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.”

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Fresh

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

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

      FRESH

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

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

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

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

Not the trailer.

 

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

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

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

It was too good to be true.

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

Dan spots the cherub on her shoulder and frowns.

 

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

Meg peers around the seat.

“HE dun’ like tattoos.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t matter.

HE dun’ like tattoos.

Dan presses her fingers closed to form a tight fist.

Meg giggles as she scrubs.

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

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

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

“You gotta dirty mouth,” hisses Meg.

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

“Meg! We can’t kill her.”

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

We can’t kill her.

Can’t?

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

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

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

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

“Taken care of,” said Dan.

Meg giggled.

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

 

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

Had he put them in the trailer?

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

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

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

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

The heater circulating the smell of body odour.

And the stench of evil.

“Gotta lose that ring.”

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

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

Her jackhammer heart coats her fists in crimson.

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

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

Cassie shakes her head.

Meg climbs past to open the door.

“About time.”

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

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

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

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

Dogs, kangaroos, emus.

Humans.

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

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

It looks over the fresh offering in the doorway.

He dun’ like tattoos. Gotta lose that ring.

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

There is one hook spare.

Meg giggles as they lift Cassie onto it.

Demonkeyracy

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

Political satire/zoo/stolen bicycle.

 

 

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

More news at seven.”

 

 

 DEMONKEYRACY

 

“Honey, how’s my anus look?”

“Bright blue and incident free, dear.”

“Excellent.”

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

“My fellow simians, human subjects…”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Don’t let the humans see those.”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Cameras clicked.

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

“This is by far my best side.”

 

“By far,” agreed the capuchin.

 

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

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

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

“Yeah, these guys are getting it.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Concerned staff joined the growing crowd.

 

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

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

 

The capuchin struggled to be heard above the din.

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

The bewildered humans swung their attention back to him.

 

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

“You O.K. there JoJo?” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

From the macaque cage came a single “Nooooooooo.”

 

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

 

Silence.

 

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

 

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

 

The orangutan looked as shocked as anyone.

 

 

 

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

“Honey, how’s my anus look?”

 

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

Overlap

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

 

You can do this.

 

An hour, tops.

 

And Larry Breen could forget about St. Tolerance forever.

It’s just one kid.

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

Pretty much anything starting with “r.”

 

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

 

Tyrone.

Standing on his desk, draped in a UN flag.

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

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

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

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

“Um, Jewish?”

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

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

 

“We have to talk about your inconsistent grades.”

Tyrone snatched the sheaf of papers.

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

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

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

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

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

“Tyrone, you’re black.”

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

“You aced Chemistry though.”

“Dad did all my homework.”

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

“Hey what about this one? An F?”

“Your exam paper was blank.”

Tyrone tapped his forehead, eyebrow raised knowingly.

“It’s physics Tyrone, not psychics.”

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

Breen leaned forward.

“Just feeding Quetzalcoatl, sir.”

“And when did you become legally blind?”

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

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

“Hungry sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He staggered upright, where Tyrone clutched his bleeding nose.

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

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

“I can delete that,” shrugged Tyrone.

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

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

Aaand detention’s over?”

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

He waved.

You know.

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

Leaf Raker

Liam didn’t like offices so he raked leaves at St. Magdalene. He did other things as well; mowing, clipping, watering. But raking seemed to occupy most of his time during his school holiday job, tending to the shedding of indifferent elms. He nodded over his rake to the stoic locals, and the steady visitors who included the historic church in their itinerary of Nottinghamshire. They trickled past throughout the day, in ones, in twos, in lines and in groups.
Liam swept the last pile together next to the open sackcloth bale. The public had gone now, and he dropped to his haunches behind an elm for a quick cigarette. He’d returned to St. Magdalene to avoid his father’s generous offer to join him for five weeks at his city accountancy firm. Both parents had frowned when he declined once again, apparently clinging to the hope that Liam would become the third generation of McAllisters at the firm. Why, it would be such a sad waste of his school results if he didn’t plunge headlong into accountancy, crunching numbers and filing tax returns until he was a hundred and thirty.
Liam lit up a Marlboro, drawing slowly before sending a plume of silver smoke over the neat grass towards Nottingham. There his father; an overweight caricature and mother; a flittering socialite, ran their daily schemes and schedules. Oblivious both of course, to their troubled son’s love of only two things; his guitar and Geraldine Harker. Neither of whom seemed to love him back quite as much. Liam was in a holding pattern, neither content nor not. He teetered on the edge of introversion and he knew it. His job here is not just in opposition to his parent’s wishes. It’s almost like hiding out. He sent another trail of smoke crawling away into the setting sun, stubbing the cigarette into the soil. The wispy tendrils snaked and intertwined before breaking apart again, like the promise of a revelation snatched away. These are the best years of your life, people told him enviously. Liam seriously wondered if he would look back on them that way. The scourge of acne seemed a mountain in itself, let alone his dissatisfaction with his music or shyness around Geraldine. He bunched some grass in his fist, angry at the gods of adolescence and frustrated in that ongoing, yet unexplainable way of the young.
Liam sighed, stood up to bale the last of the leaves, and noticed him.
A man came down the long path towards him with a quiet gliding walk. Through a narrow gap in the tree Liam took in his strange appearance; a flamboyant felt hat pulled low in the front: a plume of feather crowning the purple brim. Out of place atop a long brown and ragged overcoat. A homeless prince.
The man stopped where thousands do, at a carved black stone book set in the lawn. Liam had looked at it a hundred times and still couldn’t remember exactly what it said besides the name and years. In fact, he only knew one quote from the poet by heart.
The man glanced up at the tree, catching Liam off guard. Not knowing if he could be seen or not from the other side, he simply remained still as the man looked away again. That choice now hastily made, Liam froze and waited for the man to move on.
A tall woman was now following the same path. Her laced boots clicked softly on the stones, under a full, deep green skirt. Her long hair, dark cocoa locks spilling over a white blouse buttoned at neck and sleeves. Illuminated by the low gold of the sun, Liam could see the dull powdered pallor of her face and bright painted lips. She clicked to a stop next to the man, peering as well at the marble pages.
“But I have lived, and not lived in vain;
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,”
her voice is steady and sincere.

Liam recognises the words from the memorial as the man recites:
“But there is that within me which shall tire,
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire.”
The man’s tone is quiet and flat.

It is a ritual, to mumble the verse on the black book while standing there.

The felt hat tips toward the woman. The man’s voice is a little louder, more genuine.
“Her glossy hair was clustered oe’r a brow
Bright with intelligence and fair, and smooth.”

“Thank you sir, that was lovely. I see you too are an admirer of the great Lord Byron.”
“Not at all.”
“Really? Yet you stand at his stone and quote from Don Juan?”
“Many know his words” replied the man coldly, “Not all fall at his feet.”
The woman frowned, lightly shaking her head.
“He was a brilliant man. Unique.”

“He was a spoilt pretender. A fake.”

“Though every scribe, in some slight of diction,
Will hint allusions never meant
Ne’er doubt This when I speak,
I don’t hint but speak out.”

She looked at the man as though pitying him.
“Doesn’t sound like pretence to me. He expressed himself freely and openly. Provoked thought and debate. He was no fake!”

“Self important and full of wind then.”

“I may stand alone
But would not change my free thoughts for a throne.”

She shook her head at the man in the coat beside her.
“I cannot agree with you sir. He fought for the freedom of Greece. The home of democracy.”

“No. He was bled dry by the Greeks in exchange for their worship. It was a futile quest.”

“At his funeral, the coffin was followed by forty seven black carriages representing the great houses of Britain.”
“The carriages were empty” the man snarled. “They showed their appreciation and disgust at the same time. Women left parties because of him. Men refused to speak to him. He was an animal. The passage of time does not change that.”

“But he was always going to be different. Handsome, but handicapped. Philandering deviant father. Wealthy and titled at ten? Sexually abused. I forgive him plenty.
Joy’s recollection is no longer joy,
While Sorrow’s memory is Sorrow still.”

“Do you have to keep quoting him?”
The woman turned away, her blush kept safe under the matte of her makeup.

“You speak of him as a forward thinker, but he didn’t move with progress. He wasn’t a forward thinker. He sought to encapsulate the moment, oblivious to, or at the expense of all around him. His only legitimate child was taken from him as a baby. Her mother feared his influence on the girl would be nothing but detrimental.”

“She wasn’t even allowed to see a picture of him until she was twenty years old” said the woman quietly.

The felt hat turned sharply from her countenance just as she looked over at him. Liam saw her troubled face, as though she’d been denied as much as the poet’s daughter. The woman’s long hair dropped just as the man glanced over again, this time his voice held the discomfort.
“Ada was force fed mathematics. Discouraged from literature, particularly poetry. Especially his poetry. Her imagination curbed, she still somehow managed to foresee the future of the modern computer. Her work with Charles Babbage pioneered the way the whole world now communicates. In the eighteen forties! She was ahead of her time. A century ahead.”

“And look at where computers have got us. What they have made us:
Society is now one polished horde,
Form’d of the two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.”

“Those tribes have always existed” admonished the man. “Byron was speaking of himself as well no doubt.”

The woman sighed.
“Now, by my foul, tis most delight
To view each other panting, dying.
In love’s extatic posture lying
Grateful to feeling, as to sight.
He was fourteen when he wrote that. Not many fourteen year olds speak with that kind of passion. Neither bored or a bore.”

“Perhaps not many fourteen year olds know that kind of passion.”

“Oh, I’m sure plenty do. But the writing is the thing. The bold cadence of the words. The rawness.”

“The raving of the insane.”

“Did you come here just to mock him at my shoulder?”

“I come to pay my respect to none of the Lord Byrons buried here. I’m only here because of Ada.”
“His daughter is in the family vault beneath the church” the woman said as if to direct him there.
The man looked over at the pretty church, clad in late afternoon shadow. “I don’t feel that welcome in churches.” He turned his head a little to look at her profile.
“Ada used logic. Incredible reasoning and foresight.”
“But the analytical engine they devised was never built. Her program never tested.”
“It was built. But it took another hundred years. Even then they only built what Babbage foresaw; a super calculator, not the vision of Ada. She predicted uses far beyond maths and simple problem solving. Ada envisaged computers fed more than numbers, machines analysing and creating music. No one else thought that way. Spared the impurities of her father, she changed the world!”
“But she wrote algorithms, the poetry of mathematics. She dreamt and doubted. Preened and struggled. Ripped and tore at her life. Tried to elope at sixteen. Confessed adultery to her husband on her death bed. Perhaps her father had more influence on her than he ever realised.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to influence her. Not in that way. He didn’t fight for her you know, no matter what his heart may have told him.”
“If he thought her life would be better without him, then doesn’t that make his decision quite noble?”
“None of his decisions were for others.”

Again she defended Byron.
“I am the very slave of circumstance
And impulse-borne away with every breath.”

“Yes, the impulses of a pig.”

“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes
Sin is a pleasure.”

This time a thin smile played upon her lips.

“You don’t have to keep quoting him.” He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. “I know them all.”

“Of course you do.”

They looked at each other, actually face to face for the first time. The woman reached out, tilting back the felt hat. She traced a finger over his cheek. Across the nose so like hers. Like a baby daughter might, on her troubled father’s face.”
“So you knew it was me all along Ada?”

“Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.

God dad, look at that hat!”
Liam could see the glistening of her eyes. “Why, after all these years do you still hate yourself so much?

“To fold thee in a faint embrace,
Uphold thy drooping head;
And show that love, however vain,
Nor thou nor I can feel again.”

He smiled weakly at her. He covered her hand with his own.
Liam caught the chill of the moment. The cold certainty of confession and all its consequences. Like a statue, like part of the tree itself he was drawn to the pair at the black book. The sun had sunk to the horizon. The woman seemed so fragile in the last dying rays.
“I’ve only ever sought one thing. The approval of my father. This day I finally have it.” Her voice broke a little, the crystal chipping. “To know you think so much of my work means everything to me.”
The man swallows hard. Not as if he’d never given a compliment, but as though he’d waited so long to give this one.
“You are amazing Ada.”
“Thank you” she whispers as though the words hurt her throat.
Liam thinks they will embrace. They both flinch as if they will. But the man holds back so she does too.
“I seek a single thing as well. In this life or any other.” And now his eyes are wet. “The forgiveness of my daughter.”
She shakes her head softly. As daughters do to silly things their fathers say. She opens her arms and he fills them, weeping like a child. The ugly felt hat falls away. She strokes his wavy hair as he sobs and sobs.
“Then both of us have had our wish fulfilled.”

Liam is crying as well. Weeping at something he has seen in the light and overheard from the shadows. Knowing against all the things he does, that these two are no actors. No fans. That their performance is genuine. Their feelings raw and tears cathartic and oh too real. Liam has never believed in ghosts. He’s still not convinced even now. But what he’s witnessed cannot be explained. Neither can the feeling inside him, as though he’d been laid bare in the twilight and forever changed. He recalls the only lines of Byron he knows by heart. And as seems to be the way, it fits just right.
“Tis strange but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction.”

The two continue to hold each other, meshing into one. And Liam sees the most amazing sight he will see until he holds his own daughter in his arms five years later at Geraldine’s bedside.
The ragged coat turned to moths. Grey and brown and white they take flight, magical in the last rays of the sun. The brown hair, the white blouse, the green skirt explode as though a giant Christmas cracker has been pulled. They erupt into thousands of butterflies, intertwining with the moths. The flying creatures form a spiral, drawing the leaves from the open bale next to Liam. They join the fluttering wings, dancing on the air as they follow them towards the moon.
Liam laughs after them. He will never rake leaves again. Those or any others. Warmth washes across him. The swirling breeze of words and numbers and magic assaults him. It mixes with the honesty and simplicity of his love for Geraldine. He shuts his eyes as the music fills him. An orchestra of madness and emotion in a wave of simple beauty. He rocks back, nearly falling. It is beyond wonderful.

Under the confetti moon the leaves fall like snow.

This revelation doesn’t dissolve like cigarette smoke. It soaks him. Shakes him. Fills him.

He picks up the rake, humming the tune as he carries it back to the shed.
Then he’ll ride home to get his guitar.

He’s going to see Geraldine, the girl he knows he’ll marry. Who he’ll share everything with. He’ll show her first.

After all the song is about her.

(from the short story collection “nine”)

EPILOGUE

History provides great literary characters; it’s the angle that is the key, the fire to the coals. Sometimes the premise for a story reaches out and slaps your face, demanding you take action, as this one did for me.
The figure we know simply as “Lord Byron” was in fact the sixth Baron Byron, George. His father Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, squandered his mother’s family inheritance, then acquired enough debt to force him to leave England. Byron saw little of his father, who died in France aged just thirty six. Coincidentally, Byron died at the same age. And remarkably, so did Ada.
I knew Ada, famed for her mathematical contribution to computer programming, was Byron’s daughter. But that’s all.
I knew nothing of her, or even her father’s life, really. I was pretty sure Byron was the poet who wrote Don Juan (but didn’t know a word of it) and that he was a controversial figure in his time. Oh, and one other dinner table snippet of trivia: that Byron and some house guests once spent a stormy weekend swapping ghost stories. From that gathering came John Poldini’s inspiration for the novel Vampyre, and Mary Shelly’s for Frankenstein.
It interested me that father and daughter excelled in such different areas. I decided to do some research.
The incidents mentioned in my story are all reportedly true, both about Byron and his daughter. The poetry Ada quotes is of course all his. Byron was born with a club foot, an infirmity he apparently hid with the “gliding” stride he walked with. He became Lord Byron at the age of ten upon the death of his great uncle, inheriting a title and a rundown estate. Not quite the spoilt rich kid I’d imagined. His first published volume of poetry was recalled and censored. Some of his work was considered immoral, especially considering he was fourteen when he wrote them. In “The Leaf Raker”, Ada quotes from “To Mary”, one of the poems omitted at the time. Byron came to real prominence due to his use of satire, firstly targeted at not only critics, but other poets.
As his literary successes escalated, so did his excessive lifestyle. Byron accumulated a reputation with a debt to match. He was the prototype of the modern celebrity, revered and despised simultaneously. His sexual misadventures created the most scandal. Openly bisexual, adulterous, possibly incestuous, his passionate affairs consumed and inspired him. He spoke dramatically in parliament, kept a mind boggling cornucopia of animals and sailed warships at the powerful Ottoman Empire. People went to extraordinary lengths just to catch a glimpse of him. Upper class women would bribe and dress as hotel chambermaids to get close. His wife Annabella coined the term “Byronmania” to refer to the public’s fascination with him.
She also took her infant daughter Augusta Ada, and of course herself, away from him in fear of his self destructive lifestyle. Annabella, gifted in mathematics, kept “Ada” as separate from her father’s influence as possible, not even allowing her to look at his portrait. From this far removed household Ada followed a career in numbers instead of words, in time becoming one of the most famous mathematicians in history. Her revolutionary work with algorithms superseded the machines which would use them by a century. When she too died at thirty-six, it’s interesting that her body was placed next to her father’s in the Byron family vault. It seems Annabella could only trust him with her in death.
Having daughters of my own, I couldn’t imagine a lifetime of separation from them. How much did this affect Byron and Ada? How much genetic influence did he have upon her, for her private life too held a shadow of impropriety? Did they secretly communicate without Annabella’s knowledge? Presuming dangerously that history is giving us the truth here, and that their lives never intersected, father and daughter could only meet in the afterlife.
Unencumbered, they could talk freely. Argue, laugh, apologise, console. Because for all the scandal and stories, the fact that Byron and his daughter never spoke together has the most impact on me. And what magic would come from their meeting?
That’s the face slap. And that’s where “The Leaf Raker” comes from.

The inscription on the “black book” is from Canto IV of Childe Harolde. He quotes Don Juan to her. Byron’s work that Ada quotes to him from are in order: Don Juan, Don Juan, Marino Faliero, Don Juan, To Mary, Sardanapalus, Don Juan, Don Juan. When Ada asks Byron why he still hates himself, he quotes from And Thou Art Dead As Young As Fair. The line Liam remembers is from Don Juan.

And yes, Byron did keep a tame bear at school.

Bubblegum

The sparkling white Rolls Royce eased gently to a halt in the driveway of twenty five Brown Street, a non-descript two up-two down in suburban Whitfield. A chauffeur alighted, zipping efficiently to the back door. He opened it, bowing so low his breath cleared the dust from a small patch of concrete.
“Thank you Jenkins.”
The long and luscious legs of Consuela Quest, CEO of Raven Chemicals, emerged. She stood, shaking her luxurious dark hair and smoothing the front of her knitted Givenchy sheath dress.
“Hello Hades” she whispered, stepping gracefully over an upturned skateboard. She glided up two low steps onto the front porch of the house. A blank, fair haired woman held the front door open for her.
“It’s expecting you” announced the glassy eyed blonde.
“Thank you Mrs. Thorne” replied Consuela, drawing a long breath before tackling the sharp stairs to the upper floor.

Turning into the street trundled a small but powerful Chinese runner in purple, towing an elaborate black lacquered rickshaw embellished with gold detail. The puller eased the handles to a stop, positioning the rickshaw at the kerb near the lopsided mailbox. From its opulent padded seat, a rotund, bald Asian man stretched a satin slipper cautiously to the sidewalk. Gathering his vast black silk robes around his considerable girth, restaurateur Min Fa shuffled through the gateway and took the same path as Consuela.
He stopped at the overturned skateboard, shaking his head in disappointment. Bending more fluently than his body shape should allow, he flipped the skateboard back onto its wheels. Stroking the battered deck with his hand, Min sighed before proceeding to the house. Mrs. Thorne, holding a tray of razor blades and wearing a glassy smile, stepped back to allow him room to squeeze past.

Min Fa had just manoeuvred himself inside when a fire red Hummer roared up Brown Street, making no attempt to stop in time to avoid hitting the black rickshaw. It disintegrated into kindling, the Hummer coming to rest with one tyre pinning the crushed Asian man. With a piercing metal creak, the red door swung open. Colonel William Ares Richardson almost stepped over the fallen rickshaw puller, but managed to step on one of the man’s hands. The small fingers crunched like popcorn under Richardson’s heavy boot. He hitched his khaki service pants up under his outrageously hot pink t-shirt. Richardson briskly vaulted the low front fence, despite the open gate. Striding across the patchy front lawn, he ignored the blonde woman at the entrance and took the stairs two at a time.
Rapping sharply on the purple door with his clipboard, he barged past the posters of Sheldon Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch without waiting for a reply.

In a hanging wicker chair suspended by macramé rope, perched their host. Dea sat cross-legged, sixteen year old sweet in Nirvana t-shirt and frayed jeans. Lightweight headphones crowned her straight blonde hair. She was blowing dry the fresh pink polish on her toenails and didn’t look up as Richardson entered the cramped bedroom.
The Colonel snapped his combat boots together loudly. Dea glanced at him briefly, then reached for a skull shaped bong and a dime bag of marijuana. Richardson, muscular and buzz cut, surveyed the remainder of the small room. He bowed his head politely at a sunflower coloured beanbag, ignoring the silk clad Min standing at the window. His gaze travelled past the screen and game console, Guide dog puppy calendar and Mickey Mouse alarm clock.
Consuela sat on the end of an unmade bed, one long leg over the other. Colonel Richardson smiled leeringly at them, his eyes not bothering to go as high as her face.
“You make my skin crawl.”
“Why don’t you admit you want me inside you Connie?”
“The only way you would get inside me is if I ate you, which I assure you I am more than capable of. However, since no doubt you would taste like you behave, you would be completely unpalatable.”
Richardson grunted, turning his attention to Min Fa.
“Not much you’d find unpalatable, you fat fuck.”
Min continued to look out of the narrow window. “Perhaps your parking skills William. Perhaps you could manoeuvre an automobile in a non-destructive, and perhaps, less lethal way.
“Perhaps you could take a shit in your best hat.”

Mrs. Thorne crept into the room, trembling and covered in a cold sweat. She offered a bowl of drawing pins around, her shaking hands causing a few to bounce out of the bowl. Once all four of them had ignored her, she withdrew silently, her pupils tiny spots in wide white eyes.

“It’s all right Fa Min, I’ll give you a lift home” said Consuela.
“Most gracious of you to offer Miss Quest” bowed Min.
“Moost gracious of you to offer” mimicked Richardson. “Fucking fat cocksucker” he added. “Maybe you’ll get a fat dose of pestilence riding in that mouldy Rolls.”
“Don’t you dare call me pestilence! It sounds like a bug spray” snapped Consuela, sitting forward suddenly.
“Well that’s what everyone knows you as. And if the stiletto fits…”
“By name but certainly not by nature” chipped in Min diplomatically.
A cloud of dope smoke unfurled from the wicker chair, crawling lazily across the room. Consuela’s burning umber eyes penetrated the haze, glaring with loathing at Richardson and Min.
“I am the Conqueror” she spat. “You, Mister Richardson are a mere imitation of me, and a poor one at that. What you struggle to achieve with individuals, I bring to nations and continents. On a grand scale.”
“Grand scale? What have you brought on a grand scale lately? Not much since the Great Plague.”
“What about two world wars in a century? Pol Pot? Idi Amin?”
“No way can you claim those two! They were both projects of mine!”
“Well what of Cancer? Ebola? AIDS?”
“See? Pestilence! You admit it yourself. And by the way princess, they’ve cured a kid from AIDS. Maybe it is time for another plague! Grand scale? The only thing happening on a grand scale around here is this sack of crap here.”
Min still looked down at the roadside, oblivious to the insult. “Hoi was such an accomplished puller” he sighed. “An area you no doubt excel in as well William.”
“Still no famine at your place Min Fat?” sneered Richardson.
“As always, the cultured debate; the stirring riposte, the sparkling repartee…”
“If I throw you food would you shut the fuck up?”
Min clapped his silky sleeves together, giggling. “Oh my. Shakespeare? Oscar Wilde? It’s hard to tell.” He faced Richardson for the first time. “All your type looks the same to me.”
“You forty acre smart ass” snapped Richardson. “Why don’t you report first Min Fat, since you’re so clever and ar-fucking-tic-u-fucking-late?”
Another waft of dope smoke breezed through from Dea’s wicker nest. She offered the bong to Consuela who politely declined.
“Very well” announced Min Fa. “Africa continues to be our shining light. Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya are performing well. North Korea is reporting cannibalism as a reaction to food shortages. I’m still hoping for a relapse in Russia and China, though it may be wishful unless we can find another Mao. On a brighter note, most east and central African countries have no hope of effective aid distribution with their current regimes.” Min smiled broadly, Africa having been the jewel in his crown for a century.
“What’s the mortality rate?” posed Consuela.
“It is difficult to attribute percentages specifically to death by hunger with other contributing causes” answered Min carefully. “Our preferred method is to use the child deaths by starvation per second scale. Currently it sits at one every three. Our aim is to reduce this to two every one.”
“One child death every two seconds?” asked Consuela, unimpressed.
“No no no. Two every one second. One every half-second.”
“Lovely” declared Consuela. “I look forward to the day. You can do it Min Fa, I know you can.” The pudgy Min blushed a little at the mini pep talk.
“We do have competition of course. As corrupt as most are, aid agencies are getting some supplies through. The use of growth hormones, drought resistant crops and genetically altered foods continue to threaten us. However, the areas of unsustainable land are widening. In short, as long as they keep copulating, the scales tip my way ever more.”
At the use of the word “copulating”, Richardson fixed hungry eyes on Consuela.
“Do endeavour to keep it in the khakis.”
“So your plan is same as last time Min? You eat. They don’t. Impressive strategy.”
“It’s so much more than that Will..”
“Gentlemen!” interrupted Consuela. “Well then Colonel Richardson. What of your efforts this year? You’re surely not trying to pass off those school shootings as acts of war I hope? They are little different to last year’s meeting when you had us on that paintball range. Small scale and messy.”
“Yeah well who wears white to paintball?”
Consuela shuddered at the thought of those colourful splotches on her Valentino suit.
“I did try to protect you Connie.”
“Protect me? You spent the whole time blasting Min Fa!”
“Well ya gotta admit there’s plenty to aim for. And, there’s no point trying to shoot something that can’t be hit.” He cocked his head towards Dea, who was innocently unwrapping a cube of bubblegum.
“Anyway, what about the meeting you hosted the year before that? On your yacht?”
“Yes, quite. My apologies again Colonel. I’d forgotten how severe your phobia of water is.”
“It’s not a phobia! I’m just not comfortable at sea, that’s all. You have known that since the beginning of time by the way!”
“Ah” stated Consuela, raising a finger as though just remembering. “I have, haven’t I.” Min Fa failed to suppress a giggle behind a voluminous black sleeve.
“Fuck you. Your hostings are nothing more than glorified pig outs. Except I can never get a steak unless it’s dripping with soy sauce or some shit.”
“I wonder Colonel, whether you could actually make your report. Or is this room the only place you’re capable of starting war?” Richardson offered a short arctic stare in reply, interrupted by the sound of Mrs. Thorne banging into the other side of the door. They heard her burst into tears and run back down the stairs. Dea blew a large pink bubble with her gum.
“Very well” began Richardson, “We continue to pursue our successful policies. Instigating civil war. Destabilising governments and economies. Spreading distrust and promoting anarchy.”
“Then of course the Americans show up” added Min.
“God bless us” agreed Richardson. “We hate them, they hate us. Doubles up on the paranoia, doubles up on the carnage. Then while we’re playing schoolyard bully, we effectively fan the flames of terrorism and…” He stopped as Consuela and Min both rolled their eyes. “What?”
“Terrorism? Seriously William. That’s just not producing the numbers.”
“Have you come up with anyone more imaginative than Bin Laden?”
Richardson paused, determining that they were both finished for the moment.
“You’re missing the point. It’s the environment created by it. People living on a knife edge. Making the world more trigger happy every minute.”
“Oh the clichés! You’ve been saying that for a long time now William” stated Min calmly.
“Neck a dick, dim sim.”
“Oh Mark Twain lives on. Do you really think your references to my origins and appearance upset me? Would it offend you if I called you hot dog?”
“Would it offend you if I got mine out?”
“It would offend me” admitted Consuela.
“Or astound you.”
“Are you referring to the amount of time it would take you to locate it?” she smirked.
Another bubble popped.

“I don’t know why we bother with these meetings anymore” added Consuela. “We have little respect for ourselves, let alone each other.”
“I too doubt the value of our gatherings” agreed Min.
“We’re bored” concluded Richardson. “It feels like we aren’t getting anywhere. The sum total of our efforts all end up on her scorecard anyhow.”
Dea smiled sweetly at the flustered Colonel. A pink bubble burst on her face and she retrieved the spattered gum with her lips and teeth.

“We’re never going to get them all. As Min said, they’re fucking machines. What’s that thing they say? Breed like rabbits? And even if we did wipe ‘em all out, then what? What do we do after that? Retirement home? Rocking chairs and comfy slippers? None of it makes sense. The whole deal is horse shit!”
“You forget our true purpose William.”
“Which is what exactly Lord Dumpling?”
“Do you really not know our purpose? The apocalypse? Remember, we were released from the seals to await the coming of the great dark? Conquest emerged first, with crown and sword etcetera etcetera.”
“Nope.” Richardson clunked his knuckles just above the temple. “Metal plate. Korea. Fifty four. Got too close to a grenade. Blanked out everything further back than Alexander.”
“Serious?”
“Sure am Connie. What do you know about this stuff?”
Consuela wriggled her shapely buttocks. “Um. Well. It has been a while.” Richardson enjoyed the rare discomfort. “I’m sure there’s a bit on it in the bible” she diverted.
“O.K. Let’s take a look. Who’s got a stinkin’ bible?” The three looked at each other, then all turned to the hanging wicker chair. A raised “As if!” eyebrow answered them.
“Right. No bible. Can you remember it, Jabba the Chong?”
Min, also embarrassed, realised he knew little more than the others. “I think we lead an army of the dead..”
“I honestly don’t remember that part.”
“How do we lead an army of dead bastards?”
“I think they rise up as we sweep past dramatically on our horses.”
“Really? Who the hell writes this stuff? Tarantino?”
“And I seem to recall something about warning signs. Plagues of locusts, that sort of thing.”
“Locusts? They have plagues of locusts all the time. There was one the other day somewhere. Morocco or some fucking place.”
“We should get a bible and check up on the reading” suggested Consuela.
“Why?”
“You know why William, to clarify…”
“Clarify bullshit. Are you telling me we use the bible as our playbook?”
“I merely thought..”
“Look at who we are Connie. Do we really have to wait for instructions from that damn book? Do we have to wait for any type of signal? There’s been locusts. Lots of locusts. Army rising from the dead? Sounds sweet to me. Surely this shindig starts as soon as we decide to mount up.”
“I guess it would” admitted Min.
“Are you suggesting…?” asked Consuela.
“I’m suggesting we get this party started.”
Min Fa considered this bold declaration. He also pondered an eternity of Fat jokes, racist jibes, bean bags and paintball.
“I have no argument with William’s suggestion” he concluded.
Consuela surveyed the two men, who seemed serious enough. It was not for her to decide. It was not for any of them to decide. Only one could call them to their steeds. Still. The thought of occupying Richardson’s mind with something besides her body was tempting. She could agree in principle, since there was no way it was going to happen anyway.
“Very well” she finally muttered.
With The Three in agreement, they turned to The One.
Dea lifted one earphone, irritated. “What?”
“We were wondering whether we might um.., well, instigate the apocalypse. You know, get the show on the road?”
Dea screwed her delicately freckled face in annoyance. “I’m listening to Lego House.” She dropped the headphones back in place. Using her foot, she spun the chair so her back was to them. The Three sat quietly, not having a clue what “Lego House” was, while Ed Sheran finished. A couple of minutes later the chair swung back to face them. Dea unclipped the headphones and tossed them on the floor. She stretched her legs, getting circulation back into her pink painted toes.
“Apocolypse? Yeah.” She arched, catlike while yawning.
“Whatever.”

Consuela’s mouth fell open like a dying fish.

Dea pushed herself up to her feet. Sliding open a narrow closet, she rummaged for a moment before pulling out a lacrosse stick.
“Nope.”
“Another rummage. An ice hockey stick.
“Damn. Third time lucky?” She withdrew a thin black scythe, its hellish blade rusted with ancient blood.
“Gotcha!”
She turned to them, smiling. Not the cute Dea smile.
The other one.
“Ready.”

Dea lead the way downstairs, where Mrs. Thorne was frantically tipping paper clips
into a fish bowl half full of vodka. She looked up at Dea, tongue out, hair stuck flat on her perspiring forehead.
“Are you going out somewhere?” She reached for a blister pack of tablets, popping out and swallowing four of them without liquid. She scuttled outside after them, carrying the fish bowl as the girl she’d known as her daughter quietly spoke the four hails.

The white Rolls Royce began imploding, grotesquely folding in on itself. Jenkins managed a short scream before he was assimilated into the swirling, bubbling mess. Within a few seconds the blob had reformed, reshaped as a startling marbled Arabian mare.
At the same time, the flattened rickshaw and its puller began to twist into a single merging of darkness, reassembling as a tall black stallion. It shrugged the Hummer off, itself transforming into a giant angry chestnut, snapping at the neck of the stallion as it was pushed aside.
Dea’s battered skateboard shimmered for a moment. Shuddered for another. Then grew, stretching and distorting into hideous shapes. Human faces, screaming silently, protruded from the mass. Agonised and molten, it steadily changed, forming the final steed. A flighty palomino. Its pelt the sickly sallow of decaying flesh. Dappled in patches of vomit green. The blackened gums were pulled back, exposing double rows of razor-like teeth. Hades, the only horse of the four to have a name.

“What time will you be back sweetie?” asked a trembling Mrs. Thorne.
The palomino sniffed excitedly at the air, its head turning quickly to her. An instant later the fishbowl and its contents disintegrated on the concrete path, the woman’s throat torn out. Hades continued to eat from her fallen body as Dea sprung effortlessly up on to its back. She blew another pink bubble.
The hell horse tore another strip of flesh from the dead woman as Dea turned its head towards the gate.

The bubblegum popped.

“Don’t wait up mom.”

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

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.

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)