River God

The river-god turned over in his sleep. He’d worked hard for countless millions of years, guiding his river down to the sea, and he needed rest. Voices came and went, but this was more insistent and beat on the gates of his slumber.

“Awake, O great god.” The voice slipped into a dream that wasn’t quite a dream. “Your people call on you in their need.”

His bed was less comfortable than usual: hard, jagged stones, instead of gentle water to rock him. The dream from within slowly merged with the world outside, and the voice was saying, “You shall have whatever offering you wish, great god. We beg you to awake.”

The river-god sat up, rubbing his eyes, and looked about. So that was why his bed felt so uncomfortable. The course down which his water should pour was empty, exposing its stony bottom.

How could this be? His waters never dried up–he prided himself on it–and he didn’t believe for a moment the forces of nature were responsible. Who had done this to him?

A mortal stood on the bank, her arms raised. As far as he could make out, she was what mortals called old. There were lines all over her creased face, and wispy grey hair blew in the fresh breeze. She felt too wholesome to be the culprit, with the river’s rhythms suffusing her soul, but who could tell with mortals?

“Who are you?” he demanded.

The woman staggered back a few steps; she looked terrified, but her eyes remained fixed on him. “Lord, I’m Durka, your priestess. For forty years, I’ve led the rituals that honour you, and I’ve blessed the offerings that the tribe cast into the water.”

Offerings? So that was it. The mortals who lived near this part of the river had a habit of throwing objects into the water from time to time. He cared nothing for the things themselves, only for the reverence that clothed them. It had never occurred to him that the mortals were giving him gifts.

“Last winter,” said Durka, “the tribe cast twenty-seven hunting spears into your waters as a special offering. We couldn’t afford to lose them, but your waters had been falling. Are you angry with us?”

Why should he be angry with mortals who honoured the river? It was a strange idea, but he didn’t want this priestess–whatever that was–to be upset. Her aura showed her love for the river, even more than the rest of the tribe.

“I wasn’t angry, little mortal. I was asleep. Where has the river gone?”

Her face grew more distressed. “We sent scouts to find out. Another tribe, two days’ journey upstream, have built a great dam across it. They harvest the waters and allow none to come down the river-course. Our land withers, and all the beasts of the forest are dying of thirst. And so are the tribe. We beg for your help, great god.”

His fury swelled as she spoke. Who were these people who had dared to steal his river? When she finished, he let out a great roar. The priestess screamed and staggered back, falling over.

Immediately, the river-god was sorry. This mortal, Durka, wasn’t to blame–indeed, she had done him a service by wakening him. Reaching out, he picked her up in one hand, setting her on her feet, and stroked her hair with a fingertip.

“Don’t be afraid. Only the thieves need to fear me. I shall search for the river.”

He closed his eyes, sending his thoughts upstream until he found the captive waters, penned against a vast wall. He examined the barrier, afraid it might be part of the earth and would need thousands of years to wear down, but it was a feeble thing of sand, mud and gravel bound together with water that was now gone.

Very well: if water had made it, water could unmake it. The river-god reached out to the imprisoned, urging it to attack the weaknesses he’d found, but it didn’t seem to hear.

Returning his mind to the place where he’d slept, the river-god looked around and understood. “The river’s imprisoned,” he told Durka, frustration seething like rapids, “but I can’t reach it with no water in between. The connection is broken.”

She frowned, fear and concern on her face. “What would you do,” she asked after a moment, “if you could reach?”

“I’d tell it where to attack the dam. But it can’t hear me. Someone will need to take a message, but I shall have to fill them with my power, so that they can speak to the water. That would be deadly for a mortal.”

“I’ll do it,” said Durka. “I’ve had a good life, and if I must die to save the river and the tribe, so be it.”

The river-god hesitated. He didn’t want to put such a reverent mortal in danger, but what other choice was there? Leaning forward, he breathed a little of himself into her soul and found himself seeing through her eyes. The vast figure in front of her looked old, too.

It took Durka two days to reach the dam, and the river-god was with her all the way. He sustained her, so that she didn’t tire, or hunger, or thirst, but her body was crumbling against the force of divinity it contained. Would she survive long enough to speak to the water?

When she came in sight of the place, the river-god felt fury sweeping up again at the sight of the soulless prison, but he contained the anger. It could damage Durka. There was a long climb down the bank to reach the water, and he felt pain racking her at every step and slide, but she pushed herself forward, stumbling and falling in places. Each time, she climbed to her feet, and she reached the waterside at last. Kneeling with her hands immersed, she spoke to the river, telling them with the god’s voice how it could get free.

Directed to the weaknesses he’d identified in the structure, the imprisoned water attacked again and again. Cracks formed, and it flowed inside, gnawing away at the monstrosity until the cracks went all the way through.

Mortals in strange clothes were running and slithering down the bank towards Durka, shouting something about “damned natives”. One raised a stick, and lighting flared from it, followed a moment later by the report of the thunder. The river-god felt agony sear through Durka.

The old woman reared up with her last strength and dived into the water. Letting it bear her up, she urged the river against its enemy again and again.

With a roar like a slow avalanche, the dam collapsed before the assault of the water it held captive. Running and plunging in the ecstasy of its freedom, the river careered down its course faster than the plunge of a waterfall, and the god met it, rushing upstream to where Durka was carried on its crest.

Durka’s life-force was weak, from the wound and the water inside her, as well as from carrying the god’s power, but she smiled faintly as he caught her up in his arms. Holding her tightly, the river-god swam down to his sleeping-place and laid her carefully on the bank.

“You’ve done me a great service,” he said, “and I shall guard and protect your people for as long as they live here, even if it takes twenty ice-ages.”

Durka smiled again, and her soul slipped out of her body. He caught it before it drifted away and set it gently in the river, which greeted the soul joyously. Durka’s soul, no longer old and weak, played with the water she’d rescued, as she’d play for as long as it ran.

The river-god settled down, to guard and guide the water that was his charge. He didn’t sleep.

Nyki Blatchley is a British author and poet who graduated from Keele University in English and Greek and now lives just outside London. He has had about forty stories published, mostly fantasy or horror, in various magazines, webzines and anthologies, including Penumbra, Lore, Wily Writers and The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. His novel At An Uncertain Hour was published by StoneGarden in April 2009, and he’s had novellas out from Musa Publishing and Darwin’s Evolutions. He’s currently working on a fantasy trilogy called The Winter Legend.

Frozen Wings

There was a time when Barbara had believed in mystery. When she slushed through the gray grit of old winter snow, looking out at the huddled, prosaic buildings, she saw not a sleepy North Dakota town but a hushed facade of ordinariness hiding an astonishing beauty. Every day she waited for a breathless moment, a miracle.

But now, at forty, she had lived in Antler her whole life and married gentle Bob, who smiled shyly and brought her coffee and said little. She waitressed at Maggie’s Diner, two blocks from her white clapboard house. She surveyed the horizon of grey downy clouds blanketing the thick mattress of snow, and realized that she was not the princess in the fairy tale, but the pea. Though lately, she wondered if she had not flattened and greyed so much that she was just another fiber in the endless stack of bedding. Barb’s particular despair was that she was comfortable and unsurprised.

Until the day of the wings.

The wings appeared quite suddenly overnight behind Maggie’s Diner, next to the dumpsters. They were grotesquely huge, glossy brown with white-tipped feathers. The bones that would have attached them to the body of the unfortunate bird now anchored them as firmly to the frozen ground as teeth to a jawbone.

A hammy man’s bristly neck was bent over them. Barbara could see the puffs of his labored breath when she arrived at work, but kept her distance. Grunting, he pulled on the wings as if they were stubborn weeds.

It was her boss, Patrick Chud. She could almost taste his thick onion smell. Every morning, Fat Pat ate an onion the way most people would eat an apple, glancing with enjoyment at the gouges his teeth made in the layers of pearly flesh. It was ironic he would eat anything from the onion family, since he was a laughter vampire. Fat Pat sucked out vials of his employees’ laughter to feed his ravenous ego. Chud loved clowning and doing impressions of customers, and expected laughs in return. Employees who did not at least giggle or chortle could expect merciless nitpicking about their work, threats of losing their jobs. Not laughing was a sign of disrespect.

Barb hated herself for laughing, hated him for making her. Just a few weeks ago, a man had creaked into the diner on prosthetic legs. Nobody had ever seen him before; strangers did not often come to Antler. When she took his order, she heard the accent of the deaf: the flat, indistinct sound of the wind speaking. She liked the deep brown puddles of his eyes that seemed to absorb every detail of the place and make it new.

But later, she saw Chud mocking him: he stiffened his knees and teeter-tottered across the room like a fat flamingo, imitating the stranger’s voice when he ordered:

“Gimme some ‘take and fies’, Barbie! Extra-rare take, and extra-French fies!”

The waitresses bleated their laughter; it even trickled out of Barbara, a false and ugly thing. She had avoided the manager ever since, though she hadn’t seen the legless man again. But now Fat Pat spotted her watching him.

“Barbie! Go grab the salt. These things are just frozen solid. Who’s gonna want the turkey and dressing special if they see Big Bird here?”

Obediently she fetched the salt that they used to de-ice the walkway, and poured it around the wings.

“We’ll just let that set. Should be easy to pull up once the ice is melted.”

But he was wrong. Two hours later, the wings stuck just as ferociously. Weeks passed, and then a month. Fat Pat tried to dig them out with a shovel and hack them to bits with a cleaver. His cousin Joey brought a jackhammer. Yet the wings were impervious to any effort, breaking the cleaver and denting the jackhammer. The North Dakota Gazetteer featured a picture of them in a fluffy article, and soon flocks of bundled North Dakotans came to gawk at the scene near the dumpsters at Maggie’s.

Barbara watched the crowds with wry amusement. Fat Pat had finally put Maggie’s on the map with some amputated bird parts. Every day he grew fatter with authority as he greeted the spectators and answered their questions. She couldn’t complain. The tips were good. She had just grabbed her coat and stepped out of the back door, noting how many had come out today, when she saw him.

Slowly, awkwardly, the legless stranger she had encountered months before stilted his way to the knot of onlookers. He appeared to be in a trance, for he paid no attention to the crowd but lasered his eyes to the spot where the wings must be. Barbara approached him. She had to redeem herself in some way for her unwitting cruelty toward him. But when she tapped him on the shoulder, he paid no attention. He had seen the wings.

A cry escaped him, and he fell face-first into the thick snow. Barbara thought to help him up until she noticed he was sobbing, his whole back shaking. The crowd murmured uncomfortably around him, a few picking their way discreetly back to their cars. After several uncertain minutes, he carefully pushed himself up with his hands, and Barbara helped him plank himself into a standing position. His whole snowy, runny face radiated his joy. He unzipped his heavy coat, then removed sweater after sweater, and finally his woolen undershirt.

He bent over the wings and plucked them up like flowers. Then he snapped them easily next to his shoulder blades, as though they were magnets. His wingspan was glorious, but he stayed hovering above the ground until, with a final shout, he detached the dead metal legs and threw them into the snow.

The Metastasis

I saw them first but they saw me, too.

They were orange and wore masks with tubes that twisted out of their mouths and noses. I couldn’t tell what they were but I was sure they were aliens, just like the ones my older brother Matt would tell me were hiding in my bedroom closet and under my bed.

“As soon as you fall asleep,” he’d say, “they’ll jump out and get you.

Aliens love little girls!”

I ran to him since he was an expert on these kinds of things. He was on our back porch playing cards with Grandma and Mom, Buster the beagle at his feet, while he joked about how bad they were getting thrashed by a ten-year-old. Not just any ten-year-old, though, a genius ten-year-old.

At least that’s what Matt always told me.

I reached his side just as he was throwing up his arms in a triumphant gesture.

Grandma threw down her cards.

Mom high-fived him. “Another win. I can’t believe it.” She smiled when she saw me. “Where have you been, Steph?”

“Out front.”

She winked. “I think it’s about time for some of Grandma’s birthday cake. What do you say?”

“Sweet!” Matt replied.

I nodded. As soon as Grandma and Mom went inside to light the candles, I pulled on Matt’s arm. “Come here.”

“What?”

“There’s something out front. Come look.”

“Wait. I want some cake first.”

I pulled on his arm again. “Now.”

“Geesh, Steph. You can wait at least five minutes.”

I had to hold back the tears as we sang Happy Birthday. My mouth was dry, my throat stuffed with cotton. What if the aliens came to get me while we were dilly-dallying with birthday songs and celebrations?

Grandma closed her eyes to make a wish; she took a deep breath, and blew out the candles.

“What did you wish for, Grandma?” Matt asked.

“If I tell you, then it won’t come true.”

“Come on. That’s an old wives’ tale.”

She sighed. “Alright. I wished for another happy and cancer-free year. I’m already pushing it, you know. There hasn’t been another person to live to sixty in at least ten years.” Her eyes shifted. “I’m the oldest person in the world.”

They ate cake silently. I didn’t want any. My stomach was all cartwheels and somersaults.

As soon as Matt swallowed his last bite, and with chocolate icing smeared on his lips, I grabbed his arm. “Come on!”

This time he followed me. Our ten acres in rural Ohio were spotted with fruit and maple trees. Mom had a garden where she planted beans, onions, tomatoes, and flowers, but the rest of our yard was a field that Matt had to mow every week because the grass grew quick and thick and tickled our legs when it was high.

“What’s so important?”

I pointed to the tree that an alien had been hiding behind. “It’s there.”

“What is?”

“An alien.”

His neck strained. He squinted. “I don’t see anything.”

“It was right there. It’s probably hiding somewhere else now.” My voice softened to a whisper. “I think it saw me.”

He put an arm around my shoulders. “Don’t worry, Steph, we’ll find it. I won’t let it hurt you.”

There was a large stick in the bushes lining the house. He pulled it out and held it in front of him like a sword. “Aliens hate sticks,” he said.

I shadowed him, my sweaty hands gripping the back of his shirt, as we darted from one tree to another until we were eyeing the alien’s hideout from an arm’s length away. My heart was racing.

We crept closer.

The screams were raw and piercing. Matt took off towards the shouting at the back of the house but my strides were no match for his longer ones. When I got there the orange aliens had invaded the porch. Two of them were holding Mom down while three others were dragging Grandma away. Buster was running in circles, nipping at their heels. Spittle rocketed from his mouth when he barked and lunged at one of them. The alien kicked him away.

Matt raced towards them and jabbed at an alien with his stick before sidestepping and jabbing at another.

Two syringes were pulled out. Both Mom and Grandma were injected.

I hid behind a tree, hot tears spilling from my eyes.

Grandma was taken. Mom lay on the ground, unmoving. They left Matt and I.

The stick didn’t keep the aliens at bay.

Matt found me sometime later. It felt like it’d been hours but he said it’d only been minutes. I was curled in a fetal position, my hands over my ears, my eyes shut tight.

“They’re gone,” he said. “It’s okay now. I have to call the police.”

I hugged Buster who was sitting up, alert. Matt dialed from his cell phone and relayed our address. “An ambulance, too,” he said. “Mom’s not moving.”

He appeared to listen. “No, she’s breathing. But they injected her with something.”

After the call ended, he stood ready, eyes alert, his stick raised high.

I learned two things that day: One, you should always keep your birthday wishes to yourself. And two, aliens might wait and watch in the dark shades of night but they bite during the clear light of day.

Where the River Runs – Part 2

Above me, the citadel’s irrigation turned on, sending a silent mist down onto the arbor. I tracked wet footprints to my room and wedged the desk chair under the doorknob.

I fell into a fitful slumber, but woke to an unchanged room. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. Had I imagined it all? Somehow, that thought was less reassuring than the alternative. I got up, but my hands hesitated to remove the chair from the door. What if the fox or Kenn were waiting for me? What if they weren’t? I cursed my indecision. I was tired of being afraid, tired of being alone, and tired of being tired of everything.

I pushed the chair free and headed to the cove. It was time to find some answers on my own. I slowly eased myself into the warm water. My black hair fanned out around my shoulders as I took a deep breath and dived. The fish scattered at the intrusion. I patted down the walls in search of an opening, but it was clear after several attempts that it was far deeper. I clung to the pavestones at the cove’s edge as I caught my breath. I didn’t relish swimming beyond the light’s reach, but I had come this far. It seemed silly to quit.

I kicked off from the wall to propel myself into the depths. As the light dimmed, I felt around blindly. My hands scraped against rocks and tangled in weeds as I pulled myself deeper and deeper. I soon realized my folly. In the darkness, I had no way of knowing which way was up. I turned around and frantically pulled myself in the direction I thought I had come, but the water grew no lighter. My lungs screamed. Had the shadows finally caught up with me?

Kenn’s sinuous form suddenly coiled around me and hauled me to the surface. I greedily gulped air as he swam me to the pavestones. His arms held me there for mine were leaden.

“What were you thinking?” ask Kenn, his tone a mixture of concern and anger.

“I was looking for the entrance.”

“It’s deeper than you can swim on your own,” he said. “Promise me you’ll never try that again.”

I gave him a sideways glance. His expression revealed nothing, but the yellow of his eyes had swallowed the green.

“I have no desire to die like my little brother,” I said.

“He drowned?”

“He took his own life,” I said as I stared at the pavestones in front of me, “rather than fight in the war that killed our older brother and my husband. He was barely 16.”

“You were married,” stated Kenn, his tone inquiring yet tinted with a note of surprise.

“For two months, before he went off to fight,” I said. “A month later, I was a widow. And now there’s no one left.”

“You’re still here.”

The angry scrapes on my hands glared accusingly at me. “I’ve come so close to death so many times. I’m beginning to think even it doesn’t want me.”

“Then perhaps there is something you still need to do.”

I snorted. “I’ve done everything that was ever asked of me. I have nothing left to give except my life, and I thought I had already given that. Yet here I am.”

“Jianna, why did you want to find the tunnel?” asked Kenn. “You know how dangerous it is outside these walls.”

I shrugged. “Just in case.”

“In case what?”

I bit my bottom lip, glad he couldn’t see my face. “In case you didn’t come back.”

Kenn shifted in the water to move beside me. “I would never abandon you here.”

The sincerity in his voice made me feel guilty for doubting him. I met his gaze.

His eyes darkened to green again. “Did something happen?”

“You were gone for so long,” I said. “I thought I must have offended you in some way.”

Where the River Runs – Part 1

I awoke to the day I died, which was more than I expected. Pungent blades of grass tickled my cheek. I inhaled its moist earthiness, but feared it would disappear and I would be back in the hell I had left behind—along with my life.

Steeled for disappointment, I rolled onto my back, but my eyes were met by blue sky. A small bird flew overhead, followed by another and then another. I sat up. There shouldn’t be birds. Not anymore. Had I truly found my way to heaven? Not only were there grass and clouds and birds, but tree leaves rippled in the breeze and wildflowers speckled the meadow in which I laid.

I had to be dead for I knew no place like this existed anymore. Not where I came from. Not where dust choked the atmosphere on the best of days and dimmed the sun even at midday. Not where we eked out a miserable existence trying to nurture what could not grow without water or light or insects.

This had to be heaven though I doubted my worthiness. Perhaps my last act had delivered me here. The dark cloud had rushed toward me behind a percussion of wind. I knew it would mean my death for there was nowhere to go. I had trapped myself outside the bunker to manually seal it, the remote locking mechanism fouled by the constant dust. I knew the price. My life was the only thing I had left to lose, unlike those huddled inside.

And yet I was alive and unhurt. If the bunker or the scorched earth ever existed here, both were now gone, hidden perhaps by the life around me.

Wood snapped with ominous volume from the nearest stand of trees. A flock of the birds erupted into the sky and a lone deer bolted into the clearing soon after. My inner voice screamed at me to flee from anything that would approach with such disregard. I resisted until a motley group of animals burst through the tree line. They were larger than any animal should be, and their eyes held an eerie, cruel intelligence that told me their intentions were no more admirable than those who had killed me the first time. I ran.

I managed to stay ahead of them, but just. I dodged and darted between trees, not unlike the deer, and with the same urgency. The same fear. A downward slope sped my feet until it leveled out at a wide river. My frayed skirt floated on the water’s surface as I waded in. The river was too swift for me to cross or swim, but I desperately hoped my pursuers would fear it for the same reason. I was wrong. They stepped into the water, forcing me deeper into the grip of the current where something slid against my leg. It occurred to me then that, unlike the dead rivers I knew, this one might be home to creatures far more dangerous than the animals. I prayed the river would take me first.

Instead, the lengthy, undulating body of a serpent surged toward the animals. They fled as if water had turned caustic. The serpent’s bone-pale body coiled back on itself in the shallows as it raised its horned head above the water to survey the prey banished to the shore. And then it spoke.

“If you wish to live, you must come with me.”

The serpent retreated back toward me. As it did so, the animals waded into the water again.

I hesitated.

“Hurry,” urged the serpent as it circled me in the water.

I grabbed the horns on either side of its head and dragged myself onto its ridged back, my legs hugging its sides as it surged forward with the river current. The animals were not so easily deterred. They raced along the shoreline, but the serpent easily out-paced them. The land soon fell away as the river emptied into a broad bay.

“You need to take a deep breath and hold on tightly,” said the serpent, looking back at me. “Can you do that?”

Beast and the Beauties – Part 2

Winter was long that year. The snows piled high around the outside walls, shutting in the broken houses out front so that only the thatch showed, piling nearly a man’s height on top of the walls before tilting and falling inward, to leave little melting patches in the summer garden. Ice lashed the trees and cracked their limbs, and sleet drove against the locked front gates. Nobody traveled, and even in the forest, the animals stayed in their dens, huddled and freezing.

Winter was long, but the Beast was glad, for every snowfall lengthened the time Cecilia stayed in his company. He liked that. It mattered nothing to him that he must eat alone and quickly, gulping down his meat and lapping up his drink, away from the dining room and at late and early hours. It mattered nothing that he must stay hidden, walking silently and standing at the ends of halls and huddling outside doorways to speak. It mattered nothing that Cecilia knew little of lords’ affairs, and nothing of government, and spoke only from the ignorant view of a land-worker. All that mattered, to the Beast, was that she was here, and that she walked in his halls and spoke to him.

She still fairly lived outside in the gardens. Early in the enchanted gardens’ Spring, Cecilia went out to each of the rose-bushes and gathered the dried, curling-brown hips. She returned to the house and cracked them open, piling the seeds by color, and the next week she dug up several long troughs of earth in a square, in a grassy area west of the house, away from the main gardens. The Beast watched bemusedly, and asked her what she did, but Cecilia only smiled and said, “watch.” So the Beast watched as she finally finished, and then as she went around, rose seeds in one hand, dipping down to push them into the ground and push earth over them. She planted the whole square with rose seeds, and when she finished she stood, and wiped her hands, and said, “now we wait.”

They waited, and as the garden was enchanted, it took only a week for the first sprouts to show. Cecilia went out every day to look, and she brought out water, and tobacco-juice to kill the aphids, and asked the Beast to send the servants with fertilizer, that she spread thinly around all the sprouts.

They waited another week and the sprouts were knee-high. Another week and they were up to Cecilia’s hip. She brought out long thin branches she had whittled and stuck them in the earth between certain blooms, and curled the vining roses’ stems about them; she had the servants bring a stone bench and place it inside the square, and there she sat nearly every day after, working her stitching or tending to the roses. The Beast could not come close – there was nothing nearby to hide behind – but he lurked by the castle’s wall and spoke across to Cecilia, and in the evenings when she went in, he had the servants bring torches while he lay on the stone bench and surveyed her garden.

Beast and the Beauties – Part 1

In a prosperous country where fairies and men still lived beside one another, there was once a king who had three sons. The two older ones were everything a king could want in princes: upright, diligent, attentive to their duties, and honorable in every way. The oldest was set to inherit, the middle to be a great duke and adviser to the first, and the king was in every way satisfied with them.

But the youngest, oh, the youngest! The king had tried to have him raised in the same manner as the elder two, but something had gone terribly wrong, and the youngest prince was not at all like his brothers. He was diligent, so far as it suited him – but the moment he tired of study, nothing could induce him to remain sitting, and he ran wild about the palace. He had the semblances of honor when in court – but when not under the king’s eye he broke his promises, insulted the character of others, and showed himself to lack integrity. He was impatient with both man and beast, striking his servants and his animals when they did not obey him exactly, and he was discourteous in both speech and manner. Worst, he was ungenerous, and though the king provided him with any manner of riches, he hoarded them jealously, and would not part with a single golden cup of it.

This distressing behavior continued for years, and worsened as the prince grew. His older brothers looked on in concern, and the king as well, for how could he, in good conscience, trust the rule of any part of his kingdom to such a prince?

The queen, though, had a plan. She was of a mixed line, her mother being fairy and her father being human, and so in her blood ran the fair folk’s love for pure and perfect justice. The prince’s failings had long rankled her inhuman side, and she thought perhaps to test the prince, and if he failed, to teach him a harsh lesson.

So she explained her plan to the king, and he agreed reluctantly, for he did not want his son to fail. That autumn he sent the young prince to a remote castle, with instructions to care for the lands surrounding, and to guide the people through the winter. It was a tall order, but the elder two princes had been doing such things for years, and the youngest prince had clamored long that it should be his turn, too. The prince was delighted at the appointment and left without even a goodbye to his family.

The queen waited a fortnight. Then, one day, she called on her fairy blood and transformed herself into an old, old woman, and went to the young prince’s lands to see how they fared.

Well, it was just finishing up harvest, and so they did not fare too poorly. The people were still gathering their grains and storing them, milling them, and preparing for the winter. There was some little complaint that the prince rarely heard their charges, and dispensed justice indifferently. Very well, the queen thought to herself, and went to see the prince.

She petitioned at the door, calling herself a traveler and hoping for a place to stay. She waited in the courtyard for perhaps an hour before servants led her to the kitchens and gave her a meager bowl of soup and a crust off a two-day-old loaf, then told her to sleep in the corner. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was asked.

And the next morning the queen left, and went home, and told the king what she had found.

A month later, as winter was properly coming on and the trees were losing the last of their leaves, she changed herself again, and went again to the prince’s lands.

Now, the people were discontent, for there was less grain left from the harvest than they had hoped: the prince had taxed them highly, just before winter, and kept his own stores full while the people outside could do nothing but hope there would be enough to last winter through. He listened still more rarely to the cases put before him; people petitioned him and waited hours before admittance, where, if they were allowed speech, their charges were dispensed with quickly and sharply, with no consideration of the actual case. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.

She waited long at the door before finally being admitted to the courtyard, where she saw servants sitting about and talking, or sleeping, and a very few running frantically to their actual tasks. She waited another long while before being admitted to the kitchens, handed a five-day-old crust, and then being ordered to the stables to sleep. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was told. The next morning the queen left. She went home, and told the king in anger of what she had found.

A long, cold month later, she changed again, and went again to visit the prince.
This time it was hard midwinter, and the people suffered. The prince had levied a second tax – smaller, certainly, than the first, but enough to keep himself in comfort and his kitchens full. He never heard petitions now; the mayor returned from the castle with edicts, and people complained in taverns about the prince’s disinterest and his gluttonous manner. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.

She was not admitted. No one stood at the back gate, and, finally, with a bit of magic, she let herself in, and wandered the courtyard. The servants lounged in the stables or stood about the kitchen, talking or playing at dice and cards. Finally one shouted to the others – where had this old woman come from?

Autumn in the Woods

Lonely, the ghost of Autumn leaned against her tree and stretched her legs along the edge of her grave. A breeze sipped uselessly at her warmth, though she still tucked her arms into her dress. Her bones clawed from the earth, brown with the rot of years. Autumn envied them. Her eleven years remained untouched by the passage of time.

She prayed most nights, when the stars were out and the animals scuttled by in small packs. In the beginning she prayed for life. Then, as the years rolled by and she began to know the animals by name, she prayed only for a friend. She prayed for anyone to know she was there beside the tree. Anyone other than the devil-man who had put her there.

That October day, with her arms tucked in her dress and her eyes scanning the fogged horizon, a boy answered her prayers. At first she thought he was the devil-man, but his feet fell lightly and without malice. She dared to peek around the tree and saw that he was young, her own age at most. He had scraggly brown hair and boots that looked too big for his feet. He had red lips that looked pretty in the setting sun.

The boy saw her and Autumn was very nervous. She stepped timidly around the tree, her hands clasped at her waist. She wished that she could change her clothes. Her dress was tattered, her flesh grimy with dirt. Her hair hung in a mess of knots and bugs.

“Hello,” said the boy.

Autumn had not spoken in many years. “Hu-low,” she managed.

The boy stared at her, scrutinizing. He wore a striped shirt and torn jeans and had a long stick in his hands. “Are you lost?” he asked.

“No,” she said curtly. “Are you?”

“I’ve got a compass,” he said. He showed her his compass.

Autumn stepped softly toward him, but not so far from the tree that the shadows would come.

“I heard you crying,” said the boy.

“Oh.”

He went to her, swishing his stick high and low. Up above, a squirrel scurried along a branch. “Why are your clothes so dirty.”

“Because I live in the woods.”

The boy smiled. “Nice place to live. Do you get cold at night?”

“Usually not.”

He extended a hand. “My name’s Davie.”

Autumn liked his name and politely told him so as they shook hands. Dirt crunched out when their palms met.

“It’s really David,” he said. “But I like Davie better.”

“Me too.” She pushed her hair behind her ears. “Would you like to sit with me?”

Davie hesitated and then leaned upon his stick. “Are you sure you aren’t lost? I live just outside the woods.” He pointed into the distance. “You can’t see it from here, but off that way.”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Davie looked at her doubtfully, and Autumn feared he might leave.

“Please, stay,” she said hurriedly. “Just for a few minutes?”

A Place for Lost Things

Empty farmland and the occasional rambler: that’s the usual view from my bedroom window of a weekend. That’s why I noticed her; even wrapped up in a thick winter coat and a daft purple bobble hat, the way she moved dragged me to the window to get a better look. She was patting her coat and repeatedly checking the pockets. I knew that dance. I grabbed my own coat and went out to be of assistance. She looked up. When she smiled I realised she was quite a bit younger than me. Hound-on-the-prowl to dirty-pervert in a heartbeat.

“Saw you from my window,” I said. “Over at the farmhouse. You lost something?” I kept my distance so not to worry her.

She was on her knees scrabbling about in the grass at the foot of the stile marking the start of the Meriden-Blythe footpath. “Yes,” she said. “I think I dropped some keys around here.” There was a trace of something local in her voice, it bubbled beneath a dominant Kent accent.

Her car was parked up on the opposite embankment, the driver’s door open into the road. “Shall I shut that for you?” I asked. “There’s not much traffic comes through here but what does comes hurtling through like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Thank you,” she said.

I went over and when it slammed shut I said: “Wouldn’t want you damaging your car and losing your keys now.”

I climbed over the stile and looked in the long grass clumped there, crouching so as not to get my knees dirty. “Am I looking in the right place?”

She looked up at me and shrugged with her eyebrows. “I opened the car with them when I got back from my walk so they can’t be far. They must have fallen. Honestly, I’m not normally like this. I’m usually the one shaking their head and tutting at other people losing—”

“Don’t blame yourself; things are always wandering off around here. I’ve seen people before doing just what you’re doing. Patting themselves down and all that.”

She laughed politely. She struck me as the sort that maybe did lots politely.

“I’m not even joking either,” I said. “The bloke that used to live in the house across from me–”

“The white cottage?” she asked.

“That’s it. He used to call round here the Birch Lane Triangle. His stuff was always going walkabout.”

“There’s a lot of space around to here to lose things in,” she said. And then added: “It’s so lovely.”

“Two miles either side of us and I’m the only one living here at the moment,” I said.

“No one’s in the white cottage?”

“Not at the moment. Not since Rog went.”

“Rog who loses things.”

“That’s the fella.” I shuffled along a bit to look in another bit of grass, moving like some sort of man-crab.

“Have you ever lost anything in the Birch Lane triangle,” she asked.

“Only my heart and soul,” I said. “But that’s divorce for you.”

Another laugh from her: polite.

“No, seriously,” I said. “I don’t have enough stuff to lose. I’m only renting that place up there while I get on my feet. What I’ve got is all in a garage down in…” I shut myself up. “Don’t worry, we’ll find them. Rog used to say things always turned up eventually.”

“I hope he’s right,” she said, and we carried on the search in silence.

Felt like ten minutes had gone by when she said: “I wish I’d brought my gloves today.” She blew hot air into her cupped hands.

“You cold?” I asked. It was a stupid question. My hands were already numb. Not expecting a yes, I asked: “Do you want a cup of tea or something? My kitchen’s just there and maybe we can warm up and come back out in a bit.”

“Yeah, go on then.” I can’t say for certain, but it didn’t sound like she was just being polite.

We didn’t talk on the short walk to my place; I might’ve believed she wasn’t standing next to me at all.

Trying to be Happy

The veranda steps groaned as the movers dragged our things into our newly-purchased, sprawling, dilapidated house. I stood in the shade by the car, drained by the heat. My head throbbed, my feet ached, and I felt fat, sweaty, and resentful. The baby kicked, and I glared down at my distended stomach. I wished I was back home, with air conditioning and a cold cocktail.

John rushed back and forth, giving instructions and grinning like an idiot.

I took a long drink from my water bottle. It was blood-warm.

Motion fluttered in an upstairs window. A teenage girl with dark, elaborately curled hair frowned down at me. She was wearing a filmy, white dress that seemed to flow into the thin curtains. Her eyes met mine. She mouthed something–I’ve never been much of a lip reader–then she vanished.

Chills cut down my sweaty back, and I dropped my water bottle.

John was at my side in an instant. “What’s wrong, Donna?” he asked.

A moment ago, I would have given him a list. “N–Nothing,” I stammered. “Just my imagination playing tricks on me.”

He kissed my forehead and laid a hand over my belly. “Maybe you should sit down. I had them put your rocking chair on the porch. I’ll get you some more water.”

He filled my bottle from the tap. It was only a little cooler, and it tasted like iron.