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Friday Fiction

Image: New Old Stock http://nos.twnsnd.co/

Image: New Old Stock
http://nos.twnsnd.co/

The Narrow Path

I should have paid better heed; I know that, now. It’s hard, come harvest, to watch everything – children, livestock, land – and worry about a man, too. A man who should know better. A man who should have understood the danger.

But still. I should have been mindful.

I woke in the night, a cold wind trickling down my back.

‘Ger?’ I whispered, thinking maybe he was relieving himself. Or, I allowed myself to dream, tending to the baby. I rolled my eyes at the prospect. ‘Ger, where are you?’

I sat up. As I had been taught from early girlhood, I checked carefully before I put my feet on the floor. At first glance, nothing seemed wrong; the room was filled with moonlight, and all was quiet, but I blinked, and looked again. The silver glints in every corner told me They were here. Their eyes always gave Them away. Every shadow was a doorway, now. A million worlds overlapped with my tiny room, and I held my breath as I looked around.

‘Don’t touch my children,’ I said, and the only answer was a wave of sniggered laughter like an echoing whisper.

I felt my hair stirred with a breeze that was not there, and they were gone.

I ran to my children, but they slept in their cots and cradle, warm and peaceful and dream-filled, and then I knew.

I went to ask advice of the old women, who had lived many lives. Cross the stream closed-eyed, I was told, then follow the narrow path. Keep between the stones. The eldest of them all advised me to walk the path on my knees, but she knew even as she said it that I would refuse. Be prepared to be asked for more than you can give, daughter, she said. They do not like humans who come on the skin of their feet.

I left my children with my mother and set off. I could see the stream from the end of the village, and the path beyond, but I knew that meant nothing.

I could be gone for a week. A year. More.

I did as I had been told My eyes sealed shut as I stumbled across the stream. I clambered out onto the path, keeping my gaze fixed on the crooked tree. I walked between the stones.

From the fields all around I heard wailing. I heard my mother’s screams, and those of my children. I smelled burning. I did not turn, for They were everywhere, watching. Smiling.

A person stood in the shadows under the crooked tree, and I could not see his face. He had the height of my man, and the shoulder breadth. He had the scar on his left forearm, as like to Ger’s in every respect as to be the same.

‘Wife,’ he called. ‘Bring me home!’ He had Ger’s voice.

‘Tell me the names of our children,’ I called, and he did.

‘Tell me the date of our union,’ I called, and he did.

‘Tell me,’ I called, ‘the colour of my kirtle.’ He did, and it was then I knew my man was dead.

I turned from him and began the journey home, his voice clawing at my heart with every step. His words became screams the further I walked. I reached the stream and ducked my head beneath its waters in order to drown either him or myself; when I surfaced, gasping, all was quiet.

I returned to my squalling children who did not know me, but that would heal in time. I removed the borrowed kirtle and laid it carefully out on my marital bed, the bright red of it a match for my hand-woven blanket, and I recalled my man’s voice. His eyes. His laughter, when I came under his roof as his wife and he saw the gift I had brought him, over which I had laboured long.

‘No point telling me it’s red,’ he told me, kindly. ‘The way my eyes are made, it all looks grey.’ His only flaw, he’d laughed.

I folded my heart up along with the kirtle. I had children crying for their supper, and now I had only myself.

Emmeline, Chapter 4

So.

This is Chapter 4 of my NaNoWriMo project. Emmeline has finished reading the note she received in Chapter 1, which was from her mother – ‘to be opened in the event of my death’ type stuff – instructing her to go to Paris and live with a mysterious lady named Madame Blancheflour. Watt was entrusted with the task of seeing her to the ship, and naturally he has done his duty admirably. As our current chapter opens, she is on board, and about to meet a strange new friend…

Image: cruiseweb.com

Image: cruiseweb.com

Emmeline and the Ice-God

4

                A dumbfounded Emmeline stood on the deck of the giant ship and watched the dark speck that was Watt, several hundred feet below. People all around her were yelling, shouting their farewells, pleading for telegrams and letters and visits and lots of other things, but Emmeline saved her breath. All she wanted from Watt was for him to come striding up the gangplank and bring her home, and she knew that was completely pointless. Shouting and shrieking about it would make less than no difference, and so Emmeline stayed quiet and still, like a small forlorn statue.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that she wanted to go home out of love, or affection, or loneliness, or anything like that. She wanted to go home because that’s where her books were, and she didn’t like being removed from them against her will. As she stood on the deck of that ship, she was an angry and humiliated girl, not a lonely and sorrowful one.

Or, at least, that’s what she’d have you believe.

Emmeline sighed and leaned further out over the railing. She decided to wave, on the off-chance that Watt was looking, and then she stepped back out of the crush, her satchel carefully clutched to her chest. As she walked across the boards toward the cabins, a sudden sickening vibration under her feet almost knocked her flat, and she heard a man nearby cry out with what sounded like joy.

‘She’s away!’ he said, slapping his friend between the shoulder blades, making the other man cough. ‘Those’ll be the engines firing up. We’ll be at sea soon enough.’

At sea, Emmeline thought as the guffawing moustache-wearing gentlemen passed her by. Meaning lost or confused, or both.

                ‘Apt,’ she said, to nobody in particular.

‘Did you say something?’ said a curiously metallic, hollow-sounding voice, out of midair. ‘Only, I thought I heard you say something, and I wouldn’t want to be rude and not reply in a suitably witty and interestin’ way.’

Emmeline looked around. There was nobody within ten feet of her, and absolutely nobody looking in her direction. The only things she could see were a few carefully welded benches, a flotation device or two bolted to the wooden wall in front of her and a curious seagull, looking at her sideways.

‘Where are you?’ she ventured, clutching her satchel close.

‘I’m sorry. Are you talking to me, now, or is there someone else with you?’ The metallic voice sounded no closer nor any further away, but every bit as strange as it had the first time Emmeline had heard it.

‘You,’ she said. ‘I mean – sorry. I mean, dear strange and slightly frightening voice, I am talking to you.’

‘’M not strange,’ said the voice, now becoming a little less hollow-sounding and a lot more clear. ‘I’m perfickly normal, thank you very much. And I’m over here.’ Something moved to Emmeline’s left, and her gaze was caught by a scruffy head emerging from a grating in the wall. This head – the colour of whose hair was impossible to determine – was swiftly followed by an equally grubby body dressed in dusty overalls. The fingernails of this creature were clotted with dirt and oil and his – its? – face was smeared with grease. As Emmeline watched, he slithered out of the hole he’d been hiding in until all of him – and there wasn’t much – was standing in front of Emmeline with a hand held out in greeting.

‘Mornin’,’ he said. ‘My name’s Thing. Who’re you?’

‘I’m sorry?’ said Emmeline, looking at his outstretched hand as if he’d offered her a used handkerchief.

‘Yeah, me too,’ said the boy, in a weary voice. Emmeline blinked, and wondered what was going on.

‘Sorry for what?’ she ventured, after a few silent moments.

‘About my name,’ he replied, taking back his hand and wiping it on his grimy overalls. ‘Wasn’t that what we were talking about?’

‘I’m quite sure we weren’t talking about anything,’ replied Emmeline, adjusting her grip on her satchel, and casting her eye around to see if there were any adults in the vicinity. Not that she had much use for adults, normally, but they could on occasion come in helpful. As she’d expected, however, most people were still hanging over the railings, and those that weren’t engaged in tearful goodbyes had already retired to their cabins. She and this strange dirty boy were like a little island in a sea of handkerchiefs and snot.

‘You need a hand with your bag?’ The boy snuffled, like he had a heavy cold. ‘Only I’m good at that. Giving hands with stuff.’

‘No,’ said Emmeline, aghast. ‘Thank you.’

‘Suit yourself,’ he replied. ‘So, are you goin’ to tell me your name, or have I to guess it?’

‘How on earth would you guess it?’ said Emmeline, taking a step back.

‘Bet I could,’ said Thing, grinning. His teeth were nearly as filthy as his face.

‘Look, I have to go to my cabin now,’ said Emmeline. ‘So, if you’ll excuse me?’

‘No,’ said Thing. ‘Is it Amy? Angela? Angelica? No – wait. Agnes. It’s Agnes, isn’t it?’

‘What do you mean, ‘no’?’ said Emmeline, wishing she had a heavy book to hand in order to throw it at the boy’s head.

‘Well, you asked me if I would excuse you. So, I said no. Agnes.’

‘My name is not Agnes.’ Emmeline felt her teeth start to grind, all by themselves.

‘Betty? Bettina? Bucephalus! Please say it’s Bucephalus. I’ve always wanted to meet one of those.’

‘No. It’s none of those names. You’re not even on the right letter.’ Emmeline’s arm was starting to hurt from holding her satchel so tightly, and she really wanted to find her cabin and go to sleep.

‘Ah! A clue. Right. Caroline. Carly. Christina. Chrysanthemum.’

‘Chrysanthemum is a flower. You really are an idiot, aren’t you?’

‘Lots of girls’re named after flowers. Rose. Lily. Petunia. Gardenia. Viola. Violet. Daisy. Poppy. Lily.’

‘You said Lily already,’ sighed Emmeline, shifting her satchel to the other arm.

‘I was just testing,’ grinned Thing.

‘My name is Emmeline, all right? Now, can I please go? I want to take some rest before we get to Paris.’

‘Emmmmmellllllinnnnnne,’ said the strange boy, rolling her name around in his mouth like he was tasting it. ‘I like it. That’ll do.’

‘Do for what?’ Emmeline’s patience was on its last legs.

‘I collect names,’ Thing replied. ‘Someday I’ll meet a name that I can’t resist and I’ll ask someone to give it to me, because it’ll be too good to keep.’

‘Right. And how many do you have in your collection?’

‘Oh, hundreds,’ said Thing, casually. ‘Thousands, maybe.’

‘When are you going to make your decision?’

‘Well, whenever I meet a name I can’t resist, of course,’ he said. ‘Hasn’t happened yet.’

‘Look, this is fascinating, and all, but I really need to lie down now. Please, can I go?’

‘Certainly, Emmeline. Mind out for that name, now. It’s a long ‘un, and they tend to get caught on things. Like newborn foals, they are. Awkward and leggy. Just watch out for it and see you don’t break it, or lose it.’

‘Thanks for the tip,’ said Emmeline as she squeezed past. Thing smelled like smoke and dirt and sweat, and as soon as she was past him he swung himself back into the hole in the wall. Despite herself, Emmeline couldn’t help but be curious about where it went.

‘Bye, now. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again,’ he said, as he waved and disappeared from view. The grating clanged shut and Emmeline was by herself again.

This time, she felt even more alone than before, and she wasn’t sure why.

Wednesday Write-In #63

This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet’s Wednesday Write-In were:

hideout  ::  transitory  ::  share  ::  full bodied  ::  problem

Image: blog.kyletunneyphotography.com

Image: blog.kyletunneyphotography.com

Little Girl Lost

‘It’s almost full bodied, isn’t it?’ Becky settled her head on her folded arms as she stared out the reinforced window, her vision getting lost in the howling dark. Nelson cleared his throat, wondering where she was going with this one.

‘How d’you mean, full bodied? Like, curvaceous?’ He licked his lips.

‘Nah, you twit,’ she said, turning to smile at him. In the candlelight, her hair was translucent. ‘I mean, multi-layered. Sort of lovely, if you look at it the right way. Full of hidden depths.’

‘If you say so.’ Nelson settled back into his chair. ‘Just looks like a pile of snow, to me.’

‘Yes. Well. You never did have an eye for beauty.’ She waited for his snort of laughter, but the crackle of the radio interrupted them.

Hideout? We’ve got a problem.’ Becky moved smoothly, on silent feet, to Nelson’s side.

‘Control? Hideout here. What’s up?’ Nelson’s voice was steady, but his fingers weren’t.

It’s the signal. It’s fluctuating,’ came the reply. Becky wasn’t sure who was speaking – the voice was unfamiliar. Control changed radio operators pretty frequently; nobody lasted long, up here.

‘Fluctuating? How can it fluctuate?’ replied Nelson. The set started to squeal, like an animal in pain.

…can’t explain it. It’s strong as ever one second, and gone the next. Have you…’ The rest of the message was lost in a scramble of static. Nelson fiddled with the controls as Becky bit back her urge to tell him to hurry. She clenched her fists and turned back toward the window again, the darkness drawing her eyes like water to a plughole.

Then, something hit the glass. Something small. Something pale.

‘Nelson!’ she said, in a half-hiss. ‘There’s something – ‘

Hideout? Hideout, are you there?’ The radio sputtered. ‘Be advised we’re getting readings… levels of radiation off the…

‘Hello? Control?’ Nelson thumped the set. ‘Dammit! I can’t find the frequency. It’s like something’s bending the waves.’ Becky was only half-listening.

‘Nelson, there’s something out there,’ she said, her voice low. ‘Something alive.’ Nelson sucked his teeth in irritation and bent toward the radio again.

‘Your brain’s got frostbite, darlin’,’ he muttered. ‘Nothin’s able to live out there, Becks! You know that. Come and help me with this, willya?’

A small, pale shape slapped itself against the window pane, and then was gone again. It reminded Becky of a piece of paper caught in the jaws of the wind, a transitory message left unread. A downy feather, floating on a breath of breeze. A flash of sunlight through green leaves. A tiny face with dark eyes, lost.

She’d slipped into her jacket before Nelson even noticed she’d moved from his side.

‘Oi!’ he yelled, as a gust of frozen wind ripped through the hideout, upending equipment and dousing candles. Before he could move, Becky was out the door; by the time he’d suited up and made it to the threshold, she’d been swallowed by the emptiness.

Becky!’ he called, his breath fogging up his visor. ‘For God’s sake! Where are you?’ He took a couple of steps away from the hideout, trying to follow Becky’s tracks. He could only see a few feet, and he was terrified to move too far from the door. You could turn around in weather like this and get so lost you’d never be found, and Nelson knew it.

Already, he was getting tired. It had only been seconds, and his bones were starting to ache. He took two more steps, and then he fell to his knees.

Then, somewhere up ahead, something moved. Nelson’s heart skipped as he struggled to focus on it.

‘Becks?’ he shouted, realising as he did so that he was out of breath. ‘Becky!

A child – a child? – appeared out of the whirling snow. Tiny, white, dark eyes, dressed in rags. Nelson didn’t know her, but that was the least weird thing about her being there. He struggled to understand as his blood turned to slush in his veins. Nelson blinked, and the child was beside him, her cruel teeth bared and her tiny ice-dagger fingers around his neck.

‘Next time you’ll share your warmness and your good stuff, won’t you?’ whispered the child as it stepped over Nelson, its bare feet blue. ‘Next time I won’t have to take what I need, will I?’

The only answer the child received as it closed and sealed the hideout door against the night was the hiss of the radio, still searching for a signal that would never come.

Wednesday Write-In #59

The words for this week’s CAKE.shortandsweet writing challenge are:

window of opportunity  ::  churn  ::  rubicon  ::  advance  ::  breeze

 

Image: photocase.com

Image: photocase.com

 

Charm Offensive

‘What in God’s name are you waiting for? How many more chances like this do you think you’re going to get?’ muttered Luke. ‘I mean, we’re talking a prime window of opportunity here.’

‘‘Window of opportunity’?’ I looked at him, eyebrow raised. ‘You sound like my dad.’

‘Yeah, whatever,’ he replied, fixing his eyes on the prize. ‘It’s still the truth.’

I sighed, and looked back. Our position was good – upwind of the breeze, sheltered by heavy foliage. The target was hemmed in, distracted. If we wanted the advance, it was ours to take.

So why, I wondered, was I so uptight? My hands trembled, and my stomach boiled. My heart felt like a churn, pounding heavily behind my ribs.

Luke’s elbow clattered against my spine, and I yelped.

‘What the…’ I growled. ‘What are you playing at?’

‘We’re spotted!’ he hissed. ‘Forget about making a move, my friend. That Rubicon’s already crossed.’ With that, he got to his feet and ran. I cringed when his feet hit the gravel pathway, giving away our presence with every crunching footstep. It hardly mattered, really – within ten minutes, everyone would know about this. Luke could never keep his trap shut.

I glanced back at the target, keeping low. Damn! She’d seen me…

‘Are you ever going to come out of that hedge?’ she said, grinning. ‘I don’t bite.’

‘I – um…’ I brushed off a stray leaf as I shook my way out of the greenery. ‘Well, it’s like this…’

‘All right, all right,’ she sighed, closing the book she’d been reading. ‘Don’t beg. I’ll go out with you.’ I blinked, trying to figure out what had just happened.

‘But – what?’ My throat was a dead river.

She winked as she passed me. Somewhere, a bell trilled. ‘Hurry up,’ she said, ‘or you’ll be late for Maths.’

‘Hey – wait!’ I called, turning to follow her. ‘How d’you know I have Maths now?’ She turned, smiling, and held out her hand to me.

‘I’m a better spy than you, I suppose,’ she replied, when I got close enough to hear.