Coffee Break Read – An Unwelcome Stranger

“I’m sure you weren’t expecting me.”
The stranger stood in the shadows just outside my door, his face partly hid by the hood of his cloak. His hand gripped around a traveller’s staff, the sort that could be used both for walking and a sturdy defence. I’d have taken him for some vagrant were it not for the large ruby ring that I could see on that hand.
“I can’t say as how I was expecting anyone,” I told him, wondering if I’d be wiser just to shut the door in his face. When you live alone and your nearest neighbour is the other side of the fell, welcoming a stranger into your home after dark is not so wise.
“Can I come in? I just need shelter for the night.”
Now, you can call me a superstitious old woman but I know as well as the next that most all the magical beings you can name from brownies to vampires need to be invited into your home before they can touch you.
“If you need a place to sleep there is the barn.” I nodded to that old ramshackle building my grandfather raised. It’s outlived its name and its purpose long since, but the roof keeps the wind and rain out – mostly.
“Thank you,” he said and dipped his head in a sort of bow, like I was a noble lady or something.
I still don’t know why I did it, but later that evening I took a bowl of my stew and a lump of seed bread out to the barn. I saw a sort of red glow coming through the cracks in the walls and very nearly dropped the tray in fright. Instead, I crept close and peeked through one of them cracks and as I’m standing here today, I swear I saw a red dragon three times the size of any man curled with its nose on its tail and staring right back at me with ruby eyes.
I don’t mind admitting I ran back to the house and bolted the door. Not that would have kept out a dragon, but what else was I to do?
I went back in the morning at first light. The barn was empty. First I thought I’d imagined it all, but where that dragon had been curled I found this very gold piece…

E.M. Swift-Hook

EM-Drabbles – Fifty

Benita loved naming things.

When she was a child every toy had a name and if the people next door might have neglected to call their chickens anything, Benita had a name for each.

She would name people she saw in the street and when she finally found a boyfriend she delighted in bestowing a different name upon him each day of the week.

The day before their wedding he found a list of twelve names – six male, six female – on her notepad.

“What are these for?”

She smiled at him radiantly.

“Our children, of course.”

He cancelled the wedding.

E.M. Swift-Hook

Coffee Break Read – The Auction House

This was one of the two major auction houses in Viriconium that specialised in antiques. It was also the place that, according to his own records, Vibius did the most trade. They had swooped on the owner just as an afternoon auction had finished.
Justina Cynddylan was a harassed-looking woman in her fifties, wearing a fine quality stola and a silver ring of Citizenship. She didn’t seem even slightly intimidated by an unannounced visit from the Vigiles when Bryn produced his ID, and flapped a hand to the stairs at the rear of the auction room when asked if they could go somewhere a bit quieter to talk.
“I don’t have much space, we can use the small store upstairs if you like. But I have nothing to hide, so why not just ask me here?” Her gaze moved past the two for a moment and she raised her voice. “Not that one, Carwyn. The dominus said he was sending someone to collect it.” Then she looked back at Dai. “I am sorry, but I do have a business to run here, so can we make this – whatever it is – as quick as possible please?”
Dai tried his best boyish smile. “Of course, I quite understand. And that is why I suggest we go somewhere quieter so we don’t keep getting interruptions that will delay us all.”
She didn’t quite melt, but the look of tense disapproval softened very slightly.
“Very well.” She led them to the rear staircase and then turned to call across the room “Gawain? Three teas and a plate of those vanilla fingers we had earlier.” A young man, presumably Gawain, put down the box he was carrying and scuttled off through a side door.
The ‘small store’ was well named in Dai’s opinion. It was a room with a tiny window, half full of boxes of bric-a-brac. The other half was occupied by an elderly leather settee and a couple of hard backed, un-matching, very British dining chairs set either side of a small pedestal-leg table. Justina perched on one of the chairs and gestured imperiously that Dai and Bryn should appropriate the settee between them. Dai did so and regretted it in the same moment as the seat sagged away deeply beneath him. He just knew that if he tried to rise he would struggle to free himself. Bryn was clearly a wiser man as he declined the settee and instead used it to display the pictures of artefacts they had taken at random from the internet.
“Do you recognise any of these, domina?” he asked before sitting on the other hard chair.
The auction room owner peered a little myopically at the images, then picked one or two up to look closely at them.
“This is in the collection of Minoan artefacts presently on display in Londinium and this,” she waved another picture, “went missing from an exhibition in Latium four years ago. The rest I could have a stab at their provenance, but I have no idea where they are now.” She dropped the pictures back on the couch and looked at Bryn accusingly. “Why are you showing me these?”
Before he could answer there was a tap on the door and the youngster Dai had seen downstairs brought in a tray of spiced fruit teas and cakes and placed it on the table, then retreated quickly from the room.
“Help yourselves if you want.” Justina waved towards the tray then looked back at the images. “I don’t see what any of these have to do with me.”
“They are not really, domina. Just some items that have been stolen over the last few years.” As Bryn spoke he offered a tea to Dai, who shook his head having decided that trying to drink whilst being swallowed into the depths of the settee would be a recipe for disaster. “We just wondered if you might recognise any of them.”
Justina glared at Bryn as if he had just propositioned her for a night of wild orgies.
“I don’t allow any stolen goods in my auction room,” she said, icily. “Everything that passes through here is checked as having the correct licences.”
“Anyone can make a mistake,” Dai suggested and the woman snorted in disgust.
“Perhaps you Vigiles can make mistakes and think no more about it – those in positions of power often seem to feel that way about life. You just shovel your mistakes under the nearest carpet and carry on regardless, with no one daring to say otherwise. But I can’t afford to make that kind of mistake. This is my livelihood. Even if I avoided criminal charges for doing so, it would ruin my reputation as a dealer with integrity and that would destroy my business.”
Dai nodded sympathetically. “Yes. I can see that. So it must have been a bit difficult for you to find out that Josephus Vibius Anser, one of your best customers, was in fact up to his neck in the illicit art and antiquities trade?”
Her face darkened.
“You are not going to try and tie me in to that. Anything and everything that man bought from me had a full and legitimate licence attached. I can give you the entire list, with origins, previous owners, prices made at each sale, everything – solid as a blockchain.”
“Thank you,” Dai said, “that would be very useful so we can eliminate you from our enquiries completely. Perhaps you could email those to us before you go home today.”
He tried to get to his feet then but having his buttocks lower than his knees and the sagging cushion enveloping him it was a little undignified. In the end, he grabbed the edge of the settee with his hands and pulled himself up. Bryn was making little attempt to hide his grin behind a teacup, which he drained quickly when Dai caught his eye. Justina Cynddylan didn’t seem to notice. She was still frowning at them her thoughts apparently elsewhere.
“If you want my opinion,” she said as Dai finally gained his feet, “you would do better asking everybody’s friend, Tony Talog. If anyone is doing things the wrong way it’s him.”
Dai searched his memory and failed.
“Tony Talog?”
Bryn cleared his throat and picked up one of the cakes. “That’d be the man who runs ‘Rara et Vetera’ isn’t it? Your local competition, domina.”
“That – that creature is not any kind of competition for me,” she said firmly. “Half what he sells as pristine originals is heavy restoration. Some so heavy they are really reproductions. I have people attend some of his auctions and they tell me some horrific tales. But it is more than just that he sells bad antiques. One of his employees was close to quitting his place and joining me. The day she put in her notice someone kidnapped her dog and two days later the poor creature appeared on her doorstep stuffed by a taxidermist. She left Viriconium the next day, I believe, at least I have heard nothing more about her since.” She glared accusingly at Dai. “And your lot didn’t lift a finger, of course. I expect the Submagistratus is getting backhanders from Talog to turn a blind eye.”
“Not at all,” Dai assured her. “I am not in the corruption business, although I can’t speak for my predecessor.”
They left her with her mouth agape looking like a stunned sheep and walked quickly from the room, down the stairs and out onto the street.

An extract from Dying for a Vacation by JJane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook one of the Dai and Julia Mysteries set in an alternative modern-day world, where the Roman Empire still rules.

Granny’s Ninth Pearl

Pearls of wisdom from an octogenarian who’s seen it all…

Read the F***ing Notice!

Queueing in the sunshine for an ice cream. The place has about forty flavours and a strict queuing system. Today’s flavours are displayed on a blackboard. Beside this there is a notice saying.

‘Please choose your flavour before entering so that other people aren’t kept waiting any longer than necessary.’

There’s also a little girl popping up and down the queue asking people to please choose their flavour from the blackboard.

I know the two women in front of me are too busy blethering.

In they go.

“What flavours have you got?”, one says brightly.

Read the fucking notice, assholes.

Author Feature – War of Kings and Monsters by Christopher Keene

War of Kings and Monsters by Christopher Keene. In a world beyond the reach of humans live the monstrous Melkai. But the spell that holds them back is weakening. In order to restore the barrier, Nathan embarks on a quest to find the missing piece of an ancient and powerful artifact…

Nathan sat at his bedroom desk, nosing through a heavy tome. At this stage of his studies, he knew most of what there was to know about first-circle Melkai, but given the wide variety of second-circle Melkai, he had to constantly brush up on them. The bloated tome depicted the stupidly large second-circle Melkai, matching the monsters from the other world with animals that inhabited his own.
Although supposedly above his reading level, at fifteen, Nathan found the book only mildly challenging, mostly because he took the wisdom it contained with a grain of salt. From his experience, men who wrote such large books got out from behind their walls as rarely as he did. The author seemed to be pulling descriptions out of his rear end. Even so, drawn in by the detailed pictures and colorful descriptions, Nathan took pleasure in being a voyeur into the dangers of the world outside the castle walls while still being safe and sound behind them.
Flipping back through the section showing the smaller and weaker first-circle Melkai, he saw that many of them were still much larger than his own, though he doubted any of them would be as loyal as Taiba, his little friend from that other world.
He stretched a hand out toward his bed. “Hey, come out here.”
A small blue reptile, no larger than a gecko, rushed out from his sheets, jumped onto his hand, then climbed into the folds of his hood. The Melkai deemed that part of him not only the best vantage point to observe their surroundings, but also the best place to nestle down in if he became too cold. After spending three years with the curious creature, Taiba had become his closest confidant, and he was fond of feeling his cool tail coil loosely around his neck above his chain necklace. He reached up absentmindedly to pat Taiba’s head in the place he knew his friend liked best.
There was a loud knock at the door, and they both jumped in surprise.
“Nathan, your presence is needed,” Master Morrow called from the other side.
“Don’t tell me another apprentice has tried to make a pact with a Melkai in his room again.”
“Worse. You have been summoned to the throne room. Best not keep the king waiting.”
Nathan squeezed his eyes shut and cursed under his breath. Although he often saw the king on his usual walks through the castle, Nathan had only been in the throne room a few times: once when he had first arrived and several times when he and the prince had gotten caught making trouble together as children, usually for exploring forbidden places in the castle.
His master continued with further knocking. “Nathan, hurry up now!”
“Okay, okay! I’m coming!”
He opened his door to find Morrow, the Master of Pacts, waiting for him in the sunlit hallway, a grave expression on his wizened, bearded face that belied his usual jovial nature.
“Come on.” Morrow strode down the hallway, his long robes billowing behind him.
Nathan hurried after him but glanced back at his bedroom door, yearning for his lost comfort. As had been his routine for the last four years, he’d stayed up late last night sitting through one of Morrow’s lectures and didn’t want to start yawning in front of the king.
“Being called on like this . . . it’s a bit unusual.” Nathan jogged to keep up with his teacher’s long gait. “Does this mean lectures are canceled for today?”
Morrow ignored his question. “Over the last several nights, our court astronomers have noticed a red hue on the moon’s horizon. Since then, that sliver of red has become a thin crescent. According to the Kairen texts, this is meant to signal a warning that one of the Kairen’s ancient spells is weakening. We have less than one month before it breaks entirely.”
I’ll take that as a no on today’s lectures.
“Which spell?”
Morrow didn’t answer him.
“Wait, you’re not talking about the barrier to the Melkairen, are you?”
The Melkairen was the world containing the Melkai. So long as they were trapped within that world, they were limited to their spirit forms until a caller bound them to a pact item. But if the barrier between the worlds were to go down, the Melkai would roam freely, endangering all they came across. If Morrow’s lessons were anything to go by, few if any were as friendly as Taiba.
Morrow gave an almost imperceptible nod but only said, “Best leave your questions for the king.”

 

A Bite of… Christopher Keene

(1) If someone fell into your world from our own, what advice would you give them?

Depends where you land. If you land in the eastern kingdom, pretend you’re a soldier. If you land in the western kingdom, pretend you’re foreign royalty.

 

(2) How has writing changed you?

It’s made me both poorer and prouder.

 

(3) Coffee cake or chocolate cake and why?

Chocolate cake… I like chocolate cake.

 

Christopher Keene is the New Zealand author of the Dream State Saga, a five-book sci-fi series that’s part of the exploding LitRPG (Literary Role Playing Game) genre. He is also the author of The Midnight Queen, the conclusion to the Super Dungeon Series, and various other fantasy books inspired by ideas and media covered on his blog. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

EM-Drabbles – Forty-Nine

“The form you need is over there.” The man behind the counter pointed to a wall of pigeon holes full of forms. “And no, you can’t apply online, only on the proper form.”

Rosie wheeled herself away across the Welfare Office and studied the bank of forms. None had a label saying ‘Disabled’ or anything like.

Another client reached up and took a form from an unmarked section on the top tier and handed it to Rosie.

“They keep them up there so wheelchair folk can’t reach them, and unlabelled so anyone else who might need one gives up looking.”

E.M. Swift-Hook

Much Dithering in Little Botheringham – 13

‘Much Dithering in Little Botheringham’ is an everyday tale of village life and vampires, from Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook.

Ginny decided she had come out much too early to see the bats, either that or she had mistimed exactly when ‘sunset’ really was. From her ‘bat hide’ behind some bushes, but with a clear view of both the church and the belfry – at least she assumed it was a belfry – she saw the vicar. He was making his way through the churchyard and looked rather odd wearing a long duster-style coat as if he had stepped out of a spaghetti western or a Fields of the Nephilim video. He had a tank of something on his back with a spray gun in a holster. He also carried what looked like some sort of a gun. 
Ginny was no expert but it looked like the kind of gun her cousin Bradley had posed around with shooting tin cans from the garden wall one summer holiday in her early teens. Bradley had used it to shoot at pigeons too. That had been the summer she’d become vegetarian. So she was pretty sure the gun was nothing very dangerous unless it caught you in the eye.
Or unless you were a bat. 
But, surely not? This was a vicar not some crazy teenage cousin like Bradley. And Bradly was a semi-retired investment banker now. But the tank of chemicals on the vicar’s back spoke otherwise. 
Frozen to the spot by indecision, Ginny realised that even if she called the police the vicar could kill all the bats before help arrived. 
She wasn’t even aware she was up and running until she heard some mad-woman shouting abuse and realised it was herself and that she was running into the church behind the bat-hating vicar.
By the time she was inside he was unlocking the door to the belfry and he spun round. The lighting in the church must have been a bit odd because he looked as if his front teeth were too big to fit in his mouth properly and the whole of his face seemed to project towards her and she could have sworn his nose was twitching in anger. Then he stepped towards her and the strange effect was gone. His long coast swung back as he moved and she saw a wicked-looking hunting knife in a sheath on his belt.
“Ah, Virginia, so sorry but it’s a bit of a bad time. If you would like to join the flower arranging rota you’ll need to speak to Dolores St.John. She’s always keen for new recruits.”
As he spoke Ginny realised the gun – whatever sort it was – was pointing towards her.
“Uh. No. I wasn’t planning on–”
The vicar smiled, but instead of his usual rugged good looks, his mouth seemed rather narrow and in the subdued light, Ginny got the strangest impression of – fur.
“If it’s about writing a piece for the parish magazine, that would be wonderful. Thank you.” He took a step towards her which felt decidedly menacing. “You really should go now, Virginia, I have something important I need to do.”
“You’re not going to kill the bats.” Ginny had intended it to come out as a firm denunciation, but instead, it emerged from her mouth as more of a strangled squeak.
The vicar giggled.
“You’re not going to kill the bats,” he echoed mockingly. “Well that’s where you’re wrong Virginia Creeper. That is exactly what I am going to do. I’m going to eradicate every last flying rat from this belfry and you should leave right now.”
“But they’re protected!”
The vicar looked around theatrically.
“Doesn’t look like it to me. Not at the moment anyway.”
Common sense was sternly lecturing Ginny that this man was clearly deranged and that her best course would be to run from the church and call for help. But she knew if she did that the bats would indeed be unprotected. Instead, she took out her phone and started filming.
“If you do anything to the bats, I’ll show the world what kind of monster you are.”
Which was perhaps the worst – as well as the last – mistake of her life.
“Why did you say that, you stupid woman?”
The vicar seemed to bound across the distance between them in a single jump, knocking the phone from her hand. His face, thrust right into hers, was no longer human, but covered in soft brown and black fur, with round doe-like eyes. What had been his hair was now long ears.
The vicar was a giant rabbit.
The impossibility of that stunned her as the force of his bound hit her in the chest and Ginny was thrown backwards. She just had time to see the long yellow front teeth and the barrel of his gun caught the last rays of the setting sun through the narthex window as she fell, then her head hit the stone flags stones of the church floor and there was nothing.

Part 14 of Much Dithering in Little Botheringham by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook, will be here next week.

Misery Train Blues

Misery is a-coming like a train down a track
You gonna get quite flattened ‘cos you just can’t fight back
Pessimism’s rising optimism’s had its day
And along comes the snowplough to push it away.

You gotta roll with the bad times like you danced in the good
Make the most of what you got like you know you should
Things might look quite bad now but they could be much worse
You gotta get up and tango not lie down and curse.

But when your dancing feet are so broken and sore
You can’t get up and dance about, or even walk no more
You hear the train of misery bringing the bad times back
But no matter what you want to do you can’t get off the track.

E.M. Swift-Hook

Weekend Wind Down – Jariq Zarengor

The pottery shattered as it hit the stone wall and the wine splashed out in a liquid corona, staining the fine fabric of the hangings and seeping over the floor like blood flowing from a wound. The music slid to a discordant halt as the musicians scattered quickly and a single shriek from one of the serving girls ended the tune.
Jariq Zarengor sat still, holding the cup which he had been filling from the wine jug, a motionless figure in a sudden sea of movement as the other patrons of the inn decided it was wiser to be elsewhere. Ralik stood by the wall, arms folded watching, as the Harkeran Vavasor drew his sword and continued shouting.
“You can’t seduce another man’s wife and expect to get away with it.”
The Harkeran noble was sober enough, even if high in emotion, but Zarengor had been drinking steadily since they had arrived at the inn. Ralik straightened up slightly and unfolded his arms. He saw another Harkeran was moving forward, one hand reaching under the dark blue cloak he was wearing. Zarengor seemed not to have noticed and was frowning very slightly, as if confused by what was happening. He gestured with his empty hand towards the bench beside him.
“I have no idea what you are talking about, but if you have a problem, why not sit down with me, have a drink and talk it over. We can get some more wine – ”
He was not able to finish before the Harkeran lunged at him and was instantly sent sprawling backwards as Zarengor exploded into motion almost faster than the eye could follow, tipping the heavy wooden table forward into his assailant and in the same fluid movement, turning as he rose, drawing his sword to bring the point to the throat of the second man before his own blade had even half-emerged from beneath the blue cloak.
The second Harkeran released his sword hilt and leaving both hands spread wide, stepped back carefully, reading certain death in the steady brown eyes. His companion groaned beneath the table and tried weakly to push it off. Zarengor seemed to have forgotten him completely, slamming his sword back into its scabbard and striding from the room. Ralik detached himself quietly from the wall and made a less noticeable exit by another door as people surged forward.
As he left, he noticed it took two men to lift the heavy table. The voices of the Harkerans followed him out, mutters of fear and admiration, of condemnation and simple envy. Ralik had a passing moment of gratitude that he was not of the kind to inspire such feelings in others.

Outside it was dark and the air was cold. Ralik took a moment to find his charge since Zarengor was braced against the wall, his lean body almost invisible against the rough stonework.
“Don’t you have a home to go to?” The Black Vavasor’s voice sounded weary. “I am old enough to be out on my own, you know.”
Ralik said nothing. There was nothing to say. It was easy enough to understand the level of frustration that the other man had to contend with.
“Don’t you just love these Harkerans? They think themselves so civilised and superior – regard war as unreasonable, think a man who can write poetry or design a building is of more value than one who can use a sword, they regard their women as their equals in all things and even give legal rights to their slaves and their animals.” His voice was very slightly slurred betraying the amount of alcohol he had consumed. “But when it comes to good old-fashioned affairs of the heart, they are as quick as the next man to leap to the wrong conclusions and draw their blades.”
Ralik watched a group of young Harkeran noblemen leave the inn. They were obviously looking for something, or someone and two carried lights.
“It is getting late, Honoured One,” he said carefully. Zarengor, when drinking, could be persuaded but never pushed.
“Then you go home,” the other man suggested, his voice quite friendly, “I was thinking of finding another Harkeran matron of high standing to ravish, your Castellan’s wife perhaps.”
Ralik stiffened at the insult but said nothing, knowing it was deliberate, knowing Zarengor was goading him and knowing also it was the frustration and the drink that spoke through him. The Harkerans were getting closer and the mood Zarengor was in, it could easily end with blood on the street – their blood.
“Death of the gods, Ralik, what does someone have to do to get under your skin?” Zarengor sounded amused more than irritated.
The Harkerans had heard the voice if not the words and were moving now with intent. Ralik moved closer to his charge, who seemed to notice the threat for the first time and groaned aloud.
“Oh joy, children with swords and pistols. Just what I needed to make my day complete.”
The five young men, none of whom could have seen more than twenty summers, moved to confront them, throwing the burning torches to the ground and two of them had drawn swords, a third rested his hand on the butt of a finely crafted pistol. Zarengor still rested against the wall.
“Tell them I’m not hungry, Ralik, I have eaten enough babies today.”
“I’m more a man than you are, butcher,” the ring leader called out. Zarengor laughed briefly.
“Of course you are, that’s why you have your four friends with you. Brave child, go home to your mother and suckle some more then you might grow up big and strong one day.”
The Harkeran made a sound of incoherent fury and launched himself forward. Zarengor barely seemed to move away from the wall, his sword suddenly in his hand and cutting down through the youngster’s guard, drawing blood on his shoulder. The Harkeran stepped back, but found he could not escape the blade which seemed to be everywhere. Then as his sword went flying and he tried to jump aside, Ralik’s own blade came up and caught the death cut at the last moment and moved ready to parry again as the deadly blade disengaged.
“He is only a boy!” Ralik said the words urgently and ungently, part of his mind furious at Zarengor for allowing himself to drink to the point of such judgement loss and for the rest, afraid that he himself might now become a target for the feral sword. But the Vavasor seemed to come to himself, hesitating to attack through Ralik, and the youngsters took advantage of the moment to escape, disappearing into the darkness at speed.
For a moment, the two men stood facing each other, swords in their hands. Ralik waited with the point of his own blade towards the ground in a defensive gesture. He could not afford to surrender any advantage, Zarengor, drunk or not, was by far the superior swordsman. Then the Vavasor sighed and lowered his sword slowly.
“We should find the ponies,” he said heavily, sliding the blade back into its sheath. Ralik allowed himself to relax and stepped back carefully before putting his own sword away.

From Transgressor Trilogy: Times of Change by E.M. Swift-Hook, a Fortune’s Fools book.

Quietude

We walked. Along the road this morning
And all we heard was birds
No traffic roar no engine labour
And words became absurd
Under the dome of some god’s sky
The quiet bade us try it
We walked in beauty you and I
You can’t deny it, nor decry it
No people save the two of we
No noise, no growling toys
Nothing but the sound of peace
In silence today we found joy

©️jj 2020

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