Doll House

“What’s happening Urs?”
With a sigh, Ursula of Welf clunked her dolls down on the stone floor. Turning from her beloved doll house, she rose on tiptoes to lean across the broad sill of the window. Craning her neck and squinting her eyes she identified the figures on the other side of the bridge below.
“It looks like Mama and the king are still talking.”
“Is she standing or kneeling?”
“Kneeling of course, Matteus. He is the King! She’s kneeling on both knees.”
She’s not kneeling, she’s begging.
Matteus would have spat if he could. Instead he weakly shook his head on the plump goose down pillow.
“He is no more a king than a goat in the mountains. No one here believes he is our monarch. Everyone in Bavaria supports uncle Henry. King Henry the Lion. King Conrad doesn’t even sound right…” he trailed off in frustration.
“Mama’s standing up. The k…he’s patting her on the shoulder.”
“Like patting a dog” muttered Matteus. “I’m sorry Duchess Uta” he mimicked in an aristocratic manner. “But your husband and his pesky brother have opposed me for the last time. I will be taking Weibertreue as my own, and those inside will be put down as the dogs you all are.”
“Don’t say that Matteus!” squealed Ursula.
“Well what do you think he’s going to say Urs? Uncle Henry and father have been causing him trouble since grandfather died. Running him ragged through all of Bavaria. That buffoon has the support of the treacherous princes, Rome itself. He can do what he likes now that he’s caught up with them.”
Ursula looked over at her bedridden brother, her eyes shining with moisture.
“Don’t say that Matt.”
Matteus managed a thin and unconvincing smile, regretful at the words which had escaped his bitter lips. Ursula was only ten, five years younger than he. Still a child. And his only regular companion.
His sister had no idea of the politics of war. No idea that Conrad, camped outside the castle for ten days, had run out of options. Their father, Welf VI, and uncle, Henry “the Lion” had defied him for months. Their refusal to forfeit the castle of Weibertreue must be infuriating Conrad. Surrounded by his inactive and frustrated troops, he would be forced to take the action of a king, whether a rightful one or not. Matteus knew what his little sister did not. The siege would only truly be over when their brave father’s head sat on the point of Conrad’s battle pike.
Ursula had returned to play. Matteus watched her golden ringlets bobble as her wooden dolls engaged in tea parties and small talk inside their beautiful home. The doll house, an heirloom passed on by their grandmother, was his sister’s whole world. Within its gloriously lacquered doors, its sumptuously decorated walls, Ursula’s dolls lived their lives without conflict, hatred or fear. Without the reality of war and the inevitability of death.
Ursula herself had somehow carried the heavy blackwood house up the steep stone steps to his room. Although she was good enough to keep her invalid brother company, her most prized possession had to come up those sharp stairs as well. Matteus remembered the tantrum she’d thrown when they were forced to take refuge in Weibertreue. Having to move quickly before Conrad’s advancing army, Ursula refused to budge until one of her father’s men agreed to strap the doll house to his back and bring it along. More than a pretty wooden doll house to her, it represented her hold on childhood. It held her dreams, her imagination and her innocence.
In the ballroom of her little house, Lord Applehead and Lady Lavender laughed and danced their wooden waltz, while across the grey bridge outside their mother begged for the lives of real people inside the walls to be spared.
Mostly confined to bed for the best part of two years, Matteus’ mind had grown sharp, nurtured by the words of Lords and Generals, while his body paled and weakened beneath the covers. He’d deduced the almost certain conclusion to the situation they were now in. Conrad would allow the women to go free-it was unlikely the new king would want to be known as a murderer of women. For the men inside the castle however, there was no hope whatsoever. Conrad would not be allowing any of them to oppose him in the future, and to make sure of it, all would be slain. Matteus accepted this readily, a simple and logical reality of war. He did not blame his father, he could not. Welf was brave and honourable. His father Henry the Proud, the rightful king, was stripped of title, land and wealth in a coup by the corrupt princes of Bavaria, who promoted Conrad III in his place. Henry’s sons, Matteus’ father and uncle, supported by the Saxons, continued the resistance to the injustice their father had displayed until his death the year before.
Nor did Matteus fear death. Since being struck down with the sleeping sickness, he expected the Reaper to come for him sooner rather than later. Barely able to move, let alone fight with the others, he saw himself as no more than a burden. If he hadn’t been born the son of Welf VI, he would have already been left behind as a liability.
Ursula giggled. Lady Lavender had once again fallen in love with the handsome Lord Applehead as she did on a daily basis.
Matteus smiled sadly, a hard lump in his throat. Very soon his sister would be forced into a very different reality. With her father, uncle and brother gone, she and her mother would most likely be forced into the servitude of their enemies. The elegant polished doors of her doll house would close on her innocence forever, either reduced to the kindling of a victory fire or worse for Ursula; claimed by one of Conrad’s brood-a child’s spoil of war.
He closed his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to contain his tears. When he opened them again Ursula stood over him, eyes also wet.
“What’s wrong Urs?”
“You’re crying Matt!” she said hoarsely. “You never cry.”
She stared at him as though seeing him for the first time. When she spoke again, her voice sounded as fragile as the most delicate crystal.
“You never cry. You’re so courageous. So strong.”
Matteus frowned up at her. Courageous? Strong? Was that what she really thought? Foolish girl. He felt neither, and cursed not only his escaping tears, but his part in stealing from his sister’s childhood. He couldn’t stand the distraught look on her face another moment.
“Look again Ursula! Tell me what you see” he demanded.
Reluctantly she turned away from him and hoisted herself up to the window ledge. The sun was beginning to set, bringing the light stinging cool of the evening breeze across her reddened face.
“What do you see Urs?” asked Matteus, taking the chance to wipe his eyes on a nightshirt sleeve.
“Mama is returning.”
“How does she carry her head?”
“What?”
“Is her head up or down?”
“Down. And she’s walking really slow. Like an old lady.”
Matteus hated the thought of his proud mother being forced to beg before the false king. His sadness escalated with frustration and resentment. He formed a tight fist, surprising himself with the surge of strength.
“Oh!” Ursula put her hand to her mouth.
“What is it Urs?”
“She fell.”
Matteus closed his eyes, jaw set tight as he shared his mother’s anguish. The response to her desperate plea had been as he expected.
“They’re helping her back across the bridge Matt. Do you think she’s hurt? She looks like she’s sick.”
“Urs, listen to me. Mother will need you once she gets back inside the gates. Fetch a blanket and go down to her.”
“But she has her ladies with her.”
“Trust me Urs. She will need you. Go to her right away. Give her a big hug. An Ursula hug.”
His sister edged uncertainly towards the door.
“I’ll be fine. Just go. Give her a hug. From both of us.”
Ursula darted to the bed and pulled his blanket a little higher.
“Thank you” said Matteus quietly. For a thousand reasons.
She backed towards the door, unable to decipher the strange look on his face.
“I’ll be quick. I’ll take her a big warm blanket. Give her an Ursula hug.”
“A Matteus hug too.”
The gold ringlets bounced lightly as she nodded. “I will.”
Screwing her face into grin she slipped through the door. He almost laughed aloud as he heard the heavy bolt slide across.
That suited him just fine.

As her slippered feet descended the stairs, Matteus pushed back the covers. He swung his thin legs over the edge of the bed, feeling the blood surge through them. They tingled as sensitivity returned to them. Carefully he pulled himself up, wobbling unsteadily for a moment before shuffling unsteadily to the window.
In the valley below the crimson banners of Conrad fluttered boldly over his vast encampment. To the south east, Weinsberg lay dark and silent, most of its inhabitants now within the tall arms of the castle. The town had been decimated, reduced largely to ash and rubble by the zealous hordes. Conrad had attacked Webertreue fiercely as well, pelting the walls with cannon fire until he realised its trapped inhabitants presented no real threat. To continue attacking would simply be damaging an asset he was to acquire soon enough anyway. Matteus knew from the moment his father had ushered the last of the townspeople inside that despite their brave obstinacy, Weibertreue would not be their salvation. It would be their tomb.
Conrad’s men occupied most of the plain back to the river Sulm. Since the start of the siege their numbers had swollen, as soldiers facing death had swung their allegiance to the side with the obvious advantage, joining the king’s platoons who had rejoined the main body of men. But not only fighting men filled the trampled fields below. Matteus heard musicians, those of bow and lute and drum, using song to amuse the restless throng. Cooking fires crackled, the slaughtered beasts of nearby forests roasting on spits. No doubt to be accompanied by the famous wines of the valley, plundered along with everything else of use. The voices of women carried on the sunset breeze, supplemental to the camp with their cooking, mending and nursing. A particularly high pitched laugh reached his ears, and Matteus presumed there were also women present to indulge other interests of the soldiers. The fifteen year old was aware not only that such women existed but also how they eased the tension of men. And though he would never himself experience the charms of such a companion, here, on the last night of his young life, the thought held no remorse for him. Only one regret hung over him and he spurred himself to action because of it.
From under his bed he extracted a coil of coarse rope. On the fifth shaky attempt he managed to throw it over the heavy wooden roof beam.
Concentrating hard, he fastened the rope so it would not, could not give way.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Ursula made her way down stairs; past soldiers and villagers who a week earlier would have dipped their heads in courtesy and now did not. She reached the store cupboard which held sundry bedding but found it bare. With a shrug of her small shoulders she closed the door, taking a step toward the next flight of steps leading down to the front of the castle. Then she stopped. Instead, she turned the other way, padding softly along the corridor to the gallery above the dining hall. Using the broad stone pillars for cover, she edged along the gallery to a place she had once used to sneak a look at a reception for her grandfather. There was a spot between a large earthenware vase and one of the pillars that someone very small could squeeze into. Here she secreted herself and waited.
A few minutes later the doors of the great hall swung open, allowing entry to just three people before closing again. Peering over the low bottom edge of the railing Ursula saw her parents in a deep embrace. She bit her lip for not following her brother’s instructions, wondering if her father’s hug was anything like an Ursula hug. But if she’d met her mother at the gate Ursula couldn’t have been privy to the meeting in the hall below.
Uta broke from her husband’s embrace and prostrated herself before Henry the Lion.
“Please Uta. Get up.”
Quickly she did, throwing herself into his arms as she had Welfs.
“There there’ cooed Henry, straightening her up.
Now Ursula could see her mother’s tear streaked face. Her stomach lurched at the sight. It was like looking at a stranger. Unlike her father-prone to emotional outburst, Uta had never shown weakness and it scared Ursula, gripping her insides with icy fingers of fear. The large empty hall carried her unsteady voice easily to Ursula’s hiding spot.
“He is past talking my liege. He seeks no more parlay. No more negotiators from within Weibertreue.” Her words shook with the trembling of her body.
“Conrad says his patience is worn to its end. That ten days is ample time to surrender a struggle that cannot be won.”
The Duchess of Welf dropped her head.
Her husband reached forward, gently raising her chin. “Go on Uta. Continue.”
“At first sun tomorrow we have but two options” she said quieter. “Open the gates. Or not.”
Ursula’s hands gripped the railing tight. She remembered the joking words her brother had said. Imitating the fake king with that silly voice. Words too terrible to be anything but a bad, bad joke.
“If we open the gates, his troops will not storm straight in. They will allow the women to leave unharmed. Only the women. They may cross the bridge and be free.”
Now Ursula was shaking too.
“Then Conrad’s men will enter the castle and put every man to the sword.”
A joke, thought Ursula. They will take them prisoner, surely. Their families had been friends. Her aunty had married Conrad’s brother. She wanted to run to her doll house and be in a world where it always worked out. Where you could start again the next day no matter what. There had to be a next day. There had to be a next day for her father.
“If the gates are not opened at the trumpets of dawn, he says he will knock them down. If he is forced to do so, no one inside will be spared. These are the only two choices.”
“The monster!” snapped Welf.
“A firm hand clapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s over my brother. We no longer have the numbers to oppose him. The arms to oppose him. The supplies. We have no choice but to open the gates. This outcome was always a possibility Welf. You know that. Uta and the other women did not take up arms. Their hands are clean of this. They do not deserve our fate.
Shoulders slumped, Welf nodded. “Yes Henry. I know. At least the women and children will be spared.”
Uta fell forward, shaking her head. Trying to form words through her sobs.
“Uta! Our sons Uta? The young ones?”
Her mother’s words were too quiet to hear. Perhaps they weren’t even spoken. But her mother’s head, like a metronome on her father’s chest. No. No. No. No. No. Henry dropped to his knees beside them.
No male was to be spared. Not just the men. The boys. The babies.

Ursula pushed herself out of her hiding place. She fell backwards, her head hitting the flagstones with a crack. Ursula didn’t care if they heard her. She scrambled to her feet and ran for the stairs.
She struggled with the bolt, finally sliding it free.

Hanging from a beam was a length of rope. She ran to the window it led to and looked down. A frayed end showed her the rope had snapped ten feet below the window. Another sixty feet down the surface of the moat water lay black and still in the creeping shadow of the castle.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

His eyes opened to an unfamiliar ceiling. Matteus watched it waver in rippled torchlight. His entire body screamed at him in pain except the lower part of his left leg which he couldn’t feel at all.
“Hello young man.”
He managed to roll his head in the direction of the old woman’s voice. She sat near him on a low wooden stool. A long white shawl covered her head and shoulders, over a simple dark dress.
“Try not to move. You have a broken leg. Possibly a broken back as well. My men pulled you out of the moat. They think you were trying to kill yourself.”
“I didn’t j—j-j jump.”
“I know. I saw the rope. You were trying to climb down. You fell.”
“The rrr-rope.”
“Yes Matteus. It broke.”
“You know my name? How?”
“I was at your christening. I haven’t seen you for a long time but I knew you when you were very young. You haven’t changed much.”
“I’ve been sick.” His voice was thick with blame. The woman paused at his accusatory tone.
“It looks like it. Which leads to a very interesting question. Why does a sick young boy try to climb down from the clouds and into the arms of a man sworn to take his life.”
“I need to speak to your son.”
“Oh, so you recognise me?”
“Y-y-yes. You are Agnes. Wife of Frederick I. Conrad’s mother.”
“King Conrad.”
“He is not my king. Nor even yours.”
The woman’s eyes widened a little. “Not our king? I’m afraid you’re wrong about that. Conrad was crowned by the Princes of Germany.”
“The corrupt Princes! Cheats and thieves. Traitors. My uncle has the support of the people. Surely that makes him a more worthy king than your son the charlatan.”
“You have found your strength quickly Matteus of Welf. That poor little body hides the heart of the lion.” She rose from her seat with a wry smile. “And the mouth of a crow.”
Matteus tried to sit up, indignant at the insult. The pain forced him back down.
“Is that how you would address the King of Germany?”
“No. But it’s how I would address your son.”
Agnes smiled more genuinely. She walked to the door of the tent. Looked out at the long twilight shadows.
“What do you wish to say to him, Matteus?”
“That is between he and I.”
Agnes laughed softly. “You are very brave for one so young. I admire that. But Conrad will not meet with you. His wishes are known. The King has spoken.”
“He is not my king.”
“I’m afraid he is Matteus. No matter what you may think, how you may delude yourself. Conrad is King and does not wish to debate with his enemies any longer.”
“Then I will speak to him as his subject.”
Agnes laughed. She turned back to him. “There is nothing you can say to him Matteus. He has decided. This is the way of things. You have come for nothing but to lose the life you would beg him to save.”
“I did not come to beg for my life. I know that to be futile. I am not oblivious to the ways of siege and war. Nor do I beg for the life of any other.”
“Oh? Then why are you here?” asked Agnes in surprise.
“Because of my sister. Ursula.”
Agnes walked back to the stool and sat down. She leaned forward.
“Go on.”
Matteus licked his dry lips. Looked into the eyes of the King’s mother. And told her about a ten year old girl and a doll house. Agnes listened intently. When he finished speaking she rubbed one eye with the back of her hand. Then she stood, smoothing her gown. She gestured to the guards across the room Matteus hadn’t seen.
“Pick him up. Bring him.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Ursula sat numbly on the floor. She stared straight ahead in shock. Lord Applehead and Lady Lavender stared back with glassy button eyes. Mechanically she picked them up by their stiff legs. They danced.
The dance of no tomorrows.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

They stopped before a wide black marquee. Matteus knew the significance. The King took the black tent as a symbol to those inside the castle. Game over. Conquest. You lose.
“Stand him up.”
The guards lowered Matteus onto his good leg. One of them wedged a crutch into his armpit. He swayed, gasping a painful breath of cold air.
“Can you walk in?”
“Yes” he winced.
“I’ll bet you can. Listen to me young man. I can open the door for you but beyond that I cannot guarantee anything except your almost certain death. The king may not even see you. If you do get a chance to speak, chose your words well. Do not waste them. Are you ready?”
“ May I ask one thing first?”
“What is it?”
“Why are you helping me?”
Agnes looked at him thoughtfully.
“I doubt that I’m helping anyone right now. Except perhaps myself” she shrugged. “But I’ll tell you one thing Matteus of Welf. If I had a brother..” She paused, glancing toward the castle which was now steeped dark in shadow. “..like you Matteus, I do not believe that kingly qualities are only held by those beneath a crown.” Agnes leant to his ear. “And, if I had an older brother, I would be honoured to have one such as you.”
With that she stepped through the flap of the tent. Her guards held the doorway open so Matteus could hobble through.
The King and a tall armoured man leant over a long candle lit table. Maps and charts lay unfolded across it, illuminated by fat flickering candles. Conrad looked up; tired eyes behind bushy brows complemented by a coarse beard.
“What is it?” he growled.
“Your majesty.” Agnes bowed low before her son.
The armour clad man turned quickly at the interruption, as angry as the king looked fatigued.
“Who is this?” he demanded angrily.
“This is Matteus of Welf, Captain Berkemmer” announced Agnes calmly.
“What?” he roared. In one swift action he drew his sabre, pointing the tip towards Matteus’ chest. “You dare bring the son of that dog into the King’s presence? Against his orders?”
He raised the sword, touching it against the boy’s throat. A thin line of blood trickled from it. Matteus didn’t react. He concentrated on not letting his battered body fall forward.
“Piece of shit” sneered Berkemmer. “You should be trembling in fear before King Conrad.”
He kicked away the crutch with his boot. Matteus collapsed, a shallow wound opening across his throat as he slid along the blade and to the ground. He howled in pain, the broken bone protruding through the flesh of his lower leg.
“Tell me…. Captain…….” panted Matteus. “Is your king a…… good man?”
“How dare you! Of course he is a good man! The best of men!”
Matteus raised his eyes to the fanatical soldier. He drew several more quick breaths.
“Why should I fear the best of men?”
“You!…” Berkemmer lifted his sword. Conrad grabbed his wrist, preventing the strike.
“No. He is a cripple Berkemmer, unarmed and on the ground. And yet he has bested you in moments with mere words. We will keep some honour this day.”
The red faced Captain angrily resheathed his sword as his King stepped past him. He squatted in front of the boy, looking over his thin figure.
“So you are the son of Welf VI? The nephew of Henry? You prove your bravery is beyond them both simply by being here. Or perhaps you share their foolishness.” He looked up at his mother, trying to read her implacable visage. Without breaking eye contact he continued.
“You have one minute before I turn you over to Captain Berkemmer.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

There was a thud against the gate of Weibertreue. A guard checked through a small viewing window. Two soldiers were retreating back across the bridge. A misshapen object lay in front of the gate, a note pinned to it. The guards had heard that Matteus had gone missing. With trepidation one of them squeezed through the barely open gate. By torchlight he bent to the small figure. The fluttering fire revealed the bloodied corpse of Welf’s son.
“Fetch our lords. It’s the boy.”
Gently he scooped up the battered body, carefully carrying it inside the castle. Placing Matteus on a low pallet, he fetched cloth and water. He attempted to clean the boy’s face, but had done little to hide the butchery when hurried footsteps arrived.
Welf pulled him away from the body. “Matteus” he sobbed. Uta appeared at his side and fell to her son as well. Eyes wide and fixed in shock, she reached for the parchment attached to him.
“Matt! Is it him? Matt!”
“Keep her back” growled Welf. He spun his head to the sound of his daughter’s voice. His face softened in grief. “No Ursula. You cannot see him this way.”
Obediently she ceased to struggle with the arms that restrained her.
Uta unrolled the page. Those near her could see the red wax seal of Conrad on it.
“What does it say Uta?” whispered a voice that all in the castle knew. It was Henry that held Ursula still.

Men of Weinsberg this is your fate. Your stubborn, and foolish leaders, not I, have led us all to this
outcome. Unfortunately neither of them possess the bravery nor the honour of this boy. He made one selfless request which in respect I concede to grant. Upon leaving the castle, the women of Weibertreue may take one personal possession each. No weapons. No jewellery. No baskets, bags or carts. An item which they carry by hand. All other conditions remain.
Conrad III.

Uta rose and turned to her daughter. “He did this for you Ursula.” She covered her face with her hands for a moment. Their hopes had turned to muddy nightmares but her sweet son had brought some humanity back to the valley of Sulm. Standing next to his corrupted body, she formed an awkward smile. “Matteus.”
Ursula could not see her brother clearly, but what she could was ragged and red. Her uncle stroked her hair, she like one of her dolls in his large hands. A large crowd had formed, standing in silence around the men they had followed without question up to this point. But here among them, the charismatic Henry and the passionate Welf were no more than mere mortals. Their tears fell just the same. Their pain just as deep. At sunrise the women would be clinging to their trinkets while the ground ran red with the blood of their fathers, their husbands. Their brothers and sons.
Welf met the gaze of his brother, the familiar glint of steel in his eye.
“Send the women to gather what they chose Henry. Let us see what weapons we can gather.”
“Welf!”
“I will not give my life without a fight! I will not stand by while children are slaughtered around me.”
“The fighting is over my brother. We are outnumbered by twenty to one. If we resist, Conrad is sure to make it worse for the boys. For the women. We must accept his terms. If we do not, he has no reason to either. Everyone will die Welf. What sort of hell will we be assigned to if we condemn Uta and the others to death when they can be spared?”
Ursula leant back from her uncle’s grasp. Her tear stained face looked up at him. The ten year old had realised what no one else but Agnes had seen. A strong body, a velvet robe, an ill fitting crown, even the support of the people did nothing to make a king. Her invalid brother had shone with a wisdom and compassion beyond those noblemen who decided who would live and who would not. He had given them a tomorrow.
“Uncle.”
Henry the Lion bent down to the girl tugging at his tunic.
“I know what to do.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

At the first streak of dawn, Conrad’s trumpeters bleated their tune, calling an end to the siege of Weibertreue Castle. The King’s men lined the bridge in single file on both sides, murmuring in expectation. Conrad himself stood at the edge of the meadow on the other side, in the full regalia of a German king. Behind him, fifty columns of soldiers waited in the dull light of sunrise.
“Open the gates!” bellowed Captain Berkemmer from beside his king.
With a loud groan the thick wooden gates were pushed open. All heads turned to the dark space beyond them.
For a few moments there was no movement, until a small girl emerged, struggling under the weight of her load.
The muttering amongst the soldiers ceased. They watched in silence as Ursula struggled slowly across the bridge, desperate not to drop and forfeit her burden. Conrad saw Berkemmer flinch next to him, instinctively reaching for his sword.
“No Captain. I gave my word.”
Agonisingly slow, Ursula stumbled along, perspiration and tears mixing and pouring from her young face. Still short of the meadow, she staggered and nearly fell. One of Conrad’s young soldiers, unable to restrain himself, moved forward to assist her.
“Stay where you are!” demanded the frustrated Berkemmer.
Each small step she took resonated throughout the Sulm valley. The long conflict now distilled into this one time and place. Conrad’s men were confronted by something beyond the cries of battle and the clash of weapons. Many had wives, sisters and daughters of their own. The pitiful sight before them was humbling, extinguishing the euphoria of victory in its poignant simplicity.
Finally Ursula stepped onto the grass. She pitched forward, falling with her brother’s body in her small arms. She lifted her grimy face. Through her sweat bedraggled hair she sought the face of the king of Germany. She found him, dipping her head in acknowledgement. In return he did the same.

All along the bridge, soldiers lowered their weapons. Many simply dropped them to the ground. Emerging from the gateway were the women of Weibertreue. Each carried a man, a boy or a baby toward the freedom of the meadow.

Unseen by others, Agnes placed a hand gently on the shoulder of her monarch. Conrad put his own hand over it, not as king but as son. His eyes wandered to the small sign bearing the castle’s name. It leant over near the foot of the bridge, where for ten days it had been brushed past and ignored.
“ Weibertreue.” The faith of women.
He squeezed his mother’s hand, then signalled for his men to stand down.

Ursula sat with Matteus, hugging him to her. An Ursula hug. Holding him in the way only the most precious of things can be held.

(from the short story collection “nine”-available on Amazon)

Fresh

Written for NYC Midnight Challenge 2; horror/tractor trailer/bar of soap. 1000 words

 A long haul trucker and his partner offer Cassie a lift from Alice Springs to Darwin without her even putting a thumb out. But what exactly do they deliver, and to who?

      FRESH

“Take ya top off or ride in the trailer.”

Dan looks at her with the blue eyes that last night looked friendly. Now they are glazed, pupils pinpricked by amphetamines.

The tip of a knife caresses the underside of her ribs.

Cassie doesn’t hesitate to pull her shirt over her head.

Not the trailer.

 

The previous evening, at a bar in Alice Springs, it seemed Cassie had got lucky. Lanky, sandy haired Dan and his partner Meg were fun company. Physically, they were an odd couple. But Meg, a five foot pepperpot with tight curls and a cute laugh, clung to her blonde beanpole with genuine affection.

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” she told Cassie with a wink.

Of course Cassie gladly accepted their offer of a lift all the way to Darwin.

It was too good to be true.

But now, pulled a mile off the highway in the middle of nowhere, with kind eyes turned to crazy, she hugs herself, trying to cover more than skin.

Dan spots the cherub on her shoulder and frowns.

 

Good. Cassie’s mind is scrambling for any positives. His expression offers a glimmer of hope she won’t be raped.

Meg peers around the seat.

“HE dun’ like tattoos.”

Her tongue thrusts into Cassie’s ear, leaving a slosh of saliva dripping from it.

“We should just put you back there,” she whispers.

Cupboards click open and shut in the sleeper compartment. A length of wire is suddenly looped around Cassie’s neck, tying her to the headrest.

Meg has a bar of Solvol. “Hold ‘er arm, honey,” she asks sweetly.

The industrial soap scours through the flesh of Cassie’s shoulder, eradicating the tattoo and exposing raw nerves and capillaries. Meg is sweating when she finishes. Neither she nor Dan is bothered in the slightest by Cassie’s screams.

He lifts Cassie’s bound hands easily, despite her struggle. There are letters across her knuckles. L.O.V.E. A remnant of her teens. The writing is clumsy, the ink faded.

It doesn’t matter.

HE dun’ like tattoos.

Dan presses her fingers closed to form a tight fist.

Meg giggles as she scrubs.

“You crazy motherfucking bitch! I’ll fucking kill you, you fucking psychos!”

Finally the soap shudders against bone. The white gleams through the blood.

The soap is thrust into her mouth. A rag tied to keep it there.

“You gotta dirty mouth,” hisses Meg.

Cassie feels the wire tighten, cutting into her windpipe. She claws at it, peeling skin from her throat with her own fingernails as she tries to loosen it.  Her eyes bulge as she gasps for the breath she can’t take, choking on the piece of soap she has bitten off.

“Meg! We can’t kill her.”

The wire relaxes. The gag untied. Dan thumps her back and the soap splats into her lap with a rush of yellow bile.

We can’t kill her.

Can’t?

 Is there a chance they’ll get careless? Give her a chance to escape?

Cassie thinks of the woman in the brown checked shirt.  They’d come across her a hundred miles or so back. Three year old boy on her hip and steam pouring out of her Ford.

“You guys chat-I’ll sort this out,” Dan smiled, jumping down from the cab.

Cassie saw the relieved woman in the side mirror. Saw Dan ruffle the little boy’s hair. Then only white as the rear doors to the trailer were opened. The freezer? Ten minutes later they pulled away, the car still spouting steam and disappearing into the depths of the mirror.

“Taken care of,” said Dan.

Meg giggled.

Despite the cab heater taking the edge off the desert’s morning chill, Cassie shivered.

 

“This is our baby,” Meg had announced earlier with pride. “Mr. White’s Quality Meats” read the giant letters on the side of the semi.

Had he put them in the trailer?

Cassie decided quickly, before they got too far ahead of the Ford.

“Sorry guys, I really need to take a leak. Can we pull over?”  She would take her chances, either with the brown checked shirt woman or whoever else came along.

But Dan pushed the accelerator down harder. Cassie scrambled for the door handle. Strong fingers immediately grabbed her throat, pushing hard under her jaw. A cloth covered her nose and mouth, drenched in something sickly sweet. Chlorof……….?

When she’d awoken they were here. Hands and feet bound.

The heater circulating the smell of body odour.

And the stench of evil.

“Gotta lose that ring.”

Cassie desperately tries to prise her mother’s ring off but her fingers are slick with blood, her knuckle too swollen.  Meg’s patience runs out quickly. She hands Dan a pair of rusty wire cutters.

Cassie runs out of screams long before the bone finally splinters and the last shred of flesh gives way. Her long moans are deep and purely animal.

Her jackhammer heart coats her fists in crimson.

The cigarette lighter pops. Dan presses it against the stump to stop the bleeding. Cassie vomits from the pork crackling smell. Her teeth chatter in shock.

Now might be time to ride in the back,” says Dan, lifting her chin.

Cassie shakes her head.

Meg climbs past to open the door.

“About time.”

They drag her the fifty five feet to the back of the trailer.

Cassie welcomes cold dark death, if she’ll be away from these two.

But the heavy doors release an inhuman stench of warm air instead.

Dozens of bodies hang from rows of meat hooks, most still alive.

Dogs, kangaroos, emus.

Humans.

The closest one is the woman in the brown checked shirt. Mouth moving silently.

A massive, pale spider-like creature is feasting on the soft flesh of her child. The milky meniscus slides back from its multi faceted eye.

It looks over the fresh offering in the doorway.

He dun’ like tattoos. Gotta lose that ring.

They don’t deliver for Mr. White. They deliver to him.

There is one hook spare.

Meg giggles as they lift Cassie onto it.

Demonkeyracy

 Written for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2016-1000 words/48 hrs.

Political satire/zoo/stolen bicycle.

 

 

“There was pandemonium at the San Diego Zoo this morning, with a possible outbreak of rabies in the primate area, the exposure of a brazen gang of thieves and a berserk mandrill having to be sedated.

More news at seven.”

 

 

 DEMONKEYRACY

 

“Honey, how’s my anus look?”

“Bright blue and incident free, dear.”

“Excellent.”

The mandrill lifted his tail even higher, swaggering past the gibbons to the front of his enclosure. He backed up to the bars and “faced” the day’s first visitors.

“My fellow simians, human subjects…”

 

“Bit early isn’t it?” complained a lemur, rubbing his eyes.

 

Madagascans,” muttered the mandrill, so only the gibbons heard.  “Do you even know what’s going on?”

 

Standard power grab based on flamboyantly colored anal glands, surmised the lemur through a yawn. “Not really,” he lied, “but I saw what happened last night when your neighbor there stole the human’s carry-beast.”  Satisfied with his contribution, the lemur casually reclined into the shade next to his mate.

 

The mandrill glared at the smug orangutan. In the foliage above, the night guard’s bicycle was visible through some obviously placed palm fronds.

 

“We have confiscated the dangerous beast which throws the human in its cold blooded anger,” announced the orangutan proudly. “Along with the ear rocks and vines that distract and upset them so much.” In one hand he held several cell phones. In the other, headphones and ear pieces. “For their own, um, safety of course.”

 

“Don’t let the humans see those.”

A capuchin monkey shook her small head. “The metal beast is not the problem. The human always reeks of alcohol! He has the balance of Mr. Baboon.”

 

“Your contribution is noted,” nodded the orangutan thoughtfully as he sneakily hid the contraband. “From this moment forth we declare a ban on consuming fermented fruit as well. For us of course, since we can’t really, um, enforce that on the humans.”

 

The baboon groaned, hiccupped and fell face first over a log in protest.

 

“Sacrilege!” cried the gibbon in support of his fallen brother.  He clung to the bars to add a dash of drama. “Why are we, the superior species, subject to such injustice?”

 

“Superior?” laughed the capuchin, “You are not even the superior species in your own cage! We are in a prison you idiot.”

 

Aghast, the gibbon turned to engage the chimpanzees in a feces flinging competition. “A battle of wits it is!” he shrieked.

 

The mandrill, alarmed that his rear end was no longer the centre of attention, saw his moment.

“Prison?” he roared. “These protective barriers keep predators away. We are lavished with food and attention by our loving subjects.”

Cameras clicked.

“See how they make reverent portraits of my rectum!” He turned to put the other ass cheek closer to the humans.

“This is by far my best side.”

 

“By far,” agreed the capuchin.

 

The orangutan scratched his head vigorously with one elongated finger. The cameras now swung to him. He grinned benevolently.

“Subjects? No. They are our responsibility. We must protect them from, um, stuff. Themselves mainly.”

The humans watched him elaborately gesture with his arms. They smiled and pointed back at him.

“Yeah, these guys are getting it.”

 

“You old fools, we are their captives,” shrieked the capuchin. “Part of an intricate socio-economic…”

 

A huge thump stopped him short. The gorilla had heard enough. “Fools? Wasn’t it you that said coconuts don’t kill gibbons, gibbons kill gibbons?”

 

Hoping they were supposed to, the chimps fell about laughing (since their cage was right next to the gorillas.) The gibbons chuckled to cover their coconut problem.

 

The macaques feigned hilarity, (hoping the chimps and gibbons had got it right.)

Only one from their group remained silent. An Asian macaque, scarred from witnessing his brother’s demise to a human’s gun in ‘Nam, clung desperately to a branch and tried to look invisible. The excited voices and clacking flashes were triggering, well,… flashbacks.

 

Every cage but the lemur’s now rocked with commotion.

 

Concerned staff joined the growing crowd.

 

The female gorillas were beseeching the males to let it go. The males were declining the suggestion, reminding them that King of the Apes was not just a slogan used by the humans.

The mandrills were strongly reminding the gibbons the extra fruit they’d been passing on meant backing up their leader when required. Gibbons were apologizing for being a little busy. The chimps made the most of the scolding by getting in several direct hits.

 

The capuchin struggled to be heard above the din.

“That which we call wings are naught but the rigid wires that bind us!” she screeched. Her troop chittered in agreement with this wisdom. They all started excitedly quoting their own favorite monkey philosophy. All but the PTSD macaque joined the lively discussion.

 

It was noisy, so the orangutans had to call loudly for quiet.

 

 

The mandrill reached across and grabbed a gibbon by the scruff of its neck.

 

The bewildered humans swung their attention back to him.

 

“We must take the situation by the throat. We need strong leadership,” he declared with a flourish.

“You O.K. there JoJo?” he whispered.

“All good pal,” mumbled the gibbon. “Here let me say a few words, buddy.”

The mandrill pushed the JoJo’s head through the bars to let the crowd see him easier.

“Look how committed this guy is,” pleaded the gibbon.

“I am, I am,” shouted the mandrill. He bared his teeth in a smile of humility.

 

The humans reacted with a curious mixture of photography and screaming. One of them hastily loaded a dart into a rifle.

 

“They can’t understand you,” warned the capuchin. “Put JoJo down!” Her warnings were drowned out in the cacophony of simian debate.

They can’t understand me thought the mandrill. It’s way over their heads.

 

From the macaque cage came a single “Nooooooooo.”

 

The dart whistled into the blue with a thud. The mandrill slumped, ass first down the bars of the cage.

 

Silence.

 

Except for JoJo’s whisper of “Blue Moon down, Blue Moon down.”

 

And the crash of a ten speed racing bike falling to earth.

 

The orangutan looked as shocked as anyone.

 

 

 

From the shadows of the lemur cage came a small but determined voice.

“Honey, how’s my anus look?”

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Overlap

(Written for NYC midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015-1000 words/48 hours. Genre-comedy, location-school detention, item-pretzel.)

 

You can do this.

 

An hour, tops.

 

And Larry Breen could forget about St. Tolerance forever.

It’s just one kid.

A kid with issues, sure. Who struggled with responsibility, race, religion, reality.

Pretty much anything starting with “r.”

 

Breen reached into the sanctuary of his inside coat pocket. He gulped from his new asthma inhaler before entering.

 

Tyrone.

Standing on his desk, draped in a UN flag.

“This is not the first time a Luggajéan has been unfairly detained. Racist!”

Breen kneaded his temples as hard as the bruising would allow.

“Against which part of your French Hungarian African Canadian heritage?”

“Probably all of them. Khnyok!” scoffed Tyrone, descending in dramatic profile to accentuate his nose.

“Um, Jewish?”

“Since mid morning. Church of England first thing.”

Breen shuffled the history paper to the bottom of the pile. No need to question why “Bitch had it coming.” was the entirety of Tyrone’s Joan of Arc essay in first period.

 

“We have to talk about your inconsistent grades.”

Tyrone snatched the sheaf of papers.

“You kidding me? D for media studies? My school website page got like a billion hits.”

“And the picture of me buggering the school mascot got me on the national sex offenders list. Though you did get an A for photoshopping,” added Breen begrudgingly.

“Hey what about this one? I’ve scored some kind of acting gig or something. You are summonsed to appear…”

“Sorry, that’s mine” said Breen grabbing it back. “Did I mention it was an A+ in photoshopping?”

“Oh I see. A technology A because I’m Asian”

“Tyrone, you’re black.”

“But we live over a Chinese laundry,” he wailed.

“You aced Chemistry though.”

“Dad did all my homework.”

“Yes, I saw his lab on the news. Don’t worry Tyrone, six months will pass in a flash.”

“Hey what about this one? An F?”

“Your exam paper was blank.”

Tyrone tapped his forehead, eyebrow raised knowingly.

“It’s physics Tyrone, not psychics.”

“The others did seem a bit hands-on,” the boy mused, passing something unseen to something else unseen under his desk.

Breen leaned forward.

“Just feeding Quetzalcoatl, sir.”

“And when did you become legally blind?”

“Tuesday for about an hour after dad’s mushroom gumbo. It’s not a guide dog though. He followed the old man home from the airport.”

At the boy’s feet, a contented beagle in a harness chomped away on a phallic shaped treat. Breen winced; though his stomach growled like an overprotective father with an underdressed daughter. Being picked up by a beefcake in a curtained kombi. And a sticker saying if it’s rockin’ don’t bother knockin’.

“Hungry sir?”

“Well I haven’t eaten today,” Breen admitted. His lunch hour had been spent recovering in the sick bay. The chlorine in his inhaler had eradicated his sense of smell. A blessing in halitosis/flatulence 101.

“They’re druidic pretzels,” explained Tyrone as he held up another glazed penis with sesame seed sprinkled testicles. “Made them in cooking class.”

“Are there any not shaped like genitalia?” asked Breen against hope.

Tyrone rummaged through a tote bag adorned with Yiddish. Breen spied a Ziploc bag among the stone tablets, rosary beads and severed lamb’s head.

“Now this is how a pretzel should look,” he announced, retrieving the bag.

“Like the overlapped praying hands of a monk,” Tyrone agreed reverently.

 

Breen retreated to his desk, sneaking a bite. The piece lodged in his throat and he rocked back and forward trying to dislodge it. Tyrone leapt to his feet, and tapping in on his inner Japanese, politely returned the same number of bows.

“H-h-heim-lich m-m-manouvre” gasped Breen.

“Oh great,” responded Tyrone, “Holocaust guilt.”

Breen’s face had turned the brash purple of his tie. He clasped his hands, pleading. Tyrone paused only to prop up his camera phone on an L Ron Hubbard novel before arriving to help.

“Jehovah is really at odds with Samaritan right now” he sighed. To witness or rescue? Reluctantly, he grasped the teacher from behind.

“The power of Christ compels you!” he screamed, slamming Breen’s head onto the desk and stapling two essays together. Breen’s recoiling head cracked Tyrone in the face. The force dislodged the offending chunk of pretzel. It sailed in a graceful arc across the class where it was snapped out of the air by the grateful beagle.

“You saved my life,” rasped Breen. He drew greedily on his inhaler. “Eventually.”

He staggered upright, where Tyrone clutched his bleeding nose.

“You racist atheist fascist,” he groaned. “I’m going to the principal’s office with your blatantly intolerant DNA still fresh on my face.”

“But it’s on camera,” wheezed Breen. “It was clearly an accident!”

“I can delete that,” shrugged Tyrone.

“Or you can leave it in. Think of Student saves teacher’s life despite shocking facial injury on You Tube. A billion hits!”

Tyrone’s crudely stereotyped Judaism won the brief arm wrestle over his rather shaky vow of poverty.

Aaand detention’s over?”

“I was going to let you go for saving me anyway.”

“Vishnu be praised.” Tyrone grabbed his phone, shouldered his bag and led out Quetzalcoatl. At the door he stopped to light an enormous joint.

“Rastafarianism,” he smiled. “ And Hare Krishna, Mr. Breen.”

 

Breen watched through watery eyes as the boy led the beagle across the yard outside. Still starving, he gobbled down the rest of the pretzel, despite its stodgy texture. Typical. Tyrone was recipe challenged as well. Blissfully grateful for the lack of functioning taste buds, he finished every crumb.

 

The dog stopped to empty his bowels on the manicured lawn of St. Tolerance.

“Go nuts,” murmured Breen. He had survived the year. Survived Tyrone. Shit away, pooch.

 

But the beagle’s shining coil of turd formed a too-neat neat circle on the grass. The overlapping ends like the praying hands of a monk.

 

Breen’s purple complexion skipped the rest of the rainbow and went straight to green. He fumbled for his inhaler.

Tyrone waited for the beagle to finish, Ziploc bag at the ready.

He waved.

You know.

In that way those damn Rastafarian French Hungarian African Canadians do.

Swertgg


Recently I’ve had the privilege of reviewing the work of some very talented young writers. This one is special……………

 

 

 

/?   Hhhhhh55555555555555555555555555555555555555555555555 55555555555555555555555555555555555555555555555555555 55555555555555555555555555555555555555555555555555555 5555555555555555555555555555555yl/kkjhjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj jjjjjjjjmmmmmmmm          mmmmmkkk  lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll,llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll.  .7rrrrrrrrrrrrrswertgg7rrrrrrrrrrrrrswertggHHHH

 

 

 

Pete’s review of “/?” by Elliot (3)

Firstly, I loved your title. “/?”  I know you set this as a very clever riddle. Since the two symbols share the same keyboard key, I’m guessing your hidden title might be “Shift” since you need this key to access them both. Ingenious.

A bright opening line. Who doesn’t love a hug (capital H), followed by five friendly hi’s (lower case h)!

Then the fives began, and the story took off. Don’t you love how the 5’s look like S’s that haven’t had that last curve bent into them by the bendy letter making machine? Or S’s that got tired of being S’s and went over to the side of numbers? And, if you squint at them, you start seeing 3’s in there as well?

Of course you did, you’re clever.

The “l/kkjh” was a real curveball, and the many purple j’s helped to ratchet up the tension. (How do you even change the colour of the text?)

Then the story takes a thoughtful tangent (“mmmmmmmmmmmmm”), before you remind us what’s at stake with”kkk”.

From here the tale kicks into overdrive. Thank goodness you added a comma after about eighty blue“I’s” as I was struggling to keep up with your frenetic  pacing. Then, after yet more I’s, a couple of moments for the reader to catch their breath before……

7!

Seriously?

7?

Wow, did NOT see that coming.

And when the r’s swarm, and surely there’s no way out?

Then “swertgg”! Amazing. Absolutely brilliant.

Then another 7! Are you kidding me? Just when the danger seemed past, another 7. And, with another 7, the r’s are resurrected. I nearly wet my chair.

With your second awesome “swertgg” the situation is finally put to rest. Most writers wouldn’t be bold enough to use one swertgg, let alone two. Bravo, Ellie.

There was only one spelling error (impressive)- “l/kkjh” is of course spelt “l/kjkh.”

Overall, this story has a bit of everything. A warm introduction, a plethora of 5’s, j’s and I’s. But there are also r’s aplenty, pensive m’s and terrifying 7’s.

Great story.

I encourage you to keep writing. Would love to read more of your work.

 

(P.S. thanks for the four hugs at the end.)

The world needs more swertgg.

 

Grandad. x

Truce

(Written for NYC flash fiction challenge. 48 hours, 1000 words. Prompts-fantasy, a mountain stream, milk.)…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Many years ago in the land of Ardanelle, Mikel and Melane, king and queen of the unicorns, set off to Silver Mountain, their horns encircled in vines of butter milk flowers…

“Unicorns!” laughed Jacob. “Hey, shouldn’t I be telling you a story?”

“Shush, father. You said you’d listen,” scolded Ceri.
The king nodded wistfully, stroking the raven waterfall of her hair. Outside her tower window, distant tallow smoke hung acrid on the night breeze. In the morning he would ride for the outlands. Amongst the burnt huts and bodies of subjects he could no longer protect, he must sue for peace with the mad prince at whatever the cost.
“Men never listen!”
The familiar tone jolted him back more than the poke in the stomach. So much like Kaetrina had been. As beautiful as the spring fields. Determined as the moon season rains. The dry crust of grief caught in his throat. Five bleak years had passed.
He kissed the top of Ceri’s head. Where a crown was predestined, but now never going to sit.
“I’m sorry sweet child. Please go on. Flowers? Why?”
“Butter milk flowers,” sighed Ceri. “As a sign of truce of course,” she added, dismayed that a king would not know this.

King Mikel and Queen Melane followed the narrow track ever upwards, between boulders growing ashen as they climbed. Every step sensing their enemies upon them.
Feeling their eyes and dreading their claws.
Trusting an ancient law and a circlet of pale blossoms to keep them safe.
At last they topped the plateau. Where the mountain stream began as a trickle from the snow capped boulders. Where their eternal enemies held court high above Ardanelle.
The eyrie of the griffin.

“Griffins!” remarked Jacob. “With the head of an eagle and the body of a lion?”
“Of course,” groaned Ceri, waiting for further interruption before continuing.

Lord Leonid and Lady Enora were paired for life, the only custom the unicorns agreed with.
Leonid’s honey flecked eyes met those of his counterpart. Mikel’s glared back, cold and blue as the stream beside him.
“This must end Leonid. Where is Mikaley? Where is our daughter?”
Enora hissed, ruffling her golden feathers angrily. “Mind your tongue horn horse!”
Melane stepped forward. “But for the snows we would have come earlier Enora.” Her sweet voice lowered. “We heard the beat of wings the night she was taken. Only a griffin…”
“Always the griffins,” snarled Leonid. “Why should we believe anything you say? Those who would trample the forests to starve of us prey? Drive the dograbbits and jackalope far from the flat lands? Use their cruel horns to gore our kin? Their hooves to crush our skulls?” He paused, the fire momentarily dulled. “What of our son. What of Levaris? “

“We know nothing of his fate,” snorted Mikel.
“Liar!” screeched Enora. “Trust nothing they say my husband.”
“And why should we trust those who would dam the river? Forcing us to drink at the valley pool, easy prey to vicious claws and razored talons? The corpses mount at the lake edge, bringing deathfly and disease.” Mikel raised his proud head. “The grasslands shrink without the river and creeks. By sun season’s end there will be no grazing lands left,” he added quietly.
“Then you too will know hunger,” growled Enora. She stepped forward, drawing close to the unicorn queen. Melane recoiled from the fetid stench of the carrion breath.
“Don’t worry,” sneered Enora, “That’s not her you can smell.”
Melane lowered her head, her horn at the throat of the Lady griffin.
“You would attack while wearing the garland of truce?”
“If you are to mock my grief for Mikaley,” growled the unicorn, “I will carry home your head.”
Enora’s fierce eyes narrowed. Her powerful hind tensed, prepared to strike.

They turned at the soft clop of hooves.
A unicorn stepped into the clearing, prodded forward by a male griffin.
The length of her body was almost hairless, a myriad of scars. Her abdomen was etched in dozens of thin stripes; fresh, cruel, weeping cuts. Her legs trembled to hold her thin body upright.
“Mikaley,” gasped her father
“You!” cried Melane, charging at the griffin. She drove her horn into his eye, puncturing through his brain and the top of his skull. With a violent twist of her neck she threw him to the water’s edge.
The garland of flowers slid from his eye socket and followed the reddening stream away on the current.
“Levaris!” howled Leonid in anguish.
Melane turned to her daughter, but Enora was already at her.
“No, wait” pleaded Mikaley as the talon opened her long throat. Enora’s screech of vengeance tore the clouds above them to shredded rags. Mikaley slumped to the ground, her face a visage of disbelief.

Jacob nodded, recognizing the madness of war in his daughter’s tale.

In the second of silence before the madness continued, came a rustling from beneath the great golden wings of Levaris.
Two small heads emerged. Eagle heads. Eyes closed, they sniffed the air excitedly. Dragging themselves from under their father’s wing they tottered towards the fallen unicorn. They pushed at her back leg with their beaks, seeking to feed at her soft underbelly.
Melane raised her hoof, blind with rage. Mikel stepped forward to halt her strike.
“Their legs my love. Their hind legs.”
Enora’s head fell in shame. Leonid wrapped her in his wings
The young ones had hooves.
The four of them watched as their grandchildren suckled.

Unicorn tears fell as diamonds. As only they do in times of peace.

Ceri gripped her father tight, her small fingers clutching the leather of his tunic. “Hippogriffs?” he whispered. She nodded, easing from the embrace.
“The union of Levaris and Mikaley gave both sides something in common. They ended the war with love.”
He bent down to kiss her cheek, but her head turned away, tucked behind her drawn up knees. She rocked gently upon them.

Jacob was nearly to the door.

“Did you really listen?”

“Ceri? Honey?””

Then he noticed.
And couldn’t help but hear.

The chair.
Her saddle on its high back. The neat pile upon it, wrapped in a pelt blanket. Beneath; her favorite boots, brightly polished.
His voice deserted him though his lips formed the words.
“Oh Ceri.”
On a wooden peg next to the chair hung her best white dress. Her long travel cloak.

And a circlet of buttermilk flowers.

Make It Rain

The screech was ear splitting. The anguished scream of the goddess. It tore the sky into ragged black shreds of woe. Isis had thrown back her white hair, her naked breasts heaving with exertion. She shuddered in sobbing gasps of breath. The remnants of her shredded clothes hung like carrion on her body. Mad with grief and frustration she turned to Nephthys/Aleesha. Her eyes dangerous vivid emeralds.
“Make it rain” she demanded. “I know you can do it”
Her skin glowed as her power regathered.
“Make it rain!” she roared. “Now!”
The demand came as a piercing spear. Aleesha felt the sting as it struck.

Nephthys raised her hands to the sky. She focused her thoughts on her mother. Called the clouds to them. Projecting her spirit among them, she felt the dampness in the air high above.
Slowly, steadily, she curled her fingers into fists. The temperature dropped as ice crystals formed overhead. With the same slow method she opened her fingers until her hands were flat.
“Yes!” hissed Isis as the first drops fell. The clouds burst into life, delivering in a torrent.
Isis looked down at him. Her eyes blazed with anticipation. This would work. It must work. This was all she had left to try.
Around her body, a ripple of blue static began to build. It crackled like a fire all over her. Aleesha could feel it’s’ intensity building. Pulsing. Growing.
And through Nephthys she knew what Isis was attempting. It may have been a mystical spell with an appropriately romantic name but it simply came to Aleesha as two words. Lightning rod.
With an enormous crack, a massive single bolt struck.
Isis and Osiris vanished in a blinding sheet of white. Nephthys was knocked off her feet by the blast, landing twenty feet from where she stood. The vegetation all around was dead and blackened by the heat.
Picking herself up from the ground, Nephthys ran to where Osiris lay. As she approached there was no sign of Isis. The blast had thrown her clear of the area. Nephthys put her hand to her mouth at the stench of burnt hair and flesh. But the sight of him was almost too much to bear.
The king of all men lay on the mud soaked ground. His severed limbs had been meticulously reattached. Amongst the sutures, written incantations protected the wounds from further detrition. Around his throat, spells proclaimed his desire to see again. To look upon his love and know her. On his legs, to come to her. On his arms, to hold her. And on his penis, to consummate their love.
But there was also more. Parts of his face and body were charred from the lightning strike. Flesh had bubbled and sagged. Steam rose from his fiery wounds as the rain cooled them.
And on his thigh.
Oh dear sister.
Dozens of slits, many overlapping into crosses and stars. Fresh and raw. Part of no ritual for his resurrection. In her insane rage she had used her small jewelled dagger. The one he had given her.
She had stabbed until the knife had disintegrated. The broken blade was still in his leg.
Nephthys tried to pull it out but the fury of the blow made it impossible.

Despite his condition, she could not contain her desperate love for Osiris. This beautiful man had opened her heart. And taken it forever captive. As her tears spilt the rain intensified.
She leant over his face, handsome despite everything.
And longed to see him open his eyes.
To look upon his love and know her.

For love.

Once for love.

She spoke the name of Ra.
And held her breath.

“Get away from him!” screamed Isis. She conjured a blast of energy which thundered into Nephthys’ body. Her right arm took the brunt of it, the bones splintering into fragments. Most of her ribs broke, puncturing both lungs as she flew twisting like rag through the air. She landed contorted and broken. Her eyes filled red with blood.
“Stay away from him!” Isis stood over his body as a lioness over its kill.
“Not you” she cried.
“Not you” she waned.

She knew.

Nephthys tried to breathe, gurgling blood and mud and wet air.

Then Isis gasped.

“It worked!” she shrieked. “Dear Ra it worked. His eyes are open!” She pecked him with kisses, muttering thanks and praising her forefathers.
Through a crimson veil Nephthys watched their dark silhouette against the magenta sky. Her sisters’ hand grasped his penis, working him to arousal. Isis mounted him quickly, holding him in place as she rose and fell. Osiris moaned as her pace increased furiously.
Nephthys shut her eyes and prayed for an end to everything.

Finally the sounds stopped. The downpour drew to an end. Several minutes passed.
Nephthys opened her painful eyes to see Isis above her. Her face a raging mask of hatred. The panther of black magic. Her hair rippling deep purple.

“He thought it was you” she seethed.

She pressed her foot into her sister’s stomach. Blood bubbled out of her nose and mouth.

“He called me by your name”

She held up the head of Osiris. The magical stitches had held. No knife.
She had torn it off.

With a thud she dropped it onto Nephthys’s chest.
And walked away.

(from the novel “Last Goddess”)

Miriam

From Aleesha’s description he knew it was her. White gloves. Pale as the moon. Long black hair with a silver streak. Eyes a funny grey, bluish in the right light. Small, delicate like a bird.
Well the little bird had flown in.
David painfully crunched the M.G. into reverse. He wanted neutral ground. He also didn’t want to hang around and chat with the seven foot, scar faced man at the gate.
He manoeuvred through several side streets, heading north towards the clinic. There was a large community park with bike tracks and a duck pond he knew of. He spun the car to a stop with a spray of gravel. By the time he had the keys out of the ignition, the woman was standing near the edge of the pond. Houdini in a nightie. David stomped down as barefoot as her, still in his running gear.
She looked out over the diamond surface of the lake. The sparkle of the moon reflected ice blue in her eyes. David thought she looked fifteen and fifty at the same time. Beneath the lustrous hair, the tired face of a child up past her bed time. But for some reason, even with his emotions raging about Aleesha, he felt intimidated by Miriam. She unsettled him. He kept his voice level.
“Did you do something to Aleesha.?”
“No. I only spoke to her.”
“I tend to think that may be bullshit.”
“I am not the one you seek.”
“Who is the one I seek?”
“Another part of me.”
“Well do I need an appointment? Tell me what the hell’s going on.”
She took a breath. It reminded him of Ruth just before she was about to deliver a speech she expected you to pay attention to.
“All of us have spiritual energies. Kas, souls, psyches. Parts of these transfer between people when we interact. Become part of our own. Giving up some as well.”
David took his own pre speech breath.
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Miriam turned to face him, her small face serious.
“Some of these spirits are very unique, powerful, and seek a stronger body when the one they’re in becomes too old or weak.”
“Are you telling me Aleesha’s being possessed by a spirit?”
“No. But affected by one.”
The words she was saying sounded crazy, but the way she said them was not.
“Are you the body that’s become old and weak?”
“Yes.”
Miriam shivered, brushed by a chill that David couldn’t feel.
“So what is this thing? This spirit. And why Leesh?”
“It is ancient. As old as any of the spirits. It knows her remarkable qualities. It is making itself known to her, though she doesn’t want it too. But it is accustomed to being accepted, and will show her things to tempt her.”
“What do you mean show her things?”
“It will play with her appearance, her body. Seduce her. She may get ill or hurt forcing it away. It will give her gifts. Enhance her senses, give her traces of magic.”
“Traces of magic? She was collapsed in the bathroom when I got home. Puke and piss on the floor. Then she had some sort of psychotic episode. Didn’t seem very frigging magical to me!” he shouted.
“Nevertheless it was there. It probably scared you. You will need to be there for her until she can control it. It will be scaring her too.”
“It fucking scared me all right. And you’re not helping.”
“You will need to have faith.”
“Faith? Faith in what?
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
“Yeah, Martin Luther King, I know. But I don’t see any of the bloody staircase. And I don’t know that Aleesha does either. Faith must be enforced by reason. When faith becomes blind it dies. Gandhi.”
“Faith makes things possible, not easy” Miriam replied calmly. “Unknown.”
“And blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed” David growled. “Known. Bruce fucking Springsteen. Look Miriam or whoever the hell you are, something’s happened to Aleesha. But she’s not enhanced, not getting, what did you say, traces of magic. I’m a vet. There’s life, death and patch ‘em up when you can. But there’s no bloody magic. It doesn’t exist.”
He heard the familiar jingle of his keys. She was tossing them casually up and down in her hand. He looked at his empty hand. How had she taken them without him feeling it? She swung her arm in a gentle arc and threw the keys into the duck pond. They plopped below the surface twenty feet out.
“What the hell!” yelled David.
“The magic exists.”
She gestured out at the lake with one hand. She pulled her thumb and fingers slowly apart. David had already sworn more than he meant to while talking to her. But this one was worth it.
A gap opened in the water, a corridor exposing the silty bottom. A path from the edge of the pond to his keys, shining in the moonlight.
“Holy fucking shit.”
Like a zombie he walked out to get them.
“The faith is a bit harder to find” he heard from behind him.
As his fingers plucked the keys from the mud, the water rushed back in, reforming the pond surface.
When he turned back she was gone.
He waded out of the pond, scanning the park for her. A single duck squawked at him as he walked toward the car. His world had become ridiculous.
David started the car, still looking around for. There were plenty of dark shadows she could be hiding in, but he knew that wasn’t the case. This Miriam could pull out a freaking Moses. She was wherever she wanted to be.
He rattled the gear stick into reverse. Then for the first time ever, he stalled the M.G.
He hurriedly unwrapped the handkerchief from his bloody fingers. No skin was torn. No bones broken. He turned over his hand, slowly examining it.
Not an ounce of pain.
Two miracles in five minutes. “Holy fucking shit” was not a big enough statement to do the night justice. And it wasn’t over.
He had to get home.
On the way he flexed his blood covered hand. He kept glancing at it, as though it wasn’t his. But it was. Good as new.
“Holy fucking shit” was the best he could do. He’d momentarily lost the ability to say anything else.

(from the novel “Last Goddess”)

Kir-eleyne

There was a pause in the heartbeat of the earth.

The god of the sun exhaled for the last time and for a moment everything stopped. Reason ceased. A small flock of belling birds, the last thirty or so left in Etelenty, forgot how to fly. More than half of them simply fell out of the sky, their small bodies landing with muffled thumps on the dead leaf carpet.
Spreading in a concentric pattern from Ra’s body, any plant still clinging to life lost its fight, the ground blackening as though burnt. The ring spread rapidly, and in moments everything to the horizon had darkened.
At the same time, the air diluted, losing its freshness, its vibrancy. Its life.
Above the head of Nephthys, maniacal violet thunderheads surged across the sky. The hue of the world changed to a sickening vermillion in the challenging rise of the winds. Magenta explosions raged inside the swirling clouds, threatening a monsoon of blood.
A storm unlike any other. A cataclysmic storm.
Her mother had begun to grieve. Her mother the sky.

Below her pretty bare feet, she felt her father’s protest.
A rapidly intensifying tremor rumbled through the sanctity of Aedom, tumbling her backwards across the charred and brittle turf. The sudden imbalance in all things was personified by an enormous crack, the loudest sound Nephthys would ever hear. An angry jagged fissure opened up in the earth, splitting the great Acacia in half. The fountain of truth disintegrated into thousands of obsidian chips, which whistled in all directions like tiny missiles. The psychotic fissure screamed through the ground, splitting Etelenty from one coast to the other, releasing choking sulphur. Nephthys gasped for air as the great trees began to be consumed by the quake, spilling like toys into the growing abyss. Deep below, the ravenous magma began its hungry climb, preceded by the fiery glow of warning
As her beautiful Mother Sycamore plummeted into the chasm, she actually did stop breathing, the air at the epicentre too thin to maintain respiration. She slumped forward crazily, the pricked balloon of a dying goddess. As she came to rest on the ground her wavering vision tried to focus on something. Anything to give her hope.
A familiar face swam through the haze.
An important, familiar face.
Green catatonic eyes staring.
I…..know………..you.
Sister.

With the last of her strength, Nephthys gave her voice to the hellish sky. A desperate call to the one who had always come. Without hesitation or judgement.
The magnificent Kir-eleyne punctured the armies of warring clouds, hurtling towards them.
My dear friend.
Thank you.
She felt a lopsided, palsied smile on her face.
Thank you.
The mighty raptor snatched up the two sisters like mice.

The charred bodies of the remaining belling birds dropped like stones into the molten mouth.

Kir-eleyne thundered its massive wings to get to safety, but the poison in Isis climbed rapidly though its talons and into its body. It dipped in the air as this strange sensation coursed through it. Kir-eleyne had never suffered weakness. Never been afraid. It would have dropped Isis but for the call of the girl with eyes the colour of sky.
Help us.

The great bird drew upon the essence of Belleren, using it to limit the spread of poison to the blue eyed girl. Knowing that it must do this.
It struggled ahead, crashing though the now brittle trees of Aedom, trying to gain height. Magma spewed out of the ground, bringing forth deadly cannon balls of fiery subterranean rocks. Kir-elyne’s wings were punctured, leaving smoky holes.
It had never felt pain either.
Somehow it lifted the sisters over a ridge, but it flew drunkenly as blood loss weakened it more.
A little further.
A little further.

Help us.

Get them safe.

As the poison reached Kir-eleyne mighty heart, it recognised the touch of the pale man.

You will not have them.

One giant push of its wings was all it had left. It pulled the two girls in close to its body. With the help of Belleren it encircled them with its golden wings, locking itself into a ball around their bodies.
Kir-eleyne said farewell to the sky and died while still in the air.
It crashed to the earth, protecting them as it tumbled and broke.
It was far enough to be safe from the earthquake. But not the rain of molten rock. They peppered the great bird’s body, and its feathers and flesh burnt with a stench lost in the madness of the apocalypse.
The ka of Kir-eleyne passed to Isis and Nephthys, giving them the essence of its being and the remnants of Belleren. It was just enough. It would allow them to survive.

They were safe.

from the novel “Last Goddess”

Morton Street, eight years earlier…

She felt conspicuous in her St.Bernadette uniform. But within her, right from the start, she knew she could have been wearing a potato sack and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. He was looking at her face. Mainly. Trying not to stare in the clumsy way of boys. He kept stride with her from the other side of the road. A quick glance revealed enough information for her to work with. She recognised the drab grey of the state school uniform. She hadn’t seen him before. Tall. Fair haired. Non threatening. Not creepy but annoying. Was he lost? He stood out amongst the dispersing tide of St Bernie’s kids in their royal blue. As she crossed another side street he did too.
Why me? Lucy Bower was walking with the pretty girls ahead of her. Everyone looked at Juicy Lucy. She had a career in T.V. or modelling ahead of her. And the others in her well groomed pack Amanda, Rachel and Carina. They plumped and preened and chewed up boyfriends like crazy. Aleesha didn’t consider herself attractive in the slightest. She tried not to be. But her peripheral vision picked up the line of his eyes. As she was walking on her own (as always) it was her in his sights. She felt exposed, her anonymity taken.
Increasing her pace, Aleesha used Lucy’s group for cover as she ducked into the mini mart. Prising a hand basket from the stack, she rummaged a pocket for the brief list of supplies Ruth had asked her to pick up on her way home.
She’d been in the store a full five minutes when the door chime signalled a new customer. Though several people had come and gone since her entry, Aleesha knew it was him. She wore no makeup or jewellery, which most of the other girls did despite school policy. Her skirt was a modest length, at least four inches longer than Lucy’s. Aleesha chided herself for suddenly caring. It was just a boy, damn it.
His sun bleached hair contrasted like a new mop on top of the slate grey shirt and pants. State school haircut to match the uniform. Straight fringe and shapeless cut. Done by his mum, possibly while having a beer, she thought. His sleeves were folded back to the bottom of his biceps. Nice arms, she conceded.
Picking up a magazine, he pretended to read while scanning for her over the top. Found her adding a packet of pasta shells to her basket. The small amount of his face she could see around his roaming green eyes was blushing.
She smiled an “oh brother” which he interpreted as a “come here baby” and was there before she had got past the rows of spaghetti sauce.
Up close he was cute-ish. Kind of.
He stammered through an introduction with a voice struggling with nerves and adolescence. His name was David and he was two years older than her. His unease transferred to her but she kept a lid on it. Ruth had told her men took a lot longer than women to mature. This guy seemed light years away. Aleesha cursed herself again for being aware of her plain appearance. And for seeing something in his eyes which brushed ever so lightly at her soul. For feeling something. It felt uncomfortably nice. Double damn.
David appeared genuinely shocked when she knocked back his offer of a movie date.
“But you smiled at me” he reasoned, leading her to a second grin.
For a moment he just stood there, and she saw a brief flash of something she would never forget. As though she could read his very thoughts, she knew what he was going through. I’m losing her. I can’t lose her. I’ve only just found her.
After just a few moments of meeting, he already valued her. It scared her to realise this. And it scared her how much.
His brain, obviously in tunnel vision- hunter mode, struggled to work it out. He raised the magazine he still held.
“Was I holding this upside down?”
Aleesha shook her head as he realised which publication he had grabbed. Cleo. The sexually transmitted diseases special. His face went from awkward pink to traffic light red. He glanced down, then back at the magazine, serious as though checking his symptoms.
Aleesha couldn’t hold back a snort.
He broke into a laugh that was contagious. She laughed along, something she did far too little of.
“Find a guy that makes you smile.” Ruth.
The words escaped her lips before she could reel them back in.
“Would you like to walk me home?”
He looked almost ridiculously happy. Oh lord.
Aleesha paid for her items. The cashier returned her change and a sturdy brown paper bag. David reached for it with eager chivalry but Aleesha wrestled it back. She was independent and wanted to show him that right away. It would have been weird to let him carry it, despite his wounded look.
He crammed his hands into his pockets as they exited the store. They walked side by side along Morton Street with little conversation. He seemed content enough to just be with her, which confused her. The awkwardness made her wonder if this was a mistake.
But along the way their hands slipped together. She wasn’t really aware of it happening. Her small hand felt right in his warm grip.
And for the first time in a long while she felt special.
Safe.
She belonged.

She hoped his hand would always be there.

from the novel “Last Goddess”

Tuccia

Rome, 31 A.D.

Tuccia pulled her veil firmly around her head. She didn’t want to attract any more attention than necessary. She prayed for the respect of the citizens as she descended the steep steps of the Atrium Vestiae.
At the edge of the square she strained to see through the crowd of onlookers. Their attention was focused on the column of condemned, meaning for the moment she stayed unnoticed. The parade of tragic souls moved slowly past, harassed and beaten by the ruthless Praetorian Guards. One by one Tuccia studied the manacled prisoners, hoping beyond hope her information was wrong.
She gasped when she saw that it was not. In the middle of the thirty men, she recognised Gallius, her childhood friend. It was obvious he had been treated as poorly as the others, his blonde curls and body caked in blood. The crowd remained eerily silent. None wanted to incur the displeasure of the guards. Established by Augustus, they once symbolised the strength and mercy of the emperor. But under the rule of Tiberius, they had become much feared. Led by the cruel Sejanus, the guards had become manipulators of the city, the state, and therefore the empire itself. A network of spies and informants fuelled their zealous drive. Few were safe from their growing dark reach. On their authority alone, without trial or even discussion, nearly anyone could be marched away to their death. While Tiberius led a life of debauchery in Capri, he grew steadily more ignorant of their activities.
The prisoners were minutes away from the end of their lives. Sweet Gallius, the only pure hearted man she had ever met, was going to die. For nothing. The time had come for Tuccia to act. She wormed her way through the crowd.
A gap presented itself when two guards focused their attention on a stumbling man. Within earshot, Tuccia called her friends name.
Gallius reacted to her familiar voice, but did not look at her. Brave, noble Gallius. Despite her position, despite his fate, he would not risk endangering her. He only had to look upon her to be free.
He would not.
She had no choice. Rushing forward, she threw her arms around him.
“No Tuccia!” he pleaded.
A blow from the hilt of a sword knocked her to the ground. As she fell her cloak parted enough for the guard to see the red and white bands of the goddess. Shamefaced, he ushered her to her feet. The line of condemned men halted as other guards came to the scene.
Regaining her composure, she addressed the forlorn soldier who had struck her.
“I have touched this man. He is pardoned.”
He, and the other guards who had gathered, bowed their heads in respect. This law was beyond all statutes and arguments. Her order predated the Praetorian Guard by seven centuries.
Gallius held his place, his shock visible. The nearest guard produced a ring of keys, stepping forward to free the man.
“Wait!” came a booming command from the rear of the column.
Tuccia felt a cool shiver as she recognised the voice.
The voice of Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Personally responsible for twelve thousand elite soldiers. The man whose power exceeded even the emperor himself. Why was he here today?
His troops parted like obedient children as he strode toward her. His deep bronze shield, breastplate and helmet contrasted with his cold pale complexion. In his hand, a silver lance with an intricately decorated grip. He fixed her in his proud amber gaze.
She stank of the goddess.
“Who are you, bitch?” he demanded.
“My lord,” began the guard who had knocked her down.
Like a striking snake, Sejanus spun the deadly lance in an arc. As he did, the tapering end flared into a narrow blade. Tuccia saw this clearly although it moved at such incredible speed. With a whoosh it was back at the side of Sejanus. The soldier’s severed head slid noiselessly down the angle of the cut. Like an overripe tomato it splotched to the ground.
“I was talking to her” he continued, casually kicking the severed head into the throng.
Tuccia stepped next to Gallius. She loosened her veil to reveal more of her face.
“I am a Virgin of Vestia” she announced boldly but not loudly. “And by my touch I free this man of all false charges against him.”
Sejanus looked over her with obvious contempt.
“The only falsehood before me is that of your chastity” he sneered.
Her mouth fell open in disbelief.
“The pontifex maximus will confirm it” she stammered.
He spat on the ground at her feet. He strode to her, tearing away her veil to reveal her shorn hair. Then her cloak, uncovering the palla pinned over her left shoulder. Roughly he tore away this shawl of dignity, leaving her bare breasted in the centre of all. The red and white ribbons of Vestia fluttered around her. She made no effort to cover herself.
“I see the Virgin!” shouted one of the prisoners. Like wild fire, the cry spread amongst the condemned. They all knew that even the sight of a maiden from the temple, while en route to execution, meant their freedom. Their voices grew in number and volume along the line.
“Silence!” bellowed Sejanus. “I see only a whore. For who but a fornicator would throw themselves upon this pig.”
He turned with malice to the shocked Tuccia.
“I offer you the chance to prove yourself. A challenge. For is it not true that your goddess empowers you?” Her knees trembled, threatening to give way, but she held her ground and his terrible gaze.
“My goddess walks with me always” she said bravely.
“Good” He took a metal pot from the kit of one of his men. “Then this will be simple for you. You will take this to the Tiber. Fill it with water and return it to me. If it is still full when you get here, I will release every prisoner. If it is not, you will take loaf and wine to Campus Scelerus. Do you agree?”
“I agree” replied a defiant Tucci quickly. The prefect of the city had given her an easy task, apparently upon realising the impropriety of his actions. She was proud to have stood firm against this arrogant bully. The threat of Campus Scelerus, the evil field, was empty. She would not be joining the skeletons in the underground chamber of death. The food and drink were traditionally provided so that the victim was not killed, which was sacrilege, but rather died “by their own choice.”
He stood, holding it aloft so all could see. He turned slowly, scanning the sea of faces for the real target of his actions. She was here somewhere. He smelled her.
“The Virgin of Vestia has agreed to the challenge. Her word is binding. If she fails in this task, she is deemed unsuitable to maintain the flame. She will end her days in Scelerus.”
Sejanus dropped to his haunches. He pulled a jewelled dagger from his belt. Aggressively, he punctured the inverted pot with numerous holes, turning it into a sieve.
He threw it to her. She was too stunned to catch it and it clattered noisily to the ground.
“I will wait on the steps of your temple” he laughed. He walked away, resheathing his knife.
“Wait!” she called to him. Sejanus spun on his heels.
“You have changed the conditions of the trial. I demand the same right.”
His chest heaved in anger and his hand instinctively went to his sword. Still she would not cower beneath his cruel eyes, as so many had before. He cursed the obvious influence of the goddess.
Tuccia had pulled her garments around her and held the battered pot in one hand.
“I will bring you your water, but surely the Tiber is too far away. On such a warm day, you must be very thirsty. The fountain of our temple is just over there. You can watch me, to ensure there is no trickery. For surely water is water my lord. And this business can be ended much sooner.”
His fingers played eagerly upon the hilt of his lance. How easy it would be. But the hundreds gathered round would not tolerate the murder of a Vestal Virgin under any condition. His gold eyes flittered amongst them. Where are you?
He bowed with exaggerated grace to accept her condition. He still held the upper hand.
Tuccia turned to the people. This time she held the pot aloft. She raised her proud voice to the masses.
“The Prefect of Rome has given his word. It is as binding as my own.”
Sejanus bristled at her mockery.
The crowd parted to form a corridor from the steps to the fountain. She walked purposefully over and knelt before it.
She was no fool. The task was impossible. Her training had given her courage and conviction. But not the ability to perform miracles.
Trembling, Tuccia dipped the bowl beneath the surface, reluctant to raise it.
Her genuine devotion to Vestia had brought out her brave demand to draw water from the temple fountain. She had known nothing else since the age of eight.
Now, twenty years on, she would have her faith tested at the risk of forfeiting her life. She prayed it would be enough.
Her goddess answered.
On the temple steps, Sejanus tensed as he felt the influence of his sister.
Tuccia felt another pair of hands cup her own, giving her strength.
She raised the pot, trickles of water dripping off the outside. She watched the surface, for surely it must drop.
It did not. None escaped from the holes Sejanus had made.
She carefully got to her feet and carried it back to him.
He did not look in the least surprised.
Tuccia gently dropped to one knee and offered him the pot.
He smashed it away with the back of his hand.
He stepped past her, calling his troops to follow.
The prisoners were left, dazed in the middle of the square. Families and friends rushed to their loved ones, weeping with joy.
Some remained around the figure of Tuccia. She had fallen onto the steps and lay without movement. They longed to help her but none could touch one such as her. Several called to the temple for help. Finally two other maidens of Vestia came down to aid their fallen sister.

Within days, Sejanus’ reign of terror had ended. Statues of him were torn down. Any mention of him removed from public records. His broken body was left, ironically on steps. The Germoin Stairs. He had been strangled. A crowd descended upon the body, tearing it to pieces.
In their rage, few noticed the fierce amber of his eyes gone. In their place, the kind blue ones he was born with.
As though his spirit had flown, leaving only the shell of his battered corpse.

from the novel “Last Goddess”