Category Archives: fiction

A Painless Death

No attribution foundHere’s a short story I wrote for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge – Week 56, inspired by the picture on the right there.

A shadow crossed the cave mouth. Wolf raised his immense head and eyed the newcomer. A boy, draped in the red cloak of a supplicant. Wolf gave a low growl, and the boy stepped forward. Wolf nodded his permission for him to speak.

“I am looking for a painless death, Uncle Wolf,” he said, eyes downcast, looking at the sandy ground.

“Ain’t no such thing, sweet boy,” said Wolf, his voice deeper than summer thunder. “All death causes pain, even if that pain ain’t your own. How would your ma feel?”

“She died bringing me into this world.”

“Your friends then?”

“My knife is my friend.”

“Well, then, me? It always hurts me when one of my subjects dies. What of my pain?”

The boy looked him in the eye, a brave move. “If the pain is not my own, then I do not care.”

Wolf smiled at the temerity of the lad. “Well, now, there’s a selfish point of view.”

“You say that as though selfishness is a bad thing.”

“Oh, I make no judgements, sweet boy,” Wolf said. “I ain’t a creature worthy to set his self above others. If those same others choose to lift me above ‘em, who am I to argue? But don’t ignore what I’m saying here – death is pain. That’s its … what’s the word, now … essence.”

“Pain is my friend.”

“That’s told plain by the scars that criss-cross your arms. But you’ve named two friends, now. Knife and pain are …” Wolf’s low rumble quietened as the boy’s grey eyes glared angrily at him. It would be a pity to waste such furious passion. The boy’s rage, if harnessed in the correct way, had the capability to do great good. Of course, such refinement would take time. Wolf sighed, a sound like a dying hurricane.

“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “Metaphorical friends don’t figure. Tell me then, why do you now seek oblivion, rather than, as you have before, the exquisite release of slicing your own flesh?”

“There’s no point.”

“Point?”

“To any of it. To existence. Or at least, if there is a point, it is to gain pleasure from the things we do, for as long as we breathe the air.”

“And now you gain no pleasure? Not even from cutting yourself?”

“None. I enjoy nothing. I do not laugh. I do not smile.”

“Does the warm sunshine not make you glad?”

“No. And before you ask, a spring breeze is nothing to me, nor the laughter of girls. All the world is empty and dying.”

“Then, sweet boy, I pity you. And … I grant you your pain-free end.”

The boy smiled, and bowed his head to await a killing blow from Uncle Wolf’s massive paw.

“My decision pleases you?” The boy nodded. “Then you can still feel pleasure. Yes, I grant you a painless death … when you are ninety-seven years old.”

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Cats and Dogs

This week's prompt is a photo taken by Gen Harris. These are her dog and cat.You’ve heard the expression “raining cats and dogs”, right? Here’s a little thing I wrote for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge – Week 51, inspired by the picture on the right there. The cat’s real name is Willow, and the dog is Lily, but I think Abigail and William work better for the story.

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<the light tattoo of rain on glass>

“Go on, then.”

“In that storm? No. You go on, then.”

“Nuh-uh. I’m a cat. Cats don’t do rain.”

“Cats don’t do anything.”

“We do! We do sunshine and warm laps and high places.”

“Don’t forget selfishness, you’re the best at that. Cats don’t do anything useful.”

“Tell me, of the two creatures here, which one can work the window latch?”

“Hmph.”

“Which one, William?”

“Hmph.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“You can, Abigail. It’s you, OK?”

“Then we are agreed. My job is to open the window. Your job is to go out in the rain.”

“And get soaked.”

“One job each, William. That’s fair, isn’t it?”

“Hmph. I suppose.”

“Oh don’t sulk. Let’s get this over with. There, the window’s open. Off you pop.”

“I don’t think I can carry both bags of treats. I only have a little mouth.”

“Then fetch mine and go back for yours. Then we can work on opening them.”

“That’s two trips, Abigail! I’ll get even wetter!”

“Once you’re wet, you’re wet. And you can shake yourself dry. Dogs are good at that.”

“We are, aren’t we? Dogs are good at stuff just as much as cats.”

“They’re certainly good at being gullible. Off you pop, William.”

“OK!”

<the hiss of rain on the path between greenhouse and kitchen>

“I’m back! Here’s yours, Abigail. I’ll just pop back and get mine.”

“Take your time, William, take your time.”

“Gosh, this rain’s cold.”

<the cadence of rainfall and a soft click>

“Abigail! Abigail! Abigail!”

“What?”

“You’ve shut the window again. Let me in, I’m soaked!”

“Not a chance. It is cold. And who wants to eat with the stink of wet dog in the air?”

“That’s not fair!”

“You said it yourself, William. Cats are the best at selfishness.”

Freedom’s Promise

A short story inspired by Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge No. 49.

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Created by Norwegian artist Erlend MØrk.“He’s not secured the lid!” hissed Rimbaud.

“What?”

“The lid of your jar.” He jabbed his finger against the thick glass, pointing above my head. “He’s forgotten to latch it. You could push it off!”

I reached up and ran my fingers across the perforated lid. The giant removed it occasionally to drench us with water, or to poke us with sharp objects, or to drop fire into the jar to make us dance. He secured the lid afterwards by snapping a metal catch, but perhaps this time…

I pressed upward gently; the lid lifted. A simple push and it fell to the side. I sprang to the thin, glass lip of the opening and unfurled my wings, stretching them wide, luxuriating in the caress of air on membranes that had been too long folded against my body in the cramped jar. By the trees, that felt good.

The interior of the crate that held the jars was dim, but I could make out some shapes. Above my head was the heavy cover. There would be no shifting that. I might be strong for my kind, but was still too small to budge such a substantial sheet of metal. There were a dozen jars in the crate, each with a sprung metal clasp to hold down the lid, each holding a prisoner. Their pale faces watched me as I perched on the rim of my jar, no doubt envious of my escape.

Down to my left, Rimbaud watched too, a grin on his pretty face. He blew me a kiss, and gestured to the side of the container, to the pale glow of an opening that we guessed was to allow air to reach us. My eyes widened. The metal clasp on his jar was also loose. The giant had been careless on his last visit.

It took me but a few moments to free Rimbaud, and we moved to the opening in the wall, mouthing our apologies to the other prisoners. Holding hands, we entered the passageway beyond. It was entirely circular, the walls and floor smooth, hard, and allowing a translucent glow.

“It’s good to touch you again,” Rimbaud said, squeezing my hand. “I’m scared. Are you scared?” I did not answer. “Are we doing the right thing? Death may await us along this path. At least in captivity we live, and our love endures.”

“Love without freedom is like wings without flight.” I closed my fingers on his, briefly, but my mind was on things other than reassurance. We could hope that this air tunnel led to freedom, but it seemed unlikely, given all that we had endured since our capture. Starvation and torture had taken me to the end of my sanity. Even the smallest chance of escape was worth grasping, and if this air-tube did not lead us to freedom after all, I would take my own life. I had suffered enough. We are not made for captivity, our kind.

The passageway ahead forked. Rimbaud and I looked at each other.

“There are two ways,” he said. “Which shall we follow? Perhaps one leads to escape, and the other to danger?”

“Let us each follow one. That way we will know the right path. Walk for five hundred heartbeats. If you have discovered nothing by then, turn around. We meet back here and compare findings.”

“Very well,” he said. His wing-tips caressed mine. “Be careful.”

I took the passage on the right. I have been walking for five hundred heartbeats now, but I do not turn around. I am close to open air. I can sense it. I smell leaves and grass, sunshine and summer breeze. Ahead of me an opening appears – I see trees against a blue sky. I almost run out of the opening.

I stand on a flat circle of earth, blinking in bright sunshine. All around me are breeze-blown birch, but between me and the trees is a wire fence that surrounds the bare circle. It extends above, too, a net across the blue sky. Behind the fence, staring at me, are giants. Scores of them, grinning, drooling, eating and laughing. I clutch my ears as a deafening voice booms, putting small birds to flight from the trees above.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Fairy Wars!”

The giants cheer, a horrifying thunder. Across the circle of earth, I notice a second entrance set in the wire. Another of my kind stumbles into the light. It is Rimbaud.

“Two creatures enter!” the voice bellows again. “But only one will leave!”

Rimbaud’s eyes brim with tears. He looks directly at me, and I can sense the love he holds for me, rooted deep within his soul. Those wide, innocent, beautiful eyes are now haunted by despair at the sudden ripping away of freedom’s promise.

“Bids are now being taken for the corpse of the loser!”

Rimbaud shakes his head, slowly, and collapses to his knees, wings handing limply around him.

“Which of these magical creatures will earn their freedom today, and which will die? Place your bets now!”

I bare my teeth. By the trees, if this is what it takes to earn my freedom, so be it. I will not – I cannot – return to captivity, torture, and life in a jar. Rimbaud looks startled as I unsheathe my claws and launch myself at him with a scream.

The Raven’s Wing characters, #6: Jenifry, the cunning woman

Character visualisation by Kit CooperSensual. Serious. Slow to trust. Taciturn. Brusque. When her mother was murdered for being different, 11-year-old Jenifry was taken captive, beaten, raped, and bled regularly into a silver bowl. Eight years later she has escaped, and has returned to her secluded home, a large oak tree in the middle of the forest.

Why has she lured our hero, John the Minstrel, there? What does she know of his wife’s death? What plans does she have for him? And how, since her legs are broken, is she able to move so quickly from place to place?

“Dark of hair she was, and dark of eye, her gaze the depth of a star-spattered night. She peered up at John from beneath lowered brows, and crawled up his body. Her full breasts brushed his thighs, teasing upwards as she moved her weight from arm to arm. Her gaze never left his as she slowed her advance. John was unable to move. He was held captive, shackled by her glittering eyes as a moth beguiled by the moon.”

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available for Kindle and in paperback (with free postage, in the UK at least) here.

Other character posts (click to read):

John the MinstrelWynifreed, John's wifeRalf, the gongfermourAilred, the smithMoss, the fire-dancer

Fergus

A little thing that I wrote five years ago while sitting at the end of Seatown harbour in Gamrie. My sincere apologies to any Scottish readers, especially those who live there, for my poor attempts to capture the atmosphere of that wonderful place.

DSCF0767The light was fading rapidly now, sapphire to cobalt to indigo. The agreeable sunset apricot tint had faded from the clouds overhead and now they were simply battleship grey. The sea remained calm, but the surface began to chop as a cool breeze picked up, bringing the delicious scents of salt and seaweed to the shore. Gulls, waders and kittiwakes filled the dusk with their last raucous shrieks, whistles and mock laughter.

A maroon smudge smeared athwart the horizon was all that remained of the day’s sun. In the near distance Saltire Craig, a small jut of rock no bigger than a trawler, rose black out of water the colour of molten lead. Pale grey smudges spattered its surface. They swirled and wheeled occasionally about the tattered Bratach na h-Alba, the Banner o’ Scotland, that fluttered bravely atop its lonely pole, as it had since planted there by some hardy Scottish brave some time ago.

High on the lookout platform at the sea end of the harbour pier, Fergus eased his bony buttocks on the rusting bollard and stretched out his legs, feet poking out over the edge of the harbour wall. Inside his clumsy old boots he wiggled his toes, and imagined how good they’d feel with sea-water sluicing between them.

A loud splash echoed across the water, startling him. He peered into the murk, seeing nothing. The sound had originated from the other side of Saltire Craig, out of his sight. What could be large enough to make that noisy an impact with the water? Dolphins, perhaps? Or maybe old friends?

He gazed out at the ending day. Sunset always calmed his mind, soothed his soul, helped him to settle for the life he had now. On either side of the bay the headlands were already mussel-black. The vast dimming sky grew steadily darker.

Fifteen feet below his boots the waves lapped quietly at the weathered stone that protected the vessels safely tucked away behind it. More squealing gulls circled the end of the pier, curving pleasing arcs below his feet. Above his head a tiny red light winked on and began to flash.

DSCF0744A small white boat rounded Saltire Craig, its engine popping quietly as it crossed towards the harbour entrance. The boat was small, big enough only to carry two at most, yet now bearing but one passenger. Fergus could read the name painted on the prow – “Maighdean-Chuain”.

The single occupant raised a hand to Fergus as he passed and entered the placid waters beyond the sea wall. Fergus lifted his own arm in acknowledgement. It was good finally to feel included after all this time. His peculiar arrival in the village all those months ago had caused many to keep their distance at first, yet now even that extraordinary day was fading from memory. Village folk tended to live in the present rather than lingering on what was past. Folk here had finally started to show friendship to Fergus; yes, and acceptance. He scratched his grey beard and pulled the ear-flaps of his plaid charity-shop hat down over his ears. Getting chilly now.

He pushed to his feet, old muscles complaining. He wobbled a little in a gust of wind and steadied himself on the stanchion that held the harbour light aloft, before slowly descending the curved steps down from the lookout point. He ambled along the dock to where the small boat had tied up, and peered down at it bobbing on the shadowy water.

There was enough light left to see that the man in the boat was gutting a freshly caught fish on an upturned blue crate. A sharp knife, expertly wielded, slit the belly open. Fingers were deftly inserted and slid smoothly inside to pull out the guts. These the fisherman flung into the water for the flocking, shrieking gulls to fight over. He glanced up at the dock.

“Fergus,” the man nodded, laying his cleaned fish on a plastic bag beside him.

“Robbie Gamrie, is that you?” Fergus peered uncertainly down into the gloom.

“Aye, so,” Robbie confirmed “Got mysel’ a couple of late haddock.”

DSCF0528Robbie lifted a second wriggling fish and whacked its head on the side of the boat before laying it on the blue crate and sliding in his knife.

“Well done, there,” Fergus said. “What kept you out so late?”

“Forgetfulness. I was miles away, daydreaming like a bairn. I’d likely still be out there, but a noise brought me alert.”

“The splash? Aye, I heard that. Big splash, it was. Did you see what made it?” Hope glimmered briefly in Fergus’ breast.

“Nay, it was behind me, whatever it was.”

“Hmm,” said Fergus, slightly disappointed. “Too big for a bird, anyroad. Could it have been dolphins, think you?”

“Maybe. They… or silkies, eh?”

Fergus could hear Robbie’s grin in the tone of his voice. Robbie didn’t believe in silkies, despite the name of his boat. Not many did, nowadays.

“You’ll have had your supper?” Robbie asked him.

“Ah, no. I’ll have a rollie when I get in.”

“Rollie be damned. You’ll need warmth inside you if you’ve been perched up there for long. Here, catch.”

A dark shape flew up from below to hover briefly before Fergus’ eyes, shimmering a little in the harbour light. Fergus snatched out a hand to catch it before it fell back. The fish was cold and oily, the flesh yielding beneath his fingers as only fresh fish does.

“Got milk, Fergus? Butter and pepper? Get that inside your oven, then get it inside you. It’ll do you a sight more good than cold bread.”

“Thanks, laddie, I appreciate it.” Fergus nodded farewell to Robbie and walked off the harbour, taking the shore path towards his tiny cottage, the haddock hanging limply from his fingers.

Fish for supper. He remembered a time long ago when supper had always been fresh fish. He did not eat it half as much these days, and the gift from Robbie was a pleasant surprise. Fergus was not inclined to take Robbie’s advice on how best to prepare the haddock, however. He would not bake the fish in milk. Tonight he would eat the fish raw, just like the old days.

The Raven’s Wing characters, #5: Moss, the fire-dancer

Character visualisation sketch by Kit CooperSarcastic, manipulative, and with a mysterious past, Moss is a jongleuse, dancer, and mistress of fire. John first sees her performing at The Angel Inn in Northampton, little suspecting how tightly her fate will become bound to his.

John stared wide-eyed and gape-mouthed. The young woman was fiery in every sense of the word. The hair that tumbled about her bare shoulders was the colour of an autumn sunset. She danced nimbly, bare-footed, to the rhythm of the audience clapping, the nails on her toes crimson-painted.

The woman’s features were soft and attractive, yet dragged askew by a scar that tore down her cheek. But the scar was not what gave him pause. More startling was the eye beneath that scar. That it was false could not be in doubt, for a strange eye it was. It looked to be made of amber, or some other ochre-tinged material, and in the centre, where the pupil should be, sat a small black spider.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage, in the UK at least) and Kindle here.

Other character posts (click to read):

John the MinstrelWynifreed, John's wifeRalf, the gongfermourAilred, the smith

The Raven’s Wing characters, #4: Ailred the smith

Character visualisation sketch by Kit CooperA black man of enormous beard and heart. The gruff Ditchford smith smells of hot metal and pie crust. The village gossips say that Ailred is descended from African nobility. He remains silent about such things.

“Hens!” shouted Ailred, waking suddenly. He sat up and looked around with a startled expression, resembling a bewildered owl in the orange light thrown up by the now merrily burning fire. Smoke swirled into the blackness of the roof. He scratched his black beard, dislodging a small bone, which he inspected closely. He descended into a fit of deep coughing. Eventually he achieved some sort of resolution with his lungs and spat copiously in the fire, which hissed a complaint. He threw the bone into the flames.

Ailred’s growing romance with the widow Rohesia provides a gentle backdrop to the growing turmoil of The Raven’s Wing.  One day I shall write his backstory.

“Kumis,” Aildred said. “Fermented mare’s milk with added honey.”
“I call it milk-mead,” Rohesia said. “And isn’t it just the tastiest thing? Ailred makes it.”
“Not often,” he said. “It’s not so easy to get mare’s milk. You can use goat, or cow, but the taste isn’t quite the same.”
“Apparently, it’s quite the thing back in Ailred’s homeland, and he learned to—”
“This is my homeland now,” Ailred said, squeezing Rohesia’s podgy hand.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage, in the UK at least) and Kindle here.

Other character posts (click to read):

John the MinstrelWynifreed, John's wifeRalf, the gongfermour

The Raven’s Wing characters, #3: Ralf

Character visualisation sketch by Kit Cooper

A shock of red hair explodes from beneath a ragged wool cap, shading Ralf’s smiling eyes. John the Minstrel’s best friend is tall and clean-shaven. He is gongfermour for the village of Ditchford, which is to say he digs out and removes human excrement from privies and cesspits, disposing of it into the river below the village. He lives across the lane from Wyni and John, with whom he shares a horse, Molly.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage, in the UK at least) and Kindle here.

Other characters: No.1 Minstrel John, No. 2 Wynifreed

The Raven’s Wing characters, #2: Wyni

Character visualisation sketch by Kit CooperJohn the Minstrel’s recently-dead wife, Wynifreed. She was thin, a result of growing up through the Great Famine, with brown hair in a short bob. She had thrilled John’s heart with a lopsided smile, joyful laughter and a love of nature.  “He remembered how beautiful she had looked the day that they had wed, a circlet of daisies about her brown head, her smile dazzling in the sunshine.” Perhaps surprisingly, she still has a lot to say for herself.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage in the UK) and Kindle here.

Other characters: No.1 Minstrel John

The Raven’s Wing characters, #1: John the minstrel

Character visualisation sketch by Kit Cooper

Our handsome hero, Minstrel John, who plays a gittern and sings at fairs and festivals around Northampton. He is cheerful and inquisitive, and enjoys riddles and puzzles. His dream is to earn the patronage of the local lord, Baron de Leycester. Currently in mourning after the recent death of his wife.

The Raven’s Wing, a medieval adventure set in 1322, is available in paperback (with free postage in the UK) and Kindle here.

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