Category Archives: fiction
Dennis. Yep, that’s my name. Dennis; beagle-hound extraordinaire and proud warrior of the road, at your service. That’s me, right up front with the wind tossing my ears, stalwartly leading the way as usual. Of course my hat and scarf are more a muddy grey-brown these days rather than their original vivid colours, but such are the signs of a true road warrior. My being lashed up here in all weathers is bound to have an effect. My job is vital, however. Without me cable-tied to the front of their dustcart the team’s morale would soon plummet, and they’d be constantly dropping rubbish all over the road. I’m the essential glue that holds them together, really. So essential that the bin lorry even has my name in huge silver letters across the front. Quite how the team coped before they found me I just can’t imagine. Of course, before they managed to free me and adopted me I wasn’t called Dennis. Back then I was called …
Please No Duvets. Yes, yes, I know. It was a ridiculous name. You see, I’ve always tried to conduct myself according to what Mr. Kaczmarek said all those years ago, and that sign stuck to the side of the recycling skip was the only thing nearby that had words on it. So ‘Please No Duvets’ I became. I wasn’t there long, luckily, for it was a place of endless tedium and discomfort. It stank, for one thing. Inside the skip flies and other unseen crawly things moved over my bottom, and outside my face gazed out over a tedious dirt car park. The worst part was when people said bad words at me for blocking the opening and they had to throw their unwanted detritus onto an ever-growing pile on the ground. Some folk tried to pull me out, but Gwynedd, as angry as a thunder sky, had jammed me in there as tightly as the stuffing in my paws. In her incandescent rage, she had lost any love that she once had for her cuddly …
Bythie. Apparently Gwynedd’s name for me was short for ‘bytheiad’, which she had told Huw meant ‘hound’. This had been the second time that a human had named me, and I rather liked it. Life with Gwynedd and Huw was joyful. They loved and laughed together constantly in their little house on the hill, or at least they had until that last day when Huw had loved and laughed with Mrs. Probert from the corner shop instead. When Gwynedd found them together in the narrow bed everything cracked apart. I was devastated. I had held such a special place in their now-shattered hearts, having been part of their first evening together when they met at the fair. Huw had won despite all of Mr. Llewellyn’s sneaky tricks, such as weighting the hoops differently, and when he asked a delighted Gwynedd which prize she wanted she said “Can I have the ci hyll, please?” She had kissed Huw and he had kissed her back. Their future together seemed so bright when I first saw them, back when my name was …
Hoopla. In those days I dangled by my ears from a string at the back of the gaudy, flashy stall. Fairground music played every night and coloured lights dazzled my glass eyes. I looked down on an endless stream of people happy to give Mr. Llewellyn a pound for the chance to fling his oddly-weighted hoops at stubby candy-striped wooden pegs. Very few people managed to get even one hoop over a peg, still fewer two. I was a three-hoop prize, there more for decoration than for winning. The occasional person who did somehow manage to ring three pegs never wanted the ugly dog in the bright hat, and would choose a fairy or amusing hat instead. It had been just the same before Mr. Llewellyn found me, too. No-one wanted me then either, and I was stuffed into a wicker basket, half-forgotten, until that fateful day when I heard Mr. Llewellyn say “Got any cheap stuffed toys?”
“In the basket, cariad,” the shop-woman said, and I felt large hands rummaging through and around me before lifting me out into the light.
“You’ll do, boyo,” Mr. Llewelyn nodded, paying twenty pence for me and fifty for a fairy that he also pulled from the bric-a-brac in the basket. That was the moment my name changed from …
Oxfam, I’m pleased to say. Oh, I loved my life in the odd little shop full of people’s cast-away treasures. There was plenty of time for people-watching from my high shelf above the books, and on the whole the customers were kind people. My name had to be ‘Oxfam’, of course, even though to my mind it was an ugly name with its spiky ‘X’. The word was written all around me, and had even been painted in enormous letters above the door when Emily’s mum had brought me here. I had been so nervous at what to expect as she had carried me through the door. Emily’s mum had told the shop-woman that Emily had gone away to learn how to be something called a lawyer, and so she was taking the chance to have a bit of a clear out. That day was a tremendous shock to my system, I can tell you, after years of being …
Cuggly. Years of being hugged, years of being loved, years of having the bobble on my hat sucked by Emily when she was very young and very tired. Oh my, we had such a wonderful life together. We had tea-parties on the carpet in the front room. When she went off to school I was always there to welcome her home. When she cried because Danny Potts had ignored her, I was there to comfort her. I sat on her desk during exams, bringing her the luck that helped her to get into university. So many long years of friendship and love since that long-ago day that she had pointed at me in the toy shop and said “Cuggly!”
“Are you sure?” her mum asked, “There are far prettier cuddlies.”
“Cuggly!” Emily had insisted, and so I became hers, leaving behind my life as …
Ten shillings. There were four or five of us sitting above the sign that said that. We were surrounded by bright notices and shiny cellophane-wrapped boxes of vivid colour that contained new toys. The laughter of happy smiling children rang around the shop, competing with the musical box tinklings of ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ emerging from the display on the shelf below us. This gaudy, noisy world fascinated me. Its entertainment value had been apparent immediately I had arrived, and it helped me to get over the initial shock I had felt when I was taken out of the dark, stifling box after hours of being thrown around and jostled. The happy, lively toy shop lifted my spirits, easing my transition from my previous existence as …
Wyjście pożarowe. That was my name when I was born. Those words in white letters on a green sign were my first sight as my eyes were stitched into place. I was passed from hand to gnarled hand, having my head stuffed, my paws sewn on and my tail attached. Mr. Kaczmarek spread glue liberally around my head. Ever the poet, as he stuck the gaudy hat permanently to my scalp he said the words that have stuck with me through all of my eight lives.
“It is odd to think,” he mused, “how all of these identical fabrications of cloth and glass will eventually end up with different names depending each upon their circumstance. People, and I daresay even places themselves, will name them and give them character.” He looked straight into my glass eyes.
“I wonder what your name will be?”
NOTE: In the UK and across Europe, many/most dustcarts are made by Dennis Eagle, and have DENNIS writ large across the front. See here http://www.dennis-eagle.co.uk/
A short story for @Crowmogh, who introduced me to the legend of the Owlman, & for @MrsTrevithick, for being the inspiration for, well, Mrs. Trevithick. The illustration is a drawing by someone who claimed to have seen the Owlman in 1976.
The sound was a howl of ancient evil; the despairing moan of an old, dying race.
“Th’piskies are abroad,” said Mrs. Trevithick. She frowned at the empty cup before her, as the noise rose and fell, like the ghost of a long-dead smuggler.
“It’s only that warped window,” Kirsten said. “It whistles that way when the wind is coming straight in off the sea. Pour yourself a cup of tea. I’ll just get some sticky tape and close the gap.”
“Thank ‘ee,” said Mrs. Trevithick. She poured tea from the warm pot into the floral cup on the small table at her side. “You might want to try blue tack.”
“Good idea. The tape does leave horrible marks.”
“Of course, stopping th’hole won’t keep pobol vean out. They have ways.”
“It’s not the little people I worry about.”
“You should. Kernow is special. There are secrets here that no-one can fathom. And while humans go about their little lives, so sure that this world belongs to them, shadowed creatures of legend are hiding in plain sight.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Kirsten said, taking a ball of blue tack from the bureau. She moulded it between her fingers, softening it with her warmth. “Last week I went to Gwennap Pit. A troubled place, I felt. There was a whole pig’s leg left out on the stones. I’ve felt … haunted, ever since.”
“How do you mean, dear?” Mrs. Trevithick sipped from her cup and twisted her mouth.
“I don’t know – certainly I’ve had nothing but bad luck since then. It’s…” she looked at Mrs. Trevithick, who gave her a small nod of encouragement. “It’s as if an ancient malevolence was dogging me. So yes, I do believe, somewhere in the core of me, that there is true magic here – but the little people don’t concern me.”
Mrs. Trevithick allowed unswallowed tea to dribble back from her mouth into the cup. “No?” she said.
Kirsten pushed the putty into the warped window frame. Outside, the leafless oak swayed like a skeleton scratched onto the furious sky by some dark god. Behind the tree, the slate sea was veined by froth whipped up by the same wind that was making her window cry.
“No,” she said. “The thing that puts the willies up me is a much larger creature indeed.”
“Jan Tregeagle, th’howling demon?”
Kirsten shook her head as she stood up. Her efforts had made little difference to the banshee-howl from her window. Behind her Mrs. Trevithick emptied her cup into the pot-plant on the table.
“As far as I know,” Kirsten said, “Jan Tregeagle doesn’t kill folk so much as play tricks on them. No, the creature that terrifies me is said to live close by where we met today.”
“Indeed. It is a pretty village, but I’m gripped with fear whenever I pass the church. Do you know the story of the Owlman?”
“A monstrous owl-like creature, the size of a man, with clawed wings, dark and ragged. Its eyes glow red even in the golden light of a Cornish afternoon. Its legs and body are as a human’s, though swathed in feathers the colour of charcoal, and its beak is cruelly curved, as are the claws that adorn its feet. They do say as it carries people off in those mighty talons.”
“Off to where, though? And what becomes of them?” Kirsten drew in a shaky breath.
“Legend do say the Owlman carries its prey to the top of th’church tower, where it eats their faces, so it can mimic their appearance and walk amongst us.”
Kirsten shuddered and poured herself a cup of tea. “Above the church porch it says ‘Da thymi nesse the Dhu’,” she said.
“It is good to draw nigh to th’Lord,” Mrs. Trevithick said.
“Yes. Does that sound a bit like a threat to you? Sort of implying that death will find you soon, and you were a fool to go anywhere near the place?”
“Well, now, I thought ‘ee looked a little shaky, dear. No wonder, if you’ve been having those kinds of thoughts.”
“Is there any prospect so unnerving as becoming the very thing that terrifies you?” Kirsten said. “I was proper shook up today. Thank you for walking home with me. I appreciated the company.”
“Oh, the Owlman is quite the other way round, dear,” Mrs. Trevithick said. “In his case, he – th’thing that terrifies – becomes you.”
Mrs. Trevithick stood. Her body seemed to undulate and shake. Kirsten rubbed her eyes.
“You just, well, die,” Mrs. Trevithick continued. “I mean, if you’ve had your face eaten off, that’s going to happen, ent it?”
Mrs’ Trevithick lifted her arms, and they became wings, clawed, dark and ragged. Her eyes widened and glowed red. Her tweed skirt and silk blouse shifted and became instead charcoal-coloured feathers.
“Legend do not say what the Owlman does with th’corpses he collects, but I see no reason not to tell ‘ee now. I eats ’em, bones and all. I reckon you’ll last about a week.”
Mrs. Trevithick’s face was gone, the transformation complete, the beak in the now-feathered owl face was cruelly curved, as were the claws that protruded from the creature’s feet.
Kirsten finally broke out of her horrified stupor and scrambled towards the door. The Owlman descended upon her, tearing and ripping at her flesh, and gripped her in its sharp claws. It smashed through lamenting window, and rose into the grey sky towards Mawnan Smith. Kirsten’s last sight was of her life pouring from her and tumbling like red rain to the distant earth.
Disturbing yuletide tales for grown-ups. The perfect stocking filler for the reader in your life. Available on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1076599419
A horrific short tale for Miranda Kate’s Midweeker, riffing off the picture below. TW: self-harm.
“Fuck you!” she howled, and flew out of the door, a screaming rocket trailing fire. It slammed behind her. The mirror fell from the wall and smashed as it hit the tiles. I followed it to the floor and sat there, gulping for air, my eyes stinging, my cheeks wet, my head about to explode with pain.
My hand touched the mirror, as broken as my shredded heart. I ran my fingertip along one of the cracks, slicing the sensitive skin on a jagged shard. Blood beaded there, and I licked it off. I was right. It tasted of her. She was in me. In my blood. Why did she doubt that?
I eased my nails under a section of glass and teased it free. I pressed the sharp point against the thin skin of my inner arm, just below the elbow, and dragged it down towards my wrist, raising a red welt jewelled with sparkles of blood. They too, tasted of adoration.
I repeated the action, raising more crimson to the surface. Opening my skin gave me back a level of control I had lost in the roaring fury of the argument. I could choose now. I was the one in charge.
I moved to the other arm, cutting open the skin in three long strokes. Red spattered the floor tiles. The hurricane in my mind eased a little. By the third slice, the glass had become slippery red in my fingers. I wiped them on my shirt, then pulled it off.
I began the next slice at my left shoulder, parting the skin in a long line down past the nipple to my stomach. A second cut paralleled it no more than half an inch away. The pain in my head moved to my skin. I found I could handle it better there.
I cut across the two vertical wounds, running red, and eased a point of mirrorglass beneath the skin, prising up a tag of flesh. I gripped it between my fingers and pulled a sliver of tissue away. It tasted of love, as I knew it would.
I cut more at my right shoulder and down across my belly, criss-crossing my torso, releasing ever more love into the world. My mind calmed with every slice. When she came back, I would show her the blood, have her taste it herself. Then she would see. Then she would know.
Blood coursed down to my lap, soaking my shorts, so I slid them off and cast them aside. I carved a heart into the flesh of one thigh, and her initial into the other. I continued down my legs to my feet. The glass sang whenever it parted skin, a gentle ringing keen of joy, our love song. Our tune.
I lifted my penis from my thigh: the centre of physical love. Before I could slice it open, her key rattled in the front door. She had returned! I staggered to my tattered feet and slid, one foot after the other, across the bloody tiles towards the slowly-opening door, flaps of torn skin dragging on the floor behind me.
How happy she would be to see how much I loved her.
I took a deep breath, held it, and stepped through the window. It shlukked behind me, closing, and I breathed again. First thing you learn, that is: if you don’t want shredded lungs, hold your breath when you go through.
He didn’t recognise me, of course. I’m almost seventy, bald and fat, my massive beard as white as a dandelion clock. My scarecrow eyebrows sprout more hair than does the top of my head, and my eyes have gone, well, wonky. I walk slowly, with the help of an old, twisted length of hazel that I had cut long ago and fashioned into a thumbstick. If he had looked closely at the words and symbols I had carved into it over the years, his suspicions might have been aroused, but his eyes were fixed on the shadows that fluttered and whirled above the bright field.
He leaned on an old farm gate, looking out across sunsodden greengold wheat, margined brightly by hawthorn and willow-herb. Atop the far hill my familiar old windmill stood, young and unbroken, the sails turning leisurely in the summer heat.
“Owdo,” I said. “Grand day.”
“The birds seem to think so,” he nodded towards the swooping, tumbling host above the hot golden field. The dark arrows tumbled, dashing and zig-zagging, swivelling and diving, chasing invisible insects. Our sluggish eyes struggled to track them as they slalomed across the sky. They danced upon the air, innocent of the devastation that was about to be unleashed.
“Swallows,” I said.
“Yeah?” he said. “I’m never sure whether I’m looking at swallows or swifts.”
“Look close, lad. See how the lower third of their body looks bulky when they fold their long wings? That’s because the wing-tips extend to the end of their tails. Also, swifts don’t tuck in their wings at all when flying. And sithee, the tops of their wings look oddly large an’all, like …” I struggled to find a simile.
“Like epaulettes,” he said. We shared a grin.
“You know a lot about birds, then?”
“Hellfire, no. But once upon a summerday long ago, a man older than death told me the way of swallows, and it’s always stuck in my head. I love to watch them enjoying their time in the sun, dancing in a strip of sunlight for a brief summer, while the winter darkness is at an ebb.”
“Like people,” he said.
“How do you mean?”
His eyes flicked, watching the swirl of swallows. “We’re born alone, pieces of rough driftwood on the shores of an endless dark ocean, and we’ll be carried away again soon enough by the swell. But in between the ebb tides of oblivion, in a single summer of life – of dancing in a strip of sunlight, if I might steal your words – we find relationships, love, and the companionship that makes us whole. Makes us human.”
“You’re a poet, then?”
“Forester,” he grinned again. A thunder-growl tumbled across the cloudless sky. Above the wheat, the swallows suddenly gathered, weaving themselves together into a dark seething cloud, and swept away across the valley.
“Ah, look, they’ve buggered off,” I said. “It’s time. Come on, poet, we’ve got to get inside.”
“Inside? Where? Why?” He laughed.
“There’s a cave just down the path here. And why? Because your dark tide of oblivion is about to flood this earth. Humanity’s dance in the sunlight is ending. Look to the sky.”
He raised his eyes, and saw, slashed across the blue like a thousand raw wounds, the blood-red streaks that heralded the downfall of humanity.
“What the hell is that?”
“I’ll tell you in the cave,” I said.
“No offence, you seem nice enough, but I’m not interested in your cave, as you call it.”
“Look, sunshine, here’s your choice: you can either die screaming in a fiery inferno, or you can shelter with me and instead live a long life of struggle against the alien invaders, and eventually, with the aid of their stolen technology, invent a time machine.”
“Besides, you already have come into the cave. I’m proof of that.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You still haven’t recognised me, have you?”
He stared at me for a moment, frowning. Across the valley the first emerald explosion of plasma energy left the windmill a smoking ruin. Then the shock of recognition dropped his jaw and his eyes widened, reflecting more green flashes as the valley was destroyed.
“Hellfire!” he said. “Yeah, take me to your cave.”
Thanks to @alexbrightsmith for the title.
A short tale for Miranda Kate’s Midweeker, riffing off the picture below, after I noticed the creature at the top hiding his eyes.
“Just look up at the lens.”
“Kevin, we all agreed.”
“You lot agreed, Susan, I didn’t.”
“If you’ll just look up at the lens, we can finally get out of here.”
“What, and have my eyeballs sucked out like yours? Fat chance.”
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“It makes a nauseating sound, though, like somebody pulling a grape out of their nostrils. I don’t understand why they need my eyeballs, anyway. They have all of yours already, what difference would mine make?”
“The Voice Above said they needed forty pairs or they couldn’t take off.”
“Take off what? Our heads?”
“Their ship. They use human eyeballs to drive their starship.”
“Do they bollocks. Where are you getting all this?”
“I had a quiet word with The Voice Above. He told me. We had quite a nice chat, actually.”
“What? When was all this? We’d all have heard you.”
“You know when they lift us out of here sometimes and, like, probe us and stuff?”
“Oh yeah, I enjoyed that.”
“Well, it was then. I was all manacled down, having my orifices probed, and … we had a little natter.”
“What a lovely image. Nice. So when’s the wedding? ‘I, Susan, take thee, Voice Above…’”
“I’ll ignore your sarcasm about what was a very touching moment, actually. The point is, eyeballs make their space-engine work…”
“How you can say that with a straight face is beyond me.”
“… and once they’re off this planet they’ll set us all free and look after us properly.”
“And you believe that, do you?”
“After someone’s probed me I think I know whether I can trust them.”
“You’re so naive, Susan.”
“Oh shut up, Kevin. You’ve had your chance to be reasonable. Grab him, fellers! We’ll force him to look at the lens.”
“Ha ha! Sod off!”
“Shit, where’s he gone? Damn it, Kevin!”
“Can’t catch me!”
“He’s ducked down by your feet, the squirmy little bastard. Grab him, someone!”
“Oh dear, you missed again! If only you were able to look down, eh?”
“Damn, he’s like a kid in a ball pool. Kick him in the head or something!”
“OW! Ow, fucking AAAAARGH!”
“Wait, wait! Don’t kick his eyes, though!”
“Too fucking late, you bitch! Jesus, that hurts! I hope your boyfriend’s happy with thirty-nine pairs of eyes.”
Here’s another short tale for Miranda Kate’s Midweeker. It’s clearly the opening for a much longer futuristic thriller that I have already plotted out, inspired by Twitter friends @mamacrow @hugeshark @QuantumTree @askceil and @cryptidbones. It stars three of my Patreon patrons, @cdlcreative, @greyduck & @lemurlotte — just a small perk to say thanks for supporting me. (and yes, I realise this has Red Dwarf echoes, but it is not that, I promise.)
Karel squinted through ice-rimmed goggles. Was the horizon getting nearer? The voyage had been long to these frozen, grey seas. Thirteen men had been lost to the ice-hearted ocean in the twelve months since The Cindered Rose left port. The ancient ship’s timbers were cracked and warped by salt and time. The rim of the world was now startlingly close.
Karel cupped the blackened rose petals in his rough hands. He had carried them all the way from Khirsh, and now was the time for them to work their magic. The time, and the right place, he was sure. His Lotte would soon be back in his arms. He rubbed his palms together, reducing the petals to powder, and inhaled the dust. Through cracked lips he whispered the first words of the spell.
“Zhe repla kij Lotte mij—”
Before he could finish the incantation his vision faded, and all sound stopped. The icy wind ceased to needle his frozen cheek. He could no longer speak. A female voice broke the silence.
“Your credit has expired. Thank you for dreaming with Such Stuff Incorporated.”
“No!” His frustration exploded from his lips. He had been so close.
“I am sorry, sir. Your purchased time has run out. Please vacate the pod, and follow the arrows on the floor to the recovery room, where you may buy a refreshing beverage.”
Karel opened his eyes. A brightly-lit sign before him announced ‘We are Such Stuff, as dreams are made on’. Shakespeare would be so proud.
“Shit,” he said. He missed his wife enormously, and had hoped to meet her once again in this dream. Oh, the SSI assistant had been friendly and open enough. She had warned him that the company could not guarantee his dream content in a short ten-minute session. Apparently the dream-machine had to build towards giving you the thing you wanted – something about the way synapses work in the brain – and in order for SSI to guarantee that you would dream about what you requested, you had to book an hour-long session. However, ten minutes was all he could afford, but he had hoped he might at least catch a glimpse of Lotte once more, maybe even hold her for a dream-second. So much for hopes and dreams.
He stepped out of the Dreampod (™ Such Stuff Inc and followed the floor-arrows. He sat at a small table and stared sadly at his lukewarm tea. His thoughts were disturbed by a man sitting next to him.
“My name is Hutchings,” the man said, “and I believe you can help me to change the world.”
“Please leave me alone. I’m not in the mood.”
“My commiserations about your wife, by the way.”
Karel looked at the man. He was unshaven, and wore a ragged harlequin coat. He did not look like one of Lotte’s friends. “You knew Lotte?”
“Look.” Hutchings laid a gnarled hand on his. “You know that unutterable hollowness that inevitably follows your sessions in the Dreampod? When you find that your dearest life, love or want is naught but a gossamer wisp temporarily made whole and then cruelly whisked away?”
“You speak very poetically for a lunatic.”
“You’re feeling it now, aren’t you? Flat, colourless, depressed beyond measure at how small and insignificant you are?”
“Well … yes.”
“SSI does that. They inject you with depressant. It keeps you docile. At the same time they introduce certain addictive chemicals into your bloodstream to ensure that you will return, whether you want to or not.”
“What are you talking about?” Karel pulled his hand away.
“They’re collecting information. Think of it – millions of people, dreaming about their desires, their secrets, their lusts. SSI collects all that information, and uses it to direct people’s actions in real life. At the same time they plant ideas and compulsions into dreamers’ minds. They control people; everyone who has ever used a Dreampod. They can shape governments. They can shape the world. They can keep us all under control.”
“You’re deranged. Just go away and leave me alone.”
“I want you to help me to destroy them. To free the world.”
“Why on earth would I help a madman?”
“Because they murdered your wife.”
A five-minute read for Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash. Thanks to @moorseyl and @beckyfyfe for giving me their names.
Linda slid beneath the scything blade, losing a lock of hair as it barely missed her head. Who the hell built these traps? First it had been the tiled floor, some of which sent poisoned darts flying through the air. Then the stupid rolling boulder which, sorry Mr. Trap-designer, was pathetic. She had simply stepped to the side and watched it roll by. Now this massive swinging axe. Why go to the trouble of building all these overcomplicated mechanisms, rather than just a sturdy door and a strong lock? Becky would have said it was because they were designed by men, and men do love their toys. Becky would have been right, too.
Ahead, moss-covered steps curved up to a high opening in the wall. Light shone from beyond. This far underground, though, she knew it could not be the sky. The light was a sign. What she desired lay beyond that small opening.
She climbed, carefully, the slippery steps, and eased herself through the hole. She was in another cavern, maybe half again as long as it was wide. It was flooded with light, an almost blinding white glow that emanated from a vast table at the far end. Or rather, from what sat on the table: an enormous pile of jewels; sapphires, red beryl, diamond, rubies, black opals, emeralds. Scattered amongst the gems was a multitude of gold and silver objects – sovereigns, torques, bracelets, diadems. A dazzling light emanated from within the treasure heap, casting a kaleidoscope of colour on the stalactites that crowded the roof of the cave. Unimaginable wealth covered the enormous table but for one corner, at which sat a giant of a man reading a scroll.
Linda stepped forward, to a loud crunch from beneath her boot. She looked down. The floor was ankle-deep with bones. Human bones; ribcages, skulls, legs and arms. Every step she took towards the treasure table caused a crack that echoed across the cave.
The giant at the table looked up and put down his scroll. He unfurled himself. An aurora of silver hair surrounded his head. A long beard, intricately plaited with small gems, fell over heliotrope armour that shone in the gem-glow. He covered the yards between them in one stride, the muscles in his treetrunk legs flexing powerfully.
“You did well to avoid my traps,” he boomed in a voice like a mountain awakening, “but, wanderer, know this. I have guarded this sacred place for a thousand years. I am undefeated in battle; you walk upon the bones of your predecessors. I will kill you here, unless you can show me that you have that most precious quality, wisdom. To avoid death, you must now answer me riddles three.”
“Fancy speech,” said Linda, “but I’m a Dubliner. We don’t do fancy. Go feck yourself.”
She punched the colossus hard between the legs and he collapsed to the ground, clutching his undercarriage. “Fucksake!” he whimpered.
“We don’t do riddles either,” Linda said, and stepped over him as he whined softly, clutching his nethers.
She picked up the battered scroll, turned her back on the gold, and left the glowing jewels where they lay. She carefully placed the rolled parchment in her backpack.
“Okay, so. Bye. Bye-bye,” she said, and left the cave. This was what she had come for. This was her treasure. One down, four to go.
A short story for Miranda Kate’s 75th Flash Challenge – do read Miranda’s own tale there, it’s a cracker. Once again I revisit a fairy tale; you can easily guess which one from the pic. Maybe I’ll put all these in a book together one day. This week’s picture prompt is by Patricia Brennan, an artist from the UK. She calls this one ‘At the Stroke of Midnight’. You can view it over on her page at Deviant Art.
Her mother had always taught Aschenputtel to be honest and humble and true, and she tried to show her gratitude by visiting the grave whenever she could slip away. The marigolds brightened the small headstone, half hidden by ivy, a smudge of gold in the monochrome predawn.
Aschenputtel stood and turned. A small bird chirruped from the tree above, the first of the chorus. She looked back down to the ancient, crumbling stone house. It squatted below the hill like a fat, black toad. They would be awake down there in an hour. Beautiful to the eye, they certainly were, but their hearts were ugly-foul and black. If a fire was not already burning in the grate when they appeared, they would punish her once more. She plucked a burdock leaf and rubbed it gently on the half-healed, burned skin of her forearm.
A flicker caught her eye. An ochre mote blinked in the near distance. It was a light, buttercup yellow, bobbing along the track through the wood, flickering through the dark trees. It came accompanied by a growing sound, all rattles and jingles and the thump of hooves. A carriage, pulled by two white horses, emerged from the trees and swept to a halt in front of the house. The driver jumped down and banged on the front door. A second figure seemed almost to glide from the carriage after the first, who once again thumped the door with mighty force.
She would have work, if there were visitors. Her rough wooden shoes picked a careful way down the precipitous path that wound down the hill. Voices from below welcomed the surprise visitors, with first anger, then a tone of query, surprise, and, oddly, effusive welcome. It was not like her father to welcome anyone, let alone with enthusiasm. The dawn visitors must be special indeed.
The sky paled. She slid down the last few feet on her backside, dirtying further her filthy, brown smock. She tried to open the back door silently, but it could not resist a throaty creak. She paused, holding it ajar. Voices rang inside.
“…also is not the right one,” a man said. “I can see the blood where your daughter has disfigured her foot to make it fit!”
“I assure you—” Her father’s voice, cut off.
“Have you no other daughter?”
“No, sir. But … perhaps if you were able to describe the girl in question, I would know her?”
“As you well know, man, it was a masked ball. Masked.”
“Aschenputtel‼” The screech made her jump. The door slipped from her fingers and swung wide. Her father and his wife stood with a man in a dark cloak, who sported an impossibly wide moustache. He held a small object that glinted in the candlelight. A second stranger sat at the table, his face hidden beneath a hood.
“Why lurk you there, wretch?” her step-mother snapped. “Make haste and light a fire! Our guests are cold!”
Aschenputtel scurried to the hearth, and lifted two logs onto the grate. Her fingers shook as she separated enough kindling to take a spark. She would pay for this later with a beating.
“Chamberlain?” A new voice, a liquid purr.
“Yes, sire? Oh! Are you sure? She’s filthy. Her arse is caked with, well, who knows what?”
“This girl?” laughed her father. “This stunted scullion was left behind when my first wife croaked. She cannot be the one you are looking for. As you see, she never bathes, and you can likely smell her across the room.”
“Nevertheless.” That purr again, soft like a warm hug on a cold night.
“But she never leaves the house! Last night she was here, sleeping on this very floor—”
“Be silent, man. Chamberlain?”
“My lady, if you please?”
Aschenputtel felt a hand on her shoulder. My lady? Did he mean her? Her fingers shook, and she dropped the kindling. She kept her grimy face lowered, but turned her eyes up. The cloaked man took her arm and helped her to her feet. She wondered how he managed to make his whiskers project horizontally fully two inches past his cheeks.
“Will you sit?”
He gestured to a stool, and she warily eased her buttocks onto the hard seat, aware of the dampness of her mud-caked smock beneath her. The moustachioed man swung his long cloak behind him with an elegant movement, and knelt at her feet. Her mouth gaped as he drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe. A rich stench wafted from her feet, and she lowered her head in shame, but the cloaked man seemed not to notice. The thing that he held glinted as, with cool fingers, he slid it over her foot. It was a golden, filigree slipper, a little blood-stained at the toe. The tips of the man’s moustache twitched upwards as he grinned. He stood, helping her to her feet.
“It fits!” he laughed. “It fits perfectly, sire!”
The man at the table crossed to face her, and shook off his hood. He was beautiful.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” His voice caressed her ears. She said nothing. “You came secretly to the ball last night, and you danced with me.”
Aschenputtel frowned. She had, as her father had said, slept through the night on the kitchen floor, left alone when the others had gone out in their finery.
“We kissed in the garden, you and I,” the handsome man continued. He reached up and took a twig of myrtle from her hair. “I fell in love with you at that moment. When you ran, you left behind your golden slipper.”
She had never in her life even seen such a slipper, nor ever a man as handsome as this.
“I knew I could use it to find you, for no other’s foot would fit so dainty a shoe. And I was right, was I not?”
She stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Will you marry me? Be my princess and live at the palace with me?” A small frown wrinkled his brow. “It is you, isn’t it? You did dance and kiss and sing with me at the ball last night?”
Her mother had always taught her to be honest and humble and true, but where had that taken her? To a life of filth and servitude, a misery of existence. For the first time in her life, Aschenputtel lied.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s me. I danced with you. I kissed you. Take me away from this shithole.”