The Need for Sleep

I wrote this story for the ‘Hour of Writes’ competition a few weeks ago. If you haven’t heard of Hour of Writes then I recommend you pay the site a visit. The idea is simple: the theme is set each week and participants are encouraged to write a story, poem or non-fiction piece based on it. A timer is set for one hour, and away you go! Each participant must read and mark three pieces of submitted work in order for their own to be considered for the prize, so it has a real community feel to it.

The theme for that particular was ‘Live the Dream’. Here is what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

 

The Need For Sleep

By Adam Dixon

The weak morning sunlight trickled into the hotel room, promising a day of brightness and warmth. For Tomasz, the day could not seem any brighter than it already was. He reclined against the plump pillows on the large bed as the breeze from the open window raised pleasant goose-bumps on his arms. He selected a piece of warm, crispy bread from the tray on his knees and held it up to Justyna’s lips. Justyna, glowing from happiness and from their recent love-making, giggled and opened her mouth to accept the offering. She had never looked so beautiful and Tomasz fell in love with her all over again. Justyna crunched the bread and poked around on the tray for a moment. She lifted a piece of sausage and wriggled closer. The bed sheets she had gathered around her fell away, revealing her naked body for an instant before her raven-coloured hair covered her breasts. She placed a hand delicately on Tomasz’s chest and raised the other to his mouth. Tomasz breathed in the scent of the meat, detecting the sweet herbs added to flavour it. His stomach rumbled and Justyna laughed, bird-like and full of life.
“Eat, my love,” Justyna said, smiling sweetly. Tomasz stared into her pale blue eyes and opened his mouth. He relished the rich, succulent flavour of the meat almost as much as the feeling of Justyna’s fingers on his lips and on his chest. Desire awoke within him again and he gently cupped her face. He leaned forwards and moved his face towards hers…

A bell sounded, piercing and urgent. Tomasz awoke with a start and immediately cried out in despair.
“No! Not again!” he wailed, covering his eyes with his hands. Tears coursed down his leathery, wrinkled face and fell to the floor. The bell rang again impatiently.
“Oh, Justyna!” Tomasz moaned as he swung his weary legs from the warmth of his single bed. He could still taste the sausage on his tongue, and her fingertips still lingered on his lips… Tomasz dressed quickly in a simple shirt and trousers, shoving his feet into his reliable old boots. He stood and gazed at himself in the small, grimy mirror on his bedside table. His rheumy eyes took in the image of an old man, crumpled and heartbroken. His eyes strayed to his left arm and he sighed. He hadn’t removed the Artifact; he detested that part almost as deeply as waking up. He unclasped the leather binding as swiftly as his arthritic fingers would allow before pulling it away. He winced as the sharp stud pulled free from his flesh, dripping blood in a thin crimson river down his forearm. Tomasz wrapped a simple bandage around the wound before shrugging on a battered overcoat. The bell rang again as he tucked the Artifact into a secret compartment next to his bed. Tomasz swore.
“I am coming, you cretin!” he said through clenched teeth. “You had better have a lot of work for me today, I wish to sleep for longer tonight!” He patted the unassuming wooden panel hiding the Artifact for reassurance, then he shuffled out of his tiny room. His employer awaited.

“Tomasz, what the hell kept you?” the mage demanded, his ridiculous green eyebrows arching in annoyance. Tomasz bowed, causing his back to crack audibly.
“My apologies, Master Aleksander,” he wheezed. “I must have overslept.”
“This is happening too often, old man!” the mage snapped, crossing his arms in his voluminous golden sleeves. “Honestly, if you ever came to your senses and ask for proper payment I would dismiss you and hire someone younger!”
“Do not fear, Master Aleksander,” Tomasz said with practiced humility. He glanced up with a sad smile. “All I require is for my tasks to be exhausting and for somewhere to sleep once they are complete. Nothing more.” Aleksander eyed Tomasz with distaste. The man had been using the Artifact again; he positively reeked of the ancient magic. Aleksander shuddered at the idea of using fresh blood to awaken a spell, it was almost medieval. For a moment, Aleksander’s coldness evaporated. If only he could find a way for the Artifact to work with magically-induced sleep…that would give Tomasz a bit of an easier time…if he could just- but no, Aleksander did not have time to waste researching such frivolities.
“Good,” the mage said stiffly, regaining his poise. He jerked a poultice-stained thumb towards a set of wooden stairs. “I have twelve barrels of healing potions which need decanting into the one-hundred-and-twenty flasks you will see in the cellar. They have already been laid out, and they will each need to be stoppered and labelled. Do not spill a single drop, Tomasz, it is expensive stock!”
“Right away, sir!” Tomasz said eagerly. “I do apologise once again for my lateness. I will make it up to you, I promise.” With that, he hurried off to the cellar steps and descended into darkness. Aleksander frowned after him. He was almost certain that the old man was thinner than before. He looked almost skeletal.
“You’re not eating properly, are you?” Aleksander mumbled. He shook his head; he had no time to care about the whims of an old labourer!
“Bah! If he wishes to tread this path, so be it!” he said to himself. “I’m not his keeper! I’ll not interfere!”

Tomasz fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit his pillow that night. He had willed his aching, fatigued body back to his claustrophobic room and had attached the Artifact as soon as he could. The brief sting followed by the unnatural throbbing as the magic leaked into him did not prevent him from slipping away quickly. His eyes opened within a dream almost right away. He looked down at his hands. They were old and wrinkled, so it was not a dream of younger times. A shame, but it couldn’t be helped. He glanced around him, and his heart sank in his chest.
He was in a hospital. Sterile white walls surrounded him on all sides and the reek of stale urine and futile disinfectant invaded his nostrils. A corridor stretched out in front of him, and at the end of it was a single bed. On it lay a shape which he couldn’t quite make out, but he knew it was Justyna.
“No, not this one…” he croaked, closing his eyes tight and willing himself to wake up. The offensive odour grew stronger and he heard a weak voice call his name.
“Tomasz? Tomasz, where are you?”
“Justyna!” Tomasz opened his eyes and lurched forward as a strangled sob escaped his lips. His footsteps boomed on the floor, echoing loudly around him and lancing into his ears like daggers. He staggered into a run, seeing the bed moving closer, but slowly, oh so slowly!
“Tomasz? Tomasz, are you there? Tomasz…I’m frightened…”
“I’m coming, my love!” Tomasz called desperately. “I’ll not leave you!” Tomasz hauled himself along the corridor, his old legs protesting and his chest tightening painfully as his breathing came out in short gasps. After what seemed like hours Tomasz reached the bed. It was a simple affair, just a thin mattress on top of a bench, but that was all the space the hospital had been able to provide them with at the time. The Plague had spread so quickly…
“Tomasz?” Justyna tried to raise herself in the bed, her wasted arms trembling with the effort. Her once-radiant face was gaunt and discoloured by the consuming disease, and the light in her beautiful eyes was dim. Tomasz gently lowered her back down and took both of her hands. He forced a smile and blinked away tears as he fought to catch his breath.
“I am…here, Justyna,” he said. “I will…always be…here,”
“Oh, Tomasz, I hurt so,” Justyna said miserably. Her back arched and she winced in pain. Her bony fingers gripped his weakly, and Tomasz felt her wedding band slide up a few millimeters at the movement.
“It’s alright, my love,” he wheezed, leaning down to kiss her cheek. It was so cold, and so thin. She even smelled wrong, like the disinfectant on the floors. Tomasz’s lips trembled as he kissed her and he fought to the urge to cry out in despair. Instead he whispered in Justyna’s ear.
“I love you, Justyna,” he said, channeling all of his passion into the words. “Gods, I love you so much…”
“I love you too, Tomasz,” Justyna said, cradling his head with her arms. They clung to one another in silence, neither knowing what to say. Tomasz wished he could do something, anything for her.
“Tomasz, will we see the Grand Budapest again?” Justyna asked, breaking the oppressive silence with a faint voice. Tomasz choked down a sob; the Grand Budapest was the hotel where they had spent their honeymoon.
“I think so, my love,” he whispered. “You just need to get better first. The doctors will make you strong again, you’ll see.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Justyna said, lying back down with her eyes closed. She wore a smile, and Tomasz smiled as well. Justyna’s breathing became less labourious, and she appeared to relax. Tomasz still held her hands in his, and felt the tears splashing on to them. He opened his mouth to speak to her…

The bell rang sharply. Tomasz was jerked awake and ran a hand across his wet cheeks.
“Oh, Justyna,” he said, shaking his head and groaning. He sat up and pulled away the Artifact, not caring that the blood spattered onto his pillow. He stood and dressed himself, preparing for the next day of work. He stared into the mirror once again, and then staggered off. He sincerely wished for a better dream that evening…

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An Update & a Reblog!

Good evening, all! Happy Hallowe’en and have fun with your ghoulish night of tricks, treats and stuffing yourself to the eyeballs with sweeties!

Now, some of you may have noticed that I have been a bit lax recently with my blog. Whilst my inactivity saddens me, it is mainly due to the fact that I have been gearing up to take part in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo for short) and that has taken up a large portion of my writing time. Because of this, I have been unable to pen a horror story for this evening, but I will instead provide the link to a short story I wrote back in April, entitled “Unreal“. In fact, I wrote this piece as part of a different writing challenge, which was actually undertaken as a warm-up to Nanowrimo! I hope that it will suffice and that you enjoy reading it if you haven’t already.

I have a small pile of completed stories, both new and old, which I will be posting throughout November, as well as providing updates on my Nanowrimo progress as I slog through it. I apologise in advance for the lack of routine, and I will get straight back on to working on my ‘Fiction Fursday’ stories in December, which I am thrilled to say have been quite successful!

Enjoy your evening, one and all, and if any of you are getting involved in Nanowrimo , please get in touch!

 

UNREAL
By Adam Dixon

Jack could hardly believe the realism of the game. As soon as he pulled down the visor-screen he could almost swear that he was standing in a meadow during the height of summer, rather than sat in his ergonomic gaming chair in his draughty South-London flat. He could nearly feel the grass tickling his feet and taste the pollen in the air. The box containing the virtual reality system boasted “A gaming world so real, it’ll leave you drained!” It certainly was visually impressive.

“Wow,” he whistled in appreciation. “Pretty good start!” He glanced down at himself and marvelled at the physique of his chosen character. He gazed in wonder at a bare torso covered with rippling, solid muscle and saw equally strong legs supporting him. He almost whooped in delight. He was just like Conan the Barbarian!…

Click here to read on, if you dare…

Fiction Fursday/Lost Fairy (Continued)

Today’s story was prompted by my fellow blogger and friend, Nathalie from arwenaragornstar. Nat wrote a thought-provoking story back in August called Lost Fairy, and when I stated my desire to know how it ends, she suggested that I find out and use it as my prompt. I thought this was a wonderful idea and I was excited to be writing with such vibrant, ponderous material. Thanks again, Nat, and I hope I’ve done your story justice!

Please check out Nat’s story before reading mine. It’s rather good! I hope you enjoy what I’ve been able to come up with as well.

P.S. If any of you would like to suggest a prompt for me to use on another Thursday, please feel free to do so by leaving a comment. I’ll give anything a try! Thanks again for visiting.

 

Lost Fairy (Continued)

By Adam Dixon

The fairy sat upon the low concrete wall and watched the humans with sad, green eyes. How they moved to and fro with such haste! It was as if stopping to take a deep breath and relax would ruin their rigid plans for the day. Not that they would want to, as the air was heavy with pollution. It made her feel dirty inside and outside and she flicked her once-shimmering wings in disgust. The humans hurried over to their cars and darted away into distance, adding to the unclean air. She didn’t see a single smile. What a cold, uncaring world to exist in.

The wind blew stronger as time wore on, snatching at her hair and wings. The fairy shivered and pulled her legs up under her chin. A distant rumble of thunder confirmed her fears but she didn’t have the will to fly away as the first raindrops fell. In all of her years the fairy had never felt so wretched and she wept bitter tears.

The fairy didn’t know how long she had sat upon the wall when she became aware that something had changed. She wearily lifted her head and saw a young boy watching her from the window of a car. The car was sat idly in a parking spot just outside the supermarket. For a long moment her blank, disbelieving expression mirrored that of the child’s. Then, scarcely daring to believe it, the fairy raised her arm and waved. It was a pathetic movement, just a slow gesture from left to right, but it had the effect of dropping the boy’s jaw to his lap. The shining screen of his tablet was forgotten as he pressed his hands and face against the glass, eyes boggling. The fairy found his reaction amusing and invigorating. She began to feed off of the boy’s amazement and drank it in like it was nectar. Her wings fluttered and she began to feel hope rekindling in her breast.

“Oh, sweet little boy,” she whispered, a smile touching her lips for the first time in what seemed like decades. “Aren’t you magnificent!”

The child was captivated. His open mouth revealed a missing tooth at the front and his cheeks were smooth and healthy. His brown eyes gleamed with excitement and the fairy rejoiced at the sharp burst of life that it granted her. The fairy beckoned, projecting her relief and assuring him of her good-will. The boy hesitated for the barest of moments before dropping out of sight. The car door clicked and swung open and the boy peered out of the car with one scuffed plimsoll on the ground. He wanted to go to her, but he was anxious about the driving rain. The fairy stood up on wobbling legs.

“Come closer, sweet child!” she called, her voice less musical than she remembered. She had been away from the Forest for too long, it seemed. “Do not be afraid!” The boy paused for a moment longer before leaping from the car and hurrying towards the fairy. The rain lashed down, spotting his white polo-shirt with grey splotches which consumed the fabric like a virus. His feet splashed in puddles and were soaked through but the boy did not seem to mind. He shook rain from his short, frizzy hair and smiled playfully at the fairy, who grinned back. He approached her wall and stood before her, his eyes drinking her in.

“Hello there,” the fairy said. She pushed her wet hair from her eyes and blinked water from her lashes.

“Hi,” the boy said. His voice was breathy with wonder and his hands twitched by his sides. “Are you a pixie?”

“No, child, I am not a pixie,” the fairy said, chuckling at the mistake. She had never been so thrilled to be called a pixie before! “Although they are very like me, and I expect that I currently look like one.” She gestured at her dirty dress with a sigh. “I am a fairy.”

“A fairy?!” The boy’s eyes grew impossibly wide and an open-mouthed grin spread across his face. It was a delight! The fairy shivered in appreciation. “Like in my books? Like Tinkerbell?”

“No, no, sweet boy, Tinkerbell is a pixie!” the fairy laughed. “There is a world of difference, but that is a lesson for another time. Please tell me, what is your name?”

“I’m Ayo,” the boy replied. He stood still, fiddling with the hem of his shirt. “I didn’t think fairies or pixies were real.”

“Oh, we are real, Ayo. I am proof of that, aren’t I?” The fairy turned around in a full circle, fluttering her diaphanous wings as she did so. The movement sent rainwater cascading gracefully over them, with the amber of a streetlight reflecting in them for a moment. Ayo gasped at its beauty.

“You’re so pretty…” he breathed. The fairy laughed and her soul lifted at the sound.

“Thank you, Ayo!” she replied, suddenly feeling shy. “You are very kind to say so! Tell me, why are other children not like you?”

“What do you mean?” Ayo frowned and scratched his head.

“The other children cannot see me,” the fairy said sadly. “Neither can the adults. They all seem so…distracted. Nobody smiles and they are all in such a hurry.”

“I dunno,” Ayo said, shrugging his shoulders. “Maybe they don’t have time to see fairies and pixies.”

“But you have time,” the fairy said eagerly. “That makes you different. That makes you special.” Ayo fidgeted, but he was pleased with the compliment.

“I hoped you were real,” Ayo said, glancing up at the fairy again. “Everything is more fun if magic is real!” With those simple words, the fairy found her former strength returning. She stood up on her tiptoes, lifting her face to the sky and hardly feeling the fist-sized raindrops driving against her delicate features. The boy’s words sent a warm, happy feeling oozing through her veins like a river being fed by streams.  She closed her eyes, sighed and spread her wings to their fullest. She felt radiant and alive.

“Are you okay?” Ayo was alarmed, and he reached for the fairy before stopping himself. The fairy opened her eyes and looked him, resplendent in her joy.

“I am well, dear child,” she said, her voice as sweet and delicate as birdsong. “And I have you to thank. Bless you, Ayo.” Ayo looked relieved and was about to reply when a sharp, angry voice sliced through the air.

“Ayo! Get back in the car, you naughty boy!” Ayo jumped and turned around with a guilty look on his face. The fairy saw a large, attractive woman with the same frizzy hair as Ayo standing by the open car. She clutched four shopping bags laden with provisions and her car keys, and she looked furious.

“But Mama, I saw a f-“ Ayo began sheepishly.

“AYO! GET. IN. THE. CAR!” There would be no excuses. Ayo’s shoulders slumped and he sprinted back towards his mother, stealing a glance over his shoulder. The fairy smiled and raised a hand in goodbye. Ayo waved back and clambered into the car. Both he and the car seat were soaked from the rain, and his mother was not at all happy.

“Ayo, what were you thinking?” She was saying as she dabbed at his face and hair with tissues from her handbag. “Look your shoes, and the car! Oooh, you are a naughty boy, sometimes!” She pulled the door shut with a snap, muffling Ayo’s protests. The fairy felt a pang of regret at having gotten the boy into trouble, but she also sensed no ill-will from his mother. She was merely concerned at having found her little one wandering alone during a shower. She could sympathise, as she had her own children to hurry back to.

“Thank you, dear Ayo,” she whispered as she beat her wings. She could almost see the myriad of flowers of the Enchanted Forest; she could almost smell their perfume and feel the grass tickling her toes. She sighed and took flight, spiralling into the air higher and higher and laughing as she soared with the wind. She was going home!

 

 

 

Fiction Fursday/A Missing Belt and Fine Shoes

Another Thursday and another story! This week I was provided with a prompt from Jason over at Aethereal Engineer. Jason has given me some great prompts before and he has done so again. His suggestion was that “a person discovers a portal to ‘somewhere else’ in their closet. What happens?” I thought that was a pretty good one!

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

P.S. If anyone would like to suggest a prompt for me to use another day, please let me know in the comments.

 

A Missing Belt and Fine Shoes

By Adam Dixon

Jerry Mackintosh was drunk again, but this time he was angry too. He had slaved ten years away at the local mill only to be replaced by a machine. Jerry had walked out of the gates clutching his final wage packet and straight into the pub, and had proceeded to spend half of it on stout. Upon staggering home, he had worked himself into a foul, dangerous mood.

“Jerry, keep your voice down!” Mary, his petite wife pleaded. “You’re frightening the children!”

“Oh, I am, am I?” Jerry sneered, casting about in search of the brats. “Mustn’t do that! Can’t scare the ungrateful little sods, can I?”

“Jerry, don’t, they’re not ungrateful,” Mary said, wringing her hands together. “They don’t like it when you come home late and start shouting, that’s all…”

“I’ll do whatever I bloody well like!” Jerry shouted, balling his hands into fists. His watery blue eyes were bloodshot and angry. “I’m the man of this house, and by God you’ll all know it!” Jerry swung and punched Mary in the stomach. She doubled over, the breath whooshing from her lungs. Jerry followed it up with a backhanded swipe which knocked Mary to the ground. He towered over her, swaying and breathing heavily. Mary began to sob and curled herself into a ball; she knew this part all too well.

“Where’re those fucking kids, anyway?” Jerry cried, his voice hoarse. “I’ll get those little brats! Teach them some respect!” He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and reached for his belt. He then realised that he hadn’t worn it that day and cursed aloud. Jerry stalked up the rickety old staircase and into the tiny master bedroom. Wrenching open the wardrobe he began searching inside it, throwing moth-eaten trousers and dresses onto the single bed. He knew it was in there somewhere! Growling and gnashing his teeth, Jerry took a step forward and tangled his foot in a pair of stockings. He bellowed as he fell, bracing for the impact of hard wood against his head.

He was stunned when he landed sprawling on the ground. He lay blinking and felt gravel under his fingers and an unpleasant smell under his nose. He raised his head and glanced around him. He appeared to be in a small village, surrounded by people bustling to and fro, all of them wearing strange, dirty clothing. Jerry got to his feet with some difficulty as his anger gave way to confusion. It had been dark when he’d gotten home, so why was the sun burning down on his bald patch? Glancing around he saw wooden houses with thatched roofs leaning against one another and cobbled streets littered with straw and excrement. Jerry rubbed his temples. He didn’t realise he was that drunk!

Jerry’s attention was drawn by giggling nearby. He turned and saw two grubby children, a boy and a girl of roughly the same age, dancing around in a puddle. Jerry’s confusion was forgotten as his rage rose up once again like dead leaves touched by a flame. Sod the belt, he was going to give those brats a good hiding! He snarled and lumbered towards them. As his shadow fell across them the two children looked up. If Jerry hadn’t been so drunk or so angry he might have realised that both children had brown hair, whereas his children had blond hair. But he didn’t, and he cuffed them on their ears, knocking them into the murky puddle. Jerry heard gasps from people close by but he ignored them.

“Take that, you little shits!” Jerry said, towering over them as they sat up. The boy was rubbing his head and staring at Jerry in disbelief and the little girl began to cry.

“Don’t you give me those crocodile tears, young lady!” Jerry raged, seizing the girl by her hair and hauling her upright. The boy protested, getting to his feet and clinging to Jerry’s wrists. Jerry knocked him down again with his free hand and held the girl with ease.

“Ha, that’ll teach you!” Jerry said. “You’re not a man yet, sonny-Jim!”

“Oi, what d’you think yer doin’?” A voice called. Jerry turned, still gripping the young girl’s hair. A woman in a dress which may have been yellow once was staring at Jerry, her eyes wide in shock. There were other women in similar dirty clothes next to her, wearing the same horrified expression.

“None of your bloody business!” Jerry retorted. “Stay out of this, whoever you are!”

“I shan’t!” the woman replied. “Who d’you think you are to come waltzin’ in our village with yer fancy clothes an’ beatin’ our children? You wait til Big John hears about this!”

“You’ll shut your mouth if you know what’s good for you!” Jerry said. He turned back towards the children but was caught by surprise when a skinny man with a white beard stepped forwards and shoved him in the chest. It was a weak shove by all accounts, but Jerry was so drunk that it threw him off balance and sent him stumbling into a fence. He gripped the fence and eyed the old man with contempt.

“Oh, you’re in for it now, old fella!” he said. The old man swept his bony arms around the children and hugged them tight. His mouth was a thin line of anger and his eyes blazed.

“I dunno who y’are, stranger, but no-one attacks my grandchildren!” the man wheezed, gritting his blackened teeth. “My boy’ll have yer guts for this!”

As Jerry’s stout-addled brain tried to process this information, a huge man with a black beard and a leather apron came charging towards him. Jerry had just enough time to stand up straight before he was lifted from his feet. Jerry was a tall man, but this brute was almost a giant. He choked as a gloved hand gripped his throat and lifted him two inches off the ground. He was brought close to the face of the bearded man and looked into furious green eyes.

“NO-ONE TOUCHES MY LITTLE’UNS!” the man said, tightening his grip. Jerry struggled and gasped, catching the sooty smell of the man’s apron and the sweat on his brow. The man grunted and threw him across the street. Jerry bounced off the cobbles and landed in a heap next to an empty wooden trough. He tried to stand but the man beat him to it again, hauling him to his feet. Stars exploded in Jerry’s eyes as the man hit him hard in the cheek. He felt the skin tear and was dimly aware of blood flowing down his neck. Jerry grasped the man’s wrists with shaking hands.

“No more!” he said, suddenly sober through fear. Like all bullies, Jerry was a coward when challenged. He knew he was in big trouble.

“I THOUGHT YOU WERE A MAN!” the man said, punching him again, this time in the ribs. Jerry thought that his chest would cave in if he had to endure another hammer-blow like that. The man walloped him on the other cheek before dragging him down the village, his feet drawing meandering lines through the straw.

“You’re goin’ to the Town Watch!” the man said, throwing in another punch for good measure. “That’ll teach you! Beat up my little’uns, will ya? Yer a disgrace!”

 

An hour later, Jerry was lying in a dark, smelly cell complete with iron bars and a pile of straw for a bed. His clothes were ruined, covered in mud, dirt and his own piss. He stank, his cheek and ribs ached and his head was raging with a hangover. He had never felt so miserable and he still didn’t know what was going on. He wasn’t dreaming, he knew that much; you couldn’t dream pain so vividly.

“Why did I go into that bloody wardrobe?” he groaned, massaging his head. He knew perfectly well why and as he sat in the cold and the dark, a familiar feeling began to creep into his heart. It was an emotion which had dominated his life ever since he realised that he drank too often, ever since that frightened look had appeared in his wife’s eyes. Jerry drank to stifle that emotion but that only made it stronger the next day. That emotion was shame.

“Oh God, what have I done?” Jerry said, burying his head in his hands. He began to sob and tug at his hair, promising the cell that he would mend his ways if he could only get home to Mary and the kids.

“Do you mean that, wretch?” a sibilant voice whispered from the darkness. Jerry almost yelped in fright and scanned the cell for the source of the noise.

“Hello? Who’s there?” he called, shrinking back against the wall.

“Your cell-mate, wretch,” the voice replied. It was coming from the other side of the cell, not three steps away. “I’ve been watching you since the Watch tossed you in here. You are in a sorry state, aren’t you?”

“I deserve it,” Jerry said, wiping snot from his nose with his sleeve. “I…I’ve shamed myself with my behaviour.”

“But you wish to make amends, do you not?” the voice said. There was a scuffling of straw. “Perhaps…I can help you.”

“How?” Jerry asked, squinting. He could make out a shape nearby, but he couldn’t see any features. “Come closer.” There was a moment of silence before the figure slid closer. As the meagre light from the window fell upon it, Jerry saw with relief that it was just another prisoner like himself. The man was thin with sunken brown eyes, his clothes were ragged and filthy and he stank of stale sweat. He was grinning at Jerry, revealing a dazzling smile which contrasted weirdly with his dishevelled appearance.

“I can send you home!” the man hissed, his eyes widening. “I can see you are not from this world: that much is plain. I have met a few wretches like yourself and I have helped to send them back.”

“You…you can get me home?” Jerry’s mind raced. He wasn’t sure what the man was talking about, but he was so desperate to get out of the cell that he was willing to believe anything.

“I can,” the man said, running a dirty finger along his stubbly chin. “For a price…”

“I don’t have anything to give!” Jerry said, on the verge of tears once again.

“Your shoes,” the man replied, pointing.

“My shoes?” Jerry was perplexed.

“Yes, the Watch did not deprive you of them, but I would like to,” the man said. “The leather is very fine, better than anything I may find in this village. Give me your shoes and I will send you home.” Jerry almost twisted his ankle as he tore his shoes from his feet and thrust them towards his cell-mate. The man received with a smile, running his emaciated fingers across them lovingly.

“Ahh, many thanks, wretch,” he said. “These will aid me more than you realise…”

“Now send me home!” Jerry whined. The man nodded and placed the shoes on the ground. He stood up and walked over to the corner of the cell. Jerry couldn’t see what he was doing, but he heard a low chanting in a strange language and the padding of the man’s feet. A blast of cool, fresh air struck Jerry in the face, raising goose-bumps on his flesh and sending loose straw scurrying across the cell like fleeing insects. A glowing rectangle stretching two metres high light up the man as it pulsed on the wall of the cell. The man turned towards Jerry and flashed his smile.

“It is done,” he said. “Pass through this doorway, wretch, and you will return from whence you came. Farewell.” Jerry stood on weak legs and shambled towards the doorway. The pale glow hurt his eyes after so many hours in darkness, but he didn’t care. He moved as fast as he could and passed through the wall with a cry of desperation. A warmth seeped into his body, rejuvenating his aches and lifting his soul like a hot bath. For an instant, Jerry was blinded by intense light and at bliss…

Jerry hit the floorboards with a thud. Winded and shocked, he looked up. His heart leapt as he recognised his bedroom. He twisted round to look behind him. There was the wardrobe, with its doors flung open and clothes strewn on the floor. Jerry kissed the wooden floor and scrambled to his feet.

“Mary!” Jerry called, his voice hoarse with emotion. “Mary! Kids! Where are you?” He staggered towards the doorway and descended into the kitchen. Mary was standing at the bottom, looking up at him with wide, relieved eyes.

“Jerry!” she said. “Where have you been? It’s been three days! Where are your shoes?”

“I’ve been away, Mary,” Jerry croaked, reaching the bottom of the stairs and pulling his astonished wife into a tight embrace. He breathed in the soapy scent of her neck and felt the flour dusting her cheeks.

“Jerry!” Mary said in surprise as he nuzzled her neck. “What’s gotten into you? Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Mary,” Jerry said. “I’ve just realised what a brute I’ve been. But no more, I’m a changed man. I’ll never hurt you or the children again, I promise.” Mary was taken aback by the emotion in Jerry’s voice. She returned the hug, patting his back with a bewildered expression.

“That’s wonderful to hear, Jerry,” she said, pulling away from him and smiling. Jerry beamed at her and held on to her hands.

“Where are the kids? I need to tell them I’m sorry.”

“They’re at school, Jerry. It’s nine o’clock.”

“Oh, good. I’ll tell them later, I need to tell them.”

“Of course,” Again Mary was stunned by the depth of Jerry’s emotion. She fidgeted as she thought of something to say.

“Jerry, I know about the mill,” she said at last. “I’m so sorry to hear about that, really I am. But there might be a job for you in town. There’s a man who has just moved here, a stranger, and he’s set up a shop near the baker’s. He said he’s looking for hard workers to get his business going, so maybe you could speak to him?”

“Yes, yes, I’ll go right away!” Jerry said, grabbing his wellington boots and shoving them on. He walked out into the murky morning and breathed a long sigh of relief. He was home again, and now he realised what was important to him. He walked into the town, greeting astonished neighbours who had been worrying about him and assuring them all that he was very well, thank you very much. As he approached the town centre, he saw the new shop. It was a cobblers, with a freshly-painted sign boasting “Shoes of Fine Leather Inside!” Jerry smoothed his clothes before pushing the door open. A merry jingle filled the cool interior as the bell above the door was jostled. Jerry looked around and saw shoes of all sizes stacked on shelves and the almost-pleasant smell of leather filled his nostrils. He walked to the back of the shop and rested his hands on the counter, searching for the proprietor.

“Hello?” he called. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but my wife told me that you are looking for workers. I would like to offer my services.”

“Ah, I think I might have some use for you!” a voice hissed behind him. Jerry whirled and was stunned to see a familiar face. The man rubbed his now clean-shaven cheeks and flashed his dazzling smile.

“It is very good to see you again, wretch!” the man said. He threw his head back and laughed as Jerry stood dumfounded before him. He wasn’t sure what to make of this development, but it had to be better than sharing a cell. He swallowed and shook the man’s hand. For better or worse, he was a changed man now and he intended to prove it. He couldn’t help wondering what other surprises his life had in store for him now.

 

Fiction Fursday/The Animals’ Advice

Today’s Fiction Fursday story was prompted by my wonderful blogger friend, Kate. Kate gave me a flurry of excellent prompts during my A-Z Challenge in April, so I knew that she’d suggest something brilliant for my new weekly project! Her suggestion was for me to write a story where a bloke who is down on his luck sneaks into a zoo and tells the animals about his problems. I loved the idea from the start and was excited to get writing! Here is what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

Also, if any of your would like to suggest a prompt for me for my Ficiton Fursday posts, feel free to do so in the comments. It could be a single word, a first/final line or even a theme. Use your imagination and to kick-start mine!

The Animals’ Advice

By Adam Dixon

“She just wouldn’t listen to reason,” Bob sighed, taking a slow swig from his beer can. “She wouldn’t listen, then she left me…just walked out the door…haven’t seen her in four weeks now…” Bob lowered his head as a tear forced its way through his closed eyes. “Oh, Xena, what am I going to do?” Bob looked pleadingly at the sleek lioness in her enclosure. She sat as still as a statue, watching him with amber eyes and flicking her tail to and fro as he spoke.

“You come here at this hour, disturbing my rest, in order to spout this drivel?” she replied. The noise came from within Bob’s head rather than issuing from her mouth and her voice was cold and calculated. Bob fidgeted on his perch on the wall above her.

“Erm, yes…” he replied, feeling sheepish. “I was hoping you might have some advice for me. You know how to deal with your mate and his pride so I figured that you might have an insight I could use.”

“I care less about your trivial relationship problems than I do about tasting your warm flesh, human,” Xena growled, licking her lips. Bob shuffled further away, for once grateful for the iron bars ringing the enclosure.

“It is merely an instinct, human, take no offence,” Xena said with a lazy swish of her tail. “Nothing personal, although I must insist that you take your problems elsewhere. I require sleep or else I shall be cantankerous in the morning; the cubs will not enjoy that. Good evening to you.” With a regal bowing of her head, the lioness turned and gracefully walked away. Bob sat watching her, marvelling at the strong muscles and beautiful fur whilst at the same time feeling quite put-out.

“Yeah, whatever then, princess,” he muttered as he shuffled further into the zoo. He gulped at his beer as he wandered, enjoying the cool breeze and shade offered at night. He had been working there during the sweltering heat of the daytime, guiding packs of sweating tourists around to gawk at the basking animals, making him grateful for the drop in temperature. Gravel crunched under his boots as Bob approached another cage, this one filled with trees and wooden climbing frames. He sat on a wooden bench next to it, cracking open another beer.

“Hello? Anyone home?” he called. There was a rustling of movement within the trees and a dark human-like face ringed with white fur peered out at him. Bob waved.

“Evening, Scamp,” he said. “Aren’t you up a bit late?”

“Could say the same to you! Heehee!” The gibbon replied playfully. Bob raised his can.

“Touché!” He said, and took a long swallow. Sighing, he watched as Scamp swung up to a stronger branch in order to converse with him comfortably.

“Scamp, where’s Ursula?” Bob asked. “I thought you two were always together?”

“Not tonight, she’s resting with our young,” Scamp grinned, his throat-sack enlarging and shrinking as he laughed. “They gave her a good run-around today and now they’re all exhausted! Works for me! Heehee!” Bob smiled and shook his head. Scamp’s voice echoed in his head more resonantly than the other animals, and Bob assumed it was due to their evolutionary closeness. Scamp leaned closer from his high perch, gazing down at Bob. He lifted a horned finger and pointed.

“Say, Bob…could I have one of those?” Scamp asked hopefully. Bemused, Bob pulled a beer can from his pack and tossed it up into the tree. Scamp leaned backwards and caught it deftly, whooping in delight. He snapped open the ring-pull and cackled as foam erupted over his hand. Leaning further backwards he splashed beer down his face and chest as he gulped noisily. He balanced precariously on the edge of the branch for a few seconds before sitting upright once more. Scamp barked a quick laugh and belched.

“Ahhh, thanks! Heehee!” Scamp imitated Bob’s salute, tilting his raised can and nodding. Bob shook his head again.

“That’s alright, I suppose,” he replied, chuckling. “I just hope the guys at security aren’t watching! They didn’t mind letting me in at this hour but they’d have something to say if they saw me giving alcohol to the attractions! Technically you’re a minor, too, so I’d be in loads of trouble!”

“Our little secret then! Heehee! Why are you here, anyway?” Scamp asked, hanging from a branch one-handed as he sipped more beer. “Don’t we get enough of your ugly mug during the day? Heehee!”

“Woman troubles,” Bob admitted. “You’re always happy with Ursula, Scamp. What d’you reckon I should be doing?”

“You could try singing for her, that’s what I do,” Scamp replied, leaping back on to the branch and rubbing his throat-sack with pride. “My Ursula has always enjoyed my singing. Or if that doesn’t work, find another male to fight and prove your worth that way! Rip his fur out and toss him in the bushes with his bottom smacked! Heehee!”

“Hmm…well I can’t sing and I doubt there’s anyone relevant I could beat up,” Bob frowned. “It doesn’t really work like that with humans, anyway.”

“Can’t help you then, sorry!” Scamp laughed and crushed the empty can in his hand. He raised his arm and threw it, whooping with glee when it bounced off the side of Bob’s head.

“Heehee! Gotcha! Can I have another one?”

“No, that’s enough for you,” Bob said flatly, standing up to leave. “I’ll see if anyone else can help me.” He trudged off down the winding path, feeling more and more like he was wasting his time. Why should the animals have any kind of helpful advice to give me? Bob thought, cross with himself. They don’t know how humans behave! After a few minutes, however, Bob found himself leaning over the edge of another enclosure, chatting with a beautiful male peacock.

“So what do you think I should do, Narcissus?” Bob asked after he had explained his situation. He was watching the blue bird strut around and flick his gorgeous feathers to and fro.

“Well, what I would suggest, darling, is that you flaunt your natural beauty to win her back!” the peacock said eagerly. “Flaunt it, darling! Flaunt it shamelessly! Show her what she is missing!”

“Erm…okay,” Bob was unconvinced. “The thing is, I don’t really have a lot of natural beauty to flaunt. The moles and the receding hairline hardly make women swoon, and I can’t say I had better luck when I was younger. My parents were a bit on the plain side, you see.”

“Oh, daaaarling! That is unfortunate!” Narcissis crowed with genuine sympathy. He fanned his own natural beauty for effect. “Then I simply don’t know what to suggest! That course of action always works for me! See how stunning I am! What female could possibly resist?” He spun his feathers with a flourish, sighing with delight as the radiant colours flashed in the night sky. Bob sighed too and thanked the peacock, leaving him to prance about as he walked on. He began to wonder if he should just go home and drink his remaining beers in solitude, but he knew that he wouldn’t. I don’t want to be alone anymore, Bob thought miserably.

Bob came to a wider cage near the end of the park and gazed at the impressive shapes moving around within it. Two elephants were sleeping peacefully in the centre of the cage, a great bull elephant and his calf. The baby, who was nearly as big as Bob, was snuggled up against her father with her small trunk draped over his neck. Bob felt a pang of regret as he stroked the cold, oppressive bars of the cage. The cruelty of their fate upset him profoundly.

“I’m sorry you’re in here…” he whispered.

“The fault is not yours, young man,” a kindly voice said in his head. “Do not assume the guilt for it.” Bob glanced towards another shape as it moved closer to him. The baby’s mother was massive and beautiful, her intelligent brown eyes meeting Bob’s without fear or hesitation.

“I know, Maggie” Bob replied, scratching the back of his head. “But it doesn’t make me feel any better about it, especially not since I’ve been moaning about my life all evening. I don’t have it this bad! Stupid, selfish bastard that I am! At least I’m free!”

“Oh, you needn’t feel too bad, Robert,” Maggie said, her eyes creasing with amusement. “You help us in your own way through your Gift. If you did not come and talk to us all during the day, I am sure we would all have gone beserk by now. Do not be too hard on yourself, my dear.”

“I suppose so,” Bob replied, feeling slightly better. He turned to look at the sleeping baby once again.

“She is growing so fast, Maggie!” He breathed, his eyes widening and a wondrous smile creeping across his face. “Soon she’ll be as big as you are!”

“Oh, hopefully not too soon!” Maggie chuckled. She looked at Bob seriously, her large ears flapping as she frowned.

“Now, Robert, tell me,” she began firmly. “What is all this about you moaning about your life? What is the matter?”

“Oh, that,” Bob scratched his head again nervously. “I…erm…my partner left me. She doesn’t…erm…She wants to get married.”

“Well, that sounds like wonderful news!” Maggie exclaimed. “Why has she abandoned you? Is this how you usually operate? I don’t understand human couplings, I’m afraid.”

“No, it’s not the usual way…” Bob replied, feeling ashamed. “I…erm…it’s my fault. I told her…that I don’t want to get married.”

“I see,” Maggie’s expression became stern as she moved closer to Bob. Her great head moved to within inches of his, separated by the iron bars of the cage. “Why ever not, Robert? Do you not care for her?”

“Yes! Of course I do!” Bob said, hurt by implication. “I love her dearly! I can’t imagine life without her! I don’t want a life without her!”

“Then why do you hesitate?” Maggie asked, holding Bob’s gaze. Bob was flustered as he found himself unable to answer the simple question.

“I…she…oh, I don’t know!” He cried, throwing his arms in the air. “It’s just not something that has ever meant much to me as a concept, that’s all!”

“But it seems to mean a great deal to your partner,” Maggie said, twisting her trunk as she spoke. It was almost like a shrug. “Perhaps you need to consider whether your indifference is more important than your mutual happiness. Take myself and Rameses for example.” She swung her trunk and gestured at her slumbering mate. “Rameses was a wild one, that’s for certain, and he never considered having children before I explained to him how important it would be to me. Putting his pride behind him was the best decision he has ever made; he adores our little one and he would give his tusks for her in a heartbeat.” Maggie turned her gaze back towards Bob. “You must think about what course of action will make you and your partner the happiest. Make your decision soon, whatever it may be, before you regret it.”

Bob rested his forehead against the cool bars of the cage and reached his arm through to stroke Maggie’s trunk. It was thick and strong but full of warmth. Just like Maggie, Bob thought.

“Thank you, Maggie,” he said, tears filling his eyes. “I’ll do that. You are very wise, you know that, right?”

“Oh, it has been implied!” Maggie chuckled and tenderly wiped an escaping tear from Bob’s cheek with the end of her trunk. “But you do not reach my age without learning a thing or two about life! Now off you go, Robert. The dawn will soon come and I daresay that you have a female to speak to.” Bob straightened and wiped his eyes.

“Yes, I suppose I do,” he replied, smiling. “Bye, Maggie. I’ll see you soon.” Maggie raised her trunk in farewell before moving back towards her family. Bob strode back the way he had come, feeling lighter than he had felt in days. Maggie’s words had lifted a great weight from his shoulders and her simple probing had unlocked answers he had kept barricaded deep in his heart. He glanced up at the lightening sky, breathing in the cool scent of the approaching morning and looking forward to the day ahead. He knew what he was going to do. As he passed the Ape Section, Bob whistled and tossed his final beer can into the trees. Scamp the gibbon caught it and his surprised laughter rang out across the zoo, and Bob laughed with him.

 

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 21

Day 21 is here, and that means it’s the final week of this April’s Challenge! I’m surprised, relieved and somewhat saddened by the prospect of it all being over so soon! Today’s story is a bit late because I have been working late today, which has required me to write on the go and almost exclusively on my phone, which is something I haven’t done before. Quite a tricky but rewarding experience, I must say!
Anyway, today’s suggestion comes from the brilliant Geoff Le Pard
, who, as I have previously mentioned, is largely responsible for inspiring my theme for this Challenge. Geoff suggested the word “UNREAL”, which I am delighted to say really forced me to think hard. I discarded several ideas before I settled on this one, and I hope I have done it justice. Thanks, Geoff!

UNREAL
By Adam Dixon

Jack could hardly believe the realism of the game. As soon as he pulled down the visor-screen he could almost swear that he was standing in a meadow during the height of summer, rather than sat in his ergonomic gaming chair in his draughty South-London flat. He could nearly feel the grass tickling his feet and taste the pollen in the air. The box containing the virtual reality system boasted “A gaming world so real, it’ll leave you drained!” It certainly was visually impressive.

“Wow,” he whistled in appreciation. “Pretty good start!” He glanced down at himself and marvelled at the physique of his chosen character. He gazed in wonder at a bare torso covered with rippling, solid muscle and saw equally strong legs supporting him. He almost whooped in delight. He was just like Conan the Barbarian!

“Oh man, this is gonna be good!” Jack squeaked, lifting and flexing his limbs for a better inspection of his new physical prowess. He felt powerful and confident, making his character strut around the deserted meadow with a deliberate swagger. It all seemed so real, even down to the dull thud of his character’s rough leather boots on the soil. The only aspect which reminded Jack that he was in a game was the Head-Up Display fixed permanently in his sight just above his left eye. It displayed a full green health bar, as well as currently empty weapon and potions slots. In the centre of his vision was a flashing red timer counting down from one minute, urgently informing Jack that the “FIRST WAVE”  was approaching.
“Hmm…weapons…” Jack muttered, casting to and fro. He spotted a large, double-headed axe leaning against a nearby fence. Brimming with excitement, Jack ran over to it and curled his massive right hand around the haft. As he tensed to lift it, the resistance astonished Jack. It even felt heavy!
“Fuck, this is awesome!” Jack exclaimed as he took a few practice swings with the axe. It made a low whooshing sound as it cleaved through the air and threatened to overbalance him. That didn’t matter, he’d get the hang of it in time. As he moved around the meadow with the axe held high the red timer hit zero. Almost instantly Jack heard savage snarls behind him. He spun around to see three terrifyingly life-like wolves running towards him. Yelping, Jack held the axe at the ready, somewhat comforted by its weight.
“Come on, then!” He shouted, planting his feet and squaring his shoulders. He felt braver than he had ever been as Jack the nerd. He was Conan, and he wasn’t scared of some stupid wolves!
The first wolf attacked, leaping through the air with its razor-sharp fangs seeking Jack’s throat. Jack swung the axe in an awkward sideways motion with all of his new might. His axe slammed into the wolf, sending shock waves up his arms. He felt faint as he heard bones snapping and the wolf howling in pain. Wow, this is a bit too real! Jack thought, his emotions caught somewhere between joy and horror.
Swinging the axe twice more he felled the other two wolves like trees. As he stood panting, he noticed that the red timer had started up again; the “SECOND WAVE”  was on its way.
Jack spent the next hour battling various enemies as the timer stopped and restarted. Wolves, bandits, fellow barbarians and even armoured knights fell to his mighty axe as Jack grew in confidence and determination. He was astounded by the VR’s attention to detail; he saw every sickening laceration, every grimace of pain and and every look of terror on his enemies faces. He continually had to glance up at the HUD in order to remind himself that he wasn’t in mortal danger at every turn. He experienced the full impact of the VR’s sophistication when a knight stabbed him through the arm. Pain radiated from his wounds and his forearm grew slick with blood. His health bar decreased by a third and Jack felt a portion of his energy disappear with it. He screamed and almost threw off his visor-screen in a panic. Instead, he despatched the knight and stood trembling, reminding himself firmly that it was only a game. A damned realistic game, but still a game. None of it was real.
Jack was becoming exhausted by the “SEVENTH WAVE”, and he was pounced upon by a huge bear during the “EIGHTH WAVE”. He was forced the ground under the weight of the beast, choking on a mouthful of its reeking fur. The bear tore into Jack’s throat and he screamed again, marvelling at the heightened sensation of pain he was experiencing. As the bear’s jaws opened and closed, Jack felt his strength ebbing away. The virtual meadow began to grow dark as Jack’s health bar emptied. The last thing Jack thought before he died was wondering what the loading screen would look like. He wasn’t sure if he would hit “CONTINUE”. He’d had enough for one day…
Back in Jack’s flat, the vampire Lucius reluctantly finished his feast. He withdrew his own very real fangs from Jack’s throat and stood back, wiping fresh blood from his chin and admiring his handiwork. The overweight, heavily-acned corpse that had once been Jack sat slumped in the preposterous gaming chair, its skin pale and its face contorted in agony.
Lucius laughed as he contemplated how easy hunting was becoming these days. One could always find loners like Jack who would jump at the chance to test out a prototype gaming system, no matter how dodgy it all seemed. Lucius removed the visor-screen from the corpse’s head and collected the controllers and power outlet. Before he left, he turned back and took one last look at the very real, very dead man. He grinned and strode out of the flat. Virtual reality: just another way to turn the vulnerable into the delicious!

A – Z Challenge Day 17

 

 
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Today’s prompt comes from the brilliant Geoff Le Pard. Geoff has written some very interesting posts about London during this challenge, and he has been kind enough to provide me with two prompts for mine. The theme for my own challenge has been heavily influenced by Geoff, as he wrote a short story every single day last November for NaNoWriMo. I was astounded to learn of this feat and have been inspired to have a crack at something similar ever since!
Geoff’s suggestion for today is “QUISLING”. This is a great word which I have only come across a few times and it presented a fun challenge. Thanks again, Geoff!

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

QUISLING

“You would bite the hand which feeds you, woman?” Captain Siper asked as he stared at Alesia over the top of his clasped fingers. The inside of his command tent was cramped with the huge wooden desk and two burly guards flanking him. The air inside was stuffy and smelled of sweat and leather. Alesia shrugged, irritated by the question.

“That is why I am here, is it not, captain?” she replied, folding her arms and raising her chin. “The people in this village have done nothing good for me in the last year.” Her angular face was held with pride despite the dirt covering it. Captain Siper found this behaviour extraordinary.

“So it would seem,” he said slowly. He leaned across his desk, splaying his hands over the rough maps of the surrounding area as he peered into Alesia’s face.

“Tell me, woman, is there any truth to the rumours my men have heard about you?” He asked, an unpleasant smirk curling his mouth. “They have learned that you were once a respected woman within the village, and a favourite of the local lord, no less. They also learned that you were tossed aside like a soiled blanket once a fairer, younger maiden was made ready for said local lord! Could this be the reason for your traitorous scheme?”

Alesia’s eyes blazed with fury and her breathing quickened. Oh, how she would love to hit him right in his smug, self-satisfied mouth! She stood straighter and her voice was cool as she answered him.

“They are not quite true, captain,” she said, narrowing her eyes at Siper’s stoic guards. They were watching her with same alertness as a fox would watch a rabbit.

“I was indeed favoured by the local lord, as I was once his mistress,” she continued. “But that time has passed, as you may have deduced by my slovenly appearance. I was not “tossed aside” as you so delicately put it, but there was another woman embroiled in my fate and that was the lord’s wife. She has seen fit to wield her influence on these simple-minded villagers, and suffice it to say my fortunes have declined of late.”

“Yes, that much is quite obvious!” Captain Siper barked a short, cruel laugh. Alesia sniffed but maintained her composure.

“Well, will you accept my help or not?” she demanded. “I know that your leader desires this village for its strategic position along the trade routes and you know that the villagers won’t let you take it without fierce resistance. I can help you minimise the losses on your side considerably.”

“Perhaps we don’t require any aid, hmm?” Captain Siper sneered at Alesia, who was beginning to loathe the oily little man. “Our numbers are enough to flatten that miserable village and put every man within it to the sword. We know this and the villagers know it, too.”

“Whilst that is true, you must also realise that it will not be so simple,” Alesia said, with a wry smile of her own. “The villagers have vowed to burn the entire place to the ground if it seems as though your army will succeed. They would rather see their homes burn than fall into your hands. I can help you prevent this from ever being a possibility.”

“Go on,” Siper said, his smile vanishing. Alesia allowed herself a moment of silent triumph.

“I know the schedule of each and every man who will be on sentry duty over the next week,” she said. “In three nights’ time I shall open the main gate for you, so that your men may enter the village under the cover of darkness. You can then occupy it from within and do whatever you will with it and its people.”

“How will you get the gate open if there will be men guarding it?” Siper’s tone was scornful as he sized Alesia up. She was tall and slight, with small hands and feet; she was not a figure which inspired physical prowess in any way. Alesia merely laughed at the implication.

“Oh, captain,” she said, shaking her head and grinning. “If I only ever know three things about men, they are that they believe all women are weak, unthreatening and desperately attracted to them. There will be one guard on duty that evening, a dullard called Thom, who most certainly thinks those things of me. Simply put, I shall kill him and open the gate. Understand?”

“And how, pray tell, would you benefit from this betrayal, woman?” Siper asked, his expression guarded but interest gleaming in his eyes. Alesia approached his desk, and leaned closer to the captain’s face. Her grey eyes were alight with ambition.

“I would benefit by being permitted to rule the survivors!” she replied, as if it were the most obvious question in the world. “That is my condition! I will allow you entry to the village if you will grant me control once it has been tamed.” Siper gave another bark, this time sounding relieved and astonished.

“By the Gods, I like you, woman!” He chuckled. He stood up and extended a gauntleted hand towards Alesia. “On my honour as a man of the Empire, it shall be done as long as you uphold your end of the bargain!” Alesia grasped the offered wrist and shook it.

“Then it is done,” she said, holding his gaze with intensity. “Assemble your men outside the main gate in three nights’ time. The way shall be clear.” She moved towards the tent flaps, but paused as a guard lifted the canvas.

“One more thing,” she said quietly, looking over her shoulder. “I’d like it if you could capture the lord and his lady alive, and then bring them to me. I have…plans…for the two of them.”

“My lady, consider it done!” Siper gave a mocking bow. Alesia exited the camp and stole back to the sleeping village with the captain’s laughter ringing in her ears.

 

 

A Dangerous Man II: Merlin’s Wrath

This story contains a character whom I created back in January. If you’re interested, the link for his first appearance is here: https://adamdixonfiction.com/2016/01/09/a-dangerous-man/

 

A Dangerous Man II: Merlin’s Wrath

By Adam Dixon

The Man sat on the hard wooden stool, the light from the crackling fire dancing on his spectacles as the witch scurried around the cave. She was a plump woman and her pleasant, feminine face was flushed with anxiety. She had a light blue dye in her short hair and she appeared to be no more than thirty years old, but the Man knew better; she was much, much older. She was searching for something, rearranging a collection of jars here, discarding a pile of yellowed scrolls there and all the while muttering to herself. The Man sat in silence and allowed himself an amused half-smile. Finally, the witch found the object she sought.

“Aha! I knew I ‘ad one!” she exclaimed, her delicate French accent filtering through her triumph. She brandished a cast-iron flask decorated with ancient runes in her left hand. In the firelight it was easy to spot that her little finger was missing, and the stump that remained was swaddled in bloodied bandages. There was another long bandage tied around her head which kept slipping over her eyes. She stepped in front of a bubbling cauldron set above the fire and beamed at her guest. The Man leaned forwards, his eyes gleaming.

“Well then, Madeleine,” he rasped, maintaining eye contact. “What’ve you got for me this evening?” Madeleine wilted under his stare, and visibly steeled herself before replying.

“What do I ‘ave, Master?” she said, waving her free arm with a flourish. “Why, I ‘ave the very thing you ‘ave been asking for!” She smiled at him again, looking expectant.

“As fun as it is, you don’t have to call me Master, y’know,” the Man chuckled. “It sounds a bit medieval to me, and I’m all about the here and now!” The witch’s smile faltered.

“But I ‘ave to, Master,” she said in a serious tone. “By customs ancient and binding I must. You killed my apprentice and defeated me in single combat.” Madeleine grimaced at the memory. “Poor Isolde…she showed such promise….”

“Alright, alright!” the Man barked, irritated. “Call me whatever you need to, just get on with it!”

“Of course, Master. My apologies,” the witch replied, bowing her head. She took a long-handled ladle from next to the cauldron and dipped it inside, scooping up a large helping of the putrid, mottled green liquid. The Man noted that the ladle also had runes etched into it. As Madeleine transferred the steaming concoction into the flask, a single drop fell to the floor. Her eyes widened in alarm for the merest hint of a second before she composed herself; the Man saw it, but said nothing. Once she had filled the flask, Madeleine dropped the ladle and held the potion reverently, turning to face the Man.

“’Ere you are, Master,” she said, her voice a husky whisper. When Madeleine whispered, her voice made grown men swoon, but as usual it had no effect whatsoever on the Man. “This is known as Time’s Bane, and it is most powerful. I was involved in its creation, and I am the only witch left alive who knows the recipe. Drink this, Master, and you shall know youth again!” Madeleine’s eyes sparkled with pride and anticipation. “Each mouthful will return twenty years of strength to your bones and the time will fade from your face in but a moment!” She held the potion out with a solemn bow of her head. The Man said nothing and merely observed her. After a few tense minutes, Madeleine began to perspire, a faint sheen developing across her upper lip and forehead. She cleared her throat nervously.

“Master, is something wrong?” she asked, her hands beginning to shake. “I ‘ave done what you asked, for I am your devoted servant!” The Man snorted and stood up. His long, dark coat covered his body as he rose, and Madeleine was ominously reminded of the cloaks of witch-hunters. He was shorter than her, but the black aura which surrounded him was one which demanded fear and obedience.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it! But…why don’t you take the first sip, Maddie?” the Man said, his eyes glittering and his voice even. “You’ve put in all the effort, so why not take a small reward? Take a couple of months off!” He cackled at the joke, and Madeleine froze. Her eyes were wide and her mouth moved silently like a fish.

“Spit it out, Maddie!” The Man said. “Not the potion, though! You’ve gotta get that bad boy down you!” He laughed again, the sound sending a shiver up Madeleine’s spine.

“But…Master,” she stammered. “This potion, it is not for me! I…I ‘ave already ingested my annual dosage…to drink more would court disaster! It is for you to regain your former strength this night, not I! I crafted it especially for you, and I fear it will not for me!” Madeleine waited, her eyes fearful. The Man took a step closer, glaring solidly into her face. She managed a weak smile which crumbled as quickly as a rose. Suddenly, his large hands snaked out and covered hers as they held the flask. Madeleine yelped with fright and tried to jerk away from him. The Man held her tightly.

“I don’t believe you,” he said in a threatening tone. “In fact, I smell a rat…a stupid, blue rat!” The Man wrenched his hands to the right, sending Madeleine tumbling to the floor and the flask flying across the cave. It struck the jagged wall and the green liquid splashed all over it and dripped to the ground. As soon as it made contact with the surfaces it began to bubble and hiss furiously, burning through several centimetres of rock. The Man advanced on Madeleine, who screeched in terror and flung up her hands. A torrent of fire flew from her open palms towards the Man, who ducked underneath it and ran forward. His boot cracked into Madeleine’s temple and she fell on to her back, extinguishing the jet of flames. In an instant he was straddling her, his stocky thighs crushing her chest and pinning her left arm to her side. As she swung her right hand in a wild fist but he caught her wrist in a vice-grip.

“Now, now, Maddie,” he crooned, holding her with ease as she bucked and writhed under him. “Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be.”

“Spare me, Master!” Madeleine cried, her eyes wide with terror. “I did not mean to-“

“Shut the hell up!” the Man barked. “Spare me your excuses! You tried to kill me, again, and you’ve failed! You really shoulda thought of something less obvious, darlin’.” He reached inside his coat with his free hand and removed the remnants of an ancient bronze spear. The power emanating from it was almost palpable from that distance and at the sight of it Madeleine began to whimper, tears rolling down her cheeks. “You must really think I’m stupid, huh?” He began to run the spear point along Madeleine’s trembling arm, nicking the skin here and there. Tiny droplets of blood seeped down as the blade bit into her flesh.

“I’ve been a killer all my life,” the Man said, moving his grip up to Madeleine’s hand. “And one thing I’ve learned the hard way over the years is to never…ever…trust a witch!” The Man spat this remark through bared teeth. Spittle flew from his lips and decorated Madeleine’s pale face.

“Please, Master, not again!” She begged as he forced open her hand with his, exposing her index finger. “The Holy Lance, she does not cut like other blades! My wounds, they still bleed! Please, no! I will do all you ask! Non, je vous en prie!”

“Hush, Madeleine,” the Man crooned, touching the razor-sharp edge of the spear to her finger. “You have disrespected me. Accept your punishment.” With one quick, clean motion the Man sliced off the witch’s finger with the blade. Madeleine screeched, the noise reverberating painfully around the cave. Blood poured down onto their clasped hands and dripped on to her chest as she struggled furiously. The Man held her still for a few moments, a manic grin on his face. Finally, he released her hand and stood up, holding the dripping spear at his side. Madeleine hugged her hand to her chest and curled into the foetal positon, whimpering and moaning.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” The Man asked, the glee evident in his voice. “All is forgiven! You can get back to doing as you’re told, now. Isn’t that right, Madeleine?”

“Y-Yes, Master…” Madeleine replied, barely audible. The Man crouched down and rested the wet spear against her throat. She stopped moving immediately and her breath came out in harsh gasps.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear you, darlin’” he whispered, his eyes burning with malice. “I said: isn’t that right, Madeleine?”

“YES MASTER!” Madeleine shouted, gazing fearfully at the lance. The Man nodded and plucked Madeleine’s severed finger from its resting place on the ground. He examined it for a moment, admiring the precision of the cut.

“You know, I had my doubts about this thing,” he said, turning his gaze back to the Lance. “But I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s a real beauty!” He snorted and stowed the weapon in his coat. Using a nail he produced from another pocket, the Man pierced the bloody digit all the way through and slipped it onto a piece of twine he wore around his neck. The grisly object slithered down the twine and came to rest next to two other trophies: a little finger and an ear, both stained brown with dried blood. He cackled as he tucked the necklace back into his shirt and glanced over at the witch.

“Madeleine,” he said quietly. “What is that green swill anyway?”

“M-Merlin’s Wrath, M-master,” stammered Madeleine, still laying on the ground. “A p-potent p-poison. B-burns all creatures i-inside out…”

“Really? Hmm…” The Man stroked his stubble with bloody fingers, leaving smear marks along his chin. He strode over to the cauldron and seized a glass vial.

“Will this hold it?” The Man asked. Madeleine merely nodded, groaning. Lifting the ladle the Man filled the vial with the bubbling green liquid, slamming a stopper securely in place. He shook the vial and watched its contents swirl around inside the glass.

“Y’know, my old Ma used to make stuff like this,” he said quietly, watching the firelight illuminate the murky liquid. “She’d go out at night and come back with all kinds of weeds and flowers in a sack. She’d stink out the back room when she’d cut them up and put them in the tub. She’d spend days making her ’remedies’, as she called them. My Pa told me and my sisters that Ma had a screw loose, but he was deadly afraid of her when she did all that. He never beat her or any of us during those few days…” The Man chuckled again, shaking his head.

“Well now, get a load of me! Talking away like an old housewife!” He said, smirking. “I’d better go, Maddie, I’m hunting tonight. Bigger fish and all that!” He raised the vial in a mock salute to Madeleine and grinned at her.

“Thanks a bunch, sweetheart!” he said, slipping it into his coat along with the Holy Lance. “This’ll come in handy, for sure! Just make sure you’ve got what I ask for next time, or I won’t be so gentle with you.” He strode out of the cave, leaving the mutilated witch sobbing and cursing him as he howled with laughter.