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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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.