The watcher was back, an unseen presence that sent prickles of warning racing across Eilish’s skin. The horse fidgeted and snatched at the bit until Eilish soothed her with a hand on her neck.
‘Easy, Lady. It’s just me being silly.’ She glanced at her wristwatch and turned for home with a slight shiver.
The girl had the look of his Eithne: creases at the corners of eyes that easily smiled, and the toss of a head that cared not for convention. The watcher’s earth-chained spirit had felt no warmth or cold for three hundred years, but loneliness? Yes, he felt that.
On the evening it began, the Internet was acting strangely. Backgrounds were darker. Icons jittered nervously. Response was slow, like a plodding zombie. Judy could barely read the latest inspirational and politically charged memes from her Facebook “friends.” Feeling out of touch with the world, she reluctantly reached for the shutdown button. That’s when she received the first tweet.
It was a simple message from her old friend Molly: “I’m coming to see you, Judy.”
Normally this would delight her. Molly was one of her dearest and oldest friends. The problem was Molly had passed away over three months ago. She had actually seen Molly in the casket.
Admittedly Judy was a Twitter novice. She did not fully understand all the ins and outs of the ‘Twitterverse’. So when she received this tweet, she was not initially concerned.
At first she was confused. Could old tweets hang around and get recycled from time to time? Maybe it was a Twitter glitch. Then she grew gradually more disturbed and kicked herself for not shutting down her laptop sooner. Now she would have to go to bed with that chilling message haunting her thoughts. How was she going to sleep?
Captain Dunstan heard the footsteps approaching his cell. He eased himself off his prison cot and rubbed his forehead. A prison guard stopped outside and opened the cell door. A priest entered, followed by a tall man in black robes who carried a thick scroll in his hands. Captain Dunstan almost laughed, but decided he hadn’t the energy to do so. “My sins?” he asked, nodding towards the scroll. “You sure it’s thick enough?”
The tall man didn’t answer. The priest held out his hand towards the captain. A bracelet of prayer beads dangled from the priest’s fingers. Dunstan shook his head.
The priest spoke softly. “Take them my son. They shall be a comfort to you.”
Dunstan glanced at the priest’s face, then down at the beads. There was little point in offending a man of the cloth. He gave a shrug and took the beads. “Thank you,” he murmured.
The priest nodded, made a Sign of the Hand. “Use each bead, for each question,” he said. He gave a curt bow and exited the cell. Dunstan watched him leave. What questions? And where were his last rites? Was he to die without a blessing?
“Are you ready, prisoner?” The tall man asked, unfurling the scroll.
We found her on the shore, seaweed braided in her hair. A little bundle of a girl, curled up so small she could fit inside an oversized tackle box.
“What should we do with her?” My older brother Dwayne stared at me, his eyes wide and pale as the moon.
“How should I know?” I asked, and scowled at the sea. After all, it was responsible for bringing her to us. The sea was always coughing up strange treasures. A tangle of barnacles. Cruise ship trash. Seashells as luminous as pearls. A girl must be the newest offering.
I sighed and gazed at the low clouds. It was almost evening. The tides pooled around our feet until it looked like we didn’t have feet anymore. Just legs cut off at the ankles with a solid brick of water as our foundation. We should go. Dwayne and I both knew that, but we didn’t move. We only watched as the still-sleeping girl floated, like a buoy in deep waves.
“How does she do that?” Dwayne blinked in the saltwater mist. “Sarah, how does she do that?”
He sat and watched the sun set. It was beautiful, he thought, in spite of how apprehensive he felt about what was bound to happen when night fell.
“You chose this,” he whispered. “You want this.”
A wolf howled from the valley below and he shivered and pulled his suit jacket tighter around himself. “You chose this,” he said again, and he waited.
Bored of living? Afraid to die? Turn your back on both! Choose immortality…
“Ben, why do you read that stuff?” Honey asked, peering over his shoulder.
Ben folded up the newsletter quickly and sipped at his tea. “I wasn’t reading anything,” he said. Then, “It’s interesting.”
I first saw Daggart in some hick bar in Utah, slutty girls pawing over him, clamouring for attention. He didn’t look so special. He was grizzled, old. Overcoat like a cut-price Clint Eastwood, and he even wore a flea-bitten old cowboy hat. What a joke. I shook my head in disgust and threw some cheap whiskey down my throat. One of his groupies tore herself away from him and made her away to the bar, ordering a vodka, even cheaper than the whiskey.
“Hey pretty,” I said. “Who’s the sugar daddy?”
She looked at me as if I were something she’d scraped off her shoe, and took her vodka away. I grunted. Who was I kidding? Why would a sweet thing like her be interested in a dried up old prune like me? Or like him, for that matter? He was even older’n I was.
I musta had too much of that whiskey but when he broke from the cabal I followed him to the john. Up close I could smell him; iron and old meat. He was shaking his pecker off when I finally asked him, “So come on, pal, what’s your secret?”
Dark blood flowed into the sand, a sluggish trail from the throat of a man in desert clothing. An unforgiving sun blazed in the sky, scavenger birds silhouetted as they circled over the body. Sitting her horse at the top of a dune, Iriyan suspected a trap, although nothing moved all around and the horse didn’t seem anxious. She had learned to trust him — his instincts had prevented her from riding into an ambush more than once.
With a sigh, she touched her heel to the big stallion and he plunged downhill, sliding on his rump. The man didn’t move, but blood flowed, so surely life had not yet fled. With a snort to rid himself of sand in his nostrils, the horse halted near the body and Iriyan slid to the ground to kneel by the injured man’s side.
His grasp on life was tenuous. Someone had done a poor job of slitting his throat, but by rights he should be dead. Nothing I can do for him, she thought. No point in wasting water. As she stood, his eyes snapped open, trapping her with the intensity of his stare.
“Princess.” The word came on a breath from between cracked lips. She paused. No one here knew who she was.
At night, it’s almost silent. Just the rustling of the leaves, and the odd yip of a fox. The bats fly low, close to the water, mopping up moths, skimming the air.
In the day, it’s different. Still quiet, still peaceful, but there are women in the pool of water. They don’t see me, in the water with them. They feel me sometimes, and they think its weeds, twisting against them. But they never see me. Not in the water, and not out of it either. They tell me their secrets and sometimes, just sometimes, I listen very closely.
What sort of secrets? The sort you only tell another woman, here in the pond, separate from the world and guarded by me. And those secrets – they’ve barely changed, all through the years. Secret pregnancies, illnesses they’re too scared to face, relationship problems. Their fears. Mostly, I listen and the stories don’t touch me. Mostly, I’ve heard them all before and I know that come the next time Sandra or Jess come back to the pond, it will all be fixed. The money will have been paid, or the fight made up, and they’ll splash and shout and make the air tingle with happiness.
I pulled the hood over my face as the guards rode past for the third time. Children wailed as the group of us migrated away from the burning village. Fury raged through my veins, but I tried to show myself as nothing more than a cowering villager sauntering on to look for shelter somewhere else.
I saw Franklin’s wife ahead and shuddered as I remembered her husband standing definitely between the king’s guards and the town. He lost his head for the trouble. Guilt was a deep burden and I’ve felt a lot of it over the past ten years; ten years since I’d left; ten years since I left him behind.
Henry walked over to me, his eyes were red and his hand shook as he spoke. “What are we going to do Harold? Everything we’ve built is gone…our homes…”
I knew nothing I said would comfort my friend so I just put my hand on his shoulder as we walked. After a while, I gave his arm a squeeze and stopped walking. It was time. I felt the old familiar weight of my scabbard against my leg, and even though it had been years since I’d worn it, I still practised out of sight every week.
Once the group had passed by me, I turned west. I could almost see the king’s castle spire in the distance.
* Winner of the 2015 Story of the Year Award *
George found the rip in the fabric of space on a Thursday morning, some time after elevenses. He leant over to throw away his empty packet of rich tea biscuits and there it was, a tiny hole hanging in the air behind the long-dead hydrangea the HR people had put in his cubicle in an attempt to pretty up the place.
After a quick look around, George cautiously stuck the tip of a pencil in the hole. The pencil slid in halfway, the tip disappearing into thin air. George left the pencil hanging there and went back to work on the Masterson report, after carefully moving the hydrangea a little to disguise the hanging pencil.
Next day, the rip had torn a little wider and the pencil had disappeared. George bent over and peered into the tear. It was now wide enough to see into. On the other side he saw white sand and gentle waves of the clearest, aquamarine blue. The sun shone and trees rustled softly on a distant hilltop. The pencil, disturbed by the growing hole in the fabric of space, lay on the sand.
George looked sideways out of his cubicle, to where he could catch the barest glimpse of the grey office block across the street. The hum of London traffic was audible even above the ordinary office noises. From the rip, a soft breeze blew and the salty tang of the sea beckoned. Continue reading