A Pocketful of Stories
Published by Katrina Jack
Distibuted by Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Katrina Jack
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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A dream of thorn and bramble
Aurora gazed down at her tiny son, where he lay in his ornate crib. His face was puckered and red with fever, making him appear like a little wizened homunculus. The Queen felt tears rise to her eyes. Shoulders squared and fists clenched, she felt full of helplessness, anger and frustration. Is this how her parents felt all those years ago? Of course, she and her husband had tried everything to find a cure: doctors, wizards, sorcerers, even witches – that’s how desperate they’d become – but nothing worked.
Aurora stepped onto the balcony to look out over her kingdom. It lay sprawled before her, a fairytale confection of quaint cottages, twisting cobbled streets, lined with all manner of shops and squares, filled with market stalls. It all seemed so serene, so normal… for now. She sighed. How much longer could they keep the truth hidden from the populace?
She gripped the balustrade, until her knuckles turned white; for a family to be cursed once was bad enough, to be cursed yet again was unbelievable. Swiping at the tears filling her eyes, Aurora’s shoulders bowed beneath a black weight of depression. When the spell that bound her and her family had been dispersed by her now husband, they’d thought themselves the luckiest people alive. Who could possibly guess at what awaited them down the years?
The Queen turned to look back into the room, her gaze fixed on the crib. This was worse, far worse. She had only slept; this time round her son would die if something wasn’t done.
Aurora drew a hand down her face. She was so tired, having scarcely snatched a moment’s rest since her son’s illness began. Every time she did, the dream swamped her mind and even now sat like a canker in her mind.
It always started in the same way. She would find herself standing at the edge of a forest, with two roads stretching away before her. One was lined with ashes and weeds, withered and half dead. The other was lined with gold dust that glittered and shone, enticing her to step onto it and follow its length to an unknown, but glorious destination. Every time she woke, she would find one of her slippers filled with ashes and the other filled with gold dust. She threw up her hands. What was she supposed to do? It was obvious the dream had something to do with her son’s illness, but what? She’d discussed it with her husband, but he too was baffled.
As she looked down into the courtyard, her gaze fell on an overgrown bramble bush. It was a survivor from the days when the castle had been enmeshed in an impenetrable thicket. A thought sleeted into the Queen’s brain and her eyes widened. Of course! She knew what the dream meant now! How could she have been so blind?
The original spell had included a proviso that the curse would be lifted, should a man of valour manage to gain access to the castle, and free them from their eternal sleep. And he did. The weed infested ash path in her dream must surely lead to her son’s imprisoned spirit. If it could be traversed and the barrier that no doubt lay at its end, penetrated, then the child’s health would be restored. But this time she would be the one to break through, for her husband was far away, searching for someone or something that could cure their son.
Aurora hurried back into her chamber. She paused at the foot of her bed, adjacent to the baby’s crib, and stared down at her slippers. The right was filled with the glittering gold dust, the left held the grey ash. The gold was a lie, an enticement to abandon her baby to his fate.
The Queen sat down on the bed and stretched out a hand to grip the edge of the cradle. Holding her breath, she eased the left slipper on, wincing as the ash rose up between her toes. Her eyes closed of their own volition and for a breathless moment, she felt as if she was falling into darkness – into madness. Then dim light filtered through her eyelids. When she opened them she was standing at the head of the ash path. Heart thudding in her chest, she took the first step towards her son’s salvation.
When she reached the thicket, she stopped to stare up at it. It towered above the Queen, a thick mesh of tangled brambles and thorns, seemingly unbreakable. But deep within its confines, a pure white light pulsed. Hope filled Aurora. She’d been right, her son’s soul was in there; all she had to do was rescue it.
Breath caught in her throat she stretched out a hand, ready to take back what was hers.
An angel’s song for Christmas
Michael moved through time, the soft beat of his wings bearing him effortlessly through the night sky.
His job was to watch out for those in need, those whose lives were on the wane. Filled with the compassion and love typical of his kind, he often shed many a tear when he took the cold hand of a recently dead child, warming it in his own, as he guided the precious soul to its final destination. The other angels in his group would poke gentle fun at him for this, but they didn’t understand; his tears were not of sorrow, but of joy at being able to give the gift of solace and peace.
The angel glanced around the star speckled, moonlit sky and smiled. The coldness of the air did not trouble him. He glanced down at the city below; tonight was special, tonight was Christmas, and he had a final call to make.
He bore downwards, invisible to all, apart from the soul he had come to collect.
Winter’s breath swirled about Michael, ruffling the pure white feathers of his wings, as he flew towards his destination. The city was soon left behind and the misty shapes of suburbia took its place. The frost covered pavements sparkled in the glow cast by the streetlights. Michael cupped his hands. A glow filled them. Nestled within it lay the celestial watch, issued to each angel – he was right on time.
He glanced up. The person he’d come to find was more than ready to leave. He could feel the soul’s yearning to be free from its pain and confusion. It twisted and turned, the colours of its aura shifting and changing. A mass of emotions emanated from it: fear, anguish … but most of all, regret.
Michael landed soundlessly outside the house of retreat, made especially for those whose time was over. He entered and then glided along a corridor, until he reached the place where his passenger lay alone in a darkened room. The old man gazed up at Michael, his dark eyes filled with sudden hope. His troubled expression smoothed out and a childlike smile touched his lips. Michael laid a hand on the man’s forehead, before stepping back, arms spread wide in a gesture of welcome.
Behind him, the room filled with light and as the angel began to raise his voice in song, a heavenly host shimmered into view. Music, glorious and filled with wonder, drifted into the dying man’s ears. A sigh escaped his lips, his eyes closed and his body, so recently racked with pain, relaxed.
‘Welcome home, my son,’ Michael whispered and held out his hand.
The man, no longer old, took it and replied, ‘This’s the best Christmas present I’ve ever received. Thank you.’
One for sorrow…
… two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold. Seven for a secret never to be told.
The old rhyme echoed through Marrissa’s head, as she watched two crows squabbling over a tawdry piece of glass. At last the bigger of the two triumphed and flapped off into the evening sky, prize clutched in its beak.
The hedge witch turned away and headed in the direction of her cottage. As was her habit, she gathered plants and herbs from the hedgerows, as she travelled slowly along the dusty path. She stopped and then reached up to gather some leaves from a twisted, gnarled willow tree. A grimace crossed her face, when pain lanced across her shoulder blades. The beating had been over a month ago, but it still hurt whenever she exerted herself. She wiped away the sweat that had gathered on her brow and limped onwards towards home, vowing that he would pay for the sorrow he had caused her.
Normally she only gathered plants and fruits that, when blended in the correct way, would make medicinal tonics and healing balms for those who sought her help; but tonight was…different. An unholy joy filled her as she contemplated the destruction of her foe. He would pay – oh how he would pay!
The glow of the setting sun was warm upon her face and she closed her eyes, revelling in its soothing touch. The villagers would come back to her, pleading and begging for her remedies. She would be a queen in their eyes again; the epitome of all a witch should be.
How much time had passed, since the warlock had stolen her patients, demeaned her and made her a hated outcast? Marrissa shook her head. It didn’t matter. His arrogance would soon be ground into the dust. His assertion that only a male knew how to cast proper spells was ridiculous; everyone knew that women made the best witches. She glanced up at a nearby tree where a murder of crows had gathered. “Murder”, what an appropriate word, even more so since they were her special talisman.
She fingered the silver pendant, cast in the shape of a crow, which hung about her slim neck. It had been made for her by the local blacksmith as thanks for seeing his wife safely through childbirth. Marrissa frowned. The same man had, along with the rest of the villagers, stoned her out of the hamlet, baying for her blood should she ever return.
Well he too would pay. For the past few days, he and his wife had searched the surrounding fields and woods for their missing child. A sly smile oiled its way across the hedge witch’s face. They would never see their boy again. His soul and body fat had already been assimilated into a potion that was rumoured to bring great powers to its creator. The bottle rested atop the male witch’s mantelpiece, placed there by a wish and a thought, awaiting discovery, as it inevitably would be.
Twilight had fallen by the time she reached the crest of the hill leading down into the village. When she saw the golden glow that suffused the darkening sky, Marissa paused and her smile widened into a grin. Even as the stench of burning flesh reached her nose, she gloried in her victory. They were burning the male, convinced of his guilt, no doubt, by the discovery of the potion and the child’s bones she’d hidden in the log pile behind the warlock’s home.
But even as she turned away, a great sound rose up from the village and she paused.
‘Do not suffer a witch to live!’
The words carried towards her like an arrow. Horror grabbed her by the throat with a cold hand. They were coming for her – for her! But why – why! Then realisation poured over her like lead. She thought she’d been so clever, so secret in her plan; but it had backfired. Not only had she convinced the villagers that the warlock was evil, she’d convinced them, by her actions, that all witches were so.
She turned to flee, but her injured shoulders allowed her no great speed. The light of burning torches, pounding feet, and baying voices drew ever nearer.
The murder of crows joined their caws and shrieks to the cacophony of vengeful voices that hunted the hedge witch down and the force of their vengeance bowled her from her feet.
As her life was ripped from her body, the last words Marrissa heard were, “Do not suffer a witch to live!”
Starlight, star bright
Sorsha looked up at the clear, star sprinkled sky. Not a cloud to be seen, just the diamond twinkling of millions of tiny jewels. As she watched, one of the precious pinpoints of light began to plummet towards the frost covered field in which she knelt.
Although only sixteen years old, it took the girl a moment to struggle to her feet. The biting cold left her bones aching and her flesh shivering, but she had no choice but to be here. The winter was the best time to look for fallen stars. If she found enough, she could sell them at the next market and make enough coin to buy bread and pay the rent on the hovel that even she, desperate as she was, refused to call home.
She pulled her threadbare shawl around her cotton clad shoulders and began to trudge towards the spot where the star might have hit. Of course she knew the star merchants sold her gatherings for far more than they paid her, but what else could she do? Alone in this world, there was no one to feed her, or put a roof over her head. There was no one to speak out for her and no one would employ her, because of her disability. Cursed, they called her, damned and devil’s spawn. Tears formed their own stars in her sad, grey eyes.
Wiping them away, Sorsha looked down at her withered arm and shortened right leg. A sigh escaped her. To be as other girls were, would be wonderful. Normality meant having a job, finding a husband and perhaps children. Shoulders hunched against the cold, she pushed the thoughts into the darkness where they belonged.
A glimmer of blue light sparkled in the near distance and she limped towards it as fast as she could. The glow lit up her face as she gazed down at the fallen star, where it lay on the frost stiffened grass. Then the colour changed from the usual blue, to a rosy red and from that, to a glorious gold. Sorsha’s heart leapt in her throat – a wishing star – she’d found a wishing star!
The fingers of her good hand flexed, as she stooped to pick up the prize of all prizes; but then she paused, fingertips only centimetres away from the star gem. Yes, it was well known that the rare, wonderful wishing stars were supposed to grant favours, but they weren’t always what you thought you wanted.
Sorsha straightened up. What did she wish for? Wealth, health, and a life free from pain; to be able to walk the streets of her village without having stones and curses thrown at her. To never again see the sign people direct at her to ward off evil. To be treated as a human being, instead of a species of mad dog – was that so much to ask for?
Her thoughts turned hot, when she remembered how badly she’d been treated by those who should have shown compassion for her plight. She glanced down at the wishing star again. It now pulsed blue once more and driving away her doubts, the girl snatched it up.
Immediately her crippled body was suffused with a sense of peace and well being she’d never known before. Her awkward limbs felt as light as air, when her feet left the ground. Up and up she rose towards the firmament, changing all the while. Her body fragmented into a million particles of light, then coalesced into one glittering ball of depthless beauty.
Even as she reached the heavens and joined her fellow stars, she was still Sorsha, but no longer a crippled and loveless child. She had become a queen of the heavens, far above the muck and reek of humankind. Never again would she know deprivation or the scorn of her so-called fellow creatures. She was a celestial beauty, far above and far away from all that had brought her down.
The following dawn two farmhands, on their way to work, found the huddled body. They stood and stared, until one of them turned the corpse over. For the first time ever, pity filled them when they recognised the pinched little face.
‘Ah well,’ one of them said, ‘she’s at peace now.’ He looked at his silent companion. ‘You wait here with her; I’ll go fetch the undertaker.’ He shook his head. ‘Most like they’ll bury her where she lies, they won’t want her in the churchyard alongside normal folk.’
High above, hidden by the growing daylight, the star called Sorsha danced and twirled with her new brothers and sisters, rejoicing in her freedom.
The Dragonfly Saga
The power of a Queen part I
Dragonfly flew on above the forest; the glow cast by her multi-coloured wings a spark of light in the darkness. It felt wonderful to be back. Her magic, weakened in the world of men, would soon be at full strength again. She gazed down. In amongst the tangle of trees and bushes her fellow sprites lived their tiny, immortal lives free of human interference, but not for long. She’d tried to hold back the oncoming tidal wave of destruction, but failed. She’d barely escaped with her own life.
Most of the humans who’d stumbled into the Otherworld were peaceful and acclimatized well, but those who followed on their heels, now that they knew the way, were determined to mould the Otherworld into the likeness of their own place, filled with dullness, death and destruction. Such an outcome was unthinkable.
At last she arrived at her destination, Merriadown Shee, an outcropping of mossy rocks, pitted with holes like miniature caves and overhung by gnarled tree roots. It was home to one of the many woodland clans that inhabited the Forest of Sighs.
Dragonfly saw the glimmers of light that shone in the openings. She made for the largest of them and the sound of fey music drifted into her delicate, pointed ears.
The interior was lit by glow-worms, nestled in filigrees of flowers, woven from skeins of cobwebs, their petals shot through with silver wire. Strung in rows from the rocky ceiling, the night breeze caught them in its grasp, to spin them in an ever changing panoply of colour. Emerald green moss made a rich carpet beneath the feet of the Shee’s inhabitants.
The Wild-Fey was a sight to behold, one that Dragonfly had sorely missed. Lords and Ladies in robes of silk and fur, strewn with precious gems, lounged on pebbles taken from the bottom of forest pools and polished to an opalescent shine. Maidens and youths danced alone or in pairs, their diaphanous garments changing colour beneath the lights, their fragile wings glittering. Groups of faerie knights, clad in armour that shone green and blue, stood around the periphery of the chamber exchanging tales of valor. They drank blackberry or strawberry wine from cups made to resemble golden daffodils, crimson poppies and graceful lilies; the art of their making known only to the fey silver and goldsmiths. Through it all ran the children, delightful imps clad in pink or blue, pretty faces rosy with merriment, voices shrill with glee.
‘Can it be, or have I drunk too well this night?’
She glanced round and a dark, secret emotion woke in her breast at the sight of the sprite close behind her. He wore his olive green hair in spikes. His broad shoulders and muscular arms accentuated his narrow waist. He was clad in a knee-length tunic of forest green that complimented both the colour of his almond shaped eyes and the paler shade of his skin and wings. When he smiled, Dragonfly felt as if she’d never been away. It was as though Litha were here again and the Cotillion about to begin. She could almost feel his arms about her, as they had been on that far away Midsummer’s night.
Thorn swept his gaze from the crown of her head to her toes and his grin grew wider. ‘We thought you gone away into the land of mortals. Yet here you are back in this world and still far from home.’
He circled her and she turned to follow his flight. ‘I shall never fathom what brings such a one as you from the Sidhe courts to our humble gatherings.’ Thorn chuckled. ‘But then you were ever wayward.’
‘’Tis not waywardness that brings me here, but a warning – one your folk would do well to heed.’
Thorn frowned. ‘Once before you came with ill-tidings and once again King Salmot will not welcome them – Queen Madrios even less.’
‘It matters not,’ Dragonfly said. ‘They must hear what I have to say. Will you take me to them?’
As they began to cross the chamber, the music fell silent and all eyes turned in their direction. Head up and shoulders back, Dragonfly stared straight ahead. Yet despite her bravado, she was glad to have Thorn close by.
They came to a halt opposite an archway hung with silken curtains. A clarion call of silver trumpets heralded the imminent arrival of the king and queen. The curtains drew back to reveal two stately figures.
A smile touched Dragonfly’s lips when she saw Salmot. She noted he was in his normal guise of a dark-haired, bearded sprite with the slanting green eyes common to most of the fey. His shoulders were broad and impressive, his robes so well cut they hid his paunch, the result of too many feasts. Dragonfly knew to her cost that he did not always appear so. A well-known philanderer, he would sometimes adopt the guise of a slender, handsome youth in an attempt to entrap faerie maidens.
Queen Madrios had no need of such deceits. Fair of skin, with delicate features of unique beauty, her blonde hair fell past her knees. She wore a white gown that shimmered with every movement. A necklace of glittering blue stones, set in silver, enclosed her slender neck. A circlet of the same metal sat above her brow. She walked beside her husband, her hand on top of his. As they moved across the chamber, they acknowledged the bows and curtsies that marked their passage, with gracious nods.
They came to a stop just short of where Dragonfly and her escort stood. Thorn bowed, Dragonfly did not. The King eyed her with barely concealed animosity – it would seem he too had not forgotten their last encounter. The Queen’s tranquil expression was belied by her cold eyes.
‘What wonder is this,’ she said in her low, musical voice that nonetheless held a note of sarcasm, ‘our beautiful Dragonfly come back to us?’
‘Yes Majesty, I bring news.’
The King glowered. ‘Ever were you the harbinger of bad news. This is scarce the time or place for such things. Besides, you are Sidhe-Fey. Why not go to your own people for help, why come to us?’
Dragonfly’s gaze swept the chamber. ‘It would perhaps be best if we spoke in private, Sire.’
The King’s answer was forestalled, when Queen Madrios said, ‘How fond the Sidhe-Fey is of drama. Whatever your news, no doubt ‘tis something to do with the humans.’
‘Majesty-’ Dragonfly began.
The Queen held up a hand. ‘Remember your place and do not dare interrupt again. You may be of importance in your own court, but you are in my house now and will remember it.’
Anger and frustration fought with the need for diplomacy. Dragonfly bent her knee in a reluctant curtsey. ‘Majesty,’ she murmured.
‘We will grant you a private audience if you can prove to us the importance of your news,’ Madrios said.
Dragonfly raised her chin. ‘Indeed, Majesty.’ She dipped a hand into the spell purse hung at her waist. When she withdrew it, a small book lay in her palm. The King, Queen, and Thorn drew close to stare down at it.
‘What trinket is this?’ Salmot demanded.
Dragonfly let the book slip from her hand. As it fell, it grew in size and hit the floor with a thud.
‘This,’ she said, ‘is the last of the great Grimoires, written by King Bermegot himself.’
Salmot and Madrios’s eyes were full of wonder.
‘The great Grimoire,’ the King said in a whisper.
When he began to reach for it, Dragonfly pointed a finger and the book flew back into her hand, dwindling in size as it did. She returned it to her spell purse and gave the Queen a cool glance. ‘Is that of enough importance to warrant your attention, Majesty?’
For a long moment they held each other’s gaze, until Madrios said, ‘Very well, you shall have your private audience.’
She turned on her heel towards the arch. Somewhat in a fluster, Salmot was forced to scamper after her.
Thorn held out his arm to Dragonfly. As they followed in the King and Queen’s wake, he murmured, ‘Ever wayward – ever full of surprises.’
The Dragonfly Saga
The Power of a Queen, part II
By the stiff set of his shoulders as he led the way into a small chamber, Dragonfly knew King Salmot was not happy. She cast a sideways glance at Thorn; he gave her a worried smile.
The room was circular in shape. Hewn from the living rock, its uneven walls were threaded with veins of silver that glistened in the light from the great lamp. Hung from a chain set in the ceiling, its wooden frame held multi-coloured pieces of glass, which sent out prisms of blue, red and yellow. The only furniture was a round oak table and chairs, placed in the centre of the stone flagged floor. The backs of the twelve chairs were carved into the likenesses of grinning gargoyles. The seats were the laps of the ugly creatures. The end of the chairs’ arms and legs were fashioned into bony hands and feet. Elaborate lettering was carved into the edge of the table:
‘“Speak forth the truth and knowledge shall be yours,”’ Dragonfly read. ‘Strange you should possess such an item, Majesty, given your aversion to humans.’
‘The table was a gift from Myddrin Emrys himself,’ the Queen said coolly. ‘As I’m sure you’re aware, he was not wholly human.’ She sat down. ‘The table was brought to the Otherworld at great cost. Since he was an emissary of magic, it would have been churlish to refuse him.’
‘Enough chit chat!’ Salmot said, with a scowl. ‘Give us your news and then go.’
Dragonfly hid her amusement at his attempt to regain authority. With a slow, deliberate movement, she took a seat opposite the royal couple; Thorn stood behind her.
‘When I left this place to go to the world of men, we were at war,’ she said.
‘That has not changed,’ Madrios replied. ‘The invaders continue to fight the human settlers.’
‘I feared it would be so.’ Dragonfly leaned back, to all appearances at ease. ‘When I left, Queen Hazel had been stole away from Mountfaeron. With her gone, and the other two queens also missing, the time of Bermegot’s inheritance is over – or so it seems. If we act now, all can be as it was.’
‘What has this to do with us?’ Salmot interjected. ‘The fall of the human king’s house is of no interest to the fey.’
‘But it should be Sire. Do you not see? The invaders hate all magic users. They fear and loathe the fey, even more than they loathe their fellow humans.’ Dragonfly’s gaze went to her spell purse. ‘Bermegot swore to protect our race. It is written in his own hand in the last of the great Grimoires. The men of this land fight and die, not only to protect their own kind, but us too. It is not right that we stand aside and do nothing.’
Salmot appeared to reflect for a moment, then said, ‘What is it you want from us?’
‘Your help in ousting the invaders. If we side with the human peoples of this world, order can be restored and that can only bode well for our kind.’
‘You asked this of us once before, and we refused, why try again?’
‘You have great influence with the other Shees. One word from you would set them in motion. Together we can win this war and take back what is rightfully ours’
Salmot rubbed his chin. ‘You give us too much credit; the other Shees have their own leaders. Yet…’ His eyes went to the spell purse at Dragonfly’s waist. He took his wife’s hand. ‘What say you, my dear?’
Madrios cast her gaze down, as if to read the words engraved into the edge of the table. ‘This requires consideration,’ she said.
The king and queen’s eyes locked. Dragonfly looked away, not only out of politeness, but also to resist the temptation to eavesdrop. Some humans could practice Meabhir, or mind magic too, but their mentality was so chaotic, connection with their fellows was often unreliable.
At last Salmot and Madrios broke contact. The King stroked his beard again, the stones in his rings winking in the light from the lantern.
Madrios smiled. ‘The great Grimoire…’ she said.
Dragonfly suddenly felt uneasy. ‘What of it?’
‘Will you share its secrets with us?’
All at once the chamber felt cold. Well aware that Salmot and Madrios were vain and selfish creatures, Dragonfly had nonetheless hoped to make them see the wider view. Now, as she watched Madrios rise from her seat, she thought to detect a streak of pure ruthlessness in the Queen’s eyes. She could only hope she was mistaken, for despite their differences they were still fey and as such shared a common cause.
‘I will not,’ she said in reply to Madrios’s request. ‘The Grimoire is not to be used in such a way, it is far too dangerous.’
There was silence for a moment, then the Queen said, ‘You speak of unity, yet you refuse to share your good fortune with us.’ Her long fingers trailed across the table’s surface.
Dragonfly adopted an expression of boredom. ‘’Tis not unity you seek, I think.’
Madrios tried, and failed, to hide her fury. ‘You scorn us for our will to survive! she shouted, her voice shrill with rage.
‘’Tis not your survival alone that counts here! I will seek elsewhere for help. You are not fit to join my quest!’
‘Yet your first thought was to seek our aid’ The Queen now stood face to face with Dragonfly. ‘You speak fine words about the salvation of our races. Yet when called upon to act, you shrink back in fear.’ Madrios snapped her fingers. ‘So much for your Sidhe-Fey nobleness!’
Filled with revulsion, Dragonfly made no reply.
With an obvious effort, Madrios fought to regain control. ‘You have the last of the great Grimoires,’ she said, making an attempt to sound reasonable. ‘It is powerful indeed, but only in the right hands. I do not seek it for my own use.’ She took in a long breath, then continued, ‘as well you know it cannot be used by either of our peoples, only a direct descendant of Bermegot can wield the Grimoire’s power. You travelled to the world of men with a purpose in mind, perhaps to seek out the lost grandchild of Bermegot?’
When there was still no reply, the Queen smiled. ‘Your silence is telling. Perhaps you found him?’ Her eyes searched Dragonfly’s face. ‘Were you to gift the spell book to me, things might go better with you and yours.’
Dragonfly gave her a disdainful look. ‘I know your meaning, Madrios. You would hand it over to the invaders, hoping to secure favour for yourself.’ She braced her hands on the edge of the table. ‘It will do you no good.’
She switched her gaze to Salmot, knowing him to be the weaker of the two. ‘When they have all they want, the invaders will destroy you – wipe you from all thought and memory.’
When the king just stared at her, Dragonfly shook her head. No point in wasting more words. Her only desire now was to leave this place and its sordid inhabitants. To be so blind, so foolish – how could she not have realised her folly in coming here? She should never have shown these two the Grimoire. It had been meant as a token of hope, but instead had woken avarice.
‘I know what lies in both your hearts. You would take to yourself the power the book holds and betray all our kind,’ she said.
Salmot laughed. ‘“Our kind?” Once upon a time that might have been true, but now the Wild-Fey has no affiliation with the mighty Sidhe.’ He held out a hand. ‘Give me the spell book and you shall leave here unharmed.’
Before Dragonfly could reply, Thorn stepped forward. ‘This is not wise, Majesty. There are differences between us and the Sidhe, that is true; but should we not set aside those differences and unite to drive the blight from our land. Only a very few of our Shees survive the invaders’ decimation. We cannot win this fight alone. The enemy encroaches further every day upon our territory – they must be stopped.’
Dragonfly gave him a surprised look. Seldom had she known Thorn put himself at risk, self-preservation was his idol. She was grateful for his support, of course, but to judge from his masters’ expressions, he had opened up a world of trouble for himself.
Salmot’s face grew red with fury. ‘You dare to speak in my presence without leave! Do not think to deceive me; I see where you stand, at the back of that Au-ber-o sï bledo, when your place is in my shadow! You are but a servant and have no part in this affair!’
Thorn paled, but there was resolution in his reply. ‘Your pardon, Majesty, but I do. My life is here amongst the Wild-Fey and so I will speak. You must listen to Dragonfly. She too is a queen amongst her own folk and wise in the ways of humans.’
Madrios gave him a venomous glare. ‘Hold your tongue, wriganti!’
Thorn’s face took on a deeper hue at the insult. ‘Majesty, I know I risk your anger, but I will not be silent!’
The Queen’s smile was pure ice. With a flutter of gossamer wings, she moved forward until she came to rest in front of him. ‘You will not be silent, you say?’
Eyes full of fear, Thorn nonetheless said, ‘I cannot stay quiet any longer. All the folk wonder at your majesties’ lack of action against the invaders. Do they not fell our trees for their own nefarious purposes? Have not the Shees throughout the Forest of Sighs tasted their venom? Many have been lost to the iron and clamour of the Homeworld soldiers, forced down the path of di-reig-n to scatter their very essence and accept di-to?’ He drew in a deep breath. ‘How many more of our race must perish, before it is lost and gone forever?’
The Queen’s expression did not change. ‘You have indeed found your tongue, Thorn, and it will cost you dear.’
She put a finger lightly to his lips. Too late, Dragonfly realised what Madrios had done. As the Queen took a step back, the skin on the lower part of Thorn’s face rippled. Muffled protests poured from him, as his mouth shrank, then vanished. He fell to his knees, hands over where his lips had once been.
‘Lift your blight, Madrios, or I swear by Cerunnos himself I will-’
‘What will you do, Dragonfly? You are inside Merriadown Shee and have no power over us.’
The King’s eyes held a yellow light and his grin revealed sharp teeth. The Queen’s expression was once again serene, as she took her husband’s hand. Dragonfly shook her head. What Madrios had said was true. By Faerie lore it would be impolitic to cast a spell upon her hosts, but they had already flouted the rules of hospitality. If they wanted a fight, then they could have one!
‘Thorn said it just now. Only a few of the Shees remain untouched by the invaders; why would that be when they have the power to wipe out all?’ There it was – a shifty look crossed the King’s face at the speed of light, but Dragonfly spotted it. ‘You are in league with them.’
‘Careful what you say or I will have your tongue too,’ Madrios said. ‘By luck or ill fortune you have the truth of it.’ Her expression was one of sheer malice. ‘You’ll not leave here to spread that knowledge.’
Dragonfly drew herself upright, ready to do battle.
The Dragonfly Saga
The Power of a Queen part III
Dragonfly and Madrios faced each other across the round table. The creaking of the great lamp, as it swung on its chain, was the only sound to be heard. Salmot, eyes wide and feral, watched in anticipation. Thorn crept into a corner.
Madrios held out her hands, palms upwards. ‘Wor-monijo!’
The table rose from the floor. The Queen had shown her strength. A challenge had been thrown down – Dragonfly chose to accept it.
‘Ad-sor-o!’ Along with the word of power, a twitch of her little finger sent the table back to its former place.
The sprites’ gazes locked and the table shook. Groans and creaks from the tortured wood reached a crescendo, until the chamber was filled with the sound of its agony. The words on the table’s edges began to melt and then trickle away. Beads of sweat appeared on the Queen’s brow as the struggle for supremacy grew. Outwardly, Dragonfly appeared calm, almost serene; only the wild beating of her heart betrayed her inner agitation.
As the tension grew, the air thickened. Neither of them would give way and with one last, deafening creak, the table split in two.
The Queen’s eyes remained on her opponent. Her cold rage filled the room with a swirling, grey mist. As she rose into the air, it wound itself around her body and transfigurered her fey beauty into a vile mask of malevolence.
‘You think to outwit me? You think because you are Sidhe-Fey your powers are greater than mine?’
Her fingers raked the air. With a gasp of pain Dragonfly drew back, a hand pressed to her cheek. Her fingertips came away wet with blood and she sent the Queen a look of pure fury, as she too rose into the air. ‘My powers are beyond your kind. Should I choose to do so, I could bring Merriadown Shee down upon your heads!’
Cracks appeared in the rocky ceiling and dust began to drift down. The great lantern swung wildly from its chain and as its momentum increased, myriad colours slid across the chamber’s uneven walls. The glass in the lamp fractured and splinters flew around the room like a host of multi-coloured darts. Too late, Madrios brought her arms up to cover her face. Hair and gown streaming in the maelstrom of her enemy’s wrath, the Queen lifted her head, her own cheeks now mottled with tiny wounds.
A muffled protest drew Dragonfly’s attention to Thorn. His eyes held a plea she could not ignore. She let out a pent up breath. The lantern creaked to a halt and the wind died away.
‘Your arrogance will be your downfall, Madrios. Be thankful I feel merciful this day.’
The Queen’s wings trembled, but her voice did not, as she said, ‘You do not know the meaning of mercy. You say I am arrogant, yet it is your kind who has left the old ways behind, who show no respect for our ancient heritage.’ She gestured at the ruined table.
Dragonfly laughed. ‘Such trinkets are the province of humans. For all their grand intentions, those who once sat round it are now dust, their high ideals gone the same way. Do not think that those you choose to ally yourselves with are knights of high honour. They are bringers of death and once your usefulness is done, they will crush you.’
Both faeries drifted to the floor; the Queen went to stand beside her husband.
Dragonfly shook her head. ‘You strive to present a united front, but for all your bravado you know what I say will be so.’ She pointed to the table. ‘There lies your “truth”, broken as you soon will be.’
She drew Thorn to his feet and together they left the chamber.
As she and Thornexited the Shee and took to the air, the cuts on Dragonfly’s cheeks vanished and Thorn’s mouth was restored.
He touched his lips and sent her a look of profound gratitude. ‘What shall we do now?’ he said.
For a second Dragonfly did not reply. Then she sighed and said, ‘We prepare for war.’
When he glanced back at the now distant Shee, she shook her head. ‘No, not with them, they need no help from us to destroy themselves. We go to war with the human invaders.’
‘Cerunnos help us,’ Thorn said.
Dragonfly said nothing, for there was nothing to say. She and her companion flew on into the deep darkness of the forest.
The Dreamer and the Realist
The dreamer leaned on the fence and gazed out over the tall grass, sprinkled with red poppies. In the distance the forest tree line wavered in the late afternoon sun. The dreamer sighed with contentment, her gaze fixed on the beauty of the day.
She began to populate the empty field with glorious, mythological creatures. A smile curved her lips as a unicorn, its pearly horn catching the sunlight, cantered by. A shadow passed overhead and she glanced up at the gleaming scales of the dragon, as it flew past, the downdraft of its wings causing the poppies to dance with their grassy partners.
Then Reality arrived in the form of a scowling man. He flung himself up against the fence on which she leaned, jarring her out of her peaceful contemplation. He waved a stubby hand at the now empty field.
‘What the hell are you doin’ ‘ere, when there’s work to be done? Quit day dreaming and face up to reality for once!’
The Dreamer turned him a side glance. ‘Reality is overrated,’ she replied. ‘In order to face up to it, one has to have dreams.’
The Realist snorted. ‘Rubbish! Life is hard and needs to be controlled. Only relentless work gets you anywhere.’
The Dreamer raised an eyebrow. ‘Work is necessary, yes, but relentless? What’s the point of working until you die of exhaustion?’ She gestured at the field. ‘What harm is there in taking a little time to breathe in the beauty of the day? Why let all this pass you by?’
Face now red with anger, The Realist shouted, ‘Because it doesn’t put food on the table, or clothes on your back!’
The Dreamer smiled. ‘It provides food for the soul,’ she murmured, ‘without which the body is a mere shell, empty of love, happiness and generosity.’
The Realist lost his temper altogether and seized the Dreamer by the arm. ‘I’ll teach you the real meaning of life!’ he roared and raised a fist.
Overhead the sunlight dimmed. A gust of wind almost blew the pair off their feet, separating them from one another. The Dreamer staggered back, one hand raised to protect her eyes from the whirl of dust and leaves. She saw the look of terror on the Realist’s face and took a step forward. But she could do nothing to save him. She could only stand and stare as the dragon flew off into the sunset, prey clamped firmly between its jaws.
With a sad shake of her head, the Dreamer returned to her contemplation of the now serene field.
‘So much for reality,’ she murmured and smiled, as once again the creatures of her mind, trotted and gambled amidst the grass and poppies.
Fusty and dusty, the attic was filled with things – all kinds of things – crammed around the edges of the room. They were like a silent, jumbled congregation, wedged together in silent worship of the deity standing in the centre of the floor. From the skylight directly above, sunlight poured down to bathe it in a halo of golden light.
The dressmaker’s dummy stood stiff and proud, its headless outline both awe inspiring and terrifying. It was shrouded in deep red velvet that appeared almost black in places. Sparkles winked and glittered from the hundreds of tiny glass stones, sewn onto the fabric. They constantly changed colour, from purple through to pink and blue, as though a living body occupied the dress. Such was its grandeur, it didn’t take a great leap of imagination to envisage an Edwardian lady, hair piled high, wearing such a garment to an important occasion, such as dining with royalty.
The dress was old, an antique of a bygone fashion, yet it looked fresh and new as if caught in a time bubble. It oozed sophistication and style, from its low cut neckline, that would reveal just a hint of cleavage, right down to the graceful sweep of the long skirt.
These thoughts and observations passed rapidly through Prudence’s mind, as she climbed the last of the attic stairs and then came to a stop in front of the dressmaker’s dummy. She couldn’t believe her luck. She’d not been in the attic for years, not since she was a child. She’d quite forgotten about the dress, until she csme up here the other day searching for something else. The dress was an absolute treasure and so beautiful. Behind her, more footsteps sounded and a second later a young man stood beside her. Her smile was uncertain as she gazed up into his rather weasel like features.
‘This is what I wanted to show you, Cal.’ She gestured towards the dress and the young man’s brow furrowed.
‘You dragged me all the way up here to see that rag?’ He pulled the back of his hand across his sweat soaked forehead. ‘I sometimes wonder what goes on in your tiny brain.’ The frown turned into something more sinister, as he added, ‘Maybe you need some sense knocking into you.’
‘Please, Cal, don’t.’Prudence’s weak voice was a reflection of her meek personality, which was further emphasised by her mousy hair and stick thin figure. Despite being in her early twenties, she resembled a dowdy, middle-aged spinster, dressed in a dull blouse, calf length skirt, and the obligatory saggy pocketed cardigan, along with flat heeled shoes.
‘I just thought it’d be great for the fancy dress ball next week,’ she said, hoping to placate her fiancé.
It didn’t work. Pasty face still flushed with anger, Callum Maguire curled his lip. ‘You? Wearing that? If you think you’re showing me up at the biggest social event of the year, you can think again.’ He jabbed a finger towards her face, causing Prudence to blink and step back. ‘You’ve been warned, Prue, I won’t tell you again.’
He turned towards the stairs and as she listened to his bad tempered footsteps thundering down towards the landing, Prudence tried to hold back her tears. She dabbed at her eyes with a crumpled tissue, taken from one of the cardigan’s pockets. Why did she find it so difficult to stand up for herself? Ever since childhood, she’d done her best to be good and obedient. She’d honed self effacement into a fine art, but despite her best efforts, knew she remained a disappointment to the family.
Her parents, still known as “mummy and daddy”, had always regarded her with distant, chilly contempt. Every time she’d been brought down from the nursery, the atmosphere instantly changed from vivacious and witty conversation, to boredom and barely stifled yawns. Young as she was, she always felt as though she was walking on eggshells.
Prudence stuffed the tissue back into her pocket and looked around the cluttered attic with a hopeless air. As her gaze roved over the stacks of old books, tied up with threadbare string, broken toys and other miscellanea, she reflected that this was where she belonged. To hide away amongst the rubbish and become invisible, especially to Cal, became an almost attractive prospect in Prudence’s troubled mind.
Browbeaten into accepting his proposal of marriage by her mother, “for the good of the family”, she’d done her utmost to love him against insurmountable odds. The prospect of spending the rest of her life shackled to a cowardly, weasley brute filled her with revulsion. That said, given her submissive nature, Prudence accepted that married life, for her, would be one long prison sentence, until death provided a release.
A loud clatter, from the other side of the room, caused her heart to leap and she looked around again, eyes wide with fear; what on earth was that? Heart still pounding, and stomach weak with terror, she nonetheless forced herself towards the source of the noise. Relief flooded her system, when she saw a large portrait lying face down on the floor. Prudence stared at it for a second, then bent over and grasped either side of the heavy ornate frame with both hands.
Dust cascaded from the picture, as she struggled to lift it up and then lean it against the base of the dressmaker’s dummy. She stepped back, wiping her hands down her cardigan. She froze; a face, so like and yet unlike her own, stared back at her. It was a woman, with a long slender neck and haughty features. Her brown hair had been swept up and gathered into a knot of curls. Dark eyes, filled with pride, stared a challenge at the world, and her lips were set in a superior smile. And that was the difference between them. The woman, whoever she was, oozed confidence and self assurance.
I am a prize to be won. I will not give myself to anyone who does not deserve me. I will fight for what is mine… and so should you.
The whispered words lodged in Prudence’s mind and she again looked around, but she was alone… except for the portrait. Surely it hadn’t spoken? Prudence shook her head and forced a brittle laugh from between her dry lips. She was being silly, or “fanciful”, as mummy would put it. And what would Cal think if she told him? Prudence closed her eyes and shuddered.
She returned her attention to the painting. It was a head and shoulders portrait and as she stepped closer, she could just make out the low cut, deep red neckline of the woman’s gown; it looked like… Prudence glanced at the dress, then back down at the picture. The necklines were the same. She reached out to touch the portrait and then sharply withdrew her hand; the canvas felt warm! As her gaze roved over the painting she noticed, for the first time, the small plaque affixed to the base of the frame. She bent down to wipe away some of the dust and read the name: Emily Montague. A hand pressed to her mouth, Prudence slowly stood up. This was a portrait of her great, great grandmother – the so-called black sheep of the family; it had obviously been relegated to the attic – out of sight, out of mind.
In her youth, Emily had been involved in scandal after scandal, including supporting the suffragette movement, which resulted in her being imprisoned. On her release, the family ganged up on her and forced her into a marriage to a man three times her age. She ended up living in India, where, so it was rumoured, she’d thrown herself into the Ganges River, rather than live a life she so hated.
Shocked to the very core of her being, Prudence turned towards the stairs, but the “voice” called out to her, or rather sounded inside her head again. Don’t go. Try the dress on, see if it fits. Do it now, you’ll never have another chance.
Prudence clenched her hands, until her knuckles stood out white. This was ridiculous! Perhaps Cal was right; she was losing her mind, hearing voices. She looked at the dress, draped elegantly on the dummy and narrowed her eyes. No matter what Cal said, it was beautiful. ‘Too beautiful for me,’ she muttered, ‘what was I thinking?’
She glanced down at the hand she’d used to touch the portrait, her fingertips were bright red, but they didn’t hurt. Rather it felt as if she’d made contact with something … something magical. Oh how she longed for that to be true! A tingle coursed through her veins at the thought. Prudence clenched her hand into a fist, suddenly determined to try the dress on. If it looked silly, well then, so be it.
‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ she panted, as she fumbled with her cardigan buttons, then the zip on her skirt.
Prudence kicked off the hated shoes and stripped the wrinkled stockings from her legs. She tugged her blouse over her head, then clad only in her underwear, stood breathless and red faced in front of the dress. She reached out and the garment seemed to unfold itself from the dummy. Arms now raised, Prudence revelled in the soft caress of the velvet as it slid down her body, touching her skin like a lover’s kiss. Invisible fingers combed through her hair, gently teasing the tendrils this way and that, until it was piled on top of her head, leaving the back of her neck exposed and a cluster of curls resting on her brow.
Prudence accepted it all. She no longer felt any fear. Her heart still raced, but with excitement, not terror. Even the sound of squeaking castors failed to alarm her, as a full length mirror trundled across the uneven floor towards her. She couldn’t see her reflection at first, due to the dust that smeared the mirror’s glass. When she started to reach out to wipe it clean, a gentle pressure on her arm stayed her. A sweet smelling breeze wound itself across the cluttered room and touched Prudence’s cheek. As she watched, it blew across the mirror; the particles of dust rose from the glass, drifting into the air like fairy glitter. Fascinated, Prudence continued to watch as the motes sparkled and swirled, and then settled like snow upon the floorboards, where they continued to twinkle before fading away.
Look upon the beauty that is you, the voice whispered. See what has been hidden all these years.
Breath caught in her throat, Prudence raised her head and stared into the glass; a stranger looked back. She was stunned by what gazed at her from the depths of the mirror. Her hair, thick and lustrous, lay piled on top of her head in sweeping curls that accentuated her graceful neck. Shoulders, shapely and beautiful, rose from the scooped neckline, and the curve of her breasts, creamy white, nestled just above the dress’s neckline. The rich velvet encircled her tiny waist and the skirt fell in elegant folds to her feet.
Filled with joy, she caught up one side of the dress and danced around the room in sheer, abandoned happiness. As she continued to skip and twirl, the light from the stones sewn into the fabric sent out prisms of colour that speckled the makeshift dance floor. She never wanted this to go away, this sensation of lightness that made her feel as if she could fly.
Faster and faster, she whirled, until she began to feel dizzy. She tried to stop, but couldn’t; it was as if something had taken over control of her feet. Fear returned in great tearing gasps and sobs, as Prudence tried, and failed, to halt the dance, a dance that now threatened her very existence.
Then it did stop – everything stopped. She could feel her heart slowing down, felt her breath gurgle in her throat. Her eyes grew heavy, as darkness blocked out her vision. She stood, frozen to the spot, in front of the mirror. Her reflection opened its eyes and laughed. At last, it murmured and stepped from the mirror, into Prudence’s unmoving body.
Once settled in her new abode, Emily Montague smoothed down the dress, patted a stray hair back into place, and then stepped towards the stairs and a new life, which did not include that wretched man.
Behind her, the picture’s canvas was now blank.
Hidden behind one of the pillars of the ruined temple, Calthansian looked down at his blood spattered tunic. The droplets had spattered right across the image of the owl, woven into the fabric; fortunately they’d not touched the tightly rolled piece of parchment, clutched in his right hand.
He’d seen so many wars, witnessed too much bloodshed. He closed his eyes against the sight of death, only to be forced to open them again. Death was his reason for being and he could not escape it.
Despite this, he’d never participated in a battle, or lifted a sword in anger. Armour had never shielded his body against blows from an enemy; all he’d ever done was follow in the wake of various armies and written it all down. Judgement of those who perpetrated such chaos, bringing down on their people a life of hell and misery, was not Calthansian’s task. All he was allowed to do was record events for posterity. But it was hard – so hard – not to wish such warmongers a taste of the fear, hatred and loathing they generated, like a poisonous miasma.
The pen is mightier than the sword. The saying echoed through the scribe’s brain. How many times had his master, Dinithious, tried to make him believe it?
‘We offer humankind the chance to learn from their mistakes,’ the old man said, during one of his classes. ‘We record history, so it can be studied and valuable lessons learned.’
Calthansian’s lip curled in a sneer – learn? Never! History kept repeating itself, over and over; all that differed was the time and place. Yet he was doomed to record it. He’d sworn an oath, donned the tunic and by doing so gained immortality, and a never-ending duty to follow in humankind’s bloodstained journey.
When he stepped from behind the pillar, his gaze fell on the fallen body of a soldier. A face, so young it made the historian’s heart clench, stared blankly back at him. The boy’s helmet had been cloven in two and a lock of bloodstained hair peeked out from the gap. His breastplate, battered and scarred, had been pierced by several arrows.
Regaining control of his emotions, Calthansian stepped over the corpse and began to make his way to where the main battle would be taking place. He would not record the boy’s death, not as an individual, anyway. He would become a number, a statistic… nothing more. The glory of victory would belong to the fallen soldier’s general; only the leaders received a mention in the annals of history. For the common folk there would be no such honour. They would fade from history’s memory and become lost to all but those who loved them and mourned their absence.
Calthansian unrolled his scroll, took his stylus from his pouch, and prepared to write it all down.
Water for life
From his position in the dock, Amus Deathwilder looked, first at the jury, then up at the gallery. It was filled with gawking morons, each and every one of which he would gladly have torn the eyes from. The desire to make this wish a reality caused Amus to shift his position, which in turn caused the shackles around his wrists and ankles to clink.
He looked down at his wrinkled, age worn hands and clenched them into fists. The only comfort he possessed now was the hundred and one years that enshrouded his body. He was an old man, so it didn’t matter what prison sentence they gave him, he wouldn’t be round long enough to see it out.
As the judge droned on, Amus allowed his mind to drift back in time, remembering his glorious “career”. How many lives had he taken? How many methods had he used to snuff out the existence of worthless pieces of human detritus? He’d always had an enquiring nature and enjoyed experimenting, seeking fresh new ways to cause maximum pain. Each time he succeeded, he felt such elation that he thought nothing would ever beat it; but the next time he set out on another mission, the elation grew, spurring him on. That said, all good things come to an end and he couldn’t complain, not really, not when he’d had such a good run.
The judge’s droning voice brought Amus back to the here and now. He fixed his gaze on the man, where he sat in his elevated seat. The jury had already delivered their guilty verdict; all that remained was the sentence.
‘Amus Deathwilder,’ the judge intoned, ‘I sentence you to life in prison,’
To the court’s horrified astonishment, Amus smiled and nodded. Fools! He had very little life left – the sentence was a joke.
‘Take him down!’ The judge almost shouted the words, as if he couldn’t wait to see the back of the prisoner.
On the way to the prison, Amus mused on what awaited him. Even though he was old, ancient even, he was still considered dangerous; he smirked, what a compliment! His high status category probably meant he’d be assigned a cell to himself. Well, he’d make the most of his “retirement”. They’d have to allow him access to books and writing materials. Perhaps he’d write his memoirs.
The first misgiving reared its ugly head, when the prison came into view. Set on a tall cliff, overlooking a grey sea, the castle loomed with forbidding grandeur. Amus tried to quell the uneasiness now rampaging through his thoughts, but failed.
Still in chains, he was marched along a gloomy passage, until he and his two guards reached a huge oak door; it creaked open, revealing the room beyond. It was empty, apart from a stone gargoyle with water spewing from its mouth into a small brick walled pool.
One of the guards grinned at him. ‘Welcome to the pool of life,’ he said.
Amus gaped at him. ‘What d’you mean?’
The grin remained in place, as the guard replied, ‘One of your victims was a Professor Donegal, right?’
‘That fool, yes. He was always spouting rubbish about how a man’s life could be extended, going on and on about reversing the aging process. What of it?’
‘He wasn’t the crackpot you thought.’ The guard gestured at the gargoyle. ‘He discovered the fountain of youth. Not just that, he was able to replicate its properties.’
Amus stared at the man, then realising what he meant, tried to back away; both guards seized his arms, dragging him towards the waiting gargoyle.
He screamed, begged, pleaded, all to no avail. The moment his head was forced under the water, Amus realised just what life in prison meant; in his case, it’d only just begun.
An old man had entered the room, a screaming, crying young man left it.
They didn’t even allow him to dry off his newly rejuvenated face, before shoving him into his cell. One small barred window, set high up in the wall, allowed in what little light there was. As Amus looked around, he noticed the shadows that dominated the room; his heart turned to ice in his chest, when he realised they were crawling across the floor towards him.
Outside in the corridor, the guard who’d spoken to him turned the key in the lock. He grinned again, when he heard the whimpering start up from within the cell.
‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,’ he murmured and walked away.
When the willow weeps for me
I stand beneath the willow tree and cast my heart upon the rain flecked waters of the river. It sails away, taking all my love with it. Eventually it will reach the rapids further downstream, where it will fragment and the last of my life’s meaning will be gone.
The willow tree weeps, the raindrops falling from it like tears. Tears run down my face too, but they are less easy to see, mingling as they do, with the water falling from the darkened sky.
My chest feels hollow, now that all my hopes and dreams have sailed away. I clutch one of the tree’s branches and lean out over the churning water. Perhaps if I follow, I’ll be reunited with everything I hold dear… more likely not.
Life has turned to sludge since he went away; abandoning me for something he wasn’t even sure of himself. He gave it the name of adventure, seeking gold at the end of the rainbow, chasing after something that surely did not exist. Why pursue such tenuous things, when I could have given him everything I had to give: my soul, my love… my heart’s desire.
The wind rises, lashing the willow tree’s branches so that its tears splash across my face. My hair becomes entangled in its branches, as though it sought to offer me comfort… and I took it.
My feet slide easily down the muddy river bank, until the water has me in its grip. As I sink beneath the surface, the last thing I see is the willow bending over me in blessing. Then I become one with the river…
Other Books by Katrina Jack
The Silver Flute Trilogy, YA urban fantasy at its best
Book I, Land of Midnight Days
Book II Through the Gloaming
Book III Dawn Horizon
About Katrina Jack
Katrina Jack, or Kate, writes YA urban fantasy and is a great fan of such writers as: Jim Butcher, Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb. Kate has had three books published, under the banner heading of: The Silver Flute Trilogy. All three novels follow the story of mute musician, Jeremiah Tully and his quest to find out where his talent as a musician will take him. Set in a dystopian world, filled with Gangers, Elwyns and Norms, Jeremiah fights his way towards enlightenment and freedom.
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Free Chapter from Land of Midnight Days, Book I of The Silver Flute Trilogy
Land of Midnight Days
Don’t look back, it’ll slow you down – just run.
The city had become the worst of urban jungles. Hunters ruled unchecked as Jeremiah Tully, running for his life, could testify.
He fled down yet another street and saw a small crowd ahead, gathered around a figure standing on an upturned crate. He came to a halt, unsure which way to turn. Raising his head, the man brushed his wild busy hair back from his unshaven face and began to speak.
‘Brothers and sisters,’ he intoned, arms raised high. ‘Join me in my cause to rid this place of impurity. Let us drive out the iniquitous and send them back to their holes and dens.’
A poster hung on some nearby railings. Black letters, on a white background, blazed a message of hate:
Free the city of impurity; drive out the lower races. Unite in a glorious cause to restore our freedom!
That the speaker was demon-possessed Jeremiah didn’t doubt. Nonetheless, the crowd surrounding him hung on his every word.
The sound of running feet echoed along the pavement behind Jeremiah. A quick glance round showed a group of youths racing toward him.
Blind panic threatened to overwhelm him, until he spotted a fire escape, attached to the side of an abandoned warehouse. He hauled himself up, hand over hand, feet slipping and sliding on the wet steps. At the top he paused, hunched over as he struggled to get his breath. Damp hair hung in rats’ tails over his face and his heart hammered against his ribs.
‘There he is!’
His pursuers were still after him. With a sound of despair, he fled.
Coils of wire, broken packing cases and old pipes lay strewn across the flat, waterlogged roof. He wove his way between the rubbish, until forced to halt at the parapet on the oppposite side. A pair of rusty metal bars clung to the brickwork; the rest of the ladder had fallen away. Some fifty metres below, the ground seemed to rush upwards. He lurched back, fighting off an onslaught of vertigo. No use calling for help. Even if he’d been able to, no one would answer.
Metal clanged, wood snapped and boxes flew, as the pursuers kicked their way through the litter. One of them yelled, ‘Come on, we’ve got him.’
Jeremiah looked over at the adjacent building and tried to gauge the distance – maybe ten metres.
His pursuers were gaining on him. He snatched up a piece of pipe and hurled it at the nearest. It caught him across the midriff and he went down, taking two others along for the ride. Their tangled bodies forced the rest to pull up.
‘You stupid sod, what d’you wanna do that for?’ one of them snarled, as he struggled to free himself.
A second glance at the other warehouse told Jeremiah he had no option. He backed up a little and then raced forward. When his feet hit the edge of the roof, he pushed off into space. He overshot the ledge of the next building and landed hard. Winded, he curled into a foetal position.
A string of curses drifted from across the way and he forced himself to look up. Gathered at the periphery of the roof he’d just leapt from, the gang continued to rant and threaten, but didn’t dare follow.
Ever since he’d left The Crack o’ Dawn pub, they’d chased him through the dark, narrow streets, determined to bring him down. His pursuers were Wannabes, members of a fraternity dedicated to the destruction of those who were different; and he was that all right. Not only did his ancestry include membership of the last of the magical races, the once nomadic tribes of Elwyns, but he’d compounded his felony by being half-human as well. Not that the Wannabes were aware of that. All they saw was an Elwyn, with pale skin, silver eyes, and slender-than-usual build.
Jeremiah shrugged off his leather backpack, took out a bulky pouch, opened it and stared at the gleaming contents.
Thank God it remained undamaged.
Ignoring the stream of abuse, he replaced the pouch in the bag and ran off into the darkness.
Daylight began to streak the sullen sky by the time he reached home. Tall, narrow and shabby, the dwelling stood at the end of a row of mid-Victorian houses. Despite its condition it still retained an air of faded elegance.
Next door stood the remnants of a church, its once fine struture full of overgrown bushes and nettles. Its steeple reared towards the sky as if pointing the way home. Even devoid of glass, the graceful arches of the windows clung onto remnants of their original beauty. The wind whistled through the ruined interior, as though mourning its demise.
Jeremiah jogged past the church and up the steps of the end house, where he paused to glance over the road. As expected, a pale oval face appeared at a hole in the downstairs window of the opposite house. Chin on hand, wispy fair hair tied in bunches, the child lifted her face to the clouds.
‘Rain, rain go away, come again another day,’ she droned, making the little rhyme sound more like a funeral dirge. Her reedy voice drifted across to where Jeremiah watched and listened.
She lowered her head again, gaze seemingly fixed on him. One side of her thin face displayed a puckered and angry red scar, the result of a raid by a gang of Street Warriors. They’d set the fire that had not only disfigured her, but also taken her sight.
Jeremiah sighed and turned away. He knew the reason why the little girl spent so much time perched there, night after night, when she should be in bed. She was waiting for it to come out of its den.
Forcing the warped front door open, he stepped into the hallway.
In his room, at the furthest end of the top landing, he took out the pouch and dropped the backpack on the floor. He glanced round and shivered. Despite the winter cold he wore only a threadbare sweater, shabby jeans and trainers that had seen better days. He took a seat on the bed, the single piece of furniture the room contained, and emptied out the pouch’s contents. The silver pieces glittered with breath-taking beauty.
When the flute was assembled, Jeremiah turned it slowly round and round, staring in wonder at the Elwyn musical notes etched on its surface. He knew, from what a friend once told him, that they were the key to something powerful and dangerous, but also something wonderful. Jeremiah had never been able to bring himself to play them, afraid of what would happen. Maybe one day soon he would, just not yet.
The melody consisted of two parts. The first was a march that would sweep the listener along, the second demanded total obedience of mind, body and soul. Jeremiah knew this because he’d “performed” it over and over in his head, so clearly he could almost hear it.
His thoughts strengthened his desire to hear the instrument’s voice again. He held the flute to his lips, but stopped short. All too aware of the consequences if he did play any music, he nevertheless struggled to resist the temptation. Life held so little to be glad about, so little to look forward to. He glanced down at the instrument. Apart from this.
He’d never been able to discover his identity as an individual, until the flute came into his possession. He more than loved it – he cherished it. It provided him with a sense of purpose, a reason to go on. He released a sigh. All the same there must be more, but damned if he knew what. There was just a vague sense that the flute held the answer.
He started to disassemble it, but his fingers were numb from the cold. Afraid of damaging the instrument, he put it down on the bed, drawing the worn blanket over it – out of sight, out of mind. His face twitched. It didn’t work like that; he needed the music.
Don’t be a damn fool. You know what’ll happen and this time it could be more than just a slap across the face. He threatened to break your arm last time and it he does, what’ll you do then?
On and on the inner conflict raged, temptation against common sense until Jeremiah could stand it no longer.
He rubbed his hands together to restore their circulation and then snatched the flute from its hiding place.
Eyes closed, he played a soulful lament of his own composition. Exquisite beyond description, the music filled the drab room with magic that took the form of specks of silver. Jeremiah kept this particular aptitude to himself. Already considered an outsider, if such a talent became common knowledge, it would only make his situation worse. There were other things he could do too. He could conjure up light in dark places and sometimes found himself inside people’s thoughts, able to see, feel and hear their memories as if he’d been there. The drawback was the sounds and images were always traumatic.
Take last night. As he’d fled his hunters, his head became filled with their feral longings. The Wannabes’ inner voices clashed and tangled with each other, adding to the terror.
I’m gonna tear that stinking Elwyn apart… Break every bone in his body… Piece of filth! Who does he think he is, livin’ ‘ere with decent folk… Why doesn’t ‘e go back where he belongs?
On and on it went, their hatred like a knife sunk between his shoulder blades.
Sparkling in the morning light, the flecks of silver drove away the painful memory. Moments like this were rare and precious, they helped transcend the misery that was his lot.
Downstairs, to the left of the main entrance, a door led into a small room. The occupant of the iron-framed bed issued a series of snorts and grunts, then heaved himself upright.
From beady eyes, still puffy with sleep, he looked around the bare, damp-patterned walls and took a deep breath. The stench in the room would have choked a horse, but he didn’t mind. It wouldn’t be home without a bit of atmosphere. He never understood why people objected to odours. His personal scent of stale whisky, mingled with sweat and tobacco, formed part of his personality.
Ezra laid back, a yawn stretching his jaws. He stared at the ceiling and tried to gather energy enough to rise. Another bloody day amongst the damned and stupid. On the other hand it did present certain opportunities.
Owner of the dwelling, he charged exorbitant rents to occupy the rats’ nest, laughingly labelled a boarding house. If anyone fell behind, they were out; simple as that. If some people couldn’t pay, others could; it depended on how desperate they were. Due to the national housing shortage, accomodation was hard to obtain. Ezra smirked. So easy to take money off these fools, he’d been doing it for years.
No one knew his age. He didn’t himself. Ever since he’d arrived in this city, there’d been gaps in his memory. He found it hard to recall his life before he came here. Oh there were brief flashes, but they slipped away as fast as they came. Not that it bothered him – the past was the past – all that mattered was today and what could be squeezed out of it. Grabbing money from whatever source he could pulled him out of bed in the morning. It gave him power and made him master of his own life.
He rubbed his face so hard it made his jowls wobble. Stubby fingers raked through greasy, unwashed hair and the low slung forehead creased in a frown, as Ezra blinked the remaining sleep from his eyes.
The man’s decrepit façade was deceptive. More than capable with his fists, he welcomed any excuse to pound in a face and break a limb or two. His reputation brought him constant delight. Fear was meat and drink.
He swung his legs out of bed and belched, after which he pulled crumpled clothes over a grubby vest and long underpants. This was followed by several mouthfuls of whisky, chugged down from a bottle snatched from a nearby table.
Breakfast over, Ezra wiped the back of a hand across his mouth and peered into the flyblown mirror hung on the wall behind the table. Yellowed teeth bared in a smile, he raised the bottle in a mock toast and prepared to take another swig, when the voice of the flute drifted down from the upper regions of the house.
An expression of fury etched itself onto Ezra’s face. ‘Shut the damn row up!’ he yelled, as he yanked the door open.
When the music continued, he dragged himself up flight after flight of stairs. Bad enough he had to put up with that racket at all, let alone in his own house. The stupid little sod knew that and yet refused to toe the line. Well this time he’d shut the brat up for good.
Even as the thought took shape, he hesistated. Best go easy. Not sure why, Ezra only knew the boy was important in some way. Hazy memory tried to remind him, but all he knew was there’d be catastrophic consequences if he killed Jeremiah.
He sighed. Easy it was then.
Welcome to a world of faeries, dreamers,history and much more. A Pocketful of stories contains twelve short fantasy tales, filled with delightful, and not so delightful, characters. From the dreamer who does not wish to face up to reality, to the shopkeeper and his daughters who yearn for adventure, this book will take you through multiple worlds and situations.