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.

Grumpty Continued

Chapter 7: The Deal

It was a solemn day following the battle with the wolves. The dead were buried and a service held for the fallen. Although in the end they had both fought alongside each other, the dwarves held a separate vigil just outside the village. Grumpty had invited them to partake in a joint service for the dead, but the Dwarf Queen had politely declined. Many of the elves felt the dwarves were still responsible for what had happened. Knowing it wasn’t entirely untrue, the Dwarf Queen had chosen to carry out their funeral nearby but out of sight.

Ogle and Nut deeply loathed the lingering presence of the dwarves and wished they would just leave already. Grumpty could understand their hatred but didn’t have the energy to join in. They had survived and that was the important thing. Yes the dwarves had done them a disservice by attacking in the first place, but what was done was done. In the end they had made the right decision and corrected their mistake. Or at least tried to.

Besides it wasn’t so simple as them leaving. Like it or not, the dwarves had come to the village in search of new territory to occupy. Grumpty wasn’t willing to hand over control and so discussions would have to be had. An agreement between the two races needed to be established before they could move forward. For the time being though, it was important to take a moment and pay a thought to the brave elves and dwarves that had died on the battlefield.

Grumpty couldn’t help but shed some tears at the funeral, especially when Father Mugleaf was mentioned. He had remarked to Barkle and Ogle in the church that it felt like some sort of karmic effect. This was his punishment for taking the White Wolf’s life. His two friends had insisted this was not the case and that Mugleaf was just an unfortunate casualty of war, as were the other fallen elves. Grumpty knew Barkle and Ogle were right, but that didn’t stop the thought from playing around in his head.

After a respectful and contemplative funeral service some emotional but serene music was played by some of the elves. The songs rang through the clearing, and the owls who had returned to their post in the trees sat quietly and appreciated the melodies. Mother Owl had lost her scout to the battle and a few others had been injured, but she felt extremely lucky they had not suffered more. The music even carried as far as to where the dwarves had relocated, a little further into the trees.

Dwarves had a great affinity for music as well as elves, but it was never used for the passing of kin. The services were short and to the point. Respect and tribute was paid and that was that. But listening to the enchanting music emanating from the village, the Dwarf Queen couldn’t help but wonder if her own funeral traditions were missing something. She had already changed so much since her time as ruler, but it still felt like a lot of the dwarven culture and practices were still rooted in the past.

When male dwarves had still been in charge it was all about repressing the emotions, pushing down any feelings as it was seen as a weakness. But they were wrong. Emotion was the key to success. If she had ignored her feelings about the wolves, her race would have been responsible for wiping out an elven community who had done nothing wrong. Her elder adviser probably hated the idea of more change, as she was a fervent believer in tradition. But it was not her decision to make. The Dwarf Queen was the leader and she aimed to change things for the better while she was still in power.

After the dwarven service many of them set about establishing a camp. The elves still had the task of rebuilding the village and it would take time considering the extent of the damage. While the dwarves starting constructing dens, collecting firewood and seeing to their injuries, the Dwarf Queen went for a walk by herself. She needed time by herself to think about the next move. During the battle, the dwarves and elves had formed a temporary alliance of sorts. But it was clear that now the bloodshed was over that the elves wanted nothing further to do with the dwarves.

The Dwarf Queen also had to consider her own peoples. They supported her loyally and agreed that avoiding violence was always preferable. However, they had marched a fair way from the mountains and had lost kin and friends in the fighting. She knew that they would not be happy to leave empty handed. It could certainly threaten her tenure as Queen. If a better suited dwarf would serve as her replacement then maybe she would have of considered. But unfortunately the other candidates vying for her throne were either too traditional or alternatively too radical.

It was a surprisingly pleasant walk through the trees and the Dwarf Queen inhaled deeply, imbibing the earthy smells of the woods around her. Birdsong had returned to the canopy above and it made her both calm and mournful. The fact that life carried on regardless could be seen as almost insincere from a particular perspective. On the other hand it could be viewed that with every end there comes a new beginning. A turning over a new leaf.

The Dwarf Queen stopped at a fallen log and sat down, resting her back against the large, solid trunk. Every part of her body ached and the various injuries she had received stung like mad. Her body was putting all of its work and energy into repairing itself and that left the Dwarf Queen feeling extremely drained. Part of the pain and fatigue lay in the fact that it was the first time she had allowed herself to rest. When in the company of of the other dwarves, she had kept up appearances, trying to remain strong and set an example.

But now, hidden behind this log away from the rest of the company, she could allow it all to come out. A few tears escaped as she sat slumped ungainly against the fallen tree. It wasn’t that she was particularly upset. The deaths of some of her fellow dwarves had been deeply sad, but it hadn’t really sunk in yet. The tears came from absolute exhaustion more then anything. Wiping at her slightly wet face with one of her large arms, she started laughing. It came out of nowhere and soon a big grin had spread across her face. The sun shining through the canopy above was brilliant and it fell on the forest floor in a beautiful dappled effect.

The Dwarf Queen had spent her entire life in the mountains and been forbidden to go outside as a young dwarf. By the time she was old enough to consider it, she was crowned the new Dwarf Queen following her older sister’s untimely death due to illness. After her coronation there was no time to be given to any thoughts of venturing outside the mountain. At first she hadn’t be interested in the royal position thrust open her. However, it soon became clear that change could be made and progression achieved. As ideas and concepts began to take hold, the desire to explore the world became lost to matters of state.

It was only now though, sitting in this serene, picturesque forest that the Dwarf Queen realised what she had been missing. Everywhere she looked there was something to marvel at. Be that the lush fauna that surrounded her, or the little creatures that scurried up and down the trees and across the forest floor. It suddenly dawned on the Dwarf Queen that this is what was missing from her kingdom. Impressively the dwarves had excelled in craftsmanship and engineering, not to mention remoulding and heavily improving their society. But the mountains were dark and cold. Unlike the autumnal forest, that was a rich and vibrant mix of greens and browns.

A cloud passed over and the forest turned a darker shade all of a sudden. The laughing stopped and soon the smile faded from her face. The Dwarf Queen appeared serious, her bushy eyebrows furrowed in a deep frown. But it wasn’t a look of anger or concern, more that she was thinking about something very hard. An idea was coming together in her mind. A solution if you will, to the problems she and the elves both faced. The cogs were beginning to turn, despite how rusty they felt.

Usually after a funeral the elves would have a wake, but they were never solemn affairs. Grief was expressed at the service itself. However, the elves did not want to fixate on the sadness. Instead they chose to honour and celebrate the life of the fallen by having a party. Tales would be told, music would be played and acorn wine would be poured. It was traditional and brought everyone closer together at a time of strife and toil. Unfortunately, the village was in a state and a clear up was the first priority. A wake would eventually be held, but after their home had been repaired and made safe.

Grumpty was actually grateful for the work. Although all his energy was spent, the small elf’s brain had gone into overdrive. Keeping himself busy was a much needed distraction from the multitude of thoughts running around his mind. His face stung something awful from the vicious slashes from the haggard wolf. Routinely he had been applying the strange balm the Dwarf Queen had given him. It helped eased the pain, but the biggest scars Grumpty was suffering from were on the inside. The small elf had lost people before but Mugleaf’s passing had changed him.

It wasn’t even grief or sadness any more, just a hollow emptiness that seemed to consume him. Nut and Ogle had tried talking to him on a number of occasions and although he had responded, his answers were vague and it was evident that the small elf wasn’t really paying attention. In the end they had left him alone, and gone to see to another part of the village that was in need of sorting. It was hard to know where to start, as there wasn’t really anyway that hadn’t been partly demolished or spoilt. Ideally they should have organised specific groups with set jobs in certain areas. But for once Grumpty didn’t step up as leader and so everyone ended up mucking in wherever was needed.

Mother Owl had stopped by and spoken briefly with Grumpty. She was going to do a sweep of the some of the further parts of the forest, to make sure there were no still lingering threats. Grumpty didn’t think it was likely that the wolves would return but didn’t say so. He knew that it was more about Mother Owl stretching her wings and clearing her mind. The battle had taken its toll on all the races and each had their own way of dealing with it. For the elves it was restoring normality to their village, and for the owls it was taking to the skies and putting distance between them and the scene of the conflict.

Ogle and Nut were moving some of the demolished roof and wooden beams onto a nearby cart when one of the elves pointed with an arm. The dwarves were making their way into the village from the treeline. The Dwarf Queen was at the head of the procession and limping slightly, but her face only showed mild discomfort. They were a tough bunch Nut thought to himself. No one protested the dwarven arrival but the elves looked at them warily. Others were muttering under their breath to one another. Ogle gripped the piece of wood he was carrying a little tighter.

The Dwarf Queen gestured with her arms and the dwarves following her began to break off in different directions. One of them approached Ogle and Nut and they tensed themselves for trouble. But the dwarf gave them an awkward smile, picked up a large and heavy section of the roof and carried it over to the cart. Nut relaxed, as did the several other elves scattered around the village and jumped back into his work once more. Grumpty was sifting through the wreckage of one of the elven barricades when the large shadow of the Dwarf Queen fell across him. He sighed, threw down the section of crate he was holding and rose to his feet.

‘How are your battle scars holding up?’ She said, gesturing at his face.

‘Still sore and it hurts when I smile. Luckily I’m not in the mood for smiling anyway,’ he said bitterly.

The Dwarf Queen lowered her head shamefully.

‘I’m sorry I had a hand in this. If I had known…’

Grumpty held up a hand, cutting her off.

‘Its done. Beside you didn’t know.’

The Dwarf Queen studied the small elf for a moment. He had changed. While his compassion and forgiveness seemed genuine, there was something different about him. Before he had come across as strong, brave and a little bullheaded. There had also been a natural leader like quality to him, despite his small statue. That was why the Dwarf Queen had entertained talking to him in the first place. Like herself, Grumpty seemed born to lead. But that charisma and passion was gone now. An air of despondency lingered over Grumpty like an ominous black cloud. The elf looked the same, but there was a cold detachment in his eyes. Even talking to him, the Dwarf Queen felt like it was falling on deaf ears.

‘What are they doing here?’

The Dwarf Queen and Grumpty looked round. Ogle was storming towards them, a look of utter contempt etched on his face. Grumpty sighed heavily and went to speak, but Ogle beat him to the punch.

‘Haven’t they done enough damage?’

‘Which is why we want to help. Make things right,’ the Dwarf Queen said calmly.

Ogle snorted with indignation.

‘You could help by leaving us alone. We don’t need your help.’

The Dwarf Queen glanced around. Her dwarves were carrying the same size and weight of rubble as the elves, but it only took one of them. The elves on the other hand needed at least two or three of them to lift and transport the objects.

‘It certainly looks like you could use the help.’

Ogle moved in close to the Dwarf Queen, and for a moment she thought he was going to swing a punch. Not that it fazed her much. Instead Ogle jabbed a finger in her face.

‘I’m not scared of you and I’m not buying this act of yours.’

Grumpty slid in between them and guided Ogle’s arm down. His friend let him but continued to eye the Dwarf Queen furiously.

‘I’ve got this under control Ogle. We are going to have a discussion and straighten this whole thing out. But for the time being I need you to help the others rebuild. The dwarves won’t bother you if you don’t bother them, right?’ he said, glancing at the Dwarf Queen for confirmation.

‘Absolutely,’ she responded confidently.

Ogle stared at her hard and long for a moment, his eyebrows still quivering with anger. Then he looked at Grumpty. The small elf put a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

‘Trust me.’

Ogle chewed his lip pensively for a moment then nodded, untensing his shoulders. He gave one last disapproving look to the Dwarf Queen and turned to leave. Grumpty watched him walking away for a moment before turning around.

‘He clearly doesn’t like me,’ the Dwarf Queen remarked.

‘Can you blame him?’ Grumpy said bluntly.

She shook her head and glanced around. The elves and dwarves were hard at work clearing away, but they kept looking over at the two leaders curiously.

‘Is there somewhere private we can talk?’

‘I know a place,’ Grumpty said.

The Dwarf Queen slipped and stumbled down the hill, finding it difficult to keep balanced on a gradient. It didn’t help that her war wounds were still fresh and her body stiff.

‘Not much further now,’ Grumpty said over his shoulder.

The small elf didn’t seem to be struggling half as much as the Dwarf Queen. He was light footed and nimble despite his injuries, and knew how to effectively navigate the woods. The Dwarf Queen on the other hand suffered from a combination of being too heavy, off balanced due to her injuries and unfamiliar with the area. She wondered if this route was a deliberate decision on Grumpty’s part to get back at her. The birds that tweeted in the trees above no longer soothed the Dwarf Queen, but instead sounded like they were taunting her cruelly.

Grumpty reached the bottom of the hill and disappeared through a screen of trees. The Dwarf Queen hoped this wasn’t his idea of a joke. She cursed, grabbing hold of a tree trunk to stop herself slipping on some loose undergrowth. Her recent love and admiration of the forest had turned into one of deep loathing. It felt like nature had turned against her. If it wasn’t the mocking birds it was the unpredictable loose soil. In her haste to reach the base of the slope, she sped up slightly and lost her balance.

Grumpty was inspecting Barkle’s alarm contraption when the Dwarf Queen crashed through the trees, and fell to her knees in the clearing. He moved to help her up but she flapped him away, getting to her feet with a deep groan. Her face had turned a bright shade of red and she was breathing heavily.

‘You know it doesn’t make you weak asking for help,’ Grumpty said casually.

The Dwarf Queen glared at him hard for a moment, then to Grumpty’s surprise her expression suddenly softened.

‘Force of habit,’ she said and moved over to a nearby rock and lowered herself carefully onto it.

‘I was raised to be strong and not rely on anyone but myself.’

‘Must have been tough for you,’ Grumpty said compassionately.

The Dwarf Queen gave a low grunt in response and checked her wounds to make sure none had reopened. Fortunately they had not, but her body was making it clear that it wasn’t prepared for it to happen again. Grumpty was watching her silently. The two locked eyes. It was as if the elf was expecting her to say something.

‘What’s that?’ she said, gesturing at Barkle’s invention.

It was obvious that the Dwarf Queen was trying to change the subject. Grumpty got that. Ogle and Nut had been trying to get him to talk all morning. But he didn’t want to talk about it. The wounds were too fresh. In time it would be dealt with but not now. Not while there was so much left to do. If Grumpty started talking he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to stop.

‘It is an alarm system.’

The Dwarf Queen nodded slowly, looking a little perplexed.

‘Not a very good one then.’

Grumpty rested a hand on top of the mechanism.

‘The alarm works fine but no one got to it in time.’

‘Perhaps it shouldn’t be at the bottom of the hill,’ the Dwarf Queen pointed out.

Grumpty looked at her sharply and she simply shrugged in response.

‘Just saying.’

‘Maybe you’re right,’ Grumpty said with a belated sigh.

He seemed distracted and was drumming his fingertips on the contraption impatiently.

‘So this little problem of ours. I think I may have a solution,’ the Dwarf Queen said, folding her large arms.

Grumpty stopped drumming and looked directly at her. For the first time since they had started talking, he actually looked like he was paying attention. Thuds and rumbles carried down the hill to them from the village. It was slightly muffled from here but the noise was from the carts being moved around.

‘How well do you know the forest?’ the Dwarf Queen asked.

Grumpty frowned. He had spent most of his childhood in the safe confines of the village. But ever since he had left on his first adventure, his knowledge of the area had grown considerably. It had been further expanded through his time spent with the owls.

‘I have a pretty good knowledge of the forest but Azral is the elf you want to speak to.’

The Dwarf Queen nodded.

‘How is your friend by the way?’

‘He lost a lot of blood but he will pull through. Barkle has been by his side and says he is slowly on the mend,’ Grumpty said, not knowing how to feel about the Dwarf Queen asking after an elf.

‘That’s good,’ she said awkwardly before returning to the matter at hand.

‘I have an idea. A deal if you like, that I think will work for both of us.’

Grumpty said nothing but continued to look intrigued. Truthfully he just wanted the Dwarf Queen to spit it out already. The sooner this mess was sorted the better.

‘I want to form an alliance with the elves,’ she said after a moment’s brief contemplation.

Grumpty took a while to process what she had just said and strolled back in forth in front of her, stroking his chin thoughtfully. The Dwarf Queen felt a stabbing jolt of pain from the wound in her abdomen, and readjusted herself on the stone.

‘There not going to like it,’ Grumpty said eventually.

‘Just hear me out okay,’ the Dwarf Queen said, looking to the small elf for confirmation.

He sat down on the grass in front of her and stifled a sudden yawn. The Dwarf Queen took that to mean he was happy to hear her out.

‘We were promised a settlement by the wolves. Granted, if we had known the truth earlier these negotiations would have never been entertained in the first place. But the point still stands and my people won’t accept returning home empty handed. Not when their sisters have given their live to the cause.’

Grumpty said nothing. His head was cocked to one side and he was mulling over what she was saying.

‘What if you were to help us find a new settlement. That way you can retain control of your village and we get what we came for,’ the Dwarf Queen put forth.

Grumpty sat up intrigued and his eyes seemed a bit more alive for a moment.

‘You’re saying you will leave us alone if we help you find somewhere else to occupy?’

The Dwarf Queen nodded but held up a finger.

‘However, we want to establish trade between your village and wherever we set up shop.’

‘Trade?’ Grumpty said surprised.

He had not been expecting that but it made sense. The dwarves had wealth and rich materials mined from the mountains. But in order to build a sustainable community in Finhorn Forest they would need materials and provisions that only the elves possessed. The Dwarf Queen nodded enthusiastically and a hopeful gleam was in her eyes.

‘And what would we get in return? I don’t mean to be so blunt but if I am taking a proposal back to my people, I need a good reason to convince them,’ Grumpty queried.

‘As well as getting access to some of our finest materials, armours and weaponry, we are willing to act as your war allies,’ the Dwarf Queen stated.

Grumpty looked a little confused so the Dwarf Queen went on to elaborate.

‘The wolves seem to have a personal vendetta against you and your people. Needless to say that is probably the case for us as well. If they do choose to attack you again we will come to your aid. Unless of course you prefer to deal with them by yourselves.’

‘No no…the help would be much appreciated,’ Grumpty said a little too quickly.

Realising he must sound desperate, Grumpty quickly recomposed himself. The Dwarf Queen was observing him shrewdly.

‘And what do your people think of this idea,’ Grumpty said, trying to come across as professional once more.

‘They are in agreement. Question is, will your people be?’ The Dwarf Queen said, clasping her hands together tightly.

When they got back to the village, it was clear that both the elves and dwarves had been hard at work. A lot of rebuilding and repairing was still to be done, but the majority of the rubble and debris had been carted away. A few of the elves and dwarves were actually talking to one another as they worked. Most still gave each other a wide berth, and Ogle kept glancing at the the dwarf helping him suspiciously.

‘It will be better if I talk to them alone about this matter. Otherwise it might get a little heated,’ Grumpty explained.

‘Of course, but I think you might have your work cut out for you anyway,’ the Dwarf Queen said, eyeing Ogle and Barkle ruefully.

The Dwarf Queen moved off, signalling the other dwarves as she passed through the village. They gratefully finished what they were doing and fell in behind her. Both the elves and dwarves looked tired and were sweating heavily. The funeral had been a bit of a reprieve after the intense battle, if you can call it that, but neither race had been allowed suitable time to recover. Some of the elves were so spent with energy that they sat down exactly where they were stood. Others went off in search of food and water, as well as a place to lie down for a while. Grumpty moved over to Ogle and Nut. Nut looked extremely weary but was looking round at the village proudly.

‘We’ve done a hell of a job Grumpty.’

‘I can see that,’ Grumpty said, smiling at his friend.

‘Is that it then? They do a few hours work and then leave us to do the rest?’ Ogle said indignantly.

Grumpty rolled his eyes at Nut who grinned. The small elf seemed a bit more like himself and the older elf was relieved. He did not like to see his friend so downtrodden and morose.

‘You said that you didn’t want them interfering in the first place,’ Grumpty pointed out.

Ogle gave an uncomfortable shrug.

‘Yeah well that was before. This mess is partly their fault, so it is only right they help clear it up.’

Grumpty gave his friend an encouraging albeit condescending nod.

‘I need you to gather up all the elves and get them to assemble at the mossy stone. Rope Barkle into helping you if necessary.’

‘What’s going on Grumpty?’ Nut asked puzzled.

‘You’ll find out soon enough,’ Grumpty said mysteriously.

The gathered elves stood huddled around the mossy stone, muttering and chatting nosily to one another. Ogle, Barkle and Nut were stood at the front. Unlike the others they were quiet and watching the mossy stone, waiting for their friend to appear. A breeze rose up and some of the attending elves shivered, hugging their moleskin jackets closer to themselves. Someone gasped in surprise and pointed to the stone. Grumpty had appeared and was standing with his hands on his hips, legs spread in a wide stance. With the wind ruffling the hair he looked very windswept and adventurous. It was Ogle’s turn to roll his eyes.

‘Thank you for your patience,’ Grumpty announced loudly to the crowd.

A deep hush descended over the elves and they waited eagerly for him to continue. As a child Grumpty had never been a very confident elf. This had been a result of a lack of encouragement from his parents, intense bullying and never getting his voice heard. However since travelling beyond the village, living with the owls and getting into a few hairy situations, Grumpty found public speaking surprisingly easy.

‘I know it has been hard accepting help from the dwarves after they originally being allied with the wolves. But after discussing the matter with the Dwarf Queen, I think we have come to a solution that is fair.’

He paused for dramatic effect. Everyone was hanging onto his words and all eyes were focused his way. Grumpty took a deep breath and scanned an eye over the crowd. A swell of pride rose within him. Even after all the devastation and disaster caused by the wolves, as a direct result of Grumpty’s actions, they were still willing to hear him out. He proceeded to outline the proposal, repeating and rephrasing slightly the words the Dwarf Queen had spoken to him previously. Nobody interrupted or raised their hands, but continued to wait patiently until Grumpty had finished giving his speech. When the small elf had indeed concluded his announcement, he eyed the crowd hopefully, despite feeling more then a little apprehensive.

‘Are there any questions or is everyone okay with this suggestion?’

The elves glanced at each other and a few of them shrugged nonchalantly. Grumpty was taken aback. He thought a handful of them would have resisted for sure. Glancing at Ogle, he expected his friend to be scowling or shaking his head disapprovingly but the elf didn’t seem perturbed in the slightness. If anything Ogle looked a little impressed.

‘…Brilliant, I will tell the Dwarf Queen right away. Thank you everyone for being so understanding,’ Grumpty said, still reeling from the lack of resistance.

He went to climb down but paused when the sound of clapping made him look round. A few others joined in and soon the whole crowd was clapping. Grumpty beamed at the applauding spectators and felt a surge of warmth spread through him.

After he had stopped briefly by the Dwarf Queen’s camp to let her know the good news, Grumpty had paid a visit to Azral. He was tucked up in bed in one of the few huts that had managed to avoid being destroyed in the fighting. Barkle was sat in a chair next to bed, fiddling with yet another contraption, when Grumpty ducked inside the hut. Azral was asleep. He looked very pale and clammy and somehow frailer then usual.

‘Don’t you ever stop working,’ he said with a amused curl of the lip.

Barkle who was frowning hard at the gadget in his hands looked up and chuckled. There was a low groan and Azral opened his eyes.

Barkle climbed out of the chair and motioned Grumpty sit in it.

‘Hey buddy,’ the small elf said softly as he slid into the chair. ‘How you doing?’

‘Oh you know, full of the joys of spring,’ he said croakily and gave a weak smile.

Grumpty looked kindly upon his friend and gave Azral’s hand a tight squeeze. The elf grimaced a little.

‘Not that arm, it is still tender.’

‘Sorry, that was silly of me,’ Grumpty said, releasing his hold quickly.

Azral yawned and tried to widen his sleepy eyes. It was hard to stay awake when he was constantly assailed by heavy waves of tiredness.

‘Did we win?’

‘Yes, we won,’ Grumpty said with a brave smile, despite it really not feeling like they had.

‘And the dwarves?’ Azral said drowsily.

He was beginning to drift out of consciousness again, his eyelids becoming heavy.

‘Don’t you worry Azral. Everything is going to be just fine,’ Grumpty said soothingly.

Azral smiled but didn’t say anything and soon afterwards he had fallen back asleep once more.

That night a celebration was held to honour the fallen. Tools were put down and restoration work left until the following day. Or the day after depending on how hard the elves partied. The dwarves had observed curiously from the treeline, as elves danced around fires and joyful music filled the clearing. It was odd to see such festivities after so much death and destruction. But in a way it made more sense to the Dwarf Queen, then the broody mourning her people were famous for. It took some encouragement but eventually the dwarves were coaxed into joining in the partying. Many clearly wanted to partake but seemed hesitant, as it wasn’t traditional when honouring the dead.

The Dwarf Queen remedied this by saying to hell with tradition. She observed contentedly as the elves and dwarves mingled. It was a historic day. Not only would she soon hopefully have a new territory to occupy, but the long animosity and feud between elves and dwarves had been rectified. The Dwarf Queen had never really felt a strong bond with the haggard wolf. Their relationship was based solely on profit. But with Grumpty she had found an ally that shared her passion for positive change moving forward.

The next few months saw some significant changes take place. Grumpty and Barkle had helped the Dwarf Queen locate a new area, with the help of the owls in the sky. Azral, Ogle and Nut meanwhile had overseen the rebuilding and redevelopment of the village. The original plan had been to restore the elven settlement to how it was in the first place.

But the dwarves had offered some suggestions to improve the structure and resilience of the new dwellings to be built. By reinforcing the wooden frame with metal and iron, it would make the huts stronger and less likely to be destroyed. Once again they had sent the wolves away with their tails between their legs. But after the carnage caused, the elves didn’t want to leave it up to chance.

In return for their help in the redesigns of the village, the elves assisted the dwarves in starting up a new settlement. Per Grumpty and Barkle’s suggestions, they had settled on a place close to a river and with good access to sunlight. As it was an area completely outside the Dwarf Queen’s experience, the elves had helped them at the beginning. This pay off between the two races grew more beneficial over time and when they eventually began trading with one another, both communities started to thrive better then even.

It wasn’t just in terms of the settlements that change occurred. The two leaders that oversaw these transitions had also encountered change. Originally the Dwarf Queen was going to merely help the segment of dwarves who were starting the new forest settlement. But over time she became more and more interested and invested in that, then life back in the mountains.

Much to everyone’s surprise she stepped down as queen, passing the torch over to her young adviser. She was confident that the insightful dwarf would make a good leader, and continue the important work she had started. Despite still feeling like she had work left to do, she had fallen in love with the forest and for once in her life she chose to follow her heart over her head.

Grumpty on the other hand had done the complete opposite. His plan was to serve as a temporary leader while the elves got back on their feet. But the passing of Mugleaf had made him realise that his connection with the village, and the elves was stronger then he thought. As much as he adored travelling the skies with the owls and exploring new lands, a part of him felt the need to be among his kin. Especially at a time when they needed a gentle but firm guiding hand.

Mother Owl had understood and told him that any time he needed a break he knew where to find her. Grumpty hoped more then anything that peace would now ensue. Not only had they resolved the decades long hostility with the dwarves, but they had also gained them as an ally. As long as the wolves existed, he remained aware that there was always the possibility of more conflict. But with a stronger settlement and friends close at hand, the wolves would certainly think twice before attacking again.

© [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.

 

 

 

 

 

Grumpty Continued

Chapter 6 : Tooth and Nail

Grumpty had just kept running. When the Dwarf Queen had instructed he leave, the small elf had realised what was about to happen. However, it had taken a few minutes for the observing dwarves and wolves to process exactly what was going on.

The Dwarf Queen had swung her axe around in an arc towards the haggard wolf. The four legged animal had just managed to avoided being decapitated but some of his fur had been sliced off, when he had ducked down out of the way.

The haggard wolf had retaliated by jumping forward and clamping his teeth around the Dwarf Queen’s arm. It was encased in armour but the wild animal hung on defiantly, as she tried to shake him off.

The dwarves and wolves had watched stunned, as the two leaders grappled with one another before diving into battle themselves. For once Grumpty’s short statue really came into play, as he ducked, dodged and dived out of the way as he raced through the village.

The dwarves and wolves didn’t seem particularly interested in attacking the elves but rather each other. Even so, it was hard work for Grumpty to navigate a course through the fighting.

Once or twice he was knocked down, as a wolf barged past him or a dwarf staggered backwards into his path. The trees rang loud with the sounds of shouts and growls and deep booming thuds, as enemies were felled or hurled into huts.

As Grumpty ran for safety he waved madly at the prisoner elves to follow his example. Most of them had seen fit to do so but a few of them had been rooted to the spot with fear. One particular elf, that Grumpty recognised as the village cook’s son was stood stock still, as chaos reigned around him. Grumpty seized him by the arm and pulled him out of the way of a spinning dwarf trying to detach a wolf clinging to his back.

‘Make for the trees,’ he told the young elf, who despite being a foot taller then Grumpty, quivered in his moleskin boots.

The elf nodded but didn’t move and eventually Grumpty had to give him a shove in the right direction. That seemed to do the trick, as the elf woke from his panicked daze and set off as instructed.

‘Grumpty,’ a familiar voice called from somewhere on the left.

The small elf glanced in that direction and saw Barkle, Azral and Nut waving at him madly. Dwarves and wolves were fighting in front of them and Grumpty gritted his teeth, assessing the best way through to his friends. One of the dwarves drove a spear through a wolves’ belly and lifted the creature high into the air. Grumpty saw an opportunity.

Sprinting forward like a march hare, he zipped beneath the impaled wolf that was still held aloft. The body crashed into the ground soon after. Grumpty had timed it well. It was too early to relax however as a big dwarf landed heavily in front of him.

Grumpty was moving at some speed and stopping suddenly would probably do more harm then good. Thinking fast he jumped, landing lithely on the dwarf’s helmet and launching himself into the air almost immediately.

Barkle, Azral and Nut watched slacked jaw as Grumpty flew through the air. Elves were known for their acrobatics and climbing skills, but this was something else. It all suddenly looked very dire when a wolf appeared where Grumpty was descending too.

The animal opened his mouth, waiting expectantly for his approaching aerial meal. In the nick of time a dwarf appeared out of no where, seizing up the wolf in her big arms and driving the animal sideways out of the way.

Grumpty braced himself for the impact of the ground and landed in a half roll, cushioning a bit of the impact. Still it played havoc on his legs and arms. He rolled several times before coming to a stop at Azral’s legs.

‘Hey guys, its been a while,’ he groaned and allowed the three elves to help him to his feet.

His legs and arms were shaking and Barkle and Nut held on to him for a while until he felt steady enough to stand. They embraced quickly, happy to see each other despite the circumstances.

‘Are you able to move because the trees are just there and it isn’t safe here?’ Nut asked pensively.

‘I can move,’ Grumpty said and smiled bravely.

‘Great lets….’Azral began but Grumpty held up a hand.

‘But I’m not leaving.’

The three elves huddled around him exchanged perplexed expressions.

‘We have to leave Grumpty. We aren’t cut out for this. Look at how the dwarves and wolves fight,’ Barkle explained, gesturing at the fighting taking place in front of them.

Barkle was right. The wolves fought with a hungry ferocity and played dirty, scratching, biting and kicking whenever possible. The dwarves fought more honourably but their brute strength was impressive to say the least. They were also very well trained with hand weaponry.

‘I know its suicide but there are elves who still need my help and the Dwarf Queen did saved my life. I can’t just up and leave knowing that,’ Grumpty stated, eyeing his three friends in turn.

‘You owe that Dwarf Queen nothing. Correcting her own mistake doesn’t prove anything,’ Nut commented.

A dwarf’s helmet bounced along the ground and glanced Barkle’s foot. He let out a shriek of surprise and started hopping around, gripping it in both hands.

‘I’ve got to go help. Elves are getting hurt left, right and centre,’ Grumpty said, motioning at Barkle who was now sat on the ground inspecting the digits to make sure nothing was broken.

Grumpty glanced around and saw one of the dwarves’ swords. It was large and heavy but he managed to drag it over to the other three elves. With the aid of Azral they were able to lift it between them and began breaking the shackles that were still attached to the elves’ feet and hands. A dwarf was swinging a wolf around by its tail dangerously close by.

Nut hurriedly moved over as the wolf swung near him. The dwarf let go and the wolf sailed through the air and disappeared into the trees. She turned to face the four elves and they all shrank back. After regarding them silently for thirty seconds, the dwarf moved away most likely in search of another wolf for tossing.

‘See you lat…’ Grumpty began but trailed off when he caught sight of his three friends.

They were holding the chains from their shackles like they were some sort of makeshift weapons. They didn’t need to explain that they were staying behind to help Grumpty fight. It was obvious from the expression on their faces. Azral handed Grumpty a section of the chain and nodded.

‘Let’s get our village back,’ Grumpty said and the four elves moved forward in their small unit.

Mother Owl flapped her large wings, beating the air in a steady drumbeat. The scout owl began to hoot loudly and soon the trees around them were full of the sounds of owl song.

Mother Owl was the first to alight from the trees, followed by the scout owl and then the rest of the airborne squadron joined. The air was soon full of the winged creatures as they soared towards the village.

From up high Mother owl and her company could see the overall situation of the fighting. It was pandemonium. Wolves and dwarves were locked in fierce combat while elves were fleeing desperately for the safety of the trees. Many of the huts had been demolished in the fighting, and dead wolves and dwarves littered the ground.

Mother Owl’s instructions were to target the wolves first. The scout owl pointed out that neither were to be trusted but Mother Owl had insisted. There were two reasons for this strategy. Firstly the wolves were easier targets, as they wore no armour and carried no weapons.

Secondly, their reasons for fighting were more fuelled by revenge then their dwarven opponents. Mother Owl had seen the Dwarf Queen attack the haggard wolf. It was no clear indication that she had changed allegiance, but Mother Owl wanted to wait and see.

A small group of elves were running in the opposite direction to all of their other kin. Mother Owl gestured with one of her wings. The squadron separated. The scout owl leading half of them in one direction and Mother Owl in the other.

Grumpty and his warrior three were gradually making their way to one of few huts still left standing. His chains were bloody and some matted fur was trapped in one of the links. All of a sudden they found their way blocked by the she wolf and three other wolves.

A breeze whipped up and a pine cone danced across the forest floor between them. The wind rattled the chains the elves were carrying, and the she wolf’s eyes rested on them a moment before returning to Grumpty.

Barkle shivered and eyed the four wolves stood opposite them. The she wolf was the largest and had a tougher, more battle hardened look to her. But the other wolves didn’t exactly look tame in comparison.

Although limited, the four elves had experienced some fighting from their previous adventures. It had been enough to help them make it this far. But even though the numbers were matched, Barkle doubted they stood a chance against these wolves.

Despite this the four elves stood four abreast, gripping their chains in their hands tightly. It felt somehow appropriate to use the tools of their incarceration as weapons. The she wolf smirked and the wolves stood either side of her joined in. Nut swallowed hard as he gazed as the wolf stood opposite him.

It was a big bruiser of an animal with a prominent forehead and mean eyes. He observed the other wolves for a moment and felt a little short changed. All of the beasts were intimidating presences, but Nut had definitely gotten the biggest.

The two lines of warriors stood facing each other for a moment, the she wolf and Grumpty glaring at one another. Around them the dwarves were doing their best to beat down the wolves. Despite their best efforts it looked like they were struggling. Like the elves, the dwarves had not fought for a long time.

Although they continued to practice and train back in the mountain, their lack of first hand experience was painfully apparent. Not to mention that the wolves were using incredibly dirty and underhand tactics to best their opponents.

Azral wanted to shout out for help but he knew it was futile. The dwarves who were nearby were too occupied with surviving themselves to worry about a handful of elves. The she wolf narrowed her eyes and then gave a sudden gruff growl.

The four wolves darted forwards. Grumpty was terrified but the adrenaline was coursing through his veins. He let out a war cry and charged forward also. His friends joined in and soon the two foes were dashing towards one another, the wolves growling, the elves shouting.

The she wolf was about a metre away from Grumpty, close enough for him to see the ferocious glint in her eye, when several shadows passed over them. The she wolf who was slightly further ahead then the rest of the pack leapt into the air. Grumpty ran to meet her, swinging his chain wildly in front of him.

There was a shrill cry and Mother Owl appeared and slammed into the she wolf, where she began attacking her repeatedly with her talons. Three more owls swooped down, kicking and slashing the other wolves with their own talons.

The four elves watched on stunned, as the wolves turned on the owls and began jumping up, teeth bared. But the owls were too agile, and nimbly dodged out of the way before zooming down again for another aerial attack.

‘Save the others. We will hold them off,’ Mother Owl shouted, catching sight of an awestruck Grumpty.

Grumpty didn’t want to leave the owls to deal with the wolves alone, but he knew arguing with Mother Owl was pointless. Wolves distracted, the elves quickly made tracks. The she wolf caught sight of the escaping elves and went to pursue. The animal let out a yelp of pain and glanced round.

Mother Owl had pinned her tail to the ground in her large talons. The she wolf thrashed furiously and freed herself from the owl’s hold. She turned to face Mother Owl. It was time to teach this stupid bird a lesson she thought to herself.

As the four elves sprinted onward to the hut, they could hear the hoots and calls of the flying owls. They zoomed and zipped high above, until they selected their targeted and dived in for the attack. The dwarves who were still standing fought back with renewed strength, seeing the wolves now on the back foot.

Grumpty and his friends reached the nearest hut and briefly took a moment to gather their breath. Barkle was covered in sweat, the hair under his moleskin hat dripping onto his jacket. Nut was doubled over and wheezing and Azral had dispatched of his hat and coat, in a bid to cool him down.

‘You and Nut check this hut and me and Barkle will check the church,’ Grumpty instructed, when he had caught his breath.

Nut nodded and wiped the moisture from his brow. Azral was frowning hard.

‘Barkle had a weapon.’

Grumpty looked at Barkle who red faced, nodded exasperatedly.

‘Where?’ Grumpty asked hopefully.

Barkle shrugged his shoulders and Azral palmed the side of the hut in frustration. Grumpty placed a consoling hand on his shoulder.

‘Its okay, stick to the plan. The church is the biggest place so it could well be in there. Keep an eye out when searching the huts.’

Azral nodded and elbowing Nut ducked inside the hut. Nut who looked like he was going to pass out, puffed out his cheeks before entering the hut himself.

‘Come on Barkle,’ Grumpty said and the two set off towards the church.

Three prisoner elves were huddled in the corner of the first hut, too scared to go anyway. No wolves or dwarves were in sight and Azral and Nut presumed they had abandoned their posts to join in the fighting.

The prisoner elves looked haggard but otherwise unharmed. At first they wouldn’t agree to leave, and Nut had to sit down beside them and slowly persuade them in his calm and relaxing voice. Azral meanwhile, stood by the hut entrance keeping an eye on things outside.

The wolves although now on the back-foot fought on defiantly. Not only was this battle deeply personal, but they really couldn’t afford to lose to the elves a second time. The humiliation was too much to bear.

A few times fighting dwarves, owls and wolves drew dangerously close to the hut they were in. Azral glanced at Nut impatiently but didn’t say anything. These prisoner elves were easily spooked, and he didn’t want to undo all his friend’s hard work.

Eventually Nut managed to convince them to leave, but only under one condition. That he Nut would lead them to safety. Azral didn’t think splitting up was a good idea, but he could see that it was clearly the only way the prisoners elves were going to agree to leave. So leaving the hut the two friends parted ways, Nut heading out of the village with the rescued elves, and Azral on to the next hut.

Azral had nearly reached the second hut when a wolf sprang out of nowhere and clamped its teeth around Azral’s arm. He let out a howl of pain, and started whipping the beast with his chain. The chains drew blood and so did the wolf’s teeth but still the animal didn’t let go.

A big boot swung up into the wolf’s midriff and the animal released its hold, crumpling to the ground. An imposing dwarf moved to stand over the downed animal and rested its long blade against the wolf’s throat. He glanced at Azral who was clutching his blood drenched arm and had turned ghostly white.

‘Wrap something round that sharpish to stop the blood loss,’ the dwarf advised.

Feeling decidedly woozy, Azral ripped off a section of his hemp shirt and tied it tightly around his arm. He had lost enough blood to know that this would only serve to sustain him for so long. Head swimming and arm throbbing, Azral pushed on.

The blood was hot and sticky and looking at the wound made him instantly queasy. The wounded elf managed to reach the hut but was overcome by nausea as he passed through the door flap. He fell over the threshold and hit the floor already unconscious.

Barkle and Grumpty had been more fortunate in their endeavours. The inventor wasn’t a particularly good fighter but he had good reflexes. Grumpty was not an experienced fighter but there was a toughness to him, and the two managed to fend off any attackers on the way.

The owls had been a big help and the dwarves seemed to have gotten a second wind as a result of their arrival. The two elves were a little surprised that the religious building had remained standing. While the doors had been broken down and the surrounding graveyard desecrated, the building itself appeared unharmed.

Grumpty wasn’t a firm believer in faith but at this particular moment he prayed dearly that Barkle’s weapon was inside, and more importantly still alive elves. A few dead dwarves and wolves lay in the graveyard outside the church. It felt unnatural to Barkle. Bodies obviously belonged in graveyards, but he preferred them to be underground as opposed to on top of it.

The other thing that seemed odd was that this part of the village was eerily quiet. Everywhere else the sounds of fighting could be heard, but in the churchyard there was no noise. The birdsong that usually filled the trees had vanished.

Barkle and Grumpty made their way gingerly around the bodies and into the church. Although they had seen enough bodies to last a lifetime in an incredibly short space of time, it had the same effect every time. Whereas the outside of the church had remained fairly intact, the inside was the complete opposite.

Most of the wooden benches that lined either side of the grand building had been knocked over, and more dead wolves and dwarves lay next to them or sprawled awkwardly on top. Grumpty was dismayed to see a few fallen elves here and there as well.

His foot connected with one of the empty dwarf helmets and it rolled across the wooden floorboards, rattling loudly. There was a sudden movement from somewhere at the back of church, and something large and dark zoomed towards Grumpty. It landed over his head, wrapping itself tightly around his body.

The force of the object had knocked Grumpty off balance, and he fell to the ground with a deep grunt. For a split second he began to panic, as he feared had been trapped in a massive spider’s web.

But the arachnids were a myth, a folk-tale told by the elders around the fire at night to scare the young ‘uns. Besides, even if they did exist they lived beyond Finhorn Forest towards the Mountains. Barkle’s face suddenly loomed into sight above. He was smiling.

‘Don’t worry, its just Ogle and some of the others.’

Calming himself down, Grumpty inspected his restraints and realised it was a large rope net as opposed to a spider’s web. If it was Ogle then why the hell had he thrown this strange net over him Grumpty thought to himself.

‘Hi Grumpty,’ Ogle said, appearing beside Barkle and regarding the small captured elf with a look of guilt.

‘While it is good to see you Ogle, would you care to get me out of this blasted net?’ Grumpty replied calmly, but his voice had a hint of anger in it.

The two elves set about cutting free the ropes, much to Grumpty’s relief. The rope was coarse and dug into his skin and scratched his face. It took a while but eventually enough of the rope sections were hacked away and Grumpty was able to wriggle free from the rope prison. He got to his feet tutting and massaged his tender arms and hands.

‘Why on earth did you do….’ he began but was interrupted when Ogle embraced him in a tight hug.

All the irritation and disappointment at Ogle’s mistake suddenly faded away and Grumpty relaxed for the first time all day, allowing himself a moment to just enjoy the heartfelt hug thrust upon him. When the two finally stepped away from each other, Grumpty realised there were tears on Ogle’s face.

‘What’s wrong?’ Barkle asked, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

‘Mugleaf didn’t make it,’ he said in a low voice and the words seemed to trap in his throat for a moment.

Grumpty had been hit hard a few times today but nothing had caused as much impact as the news Ogle had just revealed. Not saying anything, Grumpty moved over to one of the few remaining pews and perched on the end. Ogle went to follow but Barkle stopped him.

‘Give him a moment lad.’

Ogle nodded and wiped his tear stained face. Barkle felt a tug on his moleskin tunic and glanced down. A small, very young elf with big hazel eyes looked up at him. He was holding the inventor’s crossbow in his other hand and struggling to lift the big contraption. Barkle knelt down, ruffled the young elf’s brown hair and took the crossbow from him.

‘Thank you little one.’

He stood up. A small gaggle of elves were watching him and Ogle a little way away. One of them, a female elf with frizzy brown hair was motioning towards the young elf who gave Barkle a warm smile, before returning to his mother.

The assembled elves were a mixture of ages and one or two of them stood with the aid of makeshift crutches. A few others had bandages wrapped around their heads and arms.

‘Is this all there is?’ Barkle said grimly.

‘Here yes. We held our own but not all of us made it. If it hadn’t been for your crossbow, it would have been a lot worse,’ Ogle said appreciatively.

Barkle looked around. Indeed a few of the wolves had been captured by the nets. They weren’t moving and an uncomfortable pang of guilt gripped him. He preferred that it had been wolves then elves, but there was the horrible feeling that his invention was a tool of destruction.

Whether purposefully or not Barkle had played his part in the taking of lives. This was why the elves had laid down their weapons and vowed to be a peaceful race all those centuries ago. War was a truly terrible thing and Barkle wasn’t sure he was ever going to be able to forgot what he had seen here today.

The Dwarf Queen and the haggard wolf were still knee deep in their grudge match. Both bore battle scars but the haggard wolf seemed to be holding up better. A few of his teeth had been knocked out and one of his eyes was closing up, but he still moved around with relative ease.

The Dwarf Queen on the other hand appeared to be struggling somewhat. Her movements were more sluggish and an injury to have left leg was causing her to limp. Two of her fingers were missing and the armour plating that hadn’t been torn off was heavily dented and scratched.

She battled on despite her afflictions, determined to not let the wicked wolf triumph over her. With a great groan the Dwarf Queen surged forward, axe raised above her head. She swung it down fast and hard. The haggard wolf managed to roll out the way in time and jumped back up, ready to retaliate.

The Dwarf Queen had made a terrible judgement of error. She had applied so much force into her swing that the axe was now stuck in the ground. Seeing her attempting desperately to wrench it free, the haggard wolf saw an opportunity to attack.

He leapt onto the Dwarf Queen’s back and started biting and clawing at her helmet. If he could prize the heavy piece of armour off the Dwarf Queen, her head and face would be exposed. The Dwarf Queen roared in surprise and reached behind her, trying to grab the furry beast.

But the haggard wolf was slippery and wouldn’t stop moving. Whenever she tried to grab him, he would snap and bite at her exposed hands. Hefting herself onto to her feet she wind milled around wildly, trying to detach the infernal animal.

She crashed through the village looking for a wall, building or tree to slam the wolf against. But most of the huts were destroyed and the trees were too far away. Her helmet was starting to slip up her head and the Dwarf Queen knew she had to get rid of the haggard wolf soon. The haggard wolf’s tail brushed against her face and she had a sudden idea.

Seizing hold of its fluffy end, she yanked it hard. The haggard wolf screamed in alarm and slackened his grip. The Dwarf Queen used all her remaining strength and threw the animal off her. The haggard landed awkwardly on the rubble of one of the huts and let out an almighty howl, as one of his back legs made a horrible snapping sound.

He lay there still and for a moment and the Dwarf Queen presumed he had given up. But then astonishingly the haggard wolf dragged himself over the rubble. As much as the Dwarf Queen disliked the animal for his underhand tactics and general untrustworthiness, she had to admire his resilience. The haggard wolf stood up, his other three legs shaking precariously as they had to take the strain of supporting his broken one.

It hung limply at the back and the haggard wolf wobbled a few times, almost losing balance. But he remained upright and regarded the Dwarf Queen. She was under the impression that dwarves had a bad reputation for vengeance, but that seemed to pale somewhat compared to wolves.

‘Give up, you have lost,’ she said, gesturing around the half demolished village.

Although the wolves still fought on defiantly, they were being slowly pushed back. The owls were doing a tremendous job of distracting and infuriating the four legged animals. This allowed the dwarves to rush in and catch the wolves off guard.

Even the more sly and tactical animals who had cottoned on to this were failing to make a difference. They were simply outnumbered. The haggard wolf felt truly cursed. Things were supposed to have been different this time he thought to himself. They had started off with the greater force, and yet the tables had been completely turned.

He limped towards the Dwarf Queen. There was no turning back now. The haggard wolf had run away from battle once already and the shame had almost been too much. The same would not happen again. He had made his decision. To see his mission through to the end whatever the outcome.

Seeing him approach, the Dwarf Queen starting stripping off her armour. A nearby dwarf rushed forward, confused as to her actions but she waved him away. The haggard wolf was at a disadvantage and she wasn’t willing to strike an enemy down unfairly.

The haggard wolf went to attack but the movement was clumsy and slow. The Dwarf Queen sidestepped easily and socked him in side of her head with a meaty fist. Dazed, the haggard wolf staggered sideways and his legs gave way. He crashed to the ground. The dwarves and wolves were gradually giving up on their fights, their attention being diverted to the leader’s scuffle.

The outcome of this encounter determined what happened next. The haggard wolf gritted his teeth and tried with all his might to get to his feet. There was no strength left in his body and the large wolf collapsed to ground once more, where he lay panting and defeated.

There was a brief silence, as the spectators waited to make sure the haggard wolf wasn’t going to try again. But the wolf was spent and he dug his face into the ground, trying to hide the tears of shame and humiliation welling in his eyes.

A few of the dwarves and elves looked at each other for confirmation, then a massive cheer rose up. The owls circling above hooted and cawed, as the she wolf flanked by two digger wolves moved over to retrieve their flattened leader.

The Dwarf Queen glanced around the village and smiled, at dwarves and elves stood side by side raising their weapons in the air victoriously. She caught sight of Grumpty and a group of elves stood a little way away. He had a gash on his forehead and looked a little bruised and battered, but seemed okay apart from that.

They locked eyes and nodded at one another. Sighing deeply, the Dwarf Queen sat down heavily on the grass and watched the wolves slowly leave the village. The sun broke the clouds and she felt its warm rays wash over her. The Dwarf Queen closed her eyes and drank in its warmth.

© [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 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.

Grumpty Continued

Chapter 5: The Takeover

The Dwarf Queen sat on top of the mossy stone crossed legged and observed the shackled elves shuffling back and forth in front of her. The haggard wolf was strolling around casually, occasionally snapping at slow moving elves. The two had successfully taken over the village together, but their joint reign together hadn’t been without issue. The Dwarf Queen had agreed that making the elves prisoners was a good idea, but had disagreed heavily with the wolves’ desire to beat and humiliate the forest dwelling creatures.

After a terse conversation where both leaders had been prepared to come to blows if necessary, the haggard wolf had eventually conceded. He still wanted Grumpty and knew that if he lost the support of the dwarves, he would be at a big disadvantage. So far they had been picking out elves at random, taking them into one of the small elf huts and questioning them about Grumpty’s whereabouts. The Dwarf Queen had assigned one of her best to be present, in order that the wolves behave themselves.

So far they hadn’t made great progress. The elves although not the physically strongest race, were a resilient bunch. They were an incredibly loyal and devoted peoples and the Dwarf Queen respected that. One of the things her late mother had taught her was to respect and never underestimate your enemy. Trying to prise the much needed information they required, the wolves and dwarves had attempted intimidation, threats and deals but so far no one had broken.

Ogle’s plan to reach the alarm and call Grumpty and the owls for backup hadn’t panned out. He hadn’t even managed to make it to the bottom of the hill. The wolf and dwarf had caught up to him and dragged him back to the village.

When interrogated as to where he was sneaking off to, he had lied and said he was running away from the fight. Better that then they find the alarm and possibly set a trap for Grumpty. They needed the help but he wasn’t willing to risk the safety of his friend and the owls to do it.

Azral had survived his encounter with the Dwarf Queen, but just by the skin of his teeth. Or rather by a strip of cloth. When he had been lying sprawled on the ground under the towering form of the Dwarf Queen, he had closed his eyes. Panic had gripped him, but he had also come to terms with the fact that he was going to die.

The large axe had swung down and Azral had felt the whoosh of air that came with it, but no pain. At first, he had presumed that it had killed him instantly but opening his eyes, the elf had realised he was still alive. The Dwarf Queen had sunk her axe into the very top of Azral’s hood, pinning him to the grassy ground and missing his head by inches.

When Nut had entered the church, the scene had been pure chaos. The civilian elves had been pushed to the back of the building by the advancing wolves and had been pinned down with no where to run and nothing to fight with. The screams and cries had been as a result of the snarling wolves biting and snapping at the air in front of them. Nut had fought his best, but two of the wolves had overpowered him and had been closing in for the killing blow.

Barkle had come to his rescue wielding a bizarre looking device that looked like a crossbow, but with a strange multi pronged head. It fired nets and the inventor elf had managed to bag three wolves, before dwarves piled in and captured them. Barkle had berated himself for not doing more, but Azral had pointed out that he had stalled the wolves long enough for the dwarves to arrive.

When Barkle, Nut and Azral were reunited they had marvelled at how they were all still alive and it was then that they worked out the dwarves seemed more intent on capturing then killing. They had also let the elves bury the handful of their kin who had unfortunately died during the battle. They had all decided that this information might well provide useful later on.

 

Mother Owl and her company of owls soared across the treetops, beating their wings as hard as they could to cover as much ground as possible. Grumpty sat atop her large neck, clinging on to her fur for dear life. He usually enjoyed flying, but on this occasion the speed and bumpiness of the travelling was more terrifying then thrilling.

At the same time, he dare not ask Mother Owl to slow down. There was reason for their hasty progress. The small owl that arrived the night before to talk to Mother Owl, had brought grave tidings. As a scout it was the small owl’s job to fly on ahead, scan out the area and make sure it was free of threats and dangers.

The small owl hadn’t discovered any nearby threats, but had come across some neighbouring tree pixies. They informed her that they had seen a number of dwarves leaving their mountain home and enter the forest. More surprising still was the company the dwarf warriors were keeping.

They were accompanied by none other then wolves. Thanking the tree pixies for their alarming news, the small owl had followed the vague directions to where they had been spotted last. After tracking for some time, the small owl had found tracks of both creatures and followed them warily.

The tracks led rather unfortunately to the village of elves but the small owl had made sure to keep her distance, for fear of being spotted. From the safety of one of the surrounding trees, she had observed the comings and goings. It did not look good. The dwarves and wolves had seized control of the small dwelling.

The small owl had seen a handful of the elves wandering about the village square and wondered if she had got the wrong end of the stick. But then with her keen eyes, she had noticed that the elves were shackled at the feet and hands. Dwarves were posted at various points of entry around the village and a handful of wolves were patrolling the treeline in shifts.

It was extremely lucky that the small owl had bumped into the tree pixies when she had. For whatever reason Grumpty’s alarm system hadn’t worked. Perhaps they had been overpowered before Ogle had managed to reach it in time. Either way, they had been caught off guard and from the small owl’s description been seriously outnumbered. Grumpty just prayed no one had been badly hurt. The fact that they had been taken prisoner was deeply worrying, but it hopefully meant that they wanted them alive for some reason or other.

The company of owls set up position a little way back from the treeline, while Mother Owl, Grumpty and the small scout owl perched on the furthermost trees. There was a moment of panic when a patrolling wolf passed right under the trees they were sat in. They drew a collective breathe, as she paused and sniffed the air around her suspiciously. The sky gods must have indeed been smiling on them that day, as the wolf soon strolled off continuing her route.

The small owl had been right about the situation but sitting here observing it for himself, Grumpty saw just how dire things had become. The wolves were a formidable force by themselves, but coupled with the arrival of dwarves it spelt trouble for Grumpty and the owls. He thought about trying to wrangle together the forest trolls and tree pixies. It had worked last time. But Grumpty had a nasty feeling that they would be less keen to help out, knowing dwarves were involved this time round.

‘What do you know about dwarves?’ He asked Mother Owl.

Mother Owl contemplated his question, tilting her head to one side as she did so.

‘Only what I have heard. They set up home in the Mountain long before my time. My father used to tell me they were fierce fighters at one stage.’

Grumpty looked worried.

‘But that was long ago when male dwarves were still in charge,’ Mother Owl added.

Her attempt to comfort him was appreciated but didn’t really help. They might not be the same army of dwarves, but their armour and weapons certainly looked the part. Grumpty massaged his forehead. The stress and anxiety of the whole situation had given him an acute headache. He was trying to think up a strategy, but his head felt like it was full of fungi. His first thought had been to try rescuing them from the air. If they came form the sky, the owls could try and scoop up as many of them before the dwarves and wolves cottoned on.

However, there was one major problem with that plan. Even if they could rescue them, where would they go. The village was their home. It wasn’t like they were sneaking into enemy territory. This was elven land. Plus, there was still the handful of elves that were being kept inside. Grumpty just wasn’t cut-throat enough to take some of his kin and leave others behind to their fate.

‘What are you thinking?’ Mother Owl said, watching her son thoughtfully.

Grumpty sighed and turned to face his mother.

‘I’ve got something, but you’re not going to like it?’

 

The she wolf was patrolling the tree line as usual, when she noticed something white floating towards her from the trees. Puzzled, she sat on her hind legs and observed the object drawing nearer. Her keen eyes revealed that it was a feather. A moment later, a small elf appeared out of the trees holding a long stick in one hand with the feather stuck on the top. The first thing the she wolf noticed, was that the creature was unnaturally small compared to most elves. Then it clicked into place. This was the pygmy elf the haggard wolf had been trying to find.

For a moment she just sat there regarding the small form of Grumpty in disbelief, taken aback at how he had just strolled up out of the blue. Then she darted forward, knocked the stick out of his hand and kicked him to the ground with a paw. Grumpty rolled over and thumped into the sprawling roots of a nearby tree.

He lay there for a moment, before pulling himself to his feet with a groan. High above in the trees Mother Owl observed this and went to intervene, but the small owl blocked her with a feathery wing. The Mother Owl looked at her scout furiously, but didn’t go to push past.

Down below Grumpty was getting to his feet and brushing himself down. His elbow stung like hell from where he had banged it against the tree and his leg protested with shooting pains.

‘I come unarmed,’ he said, holding out his hands peacefully.

The she wolf sprang forward and opened her mouth wide. Grumpty recoiled in fear at the slavering jaws of death. The wolf’s teeth sunk into Grumpty’s hood and next thing he knew, the small elf had been lifted off his feet. The she wolf turned and started running back towards the village, carrying the helpless elf by the hood in her teeth.

She had wanted nothing more then to rip the tiny upstart into pieces, but knew that the haggard wolf would never forgive her. It was his prize and his alone. Mother Owl and the scout owl watched Grumpty being dragged away by the sleek wolf and exchanged dubious glances.

 

As the she wolf entered the village, a couple of the dwarves noticed Grumpty hanging from her mouth and watched their progress intrigued. A nearby wolf clocked it too and began howling loudly. Soon the village was full of the sound of howls as the wolves fell in behind her, enamoured by the important discovery.

Barkle, Azral and Nut were sat among three other elves, all shackled and guarded by two dwarves and a wolf. Hearing the noise, Barkle had got to his feet to see what was going on. One of the dwarves had sternly instructed he sit down, but the elf remained standing.

His view was blocked for a moment by a group of dwarves, who had wandered over to see what was happening. One of them moved slightly out of the way and Barkle glimpsed Grumpty, just as the she wolf dumped him in front of the mossy stone.

‘Sit down,’ the dwarf shouted and pulled Barkle down roughly onto the ground.

‘What are you doing?’ Nut whispered, as he and Azral crawled over to him.

‘It’s Grumpty,’ Barkle said, his eyes wide.

Azral and Nut exchanged surprise reactions that then morphed into expressions of deep fear.

Grumpty landed on all fours and felt the hard ground shudder through his palms and knees. It was a sunny day but the small elf shivered, as he felt shadows all around him. His eyes travelled slowly up the mossy stone continuing up the Dwarf Queen’s mammoth legs and broad chest, until they came to rest on her resolute face.

‘So you are the famous Grumpty I have heard so much about,’ she said after a moment’s pause.

Grumpty said nothing but looked around terrified at the crowd of gathered wolves and dwarves, surrounding him on all sides. The wolves were snarling and growling loudly, but the dwarves were quiet. They just observed the little elf curiously, as if he were some sort of unusual piece of art or a sculpture.

The Dwarf Queen held up a hand, willing the wolves into silence. They obliged but didn’t look particularly happy about it. She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted as the haggard wolf barged past two dwarves and made a beeline for Grumpty.

Despite being petrified the small elf rose to meet him. He knew some of the elven prisoners would be watching him and he had to stand up for them. Like it or not he was a symbol of hope for the village community. If he bowed down and showed cowardice, the wolves and dwarves would win. The haggard wolf stopped mere inches from Grumpty’s face and gave a deep, menacing growl. The small elf fought back the urge to retch from the big wolf’s hot, bad breath.

‘Let us hear what the small elf has to…..’

The Dwarf Queen never got to finish her sentence, as the haggard wolf lashed out a clawed paw. It struck Grumpty across the face and he fell to the ground, cradling the fresh scars left there. A roar of laughter erupted from the gathered wolves, as the haggard wolf moved in for a second strike. But he suddenly found his way barred by the Dwarf Queen, as she dropped down from the mossy stone and thudded into the ground before him.

‘Move out of my way dwarf,’ the haggard wolf barked, fury alive in his eyes.

But the Dwarf Queen held her ground, large feet planted firmly in the ground and hands on her hips. The haggard wolf was a force to be reckoned with, but the Dwarf Queen looked equally as formidable.

‘I wish to speak to the elf privately for a moment,’ she said firmly.

The haggard wolf’s face morphed from one of fury to disbelief. He glimpsed Grumpty who was still lying on the ground. He was rolling around, clutching his face in his hands and moaning in a low voice. While seeing the small elf in pain brought a certain level of satisfaction, it just wasn’t enough.

‘This wasn’t part of the deal,’ he snarled and tried to push past her.

The Dwarf Queen stood her ground, but fixed him with a reasonable expression.

‘The deal still stands. I am a woman of a my word. I just want a moment alone to talk to the elf is all. When I am done, you may do whatever you want with the creature.’

The haggard wolf thought for a moment. He looked at the she wolf who was watching the exchange keenly. She shrugged as if to say what harm could it do. The haggard wolf glanced around at the village. Elves sat in little groups guarded by dwarves and wolves. They were trying their best to see what was going on, but the guards kept purposely blocking their view and pushing them back down.

The she wolf was right. What was there to lose really? If it meant that the Dwarf Queen would stop pestering him, then it was worth it. The surrounding dwarves and wolves watched silently, as the haggard wolf inclined his head and stepped aside.

‘Come on elf. I want a word with you,’ the Dwarf Queen ordered and strolled off towards one of the huts.

Grumpty let his hands fall from his face and fought back a wave of dizziness, as he caught sight of his palms that were red with blood. His face stung badly and he could feel blood trickling down his nose. As the crowd parted to let the Dwarf Queen and Grumpty past, the wolves and dwarves showed a combination of revulsion and amusement at the elf’s scarred face. He had no idea what he looked like, but presumed it was pretty hideous based on the spectator’s reactions.

Grumpty tried to fight back tears but it was practically impossible. The three long gashes on his face stung so badly, that his eyes watered heavily from the intensity. The blood dripping down his nose felt hot and sticky. He wiped at it with his moleskin sleeve and only ended up smearing more of it over his face.

‘Grumpty,’ a familiar voice shouted and the small elf blinked away tears to see who had called him.

An elf was waving to him a little way away, stood in the middle of a group of seated prisoners. He squinted hard and recognised the familiar face of Azral waving wildly at him. Grumpty went to wave back but paused, as a dwarf guard approached Azral forced down his arm and pushed him roughly to the ground. Enraged, Grumpty caught up to the Dwarf Queen.

‘Tell your guards to stop being so rough with the elves,’ he demanded hotly.

The Dwarf Queen raised an eyebrow in mild surprise, but didn’t say anything and continued walking. She reached one of the huts and poked her head through the material door to check it was empty.

‘Why are you helping the wolves?’ Grumpty asked the Dwarf Queen.

She answered by grabbing him roughly by the collar and throwing him inside the hut. He hit the ground, knocking over one of the wooden stump chairs and made an audible oomph noise in the process. So far it had been a day of being tossed around, thrown to the ground and mauled. The Dwarf Queen joined him inside, located one of the still upright wooden stumps and sat down heavily.

The stump creaked worryingly but held. Grumpty re righted his seat and sat down himself. The Dwarf Queen watched him silently before reaching into a pocket and pulling out an ornate, engraved pipe.

‘Things have changed since you have been away little elf,’ the Dwarf Queen said, as she stuffed tobacco into the pipe hole and starting tapping it down.

‘Clearly,’ Grumpty said, touching one of the marks on his face tentatively and wincing as the pain intensified in the tender skin.

The Dwarf Queen regarded the elf’s scarred face for a moment but not with disgust. Grumpty was surprised to see concern in her expression. Reaching into her other pocket, she produced a handful of dock-leafs and threw them into the small elf’s lap. 

‘Thank you,’ Grumpty said with a mixture of caution and surprise, accepting the leaves.

He sat there staring at them blankly for a moment. The Dwarf Queen laughed, as she lit her pipe and sucked on the end of it a couple of times.

‘It helps if you look inside,’ she said, exhaling a big puff of smoke.

Feeling a little silly for not realising, Grumpty unfurled the leaves carefully. In the middle sat a small solid white ball. He touched it gingerly and was surprised to find it was both sticky and smooth at the same time.

‘Rub that into your wounds. It will slow the bleeding and prevent them from becoming infected,’ she instructed.

Grumpty nodded and began tentatively massaging the mysterious balm into his wounds. It stung something awful and his already watery eyes began to tear up yet further. Despite this he persevered and for a moment the two just sat there, Grumpty applying the balm and the Dwarf Queen puffing away on the pipe.

‘Thank you,’ Grumpty finally said, covering the balm back over with the leaves and offering it back to the Dwarf Queen.

‘Keep it. You will need to apply it a lot more if you want those wounds to heal properly,’ she said, exhaling another cloud of thick smoke.

It had become incredibly murky and dingy in the hut since the Dwarf Queen had started puffing away on her pipe.

‘Why are you helping me?’ Grumpty said, coughing slightly from the thick smoke trying to sneak into his nose and mouth.

The Dwarf Queen shrugged nonchalantly and cast an eye around the elven hut. It was the definition of rustic and simple. All that occupied the space was four tree trunk stools, some oak furniture and a few ornamental decorations on the wall made from bones and leaves. It was funny to see such a primitive and basic way of life. The Dwarf Queen was accustomed to lavish furnishings made of rich materials and metal. They were also much bigger and grander in design. A dwarf’s piece of furniture could take up three quarters of the elven hut’s space.

‘Just because yo’re my enemy, doesn’t mean we can’t be civil,’ she said, observing the elf with a discerning eye.

‘Your friend the haggard wolf doesn’t share those sentiments,’ Grumpty said, gesturing at his battle wounds.

The Dwarf Queen looked slightly uncomfortable before quickly concealing her expression. But it was too late. Grumpty had already seen her face. It was rather telling he thought to himself.

‘Yes, well each to their own I guess,’ the Dwarf Queen reflected.

Grumpty wanted to take a deep breath but he was afraid that it might result in him descending into an uncontrollable coughing fit.

‘What is the deal between you two anyway? You must have done something mighty serious to anger the wolves,’ she proposed.

Grumpty laughed and immediately regretted it, as the muscle movement caused his wounds to flare up again.

‘I killed their master the White Wolf.’

The Dwarf Queen raised her eyebrows in surprise.

‘Yeah exactly, now you understand,’ Grumpty said plainly.

The Dwarf Queen shook her head slowly. Grumpty unbuttoned his moleskin coat and loosened his collar. It was getting hot in here and the dense smoke was making the small elf feeling a little woozy.

‘I still don’t get why elves would choose to pick a fight with wolves in the first place?’ The Dwarf Queen pointed out, motioning with her pipe.

Grumpty frowned hard and again it sent a jolt of pain through his face. Why did he have to be so blooming expressive?

‘Because I didn’t. The wolves started all this.’

The Dwarf Queen’s attention suddenly became raptly fixed on the small elf. She popped the pipe out of her mouth and sat forward. Grumpty recoiled at the dwarf’s fierce expression.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘They kicked this whole thing off by abducting Ogle’s mother,’ Grumpty said, surprised that the Dwarf Queen wasn’t already aware of this.

For a moment the Dwarf Queen said nothing, just sat frozen in her seat regarding Grumpty with a completely dumbfounded look.

‘Do you even know who you have partnered up with?’ Grumpty asked the immobilised Dwarf Queen.

She turned her gaze towards him but didn’t say anything. It was like the Dwarf Queen hadn’t even registered his words and her eyes were vacant and misted over. Grumpty was just wondering how long her paralysis was going to go on for when the Dwarf Queen suddenly stood up, knocking over her stool in the process. Grumpty went to open his mouth but before he could say anything, the Dwarf Queen had stormed out of the hut.

 

The haggard wolf and she wolf were discussing matters to themselves when nearby shouting made them glance round. An enraged Dwarf Queen was storming towards them with powerful strides. A little way behind trotted Grumpty, who was finding it hard to keep up with the fast pace the angered dwarf was setting. 

‘Liar,’ the Dwarf Queen roared and such was her fury, that a group of wolves in her path scattered hurriedly.

The she wolf snarled, preparing herself for a fight but the haggard wolf held up a paw to calm her.

‘Not yet,’ he whispered under his breath.

‘You never told me that you abducted a elf in the first place,’ the Dwarf Queen proclaimed and a few gasps of surprise issued from the onlooking dwarves.

‘It must have slipped my mind,’ the haggard wolf said, trying to act casual.

‘I wouldn’t have agreed to this alliance if I had known foul play was afoot,’ the Dwarf Queen stated and a few of her loyal troops voiced their agreement.

‘Oh please, don’t try and act like there is no bad blood on your hands,’ the haggard wolf fired back and there was a smatter of agreement from the nearby wolves.

All eyes were on the two leaders, as they exchanged vicious spoken blows. The tension of the situation was palpable and some of the spectating dwarves and wolves eyed each other cagily. This hostility between the two commanders had been building for some time and it was about ready to explode. Azral, Nut and Barkle sensed this and exchanging silent nods, began to slowly crawl away from their spot. The assigned dwarf guards should have been keeping an eye on their prisoners, but the heated confrontation had distracted them.

‘My ancestors are guilty of terrible crimes but we are different. It is true that there is no love lost between us and the elves, but I cannot persecute a race for an action they did not commit,’ the Dwarf Queen declared.

Grumpty was stunned by her words and for the first time in his elven life felt respect for a dwarf. As a young elf he had been raised to fear and not trust the creatures by his elders. But seeing the Dwarf Queen defend the elves despite her actions, made him seriously consider reevaluating his ideals.

Azral, Nut and Barkle were making slow progress, choosing to slide forward on their stomachs so as to go unnoticed. Everyone was too busy watching the terse exchange to even notice the escaping prisoners. Only Ogle spotted them wriggling across the grass towards the edge of the village. They motioned at him to follow but he just shook his head and remained seated with the other elf prisoners.

‘What are they doing?’ The scout owl said to Mother Owl, as they watched the situation from the trees.

‘I don’t know but it doesn’t look good. Tell the others to be prepared just in case,’ she responded, a pensive look in her eyes.

‘We had a deal,’ the haggard wolf snarled and the she wolf barked to reinforce the point.

The Dwarf Queen folded her arms resolutely.

‘The deal is void. You left out a vital piece of information. My agreement was based on the fact that the elves had done you wrong.’

‘What difference does it make?’ the haggard wolf protested.

‘It makes all the difference,’ the Dwarf Queen thundered.

The haggard wolf thought for a moment and then spoke in an incredibly underhanded sort of way.

‘And what about the village? Without us it won’t remain under your control for long. The elves have friends everywhere. In the trees, in the air. Trust me I found that out the hard way.’ 

This gave the Dwarf Queen moment to pause. The haggard wolf was right. If she broke the alliance with the wolves, then with it went the control of her new territory.

‘Just gives us Grumpty and we will ensure the village stays firmly under your control,’ the she wolf propositioned.

Despite having spoken out of turn, the haggard wolf paid it no heed. She had adequately articulated what he had wanted to say anyway. The Dwarf Queen eyed the two wolves shrewdly for a moment before turning to face Grumpty. She moved close towards him and although intimidated, the small elf held his ground. Leaning down, the Dwarf Queen spoke in barely a whisper.

‘Free as many of the elves as you can and make for the trees.’

It took a moment for Grumpty to process what she had just said, then he turned on his heels and started running.

‘What are you doin….’ the haggard wolf began but trailed off, as he saw the Dwarf Queen slowly unclip her axe from her back and turn to face him.

So it was going to be like that he thought to himself and letting out a tremendous howl bounded forwards to face his opponent.

© [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.