Beyond the Horizon

A piece of flash fiction by C H Clepitt

Walker checked his watch.  It was new.  A company just on the edge of Smoke, called Claymore and Tims, (which always made him think of a weedy little man trying to wield a huge sword), had just started developing this ‘wrist watches’.  They were smaller than pocket watches, and he always worried that he would push the tiny winder too far and break the spring. As such, he leaned towards underwinding, and his watch subsequently lost time.  Now, he was wondering just how late Judge Thompson was.  He kissed his teeth and leaned back in his chair.

“The judge will be with you shortly,” Jenkins, the judge’s clerk poked his tiny spherical head out from the office.  His thick spectacles engulfed his face, the lenses reflecting the room and giving the youth an almost mechanical look.

Walker held his watch to his ear to check that it was still ticking.

“Oh! You’ve one of the new wrist ones! How do you find it?” Jenkins asked eagerly.

“Small,” Walker said frankly. “And damned if I don’t always check my pocket first, every time!”

“Jenkins!” The voice of the judge boomed from the office behind them. “Stop your chit chat and send Walker in! You’re worse than my wife for gossip, boy!”

Jenkins’ cheeks flushed and he opened the door fully. “The judge will see you now, Sir.”

Walker nodded, rose gathering his papers and headed in.

“That will be all, Jenkins,” Judge Thompson dismissed the terrified youth. “So, Walker, how is it you always end up with the no win cases, eh? Damned bad luck, or are you cursed?” He laughed, leaned back in his chair and opened the walnut box on his desk, producing a thick cigar.  As he lit it and inhaled; a heady scent of cigar smoke filled the room.  Taking his queue from the judge, Walker took his cigarette case from his pocket and lit one.  He took a seat without waiting to be offered and looked at the judge for a moment, studying his countenance, his self satisfied grin that was permanently emblazoned on his face. The look of a man who knew he’d been born to privilege, and was going to exploit it.

“I volunteered,” Walker said calmly, blowing smoke across the office.

“Why the hell did you do that, man?” Thompson asked incredulously. “That woman is going straight to the noose! Amazed she escaped it before, killed her husband, apparently.”

“Because everyone deserves representation,” Walker maintained a calm exterior, but the grip on his cigarette tightened. “And I have a witness that says he was in there mutilating girls. It could have been self defense.”

“Witness! What witness?” Judge Thompson sneered. “Some whore? Who will believe her? Sir Thomas was a member of my golf club, for gods’ sake!”

“Then, are you sure you are the correct person to be trying the case, Judge?” Walker asked carefully.

“Don’t give me that bull, man!” Thompson snapped, waving his cigar ash over the desk in a flurry. “I can try a case based on the facts, it’s just that the facts scream guilty.”

Walker gritted his teeth and studied the judge.

“Anyway,” he continued. “Doesn’t exactly scream innocent to run away, does it?”

“Run away?” Walker repeated.

“Yes!” Thompson laughed. “That’s why I called you here, sorry, chap! Yes, your client has fled, with some boy. Last seen lurking at the train station. If she doesn’t report for court tomorrow, I’ll have no choice but to pass an automatic guilty verdict.”

“No choice?” Walker repeated. “Of course, that would wrap things up quickly.”

“No odds to me, man,” Thompson snorted. “Just thought I’d give you a chance to bring her in peacefully.”

“Right, yes, thank you.” Walker stood up. The long strip of ash that had been burning down his cigarette dropped onto his shoe. He shook it under the desk and left the butt in the judge’s ashtray. “I’ll see what I can do.” He left the office.

He knew this woman stood no chance in Judge Thompson’s court. He had already decided on her guilt.  The victim was most likely the slasher that the police had been half heartedly hunting for the last two years, but he was a member of the right golf club, so who cares? Walker strode towards the station. He knew the judge would have a man on him, and if he didn’t at least try to be seen to be seeking out his client, there would be consequences. Professional. He was already unpopular due to the anti-establishment cases he took pro-bono. The system was broken, and this was the only way he knew to fix it.  

It was dusk now, and as he left the dimly lit streets of Smoke for the station he lit another cigarette. The smoke was barely visible in the dusk, but the orange tip glowed brightly. Smoking calmed his nerves.  The station was deserted.

“Right, that’ll do, mate,” he turned to the judge’s man, who had been rather conspicuously tailing him. “Either walk next to me and have a chat, or go home, the creeping about in shadows is… well…”

The man was holding a walking cane, with a silver horse’s head as a handle. He raised it. “The judge wants you to let this one go,” he said as he brought it down hard.

Walker raised his arm to block the blow, and swore and the cane struck it.  The man swung again, but Walker rushed him, tackling him to the floor. The cane struck the ground as the two men tussled. Walker struck several blows, he had boxed at university, and although he was out of shape, he still knew how to land a punch. As they scrambled to their feet, Walker was on his toes, fists raised.

“Come on then, mate, let’s see how brave you are without your cane!”

“I’ll have you for assault!” The man responded. “They have just been waiting for an excuse to put you down.”

“Better make it worth it, then!” Walker responded with a series of blows to the face and torso.  The man reeled and turned, stumbling across the tracks to the other side, Walker in hot pursuit. He scrambled towards the scrubland on the other side and suddenly disappeared. “What the…” Walker looked around. There was nothing. He frowned. His face felt sore and a bruise on his cheek was starting to rise. Taking his cigarette case from his pocket he placed another between his lips and struck a match. The light of the flame revealed something shimmering in the dusk. He moved the match over it, studying the iridescent colours. He dropped it with a curse as it burnt down to his fingertips, only to see it disappear inside the portal. He struck a second match and picked up a rock, watching it disappear within the shiny prism of light.

“Well, I’ll be…” he said to himself, finally lighting his cigarette and rising from his crouching position. “The won’t find you there, will they?” he smiled to himself and patted his pocket before remembering and checking his wrist. The face of his watch was cracked. Time had stopped. Beyond the horizon he could see the streetlights of Smoke glowing. It was his city, and it was broken, but it could be fixed.  He walked slowly across the railway tracks and picked up the fallen cane. Like a javelin thrower he launched it at the area of the scrub where its owner had disappeared. It too vanished. Taking his cigarette from his mouth, he tapped the ash onto the ground. That was an interesting evening.

Find more stories by C H Clepitt here.

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Darkly Drinking (With a Badger)

One of the best things about being a nowned author (that’s what you have to bechloe hammond, darkly dreaming before you’re renowned, right?) is that you get to play with other authors you like and admire.  As you probably already know from my review of Darkly Dreaming, I think Chloe Hammond is a brilliant writer, so I was chuffed to bits when she agreed to help out with the launch of Everything Is Better With a Cape, and even more so when she agreed we could write some live cross over fiction for the party! It was great fun, and I have tidied it up below.  With cameos from E.M. Swift-Hook and L.N. Denison, this was really good fun to write, and hopefully you’ll have fun reading it!

Our scene opens in a very traditional British pub, right on the edge of the area where the recent apocalypse trial was held. In the furthest, darkest corner are two vampires.
They don’t look like vampires though, or at least not how we have been led to believe vampires look by myth and legend. Instead, they look like oversized, very beautiful marble statues, that someone has scribbled on with magic marker. No-one pays them any attention. It’s that sort of pub. They are leaning together across their table, unsipped vodka and cokes clutched in their long taloned grip. They are whispering…

‘I still don’t see how this will work?’ Layla muttered, scanning the crowd in the pub.
‘This girl, Kerry,’ Rae sighed, tired of explaining. ‘Survived and exposed the apocalypse with her friends, we saw it in the paper. With everything in the news at the moment about nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, and reanimating the dead, I think we can pretty safely say we are going to have an apocalypse of one description or another pretty soon. Yes?’ She leaned back, raised her drink to her lips and then placed it down again without actually drinking.
‘Well, yes,’ Layla spoke uncertainly. ‘But, why would that worry you? We don’t need a human to show us how to survive, none of these things will affect a vampire.’
‘Only their food source?’ Rae rolled her eyes.
‘We don’t eat human.’ Layla spoke firmly.
‘Not usually, no, but Georgette needs human to Heal doesn’t she? And vampires get pretty cantankerous if they get no human at all don’t they? So what do you think is going to happen to the occasional human who manages to survive the end of days?’
‘Ah, yes.’ Realisation slowly dawned on Layla.  ‘They’ll get guzzled. So what are you planning to do? Turn Kerry?’
‘That would rather defeat the object.’ Rae frowned. ‘I’m going to persuade her to help us gather up her friends, and then we’ll take them somewhere very remote and safe, with some breeding pairs of animals and we’ll all be safe for the future.’
Layla looked as aghast as a scribbled on statue can look. ‘A farm? You’re going to farm them?’
‘No!’ Rae sounded appalled at the idea, before lowering her tone. ‘Well, not as such. Now shush, they’ve just walked in. Look human.’
‘I‘ve got my disguise on haven’t I?’ Layla defensively pointed to the black felt tip round her eyes and mouth. ‘I look like a proper Goth.’ When Rae didn’t respond she added, ‘are you ignoring me?’
‘Oh for feck’s sake.’ Rae snapped. ‘I’m Compelling them. It’s difficult trying to affect only them, don’t want all the other riffraff descending on us. We want quality stock for this breeding programme.’

An attractive blonde woman walked in, flanked by a badger. A few drinkers glanced at the animal and blinked, but most just assumed it was a strange looking dog and carried on.
‘Why do we have to sit outside?’ the badger grumbled. ‘It’s cold and dark!’
‘Because,’ the woman muttered through gritted teeth. ‘They won’t let a badger in the pub.’ She looked like a poor attempt at a ventriloquist.
‘How do you know?’ the badger persisted. ‘There isn’t a sign!’
‘Because I just know, OK?’ she continued to clench her jaw as she spoke.
‘Why are you talking like that?’ the creature sniffed her leg. ‘You look ridiculous!’
‘I’d look more ridiculous talking to a badger!’ she shouted, before looking embarrassed and sitting down.
‘Hiiiiii Kerry,’ Rae gushed. ‘So lovely to meet you at last. I’ve read so much about you’
‘Lick arse,’ Layla muttered
 In a voice lower than humans can here Rae whispered, ‘do you want to eat in the future?’
 The woman was far to preoccupied with disguising her embarrassment over her outburst at the badger to notice anyone was talking to her.
‘She seems to be ignoring you,’ Layla observed drily.
 ‘I think I over did the compelling.’ Rae said defensively. ‘Go and get her a drink.’
 ‘Oh, it’s OK,’ Rae sounded relived. ‘She’s just chatting to the badger. She’s fine.’
A handsome, toned man in skinny jeans, shiny shoes and a fitted shirt walked confidently into the bar and kissed Kerry on the cheek. ‘Hey, babe.’ he greeted her. ‘What’s up?’
Gazing in distraction at the vampires Kerry managed to say, ‘Hi Tyrone.’
‘Whatcha looking at?’ he followed her gaze
‘Those women,’ she continued to stare at them.  ‘They’re… fascinating…’
‘Go and say ‘ello!’ he sounded enthusiastic. ‘They gotta be better for you than wasserface. She ain’t even turned up, AGAIN!”I can’t do that, Tyrone!’ she looked mortified.’
‘Who’s that?’ Layla demanded.
‘Oh excellent, breeding pair!’ Rae grinned.
‘We’re taking both?’ Layla sounded confused but quickly jumped on board with her friend’s plan. ‘Shall we nab them now?’
‘No, Layla,’ Rae began.
‘Me?’ a random drinker looked across at them. ‘Kidding,’ she added sheepishly when they both looked at her. ‘I know you don’t mean me.’
‘Goddammit Layla, that woman’s got the same name as you! She thinks I’m talking to her. Argh. I think the compelling might have affected her’ Rae scratched the table with her long claws.’

I don’t trust them,’ the badger said, looking up sharply. ‘They don’t smell right.’

‘Shit, that badger’ s giving me one hell of a glare!’ Layla was disconcerted.
Standing up confidently and brushing himself down Tyrone spoke. ‘Don’t worry, babe, I got this.’
‘Tyrone, don’t!’ Kerry was panic stricken.
‘Keep your pet away from them!’ the badger spoke urgently from beneath the table.
‘What am I supposed to do?’ Kerry sounded helpless.
‘Look,’ Rae snapped. ‘This isn’t going to work out long term if we can’t persuade them to join us voluntarily. Go get them a drink.’
Tyrone strutted over to the table of vampires. ‘Ladies…’ he gave a wink.
‘Ooo the stud’s coming over.’ Layla purred. ‘HELLO HANDSOME, HOW LOVELY TO MEET YOU’

David,’ Rae coughed before acknowledging the new arrival. ‘Hi Tyrone, why don’t you and you friends come and join us? Layla was just going to get drinks. What would you like?’

‘Alright, babe?’ Tyrone seemed unfazed by the fact that she knew his name. ‘What you up to?’

Licking her lips seductively, Layla simpered, ‘I’m just getting a round in, want to help me carry them back? Call your mates over. Maybe not the badger though. What’s wrong with that thing?’
Rae coughed louder. ‘DAVID!’

Tyrone turned and waved, beckoning Kerry, who looked like she was about to crawl under the table and die. ‘Come and join us, Kerry.’
‘I don’t like it,’ the badger said firmly. ‘I say we run.’
‘We can’t exactly leave him… can we?’ Kerry sounded uncertain as she awkwardly rose to her feet.
‘Why are you saying we?’ the badger grumbled. ‘I’d leave him in a heartbeat, you know that.’
‘Alright, well, I’ll make sure it’s OK, then we’ll go, alright?’ she made her way slowly towards their table.
‘He’s probably already told them that you’re desperate and single and looking to form a love coven…’ the badger observed matter-of-factly.
‘Oh god!’ Kerry’s cheeks drained of any colour. ‘Yes… that is exactly what he’s done!’ A blush began to appear as she drew nearer. ‘Erm… hi… I’d like to start by saying, please, for the love of god, ignore my friend!’

 
‘Who?’ Rae asked, looking up at her. ‘Tyrone or that badger? He’s gone to get the drinks in with Layla.’ She nodded towards the bar. ‘Why is your badger glaring over like that? I didn’t know badgers could glare.’ When Kerry blinked dumbly at her she continued. ‘Did I hear something about a love coven?’

They can hear me?’ the badger bristled. ‘This is not good, at all. I say we make a break for it.’

Kerry’s face was now beetroot. ‘Erm… no…. erm… I… Really need to be going, actually. Probably shouldn’t have come in the first place… wow… your skin is so smooth…’

‘Tell your badger,’ Rae raised an eyebrow at the creature. ‘That yes, I can hear him, and there’s no need to be so rude! And there’s no need for you to rush off either. I’d love a chat. You are the girl that survived that apocalypse thing aren’t you?’
Kerry was becoming mesmerised by Rae and slowly sat down. ‘Well, it wasn’t really an apocalypse, after all.’

‘They aren’t human!’ the badger said urgently. ‘Get up, come on, get up you useless woman!’

‘Shush, Badger,’ Kerry gazed at Rae. ‘We’re talking.’
‘That one might not have been real,’ Rae observed.  ‘But I’m sure you can see from the news there’s going to be a real one any day now. And you did so well. You were so brave.’ She batted her eyelashes seductively.

Kerry stared at the table awkwardly. ‘Oh, well, it wasn’t just me, you know…’

‘I don’t need to watch this,’ the badger snorted and wandered off. At that point a random drunk burst into a rendition of Danny boy from the corner of the bar.

‘ LAYLA!’ Rae almost shrieked. ‘Put the drunk down, you don’t know where they’ve been!’

A man walks in and heads to the bar. He is tall, with a beard and a scar down the left side of his face. His entire demeanour screams military. He perused the drinks list before ordering and leaning on the bar. Tyrone was temporarily distracted by the well muscled man and started to puff out his chest and posture.

 

lipping Layla,’ Rae said exasperatedly. ‘She’s gone and started that drunk off singing! Anyway,’ she attempted to regain control of the situation. ‘As we were just saying… Oh, yes, that apocalypse. Feels like it was just a taste of things to come. Don’t you think?’

The drunk began another rendition, louder than the first.

‘Well, it was the bloody government, wasn’t it?’ Kerry had to almost shout above the noise of the pub. ‘I mean, corrupt bastards… When’s the next election anyway? Feels like it’s been years, doesn’t it?’

Badger re-enters, followed by Sam. The approach the table.  There is a definite bulge under Sam’s jacket, which is either a gun or, well, since she’s female it’s almost certainly a gun.
‘Well,’ she raised her eyebrows at the scene before her. ‘At first I thought that little Timmy might be stuck down the well,’ she nodded toward the badger, who was sitting triumphantly at her feet. ‘But now I see you’re being seduced by a vampire, honestly, I can’t leave you alone for a minute.’

Unperturbed, Rae shouted over the drunk Layla had brought to the table, who is serenading them loudly. ‘I just think it’s all been a sign of things to come, with everything that’s been going on. I was going to suggest maybe you and your friends might like to come away with Layla and I? Find somewhere safe. We could look after you…’ She looked to Layla for support, but both she and Tyrone were far too preoccupied by the newest arrival to notice. ‘This is not going to plan,’ she muttered. ‘How come this has ended up being the party table? Who the hell is this Marcus guy? Damn Sam for turning up right now…’

‘I can look after everyone, but thanks.’ Sam placed her hand strategically on the handle of her weapon. ‘And there had better not be any deaths by blood loss in the area, I know where you’re staying.’
‘Bloody Layla,’ Rae muttered, feeling the hint of failure. ‘Got to turn everything into a party. Feck it. I tried. I’m going home before that badger bites me or Sam does something other than just flash that blade at me.’
And you can find more from Rae and Layla in Darkly Dreaming.

And more from Kerry and the Badger in I Wore Heels to the Apocalypse

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Chapter 2: There’s a Knack to It

Badger will be taking part in CampNanoWriMo for July, and thought it might be fun to post her progress, for you lot to read and comment on.  She is writing a fantasy novel called The Smuggler’s Daughter.  Be sure to check back regularly to find out what happens next.

Missed Chapter 1? Read it here.

Chapter Two: There’s a Knack to It

“What did you hear?” Pa said, knocking lightly on Victoria’s bedroom door.

“Nothing, Pa,” she smiled at him looking up from her book.  “You know me, I never hear anything.”

“Good girl,” he smiled.

“Everything alright?”

“Yeah, we just have to be a bit careful.  There’s a new Justice in Smoke, they’re cracking down on the business.” Pa always called it ‘the business’.

“What’s coming in?” Victoria put her book down and gave him her full attention.

“Gent’s fashions, from over the water.  You learned languages in that school, didn’t you?”

“Mais oui,” Victoria smiled at him.

“Good girl, you can come with me to the meeting tomorrow.

“What time, Pa?”

“Lunch time,” Pa looked at her, his dark brow furrowed in confusion.  He was a big man, square jawed with a permanent eight o’clock shadow.  To someone who didn’t know him he could be quite intimidating, but Victoria just knew him as her Pa. “Why? Made plans, ‘ave ya?”

“Yes, actually,” Victoria laughed.  “I made a friend today, and I was going to meet her after lunch.”

“Can you rearrange?” Pa stroked his chin thoughtfully.

“I’ll try, Pa.” She tried to disguise the disappointment in her voice. “I’ll get the train to Smoke in the morning and let her know I have other commitments.”

“Thanks, Vic.” Pal smiled and quietly shut the door behind him.

The next morning Victoria was up early.  She spent a great deal of time choosing the most appropriate outfit to meet the foreign gentlemen.  Or that’s what she told herself.  She hurried down the stairs, hooking her purse onto the loop on her dress and reaching for her keys.

“I’ll be back in time for the meeting, Pa,” she called as she headed out.

“You look nice,” Pa called after her as she hurried out of the door.

The day was grey, the summer heat diminished somewhat by the sea mist, which had rolled in the night before and remained.  It left a soft lingering dampness in the air, and whilst it wasn’t cold, people were instinctively remaining indoors, or walking with their heads down, less inclined towards social interaction as they were on a sunny day.  She bought her ticket and took her seat by the window.  The train juddered into life and heaved itself out of a stationary position with an arthritic jerk.  She rested her arm on the edge of the window, as much to steady herself as anything else, as the train rattled away from the station.  She watched as hills and forests rolled by and they entered the more oppressive industrial area that was Smoke.  Black soot billowed from chimneys and carts and carriages bustled past.  As Victoria stepped onto the platform she was greeted by shouting vendors, an odd smell of fish, drains and salted meat and the feeling of needing to rush.  Everyone here was in a hurry, so she too hurried up the steps and away from the platform.  Reaching the top of the steps and the cobbled streets she realised she had no idea where she was going.  Pa had taken her to Smoke, maybe twice when she was a girl, but she could barely remember it.  She hailed a cab and asked the driver to take her to White’s.  He looked her up and down, as though deciding whether she was joking or not, then shrugged, and helped her up the steps and into the carriage.  The initial journey was bumpy, as they rolled along the cobbled street past vendors, small shops and bars.  Smoke was busy, there were people everywhere, none of them noticing each other as they hurried about their own lives, oblivious to those around them.  How easy, Victoria thought as she peered out of the window, to just come here and disappear.  It was nothing like Calms, where everyone knew you and scrutinised your actions.  The cobbles seemed to disappear from beneath them as the cab moved forward, and the buildings became, larger, brighter, more expensive looking.  They turned down a road through a huge iron gate and up a gravel driveway to what could only be described as a mansion.  It had a flight of steps leading up to the entrance, which was supported by huge white columns.

“Here we are, then, miss,” the driver offered her a hand down the steps and onto the path.

“Is this it?” Victoria felt her heart racing as she observed the massive building.  She looked down awkwardly at her dress.  It was her best, but it had several repairs, and the hem was worn.

“Yes, miss.  Were you supposed to meet someone?”

“Not here,” she took a deep breath and steadied herself.  “I shan’t be long, would you mind waiting for me?”

“Not at all, miss,” he tipped his hat respectfully and seated himself on the wheel of the carriage.

Victoria swallowed hard and mounted the steps into the entrance of the ominous building.  There was a man standing at a sort of pulpit in the entrance, a book spread open before him as though he were about to begin a sermon.  He looked disdainfully at her as she walked in, and she checked herself and tried to smooth the creases from her dress that had formed during her journey.

“Are you on the list?” he asked in a tone that implied he was certain she wasn’t.

“No,” Victoria looked straight at him.  She knew he was a member of staff, and her finishing school had trained her to always speak in a commanding way to staff, to show that you have breeding.  “My friend is here, I wonder if you would mine passing a note to her?”

“Who’s your friend?” the man asked suspiciously, although he did obligingly pass her a pen and paper.

“Isabelle…” Victoria stumbled slightly, realising she only knew Is’s first name.  It seemed however a first name was enough.

“Miss Rafferty?” the whole attitude of the man seemed to change, suddenly he was nervous.  “Would you like me to take you to their table?”

“No!” Victoria was horrified at the prospect, she quickly scribbled her note, folded the paper and handed it to him with the pen. “Please just give her this, thank you.”

The man nodded at her and scurried off.  Turning heel she hurried back down the steps and towards the cab when she heard her name being called from the steps.

“Vicky! I say, wait a mo, will you?” Is was hurrying down the steps.  She was wearing a dark green gown which perfectly complimented the red of her hair and the emerald of her eyes, but, whilst on a mannequin of this colouring it would have looked beautiful, on Is is looked almost awkward, as she pulled at it, battling to get more freedom of movement as she pursued Victoria down the steps.

“I didn’t want to disturb your brunch,” Victoria said awkwardly, waiting for her to catch up.

“Oh gosh, I wish you would, I’m on the verge of slitting my wrists with the butter knife!” Is laughed lightly.

“I have to get back to Pa,” Victoria looked uncomfortably at the cab driver.

“Well, look here,” Is said coaxingly, removing her pocket watch from her pocket and glancing at it. “It’s ten thirty now, stay for half an hour, the cab’ll have you back by midday!”

“I can’t afford to take a cab all the way back, Is!” Victoria looked away, ashamed by the admission.

“Of course not,” Is sounded mortified. “I’m sorry, Vic, look, cab’s my treat, alright?  You don’t mind waiting, do you?” she asked the cab driver.

“Not at all, Miss Rafferty,” the cab driver nodded respectfully at her.

“There!” Is spoke triumphantly. “Come on, save me from the butter knife!” She held out her hand and Victoria allowed herself to be led in.

The inside of the building gleamed.  It was pristine, and the massive windows caused light to reflect off the bright white walls and make the splendour of the dining area look more enormous than even it was.  Victoria didn’t like it, however.  Something about its size made it ghastly and impersonal; not at all like the Unicorn Pub in Calms, where she and Pa would sometimes go for lunch.  That was cosy and friendly, and you felt safe.  Here, she had never felt more exposed.

Is led her to a table facing the window, overlooking the massive and immaculately kept garden.  Victoria suspected that a daisy would not dare show its happy yellow face to disturb the oppressively bright green of the lawn.  Her ruminations were interrupted as she heard her name being spoken.

“Mother, Thomas, this is my friend Victoria,” Is introduced her and automatically Victoria found herself giving a small dip, as though in the presence of royalty. “I’d arranged to meet her here after brunch, but her train was early, so I invited her to join us.”

“Of course,” a tall, well bred woman with dark auburn hair and a stiff poise which made her appear somewhat rigid, forced a smile. “Please have a seat, Victoria.”

“Thank you,” Victoria spoke, but the words came out cracked, her mouth suddenly very dry.

“Juice?” Is had poured a glass from a jug on the table and handed it to her.  She smiled with gratitude and took a sip.

“Really, Isabelle,” the woman chided. “I wish you wouldn’t do the staff’s job for them!”

“I am perfectly capable of pouring a drink, mother!” Is shot back! “I’m not an invalid!”

Sir Thomas laughed.  “You certainly aren’t.  What do you make of her, Victoria? Quite the independent.  She’ll be going on one of those votes marches next!”

“Votes marches?” Victoria asked, sipping her drink.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of them?” He leaned back in his seat, clearly pleased to be given the opportunity to exercise his vocal chords. “Bloody women, marching on the capital, demanding the vote! What do they put back? Eh? If you don’t pay tax you shouldn’t have a say as to what it’s spent on, that’s what I say!”

“Perhaps if there were more options open to women than marriage or prostitution, which, let’s face it, is marriage but less boring, then perhaps women would pay tax!” Is shot back.

“Darling!” Sir Thomas still had a note of humour in his voice, but Is’s mother looked mortified by the outburst. “I hope that marriage is rather more comfortable than prostitution! And you wouldn’t want to end up a spinster, would you? How would you live?”

“On my wits, I daresay,” Is was confident, but not sharing the joke that Sir Thomas thought they were.

“And what about you, Miss…” he looked at Victoria.

“Smith,” Victoria lied, she did not want to advertise her surname to these people, Pa wouldn’t like it.

“Smith, what about you, do you want the vote?”

“I try not to get involved with politics,” Victoria smiled charmingly. “Leave politicking to the politicians, I have enough to do at home.”

“Well said!” Sir Thomas beamed.

“Indeed,” Is’s mother’s face seemed to relax and she leaned back in her chair. “I’m glad you’re spending time with such a sensible girl, Isabelle.”

“And of course, I live for your approval, mother,” Is looked thoroughly disappointed in her, and she felt a pang of sadness and took another sip of juice. “I suppose that’s what happens in finishing school, is it, Vic? They beat any sort of opinion out of you?”

“And teach you grammar,” Victoria gave her the most charming smile, which made Is snort.

“Oh? Which finishing school?” Is’s mother took an immediate interest.

“Le Belle Dame,” Victoria spoke with a perfect accent.  “I am only recently home.”

“That’s an excellent school!” Mrs Rafferty trilled. “How did you find it?”

“Very pleasant,” Victoria took a sip of her drink and carefully dabbed her mouth on a napkin. “The mistresses are very professional and the weather is so perfect, it almost made me sad to come home, although we have been lucky these last few days, have we not?”

“Yes, indeed, it’s been wonderful weather.”

“Well, damn, Vic,” Is laughed as she walked her down the steps to the cab. “I think my mother might actually be in love with you!”

“That’s what finishing school does,” Victoria grinned and prodded her shoulder teasingly. “Makes you personable!”

“Thanks a bunch!” Is laughed, offering her a hand into the cab.

“Aren’t you coming?” Victoria asked as she went to shut the door.

“What?”

“You told your mother we had plans, I just didn’t want to make a liar of you!”

“Good point!” Is laughed.  “Alright then!” She climbed in, reached out the window and tapped the side of the cab, which took off at a slow trundle.

“So, what are our plans?” Is asked conversationally as she peered out of the window at the passing streets.

“Well, I have to help Pa with a business meeting, but we could do something afterwards. Do you like the beach?”

“I don’t have strong feelings about it either way,” Is grinned.

“Must be the only thing you don’t have an opinion on!” Victoria laughed.

“Do you think it’s awful that I’m so opinionated?  I know everyone hates it.” Is looked awkwardly at her shoes.

“No, I think it’s wonderful! I’ve never met anyone quite like you!”

“Probably best! Too many like me and the world would fall into chaos!”

“Maybe the world needs a little chaos?” Victoria suggested.

“I don’t think it’s ready!”

They pulled up outside outside the cottage and Is offered her a hand down.

“Shall I put it on the account, Miss Rafferty?” the driver asked politely.

“Oh, yes please, if you don’t mind?” Is had reached for her purse, but put it back.

“Not at all, Miss.  Will you want picking up?”

“I’ll take a chance on the train, I don’t know how long we’ll be.”

“Very well,” he tipped his hat respectfully and urged the horses on.

“This is it,” Victoria said a little awkwardly as she led Is up the steps to the door of the cottage.  She had the feeling that the home that she and her father loved so much would seem very shabby to Is.

“Oh, it’s charming!” Is smiled brightly. “I’d much rather live here than anywhere in Smoke, it’s so impersonal and cold there!”

“Even your home?” Victoria asked as she pulled the door towards her before turning the handle.  It was old and the hinges hung slightly wrongly, so one had to both pull and lift before the handle would turn.  

“Especially my home!” Is laughed. “You’ve met my mother!”

“I thought she was very nice!” Victoria laughed. The door finally gave way under the effort and swung open with a mournful creek.  The hallway was a mess, the coat stand was strewn across the floor and all the books knocked from the shelf.  The banister leading up the staircase was shattered as though it had been struck with something heavy.

“I say, Vic.” Is touched her arm uncertainly. “Looks like there’s been an awful to do in here…”

“Pa?” Victoria’s voice trembled and came out much more quietly than she’d intended, so she tried again, this time shouting. “Pa!” She pulled away from Is and flew about the cottage, flinging doors open and checking rooms, all the time calling for her father.  When it became clear he was not there she hurried to the parlour.  At the back was an old metal safe, black with a golden knob attached to the heavy door.  She fumbled with her key, her hand was shaking, but she needed to be calm. She pressed the door of the safe firmly closed with her foot so the bolts were under no pressure. Once this was done the key turned easily.  It was then a question of twisting the knob and wrenching it open.  It was a heavy door, to someone unaccustomed to it, it would appear still locked, but she had felt the tumblers move beneath the turn of the key, she knew the safe as though it were a part of her, so she pulled hard, tumbling backwards slightly as the door swung open.  Reaching in, she took the gun in her trembling hand and pushed the door of the safe closed.

“Damn, Vic…”

She swung around and found herself pointing the gun at Is.  She was shaking and a tear rolled down her cheek as she lowered it.

“Alright,” Is put her hand gently on top of Victoria’s gun hand and pried the weapon free. “It’s alright,” she spoke very definitely and calmly. “I’ll keep a hold of this, if we need it you can have it back, alright?”

“We?” Victoria blinked at her.

“Yes, we dummy! You think I’m letting you walk into whatever it is you’re walking into alone? Wouldn’t be very chivalrous of me, would it?” she half laughed. “What exactly are we walking into?”

“I don’t know,” Victoria confessed. “But they have Pa, and I reckon I know where!”

The Smuggler’s Daughter is Copyright Claire Evans 2017, and the cover image is courtesy of Angelika Rust. To find out more about the author, visit chclepitt.com

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Chapter 1: I Don’t Mind the Daisies

Badger will be taking part in CampNanoWriMo for July, and thought it might be fun to post her progress, for you lot to read and comment on.  She is writing a fantasy novel called The Smuggler’s Daughter.  Be sure to check back regularly to find out what happens next.

Chapter One

The sun beat down hard, causing circles of of red, black, pink and orange to dance on the inside of Victoria’s closed eyelids. She breathed deeply, enjoying the sweet scent of the long grass and the sound of birds chirping above her.  The heat of the sun was cooled by a gentle breeze, which lightly rustled the trees, and somewhere in the distance, someone had set a fire.  She loved being home.  Four years of finishing school, and it had felt like she had not had a moment’s privacy.  But now she was back, in the tiny village of Calms, surrounded by fields, and a five minute walk from the beach.  Of course, it was only an hour carriage ride from the city, and at weekends the peace was shattered by city folks trying to enjoy the green.  But this was not the weekend; now, there was silence.

“Isabelle!” A shrill voice shattered the tranquility and Victoria propped herself up on her elbows, squinting against the bright sunlight, trying to identify the source of the intrusion.  “Isabelle!” The voice shrilled again. “Come back! You’ll get pollen all over your dress!”

“I don’t mind the daisies, mother!” A younger, softer voice responded.  “And they aren’t like lilies, the pollen doesn’t stain!”

“If Mrs. Sykes leaves us because you ruin another dress, Isabelle…” the shrill voice chided.

“She won’t, mother!” Isabelle sounded tired. “If it has any pollen on it, well, I shall clean it myself, but I’m certain it won’t.”

“I’m going home, Isabelle! Will you come?”  There was a long silence. “Isabelle?”

“I’ll catch the train, later. I have my purse.”

“Catch the train alone?  What if…”

“I’ll be fine!  It’s such a lovely day, I can’t bear to be inside on it.”

“If only you showed such enthusiasm for Sir Thomas.”

“Perhaps I would if he was as lovely as this day and this place!”

“You are insufferable!”

“I know!”

Then, the noise stopped.  Victoria leaned back down and closed her eyes once more, but a shadow fell over her and she tried to rest.  Opening her eyes revealed a silhouette, completely black with the sun behind it, of a woman, in a long dress peering down at her.

“I say,” the voice was the girl identified as Isabelle. “I’m sorry you had to hear all that riot! Did not see you lurking amongst the daisies.  Come here often?”

“Not for about four years,” Victoria surrendered to the disruption and propped herself back up on her elbows. “Do sit down, I can’t make you out at all with the light behind you, you may as well be a demon!”

“Perhaps I like being anonymous!” The girl laughed lightly, but obliged by sitting down opposite her.  “I’m Is,” she held out her hand in the way a man might when meeting another man.  Victoria studied it curiously.  She had been taught that ladies curtsey to one another, but never shake hands.  She supposed sitting in the position they were would make curtseying difficult, but the hand was offered with such a natural confidence that it might be the most normal thing for women to shake hands. “I say,” Is looked slightly hurt. “Don’t leave me hanging here, gosh!”

“Sorry!” Victoria half laughed, took the hand and shook it. “Victoria, Vicky, if you like.”

“Jolly nice to meet you!” Is shook her hand vigorously. “They don’t teach handshakes in finishing school I don’t suppose.”

“No.”

“Oh, I was joking.  You’ve been to finishing school?”

“Yes, I only came home yesterday.”

“Are you finished?”

“Well, I suppose I must be, mustn’t I?” She studied the strange girl, with her shock of red hair, angular features and bright green eyes that sparkled with mischief.

“How depressing,” she observed, leaning back on her elbows, matching Victoria’s pose. “What is there left to do then? Find a husband, I suppose.”  She pulled a stem of grass from amongst the many that concealed them, carefully peeled the stray leaves and placed it between her teeth.

“You really shouldn’t lean back,” Victoria said urgently, sitting up and holding out her hand. “The way your mother reacted to pollen, grass stains may actually kill her!”

“We can at least live in hope!” Is laughed lightly and lay all the way back. “I suppose you think me terribly wicked now?”

“No,” Victoria pulled herself up and hugged her knees through her skirt. “I just think you might be the most honest person I’ve ever met.  I mean, you just say what you think, don’t you?”

“Little point in saying what I don’t think, is there?  May as well be a politician!  I suppose they told you you should lie in polite society, did they?” She sat up and studied Victoria when she didn’t get an answer. “No need to worry here, I’m not polite society.”

“Not lie,” Victoria said thoughtfully.  “Just, only to say bland things, nothing that might shock, or cause controversy.”

“So you can be a bland wife to a bland husband and have bland children.  How very vanilla.”

“Vanilla?”

“It’s bland, isn’t it? Does anyone actually like vanilla? It’s what you have if you prefer texture to flavour, I think.  I always opt for strawberry,” she added after a pause.

“I quite like vanilla,” Victoria smiled, she was enjoying not having to be concerned with etiquette,  which was clearly foreign to this strange girl.  “I suppose I will suit my bland life very well.”

“No,” Is said firmly and without hesitation. “They’ve tried to mould you into vanilla, but you are peppermint with chocolate chips, I can tell.”  She sprung to her feet and held out her hand. “Care to grab a cone? I have money!”

“Alright,” Victoria took her hand and allowed herself to be pulled up.  “I suppose you will judge me terribly if I choose vanilla?”

“Of course not,” Is offered her arm as they began to walk off.  She was a good four inches taller than Victoria, and seemed uncomfortable in her dress, pulling at it every so often as they walked and shifting.  “If your prefered path is vanilla, then good for you, I say.  Would make life a damn site simpler, wouldn’t it, if we all liked what we were supposed to.”

“You mean like Sir Thomas?” Victoria asked, taking the vacant arm.  She would never normally have been so impertinent, but Is seemed not to care one hoot for formality, and it made the conversation easy and free.

“Yes! Now you come to mention it!” Is laughed as they turned onto the gravel path that lead out of the field and into the heart of the village.  The gravel made a sort of satisfying crunching sound beneath her feet and the breeze lightly shifted their hair, causing a welcome reprieve from the heat of the sun.  There was still the faint smell of smoke from the distant bonfire.  Is discarded the grass she’d been chewing and lead the way confidently to the ice cream parlour.

“Ladies,” a stout man with a handlebar moustache greeted them from behind the desk.  Victoria recognised him immediately from her childhood visits with her father, but clearly four years had changed her.  “What can I get you?”

“I’ll have a strawberry cone, please,” Is smiled cheerily at him as she unhooked her purse from a loop on her dress. “And my friend likes vanilla.”

“Actually, I think I’d like peppermint and chocolate chip, please,” Victoria smiled at the man, then glanced at Is, who was grinning so broadly that she felt shy and looked down at her feet.

“Righto,” Is opened her purse. “What’s the damage?”

The searing sun caused the cones to melt quickly, and there was silence for a long time as they sat on the bench outside the ice cream parlour trying to catch the drips before they reached their sleeves.  The silence continued long after they had finished, they simply sat, watching people pass by on the street.  First school was out, and there were mothers leading squawling infants away from the school house, followed by boys in shorts with long socks and clumpy great shoes chasing after one another, carrying jackets and ties which they had clearly stripped as soon as freedom permitted.  They were followed by girls holding hands, in knee length dresses tied at the waist with ribbons, occasionally squeaking with delight as a boy scooted past pulling their plaits or knocking their bonnet from their heads.  Victoria went inside and purchased them each a cloudy lemonade. When she returned she found Is wistfully watching  the miners as they returned from the mines.  They were grubby in their shirt sleeves and open collars, but she seemed enthralled by them, somehow.

“Is there someone else?” Victoria asked suddenly as she placed the lemonade in front of Is and climbed awkwardly back onto the bench.

“What?” Is looked up suddenly as though caught doing something terrible.

“Why you don’t like Sir Thomas,” Victoria felt awkward, as though she’d crossed some invisible line.  There had been no lines – but now there was some sort of huge awkward barrier.

“Oh,” Is seemed to shake it off although her cheeks were flush.  “No, I was just admiring their clothes.”  She pulled at the collar of her dress again, eventually deciding to unbutton it.  She sighed as though it had been strangling her.

“Their outfits?” Victoria observed her incredulously. “They’re mine workers, it’s not exactly high fashion, is it?”

“But they look so free,” she was still watching the men. “They can just be who they are, can’t they?  Look at them, collars loose, sleeves rolled, no-one forcing them to do anything…  They’re so comfortable in their own skin.” She pulled at her dress again and laughed.

“You seem very comfortable,” Victoria was studying her with interest.  “I’ve never met anyone so much themselves.”

Is looked confused, studying herself and her dress.  She pulled at her sleeves before saying. “Maybe I’m me, and this is my cage.”  She pulled a pocket watch from her purse and looked at it. “Best head off to the train station, if I’m out after dark mother will send out the cavalry!”

“I’m sorry, Is,” Victoria stood urgently with her as she rose. “I didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.”

“What?” Is looked at her for a moment. “You didn’t,” she laughed lightly and her eyes sparkled again. “I really am that afraid of my mother, she’s terrifying!” She laughed again and offered an arm. “Walk me to the station?”

Victoria slipped her arm through Isabelle’s and walked with her to the small station on the edge of Calms.  Dusk was just starting to set in, and whilst it was still very warm there was a soft breeze now that seemed soothing.

“It’s that damn finishing school’s what it is,” Is said after a long break. “I bet you any money that if they hadn’t carted you off there you wouldn’t have even thought that you might have offended me.  Wouldn’t have crossed your mind.  They want us to always be afraid, and to know our place.”

“Maybe,” Victoria said thoughtfully.  “I can’t really remember how I was before.”

“Indoctrination,” Is said firmly.  “They’ll break you one way or the other.  Not me, though, I won’t be broken,”

They arrived at the ticket office and Is bought a ticket to Smoke.  Victoria walked her to the platform and waited with her in silence for the train.

“Well, look,” Is said as the train pulled in. “It’s been frightfully nice today, and I feel, well a bit like we’re, I don’t know, friends?”

“I think so too!” Victoria had been forcing down an anxious feeling, a sort of panic as though she were about to lose something very important and was powerless to prevent it.  It was as though Is felt it too, but she wasn’t powerless, she was strong.

“So, why don’t you come and visit me in Smoke tomorrow?” She asked as she backed towards the platform.  “I mean, if you’re not already busy?”

“I’m not!” Victoria smiled broadly.

“Well, good!  I have brunch with Sir Thomas and Mother at White’s, but should be done by two, so if you catch the two-fifteen I’ll meet you at the station; sound alright?”

“Yes!”

“You don’t say much, do you?”

“I don’t need to with you here!”

“Fair enough!” Is grinned and gave her a hug. “See you tomorrow, then.  Cheerio!” And with that she hopped on the train and was gone.

Victoria smiled all the way home.  It was still light, but there was a duskiness in the air, as the mist was rolling in from the sea.  She climbed the steps to the small thatched cottage that sat on the edge of the village overlooking the sea.  The front door wasn’t locked, Pa always left it open until she was home, so she turned the heavy knob and heaved it open.

“Pa?” she called as she untied her bonnet and hung it on the hook.  “I’m home. Pa?”

“Hi Vic,” Pa’s voice came from the sitting room.  “I’ve got some gents in with me, be a good girl and go to your room, eh?”

“Alright,” she agreed, peering in at the coat tails of the two large men who were standing facing her father. “Good night, then.”

“G’night, love.”

The Smuggler’s Daughter is Copyright Claire Evans 2017, and the cover image is courtesy of Angelika Rust. To find out more about the author, visit chclepitt.com

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Becoming Raff

A short story by C H Clepitt

Part One: Who Am I?

Raff pulled his collar up and headed down the cobbled street.  It was late and becoming-raffthere was a smell of smoke in the air, combined with sewage and a sort of burnt sulphur that lurked generally in the atmosphere at this time of night.  He was heading to the Red Monkey Tavern.  He had been there for the past three nights and liked the atmosphere.  He would order beer and sit quietly in the corner and people watch.  As he approached the Tavern entrance he plunged his hands into his pockets, focused firmly on his feet and headed in through the crowds of men and working girls who gathered outside.  Just as he was about to enter the building someone shoved him hard in the side, causing him to sidestep into another group of men.

“Watch where you’re going, boy!” A rugged looking man shoved him hard in the chest.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped, stepping backwards into someone else.  “I’m sorry!” he gasped again, turning around to see who else was going to push him.

“Oh don’t worry, darling,” a woman with a scar that disfigured the entire left side of her face was looking a Raff curiously. “I’ve had worse.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

“Don’t be sorry for me, darling.  You need to be sorry for yourself.  Come inside and buy me a drink before one of these great oafs takes your head off for looking at ‘em funny.”

She took his hand and led him through the crowds into the Tavern.

“Thing is, darling,” she said to him as they drank their second pitcher of ale. “You’re little.  I mean proper slight, any one of these idiots could kill you just by punching you.  And you’re quiet, gentle spoken, like.  I’m sure there must be some nice gentleman’s club you could frequent where you won’t get stabbed or anything.”

“I like it here,” Raff smiled.  “No-one knows me, and mostly they leave me alone.  I feel like I can really be myself here.”

“You’re lucky, not many people here get to be themselves, we all have to play a role.”

“What’s your role?”

“Ha, I’m the madam, darling!  Ain’t no-one gunna touch me now I got this, but ain’t no-one gunna touch any of my girls, I take care of them, for a percentage.”

“Sounds lucrative.”

“You want a girl, you ask Polly, I’ll sort you out, any type, I got em all.  I’ll do you a sweet deal too, cos you’re nice and ain’t said nothing about me scar.”

“I’m alright for now, thank you,” Raff began awkwardly.  “I don’t think you should worry about your scar, you’re a nice person, people will see beyond it.”

“Oh sweet’eart, not in my line of work they won’t.  So, you got a sweetheart, or don’t you like girls?”

“I don’t really know what I like,” he said truthfully.  “I like who I am, here, now, with you.”

“Well, ain’t that sweet, I’m here every night, gotta keep an eye on my girls though, so you’ll have to excuse me if I leave you.”

“Of course.”

“‘Ark at ‘e! ‘of course’! I’m sitting with a proper gentleman.  I’ll get your story out of you eventually.”

“Maybe.”

It was dawn when Raff left the tavern and headed down the streets home.  He scrambled over the fence into the back garden to his parents’ home, and up the large oak tree that overlooked his bedroom window.  It was a bit of a jump, but he’d discovered that if he didn’t look down then it was easy enough to make the distance.  Grabbing the window ledge he pulled himself into the window and landed on the floor with a heavy thump.

“Isabelle?” his mother’s voice called from down the corridor.  “Are you alright?  Did you fall out of bed again?”

“I’m fine mother,” he responded, quickly changing out of his evening clothes and pulling a night dress on over his bound breasts.  “Just tripped on the chair.”

“Well hurry up, we’re having brunch with Sir Thomas at eleven, and you need to be looking your best, I have a new dress being delivered for you.

“Yes, mother.”

Find out what happens next, download the complete short story pdf

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Caught Short Part 3: The Plot Thickens

Scene:  The Heroes are in the entrance hall of Newsnibbles offices.  They are incognito.  All look like regular people, apart from The Pink Fairy, who is wearing a pink ball gown with bright pink DMs.

 

The Urinater: I can’t go up there.

Reportage, drawn by the supremely talented Mrs. Bush

 

Germ Girl: Why not? Don’t you like lifts?

 

Boobilicious: [Putting a supportive arm around The Urinater] We can take the stairs if you want.

 

The Pink Fairy: Sure, I’m wearing flats.

 

Green Man: Do you even know the meaning of blend in?!

 

The Pink Fairy: When you look as good as me blending in is never an option.

 

The Urinater: I’ll just wait down here, I can be look out.

 

Katie Cakes: What’s the matter with you? What happened?

 

The Urinater: [Shifting uncomfortably and looking at the floor] Nothing…

 

Germ Girl: We don’t have time for this.  We’ll be safer together, come on! [She pushes The Urinater in front of her]

*******************************************************************************************

Scene: An upstairs office Reportage is sitting at a desk, with her back to the heroes.  She is on the phone.

 

Reportage: I’ve told you already, that’s not funny, just disappointing.  Besides which, size jokes are over, my readers expect a higher level.  Now if you can’t find anything interesting for me to write about then I’ll go back to opinion, and you can deal with the lawyers! [She slams the phone down and turns on her swivel chair to face the cluster of undercover heroes in the door way.]

I hope you brought cake.  And I don’t like raisins.

 

Katie Cakes: I chucked my last Victoria Sponge this morning.  You can have a flap jack if you want?

 

Reportage: Yeah OK, is it chocolate?

 

Katie Cakes: Chip, yeah.

 

The Pink Fairy: Oh I have missed you! [He prances over and hugs her]

 

Reportage: [patting him slightly awkwardly] I missed you too… [Prizes him off an positions him a safe distance away] So, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?

 

Germ Girl: We’re in trouble Honey.  Need your help.

 

Reportage: Big Mamma?

 

Germ Girl: Who else?

 

Katie Cakes: She’s had her greedy fat fingers in all the crime pies across Dudley for years.  She’s baked into the base of everything.

 

Reportage: Wow, you do like your baked goods.  Not too many mixed metaphors there then…

 

Green Man: Oh My God! You’re Sarcasmo!  You are the reason I went into this gig! I LOVE you!  It was too bad Big Mamma outed you to all of Dudley!

 

Boobilicious: Well that didn’t work out too badly, offered your own column in the Observer.  And your sarcastic investigations have closed a number of Big Mamma’s legit cover businesses.

 

Reportage: [Seeming not to hear Boobilicious] Who’s this guy?  Looks kinda preppy to be a hero.

 

Green Man: [Taking Umbrage] I’m an anti-hero! And I look much more imposing in my tights.

 

Reportage: [Raising an eyebrow] I bet.  So, what’s the emergency?

 

Germ Girl: Big Mamma tracked us to our HQ, not so secret any more, more blowedupish…

 

Reportage: Damn that woman!  I can’t even get close to destroying her empire.  Not where I am, too many legal issues.

 

The Pink Fairy: What are you thinking?

 

Reportage: I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.  I’ve been becoming increasingly frustrated with the limits of reporting [She gets up and opens a cupboard behind the desk, revealing a black rubber hero outfit with knee boots] I will be Reportage.

 

Caught Short is brought to you from the author of  A Reason to Stay

 

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Caught Short Part 2: Taking The Cake

If you missed Caught Short Part 1 you can read it now by clicking here.

There is an explosion and the door to the heroes top secret HQ is gone.  Enter The Chicken Tickler and Dragon Fly hovering on a board behind her.

 

The Chicken Tickler: Ha! At last we have found your secret hideout!  Prepare to be destroyed!

 

The Urinater: Sponge fingers? Is that you?

 

The Chicken Tickler: Don’t call me that! I am The Chicken Tickler!

 

The Pink Fairy: [Moves the feathers to one side with his wand] Oh my GOD! It is you! Sponge Fingers! We all thought you’d died! What

Boobilicious. Original image by the author, colour added by The Grumpy Badger, cos people like colour, and I'm the editor, so I can.

happened?

 

The Chicken Tickler: [Aggressively knocking the wand from his hand] I told you not to call me that!  I got sick of mopping up after you lot [turns angrily towards The Urinater] Especially you!  Also, Big Mamma Offers Dental!

 

Green Man: Really? Dental? What’s her policy on the environment? [He is hit on the side of the head with a rock cake] Sorry, I mean How could you betray us like that?!

 

The Dragon Fly; [Hovers in front of The Chicken Tickler] Enough of this nonsense, prepare to die!!! [He pulls out a tiny gun]

 

Germ Girl: [Scoffing] Please! I’ve seen cocktail wieners bigger! The Urinater will destroy you. [She promptly steps to one side giving The Urinater room to aim, there is a long pause, nothing happens.  She turns, in an audible whisper] What are you waiting for? Blast him!

 

The Urinater: [Shifting uncomfortably] I’ve just been though…

 

The Dragon Fly: Haha! What will you do now Heroes?! Where’s your secret weapon?

 

Boobilicious: [Entering through what was the door] Right here buzzy! [She twirls her tapemeasure whip and knocks him from his board, he hits the ground with a heavy thump]

The heroes fly into action.  Katie Cakes hurls a Victoria Sponge at The Chicken Tickler temporarily blinding her.

 

The Pink Fairy: We’ve got to move, now, more minions will be close behind, that tracking device will have led them straight to us.  It’s no longer safe here.

 

 

Scene: A dark alley behind a rough pub.  There are drunks bustling in and out and the heroes are huddled together discussing their next move.

 

Germ Girl: Booblicious! I can’t believe you’re here! You saved us! [Turning to the others: effusively] She trained me when I was first starting out!

 

The Urinater: Me too!

 

Green Man: [snorts] Hehe, boobies.  

 

Germ Girl: I thought you’d retired?

 

Booblicious: A true hero never retires, just rests.  I was just stopping by for a cuppa really, when I heard the ruckus and thought perhaps I could help.  [turning to The Pink Fairy in an audible whisper] Whose Tall, Dark and Brooding over there?

 

The Pink Fairy: Oh, Boobilicious, meet Green Man, (he’s more of an anti hero really).

 

Green Man: [Snorts again] Hehe, boobies.

 

Boobilicious: Pleasure I’m sure.  So, anti-hero, sounds exciting, like Batman?

 

Green Man: [Angrily] Nothing like Bloody Batman!

 

The Pink Fairy: He’s sensitive.

 

Boobilicious: And brooding… mmmm…

 

Katie Cakes: Sorry to interrupt the girl talk ladies, but I think we should be coming up with a plan about now? Don’t you?

 

Germ Girl: You know who we need.

 

The Urinater: We can’t, since Big Mamma outed her she wants nothing to do with us, you heard what she said.

 

Germ Girl: That’s why it’s perfect, Big Mamma would never suspect us going there, we’d be safe.

 

The Urinater: Not from her razor tongue if she doesn’t want us there… she might be mean too us… Remember when she made that super villain cry?

 

The Pink Fairy: [Patting The Urinater on the back reassuringly] She sent us away to protect our identities.  She’ll help us now, we could always rely on her for that.

 

Green Man: Who are you talking about?

 

Germ Girl: We’ll explain on the way, come on!

 

All exit SL.

 

Caught Short is brought to you from the author of  A Reason to Stay

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The Super Heroes Alliance: Caught Short: Part 1

Caught Short is the new weekly serial to be gracing Newsnibbles.  Do let us know what you think.  If it isn’t popular we will probably cancel it – that’s what all the cool publications do these days.

 

SceneTop Secret Headquarters of the Super Heroes Alliance.  Green Man has just returned from a night of keying Rolls Royces,

Original sketch of Germ Girl by the author. Colour added by The Grumpy Badger, because people like colour and I'm the editor, so I can.

and he’s brought a hostage who is now tied to a chair.  The Alliance is discussing the best course of action.

 

The Pink Fairy: Look, I’m not judging you.  I’ve been there myself.   We all go out at night and bring someone home we regret, but why is he tied to a chair? Just give him a fake number and send him on his way.

 

Green Man: Would you please stop waving your wand at me?  He is not a date, he’s a hostage.  He was lurking in the shadows behind our top secret HQ, and I suspect he works for Big Mamma.

 

Germ Girl:  He doesn’t look very clean to me… couldn’t you have just chained him up outside while we decide what to do?

 

The Urinater: I can make him talk, just leave him to me!

 

All: NO!

 

Hostage: Look, I don’t know who you people are, but I didn’t see nothing, honest, so you can just let me go, OK?

 

Germ Girl: If you didn’t see nothing, then you must have seen something, tell us what you know and we might think about letting you go.

 

Hostage: Who are you, Pedantic Girl? Just let me go, before you regret it.

A rock cake flies through the air and bounces off the hostage’s head, there is a loud bang andKatie Cakes appears.

 

Katie Cakes: She’s Germ Girl, and I’m Katie Cakes, and we will be the last people you see unless you start talking and I mean NOW B@tch! [As she is speaking she is tossing a rock cake menacingly]

 

Hostage: I don’t know nothing I tells you! You freaks won’t get anything from me!

 

Katie Cakes: [Moves very close and prods her whipped cream can under the hostage’s chin] Listen to me very carefully indeed, or I’m gunna stop being nice to you, do you understand?

 

Hostage: Gulps

 

Katie Cakes: You are going to tell us how you found our top secret HQ, and how much Big Mamma knows, and you’re gunna do it fast, cos my finger’s getting tired.  All I have to do is release the pressure, and this cream will explode, making quite the mess.

 

Germ Girl: Oh for the love of God, tell her what she wants to know, I’ve only just cleaned the floor.

 

The Urinater: I’ll make him talk, just leave him to me.

 

All: NO!

 

Green Man: If he doesn’t start talking soon I vote we let The Urinater have her way.  I’ve got a Party meeting in an hour, and my pants are really starting to chafe.

 

Germ Girl: Oh alright.  I’ll go and get me marigolds.

 

Katie Cakes: You hear that Twinky?  Last chance to talk to me, then my less nice friend gets to talk to you.

 

Hostage: You got nothing on Big Mamma.  Nothing you do can scare me, bring it on.

The Urinater: Oh I was sooo hoping you’d say that.  Step to one side Katie, you don’t want to get caught in the fall out.

 

The Pink Fairy: Best come behind the sofa with us K, her aim has never been great!

 

Hostage: [Starting to shift and struggle in his chair] What’s she gunna do?

 

The Urinater: I don’t like doing this, it’s messy and it gives me a bit of a rash.  Are you gunna tell us what we want to know or not?

 

Hostage: I’ll never tell you anything! [As he finishes he is hit with a powerful blast from the Urinater]

 

The Pink Fairy: [Prodding a flashing green light that has just appeared on the hostage’s chest with his wand] What’s that?

 

The Urinater: That’s a tracking device, the acid has made it visible.

 

Hostage: That’s right heroes! Big Mamma knows exactly where your top secret HQ is now, and she’ll be here to rescue me at any minute!

 

To be continued….

Caught Short is brought to you from the author of  A Reason to Stay

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Janie

Photograph "Cat on Wall" copyrighted, Graham Holden 2011 (photos@gholden.co.uk)

The early morning sun shone starkly through the bedroom window, onto Janie Pope’s face. Janie was in the habit of leaving the venetian blinds pulled half-way up so her pampered cat, Clementine, could easily navigate the window sill.  Few situations were as unnerving and potentially destructive as a frightened cat stuck between the slats of metal window shades.

 

The bright sunlight was in direct contrast to the frosty bite of October in the air. Janie buried her face in the pillow and pulled the bed quilts tightly around her shoulders. Clementine opened a sceptical eye and quickly surmised it was not yet time to get up. She stretched out a paw and, like Janie, buried her face.

 

As Janie slowly joined the awakening world, she was hit, abruptly with an all too familiar feeling of sickness and guilt.  Her body stiffened underneath the covers as panic consumed her.  Her grip on the quilts tightened into clenched fists and for a moment, Janie braced herself to vomit.  Her head was dizzied with a single, vivid thought.  Had she killed someone last night?

 

This was not Janie’s first experience of waking up to this horrific question.  There were countless mornings before this one when Janie could be found hiding beneath her bedding, desperately clutching Clementine against her body for comfort while she painstakingly sorted through details of the previous night.

 

 

Point one: She had gone out socially.

 

Point two: She had been in a bar with friends.

 

Point three: She had driven home alone.

 

Could she have killed someone with her car and not known it?  Perhaps bumped over a person who had fallen in the road?  It had been awfully dark.  Maybe while turning a corner she clipped a pedestrian – just a quick clip – but still with enough force to leave someone dying alone in the cold, while Janie comfortably slept?

 

After a few minutes of exercising a breathing technique she learned from a self-help video, Janie began the rationalisations.

 

Point one: She did not drink any alcohol.  Janie never drank alcohol.  A lifetime of internal physical defects prohibited alcohol consumption.  Janie did not even know what it felt like to be drunk.

 

Point two: Drunk driving being completely ruled out, there was no logical reason to believe that she could have struck someone without knowing.

 

Still, she traced the route home in her mind trying to remember travelling the full length of each street. She attempted to recall every traffic light, every curve, every sound. Stopping just short of madness, Janie shook off these thoughts.  Despite Clementine’s protests, Janie rolled out of bed to make a pot of coffee. She stared out of the window with folded, worried arms whilst the coffee percolated.  She studied her car.  The side she could see, anyway.  No visible damage. She prepared her first cup of coffee, all the time promising herself she would not do what she already knew she was about to do.

 

While sipping from her mug she slowly circled her parked car. Wearing a coat over her pyjamas, she carefully inspected the exterior of her silver Toyota for blood, dents, scrapes, cracks – anything to indicate a collision.  It checked out okay.  It always did. She assumed the neighbours thought her crazy.  She did not necessarily disagree. Once back inside, she skimmed the morning paper for articles about a ruthless hit-and-run driver.  There were none.  While she dressed, she listened to the local news on the television to make sure she was not the target of a manhunt in progress.  She was not.

 

Janie knew that within a couple days this feeling would subside.  She would vow not to go out socially anymore.  She would honour this self-imposed oath for several weeks, perhaps several months if she kept occupied.  Eventually, boredom would always win and Janie would succumb to a co-worker’s invitation for a night out.

 

This nightmarish process had been repeating itself for years. Janie had never been professionally diagnosed with a mental disorder. She would not dare confess these fears to a psychiatrist who might add things up and connect her to an unsolved crime.  Instead, she had done her own research.  Her first discovery was a phobia called Perccatophobia, described as a fear of sinning or committing imaginary crimes.  This self-diagnosis seemed to fit.  Janie’s upbringing had been strictly religious which could account for part of her delusions.  Maybe on a subconscious level she thought the mere act of going to a bar, even just for dancing or karaoke was sinful and, thus, cause for punishment.   She read and learned more about obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders.  Obtaining prescription drugs which may provide some relief required a doctor and, therefore, was not an option.  So Janie’s life continued on in this gruelling cycle.

 

The early morning sun shone starkly through the bedroom window onto Janie Pope’s face.  She had been out the night before so it was not long until she was in the driveway surveying the silver Toyota, coffee mug in hand.  It was the beginning of a warm June day so there was no explanation for the bitter cold that enveloped her as she stared catatonically at the dent in the passenger side fender.  A tangle of blond hair wafted gently in the summer breeze.  It was anchored to the silver paint by a dark red, almost brown smudge.

 

Janie told herself this was a cruel hoax being played by hateful neighbourhood kids.  No.  No one knew how she quietly suffered.  Janie stumbled to the front porch where she sat sombrely on the concrete steps.  The cup of coffee she held firmly in her hands had gone tepid.  Could there be a dead dog sprawled across a nearby street killed by Janie’s carelessness?  Maybe. Could the wispy strands of hair blowing out from the wheel well be human?  No.  Definitely not; but maybe… She should take a closer look.  She should get in the car too… Oh, God. She should at least go inside and…

 

Janie, still clad in her pyjamas, leaned her head against the wooden railing and closed her eyes. She would certainly hear the police sirens soon.  She would wait.  She would just sit and wait.

 

 Emma Parker.

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THE BLACK KNIGHT’S CONCUBINE: Part 2

The long-anticipated – and by Ava long-dreaded – day arrived; Karel Tate came to the village.  Children out minding the sheep saw him first and came running into town with the news.  The whole populace was out to watch by the time the great knight on his great horse appeared, riding wearily down the road.  The horse was midnight black, bigger even than a carthorse; no smaller beast could have carried the giant armoured figure that rode upon its back.  He was huge; seven feet tall if he were an inch, chest and shoulders four feet wide, arms as thick as most men’s legs.  On his back, in a great black scabbard, he wore a sword taller than a woman, four feet of steel and two of hilt.  His armour was black chased and inscribed with silver; bright runes crawled over every inch of polished steel.  He rode bareheaded, and carried no pack or other weapons beside his sword.  His face was unsmiling, stern as if hewn from granite; hawk-nosed, lantern jawed, pale skinned save for a red scar that ran from his cheek to his hairline, where the mane of jet-black hair was marred by a slash of pure white.

He seemed oblivious to the silent crowd awaiting him.  Dismounting in their midst and taking his horse by the reins, he stood head and shoulders above even the tallest man in the village.  His stare was glassy, eyes unfocused like a man in a trance.

Ava was not there to witness Karel Tate’s arrival; as soon as the news came in, she fled to barricade herself in the bedroom of her house.  Arlan, returning from the fields with the other men of the village, left them to marvel over the giant knight and followed his wife, half expecting to find her either in her cubbyhole again or else packing a bag to flee for the hills.  He could not deny, at least to himself, that he was shaken to see Karel Tate in the flesh: the size of the knight, the expressionless scarred face and eyes devoid of emotion, the weight of armour and sword negligible on his massive frame.

Whenever Ava had cried over the last few weeks, when she had woken in the night from some visitation of memory, Arlan had imagined himself fighting this dread knight who had once enslaved her.  In his dreams, he had grappled with an armoured demon, defied unholy strength, faced a foe no man could defeat, and prevailed.  But no conjuring of nightmare had prepared him for the fear that the sight of Karel Tate inspired.  The Headsman of Vale had been legend before Karel’s time; he was the son and grandson of a line of Headsmen stretching back into antiquity; men of evil fame, hereditary executioners from the old order that had fallen in the wars.

All this and more Arlan grappled with on the threshold of his home, mastering himself before he went inside to face his wife’s terrors.  He called out, assuring her who it was before he knocked on the bedroom door. She emerged reluctantly, pale and shaking, and clung to her husband.

“Did you see his eyes?” she whispered.

“Yes,” Arlan said, surprised at the question. “Like a man bewitched.”

“He is.  Not by some sorceress,” sudden bitterness entered Ava’s voice and face.  “By her, by Sabra Daishen.”  There was not a single person alive in Kellia or Silveneir who had not heard of Sabra Daishen, but those who had not seen her in the flesh rarely credited the tales, so much more grandly impossible than any legend of Karel Tate.  “One look in her eyes,” Ava’s went on, distantly as though looking back into memory.  “One look and he was gone.  The same man, but different somehow…”

This was the first tie Arlan had ever heard his wife speak of Sabra Daishen; the fact that she had known such a person raised a thousand questions in his mind, about who his wife was and how much she had not told him, but he forced the confusion aside and focussed on her immediate need.

“He’ll get poor welcome in the village,”  Arlan began, trying to comfort her, but Ava laughed bitterly.

“He won’t care.  He sleeps outside.  If anyone offered him a bed, he’d still sleep on the floor.  He’ll hunt his own food, bathe in the pond; that there’s even a village here won’t mean a jot to him.  But somehow, he’ll know to stay, and not just ride on.”

“Why are you so afraid of him?”  Arlan drew her close, and she rested her head on his chest.

“I’m afraid of everything,” she whispered. “Hadn’t you noticed?  But him… it’s not the sort of fear you mean.  I’m not afraid of him; he just represents my fears.  Does that make sense?”

Arlan was not sure that it did, but did not say so, preferring to let his wife talk while she was willing.

“He never hurt me,” she was saying, “never even raised his voice.  He was always kind, but… he’s a killer, Arlan; he put me in so much danger.  He was always there to protect me, but danger followed him, and when he was wounded at New Adathen, I… I couldn’t bear it.  I was afraid to lose him, so I left him myself.”  She looked up into her husband’s eyes, seeing there the pain that her confession caused him. “And now I’m afraid for you.  Karel would take me with him, of course he would; he loves me.” Another bitter laugh broke through her tears. “He was devoted like a dog.  But I wouldn’t want to go with him, I’d run away again… what frightens me now is what you might try and do, seeing what his being here does to me.  I’m afraid of losing this one place where I’ve been happy.”

Arlan almost broke down in tears, for he loved Ava dearly.  He could not speak, torn apart inwardly by conflicting needs to comfort his wife; the only aid he could imagine was to confront this man who terrified her, and it was that very aid she feared.

Ava reached up to kiss him then, drawing his face down to hers. “Promise me,” she whispered. “Promise you won’t face him. I’ve known too many warriors, Arlan, you can’t hide that look from me; swear to me you won’t do it.”

She had already drawn him halfway to their bed; there was no resisting her when she put her will towards seduction, and soon Arlan gave her the promise she required.

 

He woke in the dark, shaken from a dream in which he had woken alone.  But Ava was still beside him, curled up asleep at his side. He lay there for a long time, unmoving, bound by the oath she had extracted only hours before.  But he could not sleep, and just as Ava did when the night-terrors woke her, he went out onto the porch to breathe the night air.

The village nestled in the darkness, invisible but palpably near, the scene of his childhood, a place never threatened and so knowing no fear.  He had never thought to be so tested, but like all men he believed that such a test was not beyond him.  Somewhere, in the darkness, Karel Tate would be sleeping.  A mad thought possessed Arlan then; not to fight Karel Tate, no he had sworn not to do that… but to kill him nonetheless.  It was an abhorrent thought; murder, seeming to call to him from the darkness, seeping into him from the shadows all around until his fists clenched and his body shuddered.

He lurched upright, suddenly, and stalked across the yard. In a tree stump on their land stood the axe, used for chopping firewood.  He took it without conscious thought, and walked slowly down the road towards the village with the weapon in his hand.  He had dismissed Ava’s belief in the power to simply know something without explanation, but he felt it now; he knew where Karel Tate would be.  Long before he reached the village, he could see the knight asleep, stretched out beneath a tree on the village green.  Rounding the corner where the tavern obstructed the road, his premonition was confirmed; there was Karel Tate, fully armoured, propped against the tree, with his head bowed upon his breast. The knight’s sword was still upon his back; his horse was tethered to another tree nearby. The man lay as still as death, pale in the moonlight, only the slight rise and fall of his armoured chest attesting that he lived at all.

Arlan crept closer, the realisation of what he meant to do rising up like a black fog in his mind, darker than the night.  His hands, rough from a life of hard work, slid along the smooth wood of the axe as he lifted it above his head.  One blow.  The knight was bareheaded, his neck exposed as he nodded in sleep. One blow to behead the Headsman and put an end to his line.

Arlan froze, locked like a statue with the blow waiting to fall.  Karel Tate was a killer; he deserved to die, how many had he killed and how many would be spared if this demonic man were slain?  But Arlan had never killed anyone, never raised a blade and only rarely a fist in anger.  He hesitated, his teeth gritted, barely breathing, fighting within himself to either bring the axe down or fling it away, unable to do either.  An image of Ava swam before his eyes and he uttered a choking sound; at that tiny, involuntary noise, Karel Tate’s eyes snapped open.

The spell suddenly broken, Arlan tried to bring the axe down for the killing blow, but Tate was already on his feet. Fully armoured, somehow he moved in a blur; rising from repose as if catapulted to his feet, surging forward with the force of the sea.  His armoured forearm met and parried the haft of the axe even as his gauntleted fingers closed on Arlan’S throat.

Arlan was not a small man, he was accounted one of the strongest in the village, but he was lifted up and born backwards as though by the strength of a dozen men.  Karel Tate flung him six feet with one hand; before the farmer could regain his feet, the knight’s sword whispered from its scabbard.

Only then did Tate blink as though becoming truly awake; his eyes focussed and he regarded his attacker. He said nothing and showed no sign of fear or even surprise; the only question in his gaze was a silent enquiry what his opponent would do next.

Arlan reached slowly for the axe that lay near his hand.  Karel Tate did not move; the great sword resting in his hands, neither on guard nor quiescent, merely waiting.  On his feet again, the axe unsteady in his hands, Arlan met the eyes of the man he had thought to kill.  Nothing that he had expected, no berserker rage or laughing madness, could have frightened him more than Karel Tate’s unblinking stare; devoid of any human warmth, willing to kill but lacking both passion and remorse: utterly calm.  A strange, cold peace seemed to flow from those eyes like an unearthly wind.  Arlan shifted his hands upon the axe haft, seeking the will to break the trance that Tate’s gaze cast upon him.  Tate seemed to stare through him, as if his gaze were fixed not on his foe but on some distant, inner vista.

Then the knight spoke. “I am the Headsman of Vale.” The man’s voice was as expressionless as his face, but there was ritual weight behind those words; the challenge of a knight introducing himself to a foe.

“I… I am Arlan. I am Ava’s husband.”

At this, the first flicker of expression crossed Karel Tate’s face; almost imperceptibly, one eyebrow rose. Then the man’s face settled back into its preternatural calm.

“Have you come far to die?” Again the blank tone was laden with ritual, words spoken for the sake of form by a man who had no desire to speak.

Arlan said nothing, and Tate accepted his silence; he nodded minutely and lifted his sword to the salute. “Defend yourself, for it is written that none shall come against a knight in arms and withdraw unscathed.”

In the next breath, the Headsman of Vale was upon him; the huge sword flickered, fast as an arrow, and Arlan reacted on instinct, leaping backwards to avoid the blow that would have clipped off his head. Immediately the great blade reversed its stroke and twitched back along the same trajectory, its wielder advancing even as Arlan ducked and darted back again.  The axe hung useless in his hands; he leapt back again, flailing a parry, and a third time the knight’s sword flashed a hairsbreadth from his throat.  Karel Tate’s strength and speed were fearsome enough; the surgical precision of his skill was yet more terrifying.  Arlan knew, without a shadow of doubt that he could not win; he was insane to have even thought it, driven mad by love and jealousy.  Time slowed as Arlan ducked again, his only glimmer of hope being that the Headsman always struck for the neck. With strange dissociation, knowing death was near, Arlan recalled one of the tales of his opponent; at the siege of New Adathen, Karel Tate had held the breach alone for over four hours against an endless tide of foes.  Arlan was exhausted already, sapped by adrenalin, his limbs shaking and a cold sweat on his brow; despite the added weight of his armour, Tate was not even breathing hard.

The sword swept in again.  Arlan dodged, stumbled and lost his footing; the blow that would have claimed his head took only a snippet of hair, but the long blade was already spearing in, pursuing him to earth. He saw it, the tip coming like an arrow straight at his throat, Karel Tate square behind the thrust to drive it home, his face grimly serene. Then a woman screamed.  Arlan felt the swordpoint touch his throat only to be suddenly withdrawn, the death-blow aborted.

For a long moment, the sword hovered before his eyes; then Ava barged Tate’s arm aside and flung herself protectively across her husband.  At the sight of her, Karel Tate staggered as if struck.  The first human expression Arlan had yet seen crossed the knight’s impassive face; the look of a man hit by surprise with an arrow.  His mouth gaped and his eyes widened; his face, already pale, turned white as death.  In the next moment he had mastered himself; his mien turned again utterly calm.  But his dark eyes now burned with fierce intensity.  The effort of asserting his self-control was greater than the physical exertion of the fight; Tate leant heavily on his sword, studying Arlan and Ava on the ground before him.

The rush of relief after coming so close to death left Arlan stunned and breathless; he was aware only of Ava, crouching over him like a lioness at bay.  He could not recall a moment when he had ever seen his wife so beautiful, transfigured by her terror into a vision of desperate courage.

Very slowly, Karel Tate sheathed his sword. “You love this man?”

“I do.” Ava’s voice was harsh with emotion. “I do.”

She did not bother to threaten or plead; she knew Karel Tate too well.

“He is brave.” It was not a question; Tate met Arlan’s eyes and gave him again the minute nod of salute. “Foolish.  But brave.”

Abruptly, the Headsman turned and walked towards his horse. Glancing at Ava, Arlan saw that his wife was no less surprised than he, all her fierce courage vanished into bafflement.

“That’s it?” Ava scrambled to her feet, but did not pursue Karel Tate. At her question he stopped, his hand already on the reins of his horse. He turned enough to look at her, one eyebrow quirking again in that momentary almost-expression of mild surprise.

“Of course. I would not harm you.”

“But…” Ava could not frame the question, but Arlan understood, recalling the Headsman’s words right before the fight; none shall come against a knight in arms and withdraw unscathed.

“Honour is satisfied,” Tate said, and turned back to his horse.

Arlan touched his throat and found a tiny cut, wet with blood; the tip of Karel’s sword had nicked his throat.

At the sight of the blood on his fingertips, reality and volition returned. He climbed to his feet and stood beside Ava, watching as the grim knight mounted his horse. As he settled his feet into the stirrups, Ava suddenly ran to him. Arlan remained where he was; knowing nothing he could say or do would alter fate.

Ava stared up at Karel Tate. “You’re just going to ride away?”

Tate shrugged; his face a mask. “How many could I kill to win your love?  Go. Live.”

With that, he spurred his horse and rode away, gaining the trot and then the canter, fading like a ghost into the night.

Arlan put his arm around Ava, and they walked back together towards their house on the village edge.  The sound of the fight had woken their neighbours; Arlan saw curtains twitching in the windows as they passed, but no one stepped beyond the thresholds of their homes.

They had reached the doorway of their house, and were about to go inside, when they heard a distant sound; a man’s voice, howling once in anguish.  For the first time, Arlan realised how readily his wife’s name could be uttered as a scream.

 

Read more by Samuel Z Jones here: http://www.dekelliastravels.co.uk/

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