conduct himself when in the company of a woman of noble birth!”

“’Praps, so, milady,” Simpson was struggling to find the correct words as he voiced his frustration. “But as you can see, we ain’t in England, and we ain’t even on board a ship no more. So as far as I see it, your title counts for nothin’.”

“How dare you..!” Lady Sophia began, but Simpson cut her off.

“How dare I?!” he shouted, causing Lady Sophia to take a step backwards. “I do dare, milady! I know I’m only a poor deckhand wi’ nothin’ to ‘is name, but on this pile o’ rocks, you ain’t  nothin’ either!”

“I…you cannot address me…in that tone,” Lady Sophia spluttered, her face a mask of indignation and fury.

“Shut up!” barked Simpson. “We’re in trouble, my lady, an’ you’d best see it sharpish! You need to ‘elp me if you wanna live long enough t’see England again. That’s yer choice, ‘elp me or die ‘ere!” With that, he stalked off to the other side of the island, picking his way carefully among the rocks.

“Insufferable man!” Lady Sophia raged. “When I return to England I shall see him punished for his insolence! I knew I should not have allowed myself to be talked into boarding that cursed ship! The Emerald Nymph, hmmph! A name as vulgar as that was certain to attract bad luck!” She stood for a few minutes watching Simpson searching among the rocks, the sun evaporating the salt water on her skin. She noted with displeasure the brittle, tangled mess it had reduced her greying hair to. Her fine dress was ruined also, and she thought sadly of the wasted work that had gone into creating it. She found a slightly less jagged rock and sat as straight and as primly as possible.

As the sun reached its zenith, Lady Sophia was sunburnt, thirsty and miserable. She had watched Simpson poking about in the rocks, and he had managed to catch a medium-sized crab. He had salvaged a small pile of driftwood after swimming a short distance from the island and he was drying them in the sun. Lady Sophia noted that the man was a strong swimmer, and felt ashamed for not expressing her appreciation properly. A short while later, her eyes bulged out of her head. She stood up and attempted to march across the rocks to Simpson, the effect negated by the treacherous footing.

“I say, Simpson!” she barked. “What in God’s name do you think you are doing?” Simpson was whittling a stout piece of driftwood with a jagged rock and ignored her. He had removed his scruffy woollen shirt and his simple breeches and had left them on a rock to dry.

“Are you listening, Simpson?!” Lady Sophia spluttered. “How dare you remove your clothes in my sight?! This is an indecent and disgusting display! Squatting in your undergarments like a savage! You will dress yourself at once!”

“I shan’t,” Simpson said, not looking up from his work. “It’ll only get cold again come the evenin’. I’ll not feel the benefit of ‘em if I’m wearin’ ‘em already, small comfort though they’ll be. You oughta do the same wi’ that ‘eavy thing yer swaddled in.”

“Remove my…” Lady Sophia was aghast. “Swaddled?! Why, you uncultured cretin!”

“’Praps I am, milady,” Simpson shrugged. “But I knows the weather in these waters, I been sailin’ ‘em since I was a lad. Take my advice or don’t. ‘Opefully I’ll ‘ave a fire goin’ before the evenin’, or else we’ll be ‘aving cold crab for tea.” He promptly went silent, and ignored all of Lady Sophia’s increasingly fervent attempts to force a reaction from him. Eventually she stalked back to her rock in a huff.

Simpson did not get a fire started and so they ate cold, uncooked crab in silence as the evening drew in. They were forced to slake their thirst on its blood, much to Lady Sophia’s disgust. Simpson turned out to be correct about the weather, and soon Lady Sophia was shivering violently. When Simpson suggested that they huddle together for warmth during the night, she threw a barrage of rocks at him and called him every vulgar name she could think of. He retreated to the other side of the island, and neither of them slept that night.

On the second day, a small miracle occurred. Simpson spotted something floating roughly a hundred yards away from the island and swam out to it. Lady Sophia then had the panicked realisation that should Simpson drown, she would certainly die on the island. She waited in agony, scanning the water for his bobbing head. He swam back to the island, pushing what looked like a large wooden barrel. It turned out to be full of water, likely from the stores of the Emerald Nymph, and it was untouched. They both drank mouthfuls of the clean, sweet liquid and praised God for their change in fortune. Simpson insisted that they ration the water in order to preserve it, and Lady Sophia reluctantly agreed.

On the third day Simpson managed to spear a fish with a sharpened stake. It tasted like another offering from God to the two of them.

During the fourth night, Lady Sophia walked over to Simpson and huddled close to him against the chill. Neither of them said a word.

By the eight day, disaster. Neither had eaten for two days, but Simpson appeared to be coming down with a sickness. He was cold despite the heat of the day, and sweating profusely during the night. Lady Sophia felt her panic rising once again. What would she do if he became too sick to catch food?

On the tenth day, Simpson’s sickness was much worse. He drifted in and out of consciousness, babbling deliriously. Lady Sophia knelt next to him in her undergarments, dabbing at his sun-scorched skin with her sodden dress, speaking soft nonsense into his ear.

On the eleventh day, Simpson died. Lady Sophia wailed into the air, cursing God and the vast expanse of ocean which surrounded and mocked her.

Fourteen days after the sinking of the Emerald Nymph, a cargo ship carrying spices bound for France passed by the small rocky island. The sailor in the crow’s nest spotted a shape waving to them and alerted the captain. The captain looked through his telescope and saw a dishevelled, grey-haired woman dressed in filthy rags jumping about desperately. He swiftly ordered a boat sent out to the island and accompanied the party personally. When they reached the island, a grisly sight met their eyes. The woman was half-mad, gibbering and weeping uncontrollably, and nestled between the rocks was an empty barrel and a partially eaten corpse.