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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Out of Retirement

Merry Christmas, everyone! 😀

 

Out of Retirement

By Adam Dixon

 

“Voila! What do you think, mon ami?” The old reindeer turned at the sound of the cheery voice, his legs creaking and his back threatening to cramp up. He lifted his shaggy white head at the newcomer as he stepped in through the door and into the tiny cabin. A large old man dressed in green cloth grinned and turned his flabby jowls towards the roaring fire. The orange and gold light flickered across his clean-shaven face.

Well, Pierre, I didn’t realise you had quite so many chins,” he replied, sending the thought with a mischievous wink. The old man’s smile faded and he huffed, flopping his bulk down on a nearby armchair.

“Oh, you are a scoundrel!” he declared “Ah, but you are right, of course!” There was a small wooden table next to his armchair and upon it stood a bottle of wine and two clean glasses. Pierre uncorked the bottle and helped himself.

“So, the big night is upon us again, no? It comes around so quickly!”

Yes, it does,” the deer nodded. “I still get the old feelings of anticipation, you know. I suppose they never go away, even after retirement. How long as it been now?

“Twenty-five years for me,” Pierre replied. “And I believe that it will be twenty-two for you. Mon Dieu, how time flies!”

Hard to believe that the new Santa is the second one after you,” the deer said. “And the Rudolph is the third after me. We seem to be getting through them these days. Pity about Seamus, he was a wonderful Santa.

“Oui, he was,” Pierre said sadly. “But a bit too fond of whiskey, in the end. He shouldn’t have drank so much before flying through that Pacific storm…such a shame…and that was three years ago now, no?”

Yes, that’s right. Still, the new Santa appears to be finding his feet,” the deer sent. As soon as he had finished speaking, there came a knock on the door. A moment later an elf poked her head inside, an expectant look on her face. The cold night air rushed in and disturbed the fire, sending shadows dancing around the room in a panic.

“Evening, sirs,” she said, curtseying as she stepped inside. The small bells on her tall, pointed hat jingled. “Santa would like speak with you. He’s a bit nervous about tonight, I think.”

“Speak of the devil!” Pierre said with a broad grin. “Wiggles and I are not up to much, please send him in!” The elf curtseyed again and left the cabin. The reindeer growled and glared at Pierre.

Why do you insist on calling me that?” he sent.

“It is your name, is it not?” Pierre asked, pouring out an extra glass of wine as he refilled his own.

That’s not the point, you know I hate it!” Wiggles sent, scowling. “That was the hardest part about retiring, having to lose my first decent name…” Before Pierre could begin laughing in earnest, the door to the cabin swung open again. Another very fat man strode into the room, resplendent in his red-and-white clothing and shining white beard. His dark face was creased in happiness as he walked over to Pierre and seized his hand.

“Pierre! Ça me fait toujours plaisir de te voir!” he said with enthusiasm. Pierre smiled at the compliment and nodded towards Wiggles.

“And to you, mon ami! But let us speak in English for the sake of our valued steed, yes? He is not intelligent enough for two languages!” Pierre yelped as Wiggles bit him on the hip.

I have a working understanding of the language, you fat fool!” Wiggles chided. “Half a century of listening to you wail your old songs gave me that much at least!

“Those are ballads of great beauty and skilled composition, I’ll have you know!” Pierre said with a laugh, rubbing his hip. “Now, what can we do for you, dear Emmanuel? May I offer you some wine?” The man in red smiled and spoke up, stroking his beard with his fingers.

“Nah man, I’d better not,” he said slowly, sampling the less familiar words with care. His accent was thick and exotic for the North Pole. “Pierre, I don’t like the take-off, man. Reindeers are all ready, but I’m the scared old goat! Ya both helped me last Christmas, an’ so could…could ya come an’ see me off this time? I’d be grateful.” Emmanuel’s eyes moved imploringly between Pierre and Wiggles. It was Wiggles who spoke first.

Of course, Emmanuel!” the reindeer sent, shooting Pierre an eager look. “The fat fool and I were just discussing the old times, as it happens. I think we both miss the job more than we’d like to admit.” Emmanuel’s grin split his beard in unequal halves and he nodded with vigour.

“Oh, thank you, thank you!” he said with excitement. “I bet you do miss it, man! It’s the best job I ever had! The kiddies are so happy in the mornin’, an’ I get to make it happen! An’ seein’ Haiti again always brings me joy!”

“Oui, that is wonderful!” Pierre said with longing in his eyes. “I am envious, Emmanuel. I would love to see Lille again…to be frank, I would love to see the world again, but I am too old to travel away from here now.” Emmanuel seemed struck by a thought and he cocked his head to one side.

“Maybe not, man,” he said slowly. “Ya should come with me! Both of ya! Think about it, man! Up in the sky again, feelin’ the wind in ya hair and hearin’ those sleigh bells jinglin’!” Pierre’s eyes widened and Wiggles was too taken aback to say anything.

“Emmanuel, that is a magnificent idea,” Pierre replied, choked. “I didn’t realise just how much I missed that creaky old bucket and the stink of the reindeer blowing in my face until this evening. I’d love to do it all one more time!”

Eloquent as always,” sent Wiggles. “You can count me in, as well, Emmanuel! That is if the Grand Elf sees fit to let us, and if we can get the ‘creaky old bucket’ off the ground with you both in it!

“Aha, you a cheeky one, man!” Emmanuel said, grinning from ear to ear. “Come, come! Let’s go an’ speak with him right now!”

***

The Grand Elf was an old being who radiated knowledge and wisdom. His small face was cracked and creased by innumerable lines from innumerable years on the earth, and his long white beard trailed the floor in twin lines behind him. Standing in the large, decadent Grand Cabin, supported by two young elves who held him at the elbows, he looked hard at his audience. Despite their own long lives and their familiarity with him, the trio were struck dumb with awe at the elf. They fidgeted before his gaze, scuffing their feet on the floor and clearing their throats as he pondered their question.

“This…is most irregular,” the Grand Elf rasped. His voice sounded like sandpaper scraping across a wooden toy. “There is no precedent for a former Santa Claus and Rudolph taking part in Christmas Eve so long after the termination of their duties. Why should I allow it?”

“Master Elder, sir,” Emmanuel began, wringing his hands together. “I’m still scared about the take-off, an’ I could use the help.”

“The elves working here can provide ample instruction,” the Elder wheezed, frowning.

“I know, sir, but I would feel much better to have my friends with me,” Emmanuel pressed. “An’ also, they wanna fly again! You’d be doin’ them a great favour, too!”

“Hmm…” the Grand Elf mused, rubbing his chin with a trembling, time-withered hand. “It is not simply a question of missing the journey into the sky, but of the magic of Christmas. Do these two still hold that magic close, I wonder? Or has it faded with the decades of inactivity?”

“Tch! Don’t be silly, man!” Emannuel said, affronted. He was immediately contrite. “’Scuse me, sir! I mean, of course the magic is still there. These two are walkin’ Christmas spirits!”

“I would ask them the question and not you, young man,” the Grand Elder said with a stern frown. Emmanuel blinked at the comment but held his tongue.

“Sir, I don’t know where I ought to begin,” Pierre said with confusion. “I… Christmas has always been special to me, and I tried to spread my happiness every year when I was living in France. I helped charitable organisations feed the homeless and visited the elderly in my younger days….” Pierre trailed off, thinking. The Grand Elder stood in silence, waiting. Pierre gulped and continued.

“But I must talk to you about the work itself…I still remember the first time I was given the honour of being Santa…” Pierre stared into the distance with a smile on his face. “Mon Dieu, it was fantastic! To wear those wonderful clothes, to see the world with sturdy animals and the starlight to guide me…. incredible! But…but most of all I loved to imagine the smiles on the faces of the children on Christmas morning. Ah, the rosy glow of happiness! The cheer in their eyes! The laughter and the love! That, to me, is the real joy of Christmas!”

Pierre is right,” Wiggles sent. “It’s been a long time since I was a foal, but I have spent every year since trying to make humans happy. The children and the old, the merry and the glum, they all deserve to be joyful at Christmas. Serving mankind as Rudolph for forty years has been the highlight of my life. I’ve never been happier, and I still want to spread my happiness across the world with my friend Pierre.

“We did it together, mon cher ami,” Pierre said with great affection. He laid a meaty hand on the old reindeer’s head. Wiggles nuzzled Pierre’s hand and bleated fondly. The love between the two friends was palpable and one of the Grand Elder’s aides sniffed loudly. The other dabbed at her eyes. Gradually, the air inside the Great Cabin became warmer and seemed to shimmer around Pierre. The fat man laughed in delight as he flexed his tingling fingers, his eyes growing wide as soft, white sparks danced along his skin. His belly shook as he laughed, the happy, rich sound booming around the room as he sparkled with light. Next to him, Wiggles began to croon in the back of his throat, bucking his legs and shaking his head. He squeezed his eyes shut, snorted twice and then sneezed. As he lifted his head, a crimson light shone around his nose, lighting up the astonished onlookers. His face looked as close to a bright smile as a reindeer could get. Bathed in the light from the two friends, Emmanuel clapped his hands together and bounced up and down, his bulk making the floorboards creak.

“You see! You see! They’ve still got it!” he said, his wide smile threatening to burst from his face. “What did I say, man? I told you!”

“Yes, this is quite a display!” the Grand Elf said, beaming through his own beard. “The magic of Christmas is still strong within you both! Excellent, excellent! I see no reason for you not to accompany Santa, if you are both able. Blast the irregularity, it is Christmas!” Emmanuel seized Pierre’s hand in both of his and pumped it vigorously.

“Oh, Pierre, my heart sings for you!” he said, still bouncing on his heels. “This will be the best Christmas ever!”

“Oui, mon ami,” Pierre said, sharing the excitement with tears in his eyes. “It certainly will! Now, I must prepare! I will need my old suit, my old hat and my old boots! Oh non, will I still fit into them? I have gained so much weight since then…Oh, Mon Dieu, why did I decide to shave today of all days?” Emmanuel burst out laughing as the old man hurried off towards his own cabin, muttering to himself and fretting about the cold night air. Wiggles shook his great head and sent his amusement to Emmanuel.

That old fool never did have the best timing!” the glow from his nose waved merrily as he laughed. “Now, I’d best get ready myself. See you on the runway, Santa!

“Not soon enough, Rudolph!” Santa answered with a wink. Wiggles scampered off, feeling as happy as a foal at feeding time. What a wonderful Christmas it was going to be!

 

 

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/Death Vision

Today’s story prompt was provided by JustAnotherTeenager over at Solitary Haven. The prompt was to write about characters who know that they are going to die, but not how they will die. I thought this was quite an interesting one so I dived right in. I ended up gravitating towards a fantasy story this time, which I’m always happy to to be writing. Thanks, Teenager! 🙂

I hope you enjoy what I was able to come up with.

P.S. If anyone would like to suggest a prompt for me to use in the coming weeks, please feel free to let me know via the comments section. I am using any and all prompts, so don’t be shy!

P.P.S. I currently have enough prompts lined up for four more weeks, so don’t be dismayed if I don’t use one of yours right away. I will get round to it, I’ve got a list and everything!

 

Death Vision

By Adam Dixon

“I remember the day you were born like it was yesterday,” the old man said, his rheumy eyes misting over. “You certainly gave your mother a hard time! Ten hours of labour and nothing the witch-doctor did seemed to make you want to hurry up! Ah, but you were always a stubborn one!”

“That’s great, dad, now will you give me a hand, please?” The young woman was painting an intricate warding spell on one of the bare walls of the small room. The paint was blood red and bold against the grey plaster. The old man sighed and placed the jug of water he was carrying on the windowsill. He leaned down and picked up a brush, completing the warding with ease. The room was not ventilated and the pungent, nauseating smell of the paint was strong. It didn’t help that it was so warm in the room, either, and the old man began to feel dizzy. The woman regarded the warding and nodded, brushing a loose strand of blond hair from her eyes.

“Great, thank you!” she said with relief. “You always had a better eye for these things than me.”

“Your mother taught me the difficult ones,” the man replied, rubbing the small of his back. The woman poured herself a glass of water and drained a huge gulp through a straw before picking up her paintbrush again.

“I’m going to miss you, Jennifer,” the old man said, his eyes brimming with tears. “I wish it didn’t have to be today.”

“Dad, it doesn’t!” Jennifer turned on the old man. She had a wild look in her eyes borne of desperation and determination. “I’m not going to die today, stuff what the doctor says!”

“Jennifer, I know it’s hard to accept,” the old man said, resting his hands gently on her shoulders. “Believe me, your mother and I barely accepted it ourselves, but the witch-doctor is never wrong. He tasted your blood the day you were born and we’ve known ever since. Why fight it?”

“Why not?” Jennifer retorted, glaring at her father. “I can do so much good in the world, so why shouldn’t I try to stay alive? Because some blood-drunk freak had a vision twenty-four years ago?”

“That’s exactly why, Jennifer, and you know it!” the old man said. “The witch-doctor’s Death Vision is never wrong, and it’s been that way for centuries! In a way, it’s a blessing to know when our lives are due to be over, that’s what your mother always said.”

“Yes and you didn’t try to save her either,” Jennifer said, shrugging off his hands and returning to her painting. The old man stared at her, deeply hurt.

“Your mother knew that her time was near, just like I did,” he said, his voice quivering. “We knew since the day we first met, but that didn’t change anything. In fact, she always said that it encouraged her to enjoy every day as much as she could. I was grateful to know that she wouldn’t suffer the indignities of age, something which you ought to be grateful for as well.”

“Well I’m not,” Jennifer replied, dabbing at her new warding. It was a powerful one, the strongest defensive spell she knew. “I want to grow old, I want to have that chance. Anyway, mum didn’t know the exact day like I do. You don’t know the exact day you’re expected to die, either!”

“That’s down to your rare blood type, my darling” the old man said, smiling. “It’s as if the universe singled you out as someone special and allowed the witch-doctor to be more precise! Come on, Jennifer, please don’t be like this. I…don’t want my last memory of you to be of us having an argument.”

“Dad, it’s not going to be your last!” Jennifer said in exasperation. The old man looked at his feet, his face the picture of misery. After a few minutes of listening to Jennifer muttering to herself, he approached her and pulled her into an embrace.

“Goodbye, my darling,” he said, smiling through his tears. “Be at one with Our Magic again, and I will join you soon.” Jennifer dropped the paintbrush, splashing her leg with red paint as she hugged him back. She broke down and began sobbing in earnest.

“Oh, dad, I love you,” she whispered. “But I’m not going anywhere without a fight!” The old man rubbed his weathered cheek against her smooth one, savouring her warmth and the wetness of their mingling tears. He pulled away and cupped her face with his hand, nodding and gazing into her eyes.

“I love you too, Butterfly,” he said. “I’ll be with you and your mother again soon.” Jennifer squeezed his hands tight and stepped back, drying her eyes on her sleeve.

“You’d better leave now, anyway,” she said quietly. “I’m about to set up a Circle and I don’t want you to get hurt.” The old man nodded again and moved towards the door. He shuffled past the threshold and took a lingering look at Jennifer as she began sprinkling a large sack of herbs around the room. She glanced up and winked at him.

“See you tomorrow, dad.” Her smile was weak. The old man smiled back sadly and closed the door. He sighed and leaned his back against it, suddenly feeling older than ever. Knowing that the day had been coming for years didn’t make it easy now that it had arrived. He stood listening to Jennifer casting spells and chanting incantations until the light faded. He fought the desire to enter the room and keep her company, warding spells be damned. But he did not. He became dimly aware of his knees aching and of his back sliding down the door frame…

He awoke sitting on the cold wooden floor with his knees bent and his joints as stiff as a rusty bike chain. He groaned and heard bone and cartilage creak and scrape together as he struggled to get up. His knees, hips and back cracked as he stood, dragging a rare expletive from his lips. He rubbed his body, fuming at its betrayal and thanking the universe for his wife’s early death. The thought stopped him in his tracks. He turned and faced the door, his heart heavy as he noted the silence behind it. He turned the handle and pushed it open, knowing what he would see. The room was colder than it had been the night before, and the stench of paint was gone. Lying in the centre of a huge circle of herbs, salt and animal bones was his Butterfly. Jennifer was dead.

The old man approached the corpse slowly, paying no mind to the crunch of the scattered detritus as he stepped on them. They were useless anyway, the spells would have died with the user. A mixture of scents assaulted his nose, some bitter, some sweet and others sour, but he barely noticed them. He fell to his knees, ignoring the fresh, angry waves of pain which lashed out from his bones. He looked at Jennifer’s beautiful, pale face and noted with relief that there was no trace of pain etched into her features. He hadn’t wanted her to suffer. He glanced over to the jug of water he had brought her the night before and saw that it was empty. He nodded.

“You drank it all,” he said, smoothing Jennifer’s hair from her face. “Good girl. I hoped you would do…it would have made it quicker.” He knelt over Jennifer’s body and gazed at her through hot tears.

“I love you, Butterfly.” he said. He took comfort in the fact that he wouldn’t live past the end of the year and so would have very little time before he joined her. He didn’t regret what he had done; the witch-doctor’s prediction had been fulfilled and everything was correct in the universe. Just as it had always been.

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 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.

 

Fever of Venus

Fever of Venus

By Adam Dixon

She stirred the bubbling green mixture in the pan, the heat from the rising steam warming her hand just enough to be pleasurable. It was hard work, brewing magic potions, and Andi had to find some pleasure in the process whenever possible. She closed her eyes and stretched, cracking her back deliciously for a few seconds. The problem was that modern witches simply didn’t have the time to make potions anymore; the effort of finding and preparing the multitude of ingredients was beyond them. Almost all of them had demanding jobs to maintain, such as being lawyers, business tycoons and high-ranking politicians; occupations which satisfied their own sinister, crafty agendas and allowed them to succeed in the world. They still had their spells and arcane hobbies, but they no longer had the leisure time to invest in potion-crafting. That is where Andi came in: as a member of an established and well-favoured family of alchemists she was trusted to fill this area of neglect in the lives of modern witches. Andi had learned her trade from her father, a near-legendary potions master, and she had been successful long enough to consider herself an expert in her own right. She brewed potions for uses good, foul and anything in between for a number of witches who paid her handsomely for her efforts. So, it was hard work, but the rewards were fantastic.

She was currently brewing a complex potion which rendered the unfortunate drinker paralysed whilst fully conscious. The effect could be moderated depending on the strength of the dosage; for example, two drops would cause paralysis for ten minutes, but half the bottle would incapacitate the drinker for twelve hours. It was a potion which had been created by Andi’s father, and it had become rapidly desired by witches who wanted to add something devious to their collections. As expected, it had also proven quite popular among those who had a proclivity for ill-acquired trinkets. Her customer this time was a young witch who had a taste for successful artists; enough said, thought Andi with a wry smile. She began stirring the potion first clockwise and then anti-clockwise in intervals, as the recipe required. She soon lost herself in the rhythm of her work and began to daydream, working by instinct rather than concentration.

Andi was brought back to reality after about ten minutes by a rattling sound coming from behind her. She turned around and saw that the Blood Receptacle was trembling on its pedestal. The Blood Receptacle was a large bowl fashioned from obsidian, making it very dark and strangely luminous as it sat proudly on top of a marble pillar in the corner of Andi’s laboratory. The bowl was filled three-quarters of the way up with blood, the viscous, crimson liquid partially visible through the glass. The blood was slopping to and fro in the bowl of its own accord, seemingly frantic. Andi sighed and turned the heat down on her Bunsen burner before moving towards the pillar. For all their readiness to embrace modernity, some witches still insisted on traditional modes of contact; Andi would much rather that they used the telephone.  She approached the insistent bowl and quietened it by placing her hands on either side of it. I hate this part, she thought to herself. Taking a deep breath, she lowered her lips to the surface and took in a mouthful of blood. Andi then straightened, and after waiting for ten seconds to pass she spat the coppery liquid back into the bowl with disgust and relief. The blood rippled in the bowl, and slowly the colour was drained until a clear, reflective surface was left. Moments later, the image of a face came into view, blurring slightly as the ritual was completed. A stern, female face of middling years stared out of the bowl and regarded Andi with cold grey eyes.

“Andromeda Hairlock, I presume?” A sharp voice issued forth, the sound wavering slightly. Andi beamed into the bowl.

“Yes, that’s me!” She said cheerfully. “But please, call me Andi. How may I help you today, lady sorceress?”

“I am in the market for a particular potion, Miss Hairlock,” The witch stated brusquely, her manner business-like and efficient. “Your establishment comes highly recommended.” The woman paused for a moment to peer more closely at Andi. “Although, I expected you to be much older, considering the strength of the appraisal.” The pride Andi had felt at the woman’s first words faded quickly and were replaced with annoyance. Her youth was a constant hindrance to her when dealing with prospective customers. She longed for the day when her glossy black hair turned grey, then she would perhaps encourage believability upon first encounters.

“Well, I do hope I can be of service, madam,” Andi said, ignoring her irritation. “Which potion are you looking to acquire, Miss…?”

“Ironbark. Clytemnestra Ironbark.” The witch replied, seemingly annoyed at having been asked. Andi gasped.

“My lady sorceress, it is indeed an honour to meet you!” Andi spluttered, inclining her head in what she hoped was a respectful manner. “Great elephants, I wonder what my father would say if he knew I was talking to a witch of such infamy and power!”

“Yes, I had hoped to enlist the services of your esteemed father,” the witch said matter-of-factly. “But I heard that he is currently indisposed, which is a frightful bother.” Andi’s smiled faded slightly.

“Yes, my lady sorceress,” She replied, caught off guard. “Father had a run in with a particularly nasty goblin who was trying to steal some of his notes. He is healing well, but remains unable to work for the time being.”

“As I said, a frightful bother,” Ironbark said coldly. “In my experience there are no other types of goblins but nasty ones. Loathsome creatures. Your father ought to have been more careful, I say. But no matter, his daughter will have to suffice.”

Andi had by now decided that she didn’t like this obnoxious, arrogant sorceress, but she could never turn down the opportunity to work for anyone so well-known. She bit back an angry retort and simply offered Ironbark a small smile and a nod, indicating that she should continue.

“I’ll say once again, I am in the market for a very specific potion,” Ironbark said brusquely. “I am prepared to meet any price for its production, and I am likewise prepared to wait as long as it takes for it to be brewed to perfection. I have never accepted lesser potions, Miss Hairlock, and I have absolutely no intention of starting with one as vital as this.”

“Understood, madam,” Andi replied warily. “I will do my utmost to provide the potion you seek. Which potion would that be?” I bet it’s a nasty one, thought Andi. She seems like a nasty sort of witch in person, and some of the stories about her are just terrible.

“Yes, well…” Ironbark hesitated, her image rippling slightly as she frowned and looked away. Why is she stalling? Andi pondered, curious.

“Miss Hairlock, I am looking to acquire the most potent reversal of a love potion which you are capable of concocting.” Ironbark said quickly. “As I said, money and time are no object, but I would prefer it to be created as soon as professionally possible. Can you aid me?”

Well, that was a surprise! Andi was stunned. Reverse a love potion? Clytemnestra Ironbark did not seem like the kind of woman who would even consider using a love potion in the first place, let alone reversing one. This was very interesting.

“Well, yes, lady sorceress, I certainly can aid you,” Andi said, taken aback, “There is no potion created which cannot be reversed. However, I will need to know which specific love potion was administered, so that I can correctly fashion its antidote.”

“Therein lies the problem, Miss Hairlock,” Ironbark stated, her cold eyes boring in to Andi’s. Was that desperation Andi saw in them? Surely not… “I…ah…do not know which potion I used, truthfully. I was hoping that you would be able to identify the draught from the information I can provide. First of all, I was informed that the potion I purchased had a short-term effect, possibly two or three days. I was additionally told that it was brewed from mermaid tears and foxglove at moonlight.”

“That sounds like Merlin’s Seduction,” Andi said, trying hard not to smirk. “You are correct, it’s only supposed to last for a couple of days. It focuses primarily on firing up the lust of the drinker; to render them completely enamoured and with an insatiable desire for-“

“Yes, yes, there is no need to spell it out!” Ironbark interrupted sharply, her cheeks turning slightly crimson. Andi had to fight the urge to burst out laughing. This was becoming a hilarious conversation!

“My apologies, lady sorceress,” Andi bowed her head, as much out of respect as to hide a wolfish grin. “But I assume that something has gone awry?”

“That is correct,” Ironbark said, regaining her stern poise and raising her chin slightly. “The effect is as described, but it has continued now for more than a month with no signs of…abating.” The flush returned to the witch’s cheeks. “The potion was red in colour, easily disguised in wine and it smelled faintly of wolfberries. Can you infer anything with that information?”

“Yes, I believe that I can,” Andi replied, her good cheer returning. “It sounds like you were wrongly sold a very powerful draught called the Fever of Venus. It is designed to increase the…erm…urges, of the drinker towards the first person they see. Depending on the strength of the dosage, the effect can last for months.”

“Great elephants!” Ironbark yelped, her eyes widening. She cleared her throat loudly, embarrassed by her outburst.

“But it is reversible,” continued Andi as if nothing had happened. “I will need to acquire some rare ingredients and brew it in a very complicated way, but I can do it.” She paused for a moment, allowing herself a visible smirk this time. “However, it may take me up to a week to complete the potion. Do you think you can…erm…hold off the…afflicted, for that long?”

“I suppose I will have to, Miss Hairlock!” Ironbark’s reply was haughty, and she was clearly incensed by Andi’s amusement. “I shall keep the wretch at bay until then, I am certain. Just ensure that you craft the item in that time, and not a day later!”

“Of course, lady sorceress,” Andi was insistent. “I will get to work this instant. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“No, that will suffice,” Ironbark said almost rudely. “Send me an invoice for the ingredients you require and I will match the price without hesitation. Your fee will be generous as well, should your draught perform as expected.”

“It will, lady sorceress, on my Father’s good name it will.” Andi was quite keen to get rid of the unpleasant woman now, and betrayed her impatience slightly with her curt reply. Ironbark nodded, and after a moment spoke again.

“I…ahh…I would appreciate your discretion and professionalism in this matter, Miss Hairlock. This situation could prove disastrous to my reputation if ever it became public knowledge, and as I am sure you are aware, a witch is nothing without her reputation.”

“Of course, lady sorceress,” Andi replied in a serious tone. “My lips are sealed on this matter, don’t worry.”

“Good.” The old witch seemed greatly relieved. “Until next time, then.” With that, the image of the woman began to ripple, and with each wave the clear liquid began to turn crimson. After a short while the stern, yet embarrassed face of the infamous sorceress had disappeared, and Andi was left staring at her amused reflection in a pool of blood. She stood upright and lazily wiped the blood from her lips. Etiquette required that she did not do so during their conversation, another reason Andi wished that modern witches would ditch the macabre use of the Blood Receptacle. Seriously, what was wrong with the telephone? Or Skype, even? Surely that would save everyone involved a lot of bother!

Andi shook her head and walked over to her desk. She flipped open a huge leather-bound book filled with intricate drawings and long, detailed lists. The book was ancient, well-worn and lovingly preserved. She quickly located the page for the Fever of Venus and she spent the next few minutes working out the ingredients needed to reverse it and noting them down on her iPad. As usual, this blend of the traditional and the modern made her grin, and her thoughts turned to the infamous Clytemnestra Ironbark’s unfortunate situation. She found it amazing that such a historically shrewd and cautious woman could be so easily duped. She also found it hilarious.

“Modern witches,” she said to herself, chuckling. “Still just as clueless as everyone else!”