To Thank Her For Holding My Hand

 

(Writing challenge: romance/battlefield/sailboat.)

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I met a boy in France when I was thirty-four years old. I won’t say he taught me how to love again, but he did teach me to hate a lot less. And I’ll take that.
Not in a cafe or gallery. Not wearing a beret, painting on a bridge. Not even the flickering lamplight we shared was romantic.

I met him in a field hospital tent at the Somme. I’d been there long enough to despise everything. God averting his eyes while teenagers died by the thousands to gain ten feet of mud and rock. Of course I detested them, but I’d also come to abhor us. An endless trail of stinking, pant pissing soon to be corpses. The endless waste had hardened me to a numb, consuming hatred. He saw it in my eyes straight away.

“Don’t hate them,” he pleaded. “I don’t blame them for wanting to live as much as me.” His thin chest heaved, riddled with grenade shrapnel. Somehow he managed a smile. I sat.

“We’re nearly out of morphine,” I apologised.

“That’s OK. It would be a waste anyway.” Perspiration on his forehead vaporised as steam in the cold night air. His jaw was visible through the ragged tear below his cheekbone. His right arm completely gone, a crude tourniquet seeping pink. A collapsed lung.

Just die already, kid.

Still smiling, he looked me over with eyes of calm silk-satin green.
“You’re b…” he started, before the blood in his lungs sent him into a racking, gasping, bubbling cough lasting a full two minutes.
“…breathtaking,” he finally finished with a grin.

A pun? How could he make a fucking joke?

“You sh-should go. Maybe you can help someone else.”

“I’m staying right here,” I surprised myself by saying. “What will you do when you get back home?”

He played along.
“I’ll b-b-build a sailboat,” he said thoughtfully. “Eventually,” he added, nodding at the missing arm. “And I’ll sail across the Atlantic to see my pretty nurse again.”

“And whisk her away like a pirate’s wench?”

“N-no.”

He actually fucking blushed.

“To thank her for holding my hand.”
I hadn’t realised I was.

“And,” he mumbled, “If she wanted, take her sailing around the Mediterranean. To see her hair not in a tight bun, but messy, wild, sun bleached and fr…” He exploded into another coughing fit. A rain of blood spattered against my uniform.

Mercifully, a syringe was slipped into my hand.

“No!” he gasped, his grip maniacally strong in mine. “Others………someone else.”

“No one needs it more than you,” I protested, surprised at the girlish pitch of my own voice.
But those damn silk-satin eyes held tight.
“It might take her away,” he rasped.

”Who?”

“My b-breathtaking sailboat nurse, of course.”
That fucking goddam smile.

“Don’t cry,” he whispered. And was gone.

From the door of the tent, the familiar bark of the sergeant. “Incoming!”

I met a boy in France. A seventeen year old boy I couldn’t save.
So long ago. And yesterday.
Sometimes, in dreams, my hair is not grey, but sun bleached and free. As I sail the beautiful blue of the Mediterranean with the boy who does nothing but smile.

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Seeking Spring

 

(Written for NYCM Short Story Comp: 8 days/2500 words/fantasy/neighbours/an outlaw.)

 

An ambitious king sends a ruthless hunter to capture a small girl in the winter winds of Midland. While two brave brothers seek to keep her safe, Lali knows of only one calling-to the game.

 

The king removes the bell shaped lid of a tiny glass terrarium. A single, frail teadaisy folds its petals against the sudden bite of winter air.
“This is the scent.”
At his feet languishes a massive Nightwolf; with oil black fur clumped in sharp scales. Eyes of glitter green. It pushes itself up, first onto all fours, then completely upright. Cricks it neck. The creature bends carefully to the flower and gently sniffs the aroma. The daisy dies when he exhales.
“Find her. Bring her to me.”
The wolf sneers down at the king, then like inksmoke bursts through the tower window and into the frozen night.
The king rushes to the window and bellows into the snow storm.
“ALIVE!”

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

“Wake up, wake up!” the brothers pleaded.
On a ledge; a potted plant, little more than a stick sprouting smaller sticks, leant toward them in pathetic challenge.
“Go away. It is nowhere near time to start the seek,” groaned Lali from beneath the deep furs. “Quite un-neighborly,” she mumbled.
The skeleton of the plant formed a small mouth shape and snapped at Lom’s sleeve.
With a flash of Erv’s bladeglass, the angry stick was relieved of duty. Lali’s head rolled over, her flat grey eye fixed on the tall Midlander. The floorboards groaned beneath him, threatening to break their iron cleats.
“Very un-neighborly.” She rolled back to the wall. “Go…… away.”
The bedposts groaned as they bent to form a protective X over her.
Erv grabbed an exposed ankle and yanked. The small girl was pulled out from under the blankets, her nightdress of yellowed leaves dissolving to detritus and dust as she landed on the floor. She blinked, seamoon skinned and unbelieving at them. An unsteady, three feet three of confusion and angry brambled hair.
There was no precedent for this.
Lom averted his eyes as he held out a bundle of warm clothes.
“We are also your guardians during the long sleep,” reminded Erv briskly. “This is not play. Dress quickly little one. Danger comes on flying feet.”
“There is only play,” harrumphed the girl.
Grumbling, Lali pulled on the leggings and vest. The heavy jacket and scarf. She hated the boots, but shrugged her thin legs inside them. Lom helped her to feet unsteady from many months of inaction.
“The king has declared you an enemy of the crown. Fabricated charges. Ten thousand gems to bring you in alive. And that’s not the wors….”
“Is that lots?” asked Lali with a sudden grin. The boys did not grin back.
“We have a friend at the castle. She sent us a message by crowclaw,” explained Erv. “The king has a plan to capture you. To keep you.
“It’s not Lali he wants,” whispered Lom. “He knows who you really are……..and he’s sent the Varriken to hunt you.”
“The V….the Nightwolf? Ha! He’s just a story, boys,” Lali snickered as she started to unbutton her jacket. “And the villagers? Why they couldn’t….”
With a sigh Erv scooped her under his arm as Lom held open the door. Lali kicked her feet as they carted her out into snowfall. Erv hoisted her onto the wicker saddle of a golden herlion, where she pulled faces until, with horror; she saw the boys’ house aflame from flagstone to feeple. Erv ran to it, lighting a torch from the inferno and flinging it into Lali’s open doorway. He leapt onto the mount beside her.
Lali’s brow furrowed. The trees surrounding their homes leaned into the blaze, beating at the flames with their winter stripped branches.
“No Lali! Let it burn. Leave it nothing but ash to find.”
She looked, wide-eyed to Lom, who answered with a small nod of his cap.
“Apparently you’re not the only myth that’s not a myth.”
They pulled their herlions away as the small windows of her cottage began to glow like eyes of greenglitter.

 

“Why would the king want me?”
“He seeks to invade Northlands,” explained Lom. “If he controls you, he can give an advantage to his army. Control the harvest, the freeze and flow of the Norriver…”
Lali shook her head. Feeling had trickled back to her limbs. But for a moment, an unfamiliar stone sat cold in the bottom of her belly.
“We’re taking you to Friar’s Fortress,” announced Erv. “You’ll be safe there.”
He pushed them faster, but knowing that if all the myths about the Nightwolf were true, there may be no such thing as a safe place.

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

Varriken rose onto his hind legs, waiting for the taste in the swirl and sweep of the winter wind. There was nothing he couldn’t find if he had the taste.
He thought of the squirming flymonkey, bound in the palace. A dweller from the Grey Mountains, in trees so tall even a nightwolf could not reach them. The most succulent of treats.
“I have eight more,” the king had boasted. “If you help me.”
There it was. Faint on the tide of the shifting breeze. The scent of elmfire, fear… and her. Moments later he was flying south again, the ground a rushing sea of white beneath the blur of his claws.

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

By midspell they reached the Hill of Stones, dusted in snowpowder. Erv eased the herlions to a walk, their broad footpads silent in the talc as they made the steady climb. Lom looked over at Lali, her face tight with displeasure.
“What did you mean by there’s only play?”
Lali glanced at him. Pitying him and his brother for having to worry about anything else; food, drink, disease and especially, death. They had been her long sleep guardians for more than twenty years, probably a significant time for them. But really only half the blink of an eye. Erv and Lom were much smaller once. Every year, she awoke on an icy morn and donned the warm garments they provided. They would bow, she would smile. Sometimes a few words, but not many, were exchanged before Lali strolled cheerfully out into the snow. They didn’t know what really happened between then and her return; dejected, in a tattered dress of leaves.
As long as she could remember, she’d wake two weeks past Midwinter and seek the Blue Queen. Through the whitewashed fields of Midland. The Grey Forrest. Sometimes as far as the steep slopes of the Dellens where the Norriver starts as a trickle. The longer the search, the longer the winter.
When found, Madame Winter would pass her crown to Lali, who would wear it until the Summer Lord came for it in turn. Some guy called Redleaf was the only other player in this eternal game of hide and seek.
“So the ice crown becomes flowers when I put it on,” she finished explaining patiently. “Then it is my time.”
“And if you could never find Madame Winter, it would stay forever cold?” asked Lom.
“Well, that is the game,” shrugged Lali. “I could bring the green anytime,” she mused, biting her lip. “But, upsetting the Blue Queen is not a great idea. Only the Summer Lord is grumpier. It’s absolutely fankwhistle when he finds me!”
They crested the Hill of Stones. An armoured paladin sat against a flat rock, an enormous glassblade beside him. He tilted back the visor of his helmet, revealing fierce honeygold eyes. Lali giggled. The man looked like a dregdillo in his greypewter suit. He greeted the trio with a raised gauntlet.
Erv tossed down a coin pouch without slowing his mount. “Thank you Jor,” he smiled grimly. “Do your best.”
“None will pass here Ervryn,” declared the knight. “Not even a fl…”
But the travellers were gone, continuing down the other side. Their herlions’ ragged breath, fading cottonwool clouds.

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

Varriken snorted, clearing soot from his nostrils. There were no bodies in the rubble, no tracks in the fresh fall of snow. The delay angered him. Kept him from a flymonkey feast. He circled, snarling, until he caught the scent again.
A windcrow, drawn to prey from the effects of the fire, swept low over the smoky ruins. Varriken leapt in a ripple of midnight, twisted with the evasive movement of the bird and plucked it from the sky. He crunched through its thin bones before spitting the long beak to the ground. The wolf took up a mouthful of snow. As it melted in his mouth, he tipped back his head to wash down the bitter taste of the stringy bird.
With a final crick of his long neck, he bolted away from the smouldering houses, inksmoke, towards the Hill of Stones.
Contemplating the taste of the teadaisy child.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

A lavender robed friar met them half a mile from the fortress. His raiment clunked with ornamental pendants. His girth suggested winter had not been a struggle so far. His eyes narrowed on the tiny frame of Lali.
“Praise the Long Gods,” he smiled.
Lali didn’t like the smile. She tensed, ready.
“Indeed,” replied Lom with little conviction.
Fankwhistle, thought Lali.
“You are the three that seek the protection of our deities?”
“We seek only the stone of your walls,” answered Erv, shifting restlessly in the saddle.
Lali sensed a new chill, beyond the blush of winter. She peered into the white mist from which they’d come. There was something, a growing speck of black coming impossibly fast across the valley floor.
“The king has issued a warrant for a childling. Tell the little one to unwrap the scarf.” The friar widened his stance, resting his chubby hand on a jewelled hilt tucked into his waistband.
Lali swung to face him, her irises, flattened grey discs. An applevine sprung from beneath the friar’s feet, swiftly encircling his legs and arms. Pushing an apple into his mouth. With a dull thud he fell face first into a snowdrift.
“No one plays if I can’t,” muttered Lali as they prodded the exhausted herlions into the faint shadow of the fortress.

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

Jor had battled many men, werehawks and even the monstrous macebears of Westland. But none like this. None that moved quicker than the wind could carry, seeming to dissolve and reappear as if by the cast of dark magic. The phantom beast raced up the slope, seeming to gain speed despite the gradient.
He raised his blade as the Nightwolf exploded past him. His swing carved through the air, cleaving nought but fading courage and false hope.
Jor felt a thin sting at his throat, despite the chainmail collar. His head slid down the angle of the clawcut and stained the snow to plumflower.

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

The fortress guards shouted down to the gatekeepers as the three riders approached. The grating sounds of handlecrank echoed from the great doorway as the massive drawgate began to lift from the ground.
Erv’s herlion, burdened with the most weight and relentless pace, now lagged behind the other two. Erv’s neck hair prickled. A flash of night erupted from the whiteness, tearing down his struggling mount in a roiling storm of black, gold and growing crimson. Erv was thrown clear, landing just behind Lali.
His glassblade whistled as he tore it from the scabbard. He slapped the flat of it against the flank of the girl’s herlion. It leapt in response, crashing into the retreating edge of the drawgate and hurling her forward. Lom sprung from his saddle, catching the gate with his fingers and scrambling over. They tumbled down the sharpening slope and into the fortress as the huge slab slammed into place behind them.
Men came running past them to reinforce the gate. The guards at the top of the wall bellowed demands for weapons and boiling oil pots. Lom scooped up Lali and ran the other way; through a series of doors and steps to the centre of the fortress, a square courtyard surrounded by spear topped walls. He barred the door, wedging it with barrows and spades.
Lali looked around but saw nothing but greystone.
Lom struggled shakily with his pack, finally withdrawing a shortsword with an unmarked blade. His hands trembled as he stood ready.
Her small voice startled him. “Where’s Erv?”
“My brother is b-busy.”
“Hmm… Your blade looks very light. Why are you shaking?”
He didn’t turn.
“Lom?”
She’d never called them by name before.
“Lali, people….people who aren’t like you…sometimes get …scared.”
“Oh.”
A burst of sounds emanated from the outer gate. A screeching like blade on ice pierced the air. Crossbow strings thudded. Men screamed; at first, with defiance. One by one the voices were extinguished like bedtime candles.
Lom tightened his grip in the eerie silence. He could hear his heart thumping, the blood humming through his veins.
There was a gentle sound from the top of the wall, little more than a falling leaf on soft earth. A long dark shape hung from the spearshafts.
“Stay back Lali!”
The Nightwolf eased apart the spears. It perched atop the wall, its chase complete. Its mouth, a razor slash of red, pulled back slowly.
“La-li.”
The girl tilted her head, studying the creature curiously. It was old. Not Neverold, like her. But much older than the boys. Beneath the slick, blood drenched fur lay powerful cords of muscle capable of terrible destruction. Its claws and teeth, long and bladeglass sharp. The green glitter eyes, cunning and intelligent. Always hungry.
Lom stepped forward, sword raised. “I see my brother took your ear, puppy dog. Allow me to even that up for you.”
Lali whirled around. Lom wasn’t like Erv. How could he challenge and joke when obvious death awaited him? Confused, she pressed her hand to his stomach, feeling for the cold stone. She pulled away sharply, understanding it wasn’t himself he feared for.

Lali’s eyes plunged into seas of blackwater. “Please forgive me, Madame Winter.”
As the Varriken launched itself at Lom, a crack louder than thundershot rang from the coldstone.
The Nightwolf hung there a moment, inches from Lom’s blade tip. Then it rose, impaled on a tree summoned fresh from the earth. The trunk and limbs pushed on, bursting through the creature’s flesh and tearing it to ragribbon. Its foul head lolled on a low branch.
Open mouthed, Lom snicked off the wolf’s other ear.
A tomdrum rumble began beneath them. From around the tree, a carpet of grass rippled across the courtyard, spreading in all directions. Creepers scrambled over walls. Vines ravished flag poles. Bubbles of flower buds appeared and bloomed moments later. Spring unbound vaulted the fortress walls and maniacally danced its way across the Midlands.
Lali, moongreen naked, held out the pile of warm clothes. Lom quickly looked away as he took them back.
“Thank you Lom.”
She smiled and he didn’t smile back.

Lali pressed her back against the wall. Slumped down it. A wave of Spring rolled over her legs, wrapping her in a nightdress of fresh leaves. The green climbed her thin body, creeping finally to her exhausted face.

“The Summer Lord will never find me here,” she grinned.

ONLY DEEDS

Written for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge-48hrs/1000 words/Historical fiction/house for sale/a bomb.

 

 

 

 

In 1913 Manchester, Sylvia Pankhurst returns to her childhood home at the request of her sister Christabel. As the feuding sisters clash over the direction their cause is taking, elsewhere another suffragette takes extreme action.

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

 

                                                              ONLY DEEDS

 

 

The red brick facade seemed sullen in the humid shade of the infirmary. Or perhaps, dread added shadow only she could feel. Sylvia swung open the black piked gate, noticing the fading peel of the painted iron. Weeds in the flagstone. The hedge with too many thorns and not enough blooms. The door stood slightly ajar as if half welcome, half warning. She pressed her hand against the brocade at her stomach, breathing deeply. Reluctantly she lifted her skirts over the well worn step and into her childhood home.

 

And they’re off!

 

Christabel sat in simple grey velvet at the small round parlour table where their mother once held court. Behind her, the heavy burgundy drapes blanketed most of the light from the bay window. A single kerosene lamp cast illuminated a sheaf of legal papers and a crystal decanter.

“You missed Mister Brearley.” Christabel finished the small glass and promptly refilled it. She rankled at the fact she’d earned a law degree, but as a woman was unable to practise.

But Sylvia knew the paperwork for the sale was not the real reason for her summons to Manchester.  She twisted up the lamp wick a quarter turn, illuminating the green, white and violet on shawls, cushions and wall hangings. The Women’s Social and Political Union was born in this room. Sylvia shuddered at what the group had become, despite the sticky June day. Suffragettes was the derisive term now used.

Above the mantle, the two WSPU flags were missing, though the centerpiece remained. Her own embroidery, her mother’s battle cry.

 

A huge roar went up from the crowd. As one they pressed toward the track. A tall, thin woman in blue jostled her way toward the fence at Tattenham Corner, where the horses would ease off a little before the sprint down the home straight. Only forty, she looked closer to sixty with gaunt skin stretched paper lantern thin over her long frame. Her golden hair already hurried to grey well ahead of its time. She cursed her weak body. If only it were as strong as her mind! But she had suffered much in recent times. A small price, she reminded herself. Inside her coat, she had pinned the two distinctive flags to leave no doubt as to her cause…

 

“Deeds not words,” mocked Christabel. “There was a time when you believed that as well.”

 

“There was a time,” answered Sylvia, “when we did not light fires, throw axes at Prime Ministers…”

“Shame it missed.”

“…or plant bombs!”

The explosion at Lloyd George’s summer house had been the line in the sand at which Sylvia had recoiled. The politician had been sympathetic to their cause until then.

“Our mother took the blame for that Chrissie. Sentenced to three years for it.”

“And released in thirty days. Emily says they’re terrified of creating a martyr.”

“Emily? Davison? The woman is insane.”

Davison had been arrested on countless occasions. She’d been force fed nearly fifty times in prison after orchestrating hunger strikes. The woman ranted to newspapers and people in the street alike. Issued threats. Made bombs from kerosene soaked linen. No one had died, yet. Oh Chrissie…

 

“Up the hill they come with a mile and two furlongs to go. Prue for Danny Maher leads early, with Louvois just astern. The favourite Craganour is next, buffeted by Abouyer, with Shogun at their wither. Then Day Comet and Radiant. Fairy King sits outside his majesty’s colt, Anmer but they’re well off the pace…” An excited racegoer pressed against the woman’s back, sending stars of pain shooting through her. She was still two rows back from the railing, and could feel the thunder of hooves growing beneath her feet…

 

Christabel mocked her sister’s grimace. “Are you too delicate for a bowl a’skilly in ‘Ollaway? For milk and raw egg funneled through a pipe, only to vomit it up again? To be hosed down like an animal? Emily broke her back when she threw herself off that railing in prison. A true sister. Words have failed. Now there are only deeds.”

 

“And on the downhill run to Tattenham they come with six furlongs to run. Prue is joined by the long shot Abouyer. Louvois lost his position. The favourite begins to make his move under strong riding. Day Comet is cramped Shogun is shuffled rearwards. The king’s horse is still well back. In fact Anmer has only two behind him…” She must get to the rail. Now. She lifted her voice to the sky. “Votes for women” she screeched. The shocked man in front of her turned, and in that moment she squeezed past him…

 

“No,” whispered Sylvia. “It’s too much.”  The pins had slipped from Christabel’s neat auburn hair. She shook it free. Her eyes blazed like a cornered cat.

“Chrissie. The new petition w…” Sylvia reached her hand across the table. Christabel recoiled, brushing the legal papers to the floor as she stood.

“Words! Stupid, empty words! What will you do Sylvie? Paint a pretty picture that gets them to rush it through parliament? New Zealanders, and South Australian women can vote. Even run for office! Our colonies before us! What use are our words when those that listen do not hear?”

She drained her glass, slamming it down.

“Don’t pretend to care, traitor. Remember what mother said? We need to attack what they value most; money, property…”

“Christabel, where is Emily?”

“…and pleasure.”

 

The Derby. Everyone who was anyone would be at Epsom, including the royal family. There could be eighty-thousand people there.

 

The first half dozen horses rounded the bend at Tattenham. As they passed, the woman slipped under the rail. Anmer loomed in front of her, leaving no time for his jockey to react. The rider catapulted over the reins as the horses shoulder struck the woman. Her body tumbled, bloody and broken across the turf. A pinwheel of blue, green, white and violet.

 

Christabel leaned forward and blew out the lamp.

“Only deeds.”

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.

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”