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
As a rule, George Paleologus hated the Christmas party. Pretending to like people whom he knew solely because they shared a workplace was loathsome. But this party was different, because, as far as he was concerned, the cause for celebration was not some carpenter’s birthday but his own promotion. Besides, he had a little business to finish off. It had only been four months since he joined HexBank, London’s foremost boutique bank for the magically inclined, and he was already executive vice warlock. At this rate, he’d be running it by next Christmas.
The floor numbers drifted by, until the lift reached the seventy-seventh storey and its doors opened. It was usually where they entertained idiot sorcerers with more money than sense, but on Christmas Eve it hosted HexBank’s festive frolics.
George stepped out of the lift and raised his hand in greeting to the three dozen other attendees. Most of them returned the gesture, and he made a mental note of those who did not. All were human, more or less, save Barry, the chief of security. A pair of deep gouge marks above the doorway betrayed where the minotaur had forgotten to duck sufficiently.
Chief Executive Warlock Julius Andronicus wandered over and handed him a glass of nectar.
“Thanks,” George said, taking a sip. “I’m surprised Barry’s here. Can’t say I’ve ever seen him before.”
Julius nodded. “Aye, he usually dwells in the security HQ, monitoring the cameras and eating intruders. Can’t stand the place myself, it’s a bloody labyrinth. Come on, I want to have a quick word.” Continue reading
It was 1983, and we were on a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. My buddy George and I drove the six hours from Dallas to the French Quarter in my – 76 Chevy Nova. We were excited to party it up in the streets now that we were finally twenty-one. I drove into town in the middle of the afternoon and it was hotter than we were expecting. I don’t recall much from that trip. Between the booze, and the fact it was thirty years ago, I only remember the heat…and the gypsy.
Her, I remember like it was yesterday. I’d stumbled into her tent and when I saw the elaborate set-up, I called George in to check it out. She sat at a round table and told me she would tell me my future. She was wearing a pink and orange dress, and bracelets; a lot of bracelets. I remember the sound they made when she moved her arms and still hear it sometimes when I close my eyes. Incense burned in the corner; the smell stuck in my nostrils.
She turned to me and told me it was ten dollars to know my future. I was a slightly twisted young man so I gave her ten bucks and asked if she could tell me when I was going to die instead. I swear the candles dimmed when I asked. Her eyes narrowed, and she told me it was a dark art, but for another fifteen she would tell us both how we were going to die. George shrugged and pulled out his wallet. We were a few beverages in at this point so this strange event had us snickering as she reached for my hands. Continue reading
Do you see that little star, just by that big, blinking one? Yes, I know the blinking thing is a plane, but there, right by it, see? So small, so lost in the sky. A new star. It was in the papers, you know? I tried to show them, it was proof… But there, now, they’ve made up their minds. I can’t blame them. I wouldn’t believe me, either.
They think I killed my child.
Leonie, that’s her name. My baby girl, my little star. She was only seven. I don’t know how old she is now. Do stars grow old? Do they count their age in light years? That was a joke. You can smile, you know. Doctors are allowed to smile, I think.
She had a thing for the moon, you see. Ever since she was a tiny babe. I would feed her in the rocker, pulled up to the window for the summer night’s breeze, and the moonlight would shine softly on her little head. And she would stop feeding and gaze up. Girl and moon, loving each other.
I thought it was sweet, then. I didn’t know the moon was poison, whispering sweet promises in my little one’s ears.
Waddling. That’s one of the things no one told me. I bet they were lying about everything else, too – that it wouldn’t hurt and an epidural is a piece of cake.
I followed Ken down the mall, and tried my damnedest not to look like a duck. And the whole time I was scanning for a café, or somewhere I could go to the loo. Because that’s the other thing no one tells you about being 30-odd weeks pregnant – you pee all the time. Honestly, one glass of water and I was in and out for an hour. So that’s what I was thinking – that it was going to hurt getting the baby out, no matter what anyone said, that I made ducks look sexy and that I really, really needed to find a loo soon. Those were my last normal thoughts. I wish they’d been bigger ones. More important. About love and Ken and looking ahead. About all the things I’m going to miss.
The explosion came from somewhere to the left of me – a bin, they reckoned, packed with plastic explosive and sharp, sharp nails. Designed to kill, and to maim. To cause chaos. They were never sure how much explosive; the figure on the media was a best guess based on how far the damage went, and how far through the air people were sent. Enough, I could tell them.
It hit me without a sound, a blast that took me off my feet and put me down against the plate window of a café I’d have earmarked for a loo if I’d seen it earlier. There was no pain, not then. Just a vacuum of shock and I-don’t-know-what-happened stunned, slow thoughts. Continue reading