THE NAME OF THE DOSE by Sergio “ente per ente” Palumbo. Edited by Michele Dutcher
The path was narrow and the air became more suffocating by the minute, but the Ground Breaker kept going on, he knew he had to. His various reaction times were extraordinarily fast and self-confident, all his neurological processes were focused far ahead on the object of his present research. The animal had been very capable so far and had briskly traversed the complicated galleries and all the underground paths leading to the colonies in under two hours. He had never even broken his stride during the descent, always selecting the correct route while consistently avoiding blind, dead-end or inappropriate alleys. Seemingly, he was in such a goddamn hurry to complete his duty that no obstacles were capable of momentarily confusing him.
The animal possessed two wide attentive pupils (around 3.9 inches long overall); a slender body with a scaled tail; pointed snouts with prominent feelers; and eight elongated legs and feet allowing him to move with a clever motion. The Ground Breaker’s excellent sense of hearing and smell allowed him to easily master this territory that reflected his usual habitats in the wastelands of Desert World 5972. Other than that, his peculiar build made him capable of surviving there for a very long time with a minimal daily water supply.
After another turn, the animal stopped at once, wary and throbbing with impatience at the same time. He knew he didn’t want to ruin everything he had done so far to get down there, but there was no time for pausing anyway.
A small cavern opened wide before his eyes, a natural underground space large enough for a pack of Ground Breakers to enter. Such an unusual place had been formed by various geologic processes, involving a combination of erosion from water, atmospheric influences and so on. To be precise, that was a so-called solutional cavern, frequently occurring in rocks which were soluble, such as limestone, that were dissolved by natural acid in groundwater seeping through faults. Over geological times cracks expanded to become a system. But the Ground Breaker didn’t care about that sort of thing, he simply had to pay attention to being discovered and to watch attentively in everything he had to. After a while, he chose the right way and continued his course along some deep wackestone layers, a very common sedimentary rock down there, mixed with some epidosite formations. The final run was completed with ease.
Now a row of earthen structures stood ahead of him, too big to be inhabited only by a single pack. Actually, they looked like a sort of twin colonies, the ones which usually arose when two groups of close relatives decided to build their burrows tied to each other for better surveillance of the territory and collaboration for surviving somehow.
Inside these structures, most likely, lived more than two hundred Ground Breakers like him. So, he knew he had to pay attention, indeed, as there might be some sentry guards around, in charge of the security of the dwellers.
His eyes gazed silently again at the coarse constructions representing the dark brown burrows the colonies were used to finding shelter in. He knew he had completed his duty, there was nothing else left to do. As for himself, the animal mapped out in his mind the course to go back and reach the surface again. Then he left in a hurry.
After a very long distance, the Ground Breaker came into the light again, squeezing out of a narrow passage in the ground, and stood tall looking forward. The animal’s wriggling, wide eyes stared at the giant bipedal creature towering over his body, as if waiting for something…
Esteban noticed the animal coming out of the hole so he hurried up to it. He had been thoroughly following his trip through the underground burrows, thanks to a sensor that showed a small picture, displaying the Ground Breaker’s course. There was a metallic protuberance around the small creature’s neck - it was a video camera that was capable of high-resolution footage, usually lasting longer than 24 hours, even though the alien animal wasn’t aware of it, of course.
The underground caverns of Isolation Expanse went deep into the surface of Desert World 5972, a planet almost completely fallen into desertification. This planet was much smaller in size than Mercury – a planet orbiting Earth’s Sun – more than 500 light years away.
There were some fossilized remains down there, the bony leftovers of the alien race once living on the surface, but all of its members had gone long ago. Now only the Ground Breakers existed on this world, not related to them in any way, even though some evidences would testify that in the ancient times they were the usual house pets of the individuals who ruled the planet, before their unexpected disappearance.
Their civilization had never advanced beyond what was known as Prehistoric Times on Earth, as all the representatives of that people became extinct when the Bronze Age was still in full growth in Western Europe and the Middle East, so no human had ever been able to see or meet one of them in person.
Probably many xenobiologists and archaeologists would have found such remains of great value, but there was something more valuable and interesting than those down there which was: furs!
The Fur Hunters had come here by chance, after a tip-off: an interplanetary call received from an employee working for a mining facility on the main rock in space nearby. Simply named Asteroid One, the natural satellite was actually half as large as Earth’s Moon, in the belt of debris spinning to the extremities of this small system. His four-man unit had been assigned a survey-orbiting mission, but dissimulated a sort of malfunction in order to get to the surface down there (just to have a look, you never know…) and had discovered the furry indigenous animals living on Desert World 5972, mainly in the underground.
They had noticed some remains of the ancient alien species once living there, too, but those finds proved to be too poor and fossilized to be of any use, even for sale. Actually, under common circumstances their team would have reported at once what they had found, on the other hand they weren’t even supposed to be there, as their company hadn’t planned any research on the surface and they hadn’t been given permission.
The employee’s team had taken the opportunity to go there only because they had been asked to have a look around the planet’s moons in search of mineral data, nothing else, but they chose to try a descent in order to discover something valuable for themselves. The brief survey had proved unsuccessful, but something good had came of it: the Ground Breakers.
As soon as the employee saw the first of them, he admired its fur and understood at once how valuable such a creature could result for someone he knew well. So the message had been sent the same day to the right person on the other side of the space sector and then the Fur Hunters had arrived soon thereafter.
Actually, primitive planets, the same as natural alien settings inhabited by animals, were protected by interplanetary laws. But the company occupying Asteroid One was too much involved with mining and getting the most out of their investments in such a far outpost in space, so they didn’t care nor pay too much attention to what was happening on that desert world in the same system. So the Fur Hunters’ spaceboats were certain nobody would intercept them or stop their course, nor would anyone interfere in their business on the surface.
The Ground Breakers lived in some very crowded conglomerations, a sort of burrows buried deep inside the surface, so they wouldn’t be easy to get without difficulties. Other than that, the Fur Hunters were not miners and didn’t have the machines necessary to destroy wide portions of the territory in order to have the underground put in plain sight. Even Robotrippers - the sort of machines used to explore and scout the caverns beneath the ground - didn’t work well, as they were flexible and small but were unable to go too deep and resist the assaults made by the packs of small creatures which stayed on guard at the border of their burrows just to defend the species’ colonies. The Ground Breakers possessed some strong teeth and talons that easily got the better of any robotripper’s armor within a small period of time.
First of all, the Fur Hunters needed to locate exactly where the biggest burrows were and then act accordingly, of course. That was the problem.
One among his men (a party of unscrupulous, uncouth adventurers-spacemen) had also suggested to him that they could deviate an asteroids’ course and let it hit the surface, in order to have those caverns finally exposed. That would have made it much easier to get at the caverns.
True. But even though the mining company facility didn’t care about what happened on that unimportant planet, their instruments would have noticed it from afar, as asteroids didn’t change their course in space by chance, and that wouldn’t be good for his party’s business.
Other than that, they needed the furs intact, not destroyed or burned because of the asteroids’ fiery path.
Also, they weren’t allowed to put expensive and huge devices on site, searching the underground, nor were they able to place a modern satellite orbiting the world for the same purpose. Their need for secrecy curtailed all that sort of showy expedience, without a doubt.
“So what?” Esteban had been thinking to himself for a long time, tensely smoothing his hairy arms.
As a single creature, any Ground Breaker looked small and weak, but all of them together could prove a very worthy opponent even for a strong man in armor. On the other hand, a single animal’s fur was negligible, but a great deal of them could be considered a fortune on earth, capable of turning you into a very rich man quickly. The Ground Breakers’ natural coats were most commonly some shade of brown in color, although many had beautiful markings that were black, grey, or white. Their composition seemed to be perfect to keep them cool during the warm days and comfortable over the course of the icy long nights. Their fur was so peculiar, sparkling, glossy and fashionable that any wealthy human (or alien) female would have likely paid a fortune to buy a coat made from them, on a multitude of planets.
So, their only way to reach the exact burrows of their prey was by playing it clever of course. And the fur hunters had proved very good at that so far.
Actually, the Ground Breakers hadn’t a name for themselves, only the one they had been given from the Earthmen who came here to grab their own kind just for money. Scientifically, they looked like a sort of murids, likely evolved from some smaller jirds – like animals, not so different from the ones still living in Asia in the last centuries, apart from the number of legs and the larger size anyway.
Esteban had started playing with one of those creatures just by chance, one evening, while testing the spaceboat engines, then the dark-haired pilot and leader of the party got the idea that really changed everything and gave a start to all that.
The Fur Hunters needed to know where the most valuable burrows were hidden, the more promising areas where their dwellings were inside those tunnels underground. They lived under the surface, but they weren’t able to go too deep because the temperatures down there were too hot. Even though they were capable of living in such places, no human being would ever be allowed to, anyway.
As the robotrippers were of no use there and as they couldn’t try anything too sensational, there was only one other opportunity that came to Esteban’s mind in the end: the Ground Breakers themselves.
One indigenous animal only was able to explore those tunnels, find the right way and let the men of the spaceboats figure out all the details they were looking for. A specially well trained Ground Breaker, appropriately stimulated and tempted, could easily do all that on behalf of them, for sure! The small creature would quickly make the important data available and report everything back to them – in exchange for the right amount, the correct dose, so to say. So Esteban opened his bag at his belt and took a little blister out of it.
“Good little boy!” the man said, in a dialect that clearly revealed his Mesoamerican origin and accent, slowly handing it to him. “You’ve really been a very good little boy today!”
Down, at the giant creature’s feet, the alien animal was waiting silently. As soon as he opened it, the smell went out and reached the Ground Breaker’s senses.
If he had been a bit more intelligent, if only he were smarter, the animal would have soon understood that selling your next of kin, the betrayal of your home dwelling or even someone else’s burrows from his own species, revealing the secret passageways to the hidden tunnels of such communities was evil. He surely would never have been forgiven by his own kind, surely, if only they had known.
But this was an aroma too strong, a reward too tasty, something no one from his own species on that world had ever been able to create or even thought of. His sense of smell was overwhelmed, immediately winning over this small creature who was subject to the same - as if nothing else existed on his planet.
The bar was bigger than usual, but the Ground Breaker was sure he deserved at least a double portion this time, two colonies had been found at the same time thanks to him! And he received his dose, in the end…
Its taste was wonderful, nothing any animals on this planet had never savored over the course of their past life, before that first meeting with those strange creatures, could be compared to it…their senses would have been overrun, at the smell, and they would have become obsessed as well.
The alien creature turned the snack bar over in his furry hands, he wasn’t able to read what was written on that as it was human language, of course he didn’t know that. But he remembered the name, he had been listening to the words of the Earthlings pronouncing that at times, and he was able to easily remember the name.
The name of the dose was: Chocolate…
NOAH’S ARRANGEMENT by John L Campbell
The boy awoke groggy and squinting into the darkness, not certain why. Moonlight crept through an opening in the curtains, revealing a small desk with a few battered textbooks, a torn Green Day poster pinned to the wall above it. Red light from a bedside digital clock cast the room in a dull glow. It was 3:07.
“Ahem.” The sound came again from the end of his bed.
The boy sat up and peered at the thing perched on the footboard like a chubby white parrot, little toes gripping the wood. It looked like a plump little person, hairless and sexless, its skin a smooth alabaster, except in a few places where coin-sized gray moles grew. No more than eighteen inches tall, it squatted and fidgeted, small fingers laced together. Its head featured a pair of curling white ram horns tucked beside its small pointed ears.
“Noah Benefield?” it asked, its voice high and nervous. A short, hairless tail curled around its body in a jerky motion, and the creature caught it and played with the tip distractedly.
Noah pressed back against the headboard, about to cry out for his mom before he realized the evening’s Jack Daniels would have her in a coma until morning.
“Devil,” he whispered.
The creature’s dark eyes widened with pleasure. “Imp, actually, but thanks.”
Noah glanced at his nightstand, looking for something to throw at it. Nothing useful. He could give it a good kick, but his feet were trapped under the covers. Suddenly he was afraid the thing could read his mind, and he tensed, waiting for it to attack.
The imp just blinked at him, and played with his tail.
“You are Noah Benefield?”
“Good, right house, check. I’m Dante.”
The boy only stared.
“Um…” the imp’s forehead creased as he thought. “…uh, give me a moment, it’s my first assignment.”
“Sure,” said Noah, easing out of his bed, keeping his eyes on his nocturnal visitor. He stepped towards the corner, where a hockey stick wrapped in black tape was leaning.
“I’m here in response to your request,” said the imp, still perched on the footboard.
Noah stopped, his fingertips touching the hockey stick. “What request?”
The imp closed its eyes and pressed a little palm to its forehead. Then, in a perfect imitation of Noah’s voice, said, “I wish I could make stuff happen.” It smiled with little pearly teeth, eyes still closed. “That was on June tenth, three-oh-one in the aftern…”
Noah swung the hockey stick like an MLB All-Star, cracking the imp in the side of the head and blowing it off the footboard. He bolted for the bedroom door. “Mom!” He ran the short distance down the dark hallway, gripping the stick, and burst into his mother’s room. “Mom!” he screamed. He heard heavy snoring, and the lump under the covers didn’t move. “Mom!”
“She can’t see or hear us,” said Dante, perched on the headboard above her.
“Why?” demanded Noah. “What did you do to her?”
“Nothing,” said the imp. “I can’t be held responsible for the distilling process of Tennessee whiskey.” He rubbed the side of his face. “I think you knocked out a tooth.”
“I’ll do it again! What do you want?”
The imp held up his small hands in surrender. “Wait, this started badly. I’m here for you, because you wanted it.”
“I don’t want anything, except for you to leave. Get the hell out of here.”
The imp sighed and vanished, and a moment later Noah heard a rattling noise from the kitchen. He looked at his comatose mother, then left and pulled the door shut.
Noah found the imp squatting on the kitchen counter and folding ice cubes into a dishtowel, the freezer door standing open. He shut it and watched the pale creature press the ice pack to the side of his head with a soft moan. Noah still held the hockey stick.
“Look,” said Dante, “this is pretty simple. I’m here to help you do things, the things you’ve always wanted, dreamed about, fulfill your desires.”
“Not exactly, I’m not a genie. It’s a quid pro quo situation.”
The imp adjusted the dishtowel, wincing. “You tell me the stuff you want to do, and I help you do it. For each thing I help you with, you give me something.”
“What kind of small things?”
“Depends on the situation.” The imp shrugged. “Might not even be a thing, might be a small service. The point is, I help you, and you make little payments.”
“Like my soul, right?”
Dante’s eyes widened. “The big enchilada,” he whispered, then shook his head vigorously. “Way out of my league. I told you, I’m a beginner. These are more like…venal corruptions, and probably nothing the average thirteen-year-old wouldn’t do all on his own.”
Noah leaned against the doorway. “Give me an example.”
Dante sat down at the edge of the counter, letting his little legs swing, heels bumping against a cupboard door. “Okay…how about Brooke Simmons?”
Noah stared. Brooke Simmons was a ninth-grader who looked like a college girl and probably dated rock stars. She had starred in more than a few of Noah’s locked bathroom door fantasies. “What about her?”
“Hypothetically…suppose you want to see her naked? I can make that happen, for a price. Maybe I decide that means you start a rumor that you saw Jimmy Dunworthy using his cell phone to take pictures of other guys in the locker room.”
Noah made a face. “That’s nasty.” Then he thought about it. “That’s all?”
Dante shrugged. “Just an example, but yeah, like that.”
Noah stared at the creature with its tail and ram’s horns, pressing an icepack to its face. Dante sure didn’t look like the embodiment of evil. “You’re from Hell?”
“But you’re not the Devil.?”
“And you’re not after my soul?”
“Venal corruptions, remember?”
“And I can say no? Can tell you to get lost and you’ll leave?”
“Yep. Free will, and all that.”
Noah thought. “My life is fine. I don’t need you.”
The imp raised a hairless eyebrow, lowering the ice pack. “Really? You live in Section-Eight housing, and this place is a dump. You know it has rats, right? You don’t even know who your dad is, you have to wear Salvation Army clothes. Picked on at school, teachers don’t like you, girls won’t talk to you. Your mom can’t keep a job, drinks away what little money you have until there’s nothing left for you.”
“Don’t talk about my mom.”
“Hey, you don’t need me to tell you these things.”
Noah stepped towards the creature, raising the hockey stick. “You’re from Hell, right? That means you tell lies.”
“Was any of that a lie?” Dante eyed the stick. “Besides, why would I come here to lie to you? You’re not important enough to rate anything more than an imp.”
Noah poked him in the chest with the stick. “Okay, you’re so great, I want to be in my thirties, rich and cool, and look just like Ryan Reynolds.”
“Can’t do it.”
“Ha! See? Why not?”
“Because that’s Ryan Reynolds, and there already is one. I told you we have to start small.”
The boy tapped the stick on the kitchen floor, thinking, then leaned it against the fridge and folded his arms. “So how would this work?”
Dante stood on the counter and tossed the ice pack into the sink. Even in the darkness Noah could see the bruise forming on the side of the creature’s head. “First, you can’t tell anyone about me. If you do, I’ll leave, and everyone will think you’re crazy. Second, you have to keep me with you all the time, you can’t just dump me somewhere and expect me to appear with a snap of the fingers.”
“Because that’s the rules.”
“Someone will see you.”
“Then you’ll have to be clever, won’t you?”
Noah frowned. The imp would probably fit in his backpack.
“Third,” said Dante, adding a pudgy finger to the two already raised, “there’s no credit. You make payment in advance, or no deal.”
“Just the legal stuff.”
The imp looked bored. “Standard restrictions, proxy clause, obligatory thirty day trial period…”
“Wait a minute, what thirty days? You said I could tell you to get lost whenever I wanted.”
“Well of course there have to be some boundaries.” He continued. “The forfeit clause, wherein should the debtor fail to live up to the agreed-upon terms said debt passes to the jurisdiction of a lower authority who may impose such penalties as he or she sees fit.”
“What does all that mean?”
“Nothing. Just don’t break our arrangement.”
“This sounds like a total scam,” said Noah. “No deal.”
The imp’s eyes turned sad. “You’re not even going to give me a chance? At least try it out?”
Noah considered the sad-eyed creature. Brooke liked older guys, didn’t she? “Okay, I want a mustache. A good one.”
The imp nodded. “Throw your grandmother’s mass card in the garbage.”
The immediate response startled the boy, and he shook his head out of reflex.
Dante rolled his eyes. “Who cares? You didn’t even like her. You wanted to play video games at your friend’s house instead of go to the funeral, but you mom made you, remember? Do you even know where the card is?”
Noah blinked. He didn’t know.
“I thought so. It’s in the inside left jacket pocket of the gray suit that doesn’t fit you anymore. It’s been there since the funeral.”
Noah went to his closet and found the card, right where Dante said it would be. The imp instructed him to shove it to the bottom of the kitchen trash, and he did it. As he pulled his arm out, his top lip started to itch. He rubbed, feeling a full bristle of hair.
“See?” said the imp, smiling proudly.
Noah grinned, then his smile faltered. He ran to the bathroom and flicked on the lights. Dante was already there, crouched by the sink. Noah looked at the dark, bushy growth under his nose, like part of a costume for a kid in a school play about the Frito Bandito. It looked ridiculous.
“I’m thirteen,” he said. “I can’t have something like this.”
Dante looked over his shoulder into the mirror. “I like it.”
“How am I going to explain this thing?” Noah tugged hard at it, succeeding only in making his eyes water.
“Can’t help you with that, can’t interfere with free will,” said Dante, pawing through a drawer under the sink and coming up with a can of shaving cream and one of Noah’s mom’s razors. “How you handle what you ask for is up to you.” He handed over the razor. “But you’re right, it’s going to be hard to explain.”
Noah spent twenty minutes shaving it off, nipping his virgin skin several times. When he returned to his bedroom holding a wet washcloth to his face to blot the blood, Dante strolled in behind him. He climbed into bed as the imp scrambled up onto the yard sale wooden chair at the small desk, turned and looked at him with concern.
“Does it hurt?”
“A little. I never shaved before.”
The imp made a pained face. “And she uses that blade on her legs. Yikes.”
“Will it grow back?”
Noah yawned. “I have school in the morning. Where are you going to be?”
The imp hopped off the chair, crossing to the edge of the bed then wiggling underneath. “Sleeping.”
Noah lay awake for a long time, staring at the ceiling while his thoughts careened through his head like bumper cars.
Beneath him, Dante started snoring.
Noah’s school district had decreed that students who lived within one mile of East Wellington Junior High were not eligible for bus transportation. Noah and his mom lived on a block of shabby, saltbox rentals just inside the one-mile boundary, so he had to walk. His mom always slept too late to drive him, even if the ten-year-old Ford was running, which it wasn’t, but he was used to it and most days the walk wasn’t bad, unless it was raining. Today it was raining.
The nylon hood of his Tiger’s jacket was pulled up, and he did his best to avoid the bigger puddles as he trudged down the sidewalk, especially since the rubber soles of both shoes were separating. The backpack was heavy on his shoulders.
“This thing leaks,” said Dante.
“Sorry, it’s what I have.”
“We could get you something better, something waterproof and stylish, like professional mountain climbers use.”
“Yeah, what would that cost me?”
“Hock up a clam and spit it on your neighbor’s windshield.”
“Mr. Rawlings? No way, he’s nice.”
The backpack shifted. “Doesn’t use that car to drive you to school in the rain, does he?”
“So what? I’m not doing that just so you can stay dry.”
“Suit yourself.” The imp shifted again, making the straps cut into Noah’s shoulders.
“Quit moving around.”
“Can’t get comfortable.”
At the three-quarter mile point, Noah spotted Zach Dennis waiting for him at the usual intersection. Zach was his best friend, rarely caught a ride himself, and was usually here to join him for the walk to school. Zach never seemed to mind that Noah and his mom were welfare cases, and didn’t make him feel small that Zach’s family wasn’t.
“What’s up, Z?” called Noah.
Zach had a black Slipknot ball cap pulled low over his face to shield him from the rain. “Shoulda brought your ark today.”
Noah nodded, past laughing at the old joke. He had heard them all. They walked for a while, Zach chattering about how his older sister had come home past curfew last night with a hickey, and how his parents had gone berserk on her for two hours.
“It’s that guy Joey Donnelly that works at the Quik Lube, the one with the tribal tats all down his arms. My mom says he’s gonna give Meagan an STD. She only dates him to piss off my dad.” A car swept past, and they both had to leap onto a lawn to avoid the wall of dirty spray. “Man, I wish we had a ride on days like this.”
“Yeah,” Noah said noncommittally, feeling the pack move. How would he explain a car? Plus, he couldn’t drive.
“There’s other options,” said Dante.
“What?” asked Zach.
“Nothing,” Noah said, yanking hard on his shoulder straps, causing a soft grunt from inside the backpack.
Zach kept talking all the way to school, but since they had lockers in different hallways, Noah was soon by himself. He was about to shove the pack into the bottom of his locker, when the imp said, “Uh-uh, gotta keep me with you.”
Noah looked around to see if anyone had heard. “No way, in class?”
“I’ll be quiet.”
“Sure. Zach heard you before. That was stupid.”
“I won’t talk.”
“You’ll fall asleep and start snoring.”
“No, I’ll be really still and just listen. You might need me.”
With a sigh, Noah shouldered the burden and went to English, and for the duration of the forty-five minute class Dante didn’t move or make a sound, though Noah was in such a panic that he would, that he barely heard the teacher. He started to relax in algebra, keeping the pack under his desk with one foot pressed against it, feeling for movement. There was none, and he soon found his thoughts drifting from the lesson towards just what he might be able to do with Dante.
What did he want? The imp’s suggestion about seeing Brooke naked sounded great, maybe even something more than that. He felt himself stir at the possibilities. He couldn’t have a car, but he could get a really cool bike. There was lots of stuff he’d like to have, but the trouble was in explaining how he got it. His mom would think he stole it, and what could he tell her? Noah never thought he would have trouble deciding how to make wishes, and that was really what the imp was offering, wasn’t it? He felt stupid for not knowing.
During lunch, part of the answer presented itself.
“What’s up, butthead?” Noah heard the familiar voice and winced a second before the hand slapped the back of his head, hard. He and Zach were in the cafeteria, and Noah was eating a cheese sandwich he had made for himself. Mom couldn’t afford school lunch. He liked his own sandwiches better, anyway.
Tanner Peck moved right into Noah’s space, towering over him. He was a big, solid kid with a flat haircut and bad skin, skin Noah sensed would go full pizza by the time he reached high school. Normally a pack of his cronies ran with him, but they weren’t around at the moment. It didn’t matter. Tanner could do intimidation all by himself.
“How’s that welfare lunch?” He flicked at Noah’s sandwich, leaving an imprint of his finger in the soft bread. There’d be no eating it now, Noah thought. Tanner picked his nose.
Zach sat across the table, watching without comment. Noah didn’t blame him. No reason to draw Tanner’s fire if he didn’t have to.
“Hey, Tanner,” Noah said, looking up at the broad ninth-grader.
“Hey Tanner,” the bigger boy mocked in falsetto. “You sound like a homo, Benefield.” He looked at Zach. “He your little homo buddy?”
Neither responded. Answering just encouraged him, and the best thing to do was just ride it out until he got bored and went away. Unfortunately, the lack of a reaction compelled him to dial it up as well.
“What is it, pussy? You afraid to say anything? Scared I’ll shove that welfare cheese up your homo ass?” Then he leaned in close, his breath reeking of bad dental hygiene and cigarette. “I bet you like it in the ass, just like your welfare mom. My dad says she does it for money down at the Aces Tavern on Fridays.”
Zach saw his friend’s face bloom and he mouthed the word “no” as Noah came out of his chair, baring his teeth. Tanner Peck shoved him back down roughly and held him there with one hand, balling his other into a fist and holding it in front of Noah’s face. “Try it, homo,” he said, his voice low, dangerous. “I’ll bust your head open.”
Noah sat there red-faced, pinned by the boy’s weight and leverage. Tanner sneered at him in contempt, then slapped the cheese sandwich out of his hand and onto the tile floor. “Faggot,” he said, giving a final hard push before strolling away to find someone else to pick on. Noah watched him go, his body trembling with rage, then without a word to Zach he slung his backpack onto his shoulder and ran from the cafeteria.
Minutes later he was outside behind the cafeteria, concealed behind a cluster of dark green dumpsters, the air stinking of spoiled food and souring milk cartons. It had stopped raining. He set his backpack on the ground and yanked it open.
“I want you to get him!” he blurted, crying and wiping his nose on his jacket sleeve.
The imp poked his oversized, horned head out of the pack. “You need to be more specific.”
“Get him. I don’t know, do something to him.”
He wiped furiously at his eyes. “Make him feel like a piece of shit for a change. In front of lots of people.” Noah was clenching his fists. “Make him shit all over himself.”
The imp stroked the tip of a horn. “Can do.”
“Good. Let’s go do it right now.”
“Payment first. I want a kitten.”
Noah forgot his anger for a moment. “What for?”
“That’s my business. Give me a kitten – a live kitten – and it’s done.”
“Where am I going to get a kitten?”
“Pet shop?” offered the imp.
“So make Tanner shit himself, and I’ll get you one over the weekend.” The thought of what Dante would do with a live animal was quickly replaced by the sweet image of Tanner Peck’s public humiliation.
“No. Kitten first. Then Monday, Pow! Right in front of everybody.”
Noah nodded. “Okay. Tomorrow’s Saturday, I’ll get it then.”
The imp grinned. “You’re getting the hang of this. I’ll bet if you really think about it, there’s lots of cool things I can do for you.”
Noah started smiling. No doubt about it.
That night in his room, he sat at his desk with a green spiral notebook and started a what-if list with two columns. Dante perched on the back of his chair, looking over the boy’s shoulder and resting a hand lightly on the back of his neck to steady himself. Noah didn’t mind. It was sort of comforting.
The left column was made up of things Noah was thinking of asking for, and the right column was Dante’s quoted price for each. He hadn’t actually asked for anything yet, and he was trying to be smart about weighing the cost.
New mountain bike? Put a nail under Mr. Rawling’s tire. Xbox with all the extras and a hundred games? Use a pay phone to call in a phony bomb threat to the school. A sixty-inch flat screen to hook it up to? Pull a fire alarm lever the day before the bomb threat. Make the school basketball team (along with the skills to actually play well?) Tell the principal that Mrs. Carlington the drama teacher has been drinking in the prop room. Make Brooke Simmons his girlfriend? Set fire to one of those abandoned houses on Webster Avenue.
Noah voiced his concerns that a lot of it would be hard to explain. Dante quickly pointed out that for a small additional fee, he could also provide lies no one would question to cover it all up.
“I’m not so sure about the fire alarm…”
“Not a real fire.”
“…or the bomb threat…”
“Not a real bomb.”
“Or burning down houses.”
“Hey,” the imp said, “those houses are falling apart and are going to be torn down anyway. You might as well get something out of it. And it’s good practice for the fire department in case a real house catches fire.”
Dante had a way of explaining things that the boy found difficult to refute.
Before he headed to bed, Noah closed the notebook and slid it under his pillow. He was starting to feel like he just might truly be able to get everything he ever wanted.
But Tanner Peck first.
Before long, both Noah and the imp were snoring.
The Pet Zone was a small shop in the Summer Road strip mall, wedged between a Dominos Pizza and a Dollar Shack. It was walking distance from his house, and at eleven-thirty the next morning, Noah pushed through the glass door, ringing the overhead bell, his backpack set firmly on his shoulders. It wasn’t one of the big, brightly lit stores like PetSmart. This was much smaller, a tight space with close, high aisles and spotty lighting, heavy with the ammonia smell of cat boxes and the funky odor of reptiles.
A kid in his twenties with a patchy black beard and equally patchy mustache – mine was better, thought Noah – leaned on a glass counter and gave him a sullen nod as he entered. Noah nodded back, then started up an aisle.
“Backpack’s gotta stay up here,” said the kid. “Store rules.”
Noah froze, his thumbs hooking protectively in the straps.
The kid made a face. “I’m not gonna take your shit, kid. Just leave it on the counter.”
Noah hesitated, then slowly took off the pack and set it gently on the glass, checking to make sure the drawstrings were tightly fastened.
“Thanks,” the clerk said, shoving the pack aside and into a glass bowl of turtles warming themselves on a rock. The bowl tottered, but didn’t go over. Noah took a long look at the pack, then headed deeper into the store.
Zach had brought him here a couple times to get pinkies for Zach’s yellow boa Rita. It was both sick and awesome watching the snake devour the infant mice. He remembered during one of those trips that there had been a playpen on the floor in the back, loaded with stained quilts and holding a dozen kittens. He headed there now, looking back to the counter, expecting the clerk to be watching him. The kid was nose down in a Rolling Stone magazine.
Noah cut across several aisles on a scouting mission, quickly determining that he was the only customer in the store. That was good, but having his backpack confiscated wasn’t. The plan had been to simply grab one out of the playpen, shove it in the pack and leave.
The kittens mewed near the back of the store, their little voices soft and plaintive. Noah circled to the playpen and saw it was directly in line with the clerk’s view. He ducked behind an end cap of doggy chew toys and looked up, seeing a big convex mirror in a ceiling corner. Again, he was in full view if the clerk raised his head. So was the playpen. Swearing, Noah scooted across the back aisle, pretending to look at fish, moving to the other side of the kitty corral. Another parabolic mirror was mounted in this corner. He moved again, up an aisle featuring bird supplies, amazed at he high levels of security in place to protect a bunch of cats.
It was late April, too warm for a jacket, and his t-shirt would never conceal an animal. He’d been counting on that backpack. Maybe he should just buy one? A day-glo sign on the playpen stated the kittens were a low, low $15.00 each. Quite a bargain. Unfortunately he had a grand total of two-thirty-five in his pocket.
He drifted to the front to see what the clerk was doing, and saw the kid was still in his magazine, head bobbing to a beat only he could hear. Noah glanced at the backpack just as a pudgy white hand emerged from the drawstring opening, groping into the turtle bowl and snatching up one of the reptiles before darting back into the pack.
Panicked, Noah looked at the clerk.
He hadn’t seen.
Retreating to the back of the store, Noah let out a shaky breath. What was he going to do? Dante said without the kitten, the deal was off. The bell over the door jingled as someone else came in, and Noah realized his time was up. Without thinking, he walked straight to the edge of the playpen and plucked out the first kitten he saw, a dove-gray fur ball with big eyes and white socks. It purred at him. In one motion he yanked out the waistband of his jeans and stuffed the animal into his crotch.
It made a muffled yowling sound.
It started squirming.
A tiny claw grazed his left testicle.
Noah moved quickly to the front, not too fast and not too slow, trying not to hobble, his heart hammering. He reached the counter and pulled his backpack off the glass, walking past a middle-aged woman taking a tone with the clerk and waving a can of fish food in his face.
“Hey, kid!” A hand clamped down hard on his shoulder, jerking him back.
But that only happened in his mind as he pushed out the door and into the parking lot. He slung the pack over a shoulder and limped quickly down the sidewalk, past all the stores and around behind the strip mall, trying to get to a quiet place before the kitten neutered him. Behind yet another dumpster, Noah freed both the animal and the imp from their places of concealment.
Dante ate the kitten.
Noah threw up.
For the rest of the weekend, Noah didn’t talk to Dante, tried not to even look at him, only shaking his head when the imp tried to hand him the “what-if” notebook. He kept busy around the house, cleaning up his mom’s empty bottles, emptying the ashtrays, taking care of dishes and garbage and laundry, making his own meals. She was either out somewhere or sleeping it off. More than a few times he wondered if she was at the Aces Tavern, and if what Tanner Peck had said might be true. He didn’t like thinking about it, but the idea had caught hold and he was having trouble shaking it.
Instead he thought about Dante and the kitten. It had been the most horrible thing he had ever seen, and he knew it was one of those things a person couldn’t un-see. He couldn’t look at the imp the same way anymore, realizing that despite its often-comical appearance, he didn’t know the creature at all. The imp had started with the head, and the terrible scene played over and over for him, in full HD. Still, it kept him from imagining what his mom might be doing while she was out.
By Monday morning, however, visions of the kitten and his mom were forgotten in the anticipation over Tanner Peck’s public shitting. He ran the distance to where Zach was waiting for him, Dante weighing down his backpack, struggling to contain his excitement. Zach picked up on it, and Noah lied, telling him he had found a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk earlier.
The front of East Wellington Junior High was its usual, crowded, Monday morning chaos, with kids streaming in on foot from every direction, buses off-loading students, and lines of cars, minivans and SUVs dropping kids off at curbside. Noah and Zach navigated through the maze of vehicles and teenagers, heading for the wide stone steps of the entrance.
“Hey, homo!” Tanner’s voice, directed at Noah.
He and Zach were halfway up the steps and froze, Noah cringing out of habit, turning to see Tanner coming off a bus on the far side of the driveway circle. Two of his cronies were with him, both laughing. Tanner’s mean little piggy eyes were fixed on Noah as he crossed the circle.
A soccer mom, having unloaded her offspring and already chatting on her Blackberry, pulled her silver Honda Crossover away from the curb and accelerated a bit harder than usual. The grill slammed into the ninth-grader’s hips, bouncing his face off the hood before his limp body was flung twenty feet across the pavement, his head hitting a yellow-painted curb with a wet smack.
At the moment of his death, Tanner Peck’s sphincter muscle relaxed involuntarily, and he shit all over himself.
Right in front of everyone.
There was no school the rest of the day. Noah sat in his bedroom, staring at nothing. He refused to speak to Dante, despite the imp’s attempts to draw him into conversation or hand him the spiral notebook, which he simply slapped away.
Dante perched on the end of the bed, picking nervously at a big gray wart on one foot, watching the boy. “You got what you wanted,” he ventured at last.
Noah said nothing.
“And he won’t be picking on you anymore.”
“It’s not my fault you weren’t specific.”
Noah glared at him. “Not your fault? You killed him!”
The imp shook his head. “The curb killed him. Mrs. Aldrich’s SUV killed him. She wasn’t paying attention, he wasn’t watching where he was going. If he hadn’t been a bully, it wouldn’t have happened in the first place. It’s really his fault when you think about it. Certainly not yours.”
Noah looked at the creature in disgust. “I wish you would go away forever.”
The imp looked wounded. “And in twenty-six days I will. Unless you want me to stay longer.” He raised a hairless eyebrow.
“I wish I’d never met you.” Noah glanced at the spiral notebook lying on the floor. Filled with stupid, childish wishes, none of it important anymore, the dreams of a kid. What had he done? And what did he have to show for it? A mustache he couldn’t keep and a dead kid.
Dante looked as if he was about to speak, but Noah pointed a finger at him. “You shut up. I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.” Then he left the bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
His mom was at the kitchen table, and he could tell at once that she’d been crying. A folded piece of paper was on the table in front of her, next to her ashtray, glass and nearly empty bottle. Upon seeing him she swiped at her eyes, further smudging the heavy mascara, and gave him a weak smile.
“Hi, honey. You okay? I mean, about what happened today?”
Noah sat across from her. “Mom, what’s wrong?”
She put her palms on the piece of paper, managed the smile a moment longer before it crumbled, fresh tears flowing. She sucked in a breath. “Oh, Noah.”
He had seen her cry before of course, many times in fact, always when she had been drinking and only once when she hadn’t, when his grandmother had died. The drinking followed soon after. She cried when she was lamenting some injustice done to her, or when life dealt her another lousy hand, or just when she was feeling sorry for herself. He had grown numb to it. This was different somehow, and he was alarmed.
“Mom, what is it?”
She looked down at the table, at the paper, unable to meet his eyes. “We’re…we’re being evicted. In three days.” She sniffed, loud and wet, gray mascara tears falling on the paper. “I’ve got nothing, Noah. No money, no job, the car is shot. I’m going to be on…the street.”
Noah’s throat tightened, and his eyes welled up.
“The social services lady,” his mom continued, still looking down, “she warned me…she said if I couldn’t keep a job, keep a home for you…” She shook her head. “She said they’d have to put you in foster care.”
Noah’s cheeks were hot with tears, his chest hitching as he stared at her.
“Baby, I’m so sorry.” Crying harder now. “It won’t be forever. I’ll get back on my feet, and…”
Noah bolted from the table, running for the sanctuary of his bedroom, throwing himself onto the bed, heaving and shuddering as the sobs came. How could she have done this to them? How many times had she promised everything would be okay? He had believed, trusted her. A foster home? New school, no friends, tougher kids kicking his ass? He had no illusions about his mother’s latest promise that it wouldn’t be for long.
Even through his own crying he could hear her wailing in the kitchen. And yet she didn’t come to his room, to sit on his bed and hold him and tell him everything would work out somehow. Didn’t come to tell him she loved him. He thrust his head under the pillow so he wouldn’t have to listen to her.
Eventually his tears subsided, leaving him feeling dazed and hollow, eyes raw, a tangible hopelessness weighing him down like a heavy blanket. Her crying had stopped too, and finally a hand came to rest gently on his back, rubbing his shoulders softly.
“Mom?” he started, sitting up, and saw instead that it was Dante sitting beside him, sadness on his face. “I’m sorry, Noah. I truly am.”
Noah wiped at his nose and muttered, “Thanks.”
The imp sighed. “If only there was something I could do…”
The boy sat up, grinding his palms into his already red eyes. “Like what?”
“Nothing.” Dante folded his hands in his lap. “You don’t want my help. You want me to leave. Just counting the days till I’m gone.”
Noah sat next to him, his hands folded in his own lap. “New bikes and video games and girlfriends can’t fix this.”
They sat quietly for a time, then Dante looked sideways at him. “Maybe,” he hesitated. “Maybe there’s something I could do. A really big something.”
“Never mind. You’d never go for it.”
“Let me decide that. Tell me.”
Dante took a deep breath, then looked at the boy. “Powerball.”
“Powerball. One-hundred-seventy-three million dollars. I give your mom the winning numbers. All your problems go away.”
Noah stared at him with wide eyes. Could it be done? It would mean their own home, a new car, no need for his mom to try to hold a job. No social services, no foster home.
“I thought you could only handle small stuff.”
The imp shrugged.
Noah’s eyes narrowed. “You lied.”
“I just didn’t tell you everything.” He hopped down and started pacing a slow circle, playing with his hairless tail. “I can only do the big stuff for a big price.” He stopped and looked right at the boy. “This one’s gonna cost a soul.”
“I knew it!”
“Not your soul!”
Noah snorted. “Really? And how does that work?”
“There’s a proxy clause in our arrangement,” the imp said. “It has to be a precious soul, someone you love, that’s what makes it so valuable. And that person doesn’t know about it until…later. They go on with their entire life like nothing ever happened.”
“How is it possible for one person to make that decision for another person? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Dante folded his arms, irritated. “I wasn’t the one who came up with the whole contract technicalities thing. The proxy clause allows it.”
Noah started shaking his head slowly, but Dante spoke quickly. “She’ll never know it. She’ll live a long and happy life, especially with all that money, and she won’t seem any different at all. One-hundred-seventy-three million, Noah! A life you both never even dreamed of.”
Noah said nothing for a moment, and then it hit him. “Mom?”
Dante nodded. “Who’d you think we were talking about?”
“That’s…” Noah’s voice was a whisper.
“…the only way,” Dante said. “It saves your family, keeps you together, answers all your prayers. It costs you nothing, and she’ll never know it.”
The boy’s eyes hardened. “No.”
Dante sighed. “Noah, considering all the things your mom’s done in her life, she’s most likely headed there anyway. You have the chance to make her life wonderful before it happens.”
The boy considered the imp’s words. He knew his mom wasn’t the best person, and admitted he had no idea what she did when he wasn’t around, when he had been younger, even before he was born. Tanner’s nasty accusation about her made him think of the Aces Tavern again. Could Dante be right? Was she going to Hell with or without his help?
“You have the chance to do something good here,” the imp said softly, resting a small hand on his knee.
She could have everything she ever wanted, Noah thought. Staying out of a foster home was suddenly far less important than giving her a good life. She wouldn’t have to cry anymore, or worry about bills and a crappy car. She wouldn’t need to drink so much.
Dante watched him closely.
Was it the right thing to do? Make this life wonderful, since he couldn’t do anything about where she was going in the next? He pictured how happy the money would make her, saw her laughing and hugging him.
And then the absolute wrongness of it hit him, and he shook his head violently. “No!” he shouted, pushing the horned creature away. “I’m not giving you her soul!”
Dante said nothing, just looked at him a moment, then vanished.
Noah lay on his bed through the night, thinking about his mother, his life, crying at times. He didn’t know where Dante was, and sleep eluded him.
The morning sun falling through his window roused him, and he realized sleep must have found him at some point. Tired, he got ready slowly, visited the bathroom, and made his way to the kitchen. He found the lights on, his mom already up, the sharp aroma of coffee in the air.
“Good morning, honey,” his mom said, looking like she had already showered, her eyes bright, not hung-over. Noah could feel her excitement as he sat down across from her.
“Powerball!” she blurted, waving a ticket and laughing. “A hundred-seventy-three million! Honey, we won!”
Noah shook his head slowly. Impossible, he had told the imp no.
She stood, animated, still waving the ticket and pacing the kitchen. “Gotta find a new house, a big house. New clothes, closets of them, we’ll go shopping in Paris!”
Noah watched his mom as she moved about the kitchen, talking to herself now, her son forgotten in the moment. But he hadn’t done it! His mom moved to the living room where she ransacked a drawer, looking for her address book so she could call everyone who had ever wronged her and tell them to go to Hell.
Dante appeared in his mom’s vacant chair across the kitchen table, and Noah darted a look towards his mother, then back at the imp. “She’s going to see you!” he whispered. “What’s going on?”
Pudgy fingers shook a Salem out of his mom’s pack and the imp lit it, drawing deeply. “Business.” He blew a perfect smoke ring at the thirteen-year-old.
“I didn’t agree to this!” Noah hissed.
Dante inspected the cheap Bic lighter. “I gave you a chance, kid.” As he smoked, his smooth, plump face creased and weathered, cheeks and eyes sinking, his curled horns yellowing. Gone was Noah’s funny and curious companion. What sat before him now was far older, a creature that knew things a person wouldn’t want to know. When it spoke, its voice was deep, creaking like a wooden ship.
“You didn’t think you were my only client, did you?” Dante flicked ash on the floor and grinned. His teeth were black. “So noble and good of you not to sacrifice your mother’s soul for a lottery ticket.” His eyes revealed only contempt. “But there’s the ticket, the price of admission paid in full.”
A foul odor had begun to drift off the creature across from him, reminding Noah of a dead raccoon he’d come across one day walking to school.
Dante took a final puff and crushed the cigarette out on the vinyl tablecloth, melting a hole in it. “Funny, your mom didn’t even hesitate to give up your soul.” A cruel smile slit his face. “Be seeing you, kid.”
Noah could only look at the empty chair, while in the other room, his mom started singing.
RUN TO THE HILLS by Gavin Chappell
4: The Devil’s Brat
The hill of Din Faraon Tande rose above the lake like an upturned bowl, an outlier of the snow-streaked peaks of Mount Eryri that loomed behind it. All around the valley marched the mountains and as he stood silent in the camp on the reed-choked shore, they reminded Vortigern of a contingent of barbarians riding to encircle him. But no. These mighty forms were to be his protection, not his doom. Still, that was what he had thought about the Saxons.
He turned to Maugantius, leader of his magicians, the only counsellors he truly trusted in his exile. It had been his wise men who had advised him to build his fort here, citing the favourable influence of the stars and the planets and the authority of the ancients, from Hermes Trismegistus to Solomon the King and Apuleius, and it had also been they who had told him how to solve the ensuing problems. He had heard similar suggestions from them before, and they had never entirely failed him. But it was only because of his desperation, his wish to flee the Saxons who even now ravaged the island he had dedicated so much of his life to protecting, that he was willing to entrust the project entirely to them.
‘And the blood of this fatherless boy will ensure that my tower remains standing?’ he asked.
Maugantius nodded, while his companions Celestinus, Nechtan, and Saewulf sneered their jealous disapproval behind him. But Vortigern ignored them; Maugantius had the magic of Rome at his fingertips, and this impressed him far more than the conjuring of the unfrocked Pelagian priest, the Pictish druid, and the Saxon wizard.
‘This is true, my lord,’ Maugantius said pompously. ‘It will be found written in the most ancient of authorities, and in the traditions of this island, that the death of a powerful one - and there is no-one more powerful than he whose veins flow with the ichor of daimons - will cause the foundations of the weakest edifice to stand firm. Your tower will not crumble.’
On the morning following the first day of building, Vortigern had gone up to see how the work was going on the peak of Din Faraon Tande, and found to his dismay that the foundations of his tower swallowed up by the earth. A second and a third attempt to rebuild the fort had the same result and Vortigern finally demanded an explanation from his magicians.
‘You could always accept my father’s sovereignty.’
The now-hateful voice of his Saxon wife came from the entrance to his tent. Vortigern swung round to glare at the lithe, blonde haired woman who stood before him, slight in figure but brimming with enigmatic power.
‘I have already explained, Renwein,’ he snapped. ‘Hengest is bound to have me removed sooner or later - he doesn’t trust me. He never has, not since my sons overthrew me and attacked his villagers in Cantium. Even though you are my wife, that means nothing to him. He’s more likely to have you slain for staying with me.’
Renwein sneered. ‘And why did I do that, I wonder?’ she murmured to herself. ‘Only because my father already sees me as a shameful witch since I poisoned your son Vortimer. The injustice of it! He would never have been able to return if it hadn’t been for me - just because I couldn’t avenge Horsa with a sword, like a man could...’
‘Be quiet!’ Vortigern demanded. He had lost all his respect for the woman, and only kept her with him because the wizard Saewulf was distant relative of hers, and would abandon him if he sent her away. ‘Listen to me! The wizards say that once this tower is built, it will be impregnable. We’ll be safe from the Saxons, safe from the Picts... I’ve had men sent out to find this fatherless boy, and if we sprinkle his blood on the stones...’ He broke off at the sound of shouting from the camp entrance.
Warriors were marching across the grass, urging a nun and a young boy before them. Vortigern’s pulse raced. Was this the boy? Had his men found him so quickly? His brows creased with habitual suspicion. Surely they couldn’t be that thick on the ground, could they? Bastards, aye - he’d had cause to sow a few himself. But he’d given his men strict orders not to bring back any old by-blow, but true daimon-seed... He folded his arms, and awaited their approach.
‘My lord!’ called the leader of the warriors, a burly man Vortigern had instinctively disliked, although he was a fellow Gwent-man. ‘We’ve found the devil’s brat!’
Vortigern’s eyes flickered to the two prisoners; the nun in her black habit, staring around her with righteous anger, and the young lad, swarthy and dark-haired, with deep black eyes. Somehow he looked familiar but Vortigern couldn’t place him.
‘How do you know him to be the boy we are looking for?’ he demanded. ‘Though I’ll admit, he has the look of the Little People. Which hollow hill did you step from, lad?’ Suddenly, he was in high spirits.
‘My lord,’ the warrior said, before the boy could draw breath to speak, ‘we rode through the hills as you commanded, asking at villages for a boy without a father. Many sluts thought we were jesting and offered up whole broods of bastards but none whose father was truly unknown. Until we came to a village near a nunnery where we paused to... to rest.’
‘To swill yourself stupid on my gold, you mean,’ growled Vortigern.
The man shrugged. ‘That too,’ he replied without shame. ‘But it was when we were sitting outside this hovel of a tavern that we heard a fight break out between two boys. One, whose name turned out to be Diniabutius, said loudly to the other, “Why must you always try yourself against me? How could we ever be equal in skill? My blood on both sides is royal while you - why, no man knows who your father is, and no woman either - not even your mother!”
‘This piqued our interest, my lord, as you’ll guess. We made inquiries and learnt that this boy’s mother had retired to the nearby nunnery after giving birth to a son, despite leading what everyone agreed was the most chaste of lives. The son - this boy here - she named Ambros...’
‘Ambros?’ demanded Vortigern, startled. He looked at the boy closely. Now he knew of whom he’d reminded him. ‘Who was your father, boy? How were you conceived?’
Sullenly, the boy stared at the floor, then looked at Vortigern squarely. ‘You’d be best to ask my mother that,’ he muttered.
At this impudence, one of the guards raised a mailed fist to strike the boy, but his mother thrust herself forward. ‘No!’ she shrieked. She turned to Vortigern. ‘If you must know my shame, my lord, then I will tell you how my son was conceived!’
‘By all means, sister,’ said Vortigern placidly. He had little respect for the Roman faith, having been a Pelagian in his youth, and believing in little more than magic these days. But it would look good to his followers if he treated her with honour. ‘Tell us. But I will dismiss my men if you wish.’
The nun shook her head. ‘There’ll be no need for that,’ she replied humbly. ‘I have no false pride.’ She lifted up her chin, and her face seemed very beautiful to Vortigern then, framed by the whiteness of her wimple.
She began her story.
‘By my soul, my lord, I have had no relations with men of this world, and hope to die a virgin...’
At this, there was a laugh from one of the guards.
‘What, are you Maria herself, to conceive Christus as a virgin?’ he heckled.
‘Silence!’ stormed Vortigern. ‘You’re dismissed. And give him fifty lashes!’ The guard was dragged away. Vortigern turned to the nun again, who seemed startled by his vehemence.
‘Continue,’ he said gently.
‘It happened one night,’ she said, her voice drawn. ‘I was asleep in my bed, my maids around me, when a great light shone down upon me, awakening me. I tried to look around, but found myself unable to move. It was as if a heavy weight was on my stomach, holding me down. The harsh white light burned into my brain, and I was unable to move. Then, in its brilliance, a figure appeared; a small, thin, unhuman figure with grey skin, oval eyes and a tiny nose and mouth. It moved towards me, and lifted up my shift. I felt a pain from my... my private members, as if a spear had been thrust into me, and then knew nothing more. Nine months later, I gave birth to the boy who you see before you, and it was then that I resolved to enter the nunnery. But I swear that I had no relations with any man beforehand.’
Maugantius stepped unsteadily forward. The other were eyeing the woman and her child with amazement; Celestinus with his usual guilty excitement. Vortigern turned to them.
‘Is this possible?’ he asked quietly. Maugantius’ mouth was flapping open. He looked at the king, then darted another glance at the boy. Then he turned to the king again.
‘My lord, in many of the books of the ancient philosophers, and in the histories too, one may find references to various men born in this way. Apuleius, in his De Deo Socratis tells us that in the void between the earth and the moon dwell those spirits learned men name incubus demons, though the common folk give them other names...’
‘In my land we name it the Night-Mare,’ rumbled Saewulf, from Vortigern’s other shoulder, and Renwein turned away from her hungry staring at the silent boy to nod. Irritated by the interruption, Maugantius tugged at his gaudy robes, and raised his voice.
‘They have partly the nature of men and partly of angels, and the lust of man causes them at times to take on mortal flesh and, ahem... have intercourse, of the kind the esteemed lady describes, with women...’
‘But tell us more of the intercourse between you and this demon,’ Celestinus broke in hoarsely. Everyone stared at him, and he retreated, flushing hotly.
Again, Maugantius sighed, and returned to his laboured discourse. ‘It is indeed possible, my lord, that the boy was conceived in such a way.’
Vortigern nodded patiently. He turned back to the nun to question her further. But before he could speak, the boy broke away from his mother and strode up to him.
‘Why this sudden interest in me?’ he demanded. ‘Why have I and my mother been brought here?’
Vortigern seemed taken aback by the lad’s temerity. ‘My... magicians have advised me to find a man conceived as you have been, to sprinkle the foundations of my tower with his blood and thus ensure that it will stand firm.’
Ambros laughed. ‘You are building a tower on Din Faraon Tande?’ he asked, grinning impudently. Vortigern nodded. ‘And your wizards have no idea what has made it impossible for anyone to build there since the time of Cassivellaunos? Perhaps if they spent less time reading the books of the Greeks and Romans and listened more to the lore of the people they would learn something to their advantage.’
‘Why, you impudent brat!’ snapped Maugantius. ‘You claim to know more than me? I have travelled as far as Persia and India, and spoken with the Magi and Gymnosophists! I have read every treatise on the Magic Arts to be found in the library at Alexandria! You dare contest yourself with me?’
‘Leave my boy alone!’ demanded the nun.
‘Mother,’ said the boy. ‘I can hold my own against this fool who wants to wet the foundations of Vortigern’s tower with my innocent blood.’ Again he turned to Maugantius. ‘Because you have no idea what obstructs the foundations of this tower, you have told the king to sprinkle my blood on the mortar. Tell me, if you please, what was buried beneath the hill, and how you hope for the shedding of my blood to change anything?’
‘Devil’s brat!’ shouted Maugantius. ‘Only the spawn of Orcus would know that!’
The boy looked at Vortigern. ‘My lord, call your workmen. Tell them to dig in the rock where you would build your tower, and there you will find a pool. In that you will discover the creatures that have rocked the foundations of your refuge.’
It was a steep climb to the top of Din Faraon Tande, and by the time Vortigern and his retinue reached the ridge, they were sweating and panting. But the boy, who walked alongside his mother saying nothing, his expression calm, seemed unaffected by the exertion, and when he reached the top, he stood on the highest crag, gazing at the view. From the crest of the ridge it was possible to see the entire valley and the mountains that surrounded it, from the western end where the Avon Glaslyn flowed into the wider valley that would lead it to the sea, to the eastern end, and the pass that few dared traverse, leading into the ill-omened valley beyond. Panting, Vortigern approached the boy. He pointed to the right.
‘Over there will you find the foundations of my tower,’ he said grimly. He led the boy over the rocks towards the edge of the eastern cliffs. He was an old man, and the climb had done him no good. But at least it had reaffirmed in his mind the tactical superiority of his tower’s position. Now if only they could get the damned thing to stay upright...
The position of the tower was at the edge of what had been a pleasant little dell leading down the side of the hill. Now cranes, pulleys, and all the other paraphernalia of construction work littered the site, and in the centre of the rocky outcrop lay the tumbled stones that remained from the third attempt at building his tower. The boy looked down at the mess with a supercilious expression.
‘Tell the men to start here,’ he said, pointing directly at the cracked remains of the foundations. Vortigern sighed, and nodded to the men with picks who had followed them up the hill.
The sun was close to setting, its rays glinting redly from the snows of Mount Eryri, by the time they broke through the rock and revealed the gaping darkness of the cavern beneath. When a large enough hole had been opened, Vortigern and the boy went over to stare down into the blackness. The king’s magicians followed uncertainly, their expressions unusually humble.
‘Is that water down there?’ Vortigern murmured.
‘Of course,’ the boy replied. ‘As I said there would be. Now, order the pool to be drained. At the bottom you will find two stones. Inside the stones will you find the creatures.’
It was dusk by the time they drained the pool, and Vortigern ordered some of his men to hold torches over the pit as he and the boy watched the process being completed. In the last few hours, Vortigern felt he had come to know someone of great power and strength; a young boy he might be, but within him there seemed to be someone else, a man grown old in the ways of the world, and not only this one but many others beyond the king’s comprehension.
A sudden cry from one of the workmen startled Vortigern from his reverie. He looked up as a glowing light burst from the darkness of the cave, followed by another. The first burned blood-red, the second a leprous white, and both shot up into the night-blue sky above the crowd with a pair of unearthly shrieks that seemed to shudder through the bodies of all there present; then resolved themselves into the shape of dragons!
The white dragon flew towards the red, and grasped it in its gleaming claws, spitting fire and venom as it attacked its foe. Before its assault, the red dragon was forced back towards the west, and for a while, it went wailing into the darkness while the white dragon circled over the hill howling hideous cries of victory. But then the entranced watchers heard the leathery flap of great wings, and the red dragon came soaring back out of the night to set upon the white dragon at the height of its pride. The white dragon fell back, seemingly mortally wounded, its glowing ichor pouring from it as it flapped back eastward, and the red dragon had the field. Soon, having come to revel in the smell of blood and the roar of battle, it began to search the skies for other foes. Catching sight of its own tail from the corner of its eye, it fell upon it with savagery, and flew in circles, biting at itself, in pain and causing itself more pain as it tried to kill the thing that had begun to torment it.
Then the white dragon came flapping silently back from the east, its wounds licked and cleaned. Seeing the red dragon in its delusion, it barked a draconian laugh and flew eagerly towards it, setting upon the scaly beast. The red dragon, still in the clutches of its own delusory enemy, found itself having to alternate between biting at the white dragon and at itself. Soon the white dragon had it almost at its mercy, and its struggles became weaker. For a space the red dragon lay unresisting in its claws, occasionally making feeble spasms but unable to win back its strength. Then the white dragon fell prey to the same delusion as its foe, and began to bite at itself, seemingly intent on ripping itself to pieces; at the height of its madness, the red dragon recovered, and broke free, catching the white dragon in its claws and straddling it.
then together they began to grow, each enmeshed in the claws of the other, waxing vaster and vaster to dominate the world around them; now the red dragon was on top, now the white, but as they flew off into the south, it seemed to Vortigern that they were slowly growing into one mighty being...
The red and the white dragons disappeared into the darkness of the south, and silence fell upon the hill of Din Faraon Tande. Stunned, Vortigern turned to the boy, who returned his glanced unperturbed.
‘What does this mean?’ the king breathed. The boy smiled.
‘It means many things,’ he said, in a voice suddenly as deep as a man’s. ‘It foretells the fortunes of this island, of our people and the Saxon, for the next thousand years or more. The Red Dragon of the Britons, and the White Dragon of the invaders, once buried here by Londinos Silverhand, the brother of Cassivellaunos, on the eve of the first Roman invasion; now unearthed by you, Vortigern, you whose schemes and plots have unleashed upon the nation of Hu Gadarn another lamentable invasion, that of the Saxons!
‘For you, the prophecy tells us of nothing but your doom. This fortress will not hold you, nor will any in the land that you betrayed, and for centuries your name will be nothing but a curse in the mouths of men, nor shall you find sanctuary amongst your people. A miserable death awaits you.
‘Now flee! Flee! For from the west comes the one whose father you slew, who you betrayed and exiled to the hills, and who now returns, hungry for your blood. Flee, Vortigern, and all your followers, for I tell of the coming of Ambrosius Aurelianus!’
At that name, a great murmur rose from the crowd. The prophet nodded. ‘Aye, Ambrosius the Exile, rightful ruler of Britannia. Flee now, and you may yet escape his wrath! Cross his path again, and you shall die in agony!’
A minute later, and the boy stood alone upon the hilltop, apart from the woman he had called his mother. The warriors and servants of Vortigern had followed their king in his desperate retreat down the cliffs towards the valley floor. The trees rustled, and a white-robed figure stepped out. He muttered a string of harsh, alien syllables, and suddenly, where the boy had been, stood a man in late middle age; Count Ambrosius himself.
Ambrosius nodded. ‘I think that put the wind up them, Meno,’ he said. ‘I apologise for doubting you. Alright, you may return to your nunnery now,’ he told the nun. ‘My men will escort you.’
‘And you will restore the churches to the Roman faith when you take the throne?’ the nun asked. Ambrosius nodded.
‘Of course.’ He turned to the druid again. ‘Now, we’ll prepare for our ride into the lowlands. With luck, no other Britons will contend us, and we’ll be able to find Hengest and put an end to his ravaging. But first, we can hunt Vortigern down and avenge my father’s death.’
‘Where will we meet Artorius?’ Meno asked.
Ambrosius shrugged. ‘I told Walwain to suggest we reunite somewhere in Gwent, Vortigern’s homeland. That’s where I expect him to retreat to next,’ he replied. ‘Assuming the Pict got through.’
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
VARNEY THE VAMPYRE by Thomas Preskett Prest
THE MYSTERIOUS MEETING IN THE RUIN AGAIN.—THE VAMPYRE’S ATTACK UPON THE CONSTABLE.
It is now necessary that we return once more to that mysterious ruin, in the intricacies of which Varney, when pursued by the mob, had succeeded in finding a refuge which defied all the exertions which were made for his discovery. Our readers must be well aware, that, connected with that ruin, are some secrets of great importance to our story; and we will now, at the solemn hour of midnight, take another glance at what is doing within its recesses.
At that solemn hour it is not probable that any one would seek that gloomy place from choice. Some lover of the picturesque certainly might visit it; but such was not the inciting cause of the pilgrimage with those who were soon to stand within its gloomy precincts.
Other motives dictated their presence in that spot—motives of rapine; peradventure of murder itself.
As the neighbouring clocks sounded the hour of twelve, and the faint strokes were borne gently on the wind to that isolated ruin, there might have been seen a tall man standing by the porch of what had once been a large doorway to some portion of the ruin.
His form was enveloped in a large cloak, which was of such ample material that he seemed well able to wrap it several times around him, and then leave a considerable portion of it floating idly in the gentle wind.
He stood as still, as calm, and as motionless as a statue, for a considerable time, before any degree of impatience began to show itself.
Then he took from his pocket a large antique watch, the white face of which just enabled him to see what the time was, and, in a voice which had in it some amount of petulance and anger, he said,—
“Not come yet, and nearly half an hour beyond the time! What can have detained him? This is, indeed, trifling with the most important moments of a man’s existence.”
Even as he spoke, he heard, from some distance off, the sound of a short, quick footstep. He bent forwards to listen, and then, in a tone of satisfaction, he said,—
“He comes—he comes!”
But he who thus waited for some confederate among these dim and old grey ruins, advanced not a step to meet him. On the contrary, such seemed the amount of cold-blooded caution which he possessed, that the nearer the man—who was evidently advancing—got to the place, the further back did he who had preceded him shrink into the shadow of the dim and crumbling walls, which had, for some years now past, seemed to bend to the passing blast, and to be on the point of yielding to the destroying hand of time.
And yet, surely he needed not have been so cautious. Who was likely, at such an hour as that, to come to the ruins, but one who sought it by appointment?
And, moreover, the manner of the advancing man should have been quite sufficient to convince him who waited, that so much caution was unnecessary; but it was a part and parcel of his nature.
About three minutes more sufficed to bring the second man to the ruin, and he, at once, and fearlessly, plunged into its recesses.
“Who comes?” said the first man, in a deep, hollow voice.
“He whom you expect,” was the reply.
“Good,” he said, and at once he now emerged from his hiding-place, and they stood together in the nearly total darkness with which the place was enshrouded; for the night was a cloudy one, and there appeared not a star in the heavens, to shed its faint light upon the scene below.
For a few moments they were both silent, for he who had last arrived had evidently made great exertions to reach the spot, and was breathing laboriously, while he who was there first appeared, from some natural taciturnity of character, to decline opening the conversation.
At length the second comer spoke, saying,—
“I have made some exertion to get here to my time, and yet I am beyond it, as you are no doubt aware.”
“Well, such would not have been the case; but yet, I stayed to bring you some news of importance.”
“It is so. This place, which we have, now for some time had as a quiet and perfectly eligible one of meeting, is about to be invaded by one of those restless, troublesome spirits, who are never happy but when they are contriving something to the annoyance of others who do not interfere with them.”
“Explain yourself more fully.”
“I will. At a tavern in the town, there has happened some strange scenes of violence, in consequence of the general excitement into which the common people have been thrown upon the dreadful subject of vampyres.”
“The consequence is, that numerous arrests have taken place, and the places of confinement for offenders against the laws are now full of those whose heated and angry imaginations have induced them to take violent steps to discover the reality or the falsehood of rumours which so much affected them, their wives, and their families, that they feared to lie down to their night’s repose.”
The other laughed a short, hollow, restless sort of laugh, which had not one particle of real mirth in it.
“Go on—go on,” he said. “What did they do?”
“Immense excesses have been committed; but what made me, first of all, stay beyond my time, was that I overheard a man declare his intentions this night, from twelve till the morning, and for some nights to come, to hold watch and ward for the vampyre.”
“Yes. He did but stay, at the earnest solicitation of his comrades, to take yet another glass, ere he came upon his expedition.”
“He must be met. The idiot! what business is it of his?”
“There are always people who will make everything their business, whether it be so or not.”
“There are. Let us retire further into the recesses of the ruin, and there consider as well what is to be done regarding more important affairs, as with this rash intruder here.”
They both walked for some twenty paces, or so, right into the ruin, and then he who had been there first, said, suddenly, to his companion,—
“I am annoyed, although the feeling reaches no further than annoyance, for I have a natural love of mischief, to think that my reputation has spread so widely, and made so much noise.”
“Your reputation as a vampyre, Sir Francis Varney, you mean?”
“Yes; but there is no occasion for you to utter my name aloud, even here where we are alone together.”
“It came out unawares.”
“Unawares! Can it be possible that you have so little command over yourself as to allow a name to come from your lips unawares?”
“I am surprised.”
“Well, it cannot be helped. What do you now propose to do?”
“Nay, you are my privy councillor. Have you no deep-laid, artful project in hand? Can you not plan and arrange something which may yet have the effect of accomplishing what at first seemed so very simple, but which has, from one unfortunate circumstance and another, become full of difficulty and pregnant with all sorts of dangers?”
“I must confess I have no plan.”
“I listen with astonishment.”
“Nay, now, you are jesting.”
“When did you ever hear of me jesting?”
“Not often, I admit. But you have a fertile genius, and I have always, myself, found it easier to be the executive than to plan an elaborate course of action for others.”
“Then you throw it all on me?”
“I throw a weight, naturally enough, upon the shoulders which I think the best adapted to sustain it.”
“Be it so, then—be it so.”
“You are, I presume, from what you say, provided with a scheme of action which shall present better hopes of success, at less risk, I hope. Look what great danger we have already passed through.”
“Yes, we have.”
“I pray you avoid that in the next campaign.”
“It is not the danger that annoys and troubles me, but it is that, notwithstanding it, the object is as far off as ever from being attained.”
“And not only so, but, as is invariably the case under such circumstances, we have made it more difficult of execution because we have put those upon their guard thoroughly who are the most likely to oppose us.”
“We have—we have.”
“And placed the probability of success afar off indeed.”
“And yet I have set my life upon the cast, and I will stand the hazard. I tell you I will accomplish this object, or I will perish in the attempt.”
“You are too enthusiastic.”
“Not at all. Nothing has been ever done, the execution of which was difficult, without enthusiasm. I will do what I intend, or Bannerworth Hall shall become a heap of ruins, where fire shall do its worst work of devastation, and I will myself find a grave in the midst.”
“Well, I quarrel with no man for chalking out the course he intends to pursue; but what do you mean to do with the prisoner below here?”
“I say kill him. Do you not understand me?”
“I do, indeed.”
“When everything else is secured, and when the whole of that which I so much court, and which I will have, is in my possession, I will take his life, or you shall. Ay, you are just the man for such a deed. A smooth-faced, specious sort of roan are you, and you like not danger. There will be none in taking the life of a man who is chained to the floor of a dungeon.”
“I know not why,” said the other, “you take a pleasure on this particular night, of all others, in saying all you can which you think will be offensive to me.”
“Now, how you wrong me. This is the reward of confidence.”
“I don’t want such confidence.”
“Why, you surely don’t want me to flatter you.”
“Psha! Hark you. That admiral is the great stumbling-block in my way. I should ere this have had undisturbed possession of Bannerworth Hall but for him. He must be got out of the way somehow.”
“A short time will tire him out of watching. He is one of those men of impulse who soon become wearied of inaction.”
“Ay, and then the Bannerworths return to the Hall.”
“It may be so.”
“I am certain of it. We have been out-generalled in this matter, although I grant we did all that men could do to give us success.”
“In what way would you get rid of this troublesome admiral?”
“I scarcely know. A letter from his nephew might, if well put together, get him to London.”
“I doubt it. I hate him mortally. He has offended me more than once most grievously.”
“I know it. He saw through you.”
“I do not give him so much credit. He is a suspicious man, and a vain and a jealous one.”
“And yet he saw through you. Now, listen to me. You are completely at fault, and have no plan of operations whatever in your mind. What I want you to do is, to disappear from the neighbourhood for a time, and so will I. As for our prisoner here below, I cannot see what else can be done with him than—than—”
“Than what? Do you hesitate?”
“Then what is it you were about to say?”
“I cannot but feel that all we have done hitherto, as regards this young prisoner of ours, has failed. He has, with a determined obstinacy, set at naught, as well you know, all threats.”
“He has refused to do one act which could in any way aid me in my objects. In fact, from the first to the last, he has been nothing but an expense and an encumbrance to us both.”
“All that is strictly true.”
“And yet, although you, as well as I, know of a marvellously ready way of getting rid of such encumbrances, I must own, that I shrink with more than a feeling of reluctance from the murder of the youth.”
“You contemplated it then?” asked the other.
“No; I cannot be said to have contemplated it. That is not the proper sort of expression to use.”
“What is then?”
“To contemplate a deed seems to me to have some close connexion to the wish to do it.”
“And you have no such wish?”
“I have no such wish, and what is more I will not do it.”
“Then that is sufficient; and the only question that remains for you to confide, is, what you will do. It is far easier in all enterprises to decide upon what we will not do, than upon what we will. For my own part I must say that I can perceive no mode of extricating ourselves from this involvement with anything like safety.”
“Then it must be done with something like danger.”
“As you please.”
“You say so, and your words bear a clear enough signification; but from your tone I can guess how much you are dissatisfied with the aspect of affairs.”
“Yes; I say, dissatisfied. Be frank, and own that which it is in vain to conceal from me. I know you too well; arch hypocrite as you are, and fully capable of easily deceiving many, you cannot deceive me.”
“I really cannot understand you.”
“Then I will take care that you shall.”
“Listen. I will not have the life of Charles Holland taken.”
“Who wishes to take it?”
“There, indeed, you wrong me. Unless you yourself thought that such an act was imperatively called for by the state of affairs, do you think that I would needlessly bring down upon my head the odium as well as the danger of such a deed? No, no. Let him live, if you are willing; he may live a thousand years for all I care.”
“‘Tis well. I am, mark me, not only willing, but I am determined that he shall live so far as we are concerned. I can respect the courage that, even when he considered that his life was at stake, enabled him to say no to a proposal which was cowardly and dishonourable, although it went far to the defeat of my own plans and has involved me in much trouble.”
“What is it?”
“I fancy I hear a footstep.”
“Indeed; that were a novelty in such a place as this.”
“And yet not more than I expected. Have you forgotten what I told you when I reached here to-night after the appointed hour?”
“Truly; I had for the moment. Do you think then that the footstep which now meets our ears, is that of the adventurer who boasted that he could keep watch for the vampyre?”
“In faith do I. What is to be done with such a meddling fool?”
“He ought certainly to be taught not to be so fond of interfering with other people’s affairs.”
“Perchance the lesson will not be wholly thrown away upon others. It may be worth while to take some trouble with this poor valiant fellow, and let him spread his news so as to stop any one else from being equally venturous and troublesome.”
“A good thought.”
“Shall it be done?”
“Yes; if you will arrange that which shall accomplish such a result.”
“Be it so. The moon rises soon.”
“Ah, already I fancy I see a brightening of the air as if the mellow radiance of the queen of night were already quietly diffusing itself throughout the realms of space. Come further within the ruins.”
They both walked further among the crumbling walls and fragments of columns with which the place abounded. As they did so they paused now and then to listen, and more than once they both heard plainly the sound of certain footsteps immediately outside the once handsome and spacious building.
Varney, the vampyre, who had been holding this conversation with no other than Marchdale, smiled as he, in a whispered voice, told the latter what to do in order to frighten away from the place the foolhardy man who thought that, by himself, he should be able to accomplish anything against the vampyre.
It was, indeed, a hair-brained expedition, for whether Sir Francis Varney was really so awful and preternatural a being as so many concurrent circumstances would seem to proclaim, or not, he was not a likely being to allow himself to be conquered by anyone individual, let his powers or his courage be what they might.
What induced this man to become so ventursome we shall now proceed to relate, as well as what kind of reception he got in the old ruins, which, since the mysterious disappearance of Sir Francis Varney within their recesses, had possessed so increased a share of interest and attracted so much popular attention and speculation.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
AFTER LONDON or, Wild England, by Richard Jefferies
CHAPTER V: BARON AQUILA
Felix’s own position was bitter in the extreme. He felt he had talent. He loved deeply, he knew that he was in turn as deeply beloved; but he was utterly powerless. On the confines of the estate, indeed, the men would run gladly to do his bidding. Beyond, and on his own account, he was helpless. Manual labour (to plough, to sow, to work on shipboard) could produce nothing in a time when almost all work was done by bondsmen or family retainers. The life of a hunter in the woods was free, but produced nothing.
The furs he sold simply maintained him; it was barter for existence, not profit. The shepherds on the hills roamed in comparative freedom, but they had no wealth except of sheep. He could not start as a merchant without money; he could not enclose an estate and build a house or castle fit for the nuptials of a noble’s daughter without money, or that personal influence which answers the same purpose; he could not even hope to succeed to the hereditary estate, so deeply was it encumbered; they might, indeed, at any time be turned forth.
Slowly the iron entered into his soul. This hopelessness, helplessness, embittered every moment. His love increasing with the passage of time rendered his position hateful in the extreme. The feeling within that he had talent which only required opportunity stung him like a scorpion. The days went by, and everything remained the same. Continual brooding and bitterness of spirit went near to drive him mad.
At last the resolution was taken, he would go forth into the world. That involved separation from Aurora, long separation, and without communication, since letters could be sent only by special messenger, and how should he pay a messenger? It was this terrible thought of separation which had so long kept him inactive. In the end the bitterness of hopelessness forced him to face it. He began the canoe, but kept his purpose secret, especially from her, lest tears should melt his resolution.
There were but two ways of travelling open to him: on foot, as the hunters did, or by the merchant vessels. The latter, of course, required payment, and their ways were notoriously coarse. If on foot he could not cross the Lake, nor visit the countries on either shore, nor the islands; therefore he cut down the poplar and commenced the canoe. Whither he should go, and what he should do, was entirely at the mercy of circumstances. He had no plan, no route.
He had a dim idea of offering his services to some distant king or prince, of unfolding to him the inventions he had made. He tried to conceal from himself that he would probably be repulsed and laughed at. Without money, without a retinue, how could he expect to be received or listened to? Still, he must go; he could not help himself, go he must.
As he chopped and chipped through the long weeks of early spring, while the easterly winds bent the trees above him, till the buds unfolded and the leaves expanded—while his hands were thus employed, the whole map, as it were, of the known countries seemed to pass without volition before his mind. He saw the cities along the shores of the great Lake; he saw their internal condition, the weakness of the social fabric, the misery of the bondsmen. The uncertain action of the League, the only thread which bound the world together; the threatening aspect of the Cymry and the Irish; the dread north, the vast northern forests, from which at any time invading hosts might descend on the fertile south—it all went before his eyes.
What was there behind the immense and untraversed belt of forest which extended to the south, to the east, and west? Where did the great Lake end? Were the stories of the gold and silver mines of Devon and Cornwall true? And where were the iron mines, from which the ancients drew their stores of metal?
Led by these thoughts he twice or thrice left his labour, and walking some twenty miles through the forests, and over the hills, reached the summit of White Horse. From thence, resting on the sward, he watched the vessels making slow progress by oars, and some drawn with ropes by gangs of men or horses on the shore, through the narrow straits. North and South there nearly met. There was but a furlong of water between them. If ever the North came down there the armies would cross. There was the key of the world. Excepting the few cottages where the owners of the horses lived, there was neither castle nor town within twenty miles.
Forced on by these thoughts, he broke the long silence which had existed between him and his father. He spoke of the value and importance of this spot; could not the Baron send forth his retainers and enclose a new estate there? There was nothing to prevent him. The forest was free to all, provided that they rendered due service to the Prince. Might not a house or castle built there become the beginning of a city? The Baron listened, and then said he must go and see that a new hatch was put in the brook to irrigate the water-meadow. That was all.
Felix next wrote an anonymous letter to the Prince pointing out the value of the place. The Prince should seize it, and add to his power. He knew that the letter was delivered, but there was no sign. It had indeed, been read and laughed at. Why make further efforts when they already had what they desired? One only, the deep and designing Valentine, gave it serious thought in secret. It seemed to him that something might come of it, another day, when he was himself in power—if that should happen. But he, too, forgot it in a week. Some secret effort was made to discover the writer, for the council were very jealous of political opinion, but it soon ended. The idea, not being supported by money or influence, fell into oblivion.
Felix worked on, chipping out the canoe. The days passed, and the boat was nearly finished. In a day or two now it would be launched, and soon afterwards he should commence his voyage. He should see Aurora once more only. He should see her, but he should not say farewell; she would not know that he was going till he had actually departed. As he thought thus a dimness came before his eyes; his hand trembled, and he could not work. He put down the chisel, and paused to steady himself.
Upon the other side of the stream, somewhat lower down, a yellow wood-dog had been lapping the water to quench its thirst, watching the man the while. So long as Felix was intent upon his work, the wild animal had no fear; the moment he looked up, the creature sprang back into the underwood. A dove was cooing in the forest not far distant, but as he was about to resume work the cooing ceased. Then a wood-pigeon rose from the ashes with a loud clapping of wings. Felix listened. His hunter instinct told him that something was moving there. A rustling of the bushes followed, and he took his spear which had been leant against the adjacent tree. But, peering into the wood, in a moment he recognised Oliver, who, having walked off his rage, was returning.
“I though it might have been a Bushman,” said Felix, replacing his spear; “only they are noiseless.”
“Any of them might have cut me down,” said Oliver; “for I forgot my weapon. It is nearly noon; are you coming home to dinner?”
“Yes; I must bring my tools.”
He put them in the basket, and together they returned to the rope ladder. As they passed the Pen by the river they caught sight of the Baron in the adjacent gardens, which were irrigated by his contrivances from the stream, and went towards him. A retainer held two horses, one gaily caparisoned, outside the garden; his master was talking with Sir Constans.
“It is Lord John,” said Oliver. They approached slowly under the fruit-trees, not to intrude. Sir Constans was showing the courtier an early cherry-tree, whose fruit was already set. The dry hot weather had caused it to set even earlier than usual. A suit of black velvet, an extremely expensive and almost unprocurable material, brought the courtier’s pale features into relief. It was only by the very oldest families that any velvet or satin or similar materials were still preserved; if these were in pecuniary difficulties they might sell some part of their store, but such things were not to be got for money in the ordinary way.
Two small silver bars across his left shoulder showed that he was a lord-in-waiting. He was a handsome man, with clear-cut features, somewhat rakish from late hours and dissipation, but not the less interesting on that account. But his natural advantages were so over-run with the affectation of the Court that you did not see the man at all, being absorbed by the studied gesture to display the jewelled ring, and the peculiarly low tone of voice in which it was the fashion to speak.
Beside the old warrior he looked a mere stripling. The Baron’s arm was bare, his sleeve rolled up; and as he pointed to the tree above, the muscles, as the limb moved, displayed themselves in knots, at which the courtier himself could not refrain from glancing. Those mighty arms, had they clasped him about the waist, could have crushed his bending ribs. The heaviest blow that he could have struck upon that broad chest would have produced no more effect than a hollow sound; it would not even have shaken that powerful frame.
He felt the steel blue eye, bright as the sky of midsummer, glance into his very mind. The high forehead bare, for the Baron had his hat in his hand, mocked at him in its humility. The Baron bared his head in honour of the courtier’s office and the Prince who had sent him. The beard, though streaked with white, spoke little of age; it rather indicated an abundant, a luxuriant vitality.
Lord John was not at ease. He shifted from foot to foot, and occasionally puffed a large cigar of Devon tobacco. His errand was simple enough. Some of the ladies at the Court had a fancy for fruit, especially strawberries, but there were none in the market, nor to be obtained from the gardens about the town. It was recollected that Sir Constans was famous for his gardens, and the Prince despatched Lord John to Old House with a gracious message and request for a basket of strawberries. Sir Constans was much pleased; but he regretted that the hot, dry weather had not permitted the fruit to come to any size or perfection. Still there were some.
The courtier accompanied him to the gardens, and saw the water-wheel which, turned by a horse, forced water from the stream into a small pond or elevated reservoir, from which it irrigated the ground. This supply of water had brought on the fruit, and Sir Constans was able to gather a small basket. He then looked round to see what other early product he could send to the palace. There was no other fruit; the cherries, though set, were not ripe; but there was some asparagus, which had not yet been served, said Lord John, at the Prince’s table.
Sir Constans set men to hastily collect all that was ready, and while this was done took the courtier over the gardens. Lord John felt no interest whatever in such matters, but he could not choose but admire the extraordinary fertility of the enclosure, and the variety of the products. There was everything; fruit of all kinds, herbs of every species, plots specially devoted to those possessing medicinal virtue. This was only one part of the gardens; the orchards proper were farther down, and the flowers nearer the house. Sir Constans had sent a man to the flower-garden, who now returned with two fine bouquets, which were presented to Lord John: the one for the Princess, the Prince’s sister; the other for any lady to whom he might choose to present it.
The fruit had already been handed to the retainer who had charge of the horses. Though interested, in spite of himself, Lord John, acknowledging the flowers, turned to go with a sense of relief. This simplicity of manners seemed discordant to him. He felt out of place, and in some way lowered in his own esteem, and yet he despised the rural retirement and beauty about him.
Felix and Oliver, a few yards distant, were waiting with rising tempers. The spectacle of the Baron in his native might of physique, humbly standing, hat in hand, before this Court messenger, discoursing on cherries, and offering flowers and fruit, filled them with anger and disgust. The affected gesture and subdued voice of the courtier, on the other hand, roused an equal contempt.
As Lord John turned, he saw them. He did not quite guess their relationship, but supposed they were cadets of the house, it being customary for those in any way connected to serve the head of the family. He noted the flag basket in Felix’s hand, and naturally imagined that he had been at work.
“You have been to-to plough, eh?” he said, intending to be very gracious and condescending. “Very healthy employment. The land requires some rain, does it not? Still I trust it will not rain till I am home, for my plume’s sake,” tossing his head. “Allow me,” and as he passed he offered Oliver a couple of cigars. “One each,” he added; “the best Devon.”
Oliver took the cigars mechanically, holding them as if they had been vipers, at arm’s length, till the courtier had left the garden, and the hedge interposed. Then he threw them into the water-carrier. The best tobacco, indeed the only real tobacco, came from the warm Devon land, but little of it reached so far, on account of the distance, the difficulties of intercourse, the rare occasions on which the merchant succeeded in escaping the vexatious interference, the downright robbery of the way. Intercourse was often entirely closed by war.
These cigars, therefore, were worth their weight in silver, and such tobacco could be obtained only by those about the Court, as a matter of favour, too, rather than by purchase. Lord John would, indeed, have stared aghast had he seen the rustic to whom he had given so valuable a present cast them into a ditch. He rode towards the Maple Gate, excusing his haste volubly to Sir Constans, who was on foot, and walked beside him a little way, pressing him to take some refreshment.
His sons overtook the Baron as he walked towards home, and walked by his side in silence. Sir Constans was full of his fruit.
“The wall cherry,” said he, “will soon have a few ripe.”
Oliver swore a deep but soundless oath in his chest. Sir Constans continued talking about his fruit and flowers, entirely oblivious of the silent anger of the pair beside him. As they approached the house, the warder blew his horn thrice for noon. It was also the signal for dinner.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK…