Subject 123

Xenophi Klondall, the newest and youngest addition to the security unit assigned to the institute for human development, strolled down the immaculately clean white corridor, twiddling his electric night stick in his six fingers. Doors lined either side of the long hallway, a fingerprint scanner on the wall beside each of them. He whistled as he paused at each door in turn and peered in through porthole sized windows. The children inside, human, slept quietly in their beds or sat about on the floor doodling on paper or throwing bals against the wall. Xen felt a rise of bile fill his throat and his gills flared alarmingly. Soon now and they would able to dispose of these bloodsucking pests.

He moved onto another door and peered in. His four sets of eyes narrowed for a second, before widening in alarm. The room was empty. He flicked a switch on his baton and it began to buzz and hum, as electrical currents pulse through the stick. Hurriedly, he carried out the hand scan and the door slid up with a mechanical hiss. Cautiously he inched inside the room, his baton held aloft in front of him, the bright flare of it’s electrical conduit reflecting off the walls. He tensed himself, ready for the child to spring out from the shadows, but after a thorough search of the room he discovered no child at all.

 

Dr. Allandre Pandar moved hurriedly through the many brightly lit corridors and hallways that comprised the institute. In one hand she was cradling a tiny newborn child and hanging off her other hand was a young girl of around five or six. The baby was quite silent, dozing quietly in the nook of her arm but the girl kept moaning every five minutes.

‘I’m tired and hungry. Where are we going?’

‘We’re nearly there. Not much further. Keep hold of my hand,’ Allandre said breathlessly.

She glanced over her shoulder, expecting there to be a squadron of security guards bearing down on her but the corridor behind was empty and still. She rounded a corner and had to duck back suddenly. Two doctors were conversing a little way down the hallway. The girl, who was oblivious to what was going on carried on trotting along and Allandre had to yank her back out of view sharply. The girl opened her mouth to protest but Allandre covered her hand with her mouth, forcing her to be silent.

The girl grimaced. Allandre was one of the Plethi, a species of alien who were distinctive for their long slender bodies and pale, almost translucent skin. Currently, it was tinged red in colour, a clear sign that she was in some state of distress. She glared at her blossoming skin with a look of contempt. Damn her ancestry. Why couldn’t she have been gifted with a useful trait like invisibility or the power of foresight. No, instead her skin simply changed colour dependent on her emotions.

A few of the children clustered behind her, shuffled around impatiently. Allandre hissed at them to be silent. She didn’t like to snap at the infants but it was for their own good. If they were caught and returned to the cells, their fate would be far worse. It was at this moment that her skin suddenly flushed icy grey, as fear took hold of her body. Sarah, one of the youngest and slowest of the children had disappeared. Allandre searched the faces of the dopey children hurriedly, praying that she had made a mistake. The younglings looked back at her with dull, vacant eyes.

Each had a hand placed on the shoulder of the child in front. Allandre had insisted on this. It lowered the chance of any of them falling behind or wandering off. Or so she had thought. Her eyes darted along the corridor and through the glass windows of the empty labs either side of her. Then she spotted her. Somehow, Sarah had managed to enter one of the nearby labs. Someone must have forgot to lock it. Allandre’s skin dimmed slightly as she watched Sarah. She turned to the foremost child of the group. He was slightly older then the rest with sandy blonde hair and dark eyes.

‘Stay here and don’t move,’ she whispered in a hush tone.

The blonde boy looked at her blankly for a moment and Allandre was about to repeat the instruction, when he slowly nodded his head, indicating he understood. Allandre nodded, gave his shoulder a tight squeeze which he looked at for a moment puzzled, and then she backtracked down the corridor to where the lab door stood a fraction open. As her hand reached for the edge of the door frame, she hesitated and took one look back at the huddled children. Her skin morphed pink, as guilt flooded her mind and body. Then she slipped through the door into the lab.

Sarah was standing at the other end of the lab, staring fixedly at a rack of test tube phials on a rack on the table in front of her. Allandre approached her slowly and cautiously. Humans were like gleamdings, the four legged creatures that roamed the wilds of the planet. Any sudden movement would startle them and they would either panic and make a noise or bolt away. Neither were options Allandre relished the thought of. The newborn still huddled in the crook of Allandre’s long arm shifted in his sleep and she paused, not wanting to wake the baby.

Sarah had tilted her head to the left and was examining the brightly coloured liquids in the phials curiously. The newborn wiggled about a bit, then fell back asleep. Allandre breathed a sigh of relief and inched closer to Sarah. The girl glanced to her left and saw Allandre, who stopped and smiled. She didn’t seemed surprised or perturbed by the doctor’s sudden appearance. She smiled back with a toothless, goofy grin. Then she did something that made Allandre’s skin flash both red and grey simultaneously. Sarah reached out a hand to one of the phials.

Time seem to suddenly grind to a halt, as Allandre watched Sarah’s hand outstretched towards the test tube rack. For a moment it felt like they were frozen in some sort of temporal time distortion. Allandre’s mind whirred like a bullet train, as possibilities, ideas and outcomes popped into her head and then out again milliseconds later to be replaced by yet more. If she called out to Sarah to stop or dashed forwards to intervene, she risked waking the baby. That would alert the two doctors stood in the hallway outside. Alternatively, if she did nothing, Sarah might drop the rack in her clumsiness.

Humans were notorious for their poor motoring functions and reaction times. Allandre didn’t know what to do and Sarah’s hand was moving steadily closer to her goal. Allandre was just about to step forward and intervene when Sarah suddenly withdrew her hand. Her head had swivelled to look at the other door of the lab. Beyond was the second corridor, where the two doctor’s stood conversing. The sound of one of them laughing had drawn her attention. Allandre used the opportunity to move closer still.

‘Sarah,’ she whispered.

The girl ignored her and moved over to the other door. Allandre felt her green blood run cold and her cheeks flush silver. She dashed forward but had to skid to a halt, as the newborn gave a disgruntled moan in its sleep. She shushed the tiny infant soothingly and rocked it back and forth in her arms, until it became calm once more. She looked up. Sarah had opened the door and was wandering aimlessly into the corridor.

Panic seized her. She moved forward and was about to proceed after her when a concerning thought struck her. The doctors would see her. There was no doubt about that now. The only way out of this conundrum would be to talk her way out of it. Problem being that the moment she stepped into that corridor, her red and grey pigment of skin would give her away to the doctors almost immediately.

Allandre closed her eyes and placed a hand gently on the cool surface of the door. As a child she had experienced much bullying and teasing from other doctoral students, in regards to her skin changing condition. The plethi were a dying race, their lineage almost extinct. Most women and men of the plethi race chose careers that suited that strange genetics, such as emotional companions for down on their luck individuals or even worse, as performers and dancers.Allandre had seen the latter of the two first hand and it was a barbaric form of entertainment. Participants would find different ways to evoke emotions out of the unlucky plethi, then sit back and watch the light show it produced.

When Allandre had announced she had aspirations of becoming a doctor of medical research, her parents had scoffed and then when she had begun her training, her classmates had wound her up to force her emotions to reveal themselves. So, with the help of her uncle, the only member of her family who had encouraged her to follow her passion, she had learnt how to control her emotions. To clear her mind and repress the emotions fighting to be seen. She took a deep breath and emptied her head. Sarah was getting closer to the doctors.

It sounded like one of them had noticed her. Allandre forced herself to ignore this. She needed to concentrate. After a few seconds, the red tinge in her cheeks and arms began to fade and then the silvery grey also began to dissipate. Her brow was furrowed, as she willed all of her power on dampening her emotions. Allandre opened her eyes and looked down, smiling. Her skin was milky white. To any outsider it would appear as if she didn’t have a care in the world. She smartened down her lab coat, checked the baby was still alright, which it was, then nodded curtly to the door in front of her before opening it and stepping into the corridor.

Doctor Jamala Ark paused in her detailed explanation of human subject 44, as she caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye. The many cogs and wheels of her mechanical brain whirred, as she moved her head around to look down the corridor. She was an android, as were most doctors who had joined the clinic. Due to their design and intelligence, they were usually hand picked for important roles such as medical work or research. The doctor standing with her was a younger model, built by the same technology but more advanced in design. He followed her gaze and zoomed in on the approaching figure with his bi focal lenses.

‘Subject 29,’ he said, as images and words filled the upper right corner of his mechanical right eye.

Jamala nodded, although hastened to not mention that it had taken her a full thirty seconds to figure that out. She liked spending time in the company of the younger androids as she found their conversations always stimulating and challenging, but she sometimes found a small amount of bitterness for their superior design. Then typically, she would berate herself for thinking that because emotional interference had been ironed out in the later models, and it would only serve to reinforce her disappointment in her own inferior limitation.

‘Stop,’ she commanded, holding up her hand.

Sarah continued walking on, oblivious of the doctor’s instruction. She didn’t even seem to have noticed the two doctors stood there. The young android reached for a panel on the wall next to him. This would alert the guards to the escape subject but at that moment another doctor stepped out of a lab and into the corridor. Jamala took the opportunity of her younger companion’s distraction to scan the approaching doctor first. Her bi focal lens hummed and vibrated, as it zoomed in and registered the individual.

‘Allandre,’ she said with a satisfied clip to her tone.

The younger android, whose name was Artemis looked puzzled. This was a rare occurrence with one such advanced as himself. Jamala had to remind herself that he was still very new to the institute. She only knew of Allandre herself, as they had attended the same medical school some years prior. Since then, the reclusive doctor had mostly kept to herself. She never socialized with the other nurses and doctors.

‘She is carrying an infant with her. Looks like a new subject. Yes, 123 I believe.’ Artemis noted, in his calm and even manner.

Jamala tried to scan the small bundle in Allandre’s arms too but she could feel an eye migraine worming it’s way into existence. She needed another check up. Her bi focal was suffering from wavers and trembles again. The thought of which was not pleasing. Although she had proven herself a valuable asset to the company, if the check up came back with too many faults she could very well be decommissioned and removed from the program all together.

‘Doctor Jamala isn’t it?’ Allandre said, slightly short of breath as she reached them.

‘Doctor Allandre. It’s been a while.’

She observed Allandre closely, despite the niggling pain behind her eye and consulted her data banks. That was right. She was of plethi descent. The race famous for their colour changing skin, when reacting to emotions. Allandre was watching Sarah, who had stopped in her tracks and was looking up at Artemis in stunned awe.

‘You won’t believe what happened with this one. I was tending to this little fella and S….subject 29 just ups and walks out of the room. I tell you, you can’t take your eyes off these humans for a moment.’

Jamala and Artemis exchanged sceptical looks. Allandre swallowed and forced herself to remain calm. She had almost blurted out Sarah’s name by accident. She was the only one that gave the humans real names. The others simply referred to them as patients.

‘Why was subject 123 in subject 29’s cell in the first place?’

‘A study. I wanted to see if there was any difference to 29’s behaviour when introduced to another subject.’

Artemis frowned.

‘Was this medical study sanctioned by your acting doctor in charge?’

‘Of course,’ Allandre said evenly.

Jamala observed Allandre closely, particularly her face and arms to see if any emotions would betray her. There was a slight blue to her skin, which exhibited a small level of anxiety but that could be due to the runaway subject.

‘Check if it has been approved,’ Jamala said to Artemis.

Artemis nodded and moved away to consult his own data banks. He was a top of the range model but even retrieving information such as medical sanctioned orders took a bit of time. Jamala turned back to Allandre.

‘It’s nothing personal. Just have to follow these things up. You understand of course.’

Allandre nodded. She glanced at Artemis. He was still searching. His back straight and eyes misty, as androids became when they were deep inside the online data banks of the cloud.

‘Would you mind holding hi…subject 123 for a moment?’

The request was so unusual that even Jamala’s fast mechanical brain had trouble comprehending it. Before she knew what had happened the infant had been thrust into her arms. She looked down at it in surprise and then felt something sharp and cold pierce her neck. The lights went out but she didn’t fall down. Her body stiffened and her eyes turned completely black. She was frozen solid on the spot. The baby woke up suddenly and started to squirm and kick but Jamala’s stiffened arms kept it from falling out of her grasp. Artemis had scanned the entire set of records from the east wing head office. There was nothing pertaining to any such sanction.

His eyes flickered back into life and he opened his mouth to alert Jamala to this revelation, when a new sensation hit the recently commissioned android. Surprise. Allandre, subject 29 and subject 123 had disappeared. He glanced to his right and had his second surprise of the night. His colleague Jamala was frozen to the spot, her arms outstretched in a peculiar fashion. He turned to press his hand against the alarm but was beaten to it, as a moment later the corridor was bathed in darkness. The lights flickered on a second later but had changed to red and were flashing urgently. This was accompanied by a high pitched siren, emanating from speakers placed at various points throughout the building.

 

Allandre herded the children as fast as she could down the corridor. It was like trying to herd cattle. Some of them were crying and the baby was kicking wildly in her arms, howling it’s mouth off. Allandre tried to keep stock of her bearings but it was extremely hard with the distraught children and poor lighting. Her tempered skin was changing from colour to colour in a myriad of tones. She could hear running footsteps behind her and shouts. She refused to look back. It would only confirm her worst fears. She steered the procession of confused and wailing children around another corner and skidded to a sudden halt, her skin turning completely silver in the crimson glow of the light. Two guards were running towards them from the end of the corridor.

‘Stop,’ Allandre screamed at the top of her voice.

The children who had been stumbling and tripping over one another in their confusion and panic suddenly came to a rigid halt. Allandre was taken aback. This must have been the first time the absent minded juniors had done as she had asked. The guards were advancing on them, their granite sized teeth bared, their webbed feet echoing across the marble floor as they slapped their way towards them. Allandre looked back the way they had come and she could make out the hunched shadows of other guards. This was it. They were penned in. In her desperation, she ran over to a lab door and press her hand to the panel. It flashed up with a security measure saying access denied. Of course. The place would be on lock down.

Then something very peculiar happened. Two human children were suddenly in the middle of the corridor. Allandre studied them. Even from this distance, she could tell they were not any of hers. It was as if they had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. It was a boy and girl, dressed in the white overalls all human children wore in the facility and they were holding hands. The encroaching guards paused and hesitated, then assuming them to be with the rest of the small ape like beings began advancing forward again. They reached the two children who seemed quite still and calm, unlike Allandre’s brood, who were snivelling and sobbing in front of her. One of the guards smiled a wicked grin and reached one of his slimy reptilian hands towards her.

There was a brilliant flash of white and a moment later the guard recoiled, clutching his arm. No correction, clutching the stump where his arm had once been. The child had torn it clean off and black oily blood poured from the exposed wound. There was another bright flash and the second guard’s head flew into the air, more of the black blood spraying across the corridor wall in an arterial fashion. Allandre winced at the bright light. The one armed guard was scrabbling backwards on the floor, using his remaining hand and arm to pull him away from the dazzling light. It dimmed and the two children had gone. In their place were too strange looking creatures.

They were both completely blank, like shop floor mannequins. The one who had been the small boy moved forward and leapt into the air, landing on the guard’s stomach. There was a scream from the creature, as it’s whole chest caved inwards. It jerked and twitched around violently for a moment, before falling still. The second blank figure, who had been the young girl turned to face them, and as she did so there was yet again another bright flash of light. When Allandre’s eyes had adjusted, she was met with two plethi? But that couldn’t be. None of her kind worked in the facility. The female plethi spoke.

‘Come with me now if you want to live.’

Allandre thought about asking who she was but the grunts and shouts of the remaining rear guards were getting closer, their loud booms bouncing off the walls of the corridor. There would be time for questions later. If they made it out of here alive. She began waving her hands wildly at the children to follow the two strangers, and after they didn’t move she screamed at them in the same manner as before. It seemed to work and they began to trot down the corridor, their snivels and wails slightly more subdued.

The baby was coughing alarmingly and Allandre tried her best to comfort the infant, while still moving. The poor thing had cried itself hoarse. The male plethi had already reached an exit door which led to the stairs of the compound. Allandre was just about to point out the place was on lockdown when there was a third flash of light. She wished they would warn her before doing that. The light faded and a guard stood facing them. He was stood slightly left to the door, which was now open. Her initial reaction was to backtrack, as her brain automatically assumed that it was the enemy. Then she reminded herself that it was the shape-shifter in yet another disguise. He beckoned them through hurriedly.

They all bundled through the door. The female shape-shifter held back, and as Allandre passed through the door last of all she gave her a sharp, purposeful nod and closed the door. There was the sound of gunfire and shouting from the corridor they had just left and some of the children ducked down frightened. Sarah grabbed hold of the shape-shifters leg. The ditto glanced at her momentarily but seemed unfazed by the child’s behaviour. Allandre felt bad for the other one who had remained behind to stall the enemy but at the same time she had to focus on getting the children to safety. From what she had witnessed, the shape-shifter could take care of herself.

She went to descend the stairs but got no further then the first step. The shape-shifter had grabbed her roughly by the arm. Allandre shot him a furious look of indignation. The shape-shifter looked at her blankly, not caring about her feelings and knelt on the floor. He placed one hand on the cold surface and closed his eyes. Allandre glanced at the door they had just exited and saw shadowy shapes shrinking and expanding through the frosted glass. Then a scream made her jump and some unspecified liquid sprayed across the glass. It didn’t take a genius to work out that it was blood. She turned around. The shape-shifter was moving up the stairs instead of down. More bizarre was the fact that the children were following obediently behind him. Allandre glanced over the railing and understood why.

There was movement on the stairs. Barely audible. The guards had some kind of way of concealing the noise of their footsteps, as they were ascending extremely quietly. Allandre and the children tried to keep up with the shape-shifter but they were much slower then him and his speed and endurance never seemed to run empty. Allandre glanced behind her despite knowing it was a bad idea, and felt a silent scream trap in her throat as a guard leapt up onto the rail and squatted. His reptilian eyes flickered evilly. A forked tongue darted out of his mouth and shot across the space towards Allandre. The tip was poisoned. Allandre knew from studying the creatures at medical school.

If it touched her, she would be paralysed in seconds. A shadow fell across her and the shape-shifter dropped from above. He landed between them, severing the guard’s tongue in half with his arm, which had transformed into a long metallic blade. The guard toppled back in surprise, falling down the stairs and landing on the rest of the pursuers with a loud crash. The shape-shifter turned to Allandre and gestured upwards with his blade arm. Green acid sizzled on his chest. When he had sliced the guard’s tongue, the poison had sprayed onto him. The shape-shifter went to lower his hand but the paralysis had already set in.

‘Thank you,’ Allandre said to the stranger and turned and ran.

The guards were fast, aided by their ability to leap several steps at a time and cling off walls and rails with their webbed fingers and toes. Yet the troupe managed to make it to the roof exit before them. The shape-shifter’s interception had delayed the guard’s advancement. Sarah was at the front of the procession and Allandre at the rear. Despite their lack of coordination and awareness they were all moving at a steady pace, and Allandre nearly knocked over the child in front of her when the group suddenly came to an abrupt halt.

She pushed her way through the children to the front. Sarah was stood in front of the roof door pushing it repeatedly with her hand. But the facility was on lock-down. The customary panel flashed at her from the wall beside the door, waiting for authentication. Allandre tried to dull down her panic, so as not to frighten the children. Not knowing why she put a hand into her pocket. There was nothing in there that would help. Only the guards could unlock the doors. A lump formed in her throat, as her fingers touched something wet and slimy.

The soft, moist pad of the guard’s feet were getting closer. Stomach doing somersaults, she pulled out the unknown object from her pocket. It was a guard’s severed hand. Some of the children recoiled at the sight, others looked at it with macabre interest. Fighting the urge to throw up, Allandre moved forward to the panel and placed the six digits on the lock screen. There was a whirring sound and a click. Sarah was still pushing on the door and as it unlocked she stumbled forward onto the roof. They bundled through and Allandre closed the door behind them. The guards would be able to open it easily but at least it would add an extra stage of delay.

A landing pad stood before them with a large black helicopter sitting idly. Allandre squinted and could make out one of the automated flight bots at the wheel. There was no sign of anyone else. As they approached it the side door slid open automatically, while at the same time the engine began to whir into life. Allandre had to assume that the bird was part of the escape plan. Besides it was not as if she had any alternative. The children reached the copter, as the propellers began to slowly spin. One of the children, entranced by the circulating blades tried to raise his hand to touch them. Allandre seized the child before he could do it and forced his arm to his side.

It took a while but eventually, Allandre managed to get all the children into the helicopter, leaving just her and the baby as the last two to get in. It was at that moment that the rooftop door burst open and several guards spilled out onto the roof. Allandre bit her lip and then did something dangerous. She handed Sarah the baby, closed the door shut and hammered on the driver’s window with a fist. The bot turned it’s mechanical head to face her and did nothing for a moment. A bullet thudded into the side of the aircraft and the bot suddenly seized control of the situation and began to lift off from the landing pad. Allandre watched the helicopter rise into the air, saw the terrified and confused expressions of the children inside, felt the heat of the engines and the whoosh of air rush over her.

Then with a swallow, she turned to face the guards. Seven of the reptile guards stood facing her, their guns pointed at various points on her body. Her body flushed grey for a moment and the lead guard sniggered at her fear. Then something strange happened. Her body transformed into purple. Fear had momentarily vanished to be replaced by anger. Screaming, she ran forward. The lead guard fired his gun. It had been aimed at her heart but her unexpected movement took the shooter by surprise and instead the bullet hit her in the shoulder. Allandre was thrown back into the air and crashed down on to the roof with a dull thump. She lay there for a moment, pinned to the ground by the shock and force of what had happened.

In the sky above her, Allandre could make out the large black shadow of the helicopter ascending into the clouds. She smiled and a tear ran from her eye. The flip flop of the guard’s padded feet were growing closer and closer. They were advancing to finish her off. Allandre’s shoulder felt numb but she could feel the hot blood soaking her arm and breast. From somewhere deep below, there was a low humming. She thought it was her imagination but as the guards drew closer it grew louder and stronger. The ground roof her was beginning to vibrate. With an almighty effort Allandre raised her head to look at the guards. They had paused and were eyeing the floor of the roof curiously. The building began to shake and Allandre felt the tiled roof beneath her tremble and rattle. There was a pause and the lead guard smiled satisfied and turned his attention back to Allandre.

Then an almighty force shook the foundations. The roof beneath the lead guard disappeared, him along with it. The other guards looked at one another, confused. A shape flew out of the hole, high up into the air. All Allandre could see was a massive, black shadow. It rose for a good while, then arched and began to speed back down towards the roof. The shape was headed directly for the remaining guards. Some of them tried shooting at it, others attempted to dive out the way. Neither succeeded. The shape smashed into their ranks, sending guards flying in all directions.

Concrete, brickwork and creature exploded into the air, in a cloud of destruction. Allandre tried to keep her head up but the loss of blood was making her light-headed. Allandre felt the roof beneath her disappear, just before she drifted into unconsciousness. She didn’t fall though. The last thing she remembered before being consumed by blackness was being lifted into the air, almost by a pair of invisible hands. Then darkness consumed her entirely, as she let go and allowed herself to be taken by it.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

 

The Next Round

Like most boys his age, Rowan yearned to get away from the trappings of his simple life. A son of a baker, he lived in a small, peaceful village which he had quickly outgrown. His life wasn’t without enjoyment. Courting girls was always a nice distraction and causing mischief with his best friends gave him a much needed rush of adrenaline now and again. But those activities never managed to fully sate his appetite. He wanted to get out and see the world, meet new people and discover new things. Not hang about with his father for the rest of his life rolling dough.

Baking had been in Rowan’s family for generations and he was fast on his way to becoming an accomplished baker himself. Whenever his father had put back a few at The Hare and Hound, the local tavern, he boasted proudly at what a fine job his son was doing of continuing on the family tradition. Rowan was a sharp boy and a quick learner, which was why he had progressed so speedily. But his heart wasn’t truly in baking. He worked hard at it for his father’s sake, as he deeply loved the old codger. However, it never felt like baking was his calling in life.

In truth Rowan had no idea what was his calling in life and was part of his reason for wanting to leave. He hoped that in travelling, his true purpose might reveal itself to him. There was always the chance that it would not. But he would rather take the risk and try then end up becoming a reluctant baker, full of regret. Tonight was Rowan’s eighteenth birthday. He was officially a man and to celebrate, his friends had invited him down to The Hare and Hound for his alcoholic christening. Truth be told Rowan had been drinking ale since he was ten years old but celebrations were traditional, as was getting utterly and completely shit faced.

Rowan had picked out his swankiest clothes for the occasion, which happened to be his least hole ridden hose and a green tunic with only a few stains. He was a good looking lad with short hair shaved close at the sides and a dark, thick beard. Most of his friends who had lighter body hair were jealous of Rowan’s ability to easily grow facial hair. His eyes were dark and serious but there was a mischievous almost charming smile that worked in his favour.

As Rowan stepped out the front door and closed it behind him, he noticed his father sitting in a chair lent up against the wall of the house. He was whittling away at a piece of wood. Although his days were long and hard, Rowan’s father spent most evenings making wood sculptures. Rowan often wondered if his father’s artistic talents could have been put to better use elsewhere but dared not suggest it. The man would be outraged at the thought of considering anything else but the family business.

They locked eyes and studied each other closely for a moment. Then they both nodded to one another and Rowan turned to leave. Although neither had uttered a single word, an unspoken conversation had taken place. The day before Rowan had nearly been caught red handed having it off with the butcher’s daughter. He had managed to slip out unseen, but the butcher knew the two were sweet on each other and had paid Rowan’s father a visit. The man couldn’t prove it was Rowan but the message was clear. Keep him away from my daughter. Afterwards Rowan’s father had taken him aside and offered sage advice. Mainly to not go after the daughter of a man who wields blades for a living.

Night had nearly fallen over the small village and some people had already seen fit to light torches in preparation for the approaching darkness. Rowan didn’t like to carry a torch, as it made him stick out like a sore thumb. This wasn’t such a problem as he was mostly on good terms with everyone. Rowan was a bit of a naughty lad but knew not to push things too far. A little drunkenness and mucking about was to be expected at his age. He would soon grow out of it. But the guards from the local castle didn’t share the same view. They saw his mischievous behaviour as a total disregard of the rules. His slightly rebellious attitude was something they wanted to stamp out at any opportunity.

As if on cue Rowan noticed a guard approaching from the other end of the dirt track. Instinctively Rowan sidestepped off the path and ducked down behind some barrels. He knelt there for a whole minute before he decided it was safe to come out. The guard was nowhere to be seen and Rowan breathed a deep sigh of relief. Suddenly someone seized his hand and reacting quickly he spun round, seized the stranger by both arms and shoved them hard into the wall. His eyes which were burning fiercely with fury softened a moment later, as recognition dawned on his face.

‘My my, you are a feisty one.’

Rowan released his hold and stood back, feeling suddenly abashed. The butcher’s daughter, her face flushed red from the exertion was stood before him. She had long dark hair tied back into a ponytail and very pale, chalk coloured skin. Rowan was always reminded of porcelain when he studied her face closely.

‘Sorry Alice, I thought you were somebody else.’

Alice blew a loose strand of hair out of her eye and stepped forward until their faces were almost touching. Her bosom was heaving up and down alarmingly and Rowan couldn’t help but lower his gaze. She smiled at this and placing a hand on his chest, lent in and kissed him hard. Rowan pushed her back against the wall and she exclaimed in mild but pleasurable surprise. Her hand began to slip down his torso towards his belt. Rowan suddenly broke away from the embrace.

‘What’s wrong? I thought you liked to play rough,’ Alice said, trying to pull him back towards her by his belt.

‘Alice stop,’ Rowan said hotly, shaking off her grip.

Her previously enticing expression turned to one of frustration.

‘Is this because of my father?’

Rowan scratched the back of his head, pacing back and forward. He was half tempted to dunk himself in the nearby barrel of water to keep him from giving into his primal desires.

‘Partly but also my father too.’

Ignoring this, she began to slowly unbutton her shirt. Rowan stepped forward and closed his hands around hers, halting her progress.

‘Don’t.’

‘Surely you’re not afraid of my father? I didn’t take you for a coward Rowan,’ Alice remarked coldly.

‘Look we had our fun but now I think it’s time to call…’

He was cut off all of a sudden, as Alice brought her knee up into his groin. Rowan fell to his knees cradling his manhood, a horrible and overwhelming nausea filling his gut.

‘Enjoy your birthday you bastard,’ she spat contemptuously and sauntered off into the night.

Rowan crawled over to the nearby barrel and rested his back against the side of it. Good going he thought to himself. Not only did you forgo the opportunity of a roll in the hay with Alice, but you also took a beating in the worst place possible. The only consolation he could make was that at least the butcher wouldn’t be coming after him looking to do a lot more then hurt his manhood. When Rowan had suitably recovered, which took some time considering he felt like he was going to vomit, he staggered to his feet and rejoined the path.

The Hare and Hound was heaving, as to be expected. The place was busy on a normal night but this evening it was a celebration and Rowan was a popular lad. He was unsure how much longer that would last after how things had just ended with Alice. It was almost a certainty that she would inform her friends of Rowan’s behaviour. He sighed at the thought. Alice’s best friend Agnes was a pretty little thing and Rowan had been eyeing her up even while he was still seeing Alice. But the two were inseparable and he very much doubted his chances now.

In the courtyard area of the tavern, groups of men and woman sat around tables, chatting, drinking and playing games. As Rowan made his way to the door, he clocked Henry sitting at a table by himself. Four dice were set out in front of him and two upturned cups. He beckoned Rowan over. The prospect of a game of dice was tempting but Rowan had already lost too much of his coin betting recently. He motioned to the door, indicating that he was to be expected, which was partly the truth. Henry nodded, trying to hide his slight disappointment. Other tables had been set up for dice and pairs of people were playing. But none approached Henry for a game.

Rowan knew the reason why. The man was on a winning streak and no one dared play him for fear of losing more coin. Passing through the open the door of the tavern, Rowan was greeted with a series of cheers and claps. He smiled and gave a dramatic bow, which caused a ripple of laughter to spread through the spectators. As he made his way to the bar, receiving a few congratulatory pats on his back as he went, Rowan glanced round the tavern to see if Alice was around. If she was there he couldn’t make her out in the dimly lit establishment.

‘There he is, man of the hour,’ the barman said, pouring a pint from one of the many barrels lining the back counter of the bar.

‘Evening Tom, no Millie tonight?’ Rowan said hopefully, glancing around for the barmaid.

‘She’s around, probably trying to keep away from you. Sensible gal that one,’ Tom said, his eyes twinkling merrily.

The landlord looked like he had had a few ales himself. He plonked Rowan’s tankard down on the bar top.

‘This one is on me,’ Tom insisted, flapping at Rowan with his hands who was reaching for his coin purse.

‘Much obliged,’ Rowan said, raising his mug to the barkeep and taking a deep glug.

Although it was room temperature, Rowan was dehydrated and the beverage went its way in quenching his thirst. A heavy hand landed on his back and Rowan nearly chipped his front teeth on the rim of the tankard. He glared round furiously and shoved the owner of the hand. But his expression had dissolved into one of mirth.

‘Evening birthday boy.’

‘Fuck off Lucas,’ Rowan said in response.

The boy who had slapped him on the back squared up to him for a moment before the two burst into laughter and jostled one another a little more. Lucas was skinny with a mop of ginger hair and face dotted with freckles.

‘Come and sit down, I got us a table at the back,’ He instructed, leading Rowan away from the bar.

Familiar faces smiled and nodded at Rowan as he navigated his way through the dense crowd of bodies after Lucas. At a corner table shoved up against a wall sat two other young men, both blonde. They were identical twins with pale complexions and very light blue eyes. They could only be told apart by the clothes they wore and the length of their hair. Sometimes when the pair were feeling particularly mischievous, they would pretend to be one another for fun. Rowan had known them their whole life, to the point that he could easily tell them apart.

‘Ah the Fletcher Brothers, how are we doing this evening?’ Rowan said merrily, sitting down on the wooden stump that was the last remaining seat.

‘Very well,’ they both chorused and the four of them clinked their tankards together, as was customary when they met up at the tavern.

They fell into their usual conversation, mainly who was courting (fucking) who and what they had all being doing. Rowan chimed in every now and again but he was distracted, his mind off elsewhere. A few revellers came up to congratulate him and he made an effort to small talk. A melancholia had taken hold of Rowan. Perhaps it was to do with the fact that he had turned eighteen and he was still stuck in this backwater village.

A barmaid came round to top up their tankards and Rowan glanced up and smiled. It was Millie. She had coppery brown hair done up in a bun, dark eyes and a full, rosy cheeks.

‘Happy Birthday Rowan,’ she said with a warm smile.

‘Thanks Millie, care to join us for a drink?’ Rowan said eagerly.

‘Nice try Rowan but I know your game,’ she said matter of factly and wandered off to another table.

Rowan watched her go for a moment, admiring the sway of her hips as she left. The twins guffawed with laughter.

‘I don’t know why you bother with that one,’ Lucas commented. ‘There are plenty of other girls who are more keen.’

Rowan grabbed him by the shoulder compassionately.

‘You know me Lucas. Always up for a challenge. The harder the task, the sweeter the reward.’

‘If you say so,’ Lucas said unconvinced and took a swig from his tankard.

‘I hear she has been seeing one of the guards. Young fella by the name of Toby,’ one of the twins said, leaning forward low over the table.

Rowan groaned. Toby was a privileged little turd who was only in the guard because of his father’s connections. The lad had been trying to pin something on Rowan for some time but never managed to quite catch him in the act. Rowan glanced around, trying to relocate Millie but she was nowhere to be seen. Downing the rest of his ale he rose to his feet, knocking the table slightly.

‘Watch it you damn fool,’ Lucas said, as their ales slopped over the tops of their tankards.

‘My sincerest apologies fellow lords. I believe I am a little inebriated of present,’ Rowan announced dramatically and stumbled off towards the door.

In truth he wasn’t really drunk at all but he wanted an excuse to slip away and get some fresh air. Rowan got stopped twice on his way out of the door. The second time he was cornered by Father Maguire. The man of the cloth was red faced and every time he gestured, more of his ale would spill from his tankard. Eventually Rowan was able to pry himself away from the talkative priest and make his way to the courtyard outside.

The temperature had dropped even more since Rowan had been in the tavern. The lit torches mounted at various points around the outside area helped a little but not much. Rowan cast an eye around and smiled ruefully as he spotted Millie leaning up against the wall of the tavern, her back turned. Slowly he crept up behind her and slipped his hands around her waist.

‘I was wondering when you were going to turn up,’ she said, relaxing into his embrace, still with her back to him.

‘I’ve been here for quite some time,’ Rowan stated.

Millie wrench herself free of his grip, spun on the spot and slapped him hard across the face.

‘I probably deserved that,’ Rowan admitted, massaging his cheek which had turned a bright shade of scarlet.

‘You’ve got some nerve Rowan,’ she said furiously, her hands placed firmly on her hips.

‘Expecting someone else were you?’ Rowan said, unable to hide the bitterness in his tone.

‘That’s none of your business,’ she replied stubbornly.

Rowan lent against the wall and sighed.

‘You know he isn’t good enough for you.’

‘Is that so? And who are you to give advice after what you just pulled,’ Millie said indignantly.

‘Fair point,’ Rowan said and the two lapsed into silence.

They had known each other since they were children and had used to play together. Girls came and went but Millie was special. What Rowan felt for Millie went beyond a passing fancy. He had confessed as much to her when they were twelve. It hadn’t gone down well. Millie had said she didn’t feel the same way and that it didn’t feel right what with being such close friends. As they both grew older, they drifted apart but Rowan still wondered if she had been telling the truth. Sometimes when Millie looked at him, he could sense some hidden truth in her eyes.

‘Would you stop looking at me like that?’ Millie said, feeling awkward.

‘Like what?’ Rowan said innocently.

‘You full well know what Rowan?’ she said, folding her arms and eyeing him disapprovingly.

‘I don’t like Toby,’ Rowan announced, changing the subject.

‘And what concern is that of yours?’ Millie huffed.

‘Millie…we are friends and I’m just looking out for you. He’s not to be trusted,’ he replied, frowning hard.

Millie shook her head in disbelief.

‘Rowan, we haven’t been friends since we were fourteen. And as for Toby…I can take care of myself.’

The sound of footsteps approaching behind Millie made her glance round. Toby, the scoundrel in question loomed out of the darkness, flanked either side by two other guards. Despite gaining his position as guard through connections rather than hard graft, he admittedly looked the part. With his square jawline, broad nose, small beady eyes and pronounced forehead Toby cut the figure of a military man. He observed Millie who appeared guilty despite not having done anything wrong, then his eyes fell on Rowan, noting his reddened cheek.

‘He botherin’ you Millie?’ Toby queried, a very dangerous look in his eye.

Millie moved in close to him and planted a kiss on his cheek.

‘It’s nothing. Rowan was just leaving. Weren’t you Rowan?’ She said, turning her attention back to Rowan and giving him a warning stare.

Rowan’s hands curled into fists and he studied the two guards either side of Toby. Like Toby, they were adorned in plate armour and both had cudgels and swords hanging from their belts. They smirked at the baker’s son before them.

‘There has been word going around that a group of young men have been spotted poaching deer in the woods. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that would you?’ Toby said, fixing Rowan with a searching stare.

Rowan shrugged casually, a blank expression on his face.

‘Sorry, can’t help. But if I hear anything I will let you know.’

It was Toby’s turn to clench his fists. Rowan shifted his glance to Millie and nodded.

‘Nice seeing you again Millie.’

He threw Toby an icy cold look and returned inside the tavern. Toby whispered something to the guard on his left. Millie raised a hand to Toby’s face and tilted it gently so his eyes fell onto hers.

‘Promise me you won’t do anything rash. Rowan use to be a close friend of mine.’

Toby sighed deeply.

‘He’s trouble is what he is.’

She gave him an imploring look and eventually he acquiesced with a nod. Back inside, Rowan had returned to his table, a furious expression on his face.

‘What’s got your goat?’ Lucas asked, confused.

‘Nothing,’ Rowan muttered grumpily and drank deeply from his tankard.

As it was a special occasion, Tom had stayed open later but kicked out most of the punters apart from a select handful of Rowan’s closet and dearest. Rowan’s father had popped by for a drink or two but had left early, as he was tired from a hard week’s work. The twins had disappeared for the night, after bumping into two redhead sisters who were in the mood for celebrating. Rowan and Lucas had commented how amusing it was that the twins repeatedly stated how different they were, only to hook up with a pair of ginger haired sisters.

After the tense encounter with Toby, Rowan had proceeded to get well and truly drunk. At first the alcohol had fuelled his hatred but after a while the matter was soon forgotten and he began to enjoy himself once more. Tom was asleep on the bar and Lucas had taken the opportunity to sneak free pints from the barrels at the back. Rowan meanwhile lay on the floor, his legs stretched out against the wall, singing an old limerick about a farmer’s daughter. His voice was loud but he kept slurring the words every now and then.

Lucas joined in from time to time, stamping his feet up and down on the wooden floorboards energetically. Rowan brought his tankard round to his mouth and tried to take a sip. But lying horizontal made it difficult and he ended up spilling most of it down his beard and onto his shirt. He and Lucas guffawed with laughter. Apart from the two lads, the only two patrons left were Lucas’ older brother and his uncle. When they announced they were leaving, Rowan cried out in protest, rolled over and staggered to his feet.

‘Don’t go yet….the night is still young.’

He went to lean on a nearby table, misjudged the distance and collapsed onto the floor. The other three men roared with laughter, stirring Tom from his slumber. The barman snorted and sat up, looking around the room blearily. The right side of his face was creased from where it had been pressed against the bar.

‘I think that’s time gentlemen,’ he announced, stifling a yawn.

Lucas’ brother and uncle said their farewells and left. Rowan was still trying to get up and had managed to pull over two stools in the process. Lucas who still had some faculties remaining moved over to help him.

‘Come on birthday boy, let’s get you home before you do any more damage.’

At first Rowan went to resist but realising his inability to function properly, he accepted his friend’s gentle guidance.

‘Funny really. Rowan is now officially a man and to mark that occasion he staggers round the place like a toddler,’ Tom said absentmindedly to Lucas, as he set about clearing up in the trail of knocked over tables and chairs in Rowan’s wake.

‘Night Tom,’ Lucas shouted over his shoulder.

At the door Rowan turned to try and get back in but Lucas was having none of it. Suddenly Rowan spun on the spot, fell down the tavern’s stone steps and vomited on the ground.

‘I expect you to come back and clean that up in the morning,’ Tom said curtly, appearing at the door and folding his broad arms.

Lucas nodded and began the arduous task of getting Rowan off the ground again. The fresh air had been a shock to his system and had the effect of sobering him up a little. Not a lot but enough for Rowan to begin to walk by himself. Every now and then Lucas had to steer him back onto the path, as he veered off at various angles. Lucas’ house was nearest and when they arrived the pair stood outside chatting loudly and drunkenly at one another. Eventually one of the neighbours stuck their head out a window and barked at them to be quiet.

Lucas wasn’t keen on leaving Rowan alone but the baker’s son insisted he would be alright getting home. After several hearty hugs the two parted company. On his way home Rowan had the sudden urge for a piss and took the opportunity to relieve himself up against Toby’s house. He was whistling to himself merrily, making an artistic pattern with his urine when the sound of someone clearing their throat made him turn around. Toby was stood before him. Worse still Rowan had forgotten that he was still pissing. Toby stepped back quickly but it was too late. It had gone all over his boots and leg armour.

Rowan couldn’t help but snort with laughter. He had just finished up and was putting his manhood back away, when Toby hit him hard in the face. Surprised, Rowan stumbled back and tripped over his own legs. He crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. Pain exploded in his nose and he could feel hot blood dripping down into his beard. Rowan sat up, wiping his bloodied nose with the sleeve of his tunic. Toby had been full mail gloves when he had punched Rowan and a nasty gash spanned the bridge of his nose.

‘Get him up,’ Toby ordered.

Rowan heard footsteps approaching from behind and next moment he was seized under both arms and yanked to his feet. Next thing he knew he had been pinned to the wall of the house by two guards. Rowan’s head was spinning and he couldn’t quite make out the faces of the two men. But he presumed they were the same pair he had seen with Toby earlier.

‘Stay away from Millie baker boy,’ Toby ordered and delivered a swift gut punch to get across his point.

Rowan made an oomph sound and his legs gave way underneath him. But the guards managed to keep him suspended between them. The combination of too much alcohol and the unprecedented beating got the better of Rowan. He vomited again. One of the guards cried out in disgust, slackening his grip slightly.

‘Keep hold of him,’ Toby snapped.

The guard did as instructed and tightened his grip once more. Streaky lines of spit dripped from Rowan’s mouth and vomit was splattered down his tunic. Toby wrinkled his nose in disgust.

‘You’re pathetic,’ Toby said and the guards sniggered gleefully.

‘Says the armoured guard who needs two other men to rough up an unarmed villager,’ Rowan said, after taking a few deep lungfuls of air.

Before he had time to process what was happening, Toby had rushed forward and pressed a dagger to his throat. Fear flooded Rowan’s body. Things had gone to far. His chest heaved up and down deeply as his breathing rate quickened.

‘The filthy mutt has pissed himself,’ one of the guards said.

Toby glanced down and smirked. He returned his attention to Rowan and tilted the dagger so it was resting just beneath his Adam’s apple. Rowan desperately wanted to swallow but refrained, fearing the movement might cause the dagger to nip the skin.

‘What do you reckon boys? Take a finger perhaps, or a toe,’ Toby suggested.

A unanimous vote was made on a finger and Toby took a step back, allowing the guards to force him onto the ground, face down.

‘Please, stop…I won’t bother Millie anymore, I promise,’ Rowan pleaded, trying to wriggle free.

But the guards were too strong. One pinned him down forcefully, while the other yanked his left arm out and spread Rowan’s fingers. Toby knelt down, dagger poised just above Rowan’s pinky finger and gave a wicked smile.

‘Oh I know you won’t. This is just to teach you a lesson.’

Rowan cried out in despair as tears streamed down his face. Any moment now Toby would slice down with his dagger and Rowan would be left mutilated.

‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’

Toby froze, his dagger hovering just above Rowan’s hand. A large and rather sharp cleaver had appeared just in front of his throat. The two guards still pinning Rowan to the ground, released that grip and were reaching for their swords.

‘You’d be wise to keep those swords sheathed, for your friend’s sake anyway.’

Free from the clutches of the guards, Rowan scrambled onto his knees, then staggered to his feet and stumbled back into the wall of the house. It took his eyes a while to adjust, as a lot of dust had kicked up into his face during the struggle.

‘You okay lad?’

Rowan blinked several times and finally gaining his vision, audibly gasped in surprise. His mysterious saviour was none other then Alice’s father. Too taken aback for words, Rowan just nodded numbly. The butcher turned his attention back to Toby.

‘Get up, slowly.’

Toby did as instructed, holding out his hands placatingly. The butcher moved so he was side on to Toby, his cleaver still very close to the young man’s throat.

‘You’re making a mistake,’ Toby said in a quavering tone.

‘Yeah maybe, but then we all make mistakes. Don’t we Rowan?’ The butcher said, glancing over at him sharply.

‘…Yes…sir,’ Rowan stammered.

‘Now here is what’s going to happen. You are going to hand your weapons over to your friends. Then they are going to take their leave. Once I feel suitable time has passed, you too will be allowed to go,’ the butcher explained.

‘No way are we going to let you do that,’ one of the guards protested, taking a step forward.

The butcher brought the cleaver closer to Toby’s throat.

‘…do as he says,’ gasped Toby, unbuttoning his belt and letting it drop to the floor.

The butcher nodded at the other guard and he scrambled forward hastily to retrieve the belt and attached weapons. The butcher gestured they depart with a flap of his cleaver before returning it to just in front of Toby’s neck. The guards took one look last at their leader. He nodded, looking defeated. They turned to leave.

‘And don’t think about coming back with any more of your friends, or I might be liable to something rash,’ the butcher called after them.

One of the grunted in acknowledgement and not long after they were gone. The three of them stood there for a good few minutes, the butcher’s blade still poised at Toby’s throat. His hand was as steady as a rock.

‘Right, now piss off,’ the butcher finally said, lowering his cleaver and giving Toby a hard shove in the back.

Toby threw him the filthiest of looks and the butcher took a step forwards, cleaver raised. The guard got the message and left hurriedly, and soon it was just him and Rowan left.

‘It’s a good look,’ the butcher said, looking Rowan up and down.

The young baker looked a state. His nose and beard were bloody and his face covered in dirt. His shirt was covered in vomit, ale and who knows what else. And there was a damp patch on his hose where he had been unable to control his bladder.

‘Look, about me and Alice…,’ Rowan began but the butcher held up a hand, silencing him.

‘I know things are over between you two.’

‘You do?’ Rowan said surprised.

The butcher sighed deeply.

‘Not that it seems to have made any difference. I caught her with your friend Henry an hour ago.’

Rowan had to use all his willpower not to burst into laughter. He opened his mouth but couldn’t think of anything helpful to say on the matter.

‘Be on your way then, before my temperament changes,’ the butcher said gruffly.

Rowan nodded and made to leave quickly.

‘Thank you,’ he said gratefully, as he passed the big man.

The butcher merely grunted in response.

Rowan had never been so glad to see his father’s house before in his life as he did that night. The last thing he thought of before passing out on his bed was how being the son of a baker wasn’t such a bad life after all.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Rosie and Julian

Julian was the last one of the boys to get a moped, and as such always ended up being stuck at the back of the group whenever they went out for an evening ride. Still the late teen was just happy to be there for the atmosphere. It felt invigorating to be a part of something bigger then himself. Plus it was the only real place he felt he truly belonged. Julian’s parents had decided to have a child later in life. The end result was that they had very little in common with their son. He was interested in fresh new bands like The Who, whereas his parents had more of a classical ear.

The advantage of having older parents though was that it was much easier to sneak out at night because they were usually in bed by nine, and asleep by half past. However a small part of him did envy his best mate Jonesy, whose dad had helped him build his own custom moped. Julian’s dad was a teacher and only ever got hands on when turning the page of a book.

Worse still was that every time he collared Julian creeping back into the house in the morning, he always ran an eye up and down his son and shook his head disapprovingly. Little comments about the way he dressed or the music that blared out his room would infuriate Julian yet further. His father just didn’t get it. The man was just too much of a square and at times Julian wondered if maybe he had been adopted.

Shouting made Julian glance to his left. Jonesy had stood up on his moped and was making wolf howling noises. A few of the others including Julian laughed and joined in. Dean the gang leader, riding at the front of the pack didn’t join in or glance over his shoulder. He was too cool to join in with their antics. Although he did get some sadistic pleasure in how it was probably upsetting the residents of the estate they were cruising around.

A skinny, pretty looking girl was sat behind Dean with her twig like arms wrapped around his waist. She had long brown hair with a straight cut fringe and a smattering of freckles. Her dress was quite short and displayed her long legs. Many of the boys stole glances now and then but knew not to let their eyes linger for too long. She was Dean’s girl and that meant hands off.

A few of the other guys had girls with them too but their positions weren’t so exclusive. Either the charming gents would shift their attention to somebody else after not too long, or alternatively the girl would gravitate towards someone else instead. That usually ended up being Julian.

Although he could quickly become the party animal when encouraged (particularly by Jonesy), Julian was quieter and more introspective then the others. With his dark hair and serious expression girls found him mysterious and intriguing. He was also one of the few of them who actually bothered to listen. Steve, a rotund bloke with blonde hair and a perpetually red face often jested that he was a poof.

Julian paid it no heed. One time they had got into a bit of a punch up over it but that sort of thing wasn’t unusual. They had all scrapped with one another at some point. But most of the time they teased each other mercilessly, and saved their anger and hatred for any unfortunate Rocker that might run into their path.

As they neared the end of the street, an upstairs window of a nearby house was flung open and an vest clad man roared at them to be quiet. Jonesy replied by howling even louder and some of the lads even honked their horns, just to add insult to injury. Julian joined in, grinning like an idiot. He glanced at Jonesy who gave him a wink and started flapping his parka, imitating a bird this time.

Jonesy was the mad one of the bunch. Every group had one. The performer who went above and beyond the call of duty to get a laugh. Julian unzipped his own parka and joined in for the sake of solidarity. It also helped cool him down a little bit. It was a muggy evening and the combination of suit and parka was making him sweat like crazy. They were all heading to a house party around the corner. A girl Dean knew had invited them, as her parents were away for the weekend.

Most of them had already been drinking and some had taken pills in preparation for the party. Julian hadn’t though. He had the sense to stay off the stuff until they reached the house. The journey back home would be a different story however. A bus was pulled over at a stop a little way ahead. The driver was indicating to go right and moving slowly out but Dean paid it no heed.

The driver blasted his horn angrily as he was forced to slam on the brakes. Some of the gang were had to swerve to the right and responded by hitting their own horns, and pulling silly faces at the people sat on the bus as the zoomed past. Jonesy grinned at Julian who laughed back but deep down he had felt his heart race, at the close call they had just had. The house party was already well into the swing of things by the time they arrived. Music blasted out of the open windows and some of the guests were stood in the front garden, smoking and drinking cans of beer.

Julian glanced at the houses sat either side, surprised that the residents hadn’t called the police to complain about the noise. There were no lights on in either, meaning that they were either too scared of the partying kids or they weren’t in. They were a few other mopeds parked up alongside the curb so the gang parked up on the front lawn instead. A few drunken revellers cheered loudly as they dismounted their rides.

As Julian climbed off the moped, resting it on its kickstand, a big fucker of a bloke appeared and thrust a can of beer into his hand. Julian cracked it open and took a big gulp, some of it spilling down his top. Shit. He had spent a good half an hour making himself look sharp in the mirror only to spill sodding beer on his shirt. The big bloke roared with laughter and staggered off back to the house. Dean and his latest squeeze had already gone inside to the rest of the party, as had Steve. Jonesy was chatting up a girl stood up against the wall of the house, smoking a joint. He caught Julian’s eye and raised his eyebrow.

Julian laughed and moved through the garden to the house. It was crammed full of people. It looked like Dean’s friend had invited pretty much everyone on the estate. As Julian weaved and slipped his way through the crowded hallway, he noticed a few recognisable faces. They patted him on the back as he moved past and Julian nodded in response. The furniture in the living room had been pushed to the far edges of the room to make room to dance. Dean was in the centre of the throng of dancing bodies, showing off his girl and dance moves.

Julian joined in for a bit and almost got into a fight when a specky git started on him for dancing with his girl. Steve had shown up and the jealous boyfriend had soon backed down, retreating away with his guilty looking girlfriend in tow. That was the thing Julian liked about the boys. They didn’t always see eye to eye but they stuck up for each other, and you know someone always had your back. Julian’s beer can was empty so he made his way into the kitchen in search of more alcohol. Dean and his lady friend host were chatting to each other against the fridge. His girl was nowhere to be seen and Julian wondered if had moved on to the host of the party. He wouldn’t be surprised.

Other partiers were chilling around the central island of the kitchen, rolling joints and dispensing pills. Julian took an offered pill  and grabbed a beer from the counter top. He ended up getting into a conversation about the Kinks with a kid name Billy who went to the same school as him. They got on well. Billy was a musician and a talented one at that. Usually they hung out together behind the bike shed during the first lesson of the afternoon. Billy was just offering Julian a hit of the passing joint, when Jonesy burst into the room.

‘Julian, Dean, we got some Rockers just turned up and Steve is beating the living crap out of one of them.’

Dean and Julian exchanged raised eyebrows before rushing outside with Jonesy. Half of the people in the kitchen followed closely behind. The other half remained, not keen to see yet another Mod Rocker punch up. Julian could hear shouting and screaming, as he elbowed his way through the hallway to the front door. A large group of party goers had congregated in the front garden. Julian and Dean pushed their way through the dense crowd of spectators to the front. The first thing that Julian noticed were the two motorbikes parked up on the grass next to the mopeds.

Steve was rolling about on the ground with a leather clad Rocker, his fingers hanging on tightly to the front of the other man’s jacket. They were delivering heavy blows to one another with their fists. Steve had a cut lip and the Rocker a bloodied noise. Jonesy was gesticulating wildly, cheering Steve on. Dean watched silently but seemed amused by the two men scrapping with one another. A Rocker girl was stood nearby, screaming at Steve to stop, who had managed to pin the Rocker bloke down and was reigning heavy blows to his face and chest.

The Rocker girl went to step in but the big guy, who had given Julian his first beer grabbed hold of her arms, restraining her. Steve was known for having a bit of a temper and he was seeing red right now. The Rocker was taking a pummelling. Julian glanced at Dean who chose to ignore him. Sighing Julian elbowed Jonesy and motioned at Steve. Jonesy looked put out but seeing Julian’s serious expression he eventually nodded his head. They both stepped forward and with a great effort pulled Steve off the Rocker. There were a few shouts of protest as Jonesy led him away.

The Rocker was lying on the ground defeated, his nose bloody, eyes turning purple and face swollen. The Rocker girl was screaming blue murder and struggling against the big guy, who was grinning amused. She managed to get an arm free and socked him one in the face. He roared in anger and raised a hand. Before Julian knew what he was doing, he had dashed forward and seized the big guy’s hand. The big guy glared at Julian, debating whether or not to take him on instead.

But he caught sight of Dean, Jonesy and Steve standing nearby watching him and changed his mind. Wrenching his hand free, he made an underhand remark and sloped off. Julian turned to look at the Rocker girl. She wore a tight leather jacket, light blue jeans and big black boots. Her hair was jet black and spiky. There was something about her that rooted Julian to the spot. She was pretty but no more so then some of the Mod girls that he and the gang hung out with. But it was something else.

Her eyes were dark and intense and Julian was transfixed by them. She was staring at him with loathing, and when he flashed her a smile she responded by shoving him hard in the chest. A few of the onlookers laughed at this and watched as she knelt down beside her Rocker man and inspected the damage. Julian finally managed to wrench his eyes away from the Rocker girl and turned to face the rest of the gang. Jonesy was grinning at him and shaking his head.

Steve was still glaring furiously at the Rocker couple on the ground. Dean on the other hand was eyeing Julian curiously. It made him slightly uncomfortable. Dean was a cool cat and as good a leader as you could want. But he was awfully intense sometimes and Julian felt that intensity in Dean’s stare. The crowd that had gathered to watch the fight were starting to peel off, having lost interest now that things had calmed down.

Dean opened his mouth to say something but got no further, as the blare of sirens nearby broke the night air. Everyone stood frozen to the spot, immobilised by the approaching threat. Then mass hysteria broke out, as everyone made a dash for freedom. Party goers scattered like rats out of a sinking ship. Dean, Jonesy and Steve were already at their mopeds and firing up their engines. A few people barged past Julian, as more party goers streamed out of the open front door of the house.

Jonesy was shouting at Julian something mad but it was having no effect. Julian was still watching the Rocker girl with her man, who seemed to be the only ones not moving. Fed up of waiting, Dean and Steve made tracks. Jonesy remained there for a little while longer but when it was apparent that Julian wasn’t going to move any time soon, he too zoomed off. The sirens were louder now and the blue lights of the nearing police cars could be glimpsed down the street. Suddenly snapping into action, Julian ran over to the Rocker girl and grabbed her by the arm.

‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ he shouted to her over the shrill scream of the fast advancing sirens.

‘I won’t leave him,’ she cried, wrenching her arm from his grasp.

The Rocker dude was in a bad way but he was conscious and mumbling incoherently.

‘Look I don’t know about you but I’m carrying a few things that will land me in trouble with the rozzers. I assume you are in the same boat. Are you really sure you want to hang around and try explaining that plus all this to them?’ Julian said quickly, gesturing at the bloodied Rocker dude.

The Rocker girl looked torn. She glanced from her bloodied man to Julian, biting her lip anxiously. The police appeared at this moment and that seemed to make her decision for her. She took one last guilty look at her man before clambering to her feet and following after Julian. He was leading her back into the house which confused her at first, but when she noticed other people heading that way too she realised it was to avoid running straight into the police coming the other way.

The house was a mess. Cans of half full beer and empty glasses littered the floor. Any chairs or tables that had unfortunately been in the path of the fleeing guests were upturned, lying on their backs like helpless tortoises. Everyone was heading in the same direction. For the back door in the kitchen that led to the rear garden. As they entered the kitchen the Rocker girl slipped on a patch of spilled beer. Julian grabbed her arm to keep her from falling. She shrugged him off but there was a glimpse of acceptance in her unforgiving eyes.

There were footsteps close behind them and nearby shouting. Julian didn’t know if it was other fleeing guests or the police themselves. Either way he wasn’t going to stick around to find out. Making it to the garden, they paused deciding which way to go. Most people were climbing over the fences to the left and right of the garden. The Rocker girl went to follow but Julian grabbed her arm. She shot him a furious look but realised he was motioning for her to follow him instead. Not having time to argue, she nodded and the two moved off.

Instead of joining the others as they fought to clamber over the side fences, Julian led the Rocker girl to the rear fence. The fence was just a little bit too high, so Julian crouched down and laced his fingers together. The Rocker girl glanced back at the house for a second and then allowed Julian to boost her up. She clambered over the top and disappeared over the other side. Julian made the mistake of looking over his shoulder. More party goers were spilling out the kitchen door, followed closely behind by impassive faced police officers.

Julian took a few steps back and ran at the fence, launching himself at it at the last moment. Thanks to his lanky physique and height, he was just able to cling onto the top. His legs scrambled for purchase on the flat slats of the fence. This was not helped by him having to hold up his own body weight. Eventually through a combination of grit and fear of the encroaching police, Julian managed to climb over the top and drop into the next garden. He slipped on the wet grass on the other side and landed on his backside with a audible oomph.

At least it was well padded he thought to himself. The Rocker girl was already sneaking forward through the garden, looking for a way out. Julian scrambled to his feet and followed after her. She had reached a back gate leading to a communal path that ran behind the terraced houses. Julian seized her by the arm, yanking her back sharply before she had a chance to attempt opening the door. The Rocker girl spun round to face him, a furious expression on her.

But the look of annoyance turned to alarm when she saw he had a finger pressed to his lips. He was staring intently at the top of the rear garden fence. The flickering of approaching torchlight had caught his attention. Some of the coppers must have been searching the path between the houses, looking for escapees from the party.

Julian motioned for her to follow him and they crept over to a nearby shed. The door was stiff and required the two of them to prise it open. They slipped inside and closed the door behind them, just as the lights from the overlooking house came on. It was very dark in the small shed and Julian banged his knee on something hard as they tried to navigate a way to a non occupied space.

The Rocker girl suffered a nasty knock to the head from something hanging in the darkness, but brushed off Julian when he tried to check she was alright. Eventually they found a free spot and lowered themselves gingerly onto the floor. The slats were cold underneath them but they both sat still, fearing any more movement would draw attention. They sat together in the darkness of the shed, neither one saying a thing. Julian kept making furtive glances at the Rocker girl. She either didn’t notice or was choosing to ignore him.

They could hear the sound of faint voices and heavy footfalls on the nearby path for a while. It kept the two still and on edge. Julian was expecting the door to be flung open at any moment and a pair of mean faced bobby’s to materialise on the other side. But it never happened. After a while the noises petered off and the only sounds that could be heard were that of the wind rustling the trees and the occasional owl hoot.

Feeling they were probably safe for the time being, Julian turned to say something to the Rocker Girl but discovered she had fallen asleep. She had brought her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Every now and then her body would shiver from the constantly pervading chill. Taking care to not make too much noise, Julian removed his large parka and placed it gingerly on top of her. She mumbled in her sleep and he froze, fearing she might wake up and reprimand him. But a moment later, she lay still again.

 

Julian was woken by the bright light of the morning sun shining through one of the shed windows. He was sat slumped awkwardly against the shed wall, one arm resting on the handle of a lawnmower that had seen better days. He sat up and shivered. His back was sore from having slept in an uncomfortable position and his head pounded from the hangover and pills. Julian went to reach into his parka coat pocket for his come down miracle cure joint when he realised it wasn’t on him. Then he remembered covering the Rocker girl with it last night.

‘Looking for this.’

Julian glanced round surprised. The Rocker girl was sat a few feet away from him, wrapped up in his coat and holding the joint between her fingers. Ignoring his shocked expression, she raised her other hand which held a lighter and sparked up the joint. She took a deep drag and then exhaled, watching him with a challenging stare the whole time.

‘Help yourself,’ Julian said with a wry smile.

‘I figure its the least you could do considering what your mate did to my fella,’ she said, taking another hit of the lit joint.

‘Look, I’m sorry about that,’ Julian said awkwardly. ‘Steve has a nasty temper, especially around you…’

‘You what?’ The Rocker girl interjected with a fierce look.

‘Nothing,’ Julian mumbled, shifting his attention to his lap.

They lapsed into silence for a while, Julian becoming increasingly conscious that the Rocker girl was still smoking his spliff. He held out for a while before he eventually had to say something.

‘Any chance I could get on some of that? It is my joint after all?’

The Rocker girl regarded him coldly for a moment but then relented and handed it over with a sigh. Julian took a long drag before exhaling in his favourite way with an Irish waterfall. The Rocker girl had her head lent back against the slats of the shed wall, eyes closed. Julian had to admit she was cool. For a Rocker anyway. They both finished the joint in silence, relaxing as it worked its magic. The atmosphere was still a little tense but then they were supposed to be mortal enemies.

‘Do you think it is safe to leave now?’ The Rocker girl announced, suddenly becoming aware how long they had both been in the shed.

‘I should think so. Unless you’re wanted for murder, I doubt they would stay out the whole night looking for you,’ Julian responded.

His attempt at humour failed miserably and the Rocker girl just glanced at him blankly. He was about to say something else when she suddenly got to her feet.

‘Where are you going?’ Julian blurted out.

‘I don’t know about you but I think I have spent enough time in a shed with a stranger,’ the Rocker girl said bluntly.

‘My name’s Julian,’ he replied, not sure why he had felt the need to say it.

‘Rosie,’ the Rocker girl stated and moved over to the shed door.

‘Wait up,’ Julian, said, scrambling to his feet.

It was early morning outside but the pair were still careful to not make any noise as they headed for the rear gate at the back of the garden. At any moment Julian was expecting someone to come running out of the house, armed with a kitchen utensil. But they reached the gate safely and slipped through it to the path beyond. They walked a little way down it together before coming to a halt. Rosie turned to face Julian. She took off the parka and offered it to him.

‘Thanks for the lend and the smoke,’ she said, somewhat stiffly.

‘Won’t you be cold?’ Julian said, noting the frost on the grass by the path.

‘I live just around the corner. Besides, my boyfriend will go ballistic if he sees me wearing it,’ Rosie pointed out.

Julian nodded, taking the coat. The two stood in awkward silence for a moment before eventually Rosie turned to leave.

‘I’m…really sorry about….I’m not like the others,’ Julian blurted out suddenly.

Rosie turned to face him and smiled. It was the first time he had seen her do it since the two had met. It was the sort of smile that made his heart ache and knees weak.

‘Me neither,’ Rosie said and with that she left.

Julian stood on the path for a whole minute, trying to process the complex and conflicted feelings running haywire around his mind. Then he started to make his way slowly home. He carried the parka in one hand but refrained from putting it on, despite the chill morning weather.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Melas

The tall man lent forward and patted the furry mane of his horse compassionately. He had ridden fast and hard for the last three days, trying to outrun his pursuers. Glancing over his shoulder at the looming mountain far behind, he expected to see dark shapes descending its slope. But the mountain sat quiet, apart from the rumble of the clouds shrouding its summit. Instead of leaving the mountain straight away, the man had spent a considerable amount of time covering his tracks and starting fresh ones leading in the other direction. In doing so, he hoped to throw them off the scent and send them the wrong way.

This wasn’t the first time he had been sought after, and the man was well versed in using the land around him as a tool in deceiving his opponents. A small niggling concern ate away at him however. This Marshall that was after him had a reputation for being a tough nut to crack. Prior to the job, the law man had been a tracker. That made the man nervous. He had a knack for wriggling out of even the most dire looking of circumstances, but there was the uncomfortable feeling that he might have finally met his match.

The man returned his attention to the vast plain of sand and rocks, interspersed by messy tufts of grass, that lay before him. In the distance there stood a small town. It was the only visible landmark on the horizon and although it looked rundown and unassuming, it drew attention simply from the fact that it was the only signs of civilisation in the vicinity. The man regarded it in quiet contemplation.

He struck an impressive figure with his tall, lean physique and the majestic looking beast he was sat atop. His face was extremely creased and weather beaten, resembling that of tight and stretched leather. But there was a handsome quality to his features. Mainly in his eyes, that were a striking shade of green. His lips were dried and cracked from a combination of the strong rays of the sun, and a lack of hydration.

The man was wearing a dark brown waistcoat with a yellowing shirt underneath and dusty, frayed trousers. His boots and hat were the same shade of brown as his waistcoat, although they both looked a little tired and worn. The lone rider would have gotten away with looking just about presentable, if it hadn’t been for his scraggly beard and long brown hair. The end result was a man that looked ill fitted to the clothes he wore. This was probably due to the fact that the attire didn’t belong to him in the first place. But that was an entirely different story.

‘What do you think boy?’ he said, leaning forward to whisper in the horse’s ear.

The tired looking stead jerked its great head to the side and snorted in response. The man nodded understandably.

‘Yeah I know what you mean. I’m not sure either.’

He felt a drop of water fleck his hand and glanced up. The sky was dark and grey, signalling the onset of bad weather.

‘But it looks like we have no choice,’ he said, taking up the reins.

It was raining hard by the time man and horse had reached the town. After the last few days of intense riding over all manner of terrain, the sudden downpour was a welcome relief. At the entrance to the town, the man tugged on the reins, pulling the animal to a halt. Removing his hat, he tilted his face up to the sky and smiled contently as the rain poured down his face and neck. The horse looked less impressed and wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of being hitched to a post, and left out to get wet while his master found somewhere warm and enclosed to hunker down.

When the man felt refreshed enough, he plonked his hat back atop his head and made a clicking noise with his teeth. At the same time he squeezed his legs together. The horse moved begrudgingly forward through the town entrance, a simple three post affair. A sign hanging from the middle of the top post read ‘Melas’. As they passed through, the man noticed two large wooden crosses had been dug into the ground, either side of the entrance. Perhaps they were just very proud of the faith he thought to himself.

Like most towns and settlements the man had visited, the layout was simple and familiar. One long dirt track ran down the middle, with shops and businesses on one side and houses on the other. It was deadly quiet and although the man could make out the flicker of candle light emanating through the dusty windows of some of the houses, the curtains had been pulled across barring view. The weather of course left much to be desired, but it was unusual for there to be no activity at all in the street.

It was late afternoon but the man was used to seeing horses hitched up, or traders loading up wagons. But if there were any horses they weren’t here. More likely they had been moved to a barn, out of the wet and the cold. Still there was something about the place that didn’t quite add up. His horse certainly seem to share the same sentiment, as it began whinnying and veering over to the left.

‘Whoa easy boy,’ he cooed, steering the reins with one hand and stroking the spooked beast to calm him.

The horse eventually settled but still seemed uneasy and made the occasional whine of protest. The animal clearly didn’t want to be there, but was furiously loyal to his master. The two shared a strong bond and trust. The dependable beast had remained cool headed and not bolted in a great many tense encounters. Likewise, the man had always looked after the horse, tending to the creature’s wounds and never treating him cruelly like he had seen some other riders do. In truth the man didn’t want to be there either, but he desperately needed water, some food and a chance for both him and his animal to rest. Not for too long though. The Marshall was no doubt on his trail and it wouldn’t do well for the man to rest on his laurels.

The hat was doing its best to keep the persisting rain at bay, but the man’s eyes were blurry from a veil of water. He wiped them against his sleeve and scanned the row of houses once more. Most of the windows had the faint glow of candle light but some were completely dark. These apparently unoccupied dwellings also had large crosses on the door painted in red. This usually meant it had been marked as a place of disease. But the man had travelled this part of the country countless times, and never heard or come across instances of a disease outbreak.

Still, he steered clear of the marked houses just in case. The last thing the man wanted was to have escaped and ridden for his life, only to be struck down by a mysterious illness. Continuing down the street, he noticed that the small businesses on the other side were dark and unoccupied too. Unlike the marked houses, they didn’t bear any crosses or warning signs. But it was odd to see both the gun shop and the doctor’s surgery not open.

If it hadn’t been for the lights in some of the houses, the man would have presumed that he was riding through a ghost town. The street opened up into a wide square. On the corner of the row of silent shops stood a large saloon. The lights were on and there was the low hum of chatter coming from inside. A figure was stood on the porch steps of the establishment, smoking a pipe.

‘Afternoon,’ the man said loudly over the loud noise of the rain.

The figure looked round suddenly and the man caught sight of their eyes. They were wide with alarm. The rest of their face was hidden in the shadow of the porch.

‘I was beginning to think there was no one here,’ the man said, trotting over to a nearby hitching post and climbing down from the large animal.

‘Where can I find….’ he trailed off, as he glanced up from securing the horse’s reins to the post.

The figure was gone and all that was left in their place was the swinging saloon doors. The man cursed and gave his stead’s mane a quick brush over. From the saddlebags he produced an apple and the horse hoovered it up appreciatively. The rain had eased off a bit now, but he would have to get the animal inside soon. The roof of the saloon porch only provided a bit of cover. The man was hoping that someone inside might allow him use of a nearby barn.

It wasn’t quite dark yet but the bad weather had affected the light, making it appear later then it was. The man climbed up the porch steps, feeling his joints seize up from being sat on his horse for a long time. Voices, sounds and movement could be heard from inside, but the place wasn’t raucous with noise. If anything it seemed somewhat subdued, even from where the man was stood on the porch. As he pushed through the salon doors and across the threshold, the low level of noise died completely. All eyes turned on him and suddenly the man felt extremely self conscious.

Entering any saloon you always attracted attention and the man had to be careful which places to stop at. Certain drinking holes would have a poster of his face up on the wall for sure. He had taken a gamble with this place but being so out the way, he hoped the news might not have reached them yet. The downstairs area of the saloon was large with many tables and chairs, a piano thrust into one corner and a long bar stretching nearly the entire width of the back wall. Despite the size, just under half of the tables were occupied. A group of men were playing cards nearest him and although they were watching the man like everyone else, they kept shifting their eyes back to their hands every time he looked their way.

Another group, slightly older men with muddy faces and dirt ridden clothes were eyeing the man suspiciously. Based on the clothes they were wearing and their heavily creased and weathered faces, the man presumed they were labourers. On the other side of the room sat two elderly ladies, both knitting. One of them locked eyes with the man and threw him a disapproving look. Not enjoying the intense examination of his person, the man moved towards the bar. He felt the patrons’ stares follow him. A set of tall stairs ran up one side of the wall to a second floor balcony that looked down onto the main room.

A few scantily dressed woman lent on the banister, watched him curiously. They seemed the only group to not be wary of his presence, and one of them even gave him a cheeky wink as he glanced her way. The man hadn’t felt the touch of a woman for some time now, and without meaning to do so he ran his eyes up and down the curves of her body. She blushed scarlet and giggled excitedly. The man would have found it appealing if not for the little voice in his head telling him it was all part of the act. Stealing his eyes away from the siren on the stairs, he made for the bar.

The barman was short and stocky with an impressive moustache and slicked back hair. He was stood at the far end of the counter, talking to a pair of portly old cowboys, who seemed to be leaning on the bar as a necessity rather then by choice. They were talking in hushed whispers, pausing every now and then to glance in the man’s direction. The man caught sight of himself in the mirror and had to look twice before he recognised himself.

‘What will it be?’ the barman said, sidling in front of the man and folding his arms.

He didn’t appear hostile, but his body language conveyed that the man’s presence wasn’t wanted.

‘Whiskey,’ the man grumbled, removing his sodden hat and putting it on the counter top.

As the barman saw to the task of preparing his drink, the man glanced to his left feeling the presence of someone nearby. It was the figure from outside. He recognised the hat and boots. What he hadn’t noticed or seen from outside was that it was a woman. She had long blonde hair tied back in a tight ponytail and a sharp, angular face. A dusty bottle was clasped in one hand on the bar, which she took a swig from every once in a while. The man greeted her with a nod. She didn’t reply the gesture, but observed him shrewdly from her position further up the bar.

‘One whiskey,’ the barman announced, sliding the glass over to the man without warning.

His hand shot out, catching the drink effortlessly. He downed the whiskey and felt the warmth of the spirit spread throughout his chest. It kept some of the shivers at bay from his damp clothes. What he really needed though was a hot bath. Sliding the empty glass across the bar, he ordered another. The barman obliged but looked a little irritated. From his pocket the man brought out a handful of coins and dropped them on the bar. The barman’s eyes lingered on the man’s fingers. Two of them were bandaged and tinged red.

‘How much for a room?’ The man inquired, as the barman topped up his glass.

‘I’m sorry, but all our rooms are taken,’ he said, stony faced.

The man glanced around him. There were even less tables occupied now, as the old knitters had seen fit to leave.

‘You kidding me? There’s hardly anyone here.’

The barman sighed and glanced at the mysterious woman further down the bar. Eyes still trained on the man, she began to move slowly towards him.

‘Look mister, I think its best that you drink up and move on,’ the barman said.

The hostility that had previously been exhibited by the barman had now turned to one of uncomfortable anxiety.

‘What is the deal with this place anyway?’ The man said, frowning deeply.

The barman opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by the loud ringing of a bell from outside. The low chatters and murmurs of the gathered patrons died, and they began getting quickly to their feet. The barman began hastily clearing the counter and packing stuff away. The man had to quickly down his drink before it was whisked away too. Some of the patrons were moving at speed towards the salon doors, while others were hurrying up the stairs to the second floor. The enticing ladies on the landing had disappeared.

‘You need to leave now,’ the barman said with a warning expression.

‘Its too late now, they will be here soon.’

The two men glanced round. The woman was stood by the window, staring out through a gap in the curtains. It was almost dark now, the late afternoon bleeding into early evening.

‘No Constance. You know the rules,’ the barman barked sternly.

The woman moved over to the bar and glared at him.

‘He won’t last five minutes out there and you know it.’

The man looked from the barman to Constance then back again, utterly confused.

‘Can someone please tell me what the heck is going on?’

They both looked at him sharply.

‘Where is your horse?’ Constance demanded urgently.

‘Hitched just outside…why?’ The man replied, no more clued up.

‘Come with me,’ she ordered and began to head for the saloon doors.

‘Don’t do it Constance,’ the barman called after her, but she wasn’t listening.

The man watched after her for a moment then realising she was making some pace, grabbed up his hat and followed after her. By the time he got outside, the man noticed that Constance had already untied his horses’ reins and was leading the animal away from the saloon.

Hang on a darn minute, he doesn’t like strangers,’ the man called, catching up to her and snatching the reins out of her grasp.

‘Seems friendly enough to me,’ Constance said moving ahead of the man and horse.

It was true. Normally the man’s horse wouldn’t even let another person near him, let alone take his reins. But the creature seemed at ease with Constance. They followed her across the square and down an adjoining street. This part of the town was less built up with more open space. The swill of pig manure filled the man’s nostrils but as the passed the open topped pen on the right, he noticed there were no pigs in sight.

The loud ringing of the bell could be heard more clearly now, and scanning up ahead the man saw its source. A wooden post stood at the end of the street with a large bell affixed to its top. A knotted rope hung out the bottom, which was being whacked back and forth against the bell by a thin man dressed all in black. A huge barn loomed over the black clad bell ringer, and the man was struck by how ominous the whole picture looked.

‘Better get inside quickly Miss Constance,’ the man in black said, pausing mid ring.

Constance nodded as she passed him, breaking into a jog towards the barn.

‘Father,’ the man said, tipping his hat to the bell ringer as he too strode past.

‘Beware the demons for they lurk in the shadows,’ the bell ringer announced loudly and returned to the task at hand.

The man’s ears rung from the bell’s severity and he silently cursed the priest for not waiting until he was further away. Constance had already opened up one of the large barn doors, and so the man led his horse inside quickly. The smell of manure and wet hay rose to meet them. It was hot and eye watering, but the man was accustomed to such smells. The light was quickly diminishing but he could make out the large bulky shapes of other horses in the gloomy interior. Constance was busy lighting a candle in order to see better.

‘Close the door,’ she instructed bluntly.

‘But we will be going out again…’ he began.

‘Just do it,’ she snapped irritably.

The man did as he was told. Usually he didn’t take any flack from anyone but this woman seemed a force unto herself. Barn door closed, he followed the candlelight and helped Constance get the horse settled at the back of the barn. They worked quickly, both having gone through the rigmarole a number of times before.

‘Got a name mister?’ Constance asked, as they worked.

Herschel,’ the man replied.

‘Herschel what?’ Constance queried.

‘Just Herschel,’ he said simply.

‘Sure it is,’ Constance said doubtfully. ‘No matter. As long as you don’t see fit to make any trouble I don’t care what name you use.’

‘I’m not here to cause trouble ma’am,’ the man said plainly.

Constance studied him for a moment before deciding that he seemed genuine. Ironically the man’s first name actually was Herschel. It was the name his parents had given him but one that he hadn’t used in a long time. However it was technically his real name. They were heading back towards the barn doors when Constance froze on the spot.

‘What’s wrong?’ Herschel said in a hushed voice, unsure why he was whispering in the first place.

‘Listen,’ Constance whispered back.

Herschel cocked his head to one side before he realised what it was.

‘The bell.’

She nodded. It had stopped ringing. In the candlelight he could see that she looked utterly terrified. It was odd, as up until now Constance had struck him as not being afraid of anything. In the wake of the bell all that could be heard was their heavy breaths, and the movement from the horses behind them. A sudden gust of wind whipped up, whistling through the gaps in the wooden boards of the barn. The candle was extinguished and suddenly they were plunged into the darkness. Herschel knew something wasn’t right, as the horses began neighing and whining like mad.

He turned to go and feel his way back to his horse but Constance’s hand clamped down on his arm. In the slivers of moonlight that were shining through the cracks in the barn walls, Herschel could just make out her warning expression. They both remained crouched, waiting for whatever it was that was sending the horses into a mad frenzy. Although the animals were extremely agitated, no sounds of movement could be heard from outside. Then several horrendous inhuman screeches broke the night air. The horses started thrashing around wildly, smacking their flanks into the wooden dividers that they stood behind.

There was the sound of many footsteps thumping the ground either side of the barn, and once again those bone chilling screams and wails that made Herschel’s blood turn icy cold. He was a tough man and had faced many terrifying threats throughout his life, be that the slathering jaws of a wild animal or the dark barrel of a law man’s gun. But never had he heard such hideous and unnatural sounds as the ones coming from outside. He wanted to reach out and take hold of Constance’s hand, but something told him that it wasn’t a good idea. Some of the horses were still bucking about and whinnying like mad, but most had shrunk to the back of the enclosures and were paralysed with fear.

The majority of the footsteps and shrieks had passed by the barn and were steadily fading away, but there was still some movement occurring just outside the barn doors. The man could see their shadows every now and then through the thin gaps in the woodwork. They weren’t shrieking like the others but there was a sniffing snorting noise that was almost as worse. The beasts, whatever they were, could smell that there was a source of food inside the building. The man slowly brought down his hand and rested in gently on his holstered gun. At any moment he was expecting the creatures to charge at the doors. He realised his arm was shaking and took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves.

This excruciating process went on for some time. The shrieks and cries could still be heard, although they were further away now. It sounded like they had made their way further into the town, in the hopes of finding an easier source of prey. Eventually, the bloodhound creatures gave up too and moved away from the barn. Constance and Herschel crawled over to a pile of hay for a little more comfort while they waited. Eventually the distant shrieks began to fade away too. Herschel’s eyelids were starting to droop when the noises from outside finally ceased. All that was left in its place was the howling of the wind and the startled horses.

‘I think it is safe to go out now,’ he said, speaking up for the time in hours.

Constance shook her head adamantly.

‘We wait until daybreak. ‘

Herschel sighed but didn’t protest. Constance’s expression was deadly serious and after what he had just heard and experienced, it seemed best to do as she advised. Another hour passed. To kill the time, the pair of them set about calming the horses. Initially Constance was against the idea but eventually came around, as there hadn’t been any signs of the creatures for a good while.

It must have been just after midnight when the two of them both dozed off in the pile of hay. Herschel had thought he would never be able to sleep, the adrenaline from the night’s activity still pumping around his body. But the adrenaline had also been a shock to his system, and a wave of tiredness had engulfed him. Constance two had fought hard to keep her eyes open and kept dozing and waking several times, before eventually succumbing to its will.

A voice in the distance was calling out for help. Herschel rolled over and frowned in his sleep. There it was again. A man’s voice, far off but drawing nearer. At first he thought it was part of his dream but as he swum up through the layers of his unconscious, it became clearer and more vivid. He broke the surface of the dream and his eyes flickered open.

‘Somebody help,’ the voice cried.

Herschel blinked a few times and rolled onto his back, before he realised it was happening for real. He sat up. It was still dark and although he had only been asleep for a few hours, it felt like he had been out for a lot longer.

‘Please… help me,’ the voice cried again in a desperate plea.

Herschel got up and walked cautiously towards the barn doors, hand placed lightly on his holstered gun once more. The voice started up again, this time much closer. He peered through a thin gap in one of the doors. It took his eyes a while to adjust but then he saw a shape stumbling towards him.

‘…I need…help,’ the figure cried again, his voice straining with the effort.

He was hunched over and staggering. Nearer now, Herschel could make out the mysterious figure more clearly. Whoever this person was he was injured and in need of assistance. It could be trap he thought to himself. But if he was wrong then the unlucky soul would either die of his injuries, or the hungry beasts would return to finish him off. Herschel was reaching to unlatch the bolt of the door when a loud click made him freeze mid action.

‘Step away from the door.’

He turned slowly around. Constance was on her feet and pointing her pistol directly at him. Her hand was steady and her expression determined.

‘We have to help him. He looks hurt,’ Herschel protested.

‘Under no circumstances will you open that door,’ she responded calmly but coldly.

‘Please…help me,’ the voice cried feebly, right outside the door.

A flicker of hesitation appeared in Constance’s eyes and her gun dipped slightly. Herschel threw caution to the wind, spun round and flicked up the door bolt. Constance fired and the bullet thudded into the door just above his head. Although it had missed he ducked instinctively and backed slowly away from the door, palms face up in surrender. Constance’s gun was still aimed on him, despite a look of guilt on her face. The door swung inward and the figure from outside staggered inside, stopped dead in his tracks and collapsed onto the floor. Herschel rushed forward and dropped to his knees beside the fallen figure.

‘Be careful, don’t get to close to him,’ Constance warned, her gun now fixed on the felled man.

‘He is half dead for Christ’s sake,’ Herschel replied tersely.

‘Which is exactly what I’m worried about,’ Constance said, moving over and swinging the door shut and bolting it once more.

Herschel placed two fingers against the side of the unconscious man’s neck for a couple of seconds.

‘He hasn’t got a pulse. Help me roll him over,’ he asked Constance.

‘Herschel, you need to step away from that body right now,’ she instructed, cocking her revolver once more.

He ignored her and gritting his teeth he heaved on the immobile man. The body was dead weight but with a massive effort and a strong heave, Herschel managed to roll him onto his back. He studied the man’s face. It was ghostly white.

‘He has lost a lot of blood by the looks of it,’ Herschel surmised, noticing a bloody wound on the man’s shoulder.

Tentatively, he peeled back the tattered pieces of shirt still clinging to the bloody skin. It had stopped bleeding but the wound marks caught the man’s attention. He leaned in to take a closer look but it was too dark to see clearly.

‘I need some light. I can’t see what I am doing.’

There was no answer. He glanced over his shoulder at Constance. She was stood in the dark, only the glint of the gun’s barrel and her eyes could be made out clearly. He felt movement nearby and was in the process of twisting back round, when something hurtled out of the dark towards him. Searing pain flooded his body, as something tore into the skin of his face. Herschel fell backwards, scrambling wildly across the floor. Three deep, bloodied scars ran down his face. He smacked into a crate and cradled his mutilated face, as an ear splitting screech erupted through the barn.

Herschel was deafened by the shrill inhuman scream as it burst his eardrums. He would have covered his ears, but was more concerned with the state of his ravaged face. A loud gunshot reverberated around him and the high pitched cry was cut off. There was a loud bang, followed by a deep thud and he felt the floor tremble beneath him. The cries started up again but this time were strained and weak.

Herschel wiped at some of the blood that had dripped into his left eye from the open wound. It only smeared it around more. Not wanting to but knowing he didn’t have a choice, Herschel lowered his hands and looked up. What with it being dark and only having one good eye to see through, he could only make out two dark shapes in front of the barn doors. One of the shapes was stood over the other that was writhing madly on the floor.

He crawled forward and felt out in the dark with a hand. It curled around something long and sturdy fixed to the ground. With a tremendous effort, Herschel managed to pull himself up and onto his feet. He was staggering towards the two shapes when he realised that the one stood up was Constance. Her arms were held high above her head and grasped between her hands was something long and pointed.

Herschel opened his mouth to speak but at that moment Constance dropped down onto the body, bringing the sharpened item down in a fast arc. Herschel gasped in abject horror as there was a sickening puncture sound, followed by another bone chilling wail. By the time he reached Constance she had climbed up off the body.

‘You invited them in,’ she said simply and stepped back, letting her bloodied hands drop to her sides.

Utterly speechless, Herschel focused his good eye on the body. What he saw filled him with a deep dread. A sharpened wooden stake had been plunged into the dead man’s chest. But it wasn’t just the impaled piece of wood that made Herschel’s blood run cold. The dead man’ whole body was stretched out of shape. His arms, legs and torso had elongated twice the length of a normal human.

It had happened at such an accelerated rate that the skin had been torn and ripped, exposing the muscle beneath. This was not all. The corpse’s nails and teeth were extremely long and sharpened. Some hideous transformation had taken place. He turned to face Constance who had unholstered her gun once more.

‘What the hell is that?’ he said, pointing at the corpse.

A cacophony of sudden screams broke the night air, followed by a stampede of noise rumbling through the ground towards the barn. Herschel couldn’t work out how big the approaching group was, but the mass of shadows glimpsed through the gaps in the door boards suggested a sizeable force. Suddenly something large and powerful smacked into the barn doors. Herschel jumped back in alarm. The wooden barricade trembled but remained firm.

Two more tremendous thuds rocked through the doors and they buckled slightly. Herschel stepped back so he was stood beside Constance, and pulled out his own revolver. Several more bangs and there was a worrying creak from the wooden structure. He aimed his gun at the barn doors, knowing that in only a matter of moments they would give way.

‘You brought this on us,’ Constance said in an even tone.

Herschel turned to face her and cried out in alarm. It was too late. Constance pulled the trigger and her head exploded. Blood, brain matter and fragments of skull flew into the air. The barn doors gave one last tired creak, before the wood splintered completely. The force of the weight from the other side ripped the doors clean off their hinges and they crashed forward into the barn. The dark shapes poured in, their shrill screams filling the air. But the loudest most disturbing scream of all was the cry of Herschel, as he was overrun by the inhuman creatures and mercilessly torn apart.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Incarcerated

Adrian Toomes looked out the window at the world blurring past in a myriad of greens and greys and sighed forlornly. He was sat at the back of a bus that was taking him to his new home. Or more accurately his new cage. His incarceration had always been inevitable, and the brief spell he had spent between time served had been but a short respite. The bar that stretched the length of the window pane preventing it from being opened tautened Adrian cruelly.

Glancing around the interior of the metal shuttle bumping and bouncing speedily down the road, he observed his fellow inmates. They all wore the same uniform, taking away any sense of individuality or uniqueness. They were all merely numbers and like cattle herded from place to place until eventually they could be secured. Adrian locked eyes with another inmate and immediately shifted his gaze.

This new facility they were headed to wasn’t just more secure then his previous residency, but it was also much more dangerous. Adrian knew it was not wise to pick an enemy early on. He had risen to a position of respect in his previous occupancy, but it had taken time and hard work to get there. The rules were different now. His reputation meant nothing in the new facility.

Two other inmates were talking loudly further up the bus and the driver suddenly barked at them to be quiet. They were silenced immediately and spent the rest of the journey conversing in hushed whispers. Adrian was starting to realise how much stricter this place was going to be, and part of him longed for his old facility.

As the bus slowed and turned into the facility entrance, he studied the building out of the window. It was an ugly looking structure, all concrete and glass. The grass lawn in front of the entrance was infested with a large murder of crows. It felt like an ill omen, as did the angry black clouds that hung over the building like an ominous and malignant force.

The bus jerked rather sharply to a halt and Adrian nearly smacked his head into the window bar. The side doors at the front hissed open and the driver barked at them again, this time to get off. The inmates rose out of their seats and shuffled single file down the narrow aisle to the doors. Some moved slowly and hesitantly, others casually and lackadaisical.

It was obvious which ones were the new recruits and those that were repeat offenders. Not only were there mannerisms a clear indicator, but also the sheer size of them. The regulars dwarfed the new arrivals noticeably and were eyeing some of them hungrily. No doubt looking for fresh prey.

As Adrian stepped down off the bus the facility seem to loom even more over him, and he felt himself shiver in its all encompassing shadow. His new uniform itched horribly and was about two sizes too big. This wasn’t ideal as it would make him appear even more weedy and skinny looking to the bigger inmates.

A stony faced man was stood at the entrance, his thick arms folded across his chest. He was wearing a shirt rolled up at the sleeves, suit trousers and polished loafers. From his appearance and general bearing, Adrian surmised that the man was the governor of the facility.

He motioned for them to follow him inside and led the way through the building’s automatic doors into a big holding area. Adrian noticed that the entrance had two automatic doors. Visitors or leavers had to be buzzed through the first, then wait to be buzzed in through the second.

They were operated from someone inside, behind a partition layer of glass. Adrian wasn’t the only new inmate who noticed the security measures. It was much more advanced then his previous facility, and escape looked a far trickier prospect in this high tech place.

In the holding area the governor explained the rules and systems of the facility. The inmates that were frequent visitors were escorted away by a couple of guards. They raised their eyebrows at the returning inmates, not surprised. Some of them exchanged smiles of amusement with them. They both knew the score and had done the dance before.

The remaining new arrivals stood where they were. Some of them were eyeing their new surroundings with wide, alert eyes. Others looked positively bored and were sighing or stifling yawns. Adrian on the other hand was listening attentively.

Speech over, a few more guards appeared and began to separate them into groups. Adrian’s guard was a tall man in his thirties with a blonde ponytail. He had a permanently tired looking expression and gave Adrian the impression that he would rather be anywhere then here. They were led to the right hand corner of the holding area and through a set of double doors.

The guards and the governor were the only ones with access in and out. They were led down a long wing with doors lining one side and a wall of glass on the other side. Beyond it lay a courtyard where some of the inmates were shooting hoops and kicking balls around.

As they navigated their way down the wing, Adrian glimpsed through one of the open doors on the right and saw it was a library. A few inmates were browsing the bookshelves while others sat at tables reading quietly. Adrian felt his spirits lift a little. At least there was literature and the opportunity to escape his dreary circumstances, and enter the realms of fantasy for an hour or two.

One of the inmates holding a heavy looking hard back novel in his hand, glanced his way suddenly. The inmates’ lips spread into an evil grin and Adrian hurriedly sped up, sincerely hoping he hadn’t just made a enemy. But there was the horrible feeling that it had already happened regardless.

Although things hadn’t got off to the best start, his day became a lot better when he was allowed into the workshop. Woodwork was one of Adrian’s favourite hobbies, taking after his father who had been a carpenter. The woodwork instructor was an odd fellow. Before they were allowed anywhere near the tools, he elaborated in great detail the repercussions for misbehaving in his workshop.

He then went on to explain what would happen in the case of an injury or accident. The instructor, who came across as very blase essentially pointed out that if you got hurt it was your fault. You were more then welcome to go to the medical room for assistance, but it wasn’t his problem.

Woodwork was followed by painting lessons and Adrian seemed to be the only one in class paying attention. He knew that a wiser move would have to been to join the others in mucking about. Inmates that showed any form of creativity or sensitivity were picked on mercilessly. Despite this Adrian couldn’t help but embrace the art lesson. He had never been a good painter but always enjoyed the process.

Plus the teacher seemed genuinely passionate about art and had a nice smile. In Adrian’s previous facility there had been art classes of a sort. But they were very regulated and dry. The teacher hadn’t really cared and you were never able to truly express yourself. Adrian was willing to take some abuse from the other inmates if only to enjoy some time applying brush to paper.

Although famished, Adrian wasn’t particularly looking forward to lunch. The food had been terrible at his previous facility, and the whole environment of the cafeteria nauseating. He queued up with the others, partitioned tray in hand and glanced around at the tables. As to be expected everyone had formed their own groups, and were eyeing any strays with a hostile look.

One table was occupied by four big brutes and Adrian made a mental note to steer clear of that one. Chatter filled the air, as it was one of the few times inmates were allowed to speak freely. Adrian reached the front of the line and glanced at the food on offer. It wasn’t the worse he had seen, but still not particularly appetising.

Before he even had time to ask what he wanted, the dinner lady ladled and slopped some of the food into his tray and grunted for him to be gone. Some of it had splashed onto his uniform. He sighed and made his way past the tables. Various groups either glared or closed ranks to prevent him from sliding on to the end. Right at the back of the cafeteria he found a table with a space.

The occupants weren’t making eye contact and one or two of them had their heads bowed low over their trays. Adrian recognised them as new recruits. The others he didn’t know, but by the looks of them they were kids too weedy and unpopular for the other tables. Adrian sat down, stared at his bland meal and sighed. One of the weedy inmates opposite caught his eye and gave him a compassionate smile. It was the first friendly inmate he had met so far.

After lunch they were allowed into the courtyard for some exercise. Adrian thought this was a stupid rota decision. The last thing he wanted to do was workout on a full stomach. They probably knew that, and did it deliberately as a joke he thought to himself. Not having the energy to kick a ball about and doubting he would be allowed to join anyway, Adrian shot some hoops for a while.

The weedy kid from the cafeteria came up and joined him. It was all going fine until a big inmate came over, snatched the ball from the weedy kid and shoved him to the ground. The inmate was stronger looking then Adrian. Usually he wouldn’t have intervened, but something about the injustice of the inmate’s actions made Adrian step in. There was a little bit of shoving and pushing before it was broken up. Both the inmate and Adrian knew it was futile to come to blows. They would both get punished and privileges stripped away.

After break they were set to work weeding and planting in the garden. It was a hot, muggy day and although it wasn’t completely back breaking work, Adrian just wanted to lie down and be left alone. Unfortunately he didn’t have a choice, and so reluctantly returned his attention to attacking a particularly large and troublesome weed. Most of the inmates gathered around him looked moody and sullen. But a few seemed to be enjoying the work. Adrian didn’t know what was more annoying. The work itself or their smug faces of contentment.

They ended the day with quiet time in the library. Adrian was grateful for this, although he doubted it had been arranged for his benefit. After scanning the shelves for a while, he found an interesting looking book on Norse mythology. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, Adrian switched the cover with one from another book. It was some Young Adult paperback. Although a few inmates would still judge him for that, they were far more likely to be suspicious of him reading something too educational.

He had just settled down in a corner and had opened the book at the front page, when someone clearing their throat made him look up and sigh. Seeing it was the friendly looking art teacher, Adrian immediately recomposed his face to look less sullen.

‘Hi Adrian, I just wanted to say I was really impressed with your effort in class today. I will put in a good word for you. Keep up the good work and it will pay off in time,’ she said loudly.

A few nearby inmates glanced in Adrian’s direction, sensing signs of a suck up. While it was true that it did nothing to further his reputation, it was promising to hear that she was going to put in a good word. If he showed willing then perhaps his time here wouldn’t be so permanent. Adrian was willing to take a few beatings for that. She gave him another one of those warm smiles and left. A few of the other inmates watched after her dreamily, and then quickly remoulded their faces to look mean and tough once more.

Adrian had been two chapters into his book when a loud bell rang through the building. There was chatter and a mass scraping of chairs, as everyone got to their feet. They surged towards the door but the attending guard shrieked loudly until they fell quiet. Obediently they formed a sensible line at the back door to the library, as the guard unlocked and opened it. It led out onto the rear outside area of the facility.

‘See you tomorrow,’ the guard said, as they all began to slowly file out the door.

When they were a suitable distance away from the door, the inmates began yanking down their ties and pulling the bottoms of their shirts out of their trousers. Adrian didn’t bother. He just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Passing out the open compound gate, he crossed the road. A blue van was parked alongside the curb. Adrian moved round to the passenger side and opened the door.

‘Thank god that’s over,’ he exclaimed as he collapsed into the seat and slammed the door shut.

A man in his early forties with short black hair turning grey was sat behind the wheel. He grinned at Adrian and switched on the vehicle’s ignition.

‘You think school is bad. Just wait until you have to work.’

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How To Be A Wizard

Hannah woke up late. She had forgotten to set her alarm, and as usual had relied on her flatmate Colin to bang on her door before he left for work. But if there had been a knock, Hannah hadn’t heard it. Opening her groggy, sleep encrusted eyes, she rolled over and tried to focus on the time displayed on her bedside clock. After several blinks, the blurred numbers came into view and she groaned. It was ten to eight. If Hannah hurried she could still make it, but the twenty something year old witch was not a morning person. Even with the aid of magic, she still moved at a painfully slow, sloth like rate.

Eventually after much grumbling and sighing, Hannah sat up and brushed the hair out of her eyes. She had frizzy blonde hair that came down to her shoulders. Except it didn’t look fashionably frizzy like on the TV hair care adverts. Hannah’s resembled a messy bird’s nest, and her attempts to straighten it over the years had proved fruitless. For a moment she just sat there, slowly trying to acclimatize to a new day. Her head was foggy and a slight headache was present. She, Colin and his girlfriend Alice had been playing wizard games most of the previous night. They hadn’t even drunk that much, but Hannah felt more then a little rough.

Coffee was the first order of business and she threw back the covers, wincing slightly at the cold exterior, and swung her legs off the side of the bed. A chipped mug which was sat on the bedside table caught her eye. She hadn’t remembered bringing it to bed. Peering inside, she noticed it was coffee. Colin must have brought it to her this morning. An uneasy feeling came over Hannah. She knew Colin had a girlfriend and they were just friends, but she didn’t like the idea of him being in her room while she was asleep.

The coffee was stone cold which made sense. Colin worked in a cafe kitchen, and had to leave early in the morning to set up and prep for the day to come. She reached for her wand beside it and realized it wasn’t there. Cursing ,Hannah began feeling around the mattress and under the covers. She eventually found it at the bottom of the bed under the duvet.

It was not recommended that witches and wizards sleep with their wands too close to them. There had been a few incidents involving sleepwalkers and people waking from nightmares. Despite this Hannah chose to keep it nearby. Recently there had been an increase in break ins and victims being attacked with spells. Hannah wasn’t taking any chances and felt much safer with it to hand.

Tapping the side of the mug, she muttered a few words and two seconds later steam began to rise from the mug. The coffee would now stay warm for a while. The mattress springs pinged in protest as Hannah got to her feet. She glanced around her dingy room with a depressed look in her dark brown eyes.

All the magic in the world couldn’t summon up a better room to live in. The far wall suffered from damp in the colder months, and the windows were only single paned. This meant both noise and weather pervaded the room on a regular basis. When Hannah had been younger she had gotten into trouble for stealing a book from a shop with the use of magic.

The regulations and rules had been explained to her in school but she didn’t understand why, with all the glorious magic at one’s fingertips had the wizarding community limited itself? Over the years it had soon become clear. The powerful and greedy wizards that ran the world didn’t want people solving their problems with magic. They wanted to make a profit, and for that they needed to make unfortunate wizards and witches work long hours, and live in small houses.

Hannah entered the bathroom and turned on the shower with a flick of her wand. Minor and temporary magic was permitted within reason. It was when it was used to permanently alter one’s circumstances that the authorities intervened. Occasionally Hannah danced a fine line between what was allowed and wasn’t. Colin on the other hand was an absolute stickler for following the rules ,and his occasional preachiness and judgement got on Hannah’s nerves. While the shower heated up, Hannah’s toothbrush applied its own toothpaste and began cleaning her teeth.

The shower was lukewarm rather than hot, and occasionally would go icy cold or scalding hot just to keep Hannah on her toes. Knowing it could quite possibly get her into trouble if she wasn’t careful, Hannah adjusted the temperature with her wand. A blissful ten minutes of glorious regulated heat followed, before she returned it to normal and stepped out of the shower. Any longer and it could spell serious trouble. She had already been fined twice this month for magic violation and couldn’t afford another strike.

The coffee was a good temperature when she returned to the bedroom and she sipped at it in quiet contemplation, as her hair-dryer saw to the task of drying her hair. Another furtive glance at the clock revealed it to be quarter past eight. She really needed to get a move on. Opening the wardrobe with a flick of her wand, Hannah selected an outfit, changed her mind and chose another. It zoomed out and came to alight gently on the bed. Quickly she got dressed, downed the rest of her coffee which was a bit dreggy at the bottom, and thundered down stairs.

The kitchen was a state but Hannah didn’t have time to sort it out. Prioritizing, she set the dishes to clean themselves and hurried about the rest of the house searching for her keys. Attempts to summon them failed, and she began to worry that she had truly lost them. In the end, Hannah was forced to search without the aid of magic, a highly painful and laborious process. It turned out that they had become trapped under Colin’s sport’s bag in the living room. Pinned to the ground they were trying to tug themselves free to acquiesce to Hannah’s demands, but alas the bag was too heavy.

Keys recovered, Hannah slipped on her pumps, grabbed up her satchel from the kitchen table and stole a glance at herself in the hallway mirror. Her hair would have to do. Skilled witches and wizards could use magic to a professional standard. Hannah’s magic was passable but needed work. That was why she had chosen to do her make-up herself. She didn’t want to turn up for work looking like a hungover clown.

Outside, the bright morning sun hit her hard in the face and she wished she had grabbed her sunglasses. The front garden had a low wall and metal railings. Secured to the inside of these railings was a broom, fixed to the bars with a strand of wire that was glowing dully. A single tap of the wand undid the bindings and Hannah maneuvered the broom between her legs.

She did a visual check of the sky. There were a few wizards and witches zooming around on their brooms. There was an angry blast of a horn as two speeding wizards nearly crashed head first into one another. Much gesticulating and shouting followed before they carried on their separate ways.

Hannah shifted her attention to the street below. A few people were strolling up and down the road but compared to the skies above it was much quieter. A couple wandered past, hand in hand. Hannah watched them enviously. Her work was too far to travel by foot and so broomstick was her only option. There had been a time when she had enjoyed flying. But the skies were so busy these days and Hannah found flying anywhere a stressful and nerve-wracking experience.

Glancing at her watch she realized that she needed to get a wriggle on. Her manager had booked her on a magic training course, as per the requirements of the WCC (Wizards County Council). There were many benefits from working for this organisation but the training courses weren’t one of them. Not only did she know it all anyway, but they were extremely dry and dull courses. Taking a deep breath and making sure the coast was clear, Hannah kicked off the ground and rose into the sky.

 

As usual the building where the course was being held was neither signposted or easy to find. The WPS or Wizard Personal Satnav had provided good directions up to a point. When activated, a beam would appear in the sky in front of the user’s broomstick. All a witch or wizard needed to do was follow its path to reach their destination. But the place the Satnav had directed her to seemed non accessible by sky or foot. She had parked up in front of it anyway and secured her broomstick to a nearby tree, muttering the lock incarnation. A moment later the same glowing cord materialized around the handle.

A few wizards and witches wandered over. They all had confused expressions and Hannah surmised they were here for the same course. One of them opened their mouth to speak to her and she inwardly groaned. She hated talking to people at these things. Rescue came when an elderly woman hurried up to them.

‘Its actually the next building along,’ she said a little flustered and beckon that they follow her round the corner.

‘Some signs would have bloody helped,’ a portly looking wizard muttered under his breath.

The elderly witch appeared to not have heard him and he rolled his eyes at Hannah. She smiled politely but didn’t say anything. It was important to not engage in too much conversation during these courses. Once someone cornered you they never seemed to leave you alone. The last one Hannah had been to, a middle aged woman had taking a liking to her,and every time she had nipped out for some fresh air her new best friend also happened to be there.

As the elderly witch led the little group to the right building, Hannah glanced up at the sky. The traffic was busy. In the less busy parts of the sky, flyers were allowed to position themselves at a number of levels. Over cities and towns though it was much more stricter. Concentrated, dense spots had floating traffic lights and there were a few airborne roundabout islands. The really busy sections of sky even had one way systems.

The portly wizard, although far too eager for conversation had been right. The building they had been directed was large and easy to spot, despite it being inaccessible. The building they were supposed to have gone to was small, unassuming and only had a single sign. It would have been easy to miss as both the sign itself and the writing was unnecessary small. Also it looked for all the world like offices and there were in fact people sitting behind desks at some of the windows. The elderly witch punched in a key-code on a panel next to the door and there was a buzz as it unlocked.

‘So even if we had found the place, it isn’t like we could have got in,’ the portly wizard said quietly, looking at Hannah hopeful for a reaction.

She chose to ignore him this time. It wasn’t because she was being mean. Well not entirely anyway. The fact of the matter was that Hannah was tired, a little hungover and not looking forward to four hours sitting in a stuffy room listening to an old biddy talking gobbledegook. A young man, around Hannah’s age laughed at the portly wizard’s comment and she felt a little sorry for him. A glint in the portly wizard’s eye told her that he had found his next victim. The young man was obviously a newbie. By the time he realized his mistake it would be too late. Welcome to the club she thought to herself.

The room was indeed stuffy and poorly lit. Hannah found a table right at the back of the room and avoided eye contact with the other attendees. It worked and no one sat next to her, gravitating instead towards those with friendly faces. That was just because they were all stupid she thought to herself. A pang of guilt gripped her. She really should stop being so judgmental. But it was hard when she found so much of her life both in and out of work was surrounded by dip-shits.

The elderly woman explained about coffee and tea and set about trying to work the projector. Hannah waited until everyone else had fetched their drinks before she moved over to make herself a tea. Having been on several of these courses she had learnt the best ways to avoid conversation with the other attendees. The young man from earlier was having his ear chewed off by the portly wizard. He was nodding and smiling pleasantly, but Hannah could tell he was now regretting his decision in entertaining the older man.

‘Okay…I think I have it all setup. We were waiting for a few others but as its getting on so lets just start shall we?’ The elderly wizard announced smiling warmly at the room of people.

That’s right you smile you crusty old bitch, Hannah thought to herself. She had been to courses run by this witch before and they were the absolute worse. There was something almost sadistic about the way she gave her lectures. Like she took some deep seated pleasure out of repeating herself over and over again, and dragging the information out. There was one course that had been led by a really enthusiastic and creative representative from the council, but Hannah hadn’t seen him since. They had probably killed him she thought, for being too exciting and interesting for his own good.

One of the attendees sat near the front, a fresh faced looking witch with perfectly straight hair was gripping her wand tightly. Hannah couldn’t help but stare at the back of her head enviously. People were always saying that she was silly for wanting straight hair and that they were jealous of her curls. What they were forgetting was that they didn’t have the laborious job of managing it.

‘You won’t need that today dear,’ the elderly witch said to her.

‘I thought there were practical elements to the course,’ the young witch said confused.

‘Much later. But the first part of the session is theoretical,’ the elderly witch explained.

Hannah scoffed and when a few people glanced her way she morphed it into a cough. The outburst hadn’t been intentional, but she had found the comment about the practical part a joke. There was no practical magic with these course. What the elderly witch had failed to elaborate on, was that a practical element meant using flash cards and hypothetical situations. Titillating stuff. After an incredibly rehearsed introduction that the old witch must have given hundred times before, they got to the really exciting stuff: using magic responsibly in the workplace.

Hannah studied the elderly witch. She must have been about hundred and fifty, although she had made an admirable effort to appear younger. Her hair was shoulder length and tidy, a pearl necklace hung around her neck and the clothes she wore looked smart but simple in design. Despite looking very professional, the old witch looked more like a host of a tea party then a wielder of magic.

Her appearance and bearing represented the course she was leading. A lack of magic and creativity where everything had a dry and starchy feel to it. The old witch was smiling and looked completely complacent, despite the horrendously tedious material she was teaching. But there was a deadness in her eyes that revealed the truth behind her even smile.

The first hour dragged by at a snail’s pace and Hannah glanced into her mug for a third time. There was no tea left, as had been the case the two times before she had checked it. They were allowed to get up and help themselves to more refreshments but Hannah didn’t want any reason to attract any attention to herself. Instead she looked enviously out the window at the witches and wizards going about their daily business. They weren’t using lots of magic but even little things, like an old, bow backed wizard walking along with his shopping levitating next to him made her jealous.

Hannah’s eyes drifted back towards the elderly witch. She was showing photographs of witches and wizards using magic dangerously in the work place. Some of the attendees were chortling, others shaking their heads in disbelief. One of the slides showed a man’s hands that were blistered and burned. The old witch explained that the wizard and his colleague had been trying to conjure fireballs, and this was the end result. People looked shocked and sucked in their teeth at the grisly imagery. Hannah on the other hand was more interested in the people sat in front of her.

The young witch who had eagerly presented her wand earlier was now wringing it tightly. That’s what these courses did to you Hannah thought to herself. Provoked unnecessary feelings of violence and rage. The young man, who had suffered the misfortune of sitting next to the class comedian had shunted his chair over to the right. The comedian hadn’t got the hint and kept budging him every now and again, before making some infantile remark.

When the elderly witch announced that it was time for a break there was a general muttering of approval. No one really wanted to be there. Yes there were a handful who made jokes and participated. But at the end of the day even the most positive and attentive listeners were struggling to keep their eyes open. Hannah slipped out the door quickly, keen to get away from the place as quickly as possible.

Outside it had started to rain but Hannah paid it no heed. She didn’t get people’s dislike for this type of weather. It was refreshing and always made her feel alive. At one with the elements. This was why she didn’t talk much. People would probably assume she was crazy. Lighting up a fag with the tip of her wand, Hannah wandered across the cobbled street and around the corner. A small school was situated close by and from where Hannah was standing, she could see through the outside bars into the playground.

An outdoor lecture was taking place, where a sweet looking teacher was coaching the young wizards and witches on how to use various different useful spells. Hannah watched them enviously through the bars, taking a deep drag on her cigarette. A snooty looking wizard wandered past, wafting at the air around him as she exhaled. He threw her a dirty look. Hannah ignored the remark but stopped observing the kids at the school and turned back the way she had come. A smoking witch peering through playground bars didn’t look very good.

The second part of the course was even more dull then the first, and it had been made worse by the fact that a latecomer had arrived and chosen to sit right next to Hannah. The witch who was sullen faced looked very unhappy to be there and Hannah grew hopeful that she had found a comrade in arms. But much to everyone’s dismay, the newcomer kept putting her hand up and asking questions. Stupid questions at that. There was always one that had to get involved and Hannah had a nasty feeling the course was going to overrun as a result.

They were just about to go on to the practical element of the day when the portly joker began coughing very loudly. Hannah glared at the back of the fat wizard’s head. If it wasn’t miss twenty questions sat beside her then it was Mr. stuffs his face with too many biscuits down the front. It soon became apparent after the coughing continued to persist that something wasn’t right. The wizard was double over and had turned an alarming shade of red. He was clutching his throat with one hand and flailing desperately with the other.

Staggering to his feet and knocking over his chair, he began rasping violently. For a moment everyone just sat in shock, unable to process that something so dramatic was actually taking place on a WCC course. Then the young man sat nearby got out of his chair, moved behind the portly wizard and began carrying out the Heimlich maneuver. The man was strong and clearly knew how to do the maneuver correctly but the trapped custard cream refused to appear.

Hannah looked round the room in disbelief. Why hadn’t anyone thought about using magic? The portly wizard was now turning a worrying shade of purple. Hannah dived into her satchel and pulled out her wand. She hurried to the front and pushed her way to where the incident was taking place. The elderly witch from the WCC glimpsed Hannah’s wand in her hand.

‘Magic is not permitted in the…’

‘Quiet you old hag,’ snapped Hannah and stepping forward she pressed her wand lightly against the suffocating wizard’s throat.

‘Hold him still,’ she instructed the young man and focused intently on the matter in hand.

Her heart was hammering and sweat was beading on her forehead. It was also extremely nerve wracking trying to concentrate on getting the spell right, with the alarming choking sounds emanating from the wizard’s mouth. Hannah muttered some words under her breath and the tip of her wand glowed green for a moment. She held out her spare hand and a moment later, a soggy saliva covered custard cream appeared in her hand.

The wizard heaved in a massive breathe and lost control of his motor functions. He was a big bloke and the young man failed to keep him upright. They both collapsed to the floor, the young man crushed beneath the portly wizard’s weight. Finally some of the spectators did something helpful and heaved the large wizard up and back into his chair. He sat there, slumped askew and taking in deep, breaths of air. He face was still purple and his veins prominent but was slowly recovering for the ordeal.

Hannah let out a sigh of relief and moved over to the bin and disposed of the soggy biscuit. Wiping her hand she turned back around and realized that everyone was staring at her. They all had the same awestruck expression on their faces. Then the young man who had managed to climb back to his feet, starting clapping. A few others joined in and very soon the entire room of witches and wizards were clapping loudly. Even the old WCC witch had joined in. Hannah blushed crimson with embarrassment but at the same time it felt good.

‘What a brilliant practical,’ someone at the back shouted and a few people laughed.

Even Hannah couldn’t help but smile.

 

Usually when Hannah got home from her courses she felt exhausted and depressed, heading immediately for the fridge and the nearest source of alcohol. Today though she felt highly elated and happy. Kicking off her shoes in the hallway, she picked up the day’s mail and moved into the kitchen. Throwing them on the table along with her satchel, Hannah plonked herself down in the chair contentedly. She wished Colin and his girlfriend were here so she could regale them with her heroic tale. Her ego was becoming over inflated but it wasn’t exactly often she got to brag.

One of the letters on the table caught her eye and the satisfied smile on her face faded slightly. It had caught her attention because the envelope was dark red in colour. Hannah knew what it was and had seen them on far too many occasions. Reluctantly she tore open the envelope, unfolded the letter and scanned it intensely. It was from the Wizards Regulation Authority informing her that she had performed magic during an magic prohibited course, and as a result would be fined a hundred pounds.

‘Fucking bastards,’ she exclaimed and threw down the letter with gusto.

 

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

The Retreat

Something was broken inside James Tindle. He wasn’t entirely sure when it had first happened, but he had a sneaking suspicion it may have been in his early twenties. There was no reason as to why James should have felt this way. He had been extremely fortunate in the fact that his parents were genuinely lovely, and he remembered much of his childhood with a great fondness. While shy and a little quiet as a child, James had got on well with most other kids and been part of a good group of friends.

As he had got older though, James had noticed a change begin to take place inside of him. He socialised less, choosing to stay at home and watch films over hanging out with friends. Although the argument probably held no merit, he attributed it to a minor event during primary school. It had taken some time due to his natural shyness, but James had managed to become the funny kid of year 4. It was the first time he had felt truly confident and been emboldened by the attention from his peers.

Then trouble had come in the form of Dylan Stubbs. A new arrival who had quickly demonstrated his talent for humour. With no real competitive streak within him, James lost his title as funniest kid of year 4. The confidence had drained out of him like sand through an hourglass. Worse still was the fact that the girl he liked seemed much more interested in Dylan than him. In one foul swoop, James had lost all belief in himself as a funny, charming and outgoing individual while simultaneously having his heart broken.

The problems hadn’t stopped there. Although James still had a certain passion and enjoyment for life, the signs that he was beginning to retreat within himself were starting to slowly develop. He found it increasingly hard to make new friends and spent more and more of his time sat at the back of the school field, his head burrowed inside a book. Girls were a constant problem and although he found talking to them easy enough, James never understood the whole dating process.

In year 6 when some of the boys and girls had been playing spin the bottle, James had quietly watched from afar. When asked to join he had declined politely. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to kiss girls, but rather that he found the whole idea of spin the bottle slightly contrived and immature.

College had been a mixture of some of his best and worst experiences. It was definitely a period in his life where James had let his hair down properly for the first time. He went to parties and even though his luck with women was still not great, it was a vast improvement then school.

It all seemed to be going well but part way into the first year, the cracks had begun to show. He was drinking too much. To the point that blacking out and waking up next to a puddle of his own vomit was an all too common occurrence. His lessons didn’t interest him and after a while he just stopped going altogether.

This drinking habit continued into university and although better managed, James was still using alcohol as a means of escapism. He told himself it was to cope with the depression that had slowly begun to creep into his being. But in reality it was the alcohol which was helping cause the sadness in the first place. It was during this time that James really started to feel like things were slipping away from him.

The days seemed to blur into one and as the year went on he became less and less interested in going out. When he did reluctantly agree to join his flatmates in visiting a club or pub, it went one of two ways. Either James would throw himself into it and have an amazing time. Or alternatively he would stand at the back, feeling incredibly out of place. As time went by though it seemed the second one began to take hold more. James no longer felt like he was at uni experiencing all these things, but rather observing them from afar.

James’ time at university opened his mind and introduced him to some interesting characters and people he would always hold dear to him. But despite that, he graduated feeling isolated and utterly alone. Instead of attending the university it felt like he had merely visited it a handful of times. However, the sobering up cleared his mind somewhat and for a while James felt he had a hold on things.

That all changed when he began work. If he thought his time at university was isolating then it was nothing compared to his experiences at work. The problem was that everyone was either irritating, stupid, boring or all three. There were a few select people that he actually respected and felt genuine fondness for, but they seemed to drift in and out of his life like the ebbing tides of the sea.

He couldn’t be bitter. They were away doing interesting things which is why he liked them. But it did feel like the people he wanted to spend more time with never seemed to be around. James was left behind, surrounded by a sea of plebs.

He wasn’t exactly sure when it had first happened but it had taken him by complete surprise. There were a few select incidents he could attribute it too, but with the bad run of luck he had been having it could have been any of them. The depression, loneliness and detachment had become so bad that it had compounded into one big cluster.

James had been fighting if off without much success for years but had just managed to keep it together. Until one day it had all become too much. He remembered vaguely that he had just got home one evening but that something was not quite right. When he had gone to step inside his house, he had found himself somewhere entirely different.

Instead of standing in his narrow hallway, James had found himself in the middle of a massive empty warehouse. The space would eventually come to be known as the retreat, for obvious reasons. James wasn’t sure if it existed in another realm or simply in his own head, but what he did know is that he entered in and out of it via doors.

However, it only worked as long as he felt completely detached and cut off from the world around him. The fact that he had no job, no girlfriend, no friends and no prospects made it all too easy to pass into the retreat.

The problems came when he wanted to get back. In order to enter the retreat James simply had to embrace his feelings of detachment and isolation. However, if he wanted to leave James had to re attach himself to the world. This meant thinking about how he was connected to other people and the world around him.

Each time he entered the retreat, it became more difficult to leave again. Worse still was that James wasn’t particularly keen on returning to the real world anyway. In the retreat he could summon anything he wanted into existence. Literally anything. Which begged the question whether it was his own head or an alternative reality, where your thoughts could be actualised before your eyes?

The catch was that none of it was real. Not that James really cared. The fake cat he summoned felt real enough, and stroking the animal’s fur he certainly couldn’t tell the difference. James first noticed the issue with the retreat when he came to grips with how time operated. He had been back and forth a few times, as he had got his head around entering and exiting. But eventually James had decided that he might as well spend more time in the retreat then in real life. There was nothing for him in the real world but in the retreat, the possibilities were endless.

Only issue was that an hour in the retreat worked out as four hours in the real world. When James had first learnt this, he had materialised back in his house, simultaneously starving and dying for a shit. He had always been bad at looking after himself but this was a whole other level of neglect. If he wasn’t careful then he could end up doing some real damage.

The solution wasn’t much of a solution at all. James made sure he would set a timer as soon as he entered the retreat to remind himself to go back. He was still spending more of his time in the retreat but would travel back as and when was necessary to wash, eat, change his clothes and do a little bit of cleaning before retreating away again.

The retreat looked like a palace compared to his shitty rented property back home. Size wasn’t an issue as James could merely imagine a bigger space and the warehouse would expand in response. With each trip and session, he added a little bit more. In just the one place, he had a swimming pool, basketball court, home cinema, bowling alley, arcade room, restaurant and a huge library.

James went to bed and dreamt about his plans for the retreat for the next day. He would wake, shower, wolf down some breakfast and step through to the retreat. Calls to the house went unnoticed and he forgot about checking his phone.

In fact he rarely bothered to plug it in any more, assuming that no one wanted to reach him anyway. Even if they did, it would serve as a connection to the real world and James didn’t want that. It would make it very difficult to return to the retreat.

As much as he enjoyed his time playing god in his virtual playground, James did find it hard to accept the illusion of company in the retreat. He had summoned a friend to keep him company and it had worked for a time. They shot hoops together, played video-games and even had a go on the air hockey machine in the arcade.

But for some reason people generated in the retreat weren’t able to have proper conversations. He had tried to engage a few of them on a couple of occasions, but their responses had been strangely limited and bland. It felt eerily like being back at work in the real world, only worse because at least his idiot colleagues had owned opinions even if he hadn’t agreed with them.

James had never actually been on a real date before. He had been in relationships but not through meeting someone over dinner. As an experiment he had tried it. Naturally, he had created an ideal woman who was drop dead gorgeous but not only were her responses limited but it all just felt wrong. In the end James had broken the illusion feeling incredibly sordid, like he had just spent an hour in the red light district.

When James had first stepped into the retreat, he had been under the impression that the endless possibilities would result in him never getting bored. For a while it was true. He would go to sleep excited for the next day and the untapped potential lying beyond the door. But like anything else, the novelty had worn off.

James’ desire for real company had become too all encompassing. What was the point of having all of the retreat if there was no one to share it with? And there was no way that could happen. To enter the retreat he had to be alone.

The realisation that the retreat simply wasn’t enough hit him hard on one particular day. He had been drinking the night before and had gone through the door to escape the severe hangover he had woken up with.

The first thing that James noticed as not quite right was that his head was still hurting. Normally any aches and pains would be left behind in the real world once he entered the retreat. Not this time and James shuffled around the warehouse, cradling his head.

A swim and a sauna was his first port of call. It did refresh him slightly but he could only do a few lengths before his arms and legs began to ache acutely. This again was odd, as usually he could swim for as long as he liked without feeling any physical drain.

Unable to cope with anything too strenuous, James had opted to sit down and watch a film. That usually cured any blues he was suffering from. But even that did little to change his mood and he felt his eyes wandering away from the screen and looking around listlessly every ten minutes or so.

Eventually he had wrenched himself out of his lazy boy chair, turned off the cinema screen with a snap of his fingers and moved over to the retreat door. He figured that if he was feeling this bad then maybe it had something to do with his body in the real world. The door was locked but James rattled it furiously anyway.

He knew he had to focus on re connecting himself to real life to get back, but he was feeling impatient and antsy. Losing his temper, he kicked the door and cursed as pain racked his foot. Another sign things were not right. So far James hadn’t experienced any pain in the retreat.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to focus his mind on what connected him to the real world. It was very difficult as his temples were throbbing dully and it felt like hot fudge had been pumped into his head. Nothing came to him. Sighing, he sat down on the bare floor crossed his legs and closed his eyes.

An awful lot of concentration was applied but still the door did not open. The panic and fear slowly began to creep into his being. James needed to get back to the real world. He hadn’t eaten any food because of the hangover and his phone hadn’t been turned on for three days.

Despite his best efforts to calm himself and focus all his energy into reconnecting, James was unable to unlock the door. Hangovers provided the perfect opportunity to enter the retreat but he hadn’t take into consideration getting back.

James’ hangovers could last up to two days, even three for a really bad one. That wasn’t particularly alarming news unless you happened to be in the retreat where time operated four hours slower then the real world. How was he going to feed and hydrate himself if he couldn’t get out?

James was really starting to worry now and as a result had started pacing up and down in front of the door, wringing his hands anxiously. A dull thumping noise made him look round. Someone was shooting hoops on the basketball court. There was something familiar about the mysterious stranger, but James wasn’t close enough to see them clearly.

How had they got here he wondered to himself? Usually, they had to be summoned by him. But he had not willed anyone to the retreat for a long time. Ever since the disastrous date that had frankly given him the creeps.

Cautiously, James approached the court feeling a deep sense of dread and anxiety building within him for some reason. The stranger, whoever it was had stopped throwing the ball at the hoop and was just standing completely still bouncing the ball up and down in a steady rhythm. James stepped gingerly onto the court and the stranger paused mid bounce upon hearing him approach.

A silence descended between them and all could James could hear was his own heavy breathing. The stranger turned to face him. James frowned and then raised his eyebrows in surprise. It was Dylan Stubbs. Or rather it was an older version of the funny kid from year 4.

Was he an apparition or a part of James’ subconscious leaking out into the retreat? Dylan was smiling at him in a pleasant sort of way and it suddenly filled James with a great anger. It was the same expression he had used when they were at school. Everyone else presumed he was just being nice but James knew otherwise.

It was a knowing and patronising smile, indicating that he was clearly more popular and funnier then James. At school, he had never been confident enough to confront Dylan over his stealing of the limelight. But now he was older and slightly more confrontational.

He took a step forward but suddenly doubled over. Dylan had launched the basketball right at James’ stomach, winding him. He clutched his gut, trying to recover his breath and glared at the still smiling Dylan. Another basketball hurled towards James and it missed his head narrowly, as he ducked out of the way just in time.

Dylan seemed to be able to produce them from thin air with a snap of his fingers and he threw another one at James’ chest. James managed to knock it away with an arm but another one hit him in the thigh, narrowly missing his groin.

The barrage was relentless and James was forced backwards across the court. He did his best to duck, dive and dodge out of the way but Dylan was relentless. One clipped him on the forehead and James’ tripped over his own feet, stumbling backwards off the court and crashing to the hard floor.

His head was smarting and a large red mark had imprinted itself on the skin. The force of the blow had also caused his eyes to water heavily and he wiped at them hurriedly, not wanting Dylan to see it and think he was crying.

But when he looked back up, Dylan was gone. The basketball was rolling across the court and came to a stop as it bumped into James’ foot. He picked it up and stared at the bobbly orange surface for a moment, before it vanished and he was left looking at his empty hands. Totally flummoxed, he got to his feet and moved over to the door.

A blaring wall of noise erupted suddenly and James almost jumped about a metre in the air. It was coming from the cinema room. There were no walls in the retreat and although a little way away, he could make out explosions and gunfire on the large cinema screen.

It was extremely loud, so much so that James had to clamp his hands over his ears to stop the severe sounds. He tried clicking his fingers, the usual trick to switching something off but nothing happened. Fingers in his ears, James moved hurriedly over to the cinema room and searched desperately for a remote or a button to turn it off. But there was neither.

The screen had always come on and off at James’ command. Desperately, he tried everything and anything. But no amount of clicking or shouting shut the large screen off. Losing his temper, he smacked the bottom of it with a hand. The image jumped and then cut out, along with the noise.

James breathed a deep sigh of relief and sat down in his lazy boy for a moment to recover. A nasty smell wafted up at him and wrinkling his nose, he looked around for its source. Then it dawned on him with a horrible realisation that it was in fact himself causing the odour.

It couldn’t be the clothes because James was able to pick his own new wardrobe every time he entered the retreat. That meant it was most likely something in the real world and he dreaded to think what they could be.

The TV flicked on again and James gripped the armrests, expecting another barrage of noise. But no explosions or gunfire appeared before him, but instead an image of a man holding a parcel stood facing the camera. The man glanced at his watch impatiently and then reached forward and rapped a knuckle on the screen. A loud knocking on wood reverberated around the retreat, and James stared around wildly before returning his attention to the screen.

The man rapped again, more loudly and the screen shuddered under the force. James suddenly understood what was going on. He pulled himself out of the lazy boy and moved right up to the screen. The man sighed and gave a third knock. The sound boomed around the retreat and the screen shook more violently this time. James placed a hand on the glass and applied pressure but the screen was solid.

The man glanced at his watch a final time and turned to leave. James shouted after him but he couldn’t hear. He was getting further away and so James started banging loudly on the screen. Still the man couldn’t hear. James brought his fists down again and again, screaming until he went hoarse.

It was no use. The man had gone and the screen had turned dark once more. James stared at the screen for some time, willing it to come back on but to no avail. His fists were sore from all the thumping and it was difficult to swallow.

Returning to the door, James was surprised to find two letters on the floor in front of him. What was even more alarming was the letter slot in the door itself, which had never been there before. He knelt down and got another whiff of that unknown, pungent smell. The letters were two overdue bills from the real world. Somehow the real world and the retreat were bleeding into one another.

That was either very good or very bad. He rattled the door knob but it still refused to budge. Lifting up the letter slot guard, James peered through and was surprised to see the hallway of his real house. It was right there but he couldn’t get to it. He tried shouting through it a few times but there was no answer. Of course there wasn’t. No one was home.

Kicking, shouldering and charging the door didn’t work either and James just found himself exhausted and bruised in the end. In a last ditch attempt, he fed his arm through the slot and flailed around desperately for something. The door lock was too high and at an odd angle and there was nothing else in reach.

James now hated the fact that his house was so minimalist. There was a loud splash and a moment later water droplets flecked his face. He closed his eyes for a moment, not wanting to find out about this sudden new development.

The curiosity to find out whatever had fallen in the pool forced James’ eyes open and he moved over to it sheepishly. Ice cold panic seized his body, as if he himself had plunged straight into the waters. At the bottom of the pool, lying face down was a body. Whoever it was they hadn’t bothered to undress as they were still wearing a dressing gown and pyjama bottoms.

There was something recognisable about the clothing but James couldn’t place what it was. A few air bubbles broke the surface of the water and James realised that they had come from the body. The person was still alive. Quickly James stripped down to his boxers and jumped in. The water was freezing cold which was unusual, as it was usually warm as a bath when James took his daily swims.

Although the pool was Olympic size in length it was luckily not that deep. Not that it was usually problem, as James could find he could stay under water for long amounts of time in the retreat. Despite his sore legs and arms, he made it to the body in relatively quick time. James was a fuck up in pretty much all aspects of his life but he prided himself in being an extremely competent swimmer.

Reaching the bottom, he grabbed the body by the shoulder and attempted to turn it over. But it was like trying to move an incredibly heavy rock. James tried with all his might and eventually managed to turn the body over.

He let out a stream of bubbles, as he came face to face with himself. Or rather an identical version of himself. The other James floated beneath him, his eyes closed and an almost peaceful expression on his face. The clothes suddenly made sense. They had been the ones he had been wearing in the real world this morning. Without warning, the other James’ eyes sprang open and suddenly seized him by the arms.

James struggled and fought against his other self but it was a vice like grip. To make matters worse, his could actually feel the oxygen in his lungs beginning to go. This was not right he thought to himself. Usually there was no need to worry about holding his breath in the retreat.

The clone of James opened his mouth wide and began laughing out bubbles, a maniacal, half crazed look in his eyes. Desperate for air, James lashed out a foot and although slowed by the traction of the water managed to catch his underwater clone in the crotch. The grip slackened slightly and James thrashed his way free, kicking his legs desperately for the surface.

A sharp pain was stabbing his lungs, as the oxygen levels grew dangerously low. James could feel his head throbbing and pushed up harder. He could sense his pursuer close behind him and lungs screaming, gave one last gigantic effort and broke the surface.

Not stopping to rest, James clambered over the lip of the pool. A hand shot out, curling itself around his ankle and he faltered banging his knee painfully on the ground. Slowly he felt himself being pulled back into the water.

Twisting round, James saw his demented other self hanging onto his leg. James lashed out with his other foot and caught the clone in the face. The hand slipped from his ankle and James floundered backwards across the floor on his hands.

He banged into something solid and heavy and came to an abrupt halt. Feeling with his hands, James learnt that it was a leg of some kind. The clone was lifting himself out of the pool. His nose and mouth were drenched in black red blood where James had kicked him.

James pulled himself to his feet with the aid of the leg and turned around. It was a table. His hallway table if he wasn’t mistaken. On it sat a phone but it was different from the one in his hallway. This was a old fashioned dial phone, bright red in colour. None of this made sense James thought to himself. He glanced over his shoulder and could see his evil clone walking towards him purposefully.

The phone rang and James jumped in surprise as he could see no wires or cables connected to it. The squelch of wet shoes against the floor drawing nearer jerked James into action, and he grabbed the receiver up hastily. He fumbled it a few times, his hands sweaty from panic before eventually managing to bring it to his ear.

‘Hello,’ he shouted down the phone and moved around the table so he could see his pursuer approaching.

‘James is that you? Oh thank god. Your father and I have been worried sick…’

‘Mum,’ James cried out, tears stinging his eyes.

There was a pause. The clone had reached the table now and was leaning over for the phone.

‘James? Are you okay? You don’t sound right,’ his mum said on the other end of the phone, concern in her tone.

James grabbed up the phone before the clone could slam his hand down on the top and end the call.

‘You have to help me. I’m stuck in the retreat and this other version of me is trying to kill me,’ James blurted out, backing away from the table.

‘…have you been doing drugs James. Did someone give you something bad?’ His mum said in a stern but worried way.

‘Mum listen….’

James never got to finish his point, as the clone thrust the table at him. It caught his mid section, simultaneously winding and knocking him to the ground. The phone dropped out of his hand and hit the floor, the impact of which broke the receiver apart.

James wheezed and groaned, trying to re-inflate his lungs as he crawled across to the phone. He reached out a hand to the broken receiver and cried out in pain, as the clone brought down his foot on James’ hand.

Everything was happening much to fast and before James had time to register, the clone had wrapped the telephone cord around his neck. James flailed his arms wildly, as the clone applied further pressure with the cord, crushing James’ windpipe and turning his face red.

In a cruel twist of fate, he suddenly realised that the retreat door was now open. All that time James had been trying to open it with no success and now it stood ajar, and he was unable to reach it.

His head was becoming fuzzy and light headed and the room around him was starting to spin. In a last ditch attempt, he thrust out a hand and it curled around something bulky and oddly shaped. With his last reserve of strength, James managed to bring the phone up sharply in an arc. There was a grunt as it connected with the clone’s head and the cord around James’ neck slackened slightly. He tore it off and began scrambling madly towards the door.

 Although temporarily set back, the clone was hot on James’ heels. It thrust out a hand as James reached the table and crawled hurriedly under it. There was a roar of anger, as the clone’s arm was restricted by the table top. James staggered to his feet on the other side, as there was a tremendous crash. The clone had launched the table out of the way. James was running now, too afraid to look back for fear of what he might see.

Sheer determination alone allowed him to reach the door and he was unusually happy to see his poky hallway. He skidded across the threshold and almost managed to slam the door shut, when the clone’s hand shot through the thin gap. Crying aloud, James slammed his weight against the arm.

There was a another grunt and the clone’s hand managed to grab hold of James’ hair. Despite the wrenching pain of having his hair yanked, James continued to bash against the door. Eventually there was a nasty crack from the clone’s arm and the grip slackened. The hand retreated back through the gap, and James was able to force the door shut.

He dropped to his knees and rested his head against the door, breathing rapidly. A few moments passed and James was finally able to calm his breaths, and his heartbeat began to slow to a more natural rhythm once more. He shimmied around, so his back was against the door and cried for a good minute. A pungent smell rose to meet him and he opened his eyes.

He was wearing a dressing gown and boxers, which he was pretty sure were the source of the smell. His face was itchy and scratching his face James noticed his beard was more substantial. He was also painfully aware of how thin his body had become. None of these things mattered however, as James was just grateful to be back in the real world. Sure it had its problems but the retreat wasn’t the answer, and for the first time in a long time James had a reason to live.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Brother

Part 2

The first thing Townsend noticed even before he opened eyes, was the sheer amount of pain in his head. It felt ready to explode and it took all his willpower and strength, to force his eyes open. At first all he could see was black and sound chose to return to him before vision, in a loud rattling noise nearby. Slowly the room began to take shape but what with there being little light anyway, it was still hard make out his surroundings.

He appeared to be in a small, dingy boiler room evidenced by the wall of the pipes opposite him. The rattling noise reached his ears again as he attempted movement and finding his arms and legs restrained, Townsend realised what was causing the sound. He had been chained to a chair and that revelation caused him to stop moving. In the movies, prisoners opted for tipping their chair over causing it to break apart and set them free. Townsend knew from the sturdiness of the chair beneath him, that it was never going to happen.

The sound of hollow footsteps approaching made Townsend look round. There was the sound of a key in a lock and as the door swung inward, Townsend quickly slumped forward in the chair giving the impression he was still unconscious. The footsteps echoed across to where he was sat and Townsend felt the shadow of the person stood over him.

‘You can stop pretending Mr. Townsend, I know you’re awake.’

Reluctantly, Townsend lifted his head and regarded his captor. It came as no surprise that Adam Mayhew’s secretary was involved. It hadn’t clicked at the time but the photo in the stock broker’s office had been of her, only with different coloured hair. Androids had the ability to change certain aspects of their appearance, such as eye and hair colour. Full on identity transformation was forbidden for obvious reasons.

‘Love what you have done with the place,’ Townsend croaked, his vocal chords waking up begrudgingly.

The android responded by backhanding Townsend forcefully, snapping his head back. Pain exploded in his cheek and he felt blood form in the corner of his mouth.

‘I don’t have time for games Mr. Townsend,’ she said tersely. ‘Where is Mike Brady?’

Townsend shrugged.

‘Why, do you want the complete Brady set?’

She moved forward to hit him again but a high pitched scream gave her moment to pause.

‘What was that?’ Townsend said anxiously.

‘It seems your ex client Angela Brady is being just as uncooperative,’ she said with an eerie smile.

There was another scream and Townsend struggled against his restraints, despite knowing it was futile.

‘Stop it, she hasn’t done anything wrong.’

‘Then tell us where her brother is?’ the android said, folding her arms sternly.

Townsend sighed and stopped struggling. The shock of the situation and the sounds of Angela’s screams, had been an adrenaline shot to the body. His heart thudded away like a jack hammer.

‘I don’t know. I met him at Bobby’s but he didn’t tell me anything about himself, apart from that he was Angela’s brother.’

The android scoffed loudly.

‘You’re lying. It is your job to look for people. Don’t pretend you didn’t look up his details, as soon as you accepted the case.’

Townsend shot her a blank expression, despite knowing all too well that he had done exactly that after meeting the kid at Bobby’s. He bit his lip debating what to do and the android watched him, tapping one foot impatiently. The screams had gone and in there place was a low unnerving moan, that cut Townsend to his core. Something outside the door, in the corridor caught his eye but he kept his attention fixed on the android.

‘Well?’ she said expectantly.

Townsend sighed deeply and his whole body seemed to deflate, as he did so.

‘Alright I will tell you.’

He then spoke in barely a whisper and the android stepped forward irritably, but was still careful to keep some distance.

‘Speak up.’

Townsend looked her dead in the eye.

‘I said that you’re kind are a blight on our society and I wished they just turn all of you off.’

The android moved forward again and this time she pulled out a gun from behind her back. Townsend, who had been been grinning like a naughty school child suddenly looked very scared.

‘Not so tough are you now?’ The android said, pressing the barrel of the gun into Townsend’s forehead.

There was more movement from the corridor but the android hadn’t noticed, as all her attention was focused on intimidating Townsend.

‘Could say the same about you, pointing a gun at an unarmed man tied to a chair,’ Townsend said, although his voice lacked confidence.

The android replied by cocking the pistol. Townsend’s eyes flickered over her shoulder and her grin suddenly disappeared, as she realised what was happening. She spun round but it was too late, as Mike brought down the pipe on her head. The android was floored, the gun falling from her hand and clattering loudly on the ground. She instantly began jerking violently. Mike dropped the pipe and raised a hand to his mouth in shock.

‘Oh dear god.’

Milky fluid was seeping from the her mouth, eyes and ears. The android gave one last wild spasm, omitted a gargled wheeze and then went still. Mike ran over to the corner of the room and vomited furiously in response.

‘I hate to be a pain but would you mind untying me?’ Townsend asked, lifting his feet as the milky substance crept towards his shoes.

Mike wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, stepped gingerly over the immobile android and set about freeing Townsend. It took a while, as the chains had been tied in a tight knot but eventually they came loose and clattered to the floor loudly.

‘How the hell did you know where I was?’ Townsend said, massaging his sore wrists.

Guiltily, Mike put a hand on Townsend’s arm and carefully peeled back a thin see-through piece of material. He held it up in the light and a very faint circuit board could be made out underneath the surface.

‘Have you ever thought about pursuing a career in private investigation?’ Townsend commented, retrieving the android’s gun and checking the clip.

‘Not if it involves caving in android’s heads,’ Mike said, still regarding the body uneasily.

Townsend rested a hand on Mike’s shoulder and that seemed to hold the kid’s attention.

‘Grab the pipe and follow me, keep low and as quiet as you can.’

‘I don’t want to pick up that thing again,’ Mike stated plainly.

‘Trust me, you will regret it if you don’t,’ Townsend suggested.

Mike nodded and picked up the weapon, gagging as he caught sight of the milk tipped end. Townsend put a finger to his mouth and motioned that they move out into the corridor. The low wails could still be heard from somewhere further in the darkness. Townsend gripped the pistol tightly in his hand and ignored the pain, sweat and discomfort assailing his body. It was unbearingly hot and close and Townsend was glad he didn’t suffer from claustrophobia. Even so, the surroundings were highly oppressing and disorientating.

The dingy corridor ended at a closed door and Townsend glanced over his shoulder at Mike, who was crouched behind him nervously. He signalled for him to stay back and reached forward with his free hand and twisted the handle. The door swung slowly open and Townsend quickly raised his pistol, preparing to fire if necessary.

A woman sat slumped in a chair, her head hanging limply on her chest. Her feet and hands were tied just like Townsend’s had been and there was dark blood on her dress. She was still and Mike went to move forward concerned, but Townsend placed a hand gently on his chest.

Indicating that he would go first, Townsend edged slowly into the room. His gun hand was steady but sweat streamed down his temples and his heart rate had quickened considerably. The P.I had been in plenty of situations like this before and he knew what he was doing. At the same time, the fear, adrenaline and apprehension was always present.

Even armed, Townsend felt like some foolish prey wandering into a predator’s lair. Angela Mayhew was illuminated well from the aid of a single light bulb, hanging down above her. But the glow of light didn’t extend far and both sides of the room and far wall were bathed in darkness.

Straining his eyes, Townsend could make out bulky squarish shapes and presumed he was entering some sort of storage room. As he stepped over the threshold, Townsend swept his gun arm round quickly, ensuring no one was hiding behind the door. With no one there, he quickly snapped back round to face the front of the room again. Angela Mayhew was still non responsive.

He dearly hoped that she had passed out again and they weren’t too late. Glancing back at Mike who was crouched nervously at the door, he pointed two fingers at his eyes and then at the corridor behind the kid. Mike nodded and turned to face the empty corridor, gripping the pipe tightly between two hands. The room might be empty, but the last thing they wanted was someone sneaking up and catching them unawares.

The storage room was quiet and Townsend doubted anyone was hiding in the shadows, encircling the glow of the light. Even so, he did a sweep of the area, venturing into the furthest corners of the room to make certain. The left corner was unoccupied but when he reached the right one, Townsend got the funny feeling that someone was lurking there, ready to pounce.

But all he found were more boxes. It was too dark to read the labels, but there was an open crate with straw in it. After rummaging around inside for a moment, he brought out a bottle of alcohol, most likely Bourbon from its dark colour. He considered taking it. After the day Townsend had just endured, he could do with a drink.

There was a low moan from the middle of the room and Townsend quickly moved over towards Angela. He knelt on the floor and place one of his meaty hands on hers.

‘Angela can you hear me? It’s Sam Townsend,’ he said loudly.

She gave a little low groan.

‘Is she alright?’ Mike shouted desperately at Townsend, who had his back to the kid.

‘I hope so kid. Just keep an eye out okay?’ Townsend said, returning his attention to the bloodied Angela.

Something was digging into Townsend’s palm, which was still resting on her hand. He lifted it gingerly and saw that two of her nails were cracked and bloodied. Animals, the P.I thought to himself. Angela gave another low groan. Townsend raised her head with a finger and tried to hide his reaction upon seeing her face. One of her eyes had ballooned and her lips were bloated. She opened her one good eye, which was heavily bloodshot and regarded Townsend drowsily.

‘Mr. Townsend, tell me she is okay?’ Mike pleaded from the doorway.

‘They did a number on her kid, but she will pull through. We just need to get her…..’ he trailed off as something thin and translucent attached to her neck, came loose and dropped into her lap.

He pressed a finger against it and it stuck to the digit. Lifting it, he scrutinised the strange material in the harsh light. Like the tracker Mike had put on his arm at Bobby’s, it had very faint diodes and circuity under the surface.

‘Help me,’ a voice said close to him and it took a minute to sink in that it had been Angela who had said it.

He studied her face and she spoke again.

‘Tr….a….p.’

Townsend frowned and then it clicked into place in his head, just as another click sounded behind him. A moment later, Angela’s face and form flickered and next moment, Townsend was staring at none other then Mr. Mayhew sat in the chair. He was still wearing the same suit from earlier, but the tie was gone and the handkerchief pocket torn.

‘Angela never went missing did she?’ Townsend said, flicking the translucent voice manipulator of his finger and rising to his feet.

Knowing that the kid would demand it anyway, Townsend dropped the gun and turned to face Mike.

‘Kick it away Mr. Townsend if you would be so kind,’ Mike said, his own gun trained on the P.I’s chest.

Townsend did so and sighed.

‘I’m guessing you’re not Mike Brady.’

The kid shook his head.

‘There never was one. It is amazing how easy it is to forge identities with the right contacts these days.’

Townsend nodded slowly, trying to think up a way out of his predicament. If he dived for the gun, the kid would shoot him.

‘You don’t remember me do you?’ The kid said.

Townsend studied the kid as best he could, but nothing came to mind. He had worked so many cases and presumed the kid had been much younger, if they had ever crossed paths.

‘My mother was June Langden,’ he went on to explain.

Townsend continued to stare at him blankly. The kid scoffed loudly.

‘Of course you wouldn’t remember. She was just another call out that you and your partner attended and did nothing to prevent her death.’

Partner? The kid must have been referring to when Townsend was still a cop. He tried to think about all the call outs he had attended over the years and any that had stayed with him in particular.

‘My father Michael Langden used to beat her regularly. One night I couldn’t take it so I called the police. You turned up, saw the bruises on her face and then left again.’

Townsend recalled a boy, a very young boy with blonde hair and space pyjamas stood at the top of a set of high wooden stairs. He had been clutching one of those blankey things that kids sometimes had.

‘Look kid…I get it, you blame me but you have got to understand….’

‘He pushed her down the stairs two nights later. She died of a fractured skull,’ The kid roared, his gun hand shaking a little.

Townsend held out his hands peacefully and took a step forward.

‘There was nothing I could do. When we took her statement, she said she tripped and that was how she got the bruises.’

The kid fired his gun into the ground next to Townsend’s foot.

‘Don’t come any closer.’

Townsend took a deep breath and remained where he was.

‘If she had told us the truth we could have arrested him there and then.’

‘That’s a bullshit rule,’ the kid shouted hotly.

‘I know and for that reason and many others I left the police force. I got tired not being able to catch criminals, due to the restraints of the law. Why do you think I went into the P.I business,’ Townsend explained, eyeing the quivering gun guardedly.

‘You let her die,’ the kid screamed and jerked the gun up to point at Townsend’s head this time.

If he got out of this alive, Townsend was seriously considering getting out of this business. But he always said that and yet here was again, facing down the barrel of a gun.

‘You’re right kid, I fucked up,’ Townsend said and meant it.

The guilt he had felt on so many cases including June Landgen’s had eaten away at him over the years. He drank to forget and when he couldn’t drink he worked. But even then, the thrill of the chase of a new case only lasted so long. When Townsend had first started as a private investigator, he had told himself that if he solved enough cases, it would make up for the ones that had gone wrong. But standing here opposite June Langden’s son, all he felt was shame and failure.

‘The name’s John,’ the kid said angrily, but there was a little hesitation in his eyes.

‘This isn’t you,’ Townsend said gently. ‘God knows I deserve it, but killing me won’t bring your mother back.’

‘You don’t know anything about me or what I’m capable of,’ John said bluntly.

There was a great darkness in John Landgen’s eyes and the naive and scared face of the young man was absent. Townsend felt his skin prickle with goosebumps.

‘What have you done John?’

‘Tied up some loose ends. I am making things right. My father was first, then your partner and last but not least will be you,’ John said coldly.

The room was hot and stuffy, but Townsend shivered all the same. This kid was not really a kid at all. He was a cold blooded killer and worse of all, Townsend wasn’t sure if his actions were wrong.

‘Any last words Mr. Townsend?’ John said, cocking the pistol for a second time.

‘I’m sorry,’ Townsend said simply.

John nodded understandably.

‘I appreciate your remorse at least. Both your partner and my father couldn’t have cared less.’

He levelled the gun at Townsend’s chest, aimed at where his heart was. If his shot was true, the P.I would die in a matter of seconds if not instantly. There was a moan, followed by the sound of metal scraping across the floor. John spun round gun raised and Townsend bounded forward. He seized him around the waist, dragging him down to the ground like a charging rugby player.

The distraction had been Mr. Mayhew’s secretary, who had managed to drag herself down the corridor from the other room. Her head that John had caved in was still leaking milk and exposed circuity could be seen inside. In her hand she was carrying a sharpened piece of metal and as John hit the floor, she reached out her arm and plunged it into his neck.

Townsend, who had landed on top of John’s lower body rolled off and kept rolling until he reached the gun, that had been flung sideways in the altercation. Townsend’s sweaty hands fumbled the pistol initially and the android had wrenched her shiv free and was crawling towards him now. He managed to pick it up properly the second time, raised the gun and fired, just as she was extending her arm. The bullet smashed into the front of her forehead and the skull blew apart in a explosion of milk fluid and circuity.

Townsend dropped the gun and collapsed back onto the floor, exhausted. A horrible gurgling, strangulated noise could be heard. The P.I forced himself to crawl over to John and sit up. Thick dark blood was gushing from the neck wound. Townsend tore of his tie and pressed it hard against the wound with a hand. More blood was seeping out of John’s mouth, as his panicked stricken eyes looked to Townsend for help.

‘Call Emergency Services,’ Townsend shouted into his panel.

When the panel asked him which particular emergency services he required, he said ambulance hurriedly. It was too late. Townsend was halfway through trying to tell the operator where he was, when John’s body stopped twitching.

‘Never mind,’ he said numbly and hung up.

He looked down at the dead kid in his arms and felt hot tears sting his eyes. An innocence and purity read in John’s face and although Townsend held a killer in his hands, he couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of loss and overwhelming sadness for his passing. Townsend sat there for a while, just holding the kid silently. The milky fluid from the android and blood from John had merged like some sort of extremely violent strawberries and cream affair.

Finally Townsend wiped his moist eyes, softly set down the still body of John on the floor and climbed to his feet. His shirt was stained red and white, the life-force of both the android and John clinging to his body.

‘Get me the fuck out of here. Right fucking now.’

Townsend turned to face Mr. Mayhew, who was still tied to the chair. He seemed to have regained consciousness and was thrashing around like nobody’s business.

‘Stop your hollerin’,’ Townsend said wearily and went over to untie him.

 

Townsend sat in Mr. Mayhew’s office, feeling a little on edge at being back in the place where he had last been drugged. Of course it hadn’t been Mr. Mayhew who had put the sleeping pills in his drink. John Langden had been responsible for that. At first Townsend had been confused as to how John had managed to drug him, without doing the same to Adam Mayhew.

But that was just it. He had drugged the stock broker too. By learning that both men were partial to whisky, John had got Mayhew’s secretary to put the sleeping pills in the bottle as opposed to individual glasses. The only reason Townsend had passed out first was because of the cocktail of drugs that were already in his system.

The door opened and Mayhew entered the room. He still looked a little shaken from the previous night, but was working hard to hide that. With his newly pressed suit and gleaming shoes, it was almost convincing but not quite. He moved over to his desk, but remained standing and looked out the window. Unlike Townsend he didn’t have to worry about sunglasses. The window was tinted.

‘So Angela is fine?’ He said, without looking around.

‘I called her this morning. She is fine. Didn’t know what on earth I was talking about,’ Townsend said with a chuckle.

It was the first time he had laughed in a very long time. He would have felt guilty, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the only way to stop himself from crying. Mayhew nodded, moved over to the desk and sat down behind it. The two men regarded one another silently for a moment. It was odd. Less then twenty four hours ago, these men had been sat across from each other in this very room with a mutual resentment for one another. While there was still no love loss between them, the abduction they had endured together had watered down that hatred somewhat.

‘What about Amanda?’ Mayhew asked.

‘Who’s Amanda?’ Townsend said confused.

‘My secretary,’ Adam Mayhew explained.

Townsend nodded and pulled his e-cig out of his pocket.

‘Do you mind?’

‘Go ahead,’ Mayhew said with a nonchalant wave of his hand.

Townsend took a deep puff and it succeeded in doing two things. First of all it eased his tobacco craving and secondly it didn’t make him gag, as it was cherry flavour. On his way to Adam Mayhew’s office, he had swung past the vape shop and had a few terse words with Dominic. The result was the cherry flavour Townsend wanted in the first place and a free one in exchange for the rubbish blueberry flavour he had received the first time round.

‘My guess is that she was in cahoots with John up until he attacked her. He probably promised her a lot of money in return for her help. We will never know for sure, but it is clear to say that she had no idea about John Langden’s real plan.’

‘Jesus, talk about deception,’ Mayhew said, exhaling under his breath.

‘Yeah, the kid also deceived me out of some good money. Not that I particularly deserve it I guess,’ Townsend said glumly.

Mayhew said nothing and began tapping away on the in built screen on his desk. Townsend wondered if perhaps that marked the conversation as over, but then a bing on his arm panel caught his attention. He rolled up his sleeve and inspected the screen. It was a notification telling him that funds had entered his bank account.

‘This makes us square. As long as this matter doesn’t leave this room Mr. Townsend,’ Mayhew instructed.

‘My lips are sealed Mr. Mayhew.’

 

Although Mike Brady was a make believe alias, the part about the young man having a wife was true. Worse still was that she was pregnant. Currency was mostly digital these days, but some still chose to draw it out from the bank in cash. Townsend had found John Langden’s house after a little bit of digging. A rundown affair in a shitty part of downtown.

No place to raise a child that was for sure. Adam Mayhew hadn’t paid Townsend a ridiculous amount, but it was generous enough. Making sure that no one was snooping, following or watching him, Townsend posted the envelope of money through the Langden’s letter box and quickly made tracks. It still didn’t quite absolve the guilt but it was something.

 

Townsend pushed open the door to Bobby’s and took solace in the dark surroundings and soft lighting of the bar. No one looked up as he entered but there were a few grumbles, as the light from outside peeked in. Townsend limped over to where he and John had been talking the day before and sat down in the kid’s chair.

‘Jeez and I thought you looked bad yesterday,’ Bobby said, appearing on the other side of the counter with a glass and a bottle of Bourbon.

‘Actually I think I will have a bud today Bobby,’ Townsend said, readjusting himself on the uncomfortable stool.

‘Okay boss, everything alright?’ Bobby said, fetching a bud from one of the small fridges behind the counter.

The bar owner’s Mohican was green today, which made the android look even more paler then he usually did.

Townsend took the bud from Bobby, twisted off the cap and downed a third of it before he spoke.

‘Just another day at the office Bobby. Just another goddamn day.’

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Brother

Part 1

Sam Townsend sat at the end of the bar in a dingy, smoke hazed drinking hole with a glass of Bourbon clutched in a bandaged hand. He caught sight of himself in the mirror above the bar and grimaced at his reflection. A man in his mid forties stared back at him with messy grey hair, two day old stubble and a heavily creased forehead.

At one stage, Townsend had been good looking, but too many knocks to the head and face had altered that. The skin on his face was all sagged and droopy, making him look like a Madame Tussauds’ waxwork that had been exposed to too much heat. Only his eyes, which were a brilliant green showed any signs of youth and beauty.

Today he looked particularly bad and that was because two massive purplish, black rings encircled his eyes, giving him the appearance of a grumpy and deadbeat panda. A small plaster stretched the bridge of his nose, that had been broken at least four times in the past, the most recent that very morning. Along with the eyes, it had been a parting gift from his latest case. It had involved an elderly widow, who had been scammed by a supposed workman doing repairs to her house.

The bottom feeder in question had not only done a hatchet job of the old woman’s house, but also stolen a load of her jewellery and possessions in the process. The fine boys in blue had looked at the case for all of five minutes, before kicking it to the curb. It was probably just as well. The police were as bent as the crooks they hunted down.

Townsend had initially been against the idea of taking on the case, as from digging a little deeper he had discovered who it was. Frankie Devo, a mean piece of work who had a rap sheet longer than both of Townsend’s arms put together. Worse still was the fact that the man was a complete lunatic, reckless and extremely gun ho. Three things that Townsend purposefully chose to avoid, when taking on new jobs. But something about the poor, heartbroken lady had got to him and he had followed it up.

He had tracked Devo down and managed to retrieve the stolen goods. Only after nearly getting killed and having six shades of shit kicked out of him. As well as the injuries to the eyes and nose, Townsend had a nasty bump on his left temple. He fished one of the ice cubes out of his glass and pressed it against the side of his head. It throbbed dully in response.

An electronic cigarette was stood up on the bar in front of him. He picked it up and took a drag. His face wrinkled in disgust. It was blueberry flavour. He had expressly asked for cherry in the shop. That good for nothing Dominic had short changed him again. Smoking was banned in nearly all bars, apart from some of the more secluded and back alley joints.

While Bobby’s was a bit of a dive, it enforced the rules like the others. However, Bobby liked to pump the place with synthetic smoke through his old fog machine. He claimed it made the place more authentic. Townsend believed it was actually because it conveniently hid the unsavoury clientele and suspiciously sticky floor.

A band was playing on the stage at the far back of the bar but they kept flickering every now and again, causing Bobby to curse and slam the projector in his professional method of fixing it. What with live bands being somewhat of a commodity and a pricey one at that, many establishments had resorted to hologram performances instead. They gave the illusion of live, but at the half the price. When the projector was working properly that was.

Townsend swivelled on his seat and observed the hologram band. The singer he recognised as Eva St. Clair, a young blues artist with a soulful but slightly haunting voice. She had passed away two years ago in a car accident. Some drunk driver, coked up to the eyeballs and joyriding late at night.

St. Clair had been coming back from a gig. Townsend found it a little bit eerie seeing her on stage, even though it was just a hologram. At that moment St. Clair’s projection looked straight at him. He felt a chill run through his body and quickly turned back to the bar.

The pain was starting to return and so he raised his glass and motioned to the barkeeper. Bobby was the owner and employed various members of staff but at two pm on a Monday, the place was dead. He would rather man the bar himself and save paying his staff.

‘Same again Sam?’ Bobby said, scooping up Townsend’s glass and reaching under the bar for the Bourbon.

‘Make it a double, lots of ice,’ Townsend asked, rolling up his sleeve and exposing his arm panel.

Bobby poured Sam a generous double and proffered his own arm with its accompanying wrist panel. There was a whirr as the funds were exchanged, before Townsend sat back and rolled down his sleeve. He groaned in discomfort and took a big swig of the whiskey. Bobby watched him with his brilliant blue eyes, the endless scrawl of words passing behind the retinas. Bobby was an android, made to look like a human.

It was fairly convincing to the naked eye but if one was to look closely, they could tell. The writing behind the eyes was one, but a bar-code on the back of the neck also revealed it. Additionally, if you were to closely study an android’s face, you would be unable to find any imperfections. All android’s faces were perfectly symmetrical and free of birthmarks, moles and blemishes.

Despite being an android, designed by a corporation and entirely non unique, Bobby had chosen to fiercely define himself. He dressed like a punk from the 1980s, a number of decades far before their time and sported a huge purple mohican. He loved to discuss questions of existentialism and held a poetry evening every Thursday night.

Townsend and Bobby went way back, hence the very generous double whiskey. A couple of years ago, Townsend had used his connections in the police to get Bobby out of a tricky situation. The android had been found engaging in explicit activities with a human man. Although not illegal, android human relations were heavily frowned upon and Bobby had a reputation to upkeep. Ever since Townsend had helped him out, his drinks had been reduced and various perks given when stopping by the bar.

Two people in the booth behind Townsend were sat across from one other, talking quietly and occasionally glancing around the bar anxiously. One of them had a briefcase on the seat next to him. Townsend gave them a cursory glance in the bar mirror, before returning his attention to his drink. The aqua lighting that was Bobby’s latest addition to the joint, which cast a blue hue over everything made Townsend’s injuries appear even more ghoulish.

Every few months Bobby got bored and decided to change things up in his bar. The lights had previously been red. Townsend preferred the blue. It was cooler and less seedy. Bobby plonked a glass down next to Townsend’s and poured another large double of Bourbon.

‘I haven’t finished this one yet,’ Townsend stated.

‘The kid at the other end of the bar bought it for you,’ Bobby explained, gesturing with a nod of his head.

Townsend squinted down the bar in the dim blue light and could just make out a tall, skinny man sat at the far end. He was watching Townsend keenly and had a bottle of bud in one hand. Townsend downed his first Bourbon, sucking in his teeth as the spirit gave him a slight kick and climbed down from the bar stool with a groan. Scooping up his second drink, he made his way down the bar. His legs were stiff and his progress wasn’t helped by the sticky floor, that was repeatedly trying to glue him down.

An old man with wiry grey hair, a straggly beard and glasses was the only other patron sat along the bar. He was wearing a biker’s jacket and jeans, the bottoms of which were frayed and stringy. He raised his glass to Townsend and the P.I clinked his own glass against it, as he limped past.

The old biker’s name was Jed and the fact that Townsend knew that, showed he had been spending far too much time at Bobby’s. A slightly fuzzy sensation had taken a hold of Townsend’s head and he wasn’t sure if that was from the beating or the booze. Either way, he felt a little spaced out and the moody lighting and intermittent music wasn’t helping.

Seeing Townsend approaching, the man went to get up but the dishevelled P.I waved at him to stay seated. With a sharp intake of breath, he lowered himself into the next seat along and took a deep puff from his e cigarette. The man coughed, as the large plume of smoke escaped Townsend’s lips. Obviously not a regular then, Townsend thought to himself. When the cloud had dissipated, he raised one of his eyebrow curiously at the stranger sat next to him.

Bobby hadn’t been joking when he had said about a kid. If he was twenty one, then he was baby faced even for his age. The light patches of facial hair and a faint outline of a moustache caused Townsend to smile, amused and he recalled going through that stage himself when he was in his twenties. That seemed like a life time ago. In fact it seemed like someone else’s life.

The kid had sandy blonde hair slicked back, a checked shirt, skinny jeans and steel toe capped boots. He was one of the dock workers, but clearly a newbie. The kid was too squeaky clean. Give it a month and he would look as dirty and dishevelled as the rest of them.

‘Thanks for the drink kid,’ Townsend said and took a swig of his Bourbon.

The young man looked a little irked at being referred to as a kid, but said nothing and instead took a sip from his own drink. Although young and good looking, there was something in his face that showed a weariness, usually associated with old, hard working labourers.

‘I have a job for you Mr. Townsend,’ the kid said, finally breaking the silence.

Townsend turned side on to face him and the kid recoiled a little, as the blue light revealed the P.I’s battered face.

‘I’m off the clock kid,’ Townsend said matter of factly. ‘But if you drop by my office on twenty first, my secretary….’

‘The name is Mike Brady and this is a matter of urgency,’ the kid interrupted, speaking quickly.

Townsend studied the young man and saw a mixture of fear and fierce determination in his face. He was clearly not a confident kid, but something had obviously rattled him enough to seek out Townsend. Bobby’s was a rough joint and although Townsend came here for a drink and to be left to himself, he always came packing just in case.

‘Look…Mike, I appreciate the drink and you coming all the way down here to see me, but I am not taking on any more cases today,’ Townsend said, getting up to leave.

Mike grabbed onto his arm desperately and Townsend’s eyes burned with a fiery rage all of a sudden.

‘They took my sister,’ he pleaded, removing his grip from Townsend, upon seeing his murderous expression.

Townsend lent in close, so their faces were almost touching. Mike’s eyes stung from the strong alcohol fumes on Townsend’s breath.

‘Look at my face Mike. That was from my case this morning. You really want to hire a deadbeat, who’s only good use is as somebody’s punchbag,’ Townsend stated.

Mike said nothing.

‘I thought so,’ Townsend concluded and downing the rest of his Bourbon, turned to leave.

He was halfway towards the door when Mike called after him.

‘Her name is Mayhew. Angela Mayhew.’

Sam Townsend placed his palm against the frosted glass of the door and waited as his identification was verified. In his other hand, he carried a bag of shopping and flexed his fingers to lessen the strain. It was his bandaged hand and he regretted not using his other one instead. The door made a upbeat ping noise and unlocked itself, opening an inch. Townsend had initially been against the idea of installing such complicated tech, but after an enraged husband had broken in to his office two months ago, he had quickly come round to the idea.

‘Lights,’ he commanded, as he shouldered open the door.

The office had that looked in feel about it and with the amount of time Townsend was spending there, he was starting to genuinely consider moving in. A blanket was scrunched up untidily on one end of the couch, in the far left corner of the room. A shirt and two pillows were tangled up in it as well. A mug and an ashtray stood on the floor nearby. Empty ready meal packaging littered the top of the counter to the right, as well as several empty beer cans. He moved over to it, brushed the cans and rubbish aside with a swipe of his arm and threw down the bag of shopping.

He cast an eye around the squalid room and felt instantly ashamed, despite there being no one there to judge him. Sighing deeply, he moved to his desk at the back of the room and sat down. The surface in front of him was the only neat section of his office and that was only because everything was digital. He dreaded to think what the table would have looked like if everything was still in paper form.

Pulling open a draw, Townsend rummaged around for a few moments before bringing out a small tub of pills. He popped it open and tipped a few of the pills down his neck. Alcohol dulled the pain a little but not enough. Returning the pills to his draw, he brought out a pack of cigarettes and placed them gently on the desk in front of him. He had been trying to give up but the way his week was going, it was becoming very tough to resist.

Depressed by the messy state of his office, Townsend spun around in his chair and looked out the window at the skyline of buildings, stretching away before him. During the day, when the sun was high in the sky it was virtually impossible to look at the buildings, as a great number of them had solar panel designs. Energy wise it was hugely beneficial, but it did make sunglasses a necessity when navigating the city. At night though, the moonlight shining down on them caused the sides of the buildings to sparkle and glimmer like diamonds. It was a dazzling sight to behold.

For a moment Townsend just sat there, hypnotised by the silvery sight, before he yawned sat up and swivelled his chair back around. His eyes lingered for a moment on the cigarette packet, before he returned them to the draw and shut it firmly. Rolling up his sleeve, Townsend tapped on the panel for a few moments then extended his arm out over the desk. A second later, a digital readout displayed itself on the table.

It was one of Townsend’s old case files. He swiped through the display, refreshing his memory. He had taken on so many cases over the years, that they all had begun to bleed into one. Another swipe and Townsend suddenly paused, his finger mid hover above the desk. The display showed a picture of a young, attractive woman. The information to the right of the photo detailed her name. Angela Mayhew. Swiping back to the first screen, he re read the summary of the case. It all came back to him now. The young wife who had been suspicious about her husband’s activities.

Angela’s real surname was Brady like her brother’s, but had obviously changed to Mayhew after she had married.

Townsend swiped away the file completely and turned his attention to the panel once more. After a few minutes of tapping, scrolling and pressing, he found what he was looking for. He flung out his arm wildly, as if he was suffering some sort of spasm and a moment later, the display appeared on the fall wall. In its enlarged format it showed a new photo, this time of a man.

It was Adam Mayhew and Townsend recalled seeing the man during the case. He had tracked him down to a diner and managed to observe and record him meeting another woman. Townsend studied the information regarding Mr. Mayhew. He worked in the stock market and had been doing very well for himself. Mrs. Mayhew had presumed her workaholic husband had been looking after her. In reality, he had been spending an awful lot of money on his new squeeze.

Karma had come round like a bitch though. Not only had Angela divorced him after finding out about his naughty behaviour, but the stock market had crashed. Adam Mayhew had a great deal invested in various companies and it had hit him hard. He still got by, but the crash had done some sizeable damage. Townsend figured that his luck with women had changed as well, but that was purely speculation.

Adam Mayhew had a fairly clean record. Fairly being the operative word as Townsend knew better then anyone, that if you dug hard enough you could always unearth dirt. He had been caught speeding with a stash of cocaine in his glove compartment. This was during his high flying days and he had managed to wriggle out of it with the aid of a crafty lawyer and a monetary incentive. Apart from that he was clean, or rather he appeared clean. Townsend wasn’t so convinced. If he had been seeing another woman during his marriage, then Townsend was pretty certain there were more secrets to find.

Getting out of his chair, he moved over to the far wall and studied the display. He was staring at Adam Mayhew’s face as opposed to the information. Before he had been a P.I, Townsend had been a police detective with a good reputation and track record. His knack for reading faces wasn’t quite as good as it used to be, but he still got flashes of brilliance. Adam Mayhew was a little older then his ex wife with slicked back dark hair, small sunken eyes, a neatly trimmed goatee and a sharp angular face.

He was sort of weedy looking and his small, shifty eyes and gelled back hair gave him a slimy appearance. Townsend thought he looked untrustworthy, but then who on the stock trade didn’t? Feeling his eyes begin to hurt from the screen glare, Townsend moved over to his kitchenette and pressed a circle engraved on the counter. The circle opened and a mug rose from the hole. Townsend picked it up and placed it down by his shopping bag.

His nose hurt like a mother and his head felt like it had been invaded by ants. From the shopping bag, he produced a sealed bag of coffee and a carton of milk. It took a while to open the coffee bag and he applied too much strength, getting coffee all over the counter. He sighed, tipping some of the coffee into the mug and added a few splashes of milk. They had come so far in terms of technology, to the point that mugs could rise out of the counter. Yet they still sold coffee in fiddly packaging. Taking the mug, he filled it with cold water and returned to his desk. He placed the mug on a thin glass plate in front of him and watched, as the plate begin to turn the colour red.

As it heated up, he thought about his next step. Adam Mayhew was the most logical port of call. The motive was certainly there. While the falling apart of his marriage and stock crash was in no way Angela Brady’s fault, Townsend guessed he still blamed her anyway. He had actually considered the kid brother Mike for a brief moment. Although it seemed unlikely, as he had sought out Townsend in the first place, it wasn’t unheard of in private investigation cases. If Mike had gotten himself into trouble with some shady characters, then they might have gone for his Achilles heel. In this case, his sister. Concerned for the safety of Angela but too ashamed to admit the truth, Mike could have hired Townsend avoiding the more complicated avenue that was law enforcement.

Still, Townsend had a feeling in his gut that Adam Mayhew was the way to go forward. The plate made a little ding noise to indicate it was ready and Townsend took a sip, without looking at what he was doing. He cursed as the steaming coffee burnt his lip and wondered just how many brain cells had been pummelled out of his head.

Townsend decided not to catch a cab and instead choice to walk to Adam Mayhew’s apartment. It was close by and he could do with the fresh air. He could only breathe properly out of one nostril and Townsend had spent most of the day in the underground dungeon that was Bobby’s. Although night fall brought with it the stars and shimmering reflections of the office blocks, it also spat out the more unsavoury elements of the city. Townsend made ends meat with his investigating, as there was always work to be had in such a crime ridden city. But when bills, rent, office space, food, drink and smokes were factored in, Townsend wasn’t left with an awful lot.

His offices were based in downtown, which was one of the rougher and poorer parts of the city. Drug addicts, prostitutes, gang bangers and the homeless competed for space on the streets and Townsend recalled the days when he had found beggars and hookers stopping him regularly. Now they kept their distance. Occasionally, a very desperate kid would try lifting his wallet and would receive a couple of broken fingers for the effort. Townsend was slower and stiffer then he used to be, but he still knew how to defend himself. Devo had been different. He had got the upper hand on Townsend and was a bone-fined hard ass and psychopath.

As Townsend passed under the bridge at the end of his road, he realised the striking contrast between what loomed above and what lay below. The office buildings with their sparkling exteriors towering over the scabby looking street crawlers, huddling around their purpose made fires and shopping trolleys. It reminded him of Adam Mayhew, squeaky clean on the outside but rotten as an apple core on the inside.

The dark shapes, bundles and figures watched from the shadows of the bridge, as Townsend passed underneath. He paid them no attention, but felt their eyes on him all the same. None approached or made an effort to move towards him but just sat there, their large hollow eyes observing him from the darkness. Emerging out the other side of the bridge, Townsend shivered as a breeze rose up to meet him and flipped his overcoat lapels up in response. The sun was so strong in the day that people walked around in vests and shorts but when night arrived, the temperature plummeted quite drastically. A newspaper had gotten wrapped around Townsend’s foot. He shook it off, which felt much more strenuous an activity then it should have.

A siren broke the night air from a few blocks over, but Townsend paid it no heed. They had become as commonplace as the substantial poverty, that was slowly enveloping more and more of the city. Townsend thrust his hands in his pockets and quickened his pace, despite his aching legs. The city was a strange mix between ecological and urban.

The previous mayor Melvin Doyle had invested a lot of money into renewable energy sources and green friendly designs. This was why many of the tower blocks, roads and cars had solar panelling incorporated. It was also the reason why there had been more rooftop and apartment gardens in the last ten years.

Unfortunately the new mayor was all about deepening his own pockets and had started undoing Doyle’s good work, by widening the gap between the rich and the poor. What was left was a city that looked innovative and forward thinking from afar, but up close was just as crime ridden and poorly maintained as most cities in the world.

Just before Townsend had left the police, his then partner Ray Perkins had joked that the old detective was the opposite to the city. Falling apart on the outside but still as sharp as ever on the inside. With the acute pain still very much alive in his face, Townsend wasn’t so sure.

Although there were different qualities of life and wealth between downtown and uptown, no physical barriers or checkpoints existed. Townsend had heard that they were being used in other cities, where the corruption ran much deeper and was far more established. However, the landscape and surroundings did begin to noticeably change the nearer he got to his destination.

Small indicators signified the shift from dying to flourishing. The shops were not only fancier and more upmarket, but more of them were open. A great many of the businesses in downtown had closed down and all that was left in there place were empty shop fronts, or closed shutters with graffiti decorating the front. There was also an absence of raggedy looking people sleeping in doorways or in cardboard boxes in uptown.

The pavements were clean and the pedestrians well groomed. Townsend would have felt more relaxed if not for the snooty people passing him by, who eyed him distastefully. Their message was abundantly clear. He was not welcome here. It was not unusual for Townsend to feel like his presence wasn’t welcomed. The only people that liked private investigators were the people who hired them and they only usually did it as a last resort. You were seen as a nuisance and regarded as a sub par police detective, which in Townsend’s case he sort of was.

A shop with some expensive looking furniture in a window and fancy gold lettering emblazoned on the glass caught Townsend’s attention. He recognised the place, but not the name which read Abraham’s in elegant writing. He frowned at it for a moment, but nothing clicked into place in his head. A stick thin woman carrying two shopping bags and wearing crazy high heels, tutted and overtook him on the pavement.

She was clearly unimpressed by his decision to suddenly stop in the middle of the path. Townsend watched after her, but soon lost interest. She was way too thin for his liking. Not that it mattered. With Townsend’s protruding gut and monstrosity of a face, he wasn’t exactly in with a chance. Pulling up his sleeve, Townsend tapped on his panel. He knew he was on the right street but couldn’t remember the exact location.

A small map appeared on the panel with a red dot pinging not far from his location. He tapped it and a 3D projection of the map materialised around him, mapping itself onto the street. Townsend looked up and saw a building, three shops along from him, turn a bright shade of red and begin pulsing dully. He tapped the panel again and the 3D projection disappeared.

Adam Mayhew’s place of work was a three storey affair that was considered wealthy to a downtowner. But in uptown it was fairly minor league. Like all things to do with power and money, it came down to whose was the biggest. The more levels you had the better off you were doing. As Townsend approached the frosted main doors and placed his hand on the glass, he was secretly glad it only had three levels. The walk had helped ease his headache and clear his mind, but his muscles were suffering and the less steps he had to deal with the better. There was an electronic whirr as the door scanned his fingerprints and confirmed his identity, before a voice crackled into life.

‘State your business,’ the emotionless and disembodied voice ordered bluntly.

Townsend glanced around, before spotting the small intercom on the wall of the alcove to his right. A small green dot sat under the speaker. Townsend held it down with a finger, as he spoke.

‘I’m here to speak to Mr. Mayhew about a case I am working on.’

He lifted his finger from the dot and waited.

‘Mr. Mayhew isn’t available at the moment and no prior appointment has been scheduled in Mr. Townsend,’ the crackly voice responded.

Shit, Townsend thought to himself. These bloody high tech security doors were making his job harder and harder to do. He thought for a moment, swaying back and forth on the balls of his feet, before returning to the intercom.

‘Tell him it is regarding his ex wife Angela Mayhew,’ he said, pressing down the dot as he spoke.

There was a prolonged silence and Townsend was just about to turn and leave, when there was a loud irritating buzz. He pushed one of the glass doors open and it swung back without protest. The lobby inside was the definition of minimalistic. A long curved reception counter took up one side of the room. Behind it was sat an attractive looking woman with golden blonde hair, long eyelashes and a tight fitting dress.

On the opposite side of the lobby sat two oval chairs and a glass table. A neatly stacked pile of newspaper tablets had been placed precisely in the middle of its surface. Apart from the strange spherical lights that hung from the ceiling, the rest of the space was empty. It was very light, white and spacious and Townsend felt like he was stepping into a space age hotel, instead of a stock holder’s place of business.

Townsend made his way over to the reception counter, his scuffed and tired looking loafers echoing across the marble floor. The receptionist looked up, clocked him approaching and showed a flicker of disapproval at the dishevelled P.I getting nearer. But she quickly recomposed her face to appear more professional.

‘Mr. Mayhew is on the third floor. Elevators are round to the right and stairs to the left,’ she said, her eyes flitting briefly to Townsend’s stomach.

‘Gotcha,’ Townsend said smiling, flattening down his lapels and carrying on past the counter towards the elevators.

He had seen her cursory glance at his belly, but had avoided the stairs regardless. He wasn’t out to impress her. After all, she was an android. Even without seeing the scrawl of writing behind her eyes, Townsend had made her. She was simply too perfect to not be. At the elevator, he swiped his arm panel in front of another panel on the wall nearby and it lit up green. A moment later, the door slid open with a satisfying hiss and Townsend stepped inside.

The elevator opened onto a light and pristine looking floor. In front of him was a door and as Townsend stepped out of the lift, he eyed it curiously. It had drawn his attention because it was an old fashioned door. There was no frosted glass or panel on the wall. It was made of wood, had a brass round handle and the words Adam Mayhew were etched across the clear glass in a typewriter scrawl. He tried to peer through into the room but a set of blinds blocked his view. Instead, Townsend cleared his throat and rapped loudly on the wood of the door.

At first there was no answer. A series of beeps and bops started up behind him and turning, Townsend saw a tiny square robot zooming towards him. It held two brushes it its stubby arms and moved about shakily on four sets of wheels. It stopped a few feet away and began brushing fastidiously at the dirt left from Townsend’s shoes.

A small compartment at the front of the robot opened up and it swept the mess up quickly. It resembled a mechanical mouth. The little machine made a disgruntled noise, directed at Townsend and wheeled off in the search of more mess to clean up.

‘Come in,’ said a voice from inside and Townsend opened the door and stepped inside.

It was a decent sized office with a wide ceiling high window at the back and expensive looking furniture and decor dotted about. They didn’t provide penthouse views and Townsend suspected Adam Mayhew resented the fact that other businesses and tower blocks marred his skyscape. However, to Townsend it still very much felt like a king’s palace compared to the places he frequented in downtown. Adam Mayhew didn’t get up as Townsend approached his desk and refused to shake the P.I’s proffered hand.

‘If Angela wants any more money, you can tell her to forget it. She already squeezed more then enough out of me during the divorce,’ Adam Mayhew said matter of factly.

Seeing that he wasn’t going to offer him a seat, Townsend pulled out the visitors chair and settled himself anyway. Adam Mayhew looked slightly disgruntled, but didn’t say anything. Townsend got the distinct impression that he was all bark and no bite.

‘This is not about the divorce Mr. Mayhew. I’m sorry to inform you this but your ex-wife was abducted two days ago,’ Townsend said gravely.

Mayhew studied Townsend hard for a moment, not entirely convinced by the story. But the P.I’s no nonsense expression must have changed his mind, because he suddenly grew very pale. Swallowing hard, Mayhew rose to his feet and moved over to a nearby drinks cabinet.

Townsend took the opportunity while the man’s back was turned, to cast an eye over the desk. There was an interactive screen built into the table top, but all it displayed was a page with live updates on stock figures.

A digital framed photo of a young, attractive woman with brown hair sat on the desk, as well as a empty mug and what looked like a stress relief designed to look like a baseball. Nothing inherently suspicious. Mayhew necked his whiskey and poured himself another. He turned to face Townsend. The harsh, unwelcoming and cold expression had gone replaced by fear, concern and a sense of helplessness.

‘Would you like a drink?’ he said in a low voice.

Townsend, a little taken aback by Mayhew’s sudden shift in temperament nodded. Mayhew poured him a glass and returned to the desk, where he placed them both down on the glass tabletop. Townsend reached to retrieve his drink but hesitated. Mayhew eyed him with a frown and then glanced at the glass. He sighed and swapped them round.

‘Does that put your mind at ease?’

Townsend nodded and took a sip of the drink. It was smooth, warming and with hardly any kick. This was an expensive whisky.

‘How did this happen?’ Mayhew asked, nursing his glass in his hands.

Townsend observed him closely. He was either a very good actor, or he was genuinely worried and cared deeply about his ex-wife. It was hard to tell at this stage, having only talked to him for all of five minutes.

‘We don’t know Mr. Mayhew, but I am trying to find out. Hence why I am here,’ Townsend said, taking another sip from his drink.

Mayhew nodded and then a flash of anger appeared in his face.

‘We may not see eye to eye Mr. Townsend but I love……loved Angela very dearly,’ Mayhew said, losing his nerve slightly.

Townsend wondered if Mayhew had mistakenly said love instead of loved because he still had feelings for Angela, or had switched to the past tense because something had happened to her and he knew about it. The P.I. fought back a yawn, not wanting to appear insincere. A wave of tiredness seemed to have suddenly washed over him. His whole body felt like lead and the concoction of alcohol, pills and more alcohol had started to take effect. Not to mention that he hadn’t eaten any food since breakfast.

‘Are you alright Mr. Townsend?’ Mayhew asked, seeing the P.I’s eyelids start to droop alarmingly.

Townsend shook his head. He felt really dizzy now, everything having a slight soft focus to it.

‘I think I just need to stand….’

Townsend never finished his sentence. He went to stand and his body gave out, causing him to fall off his chair and land sideways on the cream office carpet. A blurry veil had descended over everything and blackness was creeping into the corner of his eyes. He tried to fight against it, but the soft carpet beneath him was coaxing him to let go and Townsend was too weak to resist its hold. The last thing he heard before he slipped into the dark limbo of unconsciousness was Mayhew shouting into his phone intercom for his secretary.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Night Watch

Pete Ryder gritted his teeth and pushed with his all his might against the pedals that moved like treacle around the bike chain. He was cycling up a long and gradually sloping hill, that was deceivingly hard work to ride along. It was getting steadily darker, the last vestiges of evening light hanging on desperately, encroached upon by the ever creeping purple presence of night. He was drenched in sweat and had considered stopping two or three times already to remove some layers.

But a number of reasons made him reconsider. For starters he was already running late and if he paused in his attacking of the hill, it would be twice as hard to start up again. Pete wasn’t a good cyclist, but the alternative was walking and that meant leaving home a lot earlier. That meant waking up earlier and he was just not prepared to do that.

The other reason was that on top of his work shirt and gilet jacket, Pete wore an extremely bright and incredibly fashionable luminous vest. Coupled with his front and rear bike lights and safety helmet, he looked the definition of cool. Pete knew he looked an absolute burk, but he also knew what West Country drivers were like.

Nothing cool about being splattered across the windscreen of some boy racer’s car. Pete wiped the sweat from his forehead and pedalled harder, despite the acute ache in his legs. If he could just reach the top of the hill, then the last stretch of the journey was a downhill delight.

Pete’s dinner of sausage, mash and peas, although lovely, sat heavy in his stomach and as usual he hadn’t allowed enough time for digestion before setting off for work. Although he had been working as a night security guard for over a month now, Pete still hadn’t managed to get himself into a good routine. It had been surreal the first week, eating dinner then cycling off to work for a ten pm start.

Stranger yet had been at the end of his first shift, when he had returned home at half seven in the morning and opened a post work beer. He enjoyed working nights. It was quieter and there were less people around. Jobs needed doing but during the dead lulls, Pete was left to his own devices. As a struggling author that suited him just fine, as it gave him time to chip away at his story that little bit more.

The loud hum of a car engine drowned out the sound of Pete working his pedals and a moment later he was bathed in harsh, white light. Soon after, a long, sleek car passed by, its tires slicing through a puddle that sprayed up at Pete. Usually, he would have been extremely peeved off by the inconsiderate driver. But it was such a humid, muggy night that he welcomed the water and a chance to momentarily cool down.

At last he managed to crest the hill and let out a small whoop, as the bike’s momentum pulled him up and over. He stopped pedalling and smiled contently, as gravity took hold and the bike zipped downward without any additional encouragement. The wind rose up to meet him, instantly cooling the sweat clinging to his neck and face and he steered into a road on his left, feeling like a champion rider all of a sudden.

The smooth streamline cycle down the tarmac road met an abrupt end, as Pete’s bike reached the entrance to the hotel car park. He always forgot to brake in time and as he went over the speed bumps and entered the car park, his posterior took a beating. The car park was fairly empty. The gym instructor Ellen was loading stuff into her car and Pete stole a glance at her tanned and taut legs. Then realising he was probably being incredibly lecherous, turned his attention to the hotel entrance.

It looked very classy with it’s fancy silver lettering emblazoned on the side, neat flower beds and tasteful lighting. Pete knew better then this. Behind the posh, elegant exterior was a hotel that was as grimy and poorly maintained as your average Travelodge. Pete skidded to a halt in front of the entrance and propped his bike up against a low wall skirting one of the flower beds.

The reception manager Clive didn’t like Pete leaving it there, as he felt it gave off the wrong impression to guests. But Clive wasn’t in tonight and the only person on reception was Amanda. She didn’t give a monkey’s where Pete kept his bike, as long as he turned up so she could escape home. Quickly, he tore off the luminous vest and removed his helmet, leaning over the wall and dropping them both into the bush.

The automatic entrance doors slid open and a conservative looking couple with horsey expressions strolled out. They caught sight of Pete fiddling with his bike lights, muttering grumpily to himself as he fumbled the switches. They eyed him distastefully. Eventually, he managed to turn the lights off and straightened up. He gave the couple a winning smile. They promptly sped up.

Amanda was talking into the reception desk phone when she caught sight of a rather dishevelled looking Pete, approaching through the still open automatic doors. She glanced up at the large and ornate foyer clock in the lobby opposite her and sighed loudly and pointedly. Joe, one of the regular guests, a portly man with blonde hair looked up from his newspaper and chuckled upon seeing Pete.

‘You’re late again,’ Amanda said, after she had put down the phone.

I know, I know, sorry… had an issue with my bike,’ Pete explained, as he entered behind reception through a side door.

She nodded but her expression stated that she clearly doubted the validity of his story. Pete moved into the back office and grabbed his two most important pieces of kit. A large and hefty torch and a walkie talkie radio. He returned to reception, clipped the radio on his belt and allowed himself a moment to catch his breath.

‘I assume Matt has already started doing the rounds. I’ll go and catch him up.’

Amanda looked at Pete bewildered and opened her mouth to speak but he had already disappeared through the side door and was moving quickly towards the automatic doors, through which he had first entered. Amanda and Joe exchanged perplexed expressions for a moment. Outside, Pete moved past his bike, giving it a cursory glance. He never locked it up. It was a piece of shit and he doubted any of the elite clientele would bother pinching it.

Following the walkway round to the right, Pete made his way into the car park, gripping the large torch tightly in one hand. This part of the grounds was well lit, so there was no need to put the torch on yet. This was the least likely area to be prone to suspicious activity. It was the dark and unlit areas that were more likely targets.

However, he did a thorough walk around anyway, just to be vigilant. A businessman was wheeling a roller suitcase away from a flashy looking Porsche. Pete greeted him on his way past but the man flat out ignored him. Some of the guests were so up their own backsides, Pete reflected to himself.

The car park was on a slight gradient and at the foot of it sat the hotel’s golf club. The lights were still on but the place seemed pretty empty. With his free hand, Pete unclipped the radio, pushed down the button on the side and said.

‘Brother Burrows, do you copy?’

There was a moment’s silence before the radio crackled into life and a muffled voice replied.

‘Brother Ryder, where you at?’

‘On my way down to you now mate, see you in a min, over and out,’ Pete said grinning and reattached the radio to his belt.

Two beeps came through in response, indicating Matt’s acknowledgement. Instead of heading for the golf club entrance, Pete made for the path running left past the building. It snaked downwards and led into a small parking bay, closed off to the public by a long metal chain.

There were eight bay spaces, smaller then your average size and two of them were occupied by a pair of white golf buggies. A big man with short spiky brown hair was crouched behind one of the buggies, inspecting a rear tire under the beam of his torch light.

Hearing Pete’s loafers slapping against the concrete path, he flicked off the torch, stood up with a low groan and turned to face him. Like Pete, he was wearing a black gilet with Sterling Hotel printed in small silver letters on the pocket. Unlike Pete though, Matt actually looked the part of a security guard.

He had broad shoulders and a thick neck and although he carried a little bit of weight around the gut area, he came across as more muscular then overweight. His face was like that of a boxers, a prominent nose, tall forehead and small eyes. His ears were small and slightly cauliflowered. When Pete had first started he had been a little intimidated by Matt’s appearance, but had soon learnt that the man was really a gentle giant.

‘Glad you could make it,’ he said, pretending to be unimpressed.

Pete gave him a sardonic smile and gestured to the buggy with his torch.

‘You found a puncture?’

Matt was technically Pete’s boss but the two had become fast friends and had soon dispensed with formalities and systems of rank. They both did they share of the work load and that was the important thing. Matt shook his head.

‘Just double checking, you never know what with the way these posh pillocks drive.’

Pete laughed loudly and suddenly grew very self conscious as the golf shop owner caught sight of him, as he exited one of the side doors of the club. He continued to glance at Pete strangely, as he walked away from the door and towards the car park. Matt prodded Pete with his torch.

‘Hey, ignore that daft cunt. He pisses on everybody’s parade. I think the bloke’s actually allergic to humour.’

‘It wouldn’t surprise me, so am I on buggies or chains tonight?’ Pete said, studying the six other empty buggy bays.

Some nights they were fortunate and most of the guests would return their buggies to their bays after the end of their sessions. Other evenings, such as this one they wouldn’t bother bringing them back. In their minds they had come to the hotel to play golf not park buggies. It was the lowly servant’s job to do that.

‘Fancy driving tonight?’ Matt asked, after a moment’s thought.

‘Sure, as long as you don’t mind. I got to drive them around yesterday so if you want….’ Pete began but Matt held up a hand in protest.

‘Nope you knock yourself out. Besides you need the practice.’

Pete glared at him.

‘That was one time and it was the smallest bump.’

Matt was smirking now. Pete gave him a playful shove and set off towards the golf green, flicking on his torch as he went. It took them a little longer then usual but eventually they managed to return the six remaining buggies to their bays and secure them with the chains and padlocks. Due to Pete being late and the slight setback on the golf buggies, they were behind on their lock up walk.

Matt decided it was best that they split up, Pete focusing on checking the golf club while he would zoom around the main hotel. Pete liked this part of the job best, as it made him feel important and professional. He believed people looked at him with respect and adoration, because he was the security man. In truth they stared because he was a bit of an oddball.

When he got back to reception, Amanda was already gone and Matt was searching through the cupboards in the back office. Pete felt a sense of relief being back on the desk with Matt. Everyone else seemed to be acting odd. The golf club staff had seemed unusually sombre. He knew they got tired and irritable by the end of their shifts, but this was something else. They almost seemed depressed.

One of the waitresses had been crying and Marcel, the restaurant manager had been sat next to her at the back of the golf club restaurant trying to comfort her. Pete had thought about asking what was wrong but had become painfully aware of the time. He had decided to take a rain check and enquire about it later. Matt was whistling to himself, as he rummaged around in the poky office room. Pete smiled and took up his place at the far end of the reception. At least Matt was in good spirits, that would make the shift far more bearable.

He had just loaded up the surveillance software system with the twelve cameras they used to monitor the hotel, when the automatic doors whirred open and a grey haired man in an extremely garish shirt wandered inside. He was carrying a small piece of overnight luggage and had an extremely tanned and leathery face. Pete quickly got to his feet and tried to flatten down his crumpled and creased uniform.

‘Howdy,’ the man said, coming up to the reception desk.

He was American, there was no question of that. His thick Southern drawl indicated as much. It also explained the hideous Malibu style shirt the man was wearing.

‘Good evening, have you pre booked with us sir?’ Pete asked formally, finally getting accustomed to the lingo of the job.

‘Yes siree bob. Name’s Salinger, Jim Salinger,’ the American said with a toothy grin.

Pete thought he was deliberately playing up his own American stereotype for effect. But it was difficult to tell.

‘If I can just get you to fill out some information,’ Pete said, handing the man a piece of card that had the same silver Sterling logo at the top.

‘By the by, do you happen to know how much a four ball session on your course costs son?’ Salinger asked, as he filled out the form.

Pete frowned. Matt had told him the prices a while back but for the life of him he couldn’t remember.

‘Matt, do you know how much a four ball session costs?’ he said over his shoulder.

There was no answer. Pete locked eyes with Salinger who was studying him curiously and smiled nervously.

‘You know that already?’ Matt finally piped up.

Pete sighed dramatically and turned to face the open office door.

‘I’ve forgotten again.’

‘Is that okay,’ Salinger said, sliding the card back across the reception desk.

Pete swivelled back around and inspected the card quickly.

‘Yep all sorted,’ he said, handing over Salinger’s key card.

‘Thanks, Room 24 that’s through those doors right?’ Salinger said, motioning to two double doors on the opposite side of the lobby.

‘That’s it. Follow the corridor round and it should be on the left hand side, unless its moved,’ Pete said with a small chuckle.

Salinger nodded and turned to leave.

‘Wait a moment, don’t you want to know about the four ball session? Matt will be out in a moment, won’t you Matt?’ Pete queried, cocking his head to the side to listen for Matt’s response.

‘Yep, just a sec,’ came Matt’s muffled reply.

‘See, he won’t be long Mr. Salinger,’ Pete said satisfied.

Salinger looked back at Pete with a very frightened expression all of a sudden, mumbled that it wasn’t important and promptly disappeared through the double doors. Pete frowned, wondering what was wrong with the man. He had seemed in perfectly good spirits to begin with.

‘Where is he then?’

Pete jumped, not hearing Matt come out of the back office and shot him the daggers.

‘Jesus Matt, I just shit my pants.’

‘Is that why he left?’ Matt said, motioning to the absence of the guest on the other side of the desk.

‘Hardy fucking ha,’ Pete said and sat back down at the surveillance cameras.

Matt settled himself down in Amanda’s chair, crossed his arms and yawned loudly. After dry washing his face twice, he bent down and flicked on the computer tower. There was a whirr of a fan, as the terminal began to boot itself into life. While he waited for it to load up he glanced over at Pete, who was watching the cameras with a confused expression.

‘See something suspicious?’ he asked, a mixture of intrigue and concern on his face.

Pete didn’t hear him at first and continued to study the cameras intently.

‘Pete, what is it?’ Matt repeated, starting to rise out of his chair.

Pete heard him this time and tearing his eyes away from the computer, glanced round at Matt.

‘Don’t worry its not the cameras,’ he said, flapping at Matt to sit back down.

‘So what is it then?’ Matt asked, as he lowered himself back into the chair, which creaked in protest from the weight and repeated movement.

‘That guy was acting strangely,’ Pete said, recalling Salinger’s scared face in his mind.

‘What? The American?’ Matt said and then added, ‘Well he is from America so that could be why?’

Pete smiled but didn’t feel any more at ease by Matt’s amusing words. He thought about the other people he had come across since his shift had begun. Come to think of it they had all been acting quite strange. The horsey couple had avoided him like he was infected, the businessman had plain ignored him, the golf shop owner had looked at him weirdly and then there had been the crying waitress. He could never remember her name. Was it Amy or Abby?

‘I don’t know, have you noticed anyone else acting weird tonight?’

Matt thought for a moment then shrugged.

‘No more then usual, but people are a bit odd.’

Pete scratched his scraggy beard irritably.

‘Yeah I know, but I mean more then usual.’

Matt drummed his fingers on the counter.

‘Can’t say I’ve noticed.’

He glanced at Pete who still looked deeply troubled about the matter. Seeing the concern in his friend, he wheeled his chair over to him and put a compassionate hand on his shoulder.

‘I can tell you this mate. I have been working as a night security manager for a year and a half now. Trust me when I say this, people do fucking weird shit in hotels at night.’

Pete studied Matt’s face for a long time, then relaxed his shoulders and gave a weak smile.

‘Yeah I guess your right. Remember that naked sleepwalker on my first shift.’

Matt guffawed with laughter and wheeled back over to his computer.

‘That was hilarious.’

‘Yeah for you. I was the one who had to show him back to his room. Didn’t know where to look,’ Pete said hotly, but couldn’t stop his lip from curling into a faint smile.

The two lapsed into silence for five minutes, Matt listening to music on his computer, Pete writing away on his, interspersed with occasional checks of the site cameras. This was another thing about Matt that Pete liked. He was all up for a joke around and laugh, but he didn’t feel the need to always engage in conversation.

The two could quite happily sit at the reception in silence and not feel any awkward tension between them. Another ten minutes passed with only one interruption from a guest stopping by the reception, to ask for a alarm call for the following morning. Then Matt unplugged himself from the computer and stretched out his back with a series of alarming pops.

‘Seeing as its quiet, I will probably go and get started on the event room.’

Pete finished off his sentence, saved his document and had a quick glance at the camera feeds before looking round.

‘You sure? I can do it tonight if you want?’

Matt shook his head, raising a fist to his mouth to stifle a yawn.

‘You have done it the last two nights. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but we need to share the load Mr. Frodo.’

Pete nodded gratefully. He would quite happily go and hoover and tidy the event room for Matt. The guy was a decent manager and an even nicer bloke. But if he remained up here, he could really knuckle down and get on with his writing. Especially with it being a quiet night.

‘Radio me if you get any problems,’ Matt said, disappearing through the side door and coming round to the front of the reception desk.

‘Right oh boss,’ Pete said with a mock salute.

Matt flipped him the finger and left via the automatic front doors, swinging his torch and whistling loudly. Pete was reminded of a prison guard in an American film he had watched recently. He shook his head amused and returned to his writing.

 

Pete had been staring blankly at the same sentence for ten minutes and hadn’t heard Tom, the night barman sneak in through the side door.

‘What’s that?’ he said loudly.

Pete jumped in surprised and smacked his left leg into the underside of the table. Tom let out a loud snort of laughter, sounding like gleeful pig. Pete massaged his bruised leg and threw Tom a filthy look. He didn’t like Tom. He was rude, full of himself and a lecherous swine. His girlfriend was nice. Too nice for him and Pete didn’t know if he felt envy for him or pity for her.

‘There called words. You should try using them some time, instead of barnyard animal noises,’ Pete said underhandedly.

‘Funny guy aren’t you,’ Tom stated bluntly.

Feeling self conscious of his work and not wanting the likes of Tom sticking his obnoxious nose into the equation, Pete saved and closed the document. The camera surveillance system reappeared a moment later and Tom rubbed his hands together eagerly.

‘That’s more like it. Any fitties tonight?’

Pete ignored the comment and said nothing. If he blanked Tom long enough, then perhaps he would get the hint and bugger off.

‘Shame Ellen’s not still in the gym, she is a bit of alright,’ Tom said, nudging Pete.

‘You have a girlfriend,’ Pete said coldly.

‘I know I know, it’s not a crime to look though is it. Everybody does it,’ Tom retorted.

Pete recalled eyeing up Ellen when he had arrived and felt a pang of guilt enter his gut. Was he any better then Tom? He told himself that he was for obvious reasons. But Pete too was guilty for leching. To distract himself from his thoughts, he pointed at the bottom right corner camera.

‘What about Matt? I hear you like them big and burly?’

‘What the fuck is your problem Pete?’

Pete looked round surprised. Tom’s expression had morphed into one of disgust and anger.

‘I’m only joking. Don’t get your knickers in and twist,’ Pete said sardonically.

But Tom looked utterly horrified.

‘You’re fucked up you know that,’ Tom growled, shaking his head.

Pete sat in stunned silence, as Tom left through the side door. As he made his way across the lobby he glanced back at Pete still repulsed, before disappearing through the double doors on the other side. Pete sat still, glued to his chair, shock and disbelief still gripping him before he exclaimed loudly.

‘What the fuck?’

When Matt returned two hours later, Pete was struggling to keep his eyes open. Two am in the morning was the hardest time to stop from nodding off. Once he got past that and reached three, a second wind would kick in and help him through the early hours of the morning. Matt’s face was red and sweaty and his shirt damp in a few places, but he was smiling. Pete waited until Matt had settled himself back in his chair, before he told him about Tom’s aggressive attitude.

‘Well either he is a homophobe or he is secretly gay and trying to pretend otherwise,’ Matt determined after a moment’s thought.

That had given Pete something to think about. It still seemed a bit of an over reaction. Tom was usually all for banter, and even though Pete didn’t like him he had to admit that sometimes he could be funny. Try as he might though, Pete couldn’t wrap his head around it. He was too tired and his brain was a foggy mess. In the end, he let the matter rest. Tom was a tit and Pete didn’t have the time to spend thinking about such a waste of human space.

The next few hours passed slowly but Pete and Matt managed to break it up, by sneaking into the back office and putting on a film. It was Matt’s turn to choose and he had selected a film adequately called Nightwatch. It starred Ewan McGregor as a night watchman at a morgue where strange and spooky goings-on were taking place. Pete thought it was a good but felt it was probably not the best film to watch, when you yourself worked nights.

There were a couple of brief intermissions when Matt went to sort out some room service, and soon after Pete had gone to do a sweep of the building. The cameras covered the major angles but it was always good to do a physical inspection as well. He didn’t enjoy the walk as much as usual, mainly because the creepy film they had watched was still fresh in his mind. At the same time, Pete didn’t want to admit he was scared in front of Matt.

The last hour and a half flew by, as they had some early morning check ins to deal with, unlocking of the golf club and delivering papers to some of the rooms. Matt had finished early, about half past six as he was in dire need of a good night’s sleep. Pete had noticed him looking fatigued all night and had to forcibly push him out the front door, insisting he go home and get some rest.

It was about quarter to seven when Pete was just packing up to leave, that the reception phone rang. He glanced at it for a moment, debating whether to answer before eventually conceding and picking up the receiver.

‘Sterling Hotel, Peter speaking, how can I help?’

‘Is that Night Security Pete?’ the voice said on the other end of the line.

‘Yes, who’s this?’ Pete said warily, catching sight of Tom’s girlfriend Helen, as she passed through the automatic doors.

Helen worked in the restaurant downstairs and as she walked across the lobby, she caught sight of Pete and waved. Pete did likewise, guessing that Tom hadn’t mentioned their terse encounter from the night before.

‘This is Fred,’ the voice on the phone said and Pete returned his attention to the call. ‘From the golf club.’

‘Oh hi Fred, everything alright?’ Pete said, relaxing slightly.

‘To be honest no. I was just opening up the shop and noticed some of the buggies haven’t been locked up,’ Fred said, sounding a little irked.

Pete frowned hard. Matt had secured the buggies last night. He had seen him do it.

‘You sure, because Matt definitely chained them up last night?’

There was silence on the other end of the phone. For a minute Pete thought Fred had hung up. Then Fred spoke in a very low and grave tone.

‘Is this your idea of a joke because it really isn’t funny.’

‘Excuse me?’ Pete said taken aback.

‘What you said about Matt?’ Fred said and he sounded genuinely concerned.

‘Why would I be joking about that?’ Pete asked, nonplussed.

The sound of someone clearing their throat made Pete look up suddenly. A middle aged man, dressed in an expensive looking suit was stood on the other side of the reception desk. Usually Pete would have held up a finger to indicate he would just be a moment. But the man looked very displeased and Pete had the feeling he would not want to be kept waiting. Fred had started to say something but Pete cut him off.

‘Sorry Fred, I’ve got to go but as soon as I’m done here I will come down and sort out the buggies,’ and he put the phone down before Fred could respond.

Pete got to his feet, put on his best pleasant and calm smile and clasped his hands behind his back.

‘Sorry about that sir, how can I help?’

‘I’m room 21,’ the man said simply.

He didn’t elaborate and Pete was at a loss at what to say. The man huffed loudly and lent his arms on the counter between them.

‘I ordered room service last night.’

‘Oh yes of course,’ Pete said, as it clicked in his head. ‘Was everything satisfactory?’

Matt had dealt with a room service request last night. The man threw his hands up in the air dramatically.

‘Well considering it never turned up, I would say no, it wasn’t satisfactory.’

Pete’s mouth dropped open. Matt had told him he had dealt with it. If he hadn’t been sorting out the room service, where the hell had he been?

‘Are you definitely sure sir?’

The man looked like he was going to launch himself over the counter at Pete, such was his outrage.

‘I ordered a beef sandwich to my room last night and not only did it not turn up but when I came to complain, there was no one at reception.’

That must have been when Matt was supposedly in the kitchen seeing to the room service and Pete was doing the building sweep.

‘I’m awfully sorry sir…’ Pete began, but the angry man shot him down.

‘Well its not good enough is it?’

Pete racked his brains for an appropriate response. He wished Matt was here. Not only was it his fault but, he also was a manager and better equipped at dealing with people.

‘I want to speak to the manager,’ the man demanded hotly.

‘The manager has just left,’ Pete said sheepishly.

The man slapped the counter in frustration.

‘Ridiculous.’

‘I can pass it on to the reception manager when he arrives,’ Pete suggested.

‘You do that and tell him that I will be in my room and expect either a visit or a phone call,’ the man said and added before leaving, ‘Also, there are three or four dirty trays in the corridor.’

Pete waited until the man had left through the double doors on the other side of the lobby, before he swore loudly after him. He glanced at the clock. It was five to seven. Pete willed the hands to move faster, wanting nothing else then to escape this hellhole of a hotel and get home. Popping into the back office to double check he had everything, Pete noticed a mobile phone on the table. He wasn’t a hundred percent, but he thought it was Matt’s.

It was hard to tell when everybody either had iPhones or Samsung’s these days. Pressing the home button, the empty battery symbol came up. It was most probably Matt’s. His phone was always out of juice. Sitting down at the office table he pulled over the desk phone, typed in Matt’s home number and brought the receiver to his ear. It rang for some time and Pete was just about to hang up, when a woman’s voice came through on the other end.

‘Hello?’ She said timidly.

It was Jane, Matt’s wife. Something sounded different about her voice. Normally she was bubbly and a little loud, but today she sounded muffled and tired. Perhaps she was ill Pete thought to himself.

‘Hi Jane, its Pete.’

There was a brief silence, then Jane made a sniffling noise on the other end of the phone before talking.

‘Oh….hello Pete.’

‘Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to let you know that Matt left his phone here. Can you pass the message on to him,’ Pete said, turning the phone over in his hand.

The back of it was all scratched and marked, which was odd because Matt was a bit of a tech nut and usually looked after his gadgets. All of a sudden Jane burst into tears on the other end of the phone. Pete sat up, not knowing what to say.

‘Are you alright?’ Pete eventually stammered.

‘How dare you? My husband is dead and you….do this….prank call. Stay away from me and my family….you sick freak,’ Jane exploded through heavy sobs, before cursing him several names under the sun and ending the call.

Pete sat stock still, ear still pressed to the receiver, mobile phone still clutched in his hand. His stomach was doing somersaults, sweat had formed on his brow and his ears suddenly felt like they were full of cotton wool. He was staring at the white wall, utterly paralysed. A movement out of the corner of his eye and a mumbled noise made him look round and up. Clive was standing in the doorway. As Pete broke out of his daydream, Clive spoke again and this time the words rang clearly in Pete’s ears.

‘Morning Pete, what are you doing with my phone?’

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2019]. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Frost Castle

Freya The Fearless or Foolhardy as her father opted to call her, drove her axe into the ice and lowered her head, as a spray of snow showered over her. She was halfway up a steep wall of ice, using her pair of dual axes as makeshift ice picks. Every now and then she had to pause as a strong gust of wind buffeted against her, flattening her against the cliff face. She looked up. It was hard to make out the summit of the ice wall, as there was so much snow and mist swirling above her. Trying not to dwell on her predicament too much, Freya raised her free arm and drove the second axe into the ice wall, a little higher than the first. She was eager to reach the top.

The longer she delayed here, the more danger Horatio would be in. At the same time, she had to remind herself that rushing could be costly. The wall was slick and footing scarce. One wrong move and she would plummet to a certain death. So, gritting her teeth Freya pushed on, choosing her path carefully as she ascended to her destination. With her heavy furs and dark skin, she looked like some winter animal scaling the wall. The only thing that stood out in the blanket of whites and greys was her hair. Long, tied into a tight braid and shaved on one side, she sported a shock of purple hair. From afar it looked like a blank canvas with a single fleck of purple paint in its centre.

She was making steady progress despite her aching arms and legs, when she heard something that made her pause for a moment. Freya had grown up in the woods of the Salam Valley, taught at an early age to track and hunt, sharpening not only her eyesight but also her hearing to best locate her prey. She cocked her head to one side and listened intently. There was a very faint crunching of snow underfoot from somewhere in the distance.

A second later an arrow thudded into the ice wall beside her. Freya flinched but maintained her grip on the wall. She had come too far to be bested by some irrelevant bandits. Another arrow buried itself into the wall, mere centimetres from her right foot. It was time to move. She heaved herself up and drove an axe into the wall. There was a deep rumble and crack from under the ice. Freya bit her lip. The wall was starting to crack. It couldn’t take much more. An arrow whizzed through the air. Freya’s quick reflexes kicked in and she ducked down, the projectile smacking into the wall where her head had been only moments ago.

She breathed out deeply. That was too close. Another tremble shook the ice wall. One more arrow and it would fall. She glanced up, to try and see where she was in relation to the top. But it was too concealed by the cloud of snow and sleet shrouding the sky. Narrowing her eyes, she thought she could just make out it’s dark outline. It didn’t look too far but that was assuming her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her.

Another two arrows were loosed, Freya picking out the elastic twang of the rope pinging back. Tensing all her muscles, she let out a warrior scream and launched herself backwards off the wall and up into the air. The arrows struck the ice wall and there was a tremendous cracking noise, as a jagged fork spread throughout the ice. There was a deep groan from beneath and parts of the wall began to break off and tumble down into the abyss. Freya flew upwards, blood pumping madly in her ears as the wind rushed past her. She cleared the ravine and kept going up.

As she rose, she looked down and caught sight of the three archers crouched at the edge of the chasm. As gravity began to tug her back towards the ground, she gripped both axe handles tightly in her palms. The three archers looked up in stunned surprise, as she shot like an arrow towards them. The first to recover, raised his bow but received an axe in his chest for his efforts. He fell forward in the snow and lay still. With her one remaining axe, Freya gripped it in both hands and landed on the second archer with an almighty force, driving the axe deep into the man’s head. He was wearing a helmet, but the force of her attack was so strong it tore through the armour like a knife through hot butter.

She let go off the axe as she hit the guard, rolled forward in the snow and came to a stop a little way away, face down. The one remaining archer, who had watched these quick successions of events open mouthed took hold of his senses. Stringing an arrow in his bow, he moved forward cautiously to the felled warrior. She was still lying in the same position, completely still, her face buried in the snow. He stopped in front of her and pointed his bow at her back. There was a moment’s hesitation.

A tremendous rumble made him start and he looked round in time to see the rest of the ice wall detach itself and avalanche down into the ravine. Freya’s arms shot out. She seized the archer by both ankles and pulled as hard as she could. The man let out a yelp of surprise, as he was flung backwards. The arrow he had ready, rocketed up into the air and was gone.

Next moment, Freya was on top of him, reigning blow after blow on his face. He tried to fight back but she was far too strong, her muscular arms pounding him unflinchingly. Freya brought back an arm, muttered something incomprehensible under her breath and delivered her final blow. It was so powerful that it drove the archer’s head deep into the snow, so only a bloodied patch amongst the white was left to show.

Freya knelt in the snow and regarded her bloodied fists for a moment. Her face was burning hot with rage and her fists throbbed with a dull ache, yet the cold around her made her shiver. Wiping the fresh blood from her knuckles on the snow, she stood up and turned around. The other two dead archers lay before her. She retrieved her axes, the one embedded in the second archer’s head taking a bit more effort to wrench free then the first.

Inspecting the archers, she found nothing to indicate where they had come from, but their lack of armour or clothing puzzled her. Even if they had a camp nearby, being out in these frozen wastes with these measly garments, they would have frozen to death in a matter of minutes. Sheathing her bloodstained axes, she looked up.

A great, towering black shape slumbered in the distance, concealed by the thick screen of falling snow. It rose and fell at certain points, giving it a jagged, broken outline. This was her destination. Taking one last glance at the corpses in the snow, Freya began to trudge her way around the ravine. The mystery of the measly garments would have to wait. She had more important matters to intend to.

On the other side of the ravine there was a wide and snaking path or more accurately what once was one. The continual downpour of snow had hidden it but after a few moments of digging with her axe, Freya hit stone. It was a cobbled path she ascertained, by the smoothness and unevenness of the stones. She glanced up, surmising in her head. The path was leading away towards the black outline in the distance. It was quite possible that it could lead off in another direction further down the line, but it was a good bet to assume that it led roughly in the direction of her destination.

Although, she now had a clear indication of where she was going, progress wasn’t easy. The six inches of deep snow tugged at her boots, sucking on her legs with every swathe she made forwards. She looked up at the looming black shadow. It was growing steadily closer and beginning to take more shape. Not soon enough, Freya thought to herself. All her muscles felt stretched to breaking point. The jump she had performed off the ice wall had worked in her favour, but it had taken a great amount of energy and strength. Fatigue was starting to set in, not aided by the awkward terrain and cold weather.

She hugged her furs closer to her body. When Freya had become an adolescent, she had to take part in a clearing test. This involved enduring extreme conditions and temperatures from searing hot to bitterly cold, not to mention fighting such formidable foes as trolls, giant arachnids and swarms of Skrill. She shivered at the memory of the winged, skinless creatures with their razor-sharp teeth and forked tails. Despite all this, she still spent most of her time in her native woodland and as such was less accustomed to sub-zero temperatures.

Freya gritted her teeth and trudged on through the snow. Pull it together, she told herself. She had made it this far. To turn around now would only result in shame and ridicule from her tribe. Neglecting a tribe’s and elder’s orders was heavily frowned upon. But her punishment and shaming would be far worse if she returned empty handed. So bearing this in mind she powered on to her goal, pushing all thoughts of cold and discomfort to the dark recesses of her mind. The path she was following snaked its way through a tall ravine, towering ice walls forming either side of her. Although, Freya disliked being in tight spaces, it was a relief to be sheltered from the wind for a moment.

She paused and alighted on a partially submerged rock. A small pouch hung from a belt at her waist. From it, she withdrew a small package constructed of leaves and twines. Unwrapping it, she extracted a sticky round brown substance. It was formed in a circular ball and although light, had a certain denseness to it. Freya took a small mouthful and wrinkled her nose. Gum bread was a popular choice among travellers and hikers, as only a small morsel could keep an adventurer going for hours. The problem was that it tasted awful and tended to stick between one’s teeth. Freya sighed, as she chomped the tough bread, trying to stop her mouth from cementing itself shut.

There was a rumble and shudder from the wall to her left. She eyed it cautiously, pausing mid chew. It fell silent once more. Thinking nothing of it, Freya returned her attention to finishing her meal. The icy surfaces made strange noises. Freya had heard that first hand on her climb up. Although it still made her uncomfortable, she had trained herself to become accustomed to the sounds. It was only natural.

Freya was packing away the remainder of her gum bread when a shadow fell across the ravine. She shivered. The clouds must be passing over. That wasn’t a good sign. Where they were clouds, storms were bound to follow. The last thing Freya needed was to be caught in a blizzard. She hopped down from the rock and brushed the bread crumbs from her furs.

Then, without warning a tremendous force slammed down behind her. The rock was obliterated, shards of the structure flying outwards. A section caught Freya in the shoulder and she was spun round, falling on her back in the snow with a heavy thump. The pain in her right shoulder blade was excruciating and she covered her head to block her face from smaller chunks of rock raining down through the air. There was a tremendous rumble that seemed to vibrate through the walls and ground beneath her.

She forced herself to look up and immediately wished she hadn’t. Two giant frosted hands gripped either side of the ravine. They were attached to a ginormous creature. Its body constructed entirely out of ice. Only it’s eyes showed any semblance of sentience. They were steely blue and swivelled around in their ice encased sockets with a strange liquid like sensation. Freya felt rooted to the spot, as the ice monster leaned back and let out an almighty roar. The ground and walls shuddered so violently this time, that Freya felt her teeth rattle in her skull. Portions of ice broke free from the force of the roar and plummeted towards the ground, where Freya lay. She rolled over just in time to avoid a large patch of ice colliding with her head.

Scrambling to her feet, she made a dash for the ravine exit. The ice giant bounded after her, his large hands and feet thumping into the ice walls. Freya had to zigzag, jump and roll to avoid dislodged loose ice that was raining down around her. The giant was getting closer and Freya noticed with a sickening churning of the stomach, that the ravine was starting to collapse in on itself. The exit was a little way off, but the walls were starting to landslide in. She made a dart for freedom. If she could just make it a little further.

The giant landed above her and thrust an enormous hand down into the ravine. Freya sidestepped out of the way and attacked it viciously with her axe, chipping off bits of the giant’s hand. The creature roared in pain and retracted it. Freya instantly regretted her decision. The giant’s roar was the final straw. The exit caved in on itself, the walls crumbling and land sliding into the ravine. Freya felt fear flood her body, a sensation she had never been familiar with. There was no way out.

Two fragments of the wall crashed into the ground either side of her. She looked up. The giant was staring down at her, it’s cold blue eyes narrowed. In any moment, the ravine would collapse in on itself entirely and she would be flattened to death. She returned her attention to the exit. Before she knew what was happening, Freya was running forwards at speed. There was a little outcrop in front of her, where some of the fallen ice and snow had landed on top of each other and formed a slight ramp. Freya raced forwards. As she darted towards the ramp, she reached behind her back and pulled a small staff from out of a holster on her back.

The giant figured what was going on a few moments too late and rushed forwards to try and stop his fleeing prey. Freya jumped up onto the bottom of the ramp and twisted the staff in her hand. It instantly grew several feet in length and suddenly Freya was making her way up the ramp with a full length fighting staff. At the top of the ramp, Freya drove the end of the staff into a rut into the ground and gripping the pole as tightly as she dared, pushed off from the ramp.

She vaulted up and through the air in a circular arc. At the highest point of her arc, Freya let go and soared through the air. It was all a blur, snowflakes covering her eyes and wind screaming in her ears. The blocked off exit rose out of nowhere and Freya felt her stomach lurch, as she flew towards it. She cleared it by a hair’s breadth, the layer of snow covering the top, whipping up in her wake.

A large hand swung out at her from towards her left. There was nothing she could do. She was wind milling through the air with no control over her body. The hand whooshed past, the outstretched fingers brushing Freya’s streaming hair. There was an almighty bellow of rage, as Freya descended towards the ground. She braced herself for a rough impact. She hit the ground hard and skidded several feet in the snow before coming to a rest, spread eagled in the snow, completely still.

Freya was awoken by a strange sensation. Something cold and wet kept brushing her arms and legs. She tried to roll over, but she had expended all her energy. Her muscles were exhausted. The cold, wet sensation had gone, and in its place Freya was assailed by stinging pains at various points over her body. Next moment, something large pushed on her side. She tried to push it away, but her arms were like jelly and fell back uselessly. Again, the large thing pushed on her side and this time with so much force, that she was turned over onto her back. A sky of pure white blinded her.

Then a large shape appeared above her, blocking out most of the light. Freya squinted, trying to make sense of what it was. After several blinks of the eye, a large wolf’s head swum into her vision. Its yellow eyes looked down at her curiously. Instead or scream or try to wriggle free, she smiled. It was the first time since she had set foot in these cursed wastes and it felt good. Somewhere an unknown strength gripped her and she sat bolt upright, grabbing hold of the large wolf’s body and hugging it tightly.

‘Dagur, you came.’ Freya said overjoyed, her face buried in the large beast’s fur.

The wolf said nothing but licked one of the wounds on Freya’s forehead. The cut remained but the bleeding stopped. Freya sat back and regarded Dagur with tired eyes.

‘I lost my staff,’ she said despondently.

‘But you are still alive,’ Dagur’s voice said in her head.

The wolf spoke seldom, preferring to communicate with action rather than words. But when he did, Dagur only ever spoke telepathically to Freya. The wolf was Freya’s spirit animal, gifted to her when she was a child. The two forever shared a bond.

‘Have you been sent here to bring me home?’

Dagur nodded, watching her with keen eyes.

‘Well you can tell my father that I am not coming back till I rescue Horatio,’ she said defiantly.

In her fit of passion, Freya tried to stand up. Her legs gave way and she tumbled back down to the ground. The wolf grinned, exposing his sharp, pointed teeth. Then he moved forward and lowered himself onto the snow.

‘Come child. Horatio needs your help.’

Freya looked at Dagur in surprise and grabbing hold of the wolf’s fur, clambered onto the beast’s back where she lay panting. Dagur stood up on all fours and glanced at the castle. It was just visible now. The high towers and peaked battlements thrusting up into the winter sky.

‘Hold on,’ Dagur advised and howling loudly, dashed forward towards the castle.

Freya was used to riding Dagur. She had grown up hunting with the animal, using him as a mount to hunt down their prey. Even so her legs and arms ached sharply, and she had to summon great energy and focus onto holding on. Dagur leapt over a fallen log that was hidden in a coat of snow and thundered on, his strong legs pounding the snow below them. She felt an immense love for her spirit animal rise within her. Dagur had come to help her, when no one else would. Even though she knew deep down he was against the idea.

The castle rose out of the mist and snow to meet them. It was an imposing sight with its black stone walls and ramparts, yet Freya felt no apprehension. Instead, the sight of the towering castle served to renew new life in her. After days of trekking through snow, fighting off attackers, not to mention the harsh landscape itself, Freya had finally reached her destination.

Dagur slowed, as they reached the castle’s entrance. Freya pulled out one of axes, glancing all about her as the wolf padded forwards. So far, she had been attacked by bandits and a frost giant. She was not about to go charging full steam ahead at a castle door, not matter how tempting the idea might be. There could be sentries or guards. It was quiet. The only sounds to be heard were the rush of the icy wind and the soft crunch underfoot, as Dagur padded forward.

The castle was surrounded by a circular moat with a drawbridge. Typically the bridge was up, meaning there would be no straightforward walk in the door scenario. The water in the moat however was frozen solid. Dagur stopped, sniffing the ground in front of him and glancing from side to side tentatively. Only when he felt the coast was clear did he allow Freya to dismount.

She climbed down off the beast and blew a loose strand of hair out of her eye. Her cheeks and nose were rosy red, and her eyes had begun to run from the sharp wind. Yet, she strode forward confidently to the moat. Just having her faithful hound Dagur by her side had instilled new purpose in her task. The wolf watched her approach the moat, his ears pricked up, searching for anything out of the ordinary in the snowy landscape around them. The castle from the outside appeared to be abandoned but that didn’t comfort Dagur in the slightest. The animal was aware of the Mage’s power and trickery. It was the complacency which got you killed around wielders of magic.

Freya eyed the frozen moat apprehensively. It wasn’t her first choice by any means. The ice although thick creaked and moaned from time to time. The last time Freya had been on top of an ice structure the whole thing had collapsed, her nearly with it. She looked up at the drawbridge fixed firmly in place and ran an eye over the walls and sides of the castle. There was no other way in. Even if she wanted to climb the castle walls, she would still have to cross the frozen moat.

She placed a foot on the frozen moat and applied a little pressure. It held. Lowering herself onto the ice, still holding onto the bank for support she scrunched up her face, waiting for the inevitable crack. But nothing happened. The ice didn’t break, and Freya found she could stand upright without fear of the ice breaking. Footsteps approached from behind and turning she saw Dagur padding towards her.

‘No,’ she commanded, holding out her hands firmly.

The large wolf growled at her deeply.

‘You are too heavy. Wait here and I will climb over the drawbridge and lower it for you.’

Dagur eyed her sceptically for a moment, before huffing and sitting back on his hind legs. Freya nodded.

‘Won’t be long.’

She turned and started making her way across the wide moat. The occasional rumble and crackle from beneath set her on edge but she carried on regardless. This was no time to be getting cold feet. Not when her objective was in arm’s reach. Well nearly. A long shadow passed underneath Freya and she froze on the spot, glued to the ice. There was a tense moment, as she waited for the shadow to return. When it didn’t she let out a sigh of relief and went to step forward.

The ice in front of her shattered, as something very large and long burst out from underneath. Freya fell back, sliding across the slick surface. Broken chunks of airborne ice rained down around her, forcing Freya to curl into a ball and cover her head. A long shadow fell over her, so all-encompassing that it nearly blocked out the entire sky. She looked up, higher and higher her eyes went until finally she was able to look upon the creature’s face.

It was a hideous sight. The water creature’s body was long and windy like a snake’s, with four stubby limbs hanging limply from its torso. But it was its head that drew the most attention. A long narrow face with a pronounced snout and small, beady eyes, jet black and devoid of any emotion. Freya watched in horror, as the sea serpent pulled back it’s elongated neck and opened its huge mouth. Inside were mammoth sized, razor sharp teeth. There was some thick liquid dripping from the side of its mouth, making the sight even more nauseating.

Dagur was barking and growling fiercely, his whole body taut and tensed. He was stood at the very lip to the moat but had obeyed Freya’s orders of staying on land. There was a horrible, gurgling noise and Freya watched the great sea monster. Its neck was convulsing and jerking spasmodically. Freya started to scramble backwards. Something bad was about to happen.

As if in answer, the sea serpent brought its head forward and a ball of green mucus shot out of its mouth. It was headed straight for Freya. She rolled out of the way just in time, jumped to her feet and started sprinting across the ice towards the drawbridge. The ball of green slime hit the ice and there was a sizzling noise, as it began to eat through the surface. Freya stumbled, as the ice gave way to the acid patch.

The sea serpent let out an almighty shriek. It was so high pitched that Freya winced in pain but continued. Reaching the wall of the castle, she paused and glanced over her shoulder. The sea serpent had disappeared. Freya began to climb. This was no time to hang about. The fact that the creature had disappeared back under the ice was more unsettling then being able to see it.

The wall was hard going. It was slippery and had little in the way of hand and footholds. Freya persevered however and reached the bottom of the closed drawbridge gate in good time. She swung an axe up into the wood and tugged on it, to make sure it was secure. Satisfied, she brought the second axe up next, a little higher. Repeating this process, Freya slowly began to make her way up the wooden surface. She glanced over her shoulder at Dagur. He was pacing up and down the shoreline, watching the ice anxiously. Freya glanced above her. She was nearly to the top.

A tremendous crash broke the still air and for the second time, the sky was full of flying ice. Freya concentrated on the task in hand, reaching the top of the drawbridge. That long, enveloping shadow began to rise behind her, until once again it loomed over her like an angry cloud. She heard the weird retching noise and the shadow began to quiver and shake. Knowing what was coming, Freya sped up. She reached the top of the drawbridge in the nick of time.

Another acid patch thudded into the wood beneath her and immediately, it began to eat through the thick surface. The shock of the blow made the drawbridge shake and Freya held onto one of the chains, keeping it in place to steady herself. Steeling herself, Freya turned to face the monster, her two axes extended out in each hand. The serpent pulled back its head, ready to strike. Freya closed her eyes and breathed out slowly.

The serpent went to strike. Freya’s eyes sprang open, as she raised her axes, ready to meet the beast. The serpent was jerked back suddenly. It screamed that high pitch scream and then tried to dart forward. Again, it was wrenched backwards. It turned its head and glared at Dagur, who had jumped onto the monster’s tail and was biting at it savagely.

‘Go,’ ordered the wolf, attacking the serpent’s scaled skin with a savage clamp of its mouth.

Freya turned and brought the axe down on one of the gate chains. It slackened slightly but still held firm. She attacked it again, hacking it with all the energy and strength she could muster. The links broke, and the chain gave free. The drawbridge lurched forwards a foot then stopped. The other chain was still holding it up. Freya shimmied along the top and began attacking the next one. A sudden loud whimper made her glance round. The serpent had shaken Dagur free and the wolf had been sent flying across the ice. The poor animal lay against the bank on its side.

‘Dagur, ’ Freya screamed and paused in her chopping.

The wolf lay still for a moment. Then very slowly, Dagur climbed to his feet. One of his legs was bleeding. The serpent turned back to Freya and began to move in to attack her instead.

‘Lower the bridge,’ Dagur said so forcefully, that Freya did as she was told.

She hacked and sliced at the chains, not caring about the approaching sea monster, or the inevitable plummeting drop that would come from the fall. The monster started to regurgitate its vile acid liquid for a third time. Freya delivered the final blow to the chains. The links broke free and the drawbridge came loose. At the same time Dagur rushed forward and leapt. The wolf slammed with all his weight into the side of the serpent, knocking it over onto the ice.

The sea serpent screeched and re righted itself, just in time to see the drawbridge swinging down towards it. There was a loud crunch, followed by a splat as the wooden surface crushed the creature beneath it. Freya landed on top of the drawbridge heavily. The air was knocked from her lungs and it took her a while to recover her breath. Finally she lifted herself up onto her knees, her chest heaving up and down heavily. One of her axes lay beside her. The other was nowhere to be seen.

‘Dagur,’ she said hurriedly and scrambled over to the edge of the drawbridge.

The serpent lay flattened to the ice, completely still. Dagur was nowhere to be seen. There was a sudden crack and the ice beneath the still sea serpent gave way. Freya held onto the corner of the bridge as she watched the monster sink beneath the water, it’s long and slinky body slipping slowly under the surface. She waited until the last bubble had risen, and then turned and climbed to her feet, clasping her one remaining weapon. Her face, which was an expression of sad acceptance suddenly morphed into one of ecstatic joy.

‘Dagur,’ she exclaimed and rushed forward.

The large grey wolf was sat at the now open entrance to the castle, watching her curiously. She embraced the wolf in a tight hug but pulled out quickly, when Dagur winced.

‘Sorry, I forgot about your leg.’

The fur was bloodied and stained dark red, but the wound seemed to have stopped flowing.

‘Where’s your other axe?’

Freya looked down at her feet awkwardly.

‘I see. Well try to hang on to that one. I hate to think what is waiting for us inside if that was the sentry guard.’

Freya gripped the axe tightly in her hand and nodded. She glanced down the drawbridge at the castle’s now visible inner courtyard. There wasn’t an army of soldiers waiting on the other side or a line of archers posted along the ram tops. Freya took the opportunity to recover her breath and check Dagur was alright. The large animal’s wound had already begun to scab over, aided by the creature’s tongue. Freya had learned from a young age, that wolf’s salvia had incredible healing properties, hence why she had recovered so quickly herself after the fall. Still, it was an instinctual reflex that she worried about Dagur, when he was badly attacked.

‘Onwards and…inwards I guess,’ Freya announced, composing herself.

The stone archway to the courtyard rose over the two travellers, as they stepped off the drawbridge and into the castle itself. As soon as Freya passed underneath and onto the other side she felt a strange tingle, as the hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention. Dagur sensed it too, sniffing the air with his large snout. But that was it, the lack of air was unusual or rather the stillness. The archway was tall and wide, and the courtyard wasn’t sheltered from above but the wind seemed completely non-existent. The air was stagnant and thick. The two glanced at each other warily.

At some point a great battle had been fought here. Dust covered skeletons littered the ground, their armour cracked and broken. Freya inspected a few of the corpses, out of morbid curiosity. One of them was slumped against a stone wall, a fancy curved rapier protruding from between his ribs. Freya sheathed her axe and gripped the sword’s handle. She had to place her foot against the dead soldier’s head, as the blade had been rammed so forcibly between the victim’s ribs. Eventually though with a great tug it came free and Freya stumbled back, holding the rapier up in the air victoriously. She looked round at Dagur. He was watching her with a disapproving expression. She shrugged her shoulders and moved on.

Dagur barked to get her attention and Freya looked in the direction the wolf’s head was pointed in. At the very rear of the courtyard, stood a tall, crumbling and frankly unfit for purpose tower. Despite it’s apparent state of decay with half of its roof and left side of the wall missing, there was a light coming from within. Even Dagur’s keen eyesight couldn’t make out clearly if there was anyone in there. Freya had a feeling though. This was her destination. The ice wall, archer bandits, frost giant and sea serpent had all led to this.

There was one problem however. Their way was barred by an immense wall of debris. During the great battle, a catapult must have been launched at the castle, because their way was barred by a huge section of half broken wall. Freya looked around and spotted a section of the castle rear wall that had been blown out. Dagur was strolling up and down in front of the blockade, trying to see a gap or way through. She didn’t mention it. Dagur wouldn’t be best pleased if she revealed that they could have just snuck in round the back.

Freya glanced around at the devastation. Bodies lay piled up on one another. A few horse skeletons were dotted here and there where presumably a cavalry charge had been attempted. Discarded weapons scattered the ground and arrows were embedded in crates, barrels or corpses alike. A door stood in the corner of the courtyard drew her attention. Two bodies were tangled up in front of it, one of the skeletal hands was attached to its handle. She wrenched the joint free, making a horrible snapping sound and cast it aside. Then she kicked the corpses out of the way and rattled the handle herself. It was locked. No surprise there.

Freya took a step back, then rushed forward and shouldered the wood as hard as she could. The door’s jamb snapped from the force and swung backwards, smashing into the wall. Freya wind milled, her arms flailing as a descending spiral staircase rose to meet her on the other side. There was a tug on her hood, as she was pulled backwards. Regaining her balance, she straightened up.

‘You can let go of me now,’ se instructed Dagur, who was still gripping her hood in clenched teeth.

The animal consented and padded forwards, sniffing the air. A torch affixed in a bracket on the wall inside burst into life. Dagur snarled at it. Freya laid a hand on the wolf’s giant head and stroked his fur soothingly.

‘It’s okay.’

Dagur didn’t look convinced but the pandering did help. Freya unhooked the lit torch from the wall bracket, gripping the newly acquired rapier in her free hand and started down the spiral staircase. She could feel Dagur watching her, sensing his apprehension. Freya understood his reluctancy to go on. Self – lighting torches were not just creepy but also indicated there was magic about and from what she had witnessed so far, it didn’t seem like the friendly, good natured type. Nevertheless, she had a mission to complete and this appeared to be the only way to reach the tower so she had no choice but to push on.

The two had to be careful descending the tightly coiled staircase, some of the stone steps were slick and partially broken. The torched helped a little and Dagur had strong night vision but even so, it was slow going. It was with a welcome sigh of relief that they reached the bottom of the staircase and emerged out onto a low roofed but wide underground chamber. Freya felt the tight sensation in her chest alleviate somewhat. She was not claustrophobic by nature but combined with poor light and dodgy footing  she found her breathing becoming a little strained at points. A sudden gust of wind rushed through the chamber, extinguishing Freya’s torch and spraying dust and grit into her eyes. The two coughed and spluttered.

‘Dagur…. can you see anything?’

The wolf was about to reply, when several torches lining either side of the chamber flickered into life. Dagur growled again and Freya gripped her rapier more tightly. The chamber was made up of several black and darkened cells, lining either side of the walls. Freya discarded the now useless torch and made her way forwards through the chamber. Some of the cells were open and Freya paused to peer inside them. Dagur kept glancing behind him but there was nothing there.

There were more corpses in the cells, although these ones were adorned in half rotted hoses and shirts of simple design and plain in colour. Most of them had chains around their ankles with heavy lead balls attached at the end. Some of them even had metal collars around their necks. Freya shivered. The skeletons themselves didn’t scare her. She wasn’t easily frightened by corpses but the thought of their no doubt torturous imprisonment put her on edge.

There was another door at the end of the chamber room. Freya moved forward to inspect it. It was similar in design to the cell doors with its heavy metal bolts and iron bars. Once again, she tried slamming her weight against the door but this time it held. Damn. She unhooked a nearby torch an inspected the door more closely. There was a keyhole in the right-hand corner. A rustling noise made her spin round. Sword raised, the two waited for another sound. A small, dark shape scurried out from one of the cells. Dagur leapt forward, bringing a paw down on the scurrying shadow. There was a high-pitched shriek and then silence. Freya relaxed, as the wolf set about feasting on the captured rodent.

The ante chamber fell silent again, albeit for the soft tearing sounds as Dagur worked on his meal, and the occasional flapping of the torch flames as the wind rose and fell again. Freya was about to turn back to the door when a sudden strong gust of wind swept the room, extinguishing all the torches bar Freya’s. Dagur paused in his devouring and lifted his giant head. The torch lit up a small area in front of Freya but beyond that it was a wall of impenetrable darkness. With all the torches lit, Freya had felt a little warmth return to her bones but that had now gone.

She shivered, her long hair lying limp and damp against her skin. There was still a coating of snow and ice on her fur hood. A grinding noise began somewhere far off in the darkness. It sounded like metal scraping against stone. Dagur continued to growl, his thick fur standing on end like a feral cat. He backed towards the door and came to a stop next to Freya. His legs were spread apart and his muscles tight and tensed, ready to spring into action of necessary.

A soft clinking sound had joined the scraping noise. It was growing gradually clearer and more pronounced, as whatever it was evidently drew closer. Both had keen eyes and they made out the shapes well before they reached the torchlight. Nevertheless, both hound and human had to take a moment to fully absorb what their eyes were telling them. Several of the recently deceased skeletons were lurching towards them. The scraping and clinking sounds revealed themselves to be the clanking of the dead corpses’ shackles and jangle of the heavy balls following behind. Freya and Dagur eyed one another, then dashed forward to encounter their foes.

Dagur reached them first, as he took a small starting jump then launched himself at his attackers. Freya gave a satisfied smile of triumph as he landed on two of them and they immediately disintegrated, their bones rattling across the stone floo, as they fell apart. Three of the dead prisoners were closing in on Freya. She swiped the torch at them, forcing them back momentarily. But it only worked as a temporary solution, as they regrouped and advanced again.

Freya cursed and threw the torch on the floor. It remained lit. That was good. It would aid her in combat. One of the skeletons swung its leg round and the ball attached to its ankle whizzed around in an arc. Freya jumped up, avoiding the ball and accompanying chain by a millimetre. She landed and responded by slicing both the undead prisoners legs off with her sword. The skeleton fell to the stone floor with a loud rattle. Another lunged forward and seized her arm. Its bony grip was strong and dug into the flesh. She roared and brought her sword down on the attacker’s arm, severing it off completely. The dead assailant stumbled back surprised, but the severed arm remained attached to her arm. She tugged on it hard but it refused to budge.

The other undead cellmate was drawing closer. Freya gave it one last yank and it came free. The action overbalanced her and Freya spun, swinging the skeletal arm. By a stroke of luck the arm connected with the approaching skeleton, resulting in slapping its head clean off. Freya couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of the headless skeleton staggering forward. She stepped forward and kicked it hard in the rib-cage with her boot. The headless prisoner was flung back into the darkness. A bony hand curled around her ankle. She looked down. The first undead inmate had crawled forward on his belly and was now hanging off her foot. Freya had to give them their dues. They were committed. Lifting her foot, she shook the skeleton free and drove she sword down into its skull. There. That should stop it.

It was a bit of ordeal heaving her sword out of the crawler’s skull but eventually it came free. Two metal chains flew out of the darkness, wrapping themselves around both of Freya’s wrists. They cut into the skin, forcing her to drop her sword. Next moment, Freya was swung sideways, her legs lifting off the floor. She flew around the room, tethered to the chains. Everything was a blur of blacks and oranges, as she spun through the air.

Suddenly, she collided with something very hard and solid. Freya groaned, as she collapsed to the ground in a crumbled heap. The chains began to tighten again, as the inhumanly strong skeleton began dragging her slowly across the stone floor towards it. Freya groaned and looked up. Her vision was swamped with black spots and her head was bleeding from a nasty cut on her forehead.

Dagur roared upon seeing his master felled but every time he tried to run forwards towards her more skeletons would jump upon him, weighing him down. Freya had to get up. If she didn’t do something soon, then this chain wielding skeleton would have her in his bony clutches. But she was weak. The blow she had sustained had not only knocked the wind from her but cracked one or two of her ribs. She had been travelling at speed when she had collided and despite her tough tribal skin, her injuries were besting her. Freya did the only thing she knew how to do.

She concentrated hard, drawing on all the anger and rage she felt at the undead opponent. But it was not enough. She focused deeper, remembering all the moments of fury that had fuelled her journey here. Anger at the warlock for stealing her betrothed, anger at her family for disapproving of her courtship and her mission, and anger at these cursed beings for hurting her Dagur. She cocked her head to the right and observed the ferocious wolf. He was battling hard but the hordes were relentless, and she could see him beginning to tire, his back legs buckling under the weight of the clambering corpses.

Freya’s torch went out and the chamber was bathed in darkness once more. Then from underneath Freya, a purple light began to glow. Dull at first but then brighter and fuller. The skeleton dragging the felled Freya towards him paused, intrigued by the light emanating from under her. It was spreading, rising from beneath her until she too was surrounded by the purple light. It was bright now, severely so and the skeleton had to shield its socketless eyes from the glare. He went to pull on the chain but this time the links did not budge. The undead executioner forced its head into the light. Freya was no longer on the floor.

She was now stood before the skeleton, her whole body encased in the purple force-field which was pulsating brightly. He gave the chains another tug and this time instead of doing nothing, they gave him a tug instead. He stumbled forwards, confused. Freya opened her mouth and roared, a jet of purple light bursting from her lips. At the same time, she gave the chains a flick. Purple lines streaked down either chain, setting the metal alight with violet flame. The skeleton exploded in an indigo inferno and let go off the chains. It ran around like a headless chicken for a moment, before the blaze became too much and the undead assailant fell to the ground, where it began to smoke.

Some of the skeletons who had been surrounding Dagur turned to advance on Freya. Still gripping the chains, Freya stepped calmly forwards to face her foes. She tore through the skeletons like they were pieces of paper, swinging, thrusting and slamming the chains into their brittle bodies. Dagur, who was still fighting off the remaining climbers, watched on amazed at his master’s mastery of the chains. She moved like a dancer, twisting and twirling her way through the room, spinning the chains around her like some choreographed routine. Lines of skeletons were knocked back as the chains decimated their ranks. When she had cleared a path to Dagur she let fly her chains.

One wrapped itself round one of the mounting minions’ neck yanking it back, another was caught around the foot and pulled away. In a matter of moments, Freya had stripped Dagur’s back of the skeletons. He looked round. She was stood a few feet away from him, glowing chains still gripped in her hands. Her face and arms were glistening with sweat and her hair lay plastered to her moist forehead. Her chest and shoulders rose and fell deeply as she glanced about, taking stock of her victory.

Burning piles of skeleton remains littered the underground battlefield around her. Dagur went to say something but was interrupted as Freya thrust out her arms. The chains streaked through the air and affixed themselves to the iron grilled door. She pulled sharply on them and the door wrenched free of its hinges. It landed with a loud bang and a cloud of dust rose into the air.

‘I’m impressed,’ Dagur said.

Freya knew that wolves couldn’t grin, but she could swear that the large animal’s mouth was curled in an expression of amusement. Now the threat had been dealt with, Freya could feel the anger leaving her body. At the same time, the purple glow began to fade. After a few moments the purple hue had disappeared completely and Freya was back to her old self, apart from the purple hair of course.

‘That was new,’ she said, dropping the chains and retrieving the sword.

The room was dark once more, but the burning bodies did an adequate job of lighting the way. Freya moved over to the now open doorway and peered gingerly inside. A set of stairs rose before her, curling round and up.

‘Great, another spiral staircase.’

She felt something wet and soft press up against her arm. It was Dagur’s large snout. She gave the large wolf’s head an affectionate stroke. The two glanced at one another and in that one look, they understood each other. This was it. At the top of this staircase their final opponent waited for them. That or some other trap the magician had devised. Either way there was only one way forward and so doing her best to mentally prepare herself, Freya mounted the first step and began the long climb to the top of the tower.

It was a narrow and steep climb, but Freya hardly noticed how many steps she had climbed. The dull ache in her thighs and feet was a distant memory. Something had happened back in that room. That purple source of energy had not only given her unknown strength and speed, but it had also driven the pain and discomfort from her body. Occasionally she would pass an alcove in the wall and shiver, as the night breeze washed over her. Dagur padded softly behind her, panting slightly with the effort.

The staircase was lit by a series of burning torches, hanging from metal brackets set into the wall. Another breeze assaulted her from a gap in the wall. Freya thought nothing of it, as the flame of the torch flickered in the wind. A moment later, she froze on the spot. The torches in front of her had changed colour. Instead of the familiar orange glow she was accustomed to, they had turned to an eerie shade of purple.

Dagur brushed his large head against Freya’s shoulder. It was a simple action, but it did reassure her slightly. She pushed on, telling herself that this was good as it was evident she was getting closer. A moan from somewhere above echoed and bounced off the walls, distorted by the accompanying draft occupying the staircase. Nevertheless, Freya and Dagur pressed on. They had fended off archers, escaped an ice giant, outsmarted a sea serpent, defeated an army of the undead. Despite those challenges paling in the shadow of the powerful magician she was about to face, it still resonated inside of Freya.

The purple light was growing stronger now, bathing the walls and steps in its deep violet hue. Freya’s sword hand was slick with sweat, but she held on to it tightly. Dagur’s fur bristled and he closed the gap between him and Freya. The large bulking shape of her beast friend gave Freya a burst of confidence and feeling a sudden surge of strength, she dashed up the last few steps and shouldered open the door at the staircases’ summit.

It swung open with a loud thud, as it smashed round into the wall. Freya and Dagur leapt into the room, the foremost with sword raised above her and the latter snarling and barking, his large paws dug into the soft patterned rug of the tower room. A bizarre and disturbing image rose to meet them. A body was suspended in mid-air, its arms and legs stretched out, held in place at the hands and feet by four glowing purple orbs. The floating figure’s head was tipped forward, slumped awkwardly on his chest.

A robed figure stood in front of the trapped prisoner, adorned in a garb of midnight black . He didn’t turn upon hearing them enter but there was a low murmur coming from his covered hood, accompanied by a low rumbling hum from the purple orbs. There was that disturbing moan once again and the suspended experiment raised its head. Freya gasped. It was Horatio. But something was different, something was wrong. His eyes were not the dark brown they should be but a misty grey.

‘Don’t be hasty,’ Dagur advised.

But Freya wasn’t listening. Her feelings of concern for Horatio had morphed into burning anger at the robed conjurer. Before Dagur had a chance to stop her, she had dashed forward, sword in hand. The black clad figure turned at the last moment and in the second before Freya’s sword met him. The magician she loathed so deeply, flashed a smug smile of satisfaction. Freya drove the sword straight into his chest, pushing the blade through with such force that it broke free the other side. She released her grip on the sword and stepped back. The skewered magician dropped to his knees, as blood began to spread between his fingers that clutched at the wound in his gut.

‘I win,’ he grinned, toppling forward onto the stone floor with a loud thud.

Freya stood frozen to the spot, the bloodied sword still thrust outwards in front of her. Dagur moved over to the fallen magician and sniffed the body inquisitively. Both were at a loss for words. What had just happened? Freya should have felt victorious, relieved even but there was an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Like something was not quite right. The daze they found themselves in was soon shattered, when the purple orbs of light Horatio was attached to vanished and the suspended prisoner fell to the floor.

Woman and wolf rushed forward, as Horatio staggered awkwardly to his feet. Freya threw herself at him, embracing the weak man in a tight hug. Horatio couldn’t help but go deadweight in her arms. Freya didn’t mind. She was twice the size of him and twice as strong. Dagur was watching them fondly but stole a glance at the murdered magician every now and then. The dead warlock did not stir but the wolf was still cagey.

‘I knew we could free you,’ Freya said, gazing at Horatio with tears in her eyes.

His face was ghostly white, and his eyes were heavily bloodshot but reassuringly brown once more. There were a few cuts and grazes on his face and his floppy hair was slick with sweat. His legs buckled, as fatigue began to take hold. Freya hoisted him up, refusing to let him fall.

‘Stay with me.’

Horatio’s eyes were drooping, and his head kept lolling forward like a ragdoll.

‘He needs help.’

Dagur nodded his large head and padded forward. Settling down on his belly, he allowed Freya to place Horatio on his muscular back. He slumped forward onto the large beast’s neck.

‘Hold on tight,’ Freya whispered in his ear, wrapping Horatio’s arms around Dagur’s neck.

The wolf stood up. Horatio looked like he was about to slide off but at the last moment, he gripped Dagur’s fur tightly in his fingers.

‘We need to leave now,’ Freya said, shivering as a breeze entered the tower and ruffled the dead magician’s robes.

As they reached the door, Horatio’s eyes flickered opened. His head was pressed into Dagur’s shoulders. He raised his head ever so slightly and his face morphed into that of the magician. A smile creased his features, Freya glanced his way, as his face changed back and saw him smiling. She smiled back at him. They were going to be alright.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2018]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content