· Welcome to Schlock! the new webzine for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Vol 2, Issue 26
6 May 2012
Schlock! is an exciting new weekly webzine dedicated to short stories, flash fiction, serialised novels and novellas within the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. We publish new and old works of pulp sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, dark fantasy and gothic horror. If you want to read quality works of schlock fantasy, science fiction or horror, Schlock! is the webzine for you!
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This week’s cover illustration is ‘Haunted Hotel’ by Gav Roach. Graphic design by C Priest Brumley.
Lovecraftiana - The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath – Part 3 by HP Lovecraft – Ghouls, Gugs and ghasts in the Vale of Pnoth... FANTASY
Stuck Fast by Robyn Singer Rose – “Over my dead body,” she whispered… HORROR
Dominion - Part Three by Zak Dawson - “My name is Yawmoth, though I’ve been called Dominion in modern times…” HORROR
Attack of the Cactus People! Written and illustrated by Gregory Bryant – B movie horror in the desert … SCIENCE FICTION
Algae Killer by Samantha Stevens-Clay – I’m getting too old for my father now. He comes to my room less and less… HORROR
Ayame’s Love - Part Fourteen by Thomas C Hewitt – The shovel’s rhythm did not dull Sean’s mind... EPIC POEM
How To Kill Yourself by Rob Bliss – Advice from Satan... HORROR
Locker 13 by Aaron Majewski – What does it contain? HORROR
Case Closed by Bryan Carrigan – The ultimate cold case... HORROR
Run To The Hills - Part Six by Gavin Chappell – The road to Mais Beli... SWORD AND SORCERY
Schlock! Classic Serial: Varney the Vampire: Part Fifty-Four ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest. Before Twilight... before Nosferatu ... before Dracula... there was Varney... GOTHIC HORROR
Schlock! Classic Serial: After London - Part Twelve by Richard Jefferies – The Bushmen of the forests… SCIENCE FICTION
This week in the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Randolph Carter treads the dreaded Vale of Pnoth.
We also have for your delectation and delight Antipodean comic horror Stuck Fast by Robyn Singer Rose; the continuation of Zak Dawson’s Dominion, in which our hero learns more about his new identity; more stories from Samantha Stevens-Clay (a tale of abuse, neglect, and revenge) and a Satanic sermon from Rob Bliss.
There’s also the welcome return of Bryan Carrigan with a story of cold cases and haunted hotels; Aaron Majewski’s Locker 13; the concluding part of Run To The Hills; and the ongoing sagas of Varney and After London.
THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by H.P. Lovecraft
They bore him breathless into that cliffside cavern and through monstrous labyrinths beyond. When he struggled, as at first he did by instinct, they tickled him with deliberation. They made no sound at all themselves, and even their membranous wings were silent. They were frightfully cold and damp and slippery, and their paws kneaded one detestably. Soon they were plunging hideously downward through inconceivable abysses in a whirling, giddying, sickening rush of dank, tomb-like air; and Carter felt they were shooting into the ultimate vortex of shrieking and daemonic madness. He screamed again and again, but whenever he did so the black paws tickled him with greater subtlety. Then he saw a sort of grey phosphorescence about, and guessed they were coming even to that inner world of subterrene horror of which dim legends tell, and which is litten only by the pale death-fire wherewith reeks the ghoulish air and the primal mists of the pits at earth’s core.
At last far below him he saw faint lines of grey and ominous pinnacles which he knew must be the fabled Peaks of Throk. Awful and sinister they stand in the haunted disc of sunless and eternal depths; higher than man may reckon, and guarding terrible valleys where the Dholes crawl and burrow nastily. But Carter preferred to look at them than at his captors, which were indeed shocking and uncouth black things with smooth, oily, whale-like surfaces, unpleasant horns that curved inward toward each other, bat wings whose beating made no sound, ugly prehensile paws, and barbed tails that lashed needlessly and disquietingly. And worst of all, they never spoke or laughed, and never smiled because they had no faces at all to smile with, but only a suggestive blankness where a face ought to be. All they ever did was clutch and fly and tickle; that was the way of night-gaunts.
As the band flew lower the Peaks of Throk rose grey and towering on all sides, and one saw clearly that nothing lived on that austere and impressive granite of the endless twilight. At still lower levels the death-fires in the air gave out, and one met only the primal blackness of the void save aloft where the thin peaks stood out goblin-like. Soon the peaks were very far away, and nothing about but great rushing winds with the dankness of nethermost grottoes in them. Then in the end the night-gaunts landed on a floor of unseen things which felt like layers of bones, and left Carter all alone in that black valley. To bring him thither was the duty of the night-gaunts that guard Ngranek; and this done, they flapped away silently. When Carter tried to trace their flight he found he could not, since even the Peaks of Throk had faded out of sight. There was nothing anywhere but blackness and horror and silence and bones.
Now Carter knew from a certain source that he was in the vale of Pnoth, where crawl and burrow the enormous Dholes; but he did not know what to expect, because no one has ever seen a Dhole or even guessed what such a thing may be like. Dholes are known only by dim rumor, from the rustling they make amongst mountains of bones and the slimy touch they have when they wriggle past one. They cannot be seen because they creep only in the dark. Carter did not wish to meet a Dhole, so listened intently for any sound in the unknown depths of bones about him. Even in this fearsome place he had a plan and an objective, for whispers of Pnoth were not unknown to one with whom he had talked much in the old days. In brief, it seemed fairly likely that this was the spot into which all the ghouls of the waking world cast the refuse of their feastings; and that if he but had good luck he might stumble upon that mighty crag taller even than Throk’s peaks which marks the edge of their domain. Showers of bones would tell him where to look, and once found he could call to a ghoul to let down a ladder; for strange to say, he had a very singular link with these terrible creatures.
A man he had known in Boston—a painter of strange pictures with a secret studio in an ancient and unhallowed alley near a graveyard—had actually made friends with the ghouls and had taught him to understand the simpler part of their disgusting meeping and glibbering. This man had vanished at last, and Carter was not sure but that he might find him now, and use for the first time in dreamland that far-away English of his dim waking life. In any case, he felt he could persuade a ghoul to guide him out of Pnoth; and it would be better to meet a ghoul, which one can see, than a Dhole, which one cannot see.
So Carter walked in the dark, and ran when he thought he heard something among the bones underfoot. Once he bumped into a stony slope, and knew it must be the base of one of Throk’s peaks. Then at last he heard a monstrous rattling and clatter which reached far up in the air, and became sure he had come nigh the crag of the ghouls. He was not sure he could be heard from this valley miles below, but realised that the inner world has strange laws. As he pondered he was struck by a flying bone so heavy that it must have been a skull, and therefore realising his nearness to the fateful crag he sent up as best he might that meeping cry which is the call of the ghoul.
Sound travels slowly, so it was some time before he heard an answering glibber. But it came at last, and before long he was told that a rope ladder would be lowered. The wait for this was very tense, since there was no telling what might not have been stirred up among those bones by his shouting. Indeed, it was not long before he actually did hear a vague rustling afar off. As this thoughtfully approached, he became more and more uncomfortable; for he did not wish to move away from the spot where the ladder would come. Finally the tension grew almost unbearable, and he was about to flee in panic when the thud of something on the newly heaped bones nearby drew his notice from the other sound. It was the ladder, and after a minute of groping he had it taut in his hands. But the other sound did not cease, and followed him even as he climbed. He had gone fully five feet from the ground when the rattling beneath waxed emphatic, and was a good ten feet up when something swayed the ladder from below. At a height which must have been fifteen or twenty feet he felt his whole side brushed by a great slippery length which grew alternately convex and concave with wriggling; and hereafter he climbed desperately to escape the unendurable nuzzling of that loathsome and overfed Dhole whose form no man might see.
For hours he climbed with aching and blistered hands, seeing again the grey death-fire and Throk’s uncomfortable pinnacles. At last he discerned above him the projecting edge of the great crag of the ghouls, whose vertical side he could not glimpse; and hours later he saw a curious face peering over it as a gargoyle peers over a parapet of Notre Dame. This almost made him lose his hold through faintness, but a moment later he was himself again; for his vanished friend Richard Pickman had once introduced him to a ghoul, and he knew well their canine faces and slumping forms and unmentionable idiosyncrasies. So he had himself well under control when that hideous thing pulled him out of the dizzy emptiness over the edge of the crag, and did not scream at the partly consumed refuse heaped at one side or at the squatting circles of ghouls who gnawed and watched curiously.
He was now on a dim-litten plain whose sole topographical features were great boulders and the entrances of burrows. The ghouls were in general respectful, even if one did attempt to pinch him while several others eyed his leanness speculatively. Through patient glibbering he made inquiries regarding his vanished friend, and found he had become a ghoul of some prominence in abysses nearer the waking world. A greenish elderly ghoul offered to conduct him to Pickman’s present habitation, so despite a natural loathing he followed the creature into a capacious burrow and crawled after him for hours in the blackness of rank mould. They emerged on a dim plain strewn with singular relics of earth—old gravestones, broken urns, and grotesque fragments of monuments—and Carter realised with some emotion that he was probably nearer the waking world than at any other time since he had gone down the seven hundred steps from the cavern of flame to the Gate of Deeper Slumber.
There, on a tombstone of 1768 stolen from the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, sat a ghoul which was once the artist Richard Upton Pickman. It was naked and rubbery, and had acquired so much of the ghoulish physiognomy that its human origin was already obscure. But it still remembered a little English, and was able to converse with Carter in grunts and monosyllables, helped out now and then by the glibbering of ghouls. When it learned that Carter wished to get to the enchanted wood and from there to the city Celephais in Ooth-Nargai beyond the Tanarian Hills, it seemed rather doubtful; for these ghouls of the waking world do no business in the graveyards of upper dreamland (leaving that to the red-footed wamps that are spawned in dead cities), and many things intervene betwixt their gulf and the enchanted wood, including the terrible kingdom of the Gugs.
The Gugs, hairy and gigantic, once reared stone circles in that wood and made strange sacrifices to the Other Gods and the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep, until one night an abomination of theirs reached the ears of earth’s gods and they were banished to caverns below. Only a great trap door of stone with an iron ring connects the abyss of the earth-ghouls with the enchanted wood, and this the Gugs are afraid to open because of a curse. That a mortal dreamer could traverse their cavern realm and leave by that door is inconceivable; for mortal dreamers were their former food, and they have legends of the toothsomeness of such dreamers even though banishment has restricted their diet to the ghasts, those repulsive beings which die in the light, and which live in the vaults of Zin and leap on long hind legs like kangaroos.
So the ghoul that was Pickman advised Carter either to leave the abyss at Sarkomand, that deserted city in the valley below Leng where black nitrous stairways guarded by winged diarote lions lead down from dreamland to the lower gulfs, or to return through a churchyard to the waking world and begin the quest anew down the seventy steps of light slumber to the cavern of flame and the seven hundred steps to the Gate of Deeper Slumber and the enchanted wood. This, however, did not suit the seeker; for he knew nothing of the way from Leng to Ooth-Nargai, and was likewise reluctant to awake lest he forget all he had so far gained in this dream. It was disastrous to his quest to forget the august and celestial faces of those seamen from the north who traded onyx in Celephais, and who, being the sons of gods, must point the way to the cold waste and Kadath where the Great Ones dwell.
After much persuasion the ghoul consented to guide his guest inside the great wall of the Gugs’ kingdom. There was one chance that Carter might be able to steal through that twilight realm of circular stone towers at an hour when the giants would be all gorged and snoring indoors, and reach the central tower with the sign of Koth upon it, which has the stairs leading up to that stone trap door in the enchanted wood. Pickman even consented to lend three ghouls to help with a tombstone lever in raising the stone door; for of ghouls the Gugs are somewhat afraid, and they often flee from their own colossal graveyards when they see them feasting there.
He also advised Carter to disguise as a ghoul himself; shaving the beard he had allowed to grow (for ghouls have none), wallowing naked in the mould to get the correct surface, and loping in the usual slumping way, with his clothing carried in a bundle as if it were a choice morsel from a tomb. They would reach the city of Gugs—which is coterminous with the whole kingdom—through the proper burrows, emerging in a cemetery not far from the stair-containing Tower of Koth. They must beware, however, of a large cave near the cemetery; for this is the mouth of the vaults of Zin, and the vindictive ghasts are always on watch there murderously for those denizens of the upper abyss who hunt and prey on them. The ghasts try to come out when the Gugs sleep and they attack ghouls as readily as Gugs, for they cannot discriminate. They are very primitive, and eat one another. The Gugs have a sentry at a narrow in the vaults of Zin, but he is often drowsy and is sometimes surprised by a party of ghasts. Though ghasts cannot live in real light, they can endure the grey twilight of the abyss for hours.
So at length Carter crawled through endless burrows with three helpful ghouls bearing the slate gravestone of Col. Nepemiah Derby, obit 1719, from the Charter Street Burying Ground in Salem. When they came again into open twilight they were in a forest of vast lichened monoliths reaching nearly as high as the eye could see and forming the modest gravestones of the Gugs. On the right of the hole out of which they wriggled, and seen through aisles of monoliths, was a stupendous vista of cyclopean round towers mounting up illimitable into the grey air of inner earth. This was the great city of the Gugs, whose doorways are thirty feet high. Ghouls come here often, for a buried Gug will feed a community for almost a year, and even with the added peril it is better to burrow for Gugs than to bother with the graves of men. Carter now understood the occasional titan bones he had felt beneath him in the vale of Pnoth.
Straight ahead, and just outside the cemetery, rose a sheer perpendicular cliff at whose base an immense and forbidding cavern yawned. This the ghouls told Carter to avoid as much as possible, since it was the entrance to the unhallowed vaults of Zin where Gugs hunt ghasts in the darkness. And truly, that warning was soon well justified; for the moment a ghoul began to creep toward the towers to see if the hour of the Gugs’ resting had been rightly timed, there glowed in the gloom of that great cavern’s mouth first one pair of yellowish-red eyes and then another, implying that the Gugs were one sentry less, and that ghasts have indeed an excellent sharpness of smell. So the ghoul returned to the burrow and motioned his companions to be silent. It was best to leave the ghasts to their own devices, and there was a possibility that they might soon withdraw, since they must naturally be rather tired after coping with a Gug sentry in the black vaults. After a moment something about the size of a small horse hopped out into the grey twilight, and Carter turned sick at the aspect of that scabrous and unwholesome beast, whose face is so curiously human despite the absence of a nose, a forehead, and other important particulars.
Presently three other ghasts hopped out to join their fellow, and a ghoul glibbered softly at Carter that their absence of battle-scars was a bad sign. It proved that they had not fought the Gug sentry at all, but had merely slipped past him as he slept, so that their strength and savagery were still unimpaired and would remain so till they had found and disposed of a victim. It was very unpleasant to see those filthy and disproportioned animals which soon numbered about fifteen, grubbing about and making their kangaroo leaps in the grey twilight where titan towers and monoliths arose, but it was still more unpleasant when they spoke among themselves in the coughing gutturals of ghasts. And yet, horrible as they were, they were not so horrible as what presently came out of the cave after them with disconcerting suddenness.
It was a paw, fully two feet and a half across, and equipped with formidable talons. Alter it came another paw, and after that a great black-furred arm to which both of the paws were attached by short forearms. Then two pink eyes shone, and the head of the awakened Gug sentry, large as a barrel, wabbled into view. The eyes jutted two inches from each side, shaded by bony protuberances overgrown with coarse hairs. But the head was chiefly terrible because of the mouth. That mouth had great yellow fangs and ran from the top to the bottom of the head, opening vertically instead of horizontally.
But before that unfortunate Gug could emerge from the cave and rise to his full twenty feet, the vindictive ghasts were upon him. Carter feared for a moment that he would give an alarm and arouse all his kin, till a ghoul softly glibbered that Gugs have no voice but talk by means of facial expression. The battle which then ensued was truly a frightful one. From all sides the venomous ghasts rushed feverishly at the creeping Gug, nipping and tearing with their muzzles, and mauling murderously with their hard pointed hooves. All the time they coughed excitedly, screaming when the great vertical mouth of the Gug would occasionally bite into one of their number, so that the noise of the combat would surely have aroused the sleeping city had not the weakening of the sentry begun to transfer the action farther and farther within the cavern. As it was, the tumult soon receded altogether from sight in the blackness, with only occasional evil echoes to mark its continuance.
Then the most alert of the ghouls gave the signal for all to advance, and Carter followed the loping three out of the forest of monoliths and into the dark noisome streets of that awful city whose rounded towers of cyclopean stone soared up beyond the sight. Silently they shambled over that rough rock pavement, hearing with disgust the abominable muffled snortings from great black doorways which marked the slumber of the Gugs. Apprehensive of the ending of the rest hour, the ghouls set a somewhat rapid pace; but even so the journey was no brief one, for distances in that town of giants are on a great scale. At last, however, they came to a somewhat open space before a tower even vaster than the rest; above whose colossal doorway was fixed a monstrous symbol in bas-relief which made one shudder without knowing its meaning. This was the central tower with the sign of Koth, and those huge stone steps just visible through the dusk within were the beginning of the great flight leading to upper dreamland and the enchanted wood.
There now began a climb of interminable length in utter blackness: made almost impossible by the monstrous size of the steps, which were fashioned for Gugs, and were therefore nearly a yard high. Of their number Carter could form no just estimate, for he soon became so worn out that the tireless and elastic ghouls were forced to aid him. All through the endless climb there lurked the peril of detection and pursuit; for though no Gug dares lift the stone door to the forest because of the Great One’s curse, there are no such restraints concerning the tower and the steps, and escaped ghasts are often chased, even to the very top. So sharp are the ears of Gugs, that the bare feet and hands of the climbers might readily be heard when the city awoke; and it would of course take but little time for the striding giants, accustomed from their ghast-hunts in the vaults of Zin to seeing without light, to overtake their smaller and slower quarry on those cyclopean steps. It was very depressing to reflect that the silent pursuing Gugs would not be heard at all, but would come very suddenly and shockingly in the dark upon the climbers. Nor could the traditional fear of Gugs for ghouls be depended upon in that peculiar place where the advantages lay so heavily with the Gugs. There was also some peril from the furtive and venomous ghasts, which frequently hopped up onto the tower during the sleep hour of the Gugs. If the Gugs slept long, and the ghasts returned soon from their deed in the cavern, the scent of the climbers might easily be picked up by those loathsome and ill-disposed things; in which case it would almost be better to be eaten by a Gug.
Then, after aeons of climbing, there came a cough from the darkness above; and matters assumed a very grave and unexpected turn.
It was clear that a ghast, or perhaps even more, had strayed into that tower before the coming of Carter and his guides; and it was equally clear that this peril was very close. Alter a breathless second the leading ghoul pushed Carter to the wall and arranged his kinfolk in the best possible way, with the old slate tombstone raised for a crushing blow whenever the enemy might come in sight. Ghouls can see in the dark, so the party was not as badly off as Carter would have been alone. In another moment the clatter of hooves revealed the downward hopping of at least one beast, and the slab-bearing ghouls poised their weapon for a desperate blow. Presently two yellowish-red eyes flashed into view, and the panting of the ghast became audible above its clattering. As it hopped down to the step above the ghouls, they wielded the ancient gravestone with prodigious force, so that there was only a wheeze and a choking before the victim collapsed in a noxious heap. There seemed to be only this one animal, and after a moment of listening the ghouls tapped Carter as a signal to proceed again. As before, they were obliged to aid him; and he was glad to leave that place of carnage where the ghast’s uncouth remains sprawled invisible in the blackness.
At last the ghouls brought their companion to a halt; and feeling above him, Carter realised that the great stone trap door was reached at last. To open so vast a thing completely was not to be thought of, but the ghouls hoped to get it up just enough to slip the gravestone under as a prop, and permit Carter to escape through the crack. They themselves planned to descend again and return through the city of the Gugs, since their elusiveness was great, and they did not know the way overland to spectral Sarkomand with its lion-guarded gate to the abyss.
Mighty was the straining of those three ghouls at the stone of the door above them, and Carter helped push with as much strength as he had. They judged the edge next the top of the staircase to be the right one, and to this they bent all the force of their disreputably nourished muscles. Alter a few moments a crack of light appeared; and Carter, to whom that task had been entrusted, slipped the end of the old gravestone in the aperture. There now ensued a mighty heaving; but progress was very slow, and they had of course to return to their first position every time they failed to turn the slab and prop the portal open.
Suddenly their desperation was magnified a thousand fold by a sound on the steps below them. It was only the thumping and rattling of the slain ghast’s hooved body as it rolled down to lower levels; but of all the possible causes of that body’s dislodgement and rolling, none was in the least reassuring. Therefore, knowing the ways of Gugs, the ghouls set to with something of a frenzy; and in a surprisingly short time had the door so high that they were able to hold it still whilst Carter turned the slab and left a generous opening. They now helped Carter through, letting him climb up to their rubbery shoulders and later guiding his feet as he clutched at the blessed soil of the upper dreamland outside. Another second and they were through themselves, knocking away the gravestone and closing the great trap door while a panting became audible beneath. Because of the Great One’s curse no Gug might ever emerge from that portal, so with a deep relief and sense of repose Carter lay quietly on the thick grotesque fungi of the enchanted wood while his guides squatted near in the manner that ghouls rest.
Weird as was that enchanted wood through which he had fared so long ago, it was verily a haven and a delight after those gulfs he had now left behind. There was no living denizen about, for Zoogs shun the mysterious door in fear and Carter at once consulted with his ghouls about their future course. To return through the tower they no longer dared, and the waking world did not appeal to them when they learned that they must pass the priests Nasht and Kaman-Thah in the cavern of flame. So at length they decided to return through Sarkomand and its gate of the abyss, though of how to get there they knew nothing. Carter recalled that it lies in the valley below Leng, and recalled likewise that he had seen in Dylath-Leen a sinister, slant-eyed old merchant reputed to trade on Leng, therefore he advised the ghouls to seek out Dylath-Leen, crossing the fields to Nir and the Skai and following the river to its mouth. This they at once resolved to do, and lost no time in loping off, since the thickening of the dusk promised a full night ahead for travel. And Carter shook the paws of those repulsive beasts, thanking them for their help and sending his gratitude to the beast which once was Pickman; but could not help sighing with pleasure when they left. For a ghoul is a ghoul, and at best an unpleasant companion for man. After that Carter sought a forest pool and cleansed himself of the mud of nether earth, thereupon reassuming the clothes he had so carefully carried.
It was now night in that redoubtable wood of monstrous trees, but because of the phosphorescence one might travel as well as by day; wherefore Carter set out upon the well-known route toward Celephais, in Ooth-Nargai beyond the Tanarian Hills. And as he went he thought of the zebra he had left tethered to an ash-tree on Ngranek in far-away Oriab so many aeons ago, and wondered if any lava-gatherers had fed and released it. And he wondered, too, if he would ever return to Baharna and pay for the zebra that was slain by night in those ancient ruins by Yath’s shore, and if the old tavernkeeper would remember him. Such were the thoughts that came to him in the air of the regained upper dreamland.
But presently his progress was halted by a sound from a very large hollow tree. He had avoided the great circle of stones, since he did not care to speak with Zoogs just now; but it appeared from the singular fluttering in that huge tree that important councils were in session elsewhere. Upon drawing nearer he made out the accents of a tense and heated discussion; and before long became conscious of matters which he viewed with the greatest concern. For a war on the cats was under debate in that sovereign assembly of Zoogs. It all came from the loss of the party which had sneaked after Carter to Ulthar, and which the cats had justly punished for unsuitable intentions. The matter had long rankled; and now, or at least within a month, the marshaled Zoogs were about to strike the whole feline tribe in a series of surprise attacks, taking individual cats or groups of cats unawares, and giving not even the myriad cats of Ulthar a proper chance to drill and mobilize. This was the plan of the Zoogs, and Carter saw that he must foil it before leaving upon his mighty quest.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK…
STUCK FAST by Robyn Singer Rose
It was as if her arse knew how big it should be.
Two bum cheeks.
Not two bum cheeks sandwiched in a lifeguard’s float.
It hadn’t taken long to lower her down. The hydraulic lift saw to that. Once over the porcelain - gleaming white - it was easy to see she wasn’t going to fit. The lift groaned. The harness dropped and stalled.
I cranked like fury to no avail.
With a resounding thud she KPLONKED into the bath. The water surged, cascading into my shoes.
The dimpled buns – splayed up the walls of the tub, thick custard oozed from a crème slice and it can’t be shoved back in.
No one was to blame. The tub, the water, her bulk – stuck fast like stacked, damp, plastic tumblers, impossible to part unless they are frozen.
It wasn’t that cold in the room.
Her skin was a burgundy colour where it wasn’t varying purple shades. It stretched tight over her fat. I thought how much her torso looked like a sausage in a bun.
Fear in her deep, brown eyes merged with the alarm in my big, blue ones.
“What to do?” I pondered, hopping from one foot to the other.
“Get me out,” she moaned, craning her head in a pathetic effort to move.
“I’ll call for help,” I whooped, emptying my shoe on her feet.
“Hurry, would you,” she said, waving a listless arm.
“Hang in there,” I said, slipping the soap and washer into her hand.
“I don’t think I can use the soap,” she whined.
“I’ll send for the fire brigade,” I said, stretched to full height with arms thrust in the air.
“Over my dead body,” she whispered.
Oh dear, oh no, good grief.
How could I have known she meant it?
DOMINION by Zak Dawson
I woke up in the alleyway. It was dawn, and the sun had not yet broken into the sky. A homeless guy was at my feet, lifting my gown and checking out the goods.
“What the fuck?”
He gave a toothless smile, which creeped me out to no end. I kicked him hard in the face, which exploded in a gooey mess. His body collapsed to the side, and I got up in a state of total shock.
”Well, that was entertaining.”
I found the strange shadow man sitting on the top of the dumpster. I was still pissed at him for abandoning me in the hospital. ”Why did you leave me last night? I needed answers and you left me alone.” I huffed. ”Look at my face!”
”Yes that was equally fun. I rather enjoy watching you bumble about. I think I may leave you alone more often.”
I didn’t want that. He was my only tether in this new world, and perhaps my only way back to my old life.
”Who are you?” I asked.
”Not just yet.”
”And why the fuck not?”
”Because it’s sunrise, and you are in a west facing alley. You are too much fun to waste with a good morning roast.”
”Well where should I go?”
”Again with the questions. Maybe I should let you fry.”
Realizing this was going nowhere, I began frantically searching the alley for an escape route. I looked up and saw the sun’s rays creeping down the corners of the building. I panicked, looking at the shadow man and then at the dumpster he was sitting on. I wasn’t below sleeping in a dumpster. Not anymore.
I began to climb in, with the dark figure watching me with glee.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
”Like the body.”
Oh, no. He was right that I needed to hide the body if I hoped to make it until nightfall. It was bad enough to have to lie in the dumpster for fifteen hours, but to stay in one with a dead body in it was too much. I looked back at the shadow man, who glinted with amusement, and back to the body, brains strewn across the ground. I didn’t have time to argue. I grabbed the body and climbed in, the sunlight just a few feet over my head. I shut the lid and prepared for the long day ahead.
The smell hit me almost instantaneously. I held back the urge to vomit, which would only compound the issue. I looked up and saw the sunlight from the divide of the flimsy plastic doors.
“Well, what now?”
No response. This shit was getting old.
“I suggest you bury yourself in the garbage. If the sunlight touches you, it will burn clean through. Rather difficult thing to fix.”
I was relieved he chose not to abandon me. I did as he said, rummaging through the refuse until I reached the bottom of the bin. Surprising to me, it stunk less down here, though it was difficult to breathe.
“Ok. Question and answer time. Who are you, and why are you here?”
“My name is Yawmoth, though I’ve been called Dominion in modern times. I exist to serve you, master.”
“I am your master?”
“No. And that will be as unclear on the topic as I plan to be. No more of this ordering me around horseshit. You survive because I will it so. Piss me off and you are on your own.”
After the incident at the hospital, there was no question that I needed him, at least for now.
“Well, what are you? You never answered the question.”
“Yes I did. Just not with honesty. It’s a habit of my kind. I am an agent of Lucifer, as are you now, though I enjoy some amenities that you do not.”
“You’re a demon?”
“To put it in rudimentary terms, yes.”
“So I’m an agent of Satan. What if I choose not to be?”
“I’d say you don’t really have a choice. You are a vampire. By your very nature, you will serve his purpose, whether you want to or not.”
“What if I choose to feed on animals or blood banks or something? I mean there have to be loopholes of some sort.”
“And you think you are the first one to think of this? Do try to have an original thought of your own, would you?”
“Well, why wouldn’t it work?”
“Because it isn’t blood specifically that you feed upon, but rather their souls. Blood provides sustainment for your body, but only souls will truly sate your thirst.”
“That’s another thing. Why blood? Seems a poor substitute for food, if you think about it.”
“Yes, it is. You drink the blood as an offering to Lucifer. In return, he prevents your body from decaying any further. Go a day without drinking, and you will begin to smell worse than your transient friend here. Go a week, and you can pretty well forget about finding food for yourself.”
“Ok. So what happens then? Say I choose not to feed, and go on long enough to no longer be able to feed myself? What then?”
“Then your body will go into advanced stages of decomposition. You will rot until you can no longer function, and your body will die. Don’t worry though. You’ll give in and feed long before that happens.”
“So I have to feed everyday? That seems a bit demanding.”
“Yes. Yes it is.”
“That’s it? I was expecting more of an explanation.”
“Well, that is a tragedy, isn’t it?” he said in his overtly sarcastic tone. “On that note, you should take the opportunity to feed on your homeless friend here, before he bleeds out and begins to smell.”
I really didn’t want to do that.
“Is there any way I could pass and wait until later, to hunt for food?”
“You are going to have to learn to be less picky if you intend to fill your quota. Besides, a drained body smells less than a full one. Never underestimate the humans’ sense of smell. Call it rule number one.”
I’d been wrong to argue with him up to this point, and I couldn’t afford another day like yesterday, so I sifted through the garbage, my hand finding him right where his skull should’ve been.
“Aack!” I exclaimed, throwing up almost immediately afterward.
“Oh, this will be rich.” he voice said, enjoying my suffering more than I was accustomed to.
“Okay,” I said to myself, trying to figure out how to do it. I moved the body around this way and that, a little confused as to where to bite.
“He doesn’t have a neck anymore? How am I supposed to do this?”
I heard him laughing. I don’t know why I even asked. I already knew he wasn’t going to answer. He’d much rather watch me struggle than offer a hand. One of the more annoying traits of demons, I assumed. I sat there for a long time looking at the gory space I’d left in place of his head. I couldn’t do it, bite him there, though it seemed the easiest point of access. I pulled up his arm, spotting trackmarks.
“Well, if he thought it was a good place, I guess I can’t argue.”
I bit down, having a hard time puncturing his skin. I pulled and gnawed at his flesh, but couldn’t get through it.
“Why don’t I have fangs? I thought vampires have fangs?”
“Most of them do. You must be one of the unlucky ones.”
Argggh. Can’t a guy get a break?
“You have to earn your fangs. If you hadn’t noticed, you didn’t have fangs before you died. Since you didn’t have them in life, you don’t have them now.”
Well, that sucks. I looked at the body some more and with quite a bit of reservation, I dug my face into the gaping hole that was his head. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, and I didn’t think that it would be easy. I kind of made an ‘O’ with my mouth and tried doing it that way, which didn’t work either.
I then settled to bite off pieces and swallow them, one disgusting, stomach turning piece at a time. I looked down at the mangled flesh and felt rather hopeless about trying to finish him. ”I don’t get it. How the fuck am I supposed to do this?”
“This is pathetic. How about you try and find something sharp.”
I didn’t argue. I dug around the refuse and found a can lid.
“Will this work?”
No answer. That was about right. I growled in irritation and began scratching at the bum’s arm with the lid, eventually breaking the skin. A mild trickle flowed out, but little else. I put my mouth on the wound and sucked as hard as I could, but this didn’t work any better.
“Goddammit! What the fuck am I doing wrong! Don’t give me that ‘figure it out yourself’ bullshit! Fucking help me!”
Silence met my words for what felt like the longest time. I huffed in fury, waiting for a response.
“Well, are you going to help me or not?”
“I’ve been helping you.”
“The fuck you have! I’ve been fucking struggling ever since you woke me up, and you’ve offered little more than the occasional bit of sage advice just to keep me alive long enough to fuck with me some more. Is this the vampire curse? Dealing with some demon asshole for the rest of eternity? What the fuck?”
I growled in frustration. More silence. Of course. I sat there for a moment and realized what I had done. My fury turned to panic. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there for hours waiting, hoping for a response. I sat alone with the corpse in my lap, growing hungry and still unable to feed, waiting to see if the demon would return, feeling rather sorry for myself as I did.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
ATTACK OF THE CACTUS PEOPLE! by Gregory Bryant
Script – Running time: 90 minutes
Black and White film
HOUSE IN THE DESERT
Old Man’s Wife
Sheriff’s Wife (Mattie)
Ernie (Gas Station Owner)
“EJ” Ernie, Jr.; Ernie’s Son
Opens with narrator reading scrolling text
“After half a century, this story can finally be told. Based on documents long classified as Top Secret, and hidden away in Pentagon files for almost fifty years, and pieced together from scant eye-witness testimony of the few remaining survivors, this is the unbelievable tale of the…”
Text appears on screen: Attack of the Cactus People!
SCENE 1: ATOMIC BOMB TEST IN THE DESERT
Fade to stock footage of above ground atomic bomb tests of the 1950s. Include blockhouse interiors, observers in lawn chairs and oversized sunglasses, troops assembling in trenches. Follow this with a series of bomb blasts, especially the Fort Hood Test of 1957.
While this montage unfolds, a narrator voice-over describes the atomic tests of the 1950s, speaking as a lecturer giving a history lesson.
Establishing shot of test site in an unspecified desert. We see the atomic bomb itself, and the stand where it is emplaced, ready to be detonated. Technicians, military men and scientists move about.
We will follow the setup to the test in great detail, using stock footage – much attention to the test site itself, close-up shots of the bomb, the blockhouse a mile away, aircraft and helicopters readying to fly into the cloud to take measurements, scientists and technicians, and U.S. Marines hunkering down in their trenches. Again, much attention to the trenches, and especially their proximity to ground zero.
Time is late afternoon; sun is beginning its slow approach to the horizon. Long shadows stretch across the desert. A ring of distant mountains.
Close in on one platoon assembled in a trench dug within a patch of cactus, only a few dozen yards away from ground zero. A shot shows the test site beyond the helmets of Marines in their trench. The cactus patch is large, spreading out along the slope of a shallow hill.
Private: “Hey Sarge! Why do we gotta be in the middle of all this cactus? This stuff hurts!”
Sergeant: (Sarcastically) “Aww! He hurt his widdle finger.” (Now gruffly) Quitcher bitchin’, grunt! It’ll make y’ tough! I don’t need any pansies in my platoon!”
Cut to overall shot of trenches. We see several hundred Marines piling in through cactus and tumbleweeds.
Sergeant speaking, “This is the big one, boys. This is the one that will have them Ruskies shaking in their beds. Now we’re going to do it good, we’re going to do it right. Hunker down, hunker down. Keep yer heads low and let the blast blow over you. When I give the whistle, we’re going over the top, and we’re gonna show Ike that the Marines’ll do it right. We’re going to move in and take that ground.”
Cut to stock footage of countdown in the blockhouse,
Montage of troops and observers
Quick cut to Marines in the trench, huddled helmets, backpacks and rifle butts, radioman listening to the countdown and calling it out.
Screen goes white for twelve seconds with huge, deafening blast.
Slow fade back to picture. Dimly, in harsh contrast, we see the trench with the Marines buried in rubble. They struggle to claw their way out. They choke and spit, covered with dust. Some fall back, dead. They are the lucky ones.
Cut to background shot. We see that something has gone horribly wrong. The observers, half a mile from ground zero are all indistinguishable charred, grotesque corpses, what is left of them. The blockhouse is rubble, broken walls, with shadows of human beings scorched into them. Aircraft and helicopters are burning skeletons on the tarmac.
Dead silence reigns over the desert.
Cut to the men in the trench. Of hundreds of Marines in the original platoons, only a few dozen have survived. They claw their way, on hands and knees, out of the trenches, through the cactus patch, as a slow fall of radioactive dust showers down upon them, blanketing them.
By the time the survivors have made their way clear, the sun is setting. Night falls.
SCENE 2: THE PENTAGON
Cut to unspecified office in the Pentagon. General speaking on a phone, several officers and scientists stand nearby.
General: “What do you mean you haven’t heard anything? Dammit, get me Paxley! Put him on the line… What do you mean you can’t raise Paxley? I want him now! That bomb was supposed to go off ten minutes ago! Then get me Schroeder! Yes, that’s right, Schroeder. What the hell are you talking about? Has everyone out there gone deaf! Are they all on a gaw-damn fishing trip? I don’t care what you have to do… You raise some people out there, now, dammit!”
The general slams down the phone.
Speaking to the officers and scientists in his office.
General: “Damnedest thing I ever heard. Wilson tells me he was on the phone with Schroeder right up to zero second, then the line went dead. Hasn’t heard a peep out of anybody.”
The scientists and officers share anxious looks.
ALGAE KILLER by Samantha Stevens-Clay
I didn’t want it to come to this, I really didn’t. When it first started happening, I told my mom about it. I mean, that’s what they tell you to do, right? So I told her daddy had been touching me, and I didn’t like it, and I wanted it to stop. I went to her for help, and what did I get? Nothing. She did nothing. I guess letting her daughter get molested was easier than taking me and leaving. She sold my innocence away for a house, security and three hot meals a day. And if I suffered because of it…well, that
was the price that had to be paid. The price for her weakness and cowardice.
Turning a blind eye to what daddy was forcing me to do was bad enough, but ten years after I was born, she had another child with daddy, another girl that they called Tabitha.
I love Tabby, I really do. She’s the only bright spot in my life. I love cuddling up to her at night, her tiny head against my chest as we read the old bedtime favorites.
I’m getting too old for my father now. He comes to my room less and less. I haven’t felt his calloused hands upon me for almost a week. I’m glad about this, glad that it seems to be stopping, but now I’m worried about Tabby. I see the way he is looking at her, the same way he looked at me right before he began sneaking into my room at night. I can’t let him do to her what he did to me. I can’t, I just can’t!
I actually saw the solution to our problems on TV, of all places. I was watching the FBI files and they had the story of a woman who had pried open aspirin tablets, dumped out the aspirin and then replaced it with algae killer, the kind used in fish tanks. The kind that was right now downstairs in our kitchen cabinets nestled between the Tide and Mr. Clean.
It’ll be easy, so easy. I’ll do exactly what she did, but instead of aspirin, I’ll use his allergy tablets. I’ll open them up, releasing all the healing potions and replace it with painless death. He’ll be dead before he hits the ground and Tabby will be safe.
I watched the show carefully; I know what to do and what not to do. I won’t get caught. And if they do find evidence that something’s not right…are they going to suspect me, or mom? It wouldn’t be that hard to aim the evidence all in her direction, just in case.
It’s her fault anyway. I wouldn’t have had to do any of this if she would have just left him, just did what any normal decent human being would do.
Thinking about it now, I am sure there’s enough algae killer for two people. And I won’t shed a tear over either one of them.
AYAME’S LOVE by Thomas C Hewitt
The shovel’s rhythm did not dull Sean’s mind.
He hated the loose earth that he lifted,
nor did the dullness of work speed the time.
The dirt of the work site was eclipsed
by the enormity and sublime height
of the mountains to which his mind shifted
and which his heart began to desire.
Amongst those trees nothing insisted
that a person spend their life on drudgework,
that his spirit and limbs ached to desert.
He was sick of not enjoying his life.
As had been the case for the longest time,
the money he received at the week’s end
would be the last that he would ever spend.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
HOW TO KILL YOURSELF by Rob Bliss
Ah, yes, I know it’s hard. Terrible to be a teen – some have said it’s the most stressful time in a person’s life. The chemical changes alone would be enough to have you committed for life to a mental institution with your veins pumped full of prescribed medication. Imagine if adults acted like you. Some do, of course, and they are taken care of, shunted off, hidden away from the view of normal, decent society, called a burden of the benevolent state. But you – ah, you get away with it!
I sympathize. What can you do when your parents don’t understand you, are clearly against you, try daily to restrict your desires? And your friends…are they really your friends? They love you, then hate you, change their minds about your friendship, stab you in the back, talk about you when you’re not around. Just like your parents. Friends can be worse than the bullies who have marked you as their target. Will it never end?
It can. You could fight back. Become bloody-minded and pummel everyone who pummels you. Trump up the charges you have against them. Bloody their faces and split their lips for that strange glance or inappropriate tone of voice they used in your presence. The smallest infraction should receive the greatest beating. Or else they’ll never learn, will they?
Or you can run away. Live with whatever friends you have left, or make some new ones who will see your side of every story and take you under their wing. Drugs and sex are great ways of making new, protective friends. Become one with your local drug culture, or provide all sexual services to those who wish to become your best friend, and you will survive. This route is about survival.
But perhaps you are not keen on survival. Only your death will show those against you that you were a good, though misunderstood, person who deserved more than he or she was getting. Your parents will burst through the locked door of your bedroom, see you hanging from the ceiling light; tear their hair and beat their breasts with sorrow, renouncing everything they ever said or did against you.
An excellent idea. However, not to be too picky, but there aren’t many ceiling lights that will hold the weight of even the most anorexic teen. (Remember: the stars of the media exist to show you what you’ll never be, but which you must spend your life striving to become. They are against you by being beautiful and famous, getting whatever they want, having temper tantrums that are obeyed by their entourages, that make the nightly news. No one needs your tantrums, which again proves they are against you.)
Another nasty detail I really should bring up. Every biological organism that dies shits itself at the moment of its demise. This is partially why many meat eaters prefer not to consume food that has already died. They want to kill in order to ensure the freshness of the meat. And yes, ultimately, all human beings, especially at death, revert to meat. To eat or not to eat doesn’t matter: you’ll never feel or even know which hungry predator is gnawing you from the feet up.
Let’s imagine that you’ve killed yourself in your bedroom. Slashed wrists, pills, suffocation, whatever – something that can accord with the laws of physics. You dressed up for your suicide. Wore your best, or most rebellious, outfit. The parents burst in. Before their brains can register that you are dead and not sleeping like the lazy ass you are, they smell something. They wonder if you shit yourself while you slept, but reason that few children beyond infancy shit their beds. (There are exceptions.)
Now your favourite pants, skirt, leggings, panties, jockey shorts are covered in fresh feces. And it doesn’t matter if you went to the bathroom just before you offed yourself – feces stays clogged up there and can only be rid of via death or a hose. And only death can vacate the food that is still digesting. Only the coroner can give you a wardrobe change after death.
As paramedics lift your corpse off the bed to carry it to the waiting hearse, all present will see the abstract art shit stain that you’re leaving behind on your bed sheets. For half a second, they’ll think you’re a filthy, nasty, disgusting boy or girl, and that it’s good you’re dead so they won’t have to put up with the filth – of your body and mind – anymore.
This fact is particularly detracting from your beauty if you have primped and perfumed yourself in the hope that you’d make a beautiful corpse. Of course, all your new and old friends, and many of your enemies, will come to your funeral. (Which is, essentially, what suicide is all about.) Hopefully, the undertaker is skilled in his art. After he has removed your brain and internal organs (an old Egyptian tradition that has found its place in the modern world), sapped your body of its life-giving fluids, put a little rouge on your cheeks and combed your hair, you will regain your beauty in the coffin. Then will they all cry and regret their evil glances and words aimed to hurt you.
So how should we kill ourselves? Of course, the lamp is out. Do you have a sturdy, exposed ceiling beam in your house? That should hold. Please ensure the rope you use is strong and does not break when you kick over the stool. Otherwise, you will remain alive, but now affected by oxygen depletion. Meaning, you won’t have the intellectual acumen to even think of suicide, worried too much about being fed, having someone else wipe your ass (otherwise, you’ll be sitting in your own shit and piss, unable to even entertain the thought of good hygiene), wiping the drool from your chin, and not walking into traffic, if you can even walk at all after a faulty hanging.
Try something else. Slash the wrists? The cliché here is to do so in a hot bath. Very relaxing. Throw in some scented bath beads. Chase a bottle of pills with a bottle of vodka and let the poorly cut wrist bleed out. It will take a while, and it’s difficult to cut the second wrist after cutting the first. This method is slow and not always successful. But it looks poetic. Yet, again, you’ll shit yourself. Now you’re lying in a cold bath with your own feces floating around you. Is that how you want to be discovered? Please – we’re human beings, not animals – don’t be disgusting when it comes to death.
Jump from a tall building. Two things: once you’ve jumped, gravity has no mercy for you. It will propel you to the ground regardless of any second thoughts. It’s recommended not to stand on the ledge too long, or at all, ruminating about your woes, waiting for a crowd to gather to pay you homage. Take a running leap off the edge. No going back, no change-of-mind – you’re off and flying and will be successful. The other thing to mention is that once you hit, you’ll bounce. Muscles are rubber. You’ll also crack. The skull isn’t that thick and the brain is practically liquid. Gelled liquid. Your skull is an egg. Your brain will burst from its cracked shell. Your limbs will shatter, crooked into some mangled starfish, crucifix, swastika – whatever your philosophy of life was – as your lay on the sidewalk. Most importantly: you won’t get to witness all of the shocked looks of the passersby whose lives you’ve disturbed with your death. Sure, it’s fun to gross people out, but better to be able to see the affects of your actions.
Poison is delicious. Imagine drinking a jar of acid. The acid erodes your throat, burns through your stomach, rots every piece of flesh it contacts. Now if you choose some good pills, they’ll paralyse you so you can’t fight the torture. And if the pills can put you to sleep, not to worry: the pain of their acidic rot will wake you. Your muscles will still not be able to obey your brain’s commands to save your life, so you will remain conscious while the acid burns you from the inside. Vomiting will be useless if you’ve done it well. The acid will be in your veins, absorbed into the blood stream through your skin. Shitting yourself will be the least of your problems. Your organs will liquefy and piss from every orifice in your body. The shit stench will mingle with many other noxious odours from your speedily rotting flesh.
A bullet to the head. Always a good choice. A barrel in the mouth isn’t just for dramatic, cinematic poetry. The bullet bursts through your upper palate directly into the central mass of the brain. And if it’s a good bullet, it will move through the brain and blow out a fist-sized shell of cranium, freeing the remainder of brain. Do not – I repeat – do not put the barrel to your temple and pull the trigger. This shot may merely blow off your frontal lobe. Medical professionals still remove this for people who act up, who are dissatisfied with their lot in life, who are unreasonable. In the 1950s, they lobotomized children who didn’t like obeying rules and women who decided they didn’t want to spend their lives doing housework. Very bad people. A lobotomy, therefore, is a medical procedure, not an effective form of suicide.
Your skull and a bullet? Remember the cracked egg. Now imagine cracking that egg with a bullet – any old bullet will do. (Bullets were not invented to make you pretty.) What’s left of the egg? That’s your skull, your face, your skin. A bloody mist.
What else, what else? There are so many ways. Drowning, if you can hold your breath long enough. The object there is to replace your breath with water by inhaling deeply the pool you’re floating in. Your lungs will burn and your body will try to cough out the water. Happily, the shit will float away. Try to drown yourself naked so that the shit won’t get stuck in your pants. (Wearing clean underwear before death is pointless, even for death by water.) Besides, the fish swimming nearby are waiting for you to die. They’ll eat your feces and nibble you down to a skeleton. It’ll take a while (depending on the size of the fish, of course), but they do a good job of leaving you as a pile of bones on the sandy sea floor. Unfortunately, this will deprive you of an effective funeral. (They’ll hold one in your honour, but you won’t be able to attend from inside the bellies of many fish.)
I grow tired, children. I leave it to you to decide your suicide method. Just keep in mind your physiology and any environmental factors that will affect your death and whether the tools you need are reliable to affect a successful demise. Keep to your goals; don’t let anyone sway you from your purpose – eyes on the prize, that’s the key. Hopefully, you are able to accurately predict the reactions of others. Otherwise, if those who are supposed to mourn do not, you can’t come back from the grave to curse them. Only dogs can hear the soft voices of ghosts, and human beings don’t speak dog.
I suppose that’s the ultimate lesson that can be learned from killing yourself: you can’t come back. There really are no ghosts, and if there were, what can they do against the living but say ‘boo’?
You’ve got one shot at it. If you fail, you live as a drooling vegetable. Then how will you dress in the latest fashions, watch the right TV shows and movies, listen to your favourite music, rebel against anything except your own confining, malfunctioning body?
(Imagine a child confined to a wheelchair for life, numb from the neck down, simply because the pediatrician pulled them from the womb using the wrong tool, indented their clay-soft skull, two thumb-sized indents they carry for life. And they can’t even pick up a gun if they wanted to. At least you have a choice.)
If you choose not to do it…well then, I can’t help you. You’ll just have to stay alive. Your hell will pass. This horrific Earth still revolves on its axis, therefore time always goes forward. Few corpses are remembered by anyone beyond immediate family. When your high school chums grow old, they may remember you, or their memories may fade. You’ll then be the forgotten dead, which is more dead than, perhaps, you wanted to be.
So good luck. It’ll all work out in the end, I’m sure. Steady your shaking hand, my life-long friend.
Love always, your pal,
LOCKER 13 by Aaron Majewski
“Do you know what’s in locker 13? I once thought I knew, I thought it was a bad, monstrous thing. Containing a horrible evil, evil which ruined my life. But that isn’t true, it isn’t true at all…”
Above, the sky was black. A dark swirling mire of whirling thunderclouds, at the breaking point of ripping up the middle and unleashing chaos upon the dreary world. Occasionally this morass lit from deep within by dark purple lightnings, accompanied by the soft bass rumble of thunder.
Below, the rundown, long abandoned school sat, a blight upon the blighted land. Looming ominously amidst the ungentrified, struggling apartment blocks, squatting like a toad upon a toadstool waiting for that unwary fly to buzz near…too near.
Everything was grey, cracked concrete, crumbling mortar holding together collapsing brick. The only spots of colour the bright graffiti overlaying every available space in layers of tags, proclamations, artistic expressions, heartfelt emotions (both good and bad) and the occasional poem (including a clever limerick titled ‘40 yards to the outhouse, by Willy Makeit’). Every window was smashed; boards had long ago been pulled down, left to disintegrate in the weather, leaving rusty nails exposed. Trash floated in the wind; contained within the school yard by the rusted chain link fence, dark ocher trails of decay running along the wire of the chain-links, so black bubbled crusts rose at the hexagonal corners formed by the links. The same wind filled the air with a quiet susurration, a soft moan, as an injured animal trying to remain quiet and still in its hiding place.
The entire area spoke of the slow, dying decay of simple neglect.
Within, the neglect continued. Wind sighed softly throughout the building, heightening and underscoring the general rundown state of the school. The main hall was full of trash, the detritus of parties and assignations. Beer bottles and condoms littered the place; graffiti filled the walls with illegible scrawls of proclaimed manhood and demanded respect. A pair of flashlights sat upon the broken spine of two facing couches amid the debris, bouncing their light off the opposing walls to illuminate the space. The light helped to diffuse slightly, the oppressively heavy atmosphere of the long abandoned, ‘educational facility.’
A pair of very young twenty-somethings, Tina and Julia, sat upon the couches, facing each other. They share a marijuana cigarette between them, leaning forward to pass it back and forth. An open knapsack between them holds bottles of beer, and each of the girls has an open bottle. Both are tired, bored, and a little spaced.
“So come on, you were my best friend. Then you disappeared for half a dozen years, and suddenly show back up with no explanation. Come on, you asked me to meet you here and promised you’d tell me where you went. Julia, tell me, you promised!”
Tina took a deep drag on the cigarette. A young Negro woman, she didn’t care that her best friend was white; or that she had disappeared for more than half a decade only to show up again unexpectedly last week. She was happy to have her friend back, even if she hid it under her tough-girl veneer. But she was dying to know the story.
Julia had honey-blonde hair and a very pale complexion, which highlighted her big, round and very dark blue eyes. She shuddered even to think of where she had been all this time. Even now she could feel the rough padding as she was shoved up against the wall, hands, many rough hands, clamping down on her arms before the needle plunged into her rear. The hard, emphatic commands to relax. The sheer heavy weight of the disbelief ranged against her. She hated the ‘quiet room’, and she would never allow herself to be taken there again, no matter how she had to lie, and cheat and dissemble. She drained her beer and idly tossed it over the back of her couch, where it landed among the other detritus with a clatter.
“Do you really want to know, Tina?” She leaned forward, reaching out, and somewhat reluctantly, Tina surrendered the drug. The sweet, sweet drug which helped her forget the years of treatment she had received. Although it did nothing about the reason she had been sent there in the first place. Julia took a heavy drag, held it in her lungs for a long moment before she exhaled and demanded, “Tell me what you know about locker thirteen.”
Tina laughed and took a drink. “That old story? The dreaded locker thirteen? The old legend went, a girl offered herself to the devil for her heart’s desire. She stepped into locker thirteen, her locker, now the devil’s locker, and got her wish. But then all her classmates were lured one by one by the siren call of the devil’s locker, and one by one disappeared, never to be seen again. The legend goes that if you step into the locker and make a wish, you’ll get it, and disappear. But no one buys that, the locker was moved into the basement when some guy in the forties hung himself in it. Ever since then older students have been sneaking down there to make out and have sex.”
Julia laughed harshly, bitterly. She finished the cig and stubbed it out on her couch. “Yeah, right!” She took on a distant stare, looking not at, but through her friend. Imagining, Tina knew not what. Her voice acquired a dreamy tone. “But not only older kids. The younger grades also heard a filtered version of the story.”
Julia could see it in her mind’s eye. Everything looked vaguely too bright, overexposed. Either a result of all the drugs she had been forced to take, or simply a trick of her memory. The basement hallway was lined with old, rusty lockers, with odd number combinations.
Her older brother, John, was twelve. A whole year older than she was. She could see the tousled hair, the freckled face, the bright lively dark blue eyes. She watched him run up to the locker at the farthest end of the hall, its number was thirteen.
Johnny flashed her his trademark roguish grin before he opened the locker, stepped in, and closed it behind him. A moment later a deep greenish light flared from around the edges of the door and the grill. She found herself still speaking, dreamily, “The school was still open then. One day during the lunch hour, my older brother John decided he was going to find locker thirteen. I tried to convince him not to but I couldn’t stop him. I could only follow and watch. He found the locker. He went into it. And he disappeared.”
Julia shuddered and looked at her friend. Tina had an odd expression; she was more than a little freaked out. The story was weird, but the vibe coming off Julia as she recounted it was even odder. And it explained so much. Julia’s long disappearance, her parents’ refusal to talk about where she had gone; everything.
A little shakily, Julia bent over, still seated, and pulled out another beer. She had little head for alcohol, having spent most of her formative years in a padded room, but she found she liked the headiness it gave her, a lot. It made it so much easier not to think, yet she could still consider those things she wanted to. So much better than Thorozine, or Hadol, so much better than the muscle relaxants used simply to keep her from thrashing at night, doing nothing for the actual nightmares. Yes, she had found she liked beer. She downed half the bottle in one long, throat-working swallow.
Now she could go on. “They tried to make me believe someone had kidnapped him. But I knew what I saw and I wouldn’t say differently. So finally they sent me to a mental institution. I had to stay there until I could finally convince the doctors I believed I didn’t really see my brother vanish into a locker. So now I’m back.” Softly, “and I want to put the past behind me.” She couldn’t quite look her only remaining friend in the eye. She had lost so very much in the last six years.
Tina took a long slow drink of her own beer. She had an idea; she knew it was a bad idea. But it might help. “Okay, Julia,” she let a wicked grin slowly crawl across her face, “I know how you can do that. Let’s go see locker thirteen.” She felt a thrill of excitement blossom in her belly, slowly craw deliciously up her body to spread through her eighteen-year-old frame.
Julia gave her an incredulous stare. “We can’t do that, Tina! I mean, how could we even find it!” She protested uselessly, and she knew it even as she spoke. Once Tina got an idea in her head, it would be done. And that was the end of that. It always had been that way, and would be until the day Tina died. Sort of like that old saw about a cat.
Tina rose majestically, the effect ruined as she swayed drunkenly, just a little. She smiled warmly at her friend, knowing this would help her. What did the therapists call it? Closer, no - closure. But what exactly did they know anyway? Mostly guesswork and assumption, the hallmark of their profession she thought, and giggled a bit before she could bring herself to speak. “Oh that’s easy,” she giggled again at her own cleverness, “I bet it’s still in the basement. Come on, let’s go take a look and see just what this locker thirteen holds.” She held out her hand to help Julia up. Knowing she would need the encouragement.
Julia looked at her for a moment as Tina ignoring her, sipped and tossed her half-full beer over her shoulder. It arced off into the darkness, rolling among numerous other cans and bottles with a loud clatter. Slowly a grin spread across Julia’s face in response. As the thought took firm hold, Julia tossed her own unfinished beer away, took up her flashlight, and reached for the proffered hand.
The large steel door had been painted rust brown decades ago. That however, failed miserably to conceal the fact it was indeed covered in a patina of rust, caused as much by neglect as the general moisture in the air. It was partially open as the girls grunted and strained, pulling at its edge. A noisy screech filled the air as the metal behemoth inched slowly wider, wider, exposing a black throat leading into further darkness.
Tina reached through the partially open door, her arm tight against the crumbling concrete as her hand scrabbled within that dark black maw, lit only fitfully by their flashlights. A click as her fingers found the switch she knew had to be there. She grinned as above her, a forty-watt bulb in a wire cage flickered on, then glowed to full life. Dim illumination. Further lights deep inside the basement also flickered on, casting a dim sepulchral glow over the proceedings. A plaque on the door reads: Authorized personnel only.
Tina bent back to pulling, Julia throwing all her weight into it as well. “That’s it girl, put your lazy butt into it! Heave, I want to see sweat on your brow, we’ll get it open yet!”
Slowly the door noisily inched further and further open, their flashlight beams cutting into the dimness. Julia laughed gaily, enjoying herself for the first time in literally years (her doctors discouraged ‘excitement’). “Oh shut up, you bitch. Put your own ass into it, you lazy twat.”
They shared a laugh of victory as with a noisy screech the door inched open just enough. Tina first, they squeezed through, flashlights in hand. Within they beheld a large, dust-filled room. An even more rundown, neglected, junk filled room than what Julia remembered from accompanying her brother. The room was now the repository of all those things not thrown out or carted away, but kept by a school board, which had decommissioned the school building itself. Hundreds of lockers lined the walls, or stood in rows here and there. School desks, blackboards, gym equipment. The place was littered.
Julia suddenly felt very hesitant, now that she was confronted with the enormity of what she was doing, finally coming to confront what her doctors insisted was a delusion, but which she still felt was the truth. Fortunately, her only friend in the world, the brash Tina, took charge.
“Come on, let’s look around. It’s down here somewhere.”
Julia nodded and the girls, side-by-side, unwilling to leave each other, began to look around. They wandered through the maze of aisles created by the junk, much of it piled higher than their heads. They examined many lockers, having to rub away rust, dust, cobwebs or any combination of the three as well as unnamable gunk, to read the number. But none of them was locker thirteen. Time passed, minutes crawled slowly into an hour, than two. And an exciting excursion became a grim task, swigging from their beers to clear phlegmy throats of the dust and cobwebs rather than to enjoy the flighty sensation of being drunk.
Finally, exhausted and disgruntled, Julia sat down on an old battered desk in the middle of a little cleared space amidst the aisles of junk. Junk surrounded her wherever she looked; slowly a defeated look stole across her face.
“We’re never going to find it Tina; we’ve been all through this place. They must have taken it away, probably right after John disappeared.”
Tina stood right beside her. Slowly she pulled Julia close, until the other girl leaned her head against Tina’s side. Soothingly she stroked Julia’s head as she murmured, “Don’t get discouraged my dear. We haven’t looked everywhere, we’ll find it I’m sure it’s here. I promise we’ll look until we find it.”
A heavy sigh. “What if they were right, what if he didn’t disappear but what they said happened did happen?” Julia asked plaintively.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Tina answered with more confidence than she felt.
A rough dangerous voice came suddenly from behind them. Both girls jumped, startled. With a little shriek, Julia dropped her flashlight as they both twisted around. It hit the ground hard, but didn’t break, merely rolled around on the concrete.
“You two are looking for locker thirteen.” It was an observation, not a question.
At first there was no sign of the speaker, and Tina felt a chill crawl down her spine and creep between her buttocks. He came from around a pile of junk, an older man in perhaps his late forties. He was scruffy, with whiskery stubble on his chin, and alcohol bloodshot eyes. He wore ill-fitting clothes, including an old food stained jacket marked ‘School Board’. He looked like a derelict, a deranged, dangerous offender.
Scared, Julia bent down, fumbling to recover her flashlight. Her voice quavered as she asked, “Who, who are you sir?” Tina patted her hair reassuringly.
He chuckled, amused by her obvious fear. He pointed his own flashlight at them, spearing them in its light. Tina noted a large knife with a wooden haft prominently displayed in an ornately carved leather sheath on his belt. She doubted it was legal length.
“Name’s Haskell, honey, Edward Haskell. I work for the school board. Local neighborhood watch calls our office if they see teenagers come into the school. Then they send poor little me to make sure they don’t burn the old place down. It’s a firetrap, you know. And you know you’re trespassing on private property?”
“There’s a neighborhood watch in this part of town?” Tina questioned with false bravado.
Chuckle. “Don’t change the subject. You’re not supposed to be here. I should call the police... shouldn’t I?”
“Oh, please sir, please don’t,” Julia begged contritely. She was terrified of what would happen if she was discovered to be down here. She wouldn’t go back to the quiet room, she just wouldn’t.
“Why are you looking for locker thirteen? Looking for easy money? It’s a foolish old legend.” He paused significantly. “Or so most think.”
Julia had tears in her eyes. She was completely unashamed to beg if she had to. She would happily get down on her knees and plead. She just wanted, needed, desperately required, to know. “Please,” she sobbed, “my brother disappeared into the locker years ago. I just want to know what happened.” Lower lip trembling, she looked at him with big round eyes. “Please sir.” Her knees felt weak, her belly did somersaults within her, she needed this.
He nodded. “Julia. Read about you in the paper.”
A whisper, “Yes.” Tears slipped silently down her cheeks, crawling a slow trail across her fair cheeks before trembling on the tip of her chin for just a moment before they fell, unnoticed, to the floor.
Tina was somewhat more astute, a little more streetwise. Boldly she stepped forward, effortlessly recapturing his attention. “You know something, don’t you?” she demanded, politely enough but in a tone telling him she wouldn’t accept anything less than an answer, a real answer.
He shrugged indifferently. “Lots of old stories about locker thirteen. I did some reading, lots of old,” ominous, “interesting stories. Back in the sixteen hundreds, apparently a girl climbed into a big iron washing tub. She didn’t come back out.” He trailed off meaningfully.
“Do you know where locker thirteen is? Do you know what it is?”
“Yes and no, although I have an idea or three.” He looked at her with a little smile.
His smile couldn’t quite be deciphered, like the Mona Lisa’s, or the enigmatic expression of the sphinx. Suddenly Julia got an impression of great age from him, a world-weariness far greater than any mere forty odd years on this mortal coil could account for. Julia sensed sadness, great sadness, and a regret for a loss she could barely comprehend. She felt her tears escalate, the flow increased by the sense of desolation she believed she could sense coming off him, a desolation he kept tightly contained.
In some ways, Tina was less astute, she sensed none of that. Julia knew it, and Tina sensed she knew more than she did, and gracefully gave way when Julia, still hiding behind her somewhat, spoke up over her shoulder. “Please, can you please tell us what happened to the locker? It used to be right near the door we came in by.”
Haskell laughed, a loud belly rippling sound as he threw back his head for a moment. His mirth died away and he looked at her seriously. “Yes it did. They moved it. Right after the incident with your brother.”
“Please, can you please tell us where it is?” she pleaded unashamedly. She had to find the locker, she just had to. She had to see, had to touch, had to know. She needed to step inside it, trace its cool metal surface with her hands, rest her cheek upon the door and feel for her brother’s lost essence. One way or another, only then would she have peace.
“Sure,” he hesitated, licked his lips. He looked right at her, ignoring the dark skinned girl. “But first, give me a blow job.”
Julia was stunned. Tina drew in a sharp breath. He was looking right at her, and she was confused. Her tears dried up immediately as she stammered for words. Julia shook her head, not sure she had indeed just been propositioned. “What, what?” she asked incoherently.
It took her a moment to realize the import of what he just asked. Her friend, protectively, was glaring at him, shifting her weight to hide Julia a little more from his interested gaze.
Julia herself continued indignantly. “No! No, I’m not going to do that! How can you ask me for such a thing?” She too glared at him... in indignation.
Haskell was amused, such prudish morels. But they smoked and drank and fucked in the hallways like rutting pigs. Perhaps not these two, but teenagers in general. And thus it had been throughout the ages, he knew.
He shrugged and nodded, not truly caring; he could always find himself a cheap hooker. “Okay. Let’s go then,” he ordered complacently. He smirked, “If you like you can tell the police I came on to you, and I’ll point out you’re a pair of drunk high teenagers who were crawling around an abandoned school for who know what purposes. And nothing will come of it and you won’t find locker thirteen.” He stopped, an ominous edge to his tone, as if his last word was the most important, “Ever.”
He made it sound like that would be the end of everything. And for Julia, perhaps it was.
Tina sighed and stepped forward, catching his attention. Bravely, she met his eyes. “I’ll give you a striptease. All right?”
Julia started violently. She couldn’t let her friend debase herself like that! Not for her, not for anything. “Tina! No, you can’t.”
Tina cut her off calmly, not looking back at her, instead holding the man’s gaze. “It’s okay, Julia, I’m no innocent.” Her tone was reassuring, but a slight warble could be detected.
“You? No offense but she’s looking for the locker. And I like her hair.” Haskell sounded dubious, like he just wanted to be convinced, but only if she could really be impressive in her argument.
“Please, let me do it. I can dance real nice,” she offered seductively.
“A striptease and a blow job then,” he countered.
“I’ll take all my clothes off, and you can play with yourself while I dance,” she bargained desperately, while trying to hide the desperation with a playful tone; knowing it would erode her position if he caught it.
Haskell just shook his head. “Nope, you have to get me off.”
“I’ll dance in your lap naked, and you can pet me while you masturbate. As long as you promise not to get, um, overexcited.”
That amused him, and he chuckled as Tina felt her buttocks clench tight in shame. Fortunately, her dark skin hid her blush, but she felt hot, prickly all over, and knew beneath her dark skin, her face was flaming. She was young, not nearly as tough as she pretended to be, and all three of them could see it clearly. Julia reached out and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. Tina gave a little nod, forcing a brave smile to her face.
He gave what was clearly a final offer. “You’ll dance naked and I’ll stroke your ass a bit. Then you’ll give me a hand job, I promise nothing more, kid.”
Tina took a deep breath, sighed shudderingly, and nodded. “Okay.” It was capitulation.
“What about her?” Haskell nodded at Julia questioningly.
Oh god no, Julia thought. Her frightened look was clear on her face. Please, please, please don’t expect me to do it too! I’ve never done anything like that, she thought desperately. Her doubts and fears flashed across her face, belly aching as she sweated. Her friend, her glorious friend, Tina looked over her shoulder and smiled at her reassuringly. She looked back to Haskell. “She doesn’t have to be involved. She can wait around the corner, okay?”
Haskell nodded. “Okay.”
Licking her lips, Tina pulled off the knapsack she wore on her back. From a side pocket, she pulled out a cleanish rag. It would be useful, she knew, having done this twice before. Dropping the knapsack on the table, she pulled out her cell phone from her pocket. She spent some time hitting buttons, scrolling around and finally selecting a piece of music she liked; as well as doing one other little thing. The music played, and she turned the volume up as loud as it would go. She ignored Julia, staring at her incredulously.
Haskell jerked his head. “Get out of here, kid.”
Tina swayed seductively, finding the rhythm and throwing herself into the music, not thinking, just feeling.
His command had jerked Julia out of her half unfeeling daze, jerking her away from a swaddling world where everything was unimportant and unreal. This was happening, and she didn’t want to stand and watch it. She hurried around the corner of the junk maze, leaning against a solid looking pile of jumbled tables and chairs. Breathing heavily, still she could hear the music, just around the corner. She huffed her breath, looking up at the ceiling.
She gritted her teeth, hands working at the hem of her shirt as she heard Haskell happily giving orders around the corner. “Yeah... Good... Shake that ass... Take it off... That’s my good girl... Ah, such a nice little ass you have... That’s right, shake it for me, shake it... Put it right in my face.” He was obviously enjoying himself immensely.
For long moments, she couldn’t help but react as she listened to the sounds around the corner. His jeans unzipping slowly, his low growls of pleasure, a chair creaked, the music played on...
Finally, she couldn’t help herself. Like a force pulled her against her will, she turned, and inched toward the corner of the aisle, moving towards the source of the sounds. Now she could see, even though she didn’t want to.
Haskell sat in an old chair they had moved to the middle of the room. Tina squatted before him now. Julia could see just enough to be absolutely sure she was stark nude, her clothes were folded neatly on the table by the knapsack. Atop which her phone sat, angled, as it played the same track repetitively. Haskell was groaning softly as Tina moved. She looked up and Julia shivered as their eyes met. Seeing Julia, tears formed in Tina’s eyes. Haskell had his head thrown back; Julia knew his own eyes were closed.
Exaggeratedly, Tina silently mouthed the words: Please don’t watch.
With a sigh, Julia retreated. Tears were in her own eyes; her friend had sacrificed herself, for her.
Resolutely, Tina finished doing up her jeans. She refused to hurry, even though Haskell enjoyed watching her dress as much as he had watching her strip. He had a very satisfied look on his face. The soiled rag lay discarded upon the floor. She ignored him as she raised her voice. “Come back, Julia!”
Hesitantly, unsure what she would find, Julia edged back into the room. Tina immediately squashed a brief flare of resentment. They were friends, and Julia wasn’t at fault for this. In fact no one was, expect perhaps, Mother Nature herself.
Tina picked up her phone. She had an ace in the hole now. “All right, you bastard, you’d better not try to double-cross us!”
She thrust the LCD screen towards his face. He smiled indolently as he watched the video for a moment. Again, Tina danced in her underwear for him. Disgusted, she snatched the phone back, half-afraid he might grab for it suddenly, like a striking snake.
He chuckled and stood slowly, satisfied, at ease. “All right, girl, relax. Why would I want to double cross you? I have every intention of taking you to locker thirteen. Come on.” The last two words were lilted indulgently over his shoulder, as he headed deeper into the maze.
In one corner of the school’s basement, various pieces of dangerous looking junk were locked away behind a wire cage. Haskell unlocked the wire door with a key from his pocket and looked at the girls.
“Come on in,” he invited gently. He gave them a mocking gesture with his hand, ushering them forward, into the lockable wire cage. He smiled broadly.
Determinedly Tina squared her shoulders. After what she had done, she wasn’t going to go back now. She might be raped and killed, but she wouldn’t go back. She led the way, Haskell patted her on the bum and she flinched, but she stepped past him into the cage. Julia followed her, and Haskell smiled at her gently, not touching her. He followed them in closing the door, which locked automatically. Julia looked at him fearfully. With a shrug, he inserted his key into the lock, leaving his entire ring dangling there. He gestured and they followed him as he led the way over to one far corner of the cage.
There, an old locker had large gold letters affixed to the center of its door:
Haskell flourished magnificently, an airy wave of the hand. “There you go, enjoy.”
He sounded mocking, but Julia sensed that undercurrent of sadness again, and piety...and longing perhaps. Maybe even regret, or a disbelieving hope.
Hesitantly Julia moved toward the locker, Tina behind her hovering protectively, and perhaps a little fearfully. She reached for it, ashiver with excitement. She was about to know, about to find out. In a moment she would discover... if she was nuts. She curled her slim fingers around the handle and tried to pull it open. The door creaked protesting, but didn’t move. It was stuck.
Tina reached to help her. “Come on, we can get it open.”
They both tried it, grunting in an unladylike manner. Julia put her foot up on the wall beside the locker, and together in unison, they heaved. The door creaked and shuddered, but refused to open to them. Behind them Haskell chuckled, and drew his large knife ominously.
“Sticks a bit, that’s why they moved it to the basement in the first place. Did you think the school board paid any attention to ghost stories? Here, I’ll open it.”
They gave way gratefully and he moved forward, competent. Tension suddenly filled the air, an electric heat cackled across Julia’s skin. She shuddered, looking around nervously. Tina felt it too, the girls moved closer to each other. Haskell seemed to be completely unaffected.
He stuck the cruel blade of his knife in the crack of the door and twisted expertly. As if with long practice. He popped it open easily and stepped back. Hesitantly, Julia moved forward, Tina clutching her arm tightly beside her. Heaving in a deep breath, the ex-mental patient forced herself to look within her nightmare...
The locker was empty.
Sheathing his knife, “There you go.” Haskell grinned.
Hesitantly Julia moved further forward. She put one hand on the locker door, and forced one foot inside the locker itself. Then she hesitated, she couldn’t force herself to step inside.
Tina moved up beside her. “Come on, we’ll both go in.”
Haskell chuckled sardonically. Still, Julia couldn’t express her gratitude for the support. That her friend would risk herself this way. Humbly, she nodded.
Both of them wedged themselves face to face in the locker. It was a tight fit, they were breathing into each other’s face. Tina’s warm breath smelled of beer and marijuana. She couldn’t decide if it was pleasant or not. Julia tried to shut the door but they were simply too squished together. Their flashlights bounced light off the metal floor of the cold, rust-free locker. Neither of them could move now, arms and bodies trapped tightly. Tina looked at Haskell watching them.
Pissed off, “Can you shut the door?”
“Sure.” He chuckled and shut the door.
Metal creaked lightly as the girls faced each other in the semi-darkness, harsh light bouncing into their face off the floor, but much of the locker was left interestingly enough, in darkness. As if some force swallowed the light, taking it elsewhere.
Julia whispered. “John, where are you?”
Suddenly, obviously in answer to her call, they became bathed in a sourceless green light. The faces of both girls showed shocked surprise. “What the fuck!” Tina screamed.
Haskell stood before the locker, head cocked, a slight smile upon his face. Green light poured from the crack and the grill, bathing his face in its cool power. Intoxicating. He breathed deeply his head lifting towards the ceiling high above, happy and at peace.
“Interesting,” was all he said.
Tina screamed from within the locker. “Help us! Fuck! What the hell is going on?”
The locker door banged and shuddered as the girls tried to force it from inside. Within they were still bathed in the sourceless light, its cool power not able to calm them in their panic. Metal pinged and tinged as they wiggled as best they might, trying to escape the green glow. A glow which had taken Julia’s brother.
Julia felt relief as outside, Haskell called to them soothingly. “Okay relax, relax. I’ll slide my knife in and pop it open, hands out of the way.” If that’s what they really wanted, he thought...
Both girls drew their hands back. Tina saw the blade of the knife slide through the crack.
Haskell popped the door open easily; the light had already faded away. He looked within. “Huh.” Slowly, he smiled. Again, he had been right, he was happy for them. He hoped one day, he could force himself to accept such happiness.
Inside, the locker was completely empty.
Everything is brightly lit, sunnily golden. All was peaceful here, warm and kind and soft. A hillside with an apple tree at top. Julia and Tina stand next to the tree, looks of wonder on their faces.
Contentedly, Tina slowly sinks to her knees, looking happy, she breathes the air deeply. Julia reaches up and a branch seems to bend toward her. Up on her tiptoes she can easily reach an apple, she takes a bite, a loud crisp sound fills the golden summer air. She looks astonished as she swallows.
Tina looks at her and takes the apple as she proffers it. She takes a bite and murmurs wordlessly in pleasure, a look of rapture upon her face. “So good.”
“Where are we?” Julia forces herself to ask.
Tina shrugs, clearly she didn’t care. A murmur of pleasure as she bites the apple. Crisp juice flows over her chin as the hard sound fills the air with light.
Astonished, Julia spins around. Tina also turns on her knees, not at all concerned. Twelve year old John stands there, he looks exactly as he did the last time Julia ever saw him. He has a big welcoming smile plastered all over his impish face.
“John!” Julia exclaims, delighted. She too felt the peace sweep over her, the happy warmth, she knows now that this is right and proper, just and deserved.
He holds out his arms and she sweeps him up in a hug. They laugh together and she spins him around, finally putting him back down. She could smell him, the warm sweet scent of youth exuding from his child’s body. The scent of grass and apples and milk and fresh warm sunlight. Healthy vitality courses through her and she screams just to scream. Tina laughs and John joins in, all was right with the world.
“You haven’t changed!” she exclaims.
He grins, sly. “But you have though. Now you’re bigger than I am.”
“Where are we?” Tina asks. Ever the practical one.
John shrugs. “Does it really matter? Every day is sunny, there are crisp streams to drink from and when you get hungry, a table laden with food is only around the corner. If you’re tired, a comfortable nest waits just especially for you to find it. Every day is filled with laughter and fun. Look.” He points. They look to see he shows them sunny fields of inviting green grass. Everything looks wonderful. In the distance little shapes are clearly children playing, their laughter riding on the wind.
“Come on!” John urges cajolingly, but with no sense of urgency; there was never such, here.
He takes his sister’s hand as Tina rises. She takes his other hand and laughing, the three race down the hill. They run off towards the distant children. Slowly becoming more and more distant from the apple tree where he found them…
“Locker 13 is the door into summer... An eternal paradise where everything is good and beautiful and kind. A wonderful retreat for those who are restless and fed up with the way things are, a place where the Good Children, the meek, can wait to inherit the earth.
I found what I was looking for, and one day, I hope you do too.”
Haskell stood alone in the wire cage, deep in the basement of the long abandoned school. The old, old man, with a little laugh, sheathed his knife and used his hip to force the locker door closed. His face crinkled as he took a locket from a chain around his neck, an old gold locket. A single tear dripped from his eye as he opened the locket and looked at it. Within the adornment, an old oil portrait of a young girl nestled, slightly cracked and worn, but carefully preserved.
Softly, “Have fun girls. I know you’ll find what you want.”
He turned away from the ancient locker, and slowly left the cage.
CASE CLOSED by Bryan Carrigan
Charlie checked his breath, straightened his tie, and chewed on an Altoid. He shouldn’t have ordered the clam sauce. Elizabeth from accounts payable had drunkenly texted him an invitation up to her room. She was twenty-seven and had the ass of a Pilates instructor. Charlie was forty-three and married. He’d never been unfaithful to his wife. He’d never really considered adultery to be a viable option, mostly because the kind of twenty-seven-year-old women who wore their hair in pony tails and went everywhere in yoga pants never so much as looked in his general direction. Elizabeth, at least according to her text, wanted to ‘ride him like a pony.’ The elevator doors binged open and a man in a tuxedo stabbed a Hitchcock blonde through the throat with what looked like a letter opener.
“Is this five?” Charlie said.
“You’re not quite there, sport,” the man answered, “this is four.”
The elevator closed and resumed its assent. Charlie pressed the stop button. An alarm bell rang, which was exactly the last thing he wanted it to do. He wanted to give the man in the tuxedo plenty of time to escape. He didn’t want the man to panic and start killing off potential witnesses. Especially, potential witnesses who worked in sales and were contemplating adultery. He had no idea how he’d explain being murdered to his wife.
Charlie gave his statement to the police. A weary detective asked, “How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
The detective tucked his pencil behind his ear and smirked. After a brief flurry of activity, it was clear that no one had been murdered outside the elevators on the fourth floor. There wasn’t any blood. Nor were there any signs of foul play.
“I know what I saw,” Charlie insisted.
“How’s about I give you some free advice,” the detective said, “call your wife, tell her that you love her, go back to your room and sleep it off.”
“Sure,” Charlie said. He took the stairs back to his room on the third floor. Elizabeth had texted him seven messages. There was a man in a rumpled suit out on his balcony. He had a girl with him. Her skirt was short enough that it would have made Elizabeth blush. Charlie figured they were cops. No doubt they hadn’t gotten word that his murder had been canceled. “Can I help you?”
“My name is Griffin Stokely. This is my partner, Felicia Dixon. We’ve read your statement . . .”
“I’ve already gotten an earful from--”
Stokely ignored him and said, “You spoke to him? He spoke to you?”
“It wasn’t much of a conversation,” Charlie said. “He called me sport.” Charlie retold his story from beginning to end. He didn’t bother editing any of the prurient details.
“You’re sure it was a letter opener?” Dixon asked.
Charlie shrugged. “Maybe it was a really sharp letter opener, but yeah, it looked exactly like the sort of thing my wife would use to open letters and why aren’t you pretending I’m full of crap like everyone else? You know what’s going on, don’t you?”
“The Roosevelt’s an old hotel,” Stokely said. “Supposedly, Marilyn Monroe haunts one of the rooms on the second floor.”
“One of the mirrors, actually,” Dixon said.
“Right, anyway, back in 1947 a studio vixen named Laura Lynn was murdered on the fourth floor, allegedly by a screenwriter named Niles Hartly. Except there were no witnesses and no physical evidence tying him to the crime and he conveniently died in a car accident seven weeks later, so the case was never closed.”
“What does any of that have to do with the price of coffee at Starbucks?” Charlie said. He thought it sounded hardboiled, the kind of thing a guy should say while casually discussing murder.
“There were no eyewitnesses then,” Dixon said.
“You saw the whole thing,” Stokely said. “You’re the eyewitness we need to close the case. Niles Hartly murdered Laura Lynn with a letter opener by the elevators on the fourth floor.”
“I don’t get it,” Charlie said. “You’re talking about something that happened more than sixty years ago. What good does it do anyone to close the case now?”
“It’s got nothing to do with the price of coffee, but I’m sure it means something to Laura Lynn, knowing that her killer didn’t get away with it. Maybe now, she can rest a little easier. Maybe she’ll stop sending you equine invitations.” Stokely set a cell phone on the drinks table. Charlie knew without looking that it belonged to Elizabeth. He drowned it in the ice bucket and swore he’d take his wife to Paris for their anniversary.
RUN TO THE HILLS by Gavin Chappell
6: Fortunes of War
The word rang out across the hustle and bustle of the feasting hall. Outside, in the town square, the slaughtered citizens of Venta Belgarum fed the crow and the raven; here, in the house that had belonged to the chief magistrate, their supplies fed the barbarian conquerors. Hengest’s triumphant warband gnawed at plundered beef-bones, gulped down stolen pork, and quaffed vast quantities of looted mead, ale, and wine. But at least one of the feasters was sobered by the news the messenger brought.
Hengest stood at the end of the feasting board, his face pale. He stared at the man before him.
‘Is this true?’ he demanded.
The messenger nodded. ‘Reports from the North tell us that yesterday he rode out from his fortress of Din Ambros, up in the high hills of Snowdon, and his host is heading across the mountains towards the city of Viriconium. His force is not believed to be very strong...’
‘That’s irrelevant,’ Hengest snapped. He turned to his thanes. ‘Men, listen to me! This is important... Someone stop that bard caterwauling.’ A well-aimed beef bone brought silence to the hall. Hengest continued. ‘The messenger has bad news for us. He says that Ambrosius is coming. We must regroup our forces and prepare for his attack.’
‘Why don’t we go out to meet him immediately?’ demanded a drunken Sea-Dane named Wulfhere. ‘If he’s anything like the city-folk we’ve been fighting during the last few weeks, he’ll be a pushover. Who is he, anyway?’
Hengest shook his head. ‘You don’t understand. Listen to me, all of you! Ambrosius is a Roman! Vortimer, Vortigern, and the Welsh in general are one thing. The Picts, another. But Ambrosius is of the House of Constantine, he who was Emperor of the Romans!’
A gasp rose from the more superstitious of the thanes; rumour had it that the first Caesar was of divine descent. Of course, so were most of the royal clans of Germania, but the Roman conquests had impressed themselves massively upon the barbarian mind. Though the savage efforts of their Goth and Vandal cousins had brought Rome to her knees, she still loomed large in their minds as a power to be feared; even the pragmatists among them, like Hengest himself, found that the prospect of fighting Ambrosius Aurelianus gave them pause for thought.
‘Now, I suggest that we tell my son Oeric to bring his men and the Picts south to reinforce us. And send a message back to Germania for more warriors to join us. I hear that Offa, king of the Angles, is continuing to expand his kingdom, and many men have been forced into exile. If we can attract them to my standard, then we may have a chance against Ambrosius. But for the moment...’
‘We’re not going to run away, then?’ demanded Secgbeorn, a Sweordwara thane better known for his courage than his shrewdness and cunning. ‘It would reflect poorly on us if we ran away.’
‘No,’ replied Hengest patiently. ‘We’ll march out to meet them while my son and his followers come down out of the North. With luck, we’ll smash his forces between us. Well-disciplined Romans they may be, but their numbers are few. And the Welsh are divided amongst themselves, they have no unity. If we strike now, we’ll remove his threat completely.’ He smiled thinly.
But as soon as his men returned their attention to the feast, and began to boast of the deeds they would perform when they came against Ambrosius, he drew one hand across his face, and looked troubled.
Over the hills they came.
Their numbers swelling as they were joined by the warriors of Ceredigion, Dinoding, Edyrnion, Rhos and all the valleys and plains of Mona and Gwynedd, Ambrosius’ army poured triumphantly down from the mountains in an irresistible stream, as the barbarian clans had ridden out from these hills in former days, unlike them not to plunder a divided country, but to unite it against the common foe. A ravaged land met their eyes when they finally reached the rolling hills of Gwent. Hengest had raided Vortigern’s old homeland extensively, and many smoking pyres of villages and fields piled with slaughtered herds marked his southward march.
But even now, not all of the Britons saw the need to resist the Saxons alongside the Roman count; some persisted in clinging to their fond dreams of an independent Britannia, strong and free. Early one morning, somewhere in the district of Ercing, while the dew still lay fresh on the grass of the banks of the Avon Gwy, the host halted when a large band of warriors sallied forth from a nearby hill-fort to contest their advance.
Ambrosius himself came to the ford with his men to parley.
‘If Artorius had stirred himself by now, we’d have no worries in overcoming these rebels,’ Ambrosius pronounced as he strode down the bank to meet the Gwentish delegation. The warriors of Gwynedd had enlarged Ambrosius’ warband to such an extent that they were able to contemplate full-scale military encounters such as this, but the numbers of Gwentishmen were equal to their own, and only a hard-core of Ambrosius’ forces had the advantage of Roman discipline.
They met at the edge of the river. Ambrosius glanced around at the flat river meadows, thick with troops, and the fort on the hill beyond could easily be concealing more warriors. Then he turned to the purple-cloaked leader of the delegation.
‘I am Ambrosius, rightful Count of Britannia. I pass through your lands in order to find and punish the Saxons who have been ravaging your country. Why, then, do you bar my way?’
‘I am Vortigern,’ said the leader, removing his helm to reveal that haunted face that Ambrosius knew so well. ‘I am the rightful ruler of Britannia. None may pass through my lands in warlike array, rebel; and besides, we are preparing to fight off the Saxons when they return.’
So this was where the usurper had fled! And it seemed he had levied reinforcements from his fellow-countrymen. But he had yet to learn how to rule a kingdom, Ambrosius reflected. He shook his head at this barbarian narrow-mindedness. Never could they see beyond their own concerns. Still, personal matters were motivating him equally, for the moment.
‘I intend to defeat the Saxons and force them from our land,’ he replied. ‘Then they will no longer pose a threat to anyone. But first - a matter of vengeance. You were responsible for the death of my father, Constantine the Small, who my grandfather the Emperor appointed as governor of Britannia. Honour demands that I must slay you.’
Vortigern’s face fell, but he shook his head. ‘Nevertheless, you shall not defeat me.’
From Ambrosius’ side, Caius called out; ‘We’ll slaughter you and all your people!’ Ambrosius glared at him, and he went quiet. Ambrosius returned his attention to Vortigern.
‘We shall defeat you. As my officer here says, we are not afraid to fight. This is bloodfeud, Vortigern the Usurper.’
Vortigern returned his gaze silently. ‘Then we must fight,’ he said at last. He and his men turned, and splashed back across the ford to rejoin his waiting warriors in the lea of their hill-fort.
Ambrosius sighed. Not the most successful parley in the history of warfare, he thought ruefully. Still, it would have come down to a fight eventually - and honour indeed demanded he slay his father’s killer. They were disadvantaged by their position; they would have to cross the river while the men of Gwent held the banks. But it could not be helped.
A couple of minutes later, his men were marshalled, standing in two long lines, one behind the other. The barbarians of the mountains cared little for the finer tactics of Rome and preferred to work as units, rather than as one concerted fighting machine. Ambrosius found himself having to accept this, the pride of his Gwynedd auxiliaries being such that any harsh words of criticism would have had them striding back to their valleys and hills in seconds.
Resolving that once this war was over he would find himself some disciplined troops, he gave the order to charge.
The men of Gwynedd headed towards the ford, picking up momentum as they sprinted, wasting their breath screaming war cries, intent on entering the fray with their leader at their head. On the far side of the ford, Ambrosius could see Vortigern’s men setting their spears and preparing to resist the attack. His heart sank at the realisation that these men were better trained than he’d been expecting. For all their opposition to Roman rule, the Vortigern party had absorbed more of Roman ways than he had been expecting; certainly more than the wild hillmen who shrieked and yelled at the Count’s shoulder.
Their feet struck the water of the ford, and then Vortigern made his first mistake of the battle. Rather than preserving his strong position on the bank, he gave the order for them to move forward. Doubtless he expected the Count’s men to be disadvantaged by their position in the river, Ambrosius assumed, as the men of Gwent charged forward, kicking up a bow-wave of spray. There might be some truth in the supposition, but if he had been in his opponent’s position, he would have preserved control of the bank.
The two forces met near the middle of the ford, and immediately Ambrosius found himself pitted against a giant of a man, a well-equipped warrior wearing a coat of mail and wielding a longsword and a round shield. Ambrosius’ sword crashed down on the lindenwood of the man’s shield. In return, the Gwentishmen jabbed and hacked at his attacker. As ever, there was no time for the finesse of swordsmanship in the heat of battle, or indeed for honour. The man stumbled over a fallen body beside him, briefly leaving himself open, and Ambrosius struck, bloodying his blade up to the crosspiece after thrusting it savagely into his attacker’s guts. The man fell back with a bubbling screech, and the waters of the Avon Gwy began to flow red. Ambrosius glimpsed carnage around him.
‘On, my warriors, on!’ he shouted. He was caught up in a dream of the lost glories of Rome; fleeting as they had been, they had lasted more than four hundred years. He found himself fighting another Briton, a wide-eyed madman with a war-axe, a true barbarian. Where now was the armoured might of Rome? Where now the purple-clad Caesars? Where now the roads that had linked Africa to Dacia, Asia to Hispania, Judaea to Britannia? Where now the conquering fervour that had united half the world? It was gone, long gone, and now the inheritors of Rome’s legacy scuffled for supremacy while the barbarian wolves howled outside the walls, or stole in to plunder Rome’s hard-won riches.
The standard of the Red Dragon wavered above the Gwynedd forces, the Fox flew over those of Vortigern, and the battle raged.
Ambrosius dropped the madman with a broken skull, and ordered his men onwards. They were gaining ground now, though what they gained ran with crimsoned waters; they were pushing their foes to the bank. Gwentish-men fell around them, but Ambrosius’ side had experienced few casualties so far. Ambrosius watched as a contingent of Gwentish-men marched at a group of Gwynedd-men only to fall in seconds, each one collapsing on the dying corpse of the next. Blood-gouting bodies were caught up in the current to be dragged downstream, whirling round and round in the reddening river.
Then the men of Gwent turned and ran towards their fortress. Ambrosius cut down his last opponent as he fled, and shouted to his men, ‘After them!’ The thrill of glory rushed through his veins, and his only thought was to cut them down, to crush them beneath his heel. His men were equally caught up in the spirit of war, and they splashed hectically towards the bank and started clambering up out of the water.
It was only when he had put his foot down on the mud of the bank that Ambrosius’ recognised the trap for what it was. But by then it was too late. The warriors who had fled like cowards suddenly turned, and rushed down on the men of Gwynedd as they rose in triumph from the waters. There was a crash of wood on wood as the two forces clashed and around Ambrosius men began to fall, tumbling back into the swirling waters, some wounded, some dead, some merely overbalanced by the rush of Vortigern’ warriors.
‘Back! Back, back, back!’ shouted Ambrosius to his surviving men, and those who had withstood the onrush began to disengage. A few more fell writhing to the grass, their claim to the further shore bitterly won, but the rest leapt back into the waters of the ford and splashed over to cluster around their lord, and the Red Dragon standard.
Up on the hill, Ambrosius could see the Fox standard of Vortigern. It had been an apt symbol for the man who had eventually been eaten up by his own cunning, but Ambrosius now realised that he had significantly underestimated Vortigern. Slowly, the usurper’s men were withdrawing into the security of their fort.
‘What now?’ Caius demanded, as they watched their foes retreat.
Ambrosius turned to him. ‘We wait,’ he replied.
‘Wait?’ came a dozen voices, but Ambrosius used the weight of his authority to overrule their objections. ‘They want us to follow them up the hill so they can pick us off from the walls of their fort when we’re at our least secure,’ he explained quietly. ‘If we wait here and lay siege, either they will be forced to come down and cross the water to fight us, or else they’ll relax their guard and we’ll be able to enter the fort and attack them when they are unprepared.’
A shout from the walls of the fort interrupted these deliberations.
‘Have you had enough?’ Vortigern yelled, his haggard face exultant. ‘Time to get back to your hills, Ambrosius! I defeated your father; now I’ve defeated you. Go on, go on! I’m feeling kind today! Run while you still can! Run like a rabbit!’
‘Archers!’ shouted Ambrosius. A volley of shots winged their way towards the blustering ex-king, and he ducked behind his ramparts. After a few seconds, a retaliatory flight of arrows whirred from the stronghold, and pitched into Ambrosius’ host.
‘Back, back, back!’ Ambrosius shouted again. Once they were out of bowshot, he turned to his men.
‘What now?’ he demanded. ‘We need to get this over and done with - the Saxons are looting and burning in the South; we can’t linger too long here.’
‘Fire!’ exclaimed Caius resolutely. ‘Shoot burning arrows into the fort. It’s only wood, it should easily burn.’
Ambrosius stared at him, a light dawning in his eyes. The idea had never occurred to him, and yet a savage like Caius had thought of it. Finally, these wild barbarians were learning the art of war! The years he had spent trying to beat them into an efficient fighting machine, of the kind that had laid the world at the feet of Rome, had not been wasted. He turned to give the order.
The blazing arrows roared through the air, pitching down on the palisade and wooden buildings within, screaming like devils in Hades swooping down to punish the souls of the damned. A few seconds later, the entire fortress was burning, black smoke guttering up into the skies.
The main gate swung open, and Ambrosius saw warriors staggering through, desperate to escape the blaze and to get to grips with their foes. There was no sign of Vortigern. Had he been caught in the fire?
‘Come on! Charge!’ Ambrosius yelled.
They took the bank unopposed. It was clear that the host of Gwent had fallen into dissension. Ambrosius saw men indicating his advancing warriors, others clearly favouring a swift retreat, still others on their knees and praying as the fort blazed behind them. Ambrosius’ force crashed into them like a rampaging bull, and they collapsed into an ill-disciplined mess. Some turned to fight, some to flee.
Ambrosius slew three men in as many thrusts. He forced his way through the riot towards the standard-bearer, whose Fox banner still fluttered proudly above the confused troops, hacked and slashed his way through the confused mass. Soon he was standing over the men who had remained to guard the standard. Casually, Ambrosius stepped through the demoralised warriors, Caius at his side, and approached the bannerman.
‘Give me that!’ Ambrosius demanded. ‘Your forces are finished!’
‘Never!’ shouted the standard-bearer, a tall, proud lad with a ruddy face. He planted the standard in the ground and drew his sword. ‘You’ll have to kill me first!’ he shouted. ‘I am Marcus son of Marcianus! I have sworn never to give up the standard while my lord still stands!’
Ambrosius sighed, and indicated the battle around him. ‘My men are butchering yours,’ he said wearily. ‘It would be simpler to do as I say than let me kill you. You’re a good lad, and I wouldn’t mind you in my troop. Be sensible. Besides - is your lord still alive?’
Slowly, Marcus shook his head. ‘He had gone to the hall with his Saxon wife and his magicians when the rain of fire-arrows came down. I saw them all choking in the smoke, and then the roof came down in a shower of sparks. You’ve killed my lord. But that is all the more reason for me to slay you!’
He advanced on the Count and his companions. Ambrosius was about to despatch him when his ears caught the brassy bellow of trumpets from the North.
Epilogue: The Road to Mais Beli
Walwain rode triumphantly into the valley of the Avon Gwy at Artorius’s side, at the head of the warband. Beside them cantered the men of Gododdin, with Lady Eurneid in the van. They had returned to Din Eidyn to find that Oeric had raised the siege and ridden South with his men, and as a result of this and Lady Eurneid’s return, the proud warriors of Gododdin were ready to ride after them leaving only a token force behind. It had been Artorius’ idea to suggest they joined up with Ambrosius.
Ahead of them, they saw the aftermath of a savage fight at the fort. Smoke wafted into the blue skies from the blazing ruins on the hilltop, and men stood in attitudes of combat before the main gate. As the riders approached, both the defeated and the victorious turned to watch them with trepidation.
Artorius called a halt before the host.
‘Ambrosius!’ he shouted. ‘It is I, Artorius! I return.’
A blood-spattered figure in Roman armour pushed his way to the front.
‘About time too,’ the Count said brusquely. ‘Where have you been? You come too late to aid me; I have won the day. It’s good to see you,’ he added.
‘I bring with me the men of Gododdin, and the noble Lady Eurneid,’ Artorius said. ‘And also this Pict, without whom I could never have united my forces.’
Walwain bowed ironically from the saddle. Ambrosius turned to regard him. ‘Have I proved myself, uncle?’ Walwain inquired. The Count gave him a brief, economical nod.
‘It would seem so,’ he replied. A warm flush of pleasure spread through Walwain at the curt acknowledgement. He glanced at Artorius, and grinned.
‘And these?’ asked Artorius, indicating the demoralised forces of Vortigern.
‘Leave this to me,’ replied Ambrosius. He turned to the men of Gwent.
‘You have fought me today, men,’ he shouted. ‘But the Count of Britannia will not hold that against you. That is, as long as you join forces with me.
‘Somewhere to the South, Hengest the Saxon still ravages our land. If we unite now, then we may crush him. The people of Britannia require unity in this, the hour of our greatest need. Who among you will join me, who will ride in the host of Ambrosius Aurelianus, rightful ruler of Britannia?’
A warrior raised his spear and shouted his agreement. Others quickly followed him, until the whole host of Vortigern was yelling out its allegiance to the Count. In the midst of the cries, a man came galloping over the brow of the valley. He rode straight up to the centre of the host, where the officers and chieftains stood.
‘My lord, my lord,’ the messenger gasped. He looked around. ‘Where is my lord Vortigern?’
Ambrosius shook his head, indicating the blazing fort on the crown of the hill. ‘Dead, friend,’ he said quietly. ‘I command here now. What is your message?’
The messenger gave the burning fortress a wary glance, then shrugged, and turned to Ambrosius.
‘It came in in the early hours of the morning, by messenger-pigeons from the South. Hengest abandoned Venta Belgarum a day ago, and he rides northwards to deal with Count Ambrosius.’
‘This must be why Oeric withdrew from Din Eidyn,’ said Walwain quietly.
Ambrosius glanced at him. ‘Then our enemy comes to meet us? Why, we must not disappoint him. Messenger, where was Hengest’s last location?’
‘Somewhere south of Mais Beli,’ the man replied.
Ambrosius turned to the host. ‘Then on, on!’ he shouted. ‘On, comrades! On, free people of Britannia! On to Mais Beli!’
VARNEY THE VAMPYRE ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest
THE VAMPIRE IN THE MOONLIGHT.—THE FALSE FRIEND.
Part of the distance being accomplished towards the old ruins, Tom Eccles began to feel that what he had undertaken was not altogether such child’s-play as he had at first imagined it to be. Somehow or another, with a singular and uncomfortable sort of distinctness, there came across his mind every story that he had remembered of the wild and the wonderful. All the long-since forgotten tales of superstition that in early childhood he had learned, came now back upon him, suggesting to his mind a thousand uncomfortable fancies of the strangest description.
It was not likely that when once a man, under such circumstances, got into such a frame of mind, he would readily get out of it again, while he continued surrounded by such scenes as had first called them into existence.
No doubt, had he turned about, and faced the inn again instead of the old ruins he would soon have shaken off these “thick coming fancies;” but such a result was no to be expected, so long as he kept on towards the dismal place he had pledged himself to reach.
As he traversed meadow after meadow he began to ask himself some questions which he found that he could not answer exactly in a consolatory manner, under the present state of things.
Among these question was the very pertinent one of,—”It’s no argument against vampyres, because I don’t see the use of ‘em—is it?” This he was compelled to answer as he had put it; and when, in addition, he began to recollect that, without the shadow of a doubt, Sir Francis Varney the supposed vampyre, had been chased across the fields to that very ruin whither he was bound, and had then and there disappeared, he certainly found himself in decidedly uncomfortable and most unpromising situation.
“No,” he said, “no. Hang it, I won’t go back now, to be made the laughing-stock of the whole town, which I should be. Come what may of it, I will go on as I have commenced; so I shall put on as stout a heart as I can.”
Then, having come to this resolve, he strove might and main to banish from his mind those disagreeable reminiscences that had been oppressing him, to turn his attention to subjects of a different complexion.
During the progress of making this endeavour, which was rather futile, he came within sight of the ruins. Then he slackened his pace a little, telling himself, with a pardonable self-deceit, that it was common, ordinary caution only, which induced him to do so, and nothing at all in the shape of fear.
“Time enough,” he remarked, “to be afraid, when I see anything to be afraid of, which I don’t see as yet. So, as all’s right, I may as well put a good face upon the matter.”
He tried to whistle a tune, but it turned out only a melancholy failure; so he gave that up in despair, and walked on until he got within a hundred yards, or thereabouts, of the old ruins.
He thus proceeded, and bending his ear close to the ground, he listened attentively for several minutes. Somehow, he fancied that a strange, murmuring sound came to his ears; but he was not quite sure that it proceeded from the ruins, because it was just that sort of sound that might come from a long way off, being mellowed by distance, although, perhaps, loud enough at its source.
“Well, well,” he whispered to himself, “it don’t matter much, after all. Go I must, and hide the handkerchiefs somewhere, or else be laughed at, besides losing my wages. The former I don’t like, and the latter I cannot afford.”
Thus clinching the matter by such knock-down arguments, he walked on until he was almost within the very shadow of the ruins, and, probably, it was at this juncture that his footsteps may have been heard by Marchdale and Sir Francis Varney.
Then he paused again; but all was profoundly still, and he began to think that the strange sort of murmuring noise which he had heard must have come from far off and not at all from any person or persons within the ruins.
“Let me see,” he said to himself; “I have five handkerchiefs to hide among the old ruins somewhere, and the sooner I do so the better, because then I will get away; for, as regards staying here to watch, Heaven knows how long, for Sir Francis Varney, I don’t intend to do it, upon second thoughts and second thoughts, they say, are generally best.”
With the most careful footsteps now, as if he were treading upon some fragile substance, which he feared to injure, he advanced until he was fairly within the precincts of the ancient place, which now bore so ill a reputation.
He then made to himself much the same remark that Sir Francis Varney had made to Marchdale, with respect to the brightening up of the sky, in consequence of its being near the time for the moon to rise from the horizon, and he saw more clearly around him, although he could not find any good place to hide the handkerchiefs in.
“I must and will,” he said, “hide them securely; for it would, indeed, be remarkably unpleasant, after coming here and winning my wages, to have the proofs that I had done so taken away by some chance visitor to the place.”
He at length saw a tolerably large stone, which stood, in a slant position, up against one of the walls. Its size attracted him. He thought, if his strength was sufficient to move it, that it would be a good thing to do so, and to place the handkerchiefs beneath it; for, at all events, it was so heavy that it could not be kicked aside, and no one, without some sort of motive to do so, beyond the mere love of labour, would set about moving it from its position.
“I may go further and fare worse,” he said to himself; “so here shall all the handkerchiefs lie, to afford a proof that I have been here.”
He packed them into a small compass, and then stooped to roll aside the heavy stone, when, at the moment, before he could apply his strength to that purpose, he heard some one, in his immediate neighbourhood, say,—”Hist!”
This was so sudden, and so utterly unexpected, that he not only ceased his exertions to move the stone, but he nearly fell down in his surprise.
“Hist—hist!” said the voice again.
“What—what,” gasped Tom Eccles—”what are you?”—”Hush—hush—hush!”
The perspiration broke out upon his brow, and he leaned against the wall for support, as he managed to say, faintly,—
“Well, hush—what then?”—”Hist!”
“Well, I hear you. Where are you?”
“Here at hand. Who are you?”
“Tom Eccles. Who are you?”—”A friend. Have you seen anything?”
“No; I wish I could. I should like to see you if I could.”—”I’m coming.”
There was a slow and cautious footstep, and Marchdale advanced to where Tom Eccles was standing.
“Come, now,” said the latter, when he saw the dusky-looking form stalking towards him; “till I know you better, I’ll be obliged to you to keep off. I am well armed. Keep your distance, be you friend or foe.”
“Armed!” exclaimed Marchdale, and he at once paused.—”Yes, I am.”
“But I am a friend. I have no sort of objection frankly to telly you my errand. I am a friend of the Bannerworth family, and have kept watch here now for two nights, in the hopes of meeting with Varney, the vampyre.”
“The deuce you have: and pray what may your name be?”—”Marchdale.”
“If you be Mr. Marchdale, I know you by sight: for I have seen you with Mr. Henry Bannerworth several times. Come out from among the shadows, and let us have a look at you; but, till you do, don’t come within arm’s length of me. I am not naturally suspicious; but we cannot be too careful.”
“Oh! certainly—certainly. The silver edge of the moon is now just peeping up from the east, and you will be able to see me well, if you step from the shadow of the wall by which you now are.”
This was a reasonable enough proposition, and Tom Eccles at once acceded to it, by stepping out boldly into the partial moonlight, which now began to fall upon the open meadows, tinting the grass with a silvery refulgence, and rendering even minute objects visible. The moment he saw Marchdale he knew him, and, advancing frankly to him, he said,—
“I know you, sir, well.”
“And what brings you here?”—”A wager for one thing, and a wish to see the vampyre for another.”
“Indeed!”—”Yes; I must own I have such a wish, along with a still stronger one, to capture him, if possible; and, as there are now two of us, why may we not do it?”
“As for capturing him,” said Marchdale, “I should prefer shooting him.”—”You would?”
“I would, indeed. I have seen him once shot down, and he is now, I have no doubt, as well as ever. What were you doing with that huge stone I saw you bending over?”—”I have some handkerchiefs to hide here, as a proof that I have to-night really been to this place.”
“Oh, I will show you a better spot, where there is a crevice in which you can place them with perfect safety. Will you walk with me into the ruins?”—”Willingly.”
“It’s odd enough,” remarked Marchdale, after he had shown Tom Eccles where to hide the handkerchiefs, “that you and I should both be here upon so similar an errand.”—”I’m very glad of it. It robs the place of its gloom, and makes it ten times more endurable than it otherwise would be. What do you propose to do if you see the vampyre?”
“I shall try a pistol bullet on him. You say you are armed?”—”Yes.”
“With pistols?”—”One. Here it is.”
“A huge weapon; loaded well, of course?”—”Oh, yes, I can depend upon it; but I did not intend to use it, unless assailed.”
“‘Tis well. What is that?”—”What—what?”
“Don’t you see anything there? Come farther back. Look—look. At the corner of that wall there I am certain there is the flutter of a human garment.”—”There is—there is.”
“Hush! Keep close. It must be the vampyre.”—”Give me my pistol. What are you doing with it?”
“Only ramming down the charge more firmly for you. Take it. If that be Varney the vampyre, I shall challenge him to surrender the moment he appears; and if he does not, I will fire upon him, and do you do so likewise.”—”Well, I—I don’t know.”
“You have scruples?”—”I certainly have.”
“Well, well—don’t you fire, then, but leave it to me. There; look—look. Now have you any doubt? There he goes; in his cloak. It is—it is——”—”Varney, by Heavens!” cried Tom Eccles.
“Surrender!” shouted Marchdale.
At the instant Sir Francis Varney sprang forward, and made off at a rapid pace across the meadows.
“Fire after him—fire!” cried Marchdale, “or he will escape. My pistol has missed fire. He will be off.”
On the impulse of the moment, and thus urged by the voice and the gesture of his companion, Tom Eccles took aim as well as he could, and fired after the retreating form of Sir Francis Varney. His conscience smote him as he heard the report and saw the flash of the large pistol amid the half sort of darkness that was still around.
The effect of the shot was then to him painfully apparent. He saw Varney stop instantly; then make a vain attempt to stagger forward a little, and finally fall heavily to the earth, with all the appearance of one killed upon the spot.
“You have hit him,” said Marchdale—”you have hit him. Bravo!”—”I have—hit him.”
“Yes, a capital shot, by Jove!”—”I am very sorry.”
“Sorry! sorry for ridding the world of such a being! What was in your pistol?”—”A couple of slugs.”
“Well, they have made a lodgment in him, that’s quite clear. Let’s go up and finish him at once.”—”He seems finished.”
“I beg your pardon there. When the moonbeams fall upon him he’ll get up and walk away as if nothing was the matter.”—”Will he?” cried Tom, with animation—”will he?”
“Certainly he will.”—”Thank God for that. Now, hark you, Mr. Marchdale: I should not have fired if you had not at the moment urged me to do so. Now, I shall stay and see if the effect which you talk of will ensue; and although it may convince me that he is a vampyre, and that there are such things, he may go off, scot free, for me.”
“Go off?”—”Yes; I don’t want to have even a vampyre’s blood upon my hands.”
“You are exceedingly delicate.”—”Perhaps I am; it’s my way, though. I have shot him—not you, mind; so, in a manner of speaking, he belongs to me. Now, mark, me: I won’t have him touched any more to-night, unless you think there’s a chance of making a prisoner of him without violence.”
“There he lies; you can go and make a prisoner of him at once, dead as he is; and if you take him out of the moonlight—”
“I understand; he won’t recover.”—”Certainly not.”
“But, as I want him to recover, that don’t suit me.”—”Well, I cannot but honour your scruples, although I do not actually share in them; but I promise you that, since such is your wish, I will take no steps against the vampyre; but let us come up to him and see if he be really dead, or only badly wounded.”
Tom Eccles hang back a little from this proposal; but, upon being urged again by Marchdale, and told that he need not go closer than he chose, he consented, and the two of them approached the prostrate form of Sir Francis Varney, which lay upon its face in the faint moonlight, which each moment was gathering strength and power.
“He lies upon his face,” said Marchdale. “Will you go and turn him over?”—”Who—I? God forbid I should touch him.”
“Well—well, I will. Come on.”
They halted within a couple of yards of the body. Tom Eccles would not go a step farther; so Marchdale advanced alone, and pretended to be, with great repugnance, examining for the wound.
“He is quite dead,” he said; “but I cannot see the hurt.”—”I think he turned his head as I fired.”
“Did he? Let us see.”
Marchdale lifted up the head, and disclosed such a mass of clotted-looking blood, that Tom Eccles at once took to his heels, nor stopped until he was nearly as far off as the ruins. Marchdale followed him more slowly, and when he came up to him, he said,—
“The slugs have taken effect on his face.”—”I know it—I know it. Don’t tell me.”
“He looks horrible.”—”And I am a murderer.”
“Psha! You look upon this matter too seriously. Think of who and what he was, and then you will soon acquit yourself of being open to any such charge.”—”I am bewildered, Mr. Marchdale, and cannot now know whether he be a vampyre or not. If he be not, I have murdered, most unjustifiably, a fellow-creature.”
“Well, but if he be?”—”Why, even then I do not know but that I ought to consider myself as guilty. He is one of God’s creatures if he were ten times a vampyre.”
“Well, you really do take a serious view of the affair.”—”Not more serious than it deserves.”
“And what do you mean to do?”—”I shall remain here to await the result of what you tell me will ensue, if he be a real vampire. Even now the moonbeams are full upon him, and each moment increasing in intensity. Think you he will recover?”
“I do indeed.”—”Then here will I wait.”
“Since that is you resolve, I will keep you company. We shall easily find some old stone in the ruins which will serve us for a seat, and there at leisure we can keep our eyes upon the dead body, and be able to observe if it make the least movement.”
This plan was adopted, and they sat down just within the ruins, but in such a place that they had a full view of the dead body, as it appeared to be, of Sir Francis Varney, upon which the sweet moonbeams shone full and clear.
Tom Eccles related how he was incited to come upon his expedition, but he might have spared himself that trouble, as Marchdale had been in a retired corner of the inn parlour before he came to his appointment with Varney, and heard the business for the most part proposed.
Half-an-hour, certainly not more, might have elapsed; when suddenly Tom Eccles uttered an exclamation, partly of surprise and partly of terror,—
“He moves; he moves!” he cried. “Look at the vampyre’s body.”
Marchdale affected to look with an all-absorbing interest, and there was Sir Francis Varney, raising slowly one arm with the hand outstretched towards the moon, as if invoking that luminary to shed more of its beams upon him. Then the body moved slowly, like some one writhing in pain, and yet unable to move from the spot on which it lay. From the head to the foot, the whole frame seemed to be convulsed, and now and then as the ghastly object seemed to be gathering more strength, the limbs were thrown out with a rapid and a frightful looking violence.
It was truly to one, who might look upon it as a reality and no juggle, a frightful sight to see, and although Marchdale, of course, tolerably well preserved his equanimity, only now and then, for appearance sake, affecting to be wonderfully shocked, poor Tom Eccles was in such a state of horror and fright that he could not, if he would, have flown from the spot, so fascinated was he by the horrible spectacle.
This was a state of things which continued for many minutes, and then the body showed evident symptoms of so much returning animation, that it was about to rise from his gory bed and mingle once again with the living.
“Behold!” said Marchdale—”behold!”—”Heaven have mercy upon us!”
“It is as I said; the beams of the moon have revived the vampyre. You perceive now that there can be no doubt.”—”Yes, yes, I see him; I see him.”
Sir Francis Varney now, as if with a great struggle, rose to his feet, and looked up at the bright moon for some moments with such an air and manner that it would not have required any very great amount of imagination to conceive that he was returning to it some sort of thanksgiving for the good that it had done to him.
He then seemed for some moments in a state of considerable indecision as to which way he should proceed. He turned round several times. Then he advanced a step or two towards the house, but apparently his resolution changed again, and casting his eyes upon the ruins, he at once made towards them.
This was too much for the philosophy as well as for the courage of Tom Eccles. It was all very well to look on at some distance, and observe the wonderful and inexplicable proceedings of the vampyre; but when he showed symptoms of making a nearer acquaintance, it was not to be borne.
“Why, he’s coming here,” said Tom.—”He seems so indeed,” remarked Marchdale.
“Do you mean to stay?”—”I think I shall.”
“You do, do you?”—”Yes, I should much like to question him, and as we are two to one I think we really can have nothing to fear.”
“Do you? I’m altogether of a different opinion. A man who has more lives than a cat don’t much mind at what odds he fights. You may stay if you like.”—”You do not mean to say that you will desert me?”
“I don’t see a bit how you call it deserting you; if we had come out together on this adventure, I would have stayed it out with you; but as we came separate and independent, we may as well go back so.”—”Well, but—”
“Good morning?” cried Tom, and he at once took to his heels towards the town, without staying to pay any attention to the remonstrances of Marchdale, who called after him in vain.
Sir Francis Varney, probably, had Tom Eccles not gone off so rapidly, would have yet taken another thought, and gone in another direction than that which led him to the ruins, and Tom, if he had had his senses fully about him, as well as all his powers of perception, would have seen that the progress of the vampyre was very slow, while he continued to converse with Marchdale, and that it was only when he went off at good speed that Sir Francis Varney likewise thought it prudent to do so.
“Is he much terrified?” said Varney, as he came up to Marchdale.—”Yes, most completely.”
“This then, will make a good story in the town.”—”It will, indeed, and not a little enhance your reputation.”
“Well, well; it don’t much matter now; but if by terrifying people I can purchase for myself anything like immunity for the past, I shall be satisfied.”—”I think you may now safely reckon that you have done so. This man who has fled with so much precipitation, had courage.”
“Unquestionably.”—”Or else he would have shrunk from coming here at all.”
“True, but his courage and presence arose from his strong doubts as to the existence of such beings as vampyres.”—”Yes, and now that he is convinced, his bravery has evaporated along with his doubts; and such a tale as he has now to tell, will be found sufficient to convert even the most sceptical in the town.”
“I hope so.”—”And yet it cannot much avail you.”
“Not personally, but I must confess that I am not dead to all human opinions, and I feel some desire of revenge against those dastards who by hundreds have hunted me, burnt down my mansion, and sought my destruction.”—”That I do not wonder at.”
“I would fain leave among them a legacy of fear. Such fear as shall haunt them and their children for years to come. I would wish that the name of Varney, the vampire, should be a sound of terror for generations.”—”It will be so.”
“It shall.”—”And now, then, for a consideration of what is to be done with our prisoner. What is your resolve upon that point?”
“I have considered it while I was lying upon yon green sward waiting for the friendly moonbeams to fall upon my face, and it seems to me that there is no sort of resource but to——”—”Kill him?”
“No, no.”—”What then?”
“To set him free.”—”Nay, have you considered the immense hazard of doing so? Think again; I pray you think again. I am decidedly of opinion that he more than suspects who are his enemies; and, in that case, you know what consequences would ensue; besides, have we not enough already to encounter? Why should we add another young, bold, determined spirit to the band which is already arrayed against us?”
“You talk in vain, Marchdale; I know to what it all tends; you have a strong desire for the death of this young man.”—”No; there you wrong me. I have no desire for his death, for its own sake; but, where great interests are at stake, there must be sacrifices made.”
“So there must; therefore, I will make a sacrifice, and let this young prisoner free from his dungeon.”—”If such be your determination, I know well it is useless to combat with it. When do you purpose giving him his freedom?”
“I will not act so heedlessly as that your principles of caution shall blame me. I will attempt to get from him some promise that he will not make himself an active instrument against me. Perchance, too, as Bannerworth Hall, which he is sure to visit, wears such an air of desertion, I may be able to persuade him that the Bannerworth family, as well as his uncle, have left this part of the country altogether; so that, without making any inquiry for them about the neighbourhood, he may be induced to leave at once.”—”That would be well.”
“Good; your prudence approves of the plan, and therefore it shall be done.”—”I am rather inclined to think,” said Marchdale, with a slight tone of sarcasm, “that if my prudence did not approve of the plan, it would still be done.”
“Most probably,” said Varney, calmly.—”Will you release him to-night?”
“It is morning, now, and soon the soft grey light of day will tint the east. I do not think I will release him till sunset again now. Has he provision to last him until then?”—”He has.”
“Well, then, two hours after sunset I will come here and release him from his weary bondage, and now I must go to find some place in which to hide my proscribed head. As for Bannerworth Hall, I will yet have it in my power; I have sworn to do so, I will keep my oath.”—”The accomplishment of our purpose, I regret to say, seems as far off as ever.”
“Not so—not so. As I before remarked, we must disappear, for a time, so as to lull suspicion. There will then arise a period when Bannerworth Hall will neither be watched, as it is now, nor will it be inhabited,—a period before the Bannerworth family has made up its mind to go back to it, and when long watching without a result has become too tiresome to be continued at all; then we can at once pursue our object.”—”Be it so.”
“And now, Marchdale, I want more money.”—”More money!”
“Yes; you know well that I have had large demands of late.”—”But I certainly had an impression that you were possessed, by the death of some one, with very ample means.”
“Yes, but there is a means by which all is taken from me. I have no real resources but what are rapidly used up, so I must come upon you again.”—”I have already completely crippled myself as regards money matters in this enterprise, and I do certainly hope that the fruits will not be far distant. If they be much longer delayed, I shall really not know what to do. However, come to the lodge where you have been staying, and then I will give you, to the extent of my ability, whatever sum you think your present exigencies require.”
“Come on, then, at once. I would certainly, of course, rather leave this place now, before daybreak. Come on, I say, come on.”
Sir Francis Varney and Marchdale walked for some time in silence across the meadows. It was evident that there was not between these associates the very best of feelings. Marchdale was always smarting under an assumption of authority over him, on the part of Sir Francis Varney, while the latter scarcely cared to conceal any portion of the contempt with which he regarded his hypocritical companion.
Some very strong band of union, indeed, must surely bind these two strange persons together! It must be something of a more than common nature which induces Marchdale not only to obey the behests of his mysterious companion, but to supply him so readily with money as we perceive he promises to do.
And, as regards Varney, the vampyre, be, too, must have some great object in view to induce him to run such a world of risk, and take so much trouble as he was doing with the Bannerworth family.
What his object is, and what is the object of Marchdale, will, now that we have progressed so far in our story, soon appear, and then much that is perfectly inexplicable, will become clear and distinct, and we shall find that some strong human motives are at the bottom of it all.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
AFTER LONDON by Richard Jefferies
CHAPTER VII THE FOREST TRACK CONTINUED
Once as they trotted by a pheasant rose screaming from the furze and flew before them down the track. Just afterwards Felix, who had been previously looking very carefully into the firs upon his right hand, suddenly stopped, and Oliver, finding this, pulled up as quickly as he could, thinking that Felix wished to tighten his girth.
“What is it?” he asked, turning round in his saddle.
“Hush!” said Felix, dismounting; his horse, trained to hunting, stood perfectly still, and would have remained within a few yards of the spot by the hour together. Oliver reined back, seeing Felix about to bend and string his bow.
“Bushmen,” whispered Felix, as he, having fitted the loop to the horn notch, drew forth an arrow from his girdle, where he carried two or three more ready to hand than in the quiver on his shoulder. “I thought I saw signs of them some time since, and now I am nearly sure. Stay here a moment.”
He stepped aside from the track in among the firs, which just there were far apart, and went to a willow bush standing by some furze. He had noticed that one small branch on the outer part of the bush was snapped off, though green, and only hung by the bark. The wood cattle, had they browsed upon it, would have nibbled the tenderest leaves at the end of the bough; nor did they usually touch willow, for the shoots are bitter and astringent. Nor would the deer touch it in the spring, when they had so wide a choice of food.
Nothing could have broken the branch in that manner unless it was the hand of a man, or a blow with a heavy stick wielded by a human hand. On coming to the bush he saw that the fracture was very recent, for the bough was perfectly green; it had not turned brown, and the bark was still soft with sap. It had not been cut with a knife or any sharp instrument; it had been broken by rude violence, and not divided. The next thing to catch his eye was the appearance of a larger branch farther inside the bush.
This was not broken, but a part of the bark was abraded, and even torn up from the wood as if by the impact of some hard substance, as a stone thrown with great force. He examined the ground, but there was no stone visible, and on again looking at the bark he concluded that it had not been done with a stone at all, because the abraded portion was not cut. The blow had been delivered by something without edges or projections. He had now no longer any doubt that the lesser branch outside had been broken, and the large inside branch bruised, by the passage of a Bushman’s throw-club.
These, their only missile weapons, are usually made of crab-tree, and consist of a very thin short handle, with a large, heavy, and smooth knob. With these they can bring down small game, as rabbits or hares, or a fawn (even breaking the legs of deer), or the large birds, as the wood-turkeys. Stealing up noiselessly within ten yards, the Bushman throws his club with great force, and rarely misses his aim. If not killed at once, the game is certain to be stunned, and is much more easily secured than if wounded with an arrow, for with an arrow in its wing a large bird will flutter along the ground, and perhaps creep into sedges or under impenetrable bushes.
Deprived of motion by the blow of the club, it can, on the other hand, be picked up without trouble and without the aid of a dog, and if not dead is despatched by a twist of the Bushman’s fingers or a thrust from his spud. The spud is at once his dagger, his knife and fork, his chisel, his grub-axe, and his gouge. It is a piece of iron (rarely or never of steel, for he does not know how to harden it) about ten inches long, an inch and a half wide at the top or broadest end, where it is shaped and sharpened like a chisel, only with the edge not straight but sloping, and from thence tapering to a point at the other, the pointed part being four-sided, like a nail.
It has, indeed, been supposed that the original spud was formed from a large wrought-iron nail, such as the ancients used, sharpened on a stone at one end, and beaten out flat at the other. This instrument has a handle in the middle, half-way between the chisel end and the point. The handle is of horn or bone (the spud being put through the hollow of the bone), smoothed to fit the hand. With the chisel end he cuts up his game and his food; the edge, being sloping, is drawn across the meat and divides it. With this end, too, he fashions his club and his traps, and digs up the roots he uses. The other end he runs into his meat as a fork, or thrusts it into the neck of his game to kill it and let out the blood, or with it stabs a sleeping enemy.
The stab delivered by the Bushman can always be distinguished, because the wound is invariably square, and thus a clue only too certain has often been afforded to the assassin of many an unfortunate hunter. Whatever the Bushman in this case had hurled his club at, the club had gone into the willow bush, snapping the light branch and leaving its mark upon the bark of the larger. A moment’s reflection convinced Felix that the Bushman had been in chase of a pheasant. Only a few moments previously a pheasant had flown before them down the track, and where there was one pheasant there were generally several more in the immediate neighbourhood.
The Bushmen were known to be peculiarly fond of the pheasant, pursuing them all the year round without reference to the breeding season, and so continuously, that it was believed they caused these birds to be much less numerous, notwithstanding the vast extent of the forests, than they would otherwise have been. From the fresh appearance of the snapped bough, the Bushman must have passed but a few hours previously, probably at the dawn, and was very likely concealed at that moment near at hand in the forest, perhaps within a hundred yards.
Felix looked carefully round, but could see nothing; there were the trees, not one of them large enough to hide a man behind it, the furze branches were small and scattered, and there was not sufficient fern to conceal anything. The keenest glance could discern nothing more. There were no footmarks on the ground, indeed, the dry, dead leaves and fir needles could hardly have received any impression, and up in the firs the branches were thin, and the sky could be seen through them. Whether the Bushman was lying in some slight depression of the ground, or whether he had covered himself with dead leaves and fir needles, or whether he had gone on and was miles away, there was nothing to show. But of the fact that he had been there Felix was perfectly certain.
He returned towards Oliver, thoughtful and not without some anxiety, for he did not like the idea (though there was really little or no danger) of these human wild beasts being so near Aurora, while he should so soon be far away. Thus occupied he did not heed his steps, and suddenly felt something soft under his feet, which struggled. Instantaneously he sprang as far as he could, shuddering, for he had crushed an adder, and but just escaped, by his involuntary and mechanical leap, from its venom.
In the warm sunshine the viper, in its gravid state, had not cared to move as usual on hearing his approach; he had stepped full upon it. He hastened from the spot, and rejoined Oliver in a somewhat shaken state of mind. Common as such an incident was in the woods, where sandy soil warned the hunter to be careful, it seemed ominous that particular morning, and, joined with the discovery of Bushman traces, quite destroyed his sense of the beauty of the day.
On hearing the condition of the willow boughs Oliver agreed as to the cause, and said that they must remember to warn the Baron’s shepherds that the Bushmen, who had not been seen for some time, were about. Soon afterwards they emerged from the sombre firs and crossed a wide and sloping ground, almost bare of trees, where a forest fire last year had swept away the underwood. A verdant growth of grass was now springing up. Here they could canter side by side. The sunshine poured down, and birds were singing joyously. But they soon passed it, and checked their speed on entering the trees again.
Tall beeches, with round smooth trunks, stood thick and close upon the dry and rising ground; their boughs met overhead, forming a green continuous arch for miles. The space between was filled with brake fern, now fast growing up, and the track itself was green with moss. As they came into this beautiful place a red stag, startled from his browsing, bounded down the track, his swift leaps carried him away like the wind; in another moment he left the path and sprang among the fern, and was seen only in glimpses as he passed between the beeches. Squirrels ran up the trunks as they approached; they could see many on the ground in among the trees, and passed under others on the branches high above them. Woodpeckers flashed across the avenue.
Once Oliver pointed out the long, lean flank of a grey pig, or fern-hog, as the animal rushed away among the brake. There were several glades, from one of which they startled a few deer, whose tails only were seen as they bounded into the underwood, but after the glades came the beeches again. Beeches always form the most beautiful forest, beeches and oak; and though nearing the end of their journey, they regretted when they emerged from these trees and saw the castle before them.
The ground suddenly sloped down into a valley, beyond which rose the Downs; the castle stood on a green isolated low hill, about half-way across the vale. To the left a river wound past; to the right the beech forest extended as far as the eye could see. The slope at their feet had been cleared of all but a few hawthorn bushes. It was not enclosed, but a neatherd was there with his cattle half a mile away, sitting himself at the foot of a beech, while the cattle grazed below him.
Down in the valley the stockade began; it was not wide but long. The enclosure extended on the left to the bank of the river, and two fields on the other side of it. On the right it reached a mile and a half or nearly, the whole of which was overlooked from the spot where they had passed. Within the enclosures the corn crops were green and flourishing; horses and cattle, ricks and various buildings, were scattered about it. The town or cottages of the serfs were on the bank of the river immediately beyond the castle. On the Downs, which rose a mile or more on the other side of the castle, sheep were feeding; part of the ridge was wooded and part open. Thus the cultivated and enclosed valley was everywhere shut in with woods and hills.
The isolated round hill on which the castle stood was itself enclosed with a second stockade; the edge of the brow above that again was defended by a stout high wall of flints and mortar, crenellated at the top. There were no towers or bastions. An old and ivy-grown building stood inside the wall; it dated from the time of the ancients; it had several gables, and was roofed with tiles. This was the dwelling-house. The gardens were situated on the slope between the wall and the inner stockade. Peaceful as the scene appeared, it had been the site of furious fighting not many years ago. The Downs trended to the south, where the Romany and the Zingari resided, and a keen watch was kept both from the wall and from the hills beyond.
They now rode slowly down the slope, and in a few minutes reached the barrier or gateway in the outer stockade. They had been observed, and the guard called by the warden, but as they approached were recognised, and the gate swang open before them. Walking their horses they crossed to the hill, and were as easily admitted to the second enclosure. At the gate of the wall they dismounted, and waited while the warden carried the intelligence of their arrival to the family. A moment later, and the Baron’s son advanced from the porch, and from the open window the Baroness and Aurora beckoned to them.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK