Valenki

My knife is dirty and dull as the grease paper sky. Dull from carving burrows, carving throats. Spilling raw wet gut on the always icing pepper earth. Like me, with me, as me; the knife struggles. Chilled to a ghost and thin as invisible.

A year ago, or maybe a thousand years ago, I’m not sure; I was a postman.

I wept when I found him. The tears froze instantly on my cheeks. No happiness is permitted here. It has been banished with hope and sanity. Together the three of them walked hand in hand into the black, blizzard night.
The big Russian lay on his back in the snow, frozen to indigo. A mortar had blown off half his head. The heat of the shell cauterized the wound into the stringy black satin of All Hallows Eve. Rats had chewed off his remaining ear and the soft flesh of his throat. Rats, or dogs.

Or a man.

“It’s only a matter of time” the others used to say.
They are dead now. And they are wrong.

I will never eat human flesh. It’s the only shred of humanity I have left to cling to. Few horrors I have not enjoyed. And few have I not enjoyed. I am doomed to this frozen hell, beyond redemption. Beyond imagining.

My soul is a bleak and broken harpsichord, strummed by mad musicians and monsters.

So long since any real food. Since I’ve eaten actual meat.

“You will” they whisper. “You will.”

Dead they are. And wrong.

The material of the Russian’s uniform yields as easily as honeycomb spider web. I tear the weary fabric up past his purple knees.

But his flesh shaves stubbornly, hard grey crayon beneath the warmth of my dead blade.

I think of the first time I used the knife. On a boy of just eleven. I know his age because his mother screamed it me over and over until I ended her as well. The others pulled me aside to have their way with her body before the warmth left it. While I vomited.

Then joined them.

I use rock to smash the Russian’s shins. I have no strength to saw bone.

Only the need to wear his valenki. His winter boots.
Only the crazy desperate need to get his dead feet out of them. And my dead feet into them.
I salivate at the thought, and that too freezes, on my wind cracked lips. Or am I drooling because the flesh softens under the friction of my final cuts? Because perhaps it could be mutton the former postman sees. Or venison.

Meat is meat is meat.

“You will.”

No! I yell it to the wind and the nothing at the end of the earth. I stagger back, nearly into the fire. And now I laugh. Laugh at the fire I can’t remember building and out of what I can’t recall. Laugh at my dizzy starving insanity and my dead Russian friend.

His dead fucking feet in his dead fucking boots.

I laugh at us. All of us. You included. The demented mosaic of mankind.

His reluctant skin finally gives way. The severed legs look wrong, like they don’t fit the body I’ve sawn them from. I press them up against the stumps to reassure myself. Of course they fit. I release the breath I’ve been holding just in case.
I place them near the fire, the beautiful valenki facing me. Soon his skin begins to bubble, the sharp smell biting through the grey night. I poke the severed legs with my knife as they soften. The skin curls and crackles.

My shrunken stomach violently uncurls in lust at the smell. It feels as though I’m being torn in half. A surge of adrenalin rushes through me, screaming at me to have my meal. It floods my withered muscles, sending me into convulsions. When they end I barely have the strength to move my head.

I roll to the side and see one of the boots has worked loose.
My threadbare fingers slowly scrabble their way to it. The Russian’s lower leg slides out with surprising ease. I push it into the fire, which flares as it swallows the limb. My gut cartwheels as the leg blackens. It begs me to reach into the flames. Insists that I do.

I’ve thrown away lobster and kept the shell.

“You will.”

It smells like roast pork.

I….don’t.

I focus on my prize. The precious boot is too close to the fire and I move it away so it warms but doesn’t burn. Then I move it again, and again. A matter of inches each time. Too close. Too far. The sinew in my forearm tightens with cramp, my dulled brain eventually signaling my body to save its fading energy for a more important task. The other boot.

But the Russian’s other foot likes its warm valenki boot. Loves it. I poke and pry at it with my tired knife, my tired arms. A quarter of a dead Russian is more than a match for an ex-postman; chilled to a ghost and thin as invisible. I can see the fire clearly through the transparent flesh of my withered arm.

Feebly, finally, I wrestle the shin bone free.

I drop it into the fire, almost stumbling in after it. I smile at my own slapstick. I must look hilarious dying.

But they are mine. I place the precious valenki lightly on the ground next to me. My sharp breath is scarce and sandpaper sour as I struggle to remove my old boots. They are cracked and parchment thin. Brittle. Another even contest. An eternity passes before I coax them both off.

Now.

I pull the valenki on over blackfrost feet. The stories were true. They are much warmer than ours. Heavenly.

But one of them bites. There is something sharp inside. I tip out a heart shaped pendant and slip the boot back on.

I unfold the small locket. The Russian’s wife and daughter look back at me.

His bride glares at me accusingly as her husband’s legs bubble like pork in the fire.

But his daughter smiles sadly, pitying me as I stand shakily in her father’s boots.

They stare at me and I stare back. In this place only God looks away.

My stomach roars and shrieks. It demands that I fill it. Begs me to.
You will, you will, you will. You will. You will. It is no use now. My triumph to take the Russian’s boots has taken all of me. Every last drop.

And they were wrong.

I can do nothing now but fall to the icing pepper earth. The permafrost rushes up to greet me, smashing my face to splinters. My gasps rattle out of a broken mouth, clearing a small spot on the ice of its miniature debris.

My life does not rush before my eyes. I’m much too tired for that. The shiny patch my breath creates on the ice is soothing somehow. A tiny perfect paradise in the middle of hell.

I tuck the locket into my boot and close my eyes, grateful for the young girl’s forgiveness.

At least my feet will be warm.

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The Blue Truth

It cannot be real.

It must be an illusion.

I have been drawn here. With the help of the old woman and the flow of the river I have been carried far from lands I know. But not all the way to this hidden place. The sweet voice in my head guided me to the spot she resides. The massive hollowed eucalypt is her home. It stands guard above and around her.
No others dwell here but this pretty girl. This child.
She is fragile, smaller than me, but we are related. I know this regardless of the aura she gives off. Her eyes are shark grey around her enlarged pupils. She wears a simple light blue shift over her moon pale body. Her hair is dark and straight like mine. But mine stops before it reaches my feet. Hers must have started growing when the giant tree was a sapling. It extends across the ground in all directions, up the inside of the tree and across the roof.
It parts where I take a step.
I hesitate as I get close, for I sense danger. A wave of hair rises where I stop and forms an elegant stool. I take my seat.
And I notice her skin.
It is pallid, untouched by sunlight. Mine is as dark as Osiris in comparison.

And through it, underneath it, I see an illusion that I know is not.

It swims beneath her flesh. It is purple and grey, silver and gold, swirling through oily blue. It is sharp and angry. Smooth and soothing. It both heats and cools her. It converges and dissipates as it whispers and teases and torments and screams.
I recognise it and therefore also her.
She is myth made real.
She is purity.
Ma’at.
The Truth.

Her speaking voice is the one from my head.
“Hello little queen” she says. That which the gold man called me many seasons ago. She is the love that Ptah cannot hold.
Ma’at answers the questions I don’t need to say aloud. And the ones I don’t want to.
As she speaks, her tale plays out under the paper lantern of her skin.

“My mother was Wadjyt, a beautiful mortal woman. She caught the eye of your grandfather, who befriended her. In awe of what Ra was able to show her, she feigned an attraction for him to find out all she could of his secrets. When she still remained unsatisfied, she devised a plan to sleep with him with the sole purpose of learning all of his knowledge. He resisted her seduction for many years, and the longer she waited the more bitter she became. Practically insane, she finally succeeded but the lovemaking he had avoided so long was cold and spiteful. At the point of his climax she screamed to the heavens to know everything and to be everything. Ra, cheated and angry, granted her request. Into her flowed what she sought and beyond. But Wadjyt did not benefit from it. She gained only longevity, to suffer for longer. The rest entered via the twins conceived by Ra. The first born was given the physical everything. The most beautiful woman of existence. Desirable to men and women alike, her face and body never ravaged by age or blemish. But none could desire her more than she loves herself. Her selfishness has festered into an apathetic cruelty and continues to worsen. The beautiful façade hides her complete lack of morals. She is vile and false. When she encounters a kindred spirit their partnership will threaten everyone. Everything.
Her twin was given the answers. All of them.”
She held out her thin arms and the colours and movement beneath her flesh intensified.
“All that has been, and is, and will be. The truth of everything. It is so overwhelming, the touch of my skin by a mortal is fatal. Even one like you would be lucky to survive. It fills me. Then overfills me. It moves within me endlessly. Relentlessly. Overlapping. Day and night. Always being added to. Always more. With every second, more. Sometimes it pauses for a moment, but only a moment. But when it does, I see things clearly.
”I have seen you” says the little voice.

“I told my mother I saw you on that high ledge. It was in the future, but I didn’t know when. I could see your fate, but you could not. There was something you hadn’t realised, and your ignorance would cost your life. In that instant I also saw within you, and knew that you could not perish there. That we must meet.
My mother, as willing penance for her sin, offered to go to the place I described and wait for you there.”

I wondered how long poor Wadjet had sat there awaiting my wedding day.
“Six and a half thousand years” said the Truth.

Ma’at had spoken of Wadjyt in the past tense. To avoid giving me away under Seth’s torture, she had followed me over the edge.

Her penance is over. It has saved me.

The Blue Truth has saved me.

I look at the tiny girl and can see within the storm of the truth, the tortured child who carries an unbearable load. She reads my pity and her soft tears follow well worn paths down her cheeks.

I want to hug her. Kiss her. Thank her.

I get up and step forward a little. The stool drops back to the floor and a new one appears where I halt. I can feel the electricity of her. It rages and surges, liquid and dangerous. It threatens me. But her face is so terribly sad. I cannot come closer and she knows I wish to comfort her. It adds to her existing torment. At that moment, it is worse. I wonder if she has ever been held.

She does not say it but the colours and patterns in her flesh do.

No.
No one.
My heart doesn’t just break, it shatters.
I rise and go to her. I must.
Her eyes tell me even she did not foresee this.

As our skin makes contact it feels as though insects are running through my fingers. The sensation rushes through me like forest fire, an avalanche of rapid, vivid images. A maelstrom incinerates my mind. Faces and futures. Two fair haired girls. A freckle faced boy. A kind faced man with my sister’s eyes. A short middle aged woman, her forearms dripping blood. A gaunt man nailed to a cross. And others.Countless others. Thousands. Millions. A small red gem that sings my name. Buildings and vehicles of strange construction. Storms made by nature and storms made by man. Burning forests. Burning houses. Burning cities. Burning children. There are pleasant things, but the bad swamps and overwhelms them. Pain. Pollution. Disease. Famine. Murder. Insanity. War. Endless death. It tears through me, a clawing biting squealing hurricane. It lasts an instant. A half instant.
I am thrown away from her in a shockwave and my body slams into the ground, cracking bones and ripping flesh. I feel detached from the neck down, unable to control my limbs. Vomit gushes from me as my body purges violently. Attempting to stand, I crash back down face first. I do the same a second time. On the third attempt I get to unsteady feet.
It is beyond comprehension. An unliveable life. Every second is an agony for her. Every single second.
Her way out is the same one I have just faced. The only freedom is death.
She has seen herself free. She wears a dark crimson gown, almost black. Her face is at peace.
But she is not yet ready to don the dark gown.
She only wears the pale blue dress. Despite her endless tortured existence she lives to help.

I have never been so humbled. Felt so unworthy.

She is noble. Innocent. Terrifying.

I am the goddess Nephthys and I try to run from her despite broken limbs. Blindly I stumble away, the physical pain ignored. I fall. I run.
She calls me queen but I am a coward.

I run.
Leaving behind the lonely child.

The bravest girl on earth.

(excerpt from the novel „Last Goddess”-available on Amazon.)

Catcher

It wasn’t that he remembered the sounds. He had never stopped hearing them.

The whip crack of the shots and watermelon wet of their impact. The clattering cacophony of metal and ceramic, tile and Formica. The rising screams of his divas. A lunatic opera, a symphony in the key of red.

She seemed to appear out of nowhere. Jess, her nametag read. She wore the faded gingham of a truck stop waitress, philosophic smile and all. Smelled of jasmine, cinnamon and ammonia. Though she cosseted a steel coffee pot on an oven mitt protected hand, Jess was as out of place in the uni cafeteria as he was. His fingers tightened as she filled his cup, but the noise dulled a little. He didn’t throw it in her face.

He took her all in; hair pulled back tight, west coast sun kissed and pretty, without looking at her. He looked at them. They were seated now, three rows away. Talking, laughing, no one really eating. Colorful and wonderful and full of life. Exchanging thoughts and hearts and spit. Eight at the table. One behind the counter. The stark lights illuminated them into movie stars.

The waitress hadn’t left and that confused him.

Jess tabled the coffee pot and slid into the chair next to him. She punched a small fist into the padding of the quilted mitt.

“I used to play with my two brothers. They always needed a catcher.” Jess tapped a finger to a faint crooked scar near her temple. “Bobby got me a good one the first time. Knocked me flat” she chuckled. Jess raised the glove, shaking her head. “I got better though. Fact is, I got real good at it. I loved it.” She pulled the mitt back, perhaps this time gloving that slider from Bobby. “What do you love doing?”Her smile was more cinnamon than ammonia.

“Don’t start that let’s fucking compare scars bullshit with me.”

A girl with glasses at the other table glanced over at him, a black pit where one eye should be.

“Do you know what happened here?” he spat.

“In eighty five? Sure. Everyone knows what happened here. Michael Vandover shot and killed eight students and one of the staff. Injured plenty more. Then he put the gun in his own mouth and blew his brains out.”

His nod was almost imperceptible. “What a coward.”

“Everyone knows the rest too. How he was mistreated, bullied. Abused. What his father did to him.”

The boy sat in silence, struggling to break the glue on his lips. “Guitar” he finally managed. “Playing guitar was what he lov-what he liked doing best” he muttered.

The others had moved one table closer, their friendly banter now a foreboding wind of whisper.

“None of the dead did a thing to him. Not one of them. Fucking coward.”

“It’s never too late to be brave.”

“Brave? There is no brave, lady. Everyone hides behind someone or something. A crew, a cause, a gun, a fucking cross! What do you know about brave?”

“My boyfriend was beating me. I stood up to him.” Jess unbuttoned her dress, exposing her breasts. No camera phones clicked. No one whistled. Not a murmur. The straight crimson kiss of a knife ran down the inside of one breast. The cut was deep, angry. There were others, continuing down her stomach and out of sight. He wondered if they ever ended; such was the hate in those wounds.

He swallowed it down with his own.

“Did it hurt?” he asked quietly as she rebuttoned.

“Only for a little while honey.”

He spun away quickly, angry for caring. “I told you I didn’t want to see any scars, bitch. So your courage got you stabbed? Great fucking job.”

“It got me free” smiled Jess, more jasmine than ammonia.

He looked up. The others were now at the next table. Their dead stares turned his gut to ice.

“Can’t you see them?”

“Who?”

“FUCKING THEMMMM!” he screamed. The girl with one eye raised her index finger at him with a sneer.

Jess scanned the neat and empty chairs and tables, chiaroscuro stark in pre dawn light.

He watched her face hopefully, but they were his phantoms alone.

“It was thirty years ago honey. “

He heard the whip crack bullets and watermelon wet. The lunatic opera. Saw the girl with glasses beg him not to shoot. Tasted the oil blue heat of the barrel.

“Not if you were there.”

The one eyed girl crawled under the table towards him.

“You need to get out of this place” whispered Jess.

He laughed, though his eyes were as dull and black as a shark. “There’s nowhere I can go.” His head dropped into his hands. The back of his head was a crater; a white chocolate, grey marshmallow Easter egg bitten by God. She stroked his hair nevertheless. He felt her touch, even where the nothing was, all jasmine and cinnamon.

“There’s no place I belong” he sobbed.

“There’s one place. All you have to do is get up out of that chair Mike.”

He looked down at his lap. The one eyed girl’s arms held him tight.

“Is there a heaven? A h-hell?

“No honey. There’s just after.”

The first thin strings of sunrise crept across the cafeteria.

“W-what do you do there?”

“Whatever you love.”
She rested her fingers on the back of his hand. Her thumb slipped under his wrist and her grip tightened, more ammonia than jasmine. He realized Jess could take him, just like that, if she really wanted to. But her eyes beseeched him to do it.

He knew what the brave thing was.

But he couldn’t forgive himself. Not yet. Maybe never.

The one eyed girl reached up. One by one she peeled back Jess’s fingers. The sunlight reached their table, dissolving all but Jess to the recurring dust of memories past.

She sighed, smoothing the stitches on the oven mitt. Remembering how hard it could be to truly set yourself free.

(written for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge-Genre: ghost story, location: university cafeteria, item: oven mitt-1000 words/48 hours.)

Inquisitor

The grand inquisitor, bony hands clasped, did not look up at him.
“Did she confess?” he asked wearily, looking at the fire.
“Yes my lord” answered the young man proudly.
“Of course she did” laughed the inquisitor. “Let her go.”
“But she confessed.”
“Wouldn’t you? Set her free Alverez. Tomorrow we leave for Irun.”
“But sir, if I may be so bold, if we are setting another one free, what is it we are seeking? Are we not bringing God’s justice to bear on those who practice witchcraft?”
The cold green eyes climbed the face of the young novice. They brought more fear than any of the accused wretches he had seen in the chamber below the monastery.
“Close the door Alverez.”
The young man hastily swung the heavy door shut. He was about to learn something special, secret. Something that Carlo and the others would not. He stood expectantly before the Grand Inquisitor.
“Do you believe in witches Alverez?”
What a strange question.
“Of course my lord. The Pope himself leads the fight against them.”
The inquisitor rose, picking up the book from the corner of his desk. The Malleus Maleficarum The hand book of the witch hunter. He held it thoughtfully, a strange smile on his thin lips. Alverez envied him touching it. What pearl of wisdom would the inquisitor extract from its hallowed pages to share with him?
Casually, the pale man tossed the book into the fire. Alverez moved instinctively to retrieve it, but the cold eyes prevented him from doing so.
Unbelievably, he watched the hungry flames devour it with his master.
“There are no witches.”
The young man’s eyes widened at the statement.
“There are good. There are bad. But there are no witches. The church seeks to re-establish its authority by fear. Nothing more than that.”
Alverez summoned enough courage to question his master
“If you believe that my lord, why are you an inquisitor?”
“I seek someone well beyond a witch.” The crackling flames reflected against the dull pallor of his face. “I seek the devil herself.”
Alverez crossed himself hurriedly.
“Her? You’re saying the devil is a woman?”
“And why do you presume the unholy one is a man?”
“Because the devil is Lucifer, the fallen archangel. The scriptures tell us this.” He held his bible before him in shaky hands to emphasize his point.
The inquisitor snatched it from his trembling hands and threw it into the flames as well.
Again they watched the fire do its work.
“How could you know this?”
“Because long ago, I met her. I tried to take her but she eluded me.”
Again the novice crossed himself. His legs struggled to hold him up. Now he realised the meaning in the eyes of his master. He had seen the devil. It had taken the fire from his eyes but not from his mission. The ultimate mission.
“Knowing this, do I still have your loyalty Alverez?” asked the pale man quietly.
The novice dropped to his knees, kissing the hem of the inquisitors robe.
“More than ever my lord” he grovelled.
“Bless you” said the pale man, rolling his eyes above the supplicant at his feet.
Alverez looked up with reverence. “How will we know when we find her my lord?”
“None of our methods will mark her. None will harm her.”
“Demon queen!” shouted Alverez excitedly.
“Indeed.”
He lifted the young man to his feet.
“Tell none other of this my boy. We do not want fear amongst them.”
“I understand my lord.” He felt the stirring of an erection beneath his cassock. This revelation was for only him to know!
“I wish to have you at my side for this quest. But if that is to be, I need more than word of your devotion. I need proof.”
“Anything my lord. Ask anything of me.”
The pale man walked to the window. He looked down at the ten year old girl sweeping the monastery courtyard with a wicker broom. She caught the movement at the window and waved daintily at the Grand Inquisitor.
“Only one blue eyed girl in the village has not been interrogated. It will be thorough. And you will do it personally.”
“Yes my lord” whispered Alverez.
The pale man returned the girl’s wave, beckoning her into the building.
Lucia Alverez leant the broom against the wall and took the steps excitedly up to them.

(from the novel “Last Goddess”)

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)