Crumbs For Crow: A Solstice Fairy Tale

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[This was another quick writing project that was done for the monthly challenge on http://www.fantasy-writers.org. I kept the working title as I liked it, but if anyone has a more appropriate one let me know. But first, sit back and have yourself a little slice of my dark, festive offering……]

Through the shifting halls of dream Sarah chased the echo of a small, tinkling bell. On and on amidst slumber’s oil-on-water realities until she cornered it in a hall of stone where logs crackled in a fireplace. She bared her teeth and growled, suddenly wary that what she pursued was behind her……

Her eyes snapped open and the dream shattered, fragments evaporating to leave only a trace of unease clinging to her like cobweb. She gritted her teeth and hugged her pillow, willing herself back to slumber even as she knew it was to be denied. The echo of that ringing bell played in the back of her mind. It would not be ignored, taunting her like a mocking gremlin.

Well, there was a way to deal with such gremlins, wasn’t there doctor? Her hand quested out toward the bedside table where a small plastic bottle stood lit blue-green by the digital clock. It was three minutes after midnight.

Sarah knocked back a couple of pills, swallowed them dry with a sense of vengeful satisfaction. The gremlin would rue the day as she settled to watching the minutes tick by. At some point her eyelids grew heavy, calm wrapping itself around her mind like a warm blanket. She drifted towards unconsciousness…..

Something creaked. A floorboard? Her ears pricked up, straining to detect the tiniest of hint of sound as a primordial instinct overrode her weariness. This intrusion she tried to force back down, telling her treacherous brain that it was just the house settling. To no avail

Sarah rolled onto her side, wide awake and angry. The numbers on the clock were fuzzy. She watched as they flick round, minute by minute, increment by increment. When it became unbearable she cursed and slipped from her bed, crossed the room and cracked her door open to listen. The house was still, but….. was that a voice? Someone in the living room? Maybe father…..

With no way to lure back the elusive spectre of sleep, Sarah slipped into the hallway and tiptoed along the plush carpet to where her sister’s door stood ajar. Sarah smiled. Mary must have snuck downstairs to check the presents. Her little sister was always worrying that they might disappear overnight, or that Santa might come early.

Sarah took a step down, then paused as she whispered to herself, “But who is she talking to?”

*  *  *

“What are you doing?”

Crow paused and looked over his shoulder. A girl in striped pyjamas stood behind him, a plate of mince pies held in her hands. These she promptly dropped as her hands went to the ‘O’ of her mouth. “W-what happened to your face?”

“My face? Nothing,” Crow replied, puzzled, then continued to sort through the brightly wrapped presents which lay overspilling from beneath the skirt of a grand Christmas tree. As he sifted, he stuffed his selections into a tattered sack. “It is the face I was born with.”

“But…. but you’re dead,” the girl whispered.

Crow laughed. “Dead?”

“L-look! Your hands!” She pointed.

Crow held up a long-fingered hand for inspection. “They appear perfectly normal to me.”

“Normal? But they’re all…. bony!”

“Ah, so you say,” said Crow with a dismissive wave, “But from where I stand, I am alive and you are dead.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” the little girl replied, then added, “And it’s not very nice.”

“Nice has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of perspective.”

“Per… perspive? What’s that?”

“It means that things are not what they appear to be.”

He stood and looked around. The room was a plush paradise of Christmas cheer, everything tinsel edged and bathed in the soft glow of red and green and gold lights. An infinite loop of festive songs played softly from some unseen device. Crow cocked his head at the little girl, then crossed the room to her. She shrank back, but it was only mince pies that he sought.

“Why are you wearing that old suit?” asked the child as Crow took to perching on an arm of a large leather sofa. He crumbled a pie into pieces and pecked at them. “And how did you get in here?”

Crow tapped the side of his beak. “Trade secrets my little one.”

Then he froze, his attention fixed just beyond the girl’s shoulder. She turned to see her sister standing with a kitchen knife levelled at the intruder.

“Hello Sarah – ”

“Stay behind me Mary!” ordered Sarah as she pulled her sister behind her.

“But – ”

“W-who are you?” Sarah demanded. Her eyes widened.“And wh- what the hell is wrong with your face?”

“It’s alright Sarah,” said the little girl. “He says he’s not really dead.”

“Dead? I-is that a mask?” Sarah asked, reviled. The knife shook in her hand. Fear rode up her spine, yet did not surface. She knew her father and other family were close. Just up the stairs. There was no way this….. man could get away. She had been about to shout for help but the twinkling stars in those empty eye sockets fascinated her, drawing her towards their light……

“No, it’s the face he was born with,” Mary explained, “And he’s taking our presents!”

“You’re a – a thief!” Sarah shot at him. She felt giddy. It was surreal, and that mask was just so revolting. Perhaps it was the medication? Adrenaline? Sarah whispered to herself, “This must be one of those waking dreams.”

“Ha!” Crow snorted. “Waking dream. Why not take that sentiment back to bed with you? It was all just a dream.”

“Because,” stated Mary, “I’m waiting for Santa.”

“Who?” Crow frowned. The girls stared at him, but his question seemed quite genuine.

“Really?” Sarah asked, knife still pointed at Crow. “You’re not joking, are you?”

Crow shook his head. “Should I know?”

“He comes down the chimney,” Sarah said, “And leaves presents for the children.”

“Oh, him,” Crow said and rolled his…. eye sockets. “He’s just a story, a fable.”

“No he’s not!” Mary stamped a foot. “I saw him.”

“No you didn’t,” sneered Crow. “When?”

“At the shops.”

“That wasn’t him.”

“I know that.”

“You do?” Crow cocked his head. “Then you know he’s just a story?”

“Don’t be silly. The one at the shops works for Santa. He can’t be everywhere at once until Christmas Eve.”

“Well that explains that then,” Crow drawled. “And thanks for the mince pies.”

“Those were for Santa!” Mary stormed.

“They’d only have gone stale!”

“I can’t believe this,” Sarah muttered as they argued. It was madness.

“It’s not your Christmas Eve yet,” Crow was saying with sad condescension. “It’s the holy Solstice, and the only one abroad tonight is me!”

He rose from his perching and hefted the sack over a shoulder.

“You’re not very nice,” Mary shouted at him.

“And you’re not taking those presents,” Sarah added as she stepped forward with the knife pointed at his chest. “There are several people up stairs. All I have to do is shout!”

“Pah! You think you can stop me?” Crow gave a nerve-wracking cackle.

“P-put the sack down and I might let you leave before I call the police.”

“I think not,” Crow snorted. “These gifts are for a special child. Besides, it’s not like you don’t have enough, is it now?”

“But they’re ours!” Sarah snarled.

“Listen children, what’s yours is mine tonight,” Crow said, taking a step towards Sarah so that the knife pressed against his chest, “But the child these are destined for shall praise the benevolence of your giving.”

He knocked the knife from Sarah’s hand with a quick slap, then swept an arm to encompass the room, the house. “Look at this place. This is an edifice to the modern day paradise achieved by your – ” and he coughed into his hand “ – civilisation.”

“Paradise?” Sarah frowned with a shake of her head. “What are you talking about?”

“Poor children,” said Crow. “You have no idea, do you? Of course not, you have been incubated in this little den without a want or a care. Fed three times a day, entertained and pampered.”

“You’re not very nice!” Mary said, her lip trembling.

Crow considered. “Not in your world I’m not.”

“And what the hell does that mean?” Sarah snapped, reaching the limit of fear and frustration. “Our world?”

“Like I said, you have no idea.” Crow grinned at them, cocked his head on one side. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return to the real world.”

“This is the real world,” Mary protested. “You’re a liar!”

“Never call me that!” Crow hissed and the twinkles in his eyes sockets flashed a cold blue. They both took a step back. “This is a world of falsehoods and deceptions! A world of mundanity and logic, a world of superstition and ignorance!”

The trembling lip broke, tears welled up and the little girl sobbed. “Why are you so mean?”

“Look what you’ve done,” Sarah sneered, pulling Mary close. “What kind of a man are you?”

“Man? I am far from being a man, and you may call me Crow.”

“You’re insane!” Sarah flung at him.

“Like I said, it’s a matter of perspective,” said Crow with a shrug, then he cocked his head in thought. “But perhaps I can show you, if you like? After all, I suppose I do owe you something for the presents.”

“We’re not going anywhere with you,” Sarah retorted.

“Well, I doubt you could handle it. The little one maybe, but you are getting a little old.” He cackled. “Would you like to come and see Mary? Just quickly though.”

“See what?” asked Mary.

“Why, the real world of course.” He extended a hand to her and the light in his eye sockets grew brighter with a twinkling lustre. As if in a dream Sarah saw Mary’s hand reach for Crow’s outstretched palm. She reached to grasp Mary’s shoulder just as the skeletal fingers wrapped around the tiny hand.

A little bell tinkled, and everything turned inside out.

*  *  *

Sudden cold. It was a slap in the face and Sarah went to her knees. Her stomach lurched and she retched into the snow.

“What…. what the – ”

“Here we are,” said Crow, pulling her to her feet.

“Where…..?”

“Sarah!” gasped Mary. “Look!”

Sarah stared at the hand holding hers. It was flesh and blood, and Crow’s face was no longer a bird’s skull. He was richly feathered in black plumage that contained faint traces of green and purple iridescence. His eyes were now full orbs, shining with intellect.

“Welcome,” smiled Crow, and as arm swept out to encompass a crepuscular winter’s woodland, “To the real world.”

Sarah gazed out across undulating waves of snow from which skeletal trees reach for the grey wash of the sky. The sun was a pale disc of silver low on the horizon. Occasional snow flakes drifted down.

“Now, bear with me,” Crow said, patting his tattered shirt until he found a key, gnarled with verdigris. He turned and popped it in the lock of a huge wooden door bound in blackened iron. As he did so, Sarah and Mary stepped back from the threshold to take in a large stone-rimmed arch set into a hillside, its rising flanks thick with trees.

Crow pushed open the door on protesting hinges and a wave of warmth and cheer flooded forth, immediately enticing: a feast was in progress, the air thick with the sounds of revelry and song, with laughter and the smell of roasting meat over wood fires. Fluttering notes swirled on the festive atmosphere and the throng within bobbed to its sweet melodies. Sarah and Mary were lured, pulled forward, but Crow suddenly barred their way. “Wait! I assume you know the rules?”

“What rules?” Sarah snapped with impatience.

“The rules,” Crow said. “Everyone knows the rules, yes?”

They shook their heads.

“Of course you don’t,” Crow sighed in exasperation. “Listen very carefully. These are the rules: Number one, do not drink anything. You’ll be tempted. Don’t! Second rule: Don’t join in any singing, especially if you feel you know the words. Got it?”

They both nodded, half hearing for eagerness to get within.

“Okay, last, and most important of all: Don’t eat anyone.”

“Anyone?” Sarah asked with a frown.

“Did I say that?” Crow looked suddenly shifty. “I meant don’t eat anything, even if you feel a ravenous hungry. Do you understand?”

They nodded again.

“Good.” Crow slung the sack over his shoulder. “And never let it be said that I didn’t warn you. Come on.”

Hand in hand the sisters followed Crow into the chaos. They bumped and shoved their way through the room, bedecked in gold and green and red, just like home, but if you had asked Sarah what made it different, she would have said that it was all so…… alive. There was no other way to describe the vivid richness, the overpowering lustre of everything. The gold on the candelabra, the jugs and plates and furnishings, it all shone like the sun while the evergreen of the great tree in the heart of the room blazed with indescribable vivaciousness. Everywhere flowed deep reds, from the drapes and upholstery to the garb and adornments of the strange assembly. It was the very colour of blood and danger, vigour and passion.

Sarah, breathless and giddy, lead Mary through the horde as Crow barged and elbowed forward, throwing greetings and replying to jests. She saw men with gnarled faces like tree bark who danced arm in arm with spry young women, their slender forms adorned in translucent green frocks and who sported delicate wings like lace. A man in a torn shirt turned a wolf’s head as she passed, his tongue lolling between sharp teeth. He winked with a lewd grin and Sarah felt a flush of heat upon her cheeks.

On and on they pressed until Mary’s hand slipped free and Sarah turned to see her sister giggling at the antics of a frolicking fool. He tumbled, shaking his bells, then conjured a red ribbon from behind the little girl’s ear. With a merry laugh the fool capered away through the gathering and Sarah pulled her sister after Crow, only to find him arrested by an old woman. Her face was hatchet sharp, her skin taut around a crescented nose while the deep set eyes blazed with the fire of knowing.

“Dear Crow, I see you have guests, hmmm?”

“Crone,” Crow gave her a curt bow. “Rest assured, they are here only for a brief visit.”

The crone scrutinised Sarah and Mary. “And just why are they visiting, hmmm?”

“Aha! It was merely a Solstice whim Crone.”

“As good a reason as any I suppose,” she cackled and waved them on. “The King awaits you.”

Crow nodded and moved off, but as Sarah followed the crone caught her arm to whisper quickly. “Be careful my dear, hmmm?”

Sarah mumbled a reply that was lost in the clamour as she stumbled after Crow, her senses reeling from the festive maelstrom around her. The heat, the noise, the commotion was overwhelming. When a small boy with little horns darted from behind a pair of furred legs and grabbed Mary’s hand, there was nothing she could do.

“Come dance with me!” he cried and Mary’s hand slipped away.

“Mary!” Sarah shouted, but her sister had already disappeared into the throng. She tried to pull Crow up but they had emerged from the press before a huge throne of carved wood and bone. Upon it sat the most corpulent man Sarah had ever seen, his skin a rich and vivid green, his eyes shining with mirth and delight. He scratched beneath his loin cloth and tore another chunk of meat from a long bone.

“Crow! My dear friend!” he boomed, laughing as he tossed the bone away.

“Sire,” Crow bowed. “I have returned as promised.”

“I see you have brought gifts! Pray tell me,” and the king leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin to whisper, “What have you brought my queen this year?”

“Surprises and oddities from the unreal world, my lord.”

The king boomed his laughter. “You never fail dear Crow.”

“One tries my lord,” Crow replied with a smile. The king turned his gaze upon Sarah and his face split in a lecherous grin.

“And what do we have here?” The green king licked his greasy fingers.

“My guest, sire,” said Crow. He drew Sarah forward. “A human woman.”

“My my my,” said the king. “She’s certainly a dainty little….. morsel.”

“Alas sire, she is not for the eating.”

“Ah, shame! And with her looking so young and tender!”

“Just so sire,” said Crow, inclining his head in agreement. “I thought she might benefit from some perspective, and thus did I deliver her to your magnificent court.”

“Ah, and rightly so dear Crow!” Then to Sarah he asked, “And how do you like my merry little gathering?”

Sarah sought words, found Crow’s elbow jar them out of her, “Er…. very much my lord. It’s…. er, very festive.”

“But of course!” boomed the king. “It is the Solstice, after all! The longest, darkest of nights!”

Sarah nodded and smiled vaguely. The Solstice….. she’d never really thought about it. Christmas was a time for family and food and presents, and she knew it got dark at winter. The longest, darkest night…. it seemed so obvious now.

“I didn’t know…..” she mumbled.

“Didn’t know?” and the king boomed his laughter again. “How strange you humans are!”

“As you see sire,” Crow explained, “She is pitifully ill equipped to understand the importance of such a time.”

“Alas, a sad fate for people who are so short lived,” the King nodded sadly, then brightened. “Still, I am sure that she will enjoy her time here! ‘Tis the Solstice after all!”

And he set about quaffing and gorging with fresh vigour. Crow steered Sarah away and let out a long, slow breath. “Well, that went well.”

Sarah rounded on him, nettled. “What do you mean, pitifully ill equipped?”

“Just a figure of speech,” Crow replied and rolled his eyes. “And after all, you really don’t know what the meaning of Solstice is, do you?”

“And why should I?” she snapped. “No one’s ever told me that it was the longest, darkest night.”

“Such is the fate of the civilised,” Crow replied as he skilfully lifted a steaming cup of wine from a tray borne on the raised hands of a very small waiter. As Sarah watched him drink, her anger subsided in the warm fluff of the gathering’s atmosphere. There was something that she had forgotten…..

“Mary! Where is she?” She grabbed Crow by his lapels, spilling his wine. “Where’s my sister?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s quite safe,” Crow said gently, prying Sarah’s hands from his jacket and finishing his drink. “Come, you must meet the All-Mother.”

“The what?”

Without answer they were once more whirling through the heaving mass of strange folk, those with horns and more than one set of eyes. Sarah passed a woman with six arms bedecked in charms and bracelets who combed the beard of a strange, stick thin man smoking a pipe while he described arcane gibberish with flourishes of his long fingered hands. Everywhere were such fascinating distractions that as Sarah sought the memory of something important, her thoughts became elusive starlings wheeling into the sky as she tried to grasp them. As she made another attempt they stepped clear of the crowd.

“All-Mother?” Crow asked, and Sarah’s focus landed on a large woman who reclined in indolent beauty, tumbles of golden hair rolling around her radiant face which shone with matronly warmth. She wore a soft, white nightgown that rested upon a landscape of curves, full and fruitful, her belly swollen with child.

“Crow, my dear,” she said in a voice like morning sunshine, “You have returned.”

“I have indeed my lady,” he beamed, dumping the sack on the floor, “And I have brought you’re progeny gifts of most outlandish oddity.”

“Oh Crow, why must you show off all the time?”

He bowed with a laugh, then pulled Sarah forward. “I have also brought a guest.”

“Ah, such a delight,” said the All-Mother who cast her benevolent gaze over Sarah. In those ancient eyes was such a depth of aeons that Sarah gasped.

“Oh, but isn’t she is a pretty one!” The All-Mother gave Crow a wry look as she added, “If perhaps a little unripe for your tastes. Still, I was wondering when you would take a wife.”

Sarah’s protest was cut short as Crow interjected. “Alas, she is merely my guest tonight.”

“Pity,” said the All-Mother, then addressed Sarah. “And how are you known worldly daughter?”

“Sarah,” and as Crow’s elbow sought her again she added a small curtsey, “My lady.”

“Welcome Sarah. Please, take you fill of our meagre fare. I would see you fed and refreshed.” She looked Sarah up and down. “Yes! You must eat heartily, for you are far too thin for the bearing of children.”

Crow laughed as Sarah’s mouth flapped in shock. “C-children?”

The All-Mother’s expression was all benevolence as she explained. “You have a rare gift, the gift of youth and a body that will give you great pleasure. Treasure it, but guard it well!” – and she beckoned Sarah closer with a finger as her voice went low – “for there are many abroad this night that would covet such a delectable prize.”

Then she lit up with laughter as soft as a silky thigh, as warm as fresh bread. Sarah felt her face flush with heat.

“Oh my,” said the All-Mother, taking Sarah’s hand.“You are a tender little one, aren’t you? Beware the appetites of one such as Crow. He can be a charmer when he wants to be.”

Sarah shot Crow a glance. “Er… yes. I’ll be careful.”

“Well then my worldly daughter, I fancy that you will enjoy the revels tonight. Eat, drink, be merry!”

And the All-Mother threw back a cup of wine and rubbed her belly with a smile of pure satisfaction. Crow drew Sarah away.

“Come, as much as she her hospitality is in earnest, it is nearly time to leave.”

“But……” Sarah tried to focus. “We can’t go yet.”

“It’s not a matter of debate,” Crow replied.

“But…. but….”

“But what?”

“I can’t remember.”

Crow shook his head and tried to lead her away. Sarah yanked her hand free and slipped into the mass of strange folk. She had to remember before it was too late…….

*  *  *

Sarah fled as the crowd pressed close, snatches of conversation in strange voices crowding her ears while the warmth was a haze that seeped into her very marrow. She was thirsty and giddy and she had to remember…..

A body, tall and wide, stepped back and she bumped into the posterior of a particularly rotund….. person? It turned around and said something from between curved tusks, it’s small eyes bright with curiosity.

“I’m sorry,” said Sarah.

“Ah, you… speech other?” the creature said haltingly. It frowned. “You are speak?”

“English?”

“Ah. Speaks English,” said the creature with a smile as an elfin lady laid a hand on its arm and inclined her ornate helm to Sarah. “Sorry my dear. It’s been a while since he was in your world.”

“N-no problem,” Sarah replied with a nervous smile.

The fey gave her a small nod. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’ve…. I can’t remember.”

“You look troubled. I find that a glass of spiced wine always helps me feel better,” and she plucked a steaming cup from one of the small waiters, then passed it to Sarah. She stared at the liquid within. There was something she had been told…..

But she was so thirsty. She took a long draught of the glorious liquid, felt the sweet liquor glide down to her stomach and her first reaction was to gasp in delight. Her second reaction was to hear her stomach rumble and she looked around for food. The succulence of roasting meat reached her and without another word she cut through to where attendants were slicing meat from something like a suckling pig. A platter appeared in her hands, and she was ripping at meat so delicious she thought she would never be satisfied…….

And all the time, in the back of her mind, a desperate need to remember something played over and over. Yet the revels had now swept away her fears, had swept away time itself and she lost herself to dancing, her voice lifted in a song that she had never heard but to which she knew every word. Her heart thundered, intoxicated with awe and madness and freedom as the crowd drew inwards to the great festive evergreen. It was the heart of the room, a magnet, a sink hole around which swirled the revellers. As they moved in rapturous dance they looped something long and bloody like a string of sausages over the branches. Sarah laughed at the blood on her hands, on her face. In her mouth she felt sharp teeth prick her tongue…..

Sudden silence, but broken almost instantly as a shuddering moan split the air. It was neither pleasure nor pain, but exultation! A great cheer of joy filled the room to the rafters, and Sarah howled with all her heart until someone grabbed her wrist.

Crow spun her around, his eyes bright with anger.

“I told you not to eat anything!” he hissed. “Come, we must leave now!”

“Oh Crow, leave me to the revel! Let me dance, let me sing!”

But Crow would not release her. “No! We must go. The All-Mother is about to birth the New Year!”

With a savage tug he pulled her away from the throng, back to the door as she struggled, but his grip was like iron. She wailed and thrashed as they reached the threshold of the hall, even as a great roar shook the very foundations. A sensation of pure awe and terror rode Sarah’s spine all the way to the tip of her tail.

“What is that?” she asked, but Crow wasn’t listening as he fought to push the great door open. A split second later Sarah was hurled into the cold, and her head swam so hard with the shock of the cold that she near fainted.

Overhead a great winged shadow blotted out the sky.

Then a bell rang, and the world turned outside-in.

*  *  *

Sarah didn’t retch, instead finding sudden sobriety like a hundred cups of coffee. The fog in her mind started evaporating and beside her Crow was muttering something about “damned time dilations.”

“W-what…?” she tried to ask, then stumbled into something large and red. It went over with a shout of surprise, arms and legs flailing.

“Must be Christmas Eve,” Crow remarked with a wry grin as he helped the fat man to his feet. To Sarah he shrugged and said, “Looks like I owe you an apology.”

But Sarah wasn’t listening, wasn’t looking at Santa with awe and surprise as anyone might have at such a moment. No, that expression was reserved for herself as she looked down at her own body.

“My…. my stomach!”

Crow shook his head. “Well, I did tell you not to eat anyone.”

Sarah, wide eyed, ran a hand over her swollen belly where it was rounded with child.

“Ho ho ho!” boomed the jolly fat man. “Congratulations!”

He rummaged in his sack and brought forth a lovingly wrapped gift box. “Looks like you have a bun in the oven my dear! Good job I’ve always got a spare present for those surprise moments!”

She took the gift from him in mute shock and he patted her hand with paternal care. Then with great gusto and laughter he swirled into a red vapour which disappeared into the fireplace. As he went up the chimney he gave a final, merry, “Ho ho ho!”

Sarah stood stunned. She had eaten….. a platter of meat. She recalled it’s taste, it’s succulence! Her memories were bubbling up into clarity. She had danced and feasted, and she could recall the sharpness of teeth…….

The words of the song sprang into her mind:

Here come our earthly sisters, oh! Tonight for the Midnight Sun!

Here are the earthly sisters, oh! Come to us for some fun!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

Here come our earthly sisters, oh! Solstice night for a little girl!

Here she is a sweet sister, oh! On the spit and all a-twirl!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

Here she comes our sister oh! Pieces on a plate for you and me!

Here she is our earthly sister, oh! Wrapped around our tree!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

The meat…..

It hadn’t been a suckling pig, had it?

“Mary?”

“Well, it appears that Santa forgot his pies,” Crow said, picking up the plate. “Waste not want not, eh?”

“Mary…..?” Sarah’s lips quivered. The meat, the ribbon on the meat, the decorating of the tree. Her head turned to the family tree. The tinsel looked like it was…. glistening. Sarah sank to her knees, eyes wide, mouth slack with shock but no matter the revulsion and nausea she could not vomit.

Crow swept the crumbs into his hand and threw them into the dark maw of his beak, then came to Sarah. He pulled a small bell from his pocket, then patted her belly and gave a cackle.

“Blessings of the Solstice to one and all!” he cried with hearty cheer, and gave his bell a little ring. He vanished, leaving Sarah amid the soft glow of red and green and gold light as festive tunes played softly in the background.

On and on, in an infinite loop……

THE END

© David J Cambridge 2018

Happy Solstice!

DJC


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The Wonderful Mr. Valentine

If I may, I’d like to take a break from the usual today, and instead ask for a moment of your time to tell you about my dear friend Paul Valentine who recently passed away.

In the tapestry of one’s life, there are many threads, and some are dull and some are necessary, but there are also those that shine all the brighter for the mundanity of the rest. Paul was one of those bright threads in my life, and although his parting might leave a hole, his influence will always be intertwined with my past.

I first met Paul as a lecturer of anthropology at the University of East London, and if memory serves me correctly he started us on the introduction to theory. Little did I know what I was in for back then. I’d set out on a quest to understand humanity and just what the hell was wrong with us. To that end Paul would come to surpass dry academic theory, but it would take a little time before we became friends, and at first there were times that he totally bamboozled me with his attitude. I’d never met anyone quite like him.

I once turned up at his office to ask him a question, and he totally ignored what I was saying and proceeded to make a great show of exchanging a proper greeting. It was awkward, but as I thought about I realised that he was right. There was always a reason and a meaning behind his actions, and I think that he was at his most pointed with you when he felt you weren’t living up to your potential. This started out academically, and as one of my fellow anthropologists pointed out, “I could handle him being angry at me, but just not his disappointment.”

He could be a hard task master, but he was a great lecturer and although theory can be dry and boring, Paul had a way of bringing it to life by launching into explanations of “now you’re his brother, and imagine that she’s his sister and you want a wife.” Then there were the stories he would impart to us. One day we were sitting in class, going through a reading, when Paul puts the book down and says, “Listen, this is really important…..”

And he launched into a story of when he was doing field work in South America, amongst the Kuri Paca (sorry, that’s probably totally wrong but I can’t find the correct spelling anywhere), armed with a Samsonite briefcase to keep everything dry, clad only in a pair of speedos due to the humidity. He lived in one of the catholicised villages which carried on more traditional lives compared to the protestant villages.

So, every now and then, a priest would come down the river in a little boat and visit the village, and on this one occasion he was accompanied by two nuns.

According to Paul the Kuri Paca women walked like men, from the shoulders rather than the hips, but in observing the gait of the nuns soon caught onto the more alluring style of locomotion. The men of the village all approved.

Then the priest would launch into a lecture, telling the village that he came from this big world “out there” and that they should stop smoking (as it was bad for their health) and they should build more fish traps (so they had a surplus). Then he and the nuns got back in the boat and went back up the river.

As the priest sailed away the shaman of the village got up and said, “Everyone knows the world is small.” Heads were nodded and everyone went back to doing what they had been up to before the priest arrived. Paul explained: no one was going to quit smoking because the native tobacco they used was thought of as sacred medicine, and they wouldn’t build any more fish traps because they had no way to store excess produce, and with the rains on the way the fish traps usually got washed away, so it woud all be a waste of effort.

So they tolerated the priest, thinking him quaint. Sadly the FARQ guerillas didn’t like westerners and the priest was one day found floating in the river. A sad end for a man who had been regarded as mostly harmless. So Paul was forced to leave his fieldwork and his field work and the people he had befriended.

Such were the stories he had to tell, a treasure trove of life experiences. I never got tired of hearing about his adventures as over the course of two years Paul became more than just our lecturer, he became our friend when the core of the class organised an after-term holiday. We booked a Cornish B&B in the summer of the second year and invited our lecturers to join us.

Paul accepted and came along. Of that time I remember so clearly walking along the Lizard with him, an ice cream in his hand and a huge smile of total satisfaction on his face at just being out in the sun, strolling along. He looked like a school boy, but sometimes it was that love of life that could make him turn suddenly and stop you cold, and he’d tell you directly that you mustn’t waste your life being unhappy. He wanted you to strive to make the most of it, and he’d tell you straight to the face even if it hurt your feelings.

Over the years that followed I learned many things about life in general, and Paul taught me about humility and intellect and direction. He always had a deep fascination for  people, about what was going on and had a keen mind for probing them. When he met a contortionist the first thing he asked her was “what’s the smallest thing you’ve ever got inside?” Turns out it was a washing machine.

I recall at the same solstice camp he asked me for pen and paper, then drew out an economic diagram highlighting the fallacies of austerity all the way back to when it first started. He would smile and say, does that make sense? I nodded. Totally. “Pity,” he said, “because  the Chancellor doesn’t seem to understand it.”

Then one year at the solstice he was attacked by a Druid. A Druid! We were at Avebury and they were having some sort of internal political conflict about leadership, and one of them wanted to bust into the performance circle. Paul, dressed in a tiger suit/onesie, told him he couldn’t let him pass, and so the druid bonked him on the back of the head with his staff. Assaulted no less!

Camp was a focal point for my time with Paul, and I find it hard to believe that so much time has passed since Paul gave a talk there about cannibal practices because some of it found it’s way into the series I’m still writing now. Well, it was a topic Paul had been reluctant to discuss because of the stigma that went with it, but he was preparing for a presentation and so wanted to do a run through of it. We were a willing audience who came down to the fireplace to sit and listen to him. It was fascinating. The tribe would make whistles out of finger bones of their victims and play them, a proclamation that they were in possession of the deceased’s “rotten soul”. They believed that people have multiple souls, and the rotten soul was responsible for seeking revenge. Essentially it was a way of saying “you’ll never get me back.”

Yet, for all that he could be a serious and consummate scholar, Paul had this mischievous side to him, and a devilish way of saying the most outlandish things. It was almost as if he were conducting an experiment to see how someone would react, like telling the waitress at the cafe we were at about his startling encounter with the hand dryer which had been inconveniently triggered in the confines of the lavatory, his tone totally earnest and innocent. He was so cheeky and impish that there was no way to take offense. Somewhat taken aback, she apologised for the inconvenience, then started laughing along with us.

At other times he would catch you by popping out a question that had come to him, probing you with an existentialist question like “there’s got to be something more beyond the end of life, don’t you think?” and you would be in the middle of some mundane thought, suddenly caught totally off kilter as you tried to catch up. 

As to the answer to that question, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that it’s just a change of state, a change in being, and that part of us goes ever onwards, exploring.

And so where ever Paul is now, I can see him journeying through the stars, a huge smile of boyish delight on his face, rejoicing at the wonder of it all…..

Until we meet again, farewell. None of us will forget you.

Peace.

Irrevenant: Part 1

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Dear Reader, here is a little tale that was accomplished in short order, perhaps 10 days with only one round of edits and revisions. In this respect you have become it’s beta readers, and I apologise in advance for any mistakes made.

It was essentially done for a bit of fun and comic relief from the every day affair of working on manuscripts, blogs and biographical memoires. It is likey to appeal to fans of Terry Pratchett and is not meant to be taken seriously.

If you enjoyed it, then please like and share, or leave a comment and tell me what you think.

[EDIT: a big thank you to my friend Collette for pointing out many of the typos]

IRREVENANT

The Reawakening & Subsequent Adventure Thereof Regarding the Most Stubborn of Bastards, Thaadrek of Clan Ushentharl, mightiest of all the Clan Chief’s in the Great Northern Wastes & His Most Irreverent Warband of Misanthropes, Outcasts & Assorted Individuals Both Human and Otherwise . . .

by

David J Cambridge

2018


A Beginning

(Of sorts…..)

The Most Imperious and Hallowed Omnifex, His Holiness Yladiel Astingius Patrelleaux reclined upon his ivory throne and cast his gaze upon the Legate, his eyebrows arched as if perpetually surprised to find a deed most foul besmirching the sole of his shoe. His expression remained for the entire minute it took the man to come flapping up the candlelit isle, his holy robed billowing, sandals smacking against the bare stone.

Breathless and trembling, the Legate bowed under that aloof disdain of one so infinitely superior, and for all that the man upon the throne was not physically intimidating – being that he was twig thin and bald unto a soft gleam – the Omnifex emanated an aura of cold command that chilled the heart and turned bones to jelly.

“And?” The single word was sufficient to send the Legate to his knees.

With a quavering voice the man replied. “All preparations have been completed for the scouring of wrong-doings, the castigation of the unworthy, and the purification of all that is tainted due to the imminent rise of the full moon upon this unhallowed Midwinter.”

“Very good. And?”

“Unto the very limits of the Blessed Realm have our messengers delivered the Holy Writs informing all blessed Ears, Eyes and Hands of the punishment due to those who engage in frivolity and laxity at a time of such inauspicious and imperilling cosmic alignments.”

“Excellent. Continue.”

“Continued, my lord?”

The Omnifex craned forward with a stare that was like a spear pinning the man to the floor. “You are my Legate, are you not?”

“Yes lord.”

“Then why are you here provisioning my ears with your babble?”

The Legate jumped up. “I am departing immediately my lord.”

“Excellent. You have my leave,” said the Omnifex with a casual wave of his hand.

“Yes lord. Sorry lord. Blessed be the Triune!”

“Blessed be the Triune,” replied the Omnifex, leaning back once more.

The Legate scuttled off as fast as his bandy legs could carry him while the Omnifex pursed his lips and steepled his fingers in contemplation. Midwinter, such a dangerous time when planets and stars aligned in conjunction with the full moon. Such were the mysteries and tests of the Triune’s cosmos, and woe betide any who failed in their vigilance at such a time.

After all, anything might happened on such an unholy night.

CHAPTER I

The Awakening

There is a time and a place to do things, a time and place when the barriers between this life and the next grow thin. Thus, under a full moon on a Midwinter’s night when the stars were in the right place and the planets aligned just so, three men met in a graveyard with everything they needed for an unholy ritual: one spade (freshly stolen), one finger (freshly cut from a hanged man), thirteen black candles, a hefty bag of chalk dust, and one rather scrawny chicken.

The wind moaned long and low…….

“That’s the village cockerel,” Brother Burlev spat, breath pluming in the cold night air.

“Is it?” Brother Asteg held it up by its neck and examined it.

“You berk,” Brother Yeshin cuffed him round the head. “Don’t you think they’ll notice when the morning comes up?”

“I said get a chicken,” said Burlev, grabbing Asteg by the front of his robe and pressing their faces together. Asteg suddenly felt just a little bit sweaty.

“Cockerel’s a chicken, right?” Asteg whimpered. Everyone paused to think about it.

“He’s got a point,” Yeshin shrugged.

“Yeah,” Burlev growled, “But just not THAT chicken!”

“Ha, bit of a cock up eh?” Yeshin sniggered. The two men turned their heads to him. The vein in Burlev’s temple was starting to throb, and his eyes had that red wide, angry look about them. Yeshin’s smile fell, vanishing.

“Well, too late now,” Burlev said as he let Asteg drop to the floor. The cockerel, sensing a sudden lessening in attention made an attempt at escape. Unsuccessfully. It did however managed to lose half its remaining feathers. “Come on,” Burlev waved them onward, “We don’t have all night.”

So they slunk through the shadows with appropriate sinister shiftiness, towards where decaying crypts perched on a ragged cliff edge to overlook the tempestuous ocean far below as it whipped itself to white foam. When they reached the bottom of the hill Burlev, party leader, chosen of the mistress’ coven, and by day respectable pillar of the community of St. Esticaria paused. He cast an eye behind them to make sure no one had witnessed their passage and was satisfied that no one was out taking a midnight stroll in the graveyard on an auspicious Midwinter’s midnight.

“Come on,” he growled. “We don’t have all night.”

“Which one?” wheezed Yeshin as he humped the bag of chalk.

“The one at the top. It’s the oldest.”

“How did I know you were going to say that.”

“Stop complaining.”

“Why don’t we swap then?”

“Cuz,” said Burlev, smartly cuffing his colleague, “You picked the short straw.”

Yeshin stopped dragging the bag along and blew on his hands. “How about you just take a turn and I’ll carry the spade and candles.”

“How about I smack you over the head and leave you to the sodding crows?”

“How about you do that?” Yeshin dared to retort. “Then you’d have to drag the bag up there and carry the other stuff too.”

Burlev considered this new dimension to the problem. “Okay, see where ya coming from. Asteg, give him a hand.”

“What about the chicken?”

“Just keep hold of the cock with one hand and grab the sack with the other.”

“Yeah, that’s just what ya wife said yesterday,” Yeshin grinned, then jumped back as the spade came whistling towards him. He bumped into Asteg who let out a curse as he dropped the chicken. The poultry promptly fled up the hill. A moment later it decided that it would take its chances with the ragged ocean’s fury rather than the three men advancing with the intent of doing evil unto its body, so it leapt.

The wind moaned long and low……

Together they stood on the lip of the cliff and Burlev was of a mind to toss both his companions over the edge and go home for tea. But the Mistress wouldn’t be very happy about that now, would she?

“What are we gonna do?” asked Asteg with a sniff as he wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve. Burlev gritted his teeth, considered what it might be like putting a knife somewhere inconvenient in Asteg’s person, but decided that the dark powers would probably be offended if he attempted to substitute a lesser offering like Asteg instead of the chicken.

“What’s the big deal anyway?” muttered Asteg. “What we need the chicken for?”

Burlev and Yeshin stared at him until Yeshin said, “What do you think it was for? When you call something from….. you know….” – his voice dropped to a whisper – “the otherside, well you need to give ’em something to sate their hunger.”

“What their hunger?”

“Sate! As in, to appease it,” Yeshin explained.

“So why didn’t we bring peas?” Asteg said, scratching his head.

“Shut it!” barked Burlev. “We need to find another offering. Any ideas?”

* * *

If you were to be unfortunate enough to be clinging onto the edge of a precipice with a fiery oblivion below you would almost certainly think twice about letting go. But it wasn’t just the doom that awaited him that kept him holding on for the past five hundred years. Oh no, it was sheer stubbornness because no one got the best of Thaadrek of Clan Ushentharl, mightiest of all the Clan Chief’s in the Great Northern Wastes.

Sure, they’d managed to kill him in the middle of the night, but he wasn’t counting that as a victory for their side. He’d had a lot of time to think about it and this is how he saw it play out in his mind.

A wagon rolls through the barbarian’s territory loaded with barrels. It’s guarded by a company of Hands, the soldiers of the Triune. They looked nervous, and Thaadrek smiles to himself. Like beasts these men feel the primal instincts stir at the presence of unseen danger. The bloody work takes but a moment after the horde arise from hiding and descend upon the prize. The barrels they take back to the village and proceed to enjoy the fine vintage that is contained within. Oh cruel trickery though, for the enemy has no stomach for the heroic deeds of mortal combat. Instead they have suffused the wine with a soporific and while the village lays insensate with sleep, the Triune’s assassin’s creep into the village and do the dirty deed of ending the Clan’s resistance. Thaadrek, with the constitution of a bull still kills three of them before they bring him low.

No, he wasn’t counting that. There was fighting dirty and then there was being a bunch of chicken shits.

Worse, when he awoke not to his own promised and glorious afterlife but rather the Burning Hell promised by the Triune he had been filled with an enduring cold fury. So he had grasped the ledge in perpetuity, a fiery oblivion below and a churning maelstrom of cloud above. With the passing of time he had given him the situation not an inconsiderable amount of thought. There was one conclusion that he had arrive at regarding this unfortunate turn of affairs.

In defeat he had allowed the Triune to extend the dominion of its (so called) Blessed Realm not only over his people’s lands, but over his people’s spirit world as well. This meant that all his people, his kin and clansmen, had gone into the Triune’s Burning Hell. His enduring cold fury became an icy resolve. Thaadrek would not follow, and if there was one characteristic that the relevant people who were asked might say about the once famed barbarian warrior Thaadrek of Ushentharl, it was that he was, without a doubt, most certainly, the most stubborn of bastards. So he clung to the precipice and prayed to the Old Gods that he might right this wrong. By barbarian logic he could see clearly just what it was that he would do to free his people. All he needed was one chance.

When it came, he would take it, and then there would be…… consequences.

* * *

Skiela Drum lay in the darkness on her bed, stomach grumbling from lack of dinner. Beyond the large sheet that served as a thin partition between bedrooms she could hear her father explain just what had occurred today in the market and contemplated the question of why adults were incapable of believing anything that they were told by children.

“….. and when I turn around she’s only talking to the Grand Ear of the Triune as he’s sauntering down the street!”

“What? Why?” her mother asked, voice trembling.

“Bold as you like starts talking to him, telling him that she’s heard this talking crow! A talking crow! And how it’s been saying that the Grand Ear is really deaf as a brick privvy, and a pompous old windbag to boot!”

“By the Burning Hell!” said Skiela’s mother, and she could well see the colour draining out of her mother’s face as the Catechism of Preservation began to roll off her tongue.

“So,” her father continued, never to let another’s discomfort keep him from embellishment, “Like I says, she goes and tells him to his face!” – the words of the Catechism increased in speed and fervour – “And thank the Blessed Protector that the bastard really is deaf, because he’s looking like he was about to send her to the pickling vats there and then!” – her mother actually paused in breathless terror – “But I grabs her and spin out a yarn about how she had overheard old Mr and Mrs Shebbins talking all that blasphemy. He turns red and the sends me over to give the scrivener the details. Ha! Expect they’ll be getting a little visit tonight, mark my words. That’ll teach ’em for stealing my spade.”

Her mother doubled up her prayer, and Skiela could hear the creak of the bed frame as she rocked back and forth. She was probably as astonished and disgusted as Skiela by the satisfaction in father’s voice.

“Triune’s sake woman, knock it off,” said her father.

“You’re truly a reprehensible man,” her mother hissed. “We’ll both be for the pickling vats if anyone finds out.”

“Just keep your mouth shut then.”

“What about Skiela?”

“I’ll have a word with her in the morning. If she keeps up this nonsense she’ll get a good thrashing. That ought to set her mind right.”

Her mother began to weep, but her father just ignored it, rolled over and went to sleep. Skiela listened as he mother’s sobs faded, and she waited in the darkness, mulling over the problem. It was simple. Adults just didn’t have the brains to understand that she had quite clearly witnessed the bird speaking. Why was it her problem if she told the truth to the Ear? They were the ones who were supposed to sort these strange occurrences out, weren’t they?

There was only one thing for it. She would have to go out tonight and find the evidence. That’d show all these damn adults that she wasn’t to be trifled with, all four feet of her with her messy blonde hair and big, blue eyes.

Once she heard the snores next door she was up and slipping into her coat and boots, then out the door and into the dark streets of the village. She’d have to be careful not to get caught by the night watch, otherwise it’d be a flogging, but they were slow and stupid…… like most adults she added.

Anyhow, she’d done this before and she wasn’t afraid of anything.

Out into the dark then, off to find that talking bird.

* * *

“Right, what does it say on the instructions?”

Brother Yeshin, the only one capable of reading (and rightly proud of the fact) guided the other two in the layout of the arcane ritual. The pentagram of chalk dust came first, then the candles accompanied by the requisite ritual mutterings, then finally the finger. Typically rather a rare commodity in the peaceful town of St. Esticaria, the brothers had the good fortune that the Holy Triune’s Holy Writs were in effect. The Grand Ear was here, listening for whispers of dissent, while the Grand Eye scrutinising the masses for signs of deviancy, and finally the Hands were generally acting like thugs with privileges, going around being obnoxious until some poor sod lost his patience and snapped, earning him an instant free ride on the twon gallows. After all, such inauspicious conjunctions demanded extra vigilance against the ever wayward commonality and their grumbling attitudes towards their superiors, thus provisioning those in occult circles nicely.

“How in the Burning Hell does a finger open a door to…… the other side?” Asteg was asking as Yeshin produced the offending digit.

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” growled Burlev.

“Yeah,” Yeshin rolled his eyes. “It’s magic, ain’t it.”

“Oh, I see,” Asteg nodded. “Makes sense.”

“Right, let’s get this ritual started. Then we can get our new servant of the Burning Hell back to the mistress.”

All three quivered in excitement. This could get them more than just a nod of recognition, oh no, this might get them privileges.

“Yeah,” sniffed Asteg, “I’m sick of cleaning out the privy every time you lot take a dump.”

“Quiet. Brother Yeshin, is all prepared!”

“I require only the offering Brother Burlev!”

“I got it here somewhere,” muttered Asteg, patting his pockets. The other two glared at him. “What?”

“Just pass that to Brother Burlev,” Yeshin said. “Right, where were we?”

“I said,” Burlev said through gritted teeth. “Is all prepared?”

“It is indeed Brother Burlev.”

“Then let the summoning begin!”

And with great pomp and ceremony did they recite verse most diabolical.

* * *

Thaadrek felt a tingle. He focused on the sensation. It was the first truly novel thing that had happened in years. What did it mean? Was something happening? Were his muttered prayers to the Old Gods about to give him a chance at redemption, at revenge?

Above him the maelstrom of cloud churned and tingled of lightning flashed within.

Thaadrek grinned.

“Come, show me the Bloody Path once more, and I shall reap a road all the way to the heart of the Triune’s Blessed Realm!”

As if in answer, the thunder peeled.

* * *

The night watch sauntered past Skiela’s hiding place, two of the towns less reputable middle aged men deep in discussion over the finer points of which tavern provided an adequate ration of beer to water set against the relative cost in coin, and following inebriation why it was that women found the former’s charms irresistible a moment before he broke wind loudly.

“Damn bean stew,” he muttered.

“You need to watch that,” said his companion. “I heard that them vapours can be caused by evil spirits.”

“What? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Sure it does. They get in the beans, see?”

“How do they get in the beans?”

“Well, you know, they…. inhabit them.”

“Why would an evil spirit inhabit a bean?”

“Well, when you put it like that, I’m not sure,” and the man scratched his head. Then an idea came to him. “Probably afflicts them like a pox when they’re hovering in the air…..”

Their voices drifted off into the clear, cold night and Skiela Drum kept to the shadows, searching and searching for that elusive bird. It wasn’t long before she caught its silhouette against the moon. She approached slowly, like a cat stalking a mouse, to where it perched on a wall with its head cocked, watching her slow approach with a hint of amusement.

“Not you again,” it sighed.

“You got me in trouble,” she hissed.

“Did I tell you to go talking to that pompous windbag? No, you went and blurted it out, right to his face! Oh my life girl! Are you trying to get yourself pickled? It’s a damn good job that the bastard really is as deaf as a doorknob. And damned lucky your father was there.”

“My father – ”

“Is also a pompous windbag,” the crow interjected. “I heard he was busy today dropping someone else in the proverbial dung-heap for what you said.”

“It was you who said it first!”

“Oh no I didn’t!”

“Oh yes you did!”

The crow was about to reply when it cocked its head towards the mouth of the alleyway Skiela had entered. A split second later she heard the tramp of boots on cobbles. The watch were coming back and she was in a dead end with no where to hide. If they looked this way then she’d be done for. Trembling, she saw the two men step into the moonlight, the closer man’s head turning as suddenly someone said.

“You pillock.”

“What did you just call me?” the man turned to his companion.

“What? I didn’t say nothing.”

“Yes you did, heard you plain as day.”

“You must be imagining it. I haven’t said a word.”

“So what, I’m delusional am I?”

“Probably them beans again. I warned you, didn’t I?”

“Oh, so I’m talking out my arse, am I?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time……”

And so it went. While they argued Skiela had climbed the wall and slipped into the higher shadows, following a dark shape as it fled over the roof tops.

* * *

Something was ascending from the Burning Hell, rising from the depths of oblivion towards Thaadrek. Hanging upon the precipice he could feel the shuddering of the infernal mantle, the cacophonous roar of those in torment like the wail of a a thousand demon mothers giving birth to a thousand misbegotten spawn……

Whatever it was that had escaped the clutches of the pit was headed towards him, a black spot against the bright flames, but surely he was not its intended target. He looked up and saw that the churning storm clouds of the underworld were being drawn up into a whirling funnel, but by what means he had no notion. Below him the black spot was resolving, coming up quickly now and it was not a moment longer until Thaadrek made out the fine features of a young woman, eyes closed and long hair billowing. Her face had a serene expression like she was savouring a rare and delightful aroma……

She was close now, and as she rushed toward him he tensed, then launched himself into the void and caught hold of her as she passed. For a moment he was afraid they’d both go plummeting into oblivion but the invisible force was like a rope hoisting them ever up towards that swirling vortex in the sky.

Into the portal they went, and there was a dislocation of thought and feeling, quickly followed by an awareness that he was suffocating, as if forced into garments far too small for him…….

* * *

“Did it work?” asked Brother Yeshin.

“How should I know? Candles went out.”

“Hang on.”

A match flared, bringing with it sparse illumination. Asteg let out a shriek of horror and they all turned to look at where the finger lay on the floor, stretching and distorting, pulsating and growing rapidly. It was crawling like a caterpillar, then Asteg’s shriek turned to a startled cry of pain as he burnt his fingers.

“Light the sodding candles!” Burlev shouted, spade drawn back in preparation of any necessary swatting to be done. From the direction of the finger came some rather nauseating and disturbing sounds as Asteg struck match after match to no avail. Then something shuffled near Burlev and he let fly with a cry that was half manly roar and half girlish squeal of fright.

“Bloody Hells!” Yeshin shouted as he pitched over in the dark.

“Hurry up Asteg!”

“Yeah, before this bastard kills me by accident!”

There was the sulphurous fizzle of a match and Asteg hastily lit a candle with a shaking hand, then another off that and raised them together to get a good look at the where the crawling finger had been.

“Quick! Find it!” Burlev shouted. They began a frantic search of the crypt.

“Over there!” Yeshin cried, pointing. It looked like the stump of an arm disappearing behind one of the musty sarcophagi. Spade at the ready the three advanced, candles held high, but when they looked behind the sarcophagus there was nothing.

“Where is it?” hissed Burlev as he swept a candle back and forth. In the jumping shadows something was moving, but it was hard to pinpoint where.

“It sounds like it’s getting bigger,” Asteg whimpered.

“Man up!” Burlev snarled, trying as much to convince himself as the others, “So it grew an arm. It’ll need more than that to take on all three of us.”

Burlev’s search came full circle and what he found would have unmanned the sturdiest of souls, for it was now towering before him, a pale revenant shaped like a giant of man, muscles on his muscles with smouldering, dark eyes. It was also totally naked. With a cry that was more surprised panic than savagery, Burlev swung the spade. The revenant caught it and wrenched it from him as simply as if taking a toy from a toddler. Yet it did not attack, and Burlev’s wit, which was a notch above his cowering brothers, kicked in a moment later. “Quick! Bring the offering!”

Yeshin shuffled forth and the cheese was passed to Burlev who promptly proffered it to the thing before him.

“Isn’t it supposed to say something like what is thy bidding?” hissed Yeshin. Burlev shrugged, prodded the cheese at the creature and said, “Maybe it’s not hungry.”

The revenant stared from the sweat beaded face of Burlev to the cheese in his hand, then back. When it spoke it had the voice of a gathering thunder-head about to break. “That is a piece of cheese.”

“And by its power do I bind thee!”

The revenant frowned, then roared with laughter. The three men quailed as the sound echoed in the hollows of the crypt, and watched dumbfounded as the creature handed Burlev the spade and turned to leave, laughing all the while.

“Wait!” blurted Burlev. “I forbid thee to depart!”

His words failed to produce any reaction and the creature, still chuckling to itself, strode out of the crypt, up the stairs and into the moonlight beyond. The three brothers looked at each other.

“What do we do now?” asked Yeshin.

“We better go after it,” Burlev replied reluctantly.

“Did you see the size of its – ” Asteg began, but Burlev cut him off. “I don’t want to even think about it!”

“And it’s damn cold too,” Yeshin remarked.

“Well, at least it didn’t kill us and eat us,” sniffed Asteg as they shuffled up the stairs. “Or it could, you know, have had its way with us and all…..”

“What?” Yeshin frowned and shook his head as if to clear it of any unwanted images. “Why would it want to do anything like that to us?”

“I heard about it from the mistress,” Asteg replied with a touch of pride at his depth of knowledge. “I heard them from beyond the grave has ape-tights, you know?”

“It’s ‘appetites’ you idiot! And I told you that piece of cheese was a bad idea,” Yeshin cuffed Asteg around the head as they emerged into the moonlight. “Obviously not fresh enough.”

“Ouch!” Asteg rubbed the back of his head. “That cheese was almost fresh. I only had it in my pocket since yesterday.”

“Clearly it’s not the freshness,” said Burlev, scratching his chin, “It’s the vintage.”

* * *

The three men departed, and in their wake the darkness gave rise to a vaporous apparition that slipped from the shadows behind a sarcophagus, its form that of a naked woman, her hair a long cascade and her eyes the blank white of blindness. In the silence of the crypt she drifted across the floor, through the stone works to where the cheese lay, her dainty nose twitching as it unerringly drew her to the discarded cheese. With relish, she drew a deep breath, inhaling its aroma. The cheese visibly diminished in size. Delicious. She drew another long inhalation and devoured the cheese with relish, her form attaining some greater sense of solidity.

It was the first sustenance she had had in a good half dozen decades, but the passage of time was akin to the fuzziness of an alcoholic’s morning after. The thought at the forefront of her mind was that it had been the aroma of cheese that had drawn her back, yes….. because, because she had been…… what? A cheese maker? No, that didn’t seem right. She cocked her head and cupped it in the palm of her hand as she searched her thoughts. It was as if she’d awoken from a dream, only to find herself still in one. Who was she? Where was she? And why did she have no clothes on?

She remembered…. ah yes…. being blind. Her nose and ears were her guide. That was why she had definitely not been a cheese-maker. But she knew about cheese. About the way it smelled. And that had something to do with those three men that had just left. She had a clear sense of them in her mind, their distinct minds and the flow of their thoughts…….

The idea seemed to trigger others, the memory of blindness recalled to her the feeling of wearing a strip of cloth across her eyes. With it came the renewed sensation, so real, as if…..

She put her hand up and felt the cloth. So by extension, if she thought about clothes…… and the feeling of a garment draped her.

Who am I? That was the question that went with what am I?

If only she could remember. There had been flames and screaming, hadn’t there? Yes…..

But any time to think on it further was curtailed by a distant sound caught on the edge of hearing, the blood curdling bay of hounds on the loose, and even as an apparition her body trembled. So up the staircase she fled, following her ear and nose to the rich smell of freshly dug graves, the cold chill of a woodland, the voices of three men discussing what to do about the spirit they had summoned.

The howl went up again, closer this time.

She fled on towards those voices, seeking the veil-thin safety of company.

* * *

“Watch out!” hissed the crow.

Skiela threw herself into the shadows as a squad of Hands marched past, between them Mr and Mrs Shebbin. She could hear the eldsters complaining about the roughness of their man handling.

“….. and if it’s about that spade, I told you, I never touched it.”

“Shut up!” barked the sargeant. “This is about blasphemy.”

“But spade theft isn’t blasphemy!” protested the old man.

“No, but calling the Grand Ear a pompous windbag is! So get moving. It’s the pickling vats for you two!”

“Hold up!” Mrs Shebbin protested, trying to dig her feet in without success. “It’s none of my business if my husband’s been saying such things! Serves him right, that’s what I says, but don’t be taking the innocent to punishment!”

“Wife! How can you betray me so?”

“Because you’re the one what stirred up trouble with that Mr. Drum in the first place, calling him a smelly footed turnip molester.”

“I see,” said the sergeant. “So, you have form for this sort of behaviour.”

“No no no,” replied Mr Shebbin. “I said he was an dung eating arse canker.”

“You’re not doing yourself any favours here,” said the sergeant.

“In my defence sergeant,” explained Mr Shebbib, “It was only cuz he says I stole his spade. I’m innocent!”

“You’ll have your chance to plead your innocence later.”

“But we all knows what that means!” shouted Mr. Shebbin. “Ain’t no one innocent before the Triune.”

“So are you admitting to the theft of the spade?” asked the sergeant.

“NO!”

“Well, the spade’s immaterial anyway,” the sergeant waved it aside. “I’m taking you in for blasphemy.”

And he marched them off pronto as the crow hopped down onto the barrel beside her. “Ha, that you father’s handiwork, is it?”

Skiela was frowning. “It’s not right.”

The crow seemed to shrug. “Such is life.”

Skiela was about to pursue the squad, and the crow thought about letting her confront them while it slipped away, but….. “Hey! Don’t be a knucklehead. You’ll be lucky if you just get a flogging for breaking curfew.”

“I’m not afraid of them!” she announced, standing up straighter.

“Yeah, you won’t say that when they put the red hot irons on the soles of your feet and ask you what you know. You’ll be singing like a lark about that spade, I can tell you.”

“Oh yeah, how would you know?”

“Because,” it said as if rolling its eyes, “I’ve been up on the windows of the Triune’s temple. I’ve seen what they do in there with all that castigating and flagellating and purifying.” And it ruffled its feathers as if shivering. “Trust me, you don’t want to know the details.”

They looked at each other for a moment, the girl pouting and defiant, the crow wry as it said, “Anyhow, you’re welcome. Now, why are you still chasing me?”

“I want you to come and see my father.”

“No chance,” and the crow hopped aside as she lunged for it. “What’s the windbag want with me anyhow?”

“They don’t believe me.”

“Probably for the best,” said the crow. Skiela lunged again and the chase resumed as they headed towards the edge of town. Two minutes later the crow was perched on the high wooden palisade staring down at her.

“Leave me alone,” it said. The girl was certainly tenacious, the crow would give her that, but it was getting annoying now.

“No!” she stated, stamping a foot.

“If you don’t stop I’ll…. I’ll – ” Then it stopped and cocked its head as if listening.

“You’ll what?” Skiela demanded.

“Shhh! Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“Something……” and the crow hopped into the air, calling back to her as it headed toward the woodland, “I’ve got to see this!”

“Hey wait!” But the bird was gone.

Skiela pouted, but was not going to be dissuaded from pursuit. Of course she knew where there was a hole out through the palisade that the gates-men didn’t know about. A few moments later she was chasing after the crow into moonlit woodland, breath pluming in the chill of the night. But it wasn’t the cold that gave her the shivers, it was the unearthly howling that rode the air.

And even Skiela Drum, afraid of nothing, paused for just a moment before plunging on into the moon tinged tree line.

* * *

As Thaadrek entered the woodland the three men in black robe dogged his heals with entreaties to halt, but it was not their words that drew him to a halt. He cocked his ear at a sound all too familiar and altogether not of worldly origin.

“Ah…. finally,” wheezed Burlev as they caught up to him. He spared them the briefest of glances, then shrugged and continued to walk. A chorus of protests followed in his wake, and as their repeated entreaties for him to halt failed to elicit any response what-so-ever, they instead opted to arm themselves with whatever improvised weapons they had to hand: one spade, recently stolen, a gnarled tree branch and the half empty bag of chalk dust. One minute later the dust was settling and they lay on the forest floor in a variety of poses with a variety of black and blue hues swelling in lumps across their personages.

Thaadrek, framed by heroic moonlight, thrust the point of the spade into the ground and looked down at them with a mixture of pity and contempt.

“Attempt to stop me again and I shall not be so gentle.”

Burlev, sprawled sideways and half up a tree trunk did manage to raise a hand as he wheezed, “Understood……”

The next howl split the night open and all three men were quickly crawling, limping and shuffling past Thaadrek who stood and stared with a sense of deja vu. The woman who had provided his escape from the infernal precipice was once again approaching him at high speed.

And hot on her trail three hounds of grotesque aspect and improbably large build, with shaggy ruffles on skinless bodies the colour of dried blood and orange fire burning in their eye sockets.

Thaadrek rolled his shoulders and strode forward, thrusting the woman behind him and blockading the path with his considerable frame. The three hounds slowed, paused to assess the threat and growled with malice.

“Come! We shall begin the bloody path this night,” and then Thaadrek roared mightily as he leapt naked into the fray. The spade rose and fell, and blood and meat began to fly. Jaws snapped shut upon the haft and Thaadrek released it so that he might wrestle the beast to the floor before pulling its legs off and giving the final hell beast a savage drubbing. It alone fled whimpering back the way it had come as the two dead slowly dissolved like red candles in a fire.

The mightiest Clan Chief of the Great Northern Wastes reclaimed his spade, recently stolen, and planted it point down between the brace of his legs and roared at the fleeing creature.

“None shall catch me napping again!” and he spat upon the ground.

A wry voice interjected, “Yeah, but they might catch you with your trousers down.”

The revenant did not so much turn as swivel, fixing his eyes upon a small girl that had burst from the undergrowth. She was staring in open mouth awe at the scene. A flutter of wings announced a large, and somewhat smug, crow in the branches above her.

“Who,” Thaadrek point a finger at the crow, “Are you?”

When it simply cocked its head and did not answer he snarled like a angered wolf and the crow ascended a branch or two as it answered, “How about a little you show me yours and I’ll show you mine?”

“You may address me as Thaadrek. Your name crow or I shall enjoy you as a quick repast!”

“Murph,” said the crow.

“And you girl?”

“She’s Skiela Drum.”

Thaadrek nodded. It was as it should be.

“I might add,” said Murph, “That you might want to pop a loin clothe on or something. You know, minor’s present and all that.”

Thaadrek ignored him and turned to the three robed men who were approaching, much chastened. Behind them came the apparition of the young woman. Everyone stood in awkward silence.

“Well, what happens now?” asked Asteg.

“I am for the Bloody Path,” stated Thaadrek.

“Sounds lovely,” said Yeshin as Burlev stepped forward.

“We was supposed to take you to our mistress.”

“If she requires an audience, then she must come to me.” That appeared to be the end of the matter as far as Thaadrek was concerned. He pointed to the apparition. “You, woman, who are you?”

“I… I cannot remember my name.”

“You were summoned by these fools?”

“Hey, who you calling a fool?” Asteg protested, then met Thaadrek’s gaze. “Forget I asked. Obvious really…..”

“I think so…..” said the nameless woman. “I was somewhere bright and dark at the same time…. And hot! Filled with pain….”

“You escaped the Burning Hell,” Thaadrek said and explained what he had seen. Everyone gaped in awe. “And so I grudgingly acknowledge that even these fools have played a part in our regaining of freedom.”

“You’re welcome,” muttered Burlev.

“And where do you go now?” asked the woman.

“Where ever I must to find recompense against the Triune.”

And with that Thaadrek made to leave.

“Wait,” called the apparition. “What of us who also bear grievance?”

“What claim do you make?” Thaadrek asked as he stopped and stared down at her.

“I was burnt at the stake,” said the apparition, shivering. “I was a diviner, a tyromancer.”

“A what?” Asteg interjected. “A tyro-what?”

“A seer of the cheese,” Thaadrek nodded, “An unraveller of paths. Will you join me upon the Bloody Path?”

She nodded. “It is only right that the dead return for vengeance. Beside, I have nowhere else to go…..”

“I am pleased to have a companion on the path,” Thaadrek said, nodding ever so slightly.

“Yeah, and they took Mr and Mrs Shebbin away when they hadn’t done nothing!” added Skiela Drum. “It ain’t right.”

The crow rolled his eyes. “Hell’s Teeth girl, isn’t it time you went home to bed?”

“I’m not going unless you come with me,” and she crossed her arms.

“You bear a grudge against the Triune?” rumbled Thaadrek.

“No,” said Murph.

“Yes!” said Skiela.

“Then do you desire to walk the Bloody Path with me?”

“No, she’ll sod off home and get some bloody sleep.”

“I was not,” growled Thaadrek, pointing a finger, “Talking to you.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Murph, dipping his head. “Fair enough. My mistake.”

“I shall join you on the Bloody Path,” said Skiela.

“You can’t be serious?” It was Burlev’s turn to interject. “He’s talking about murder and mayhem. You’re just a little girl.”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” she stated, three feet tall and staring down a grown man.

“I am pleased to welcome you to my war band,” saidd Thaadrek. “We shall meet the enemy standing tall and heap great ruin upon them!”

“Warband?” Burlev said, holding up a hand. “You can’t go to war with just three people? What do you think you’re gonna achieve?

The revenant fixed him with those smouldering, dark eyes as the moon shone through the tips of branches above to cast crazed shadows over his face.

“They have a god,” said Thaadrek with a grim smile. “I shall kill it.”

An Ending

(Of sorts…..)

A week later the Legate scurried with all due haste into the presence of the Most Imperious and Hallowed Omnifex, His Holiness Yladiel Astingius Patrelleaux who leaned forward in his chair and fixed the quivering man with a penetrating stare.

“And?” The Legate fell to his knees.

“Sire, the scouring of wrong-doings, the castigation of the unworthy, and the purification of all that is tainted was duly delivered unto the masses as per your instructions.”

“And?”

“I err…. that is…..”

“Speak Legate, or I shall have your tongue removed and pickled so that it may reside beside your bed as a reminder of your procrastination.”

“Y-yes s-sire.” The Legate was nearly horizontal on the cold flagstones now. “I regret to inform his holiness that I received a missive from St. Esticaria.”

“And?”

The Legate produced the rolled paper and cleared his throat. “To whit, that upon the most auspicious and unholy night of the full moon one week past the Grand Ear of Esticaria did receive rumour that abroad that night were a host of unclean and malicious spirits.”

“And?”

“He was pursuant of all rumours and with the assistance of both the Grand Eye and our holy Hands, they did extract from the local peasantry a list of all possible demons, phantasms and familiars whom did cause much commotion within and without the precincts of the town, thereby disrespecting all Triunic Authority and compliant with none of the Holy Writs.”

Head bowed the Legate approached and passed the Omnifex the parchment. He perused it for a moment then sat back with pursed lips and steepled his fingers together. “These are most disturbing of tidings that you deliver Legate.”

“Yes sire. My apologies.”

“What measures have been taken?”

“Measures sire?”

“What has been done to apprehend and punish these miscreants and their demonic summonings?”

“I….. er, your servants remain on high alert sire. Companies of Hands are scouring the countryside as we speak in an attempt to root the unclean from their hiding places.”

“Yet this missive Legate,” purred the Omnifex, tapping the parchment with a bony finger, “Claims that the barbaric apparition bested a squad of our men during what is described as a ‘raid’?”

“Er…. yes sire, that is, well – ”

The Omnifex cut him off. “Beside the questionable notion that one man constitutes a ‘raid’, might it be that if a squad of the very Hands that are supposed to apprehend it can be so easily bested, that it need not concern itself with concealment.”

“Sire, surely the efficacy of our Hands in number will suff – ”

“And if they do not?” the Omnifex asked, the volume of his voice increasing by but a fraction. The Legate trembled, now just a puddle upon the floor. The Omnifex sighed. “It would appear that I have no option but to summon the Winnower and her cohorts.”

“But sire – ”

“Summon her. Now!”

“Yes sire,” the Legate replied, peeling himself from the flagstones. “I shall see to it immediately.”

“Very good,” purred the Omnifex as he closed his eyes for contemplation, thus allowing the Legate to escape without further scrutiny. Once beyond the doors of the Omnifex’s chambers the legate let out a long breath and hastily muttered a prayer.

“Bad meeting Legate?” asked the Hand guarding the door.

“Ah, yes. I am…. er, I am to summon the Winnower.”

“The Winnower?” the guard said, turning white as he made a warding sign and muttered a quick prayer. He watched the Legate shuffled off and thanked the Triune that he was just a guard, because if there was one person that everyone feared more than the Omnifex, it was the Winnower.

Her and her merry little band of merciless, deadly and holy eliminators.

© David J Cambridge 2018