Truce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob was nearly to the door.

“Did you really listen?”

“Ceri? Honey?””

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

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

And a circlet of buttermilk flowers.

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Kir-eleyne

There was a pause in the heartbeat of the earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help us.

Get them safe.

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

You will not have them.

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

They were safe.

from the novel “Last Goddess”

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.