August 8, 2016 § Leave a comment
“When wakens the serpent?”
The old man asks
No word returns
From he who basks.
“When wakens the serpent?”
A whisper, low
“I woke within you
June 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
Speak not to us the deeds of men
Who come and go and come again.
Such deeds are naught but folly all
Which rise ‘pon pride and promptly fall.
When men are gone, just scattered dust
We’ll count spring’s green and autumn’s rust
Till ink doth dry on Aeon’s pen.
Speak not to us the deeds of men.
March 13, 2016 § Leave a comment
Not long ago, in a village not far away, a little girl was born to a farmer and his wife. She was the finest product of their meagre farm and grew unlike any crop of theirs had done before. The sun and moon themselves counted out her years, as she ran through field and forest and furrow. The farmer used to chase her, a mock-crown of ivy on his head and laughter in his throat, but always she would dart away from his outstretched arms. The farmer’s wife looked up from her tasks, sharpening tools or mending a cloak, and smiled to see them silhouetted in the evening’s light.
Yet one day, as crisp and bright as could be hoped for, the farmer stopped chasing his daughter and she looked back to see that a man much thinner than she remembered was waiting for her. “Father,” she called. “What is wrong? Why do you not chase me as you used to?” The farmer smiled quietly before replying in a voice like dust. “I am old now, daughter, and I have chased you as far as I can. My breath is spent. Go home to your mother, dear child, and I will rest here a while.” With that he rested and moved no more.
So the girl left her father and ran back to their little cottage, where a woman much thinner than she remembered was waiting for her. “Mother,” the girl called. “What is wrong? Why do you not sharpen our tools as you used to?” The farmer’s wife smiled quietly before replying in a voice like smoke. “I am old now, daughter, and I have sharpened as much as I can. My strength is spent. Go out into the wide world, dear child, and I will rest here a while.” With that she rested and moved no more.
So the girl left her mother and ran to the nearest town, her legs strong from years of running with her father, and she worked hard, her hands nimble from years of working with her mother. One day she had a husband, and later a daughter, and she gave life as it had been given to her. One day, a day as crisp and bright as could be hoped for, she found that she had given as much life as she could and she smiled quietly to herself. With that she rested and moved no more.
Death is not a skeleton, not a withered body lying in the cold ground. Death is not the cough of lungs grown dry or the creak of bones grown stiff. These are the products of Life, because Life is always giving and gives until the very end. Death is a miser who takes everything, gives nothing.
Death is a miser and misers are to be pitied, not feared.
“I shall take the very breath from thine breast,” sayeth Death. “Thou canst not take what hast been freely given,” sayeth Life.
January 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
An enlightening epistle for younger folk
by Pietr Handle-Tune
In a place far away and a time long ago
There once lay a wood, a dark place of woe.
And deep in this wood, in a large boulder’s lee
Lay a twisted, dejected and broken old tree.
The creatures that lived in the forest were strong
But even they wouldn’t stay here very long
For oft, when the moon shone but dim in the night,
From the tree came a howl that caused everyone fright.
A small, choking whisper would rustle the leaves,
Then sobbing would break out in dry, gasping heaves.
Those of the forest all knew what would come
And any nearby would break out in a run.
For the sobbing would rise to awful great keening
And soon escalate to an unearthly screaming.
In their dens the small creatures would wrinkle their brow
And ponder what horror could make such a row.
But one stormy night, filled with wind and with rain
A little bright light into this darkness came
A pixie, the smallest of all magical folk,
Grew ever so worried as the tempest awoke.
“My wings are too frail,” she muttered in fright.
“I must find somewhere close to hide for the night”.
And just as these worrisome words were spoken
A gust made the sprite fear its wings would be broken.
She struggled, although she knew she was lost,
And wondered what price this journey would cost.
The darkness grew deeper, she struggled to see
And in her great haste she flew into a tree!
Dazed by the impact the sprite’s vision blurred
And she remained unaware that something had stirred
For this was not any old, everyday tree
But was twisted, dejected and broken…and mean!
For the sprite, in its haste through the gathering dark
Had crashed straight into this fearful tree’s bark
Frightened she sat at the root of a bough
And hid from the rain as the branch would allow.
With her head in her hands the world slowly stopped spinning
And the gloom in her eyes was already thinning
But strangely, and to her increasing distress,
The noise in her ears was becoming no less
There’d once been a ringing, there now was a howling
Which rapidly turned to a horrible yowling
The sprite was unsure what the sound’s source could be
For surely, she thought, it could not be the tree!
But she started in fright and flapped her bruised wings
As she heard what she thought was a horrible thing
For though the tree looked so creepy and sly
Her heart felt a pang as it started to cry!
“Oh woe,” cried a voice as sad as can be
“Oh why will no-one visit me in my tree?”
To the pixie, the voice was a deep, grumbly roar
And she held tight to the tree lest she fall to the floor.
The gruff voice continued to wail and to weep
Until silent the pixie could no longer keep.
“Oh tree,” she quavered as loud as she could
“What is this sadness so deep in your wood?”
But the storm was too loud and the pixie too small
Her little voice could be heard not at all.
The voice from the tree continued to screech
And the pixie wept too as she heard this poor speech
“I’m damp and I’m cramped, I’m tired and I’m cold
Will I have no friends before I grow old?
Why is it that this wretched fate falls on me
To be a poor thing stuck here in this tree?”
The pixie stopped short and wiped off her tears
To consider the words that had entered her ears.
“Stuck here in this tree”, she thought with a frown
“Maybe the tree is not making this sound?
Could it be that the old tree is hollow
And something inside is trapped in its sorrow?”
She struggled to stand, as her bruises allowed
And crept ‘long the branch with her head lowly bowed.
The wind still was raging around her frail form
And her gossamer wings weren’t much use ‘gainst the storm
But she followed the sound of the voice as it wept
And soon to the trunk she had finally crept.
She pressed her small ear to the tree’s woody skin
And could quite clearly hear the laments within.
“If the tree’s hollow core above me was capped
Then my strength by the rain would not have been sapped!”
She knocked on the tree though without result
But a sight through the gloom caused her to exult.
A little way distant through the wind and the murk
A hole in the bark could be seen to lurk.
“If I could fit, if it’s suitably wide,
I could get in the tree and see what’s inside.”
With that decision, in her throat sat a lump
As she knew that she had no choice but to jump.
Though she’d practiced her flying and was quite adept
A shadow of fear wrapped her as she leapt.
Her wings were still painful, would not properly beat
And she doubted the choice to perform this crazed feat.
The storm threw her here and there with distain
And quickly her strength had started to wane
But pixies are magic, and blessed with good luck
So soon through the hole she had narrowly ducked.
Inside the trunk she was free from the storm
But her wings screamed of pain and her clothing was torn.
She gritted her teeth, floated in the gloom
The voice from below she could hear as a boom
“How could I be forced to call this my home?
It’s a terrible thing to be so alone!”
The pixie was scared and trembled in fear
But just had to let the voice know she was here.
She coughed and began as loud as she could
“Be lonely no more, poor creature of wood.
I’ve found you in here, to whatever end,
And should you desire it then I’ll be your friend.”
“What torment is this?” the creature replied,
“Your offer of friendship is nought but a lie!”
The voice then fell silent and, proving her fears,
The pixie could hear the soft splashing of tears.
“No, I am real and so is my pledge
I swear by the Root and the Branch of my Hedge”
So, tired as she was by the toils of the hour,
She squeezed shut her eyes and summoned her power
She puffed out her cheeks and thought of things bright
Until she was surrounded by sweet, glowing light.
And wrapped as she was in the vibrant, white glow
She saw two damp eyes look up from below.
Below those eyes was a sharp, pointed nose
Rubbed raw and sniffling from a lifetime of woes
The ears that stood out from a green, hairless head
Were ragged and torn and swollen and red
But a faint smile appeared on the wide, toothy maw
And the small pixie gasped at the creature she saw
The ears and the nose, the teeth and the grin
She quickly realised she’d found a goblin!
Now pixies and goblins have never been friends
And any attempts have met messy ends
But the pixie looked deep into those glowing eyes
And felt nought but pity, to her great surprise.
She smiled at the goblin and began to speak
“I hear your words of the friendship you seek.
My name is Blossom of the Hawthorne Hedge clan
And I’ll be your friend, as long as I can.”
The goblin’s grin widened but soon dropped away
“My name is Grub and I live here all day.
I live in this tree and sit in this muck,
All the day long just cursing my luck.
There’s nobody here to help me or care
My back’s always aching. I’m losing my hair.”
His eyes started watering, such were his woes
And soon a small tear had dripped from his nose.
“Don’t cry, Master Grub” began the pixie
“What aid I can offer we soon shall see.”
She pledged she would offer what help that she that could
But knew that, at magic, she wasn’t that good.
Back in the Hedge she’d once caused disaster
By setting fire to the hair of her master!
If that wasn’t a bad enough error to make
She’d really been trying to create a cake!
But when she looked down at the goblin’s distress
She had no doubt that she must try her best.
“You’re cold, I can see, and that won’t help your back.
It’s due to the carpet, or rather the lack.”
So, closing her eyes and spreading her hands
She called on the goodness of her verdant lands.
So she thought of plants, the reap and the sow
And the goblin looked shocked as grass grew from below!
Soon there was lawn where once there’d been muck
And the goblin was doubting his sight and his luck
The pixie breathed deeply and swayed in the air
She was so tired yet Grub had no hair.
Now the magic of fairies is a powerful force
But it can’t start a thing once it’s run its full course.
Blossom was stumped and quite close to tears
Until her bright eyes spied the goblin’s large ears.
It put in her head a quite cunning thought
And she delved in her mind for the thing that she sought
Soon high in the tree, in the gloomiest dark
There now came the glow of a tiny, bright spark
It slowly descended towards the two friends
An object for poor Grub’s hair problems to mend
On the shocked goblin’s head a wonder was sat.
A small, but quite cosy, red bobblehat!
“Oh wonder! Oh joy!” said Grub as he jigged
“You’re small in your body but your heart is big.
These things you have given, the grass and the hat,
Have cheered me up so I don’t know where I’m at!
But Blossom, my friend…oh, I’m ashamed to ask
Could I ask you to do me just one more small task?”
Poor Blossom was shattered, her wings had grown pale,
But how could she now this poor fellow fail?
She nodded and gathered what strength that she had
She’d try her hardest, stop Grub being sad.
Grub saw her reply and jumped up with glee
“The one thing I want is the sunlight to see
The wind in my ears and the rain on my face.
I would sore like some way to escape this place.”
Blossom then knew that she must do this thing
But she couldn’t lift Grub with her tiny wings.
How could Grub leave this wooden trap?
With consternation she made her wings flap
She couldn’t lift him to the hole she had used
And her brow wrinkled deep as the problem was mused
Then in her mind the answer she saw
What’s needed here was quite simply a door.
But no door was there, nor portal or gate.
So some kind of exit she must create.
She floated down close to the base of the tree
And strained her tired eyes so that she could see
She needed a hole, some knot or small crack
Something that would yield to her magic attack
She couldn’t just put a hole in the bark
The wrongness of that was clearly quite stark
But if she could find the right place to knock
She could ask it to open, to yield and unlock.
She found the place where she needed to stand
And on the rough bark she rested her hand.
She talked to the spirit that lived in the tree
A sort of faint cousin to our young pixie
The old tree was tired and almost no more
But the dryad convinced it to open a door
As Blossom stood still, closed eyes and bent back
Grub watched in awe as the bark cleanly cracked.
There was nothing outside but the wind and the rain
Yet Grub knew his luck was beginning to change.
He nervously stepped to the gap just now made
And his hat on his chest he gently laid.
He closed his eyes tight as he went through the door
And his rough, hairy feet touched the wood’s leafy floor
The rain washed his face, raised the hard weight of years
But couldn’t quite hide his cascading tears.
Yet Grub wasn’t sad but brimming with glee,
“I’m outside, and not stuck in my wretched damp tree!”
He danced and he capered, ran round and jumped
Until he saw Blossom and how she had slumped
She lay ‘gainst the bark of the goblin’s old house
And looked quite as frail as the tiniest mouse
Grub did dash over and took up her arm
“I hope my request’s not caused any harm?”
“No, Master Grub, I’m just a bit tired
and need to lie, quiet, for a while in my briar.
But I’m glad that you’re happy, so dance while you may.
I’ll come back and see how you are in a day.”
And with that she gave her tired wings a quick try
And lifted, unsteady, to the grey, stormy sky.
Little Grub watched her, put his hat on his head,
“I’ll look forward to that,” he quietly said.
The pixie returned early next morn
As the first rays of light were announcing the dawn
She flew in quite low as she came near the tree
And was suddenly shocked by what she could see
A little stone path led up to the door
And inside she could see fresh grass on the floor
Grub sat in a chair, stretched out and yawning
Above his head was a chestnut leaf awning.
He smiled as he saw wee Blossom arrive
“As you see, pixie friend, in this freedom I’ve thrived!
My tree is now cosy, I’ve worked hard all night
I hope you agree it’s no longer a fright.”
The smile on his face was enough for two
And Blossom soon found herself smiling too!
“I’ve brought fairy cakes and some apple wine
This treehouse is by far the best place to dine.”
Then they ate and they laughed and best friends became
So they did it the next day, and again and again
Grub’s house became known throughout the land,
Not as twisted or broken, but impressive and grand
Grub ignored the clamour, which he found a bore,
And sat ‘neath the leaf above his new door
He lived in the treehouse till the end of his time,
With Blossom, his pixie, and fine apple wine.
The moral hid here is quite plain to see
That many poor people are stuck in their trees.
And if you can help, if you possibly could,
It seems plain to me…if you can, then you should!
Pietr Handle-Tune, the celebrated children’s educator, is currently recorded as missing by his family and publisher. Handle-Tune was last seen preparing to leave on a fact-finding expedition to The Fen more two years ago and his absence is out of character.
Any information as to his current whereabouts or condition should be directed to the offices of the Benedictine Herald.
October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
There is a book, or so they say, that sits upon a lonely shelf.
Neither large nor small it goes all but unnoticed next to more important volumes as its cloth cover fades slowly from brown to green. Or maybe from green to brown. Maybe not fading at all. The ghost of silver embossment lingers on its spine, indecipherable. A commonplace book in a common place of books, with nothing to mark it out beyond a slight smell of damp.
Occasionally, curious fingers will pick the book up and absently ruffle the yellowing pages that fall open at random to reveal their contents; mediocre poetry or tedious inventories of belongings, rambling short stories or blocks of impenetrable legal text, descriptions of rain-streaked foreign shores or the simple musings of lifeless repetition. Each browser sees something different, yet equally banal, and each will sigh with disappointment before replacing the book and moving to the next. The book’s cover fades slightly more from brown to green. Or maybe from green to brown. The faint lettering on the spine is perhaps less clear than it used to be. Perhaps not.
More rarely, the book is plucked from its resting place by an inquisitive reader and opened eagerly at the first page. They read the publishing details, curiously blurred, and then the typesetting information (“Set in New Lethean, 11pt”). Their eyes settle on the opening lines and from then on their fate is sealed. As they read, they become thinner and the story of their life unwritten becomes yet another fragment of the book. The frustrated novelist, the list-maker, the writer of unheard songs. All of them stretch into lonely silence until they become so thin they disappear, another tale of the everyday added to the pages of the book’s collection. A tutting librarian finds the book days later, dropped on the floor, and dusts it down before replacing it on the shelf. Nobody notices that the spine’s lettering is now perhaps less faint, perhaps a brighter silver.
Of the book itself we know little more, beyond its existence. It is where books are, where books gather, but where that is could be anywhere. All we really know is that hook, the opening words that snare the curious or the unlucky. And those words are these:
“There is a book, or so they say, that sits upon a lonely shelf.”
October 8, 2015 § 2 Comments
They came down from the woods that night
those of frost, not firelight.
They snuffed out flame, snuffed out as well
the lives of those who quietly dwell
in towns and hamlets, farms and inns.
The places where mankind begins.
We’ve heard their whisperings in streams,
their faces only found in dreams.
Where masters older than our own
sit upon their oaken thrones.
Everyone they found, they slew
except a pair of children who
hiding underneath their bed
heard the woodfolk laugh. They said;
“Tremble not, we’ll leave you be.
Return this dawn to moss and tree.
Another night you’ll hear our song.
Years for you, for us not long.
As long as mankind bustles, thrives,
we’ll come to take your children’s lives.”
Prophecy-poem of the Northern Marches
January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
I went up to see him, like we all did, strapped into his swinging gibbet-cage on top of Dancers’ Hill. The thin, withered corpse naked but for a wrapping of black iron banding, its bald head angled back in a scream of agony – or of fury – with eyes plucked from the sockets, left hand hacked off at the wrist.
The left hand of Aux-Çevoires, the Alchemagos. The Poisoner of Melhaut, the Breathstealer, He-Who-Walks-In-Fog. The hand that I had seen only once, when he jabbed its discoloured fingers at my eyes before leaping through the stained glass of Our Lord Abiding’s rose window and down into the canal below.
So I went up to see him, like we all did, but I went at dusk when the night-mists begin to settle in the hollows and the sounds of the City are softer, distant. I went at dusk, to be alone.
I went at dusk, like a fool.
The walk is not long, but it is hard. Dancers’ Hill rises quickly from flat moorland on the far side of the Choke and its cover of thick gorse is left to run wild as a deterrent to the casually morbid. In the slow darkening of dusk, and as your breath begins to catch from effort, it feels as if your own life is ebbing away with every step of the climb. Yet suddenly, always suddenly, you are stood on the small tonsure of bare ground at the hill’s crown. Behind you the City’s lights glow amber and ignored. In front of you is the Dancing Master; the bent and blackened tree, impossibly ancient, that stretches out one arm to dangle the final home of the treacherous, the wickedly insane or the simply evil.
Aux-Çevoires was all of these so we hunted him down, across decades, until a time when the Dancing Master could offer him a lesson.
Nobody knows when he came to the City but it is likely that it was during, or sometime immediately before, the White Plague of AB412. Perhaps he was a young man then. Perhaps he has always been as old as he looked when I last saw him alive. Perhaps he was never even a man but simply a husk, animated by something unthinkable. Whatever he may have been, he was a murderer. A vampire, feeding off the fear of his victims.
The infamy of Melhaut is well-known; the bloated victims leaking and bursting as they staggered drunkenly in the streets; the escalating quarantine measures that couldn’t stop their screams echoing through the night; the very buildings themselves infected with malignancy, even all these years later. I remember hearing a shout go up and seeing the figure of a woman, still in the early stages but obviously lost to infection, run howling along the shallow incline of a gambrel roof. A Boxer took her with a shot from a trycklock and she burned as she fell into the streets.
Yes, Melhaut is well-known but Melhaut was a war and its atrocities on a scale that made them mercifully incomprehensible. It is the smaller crimes that make my throat burn with bile and wake me in my sleep; the candlemaker, almost suspiciously healthy in himself, whose corrupted sweat caused every 18th candle to gout yellow, choking fumes when lit; the mother who unwittingly killed her babies, driving herself into collapse as she tried to feed them more and yet more but ignorant of the fact that it was her own tainted milk that poisoned them; the sewerman, no longer aware of the difference between night and day, who went to work as the full moon rose and was found, reduced to a small pile of teeth, by the morning shift.
Yet the worst crime he ever committed was to kill the hope, the peace of mind, of thousands. The backstreet jack-a-knife can be avoided or struggled with. Hunger can be prevented with hard work or thrift. Even old age can be balanced against a life well-lived or the sight of a grandchild. When all this can be taken away on a whim, without reason, then life becomes meaningless. He killed many without lifting even a finger of his filth-stained hand.
So I went up to see him, like we all did, just to make sure that it was actually him, that it was finally over.
I looked up at him as I thought all this and realised that I’d been holding my breath. I let it out and with it came all the horror of the years gone by, all the faces pleading with me to save them when I couldn’t. I wept and howled, beating the cage with my fists until my strength left me and I fell to the ground, into blackness…
I awoke to cold seeping into my bones and a bright half-moon hanging high in the night sky, silhouetting the gibbet above me. Something tugged at my hair. A rat, no doubt, drawn by the smell of decomposition. I clutched at it, flinging it from me. Its claws raked out, leaving sharp lines of fire across my throat. I cursed it, I cursed the foolishness that had drawn me here and I cursed, as I had cursed so often before, whatever passed for the soul of Aux-Çevoires. I turned to spit but my throat was dry, hoarse with curses, so I simply glared up at the corpse.
And that is when I heard it. Under the whispering of a night-time breeze, under the creak of the settling gallows-tree, even under the distant murmurings of the slumbering City was a sound like dust falling on paper. I became silent, immobile and focusing every ounce of concentration on that sound. It became rhythmic, rising and falling like far-off waves. Like a memory of breathing.
Or of laughter.
Another sound, louder now and close by, made me spin around to see the vague smear of something crawling in the shadow of the Dancing Master. The rat I had flung into the darkness? No! Not the rat but a spider, bloated and dragging itself along the ground. Dragging itself out of the shadows and into the light…
I howled denial into the cold, uncaring night as the moonlight shone down on the horror that crept towards me. There had been no rat. There had been no spider. Crawling slowly, impossibly, in jerking movements and with fresh blood, the blood it had scratched from my throat, glistening on its talons was a blackened, distended hand.
The left hand of Aux-Çevoires.
I fled, crazed and unthinking, as the paper-thin laughter echoed in my mind. With no distinct direction to follow my limbs took me home, back into the City. I should have disappeared into the Fen, taken this death out to the monsters and abominations that haunt the horizon. But I did not, and now I am too weak to move. Fire fills my head and my eyes steam like coals. My lungs gurgle with every breath. My hands are bound tightly with cloth but still they swell and drip with thick, grey fluid. Soon I will no longer be able to hold this pen. Soon I will be dead.
I write this note as an apology. I caught the Alchemagos, brought him to trial and to punishment, but I am his final victim and, in being so, I continue his work. I will die. I will seep foul fluids into my clothing and belongings, tainting them irreparably. I will blossom spores into the air of this room that will waft through cracks and crevices, into the lungs of others. I will be found and will be removed, spreading the infection like the soft touch of autumn mist.
It is a mist that preludes a storm, ushered in from beyond death itself by the left hand of Aux-Çevoires.
Apparent final note and confession of Procurator-Medico Alnstein. Found amongst personal effects, post-mortem. Immediate quarantine procedures instigated on discovery. 1,203 related deaths confirmed as of time of report, including 57 officers and related auxiliaries. 721 further possibles. 3 Boxer units subsequently deemed inoperable or lost-in-operations.
Recommend noted area be sanctioned Red/Black immediate, full disassociation.