Darkling Drabble – 4

A darkling drabble offers a shiver of horror in a hundred words…

It was quiet in the forest. Too quiet. The small things made no noise, and the busy brown birds hushed their chatter. The old woman sniffed the air. A smell of man sweat made her wrinkle her nostrils even as she climbed into the arms of a tall tree. The witch hunters dragged their prey into the clearing, laughing coarsely. She was young and might have been comely once; now she was just a smear on the forest floor. A smear whose blood awoke the hungry ones. The hunters screamed, but their prey died with a smile on her lips.

©jj 2022

Sir Barnabas and the Dragon – Two

The tale of a bold knight, a valiant steed, an innocent maiden and a cunning dragon…

After they had strapped a sword belt around him and hung a plain sword on one side and a lethally sharp dagger on the other, the dressers approached Barney with a helmet that looked very much like an upturned coal scuttle. He took it out of their hands and regarded it with some disfavour.
“Hammer,” he muttered and somebody put a large ball-peen hammer in his outstretched hand. He gave the helmet an experimental bash. Nothing happened. Barney smiled inwardly as an anvil in the corner of the tent caught his eye. He strode over and shouldered the black-visaged and scowling smith to one side.
“Watch and learn my friend.”
With six mighty blows of the hammer, Barney enlarged the eye slot and the breathing hole while producing an over-eye lump pretty well guaranteed to deflect blows away from the vulnerable facial area. He pushed out his lip as he studied his handiwork: it wasn’t pretty but at least he’d be able to see. And breathe. The smith actually smiled.
“Nice bashing, Sir Barnabas,” he said in an undervoice.
“Where in the name of my sainted dam did you learn that?” Salazar was incredulous.
Barney just grinned and strode back to where his ‘dressers’ stood with their mouths open.
“Keep walking. Go outside and stand by the mounting block. You’re carrying half a ton of steel and you’ll never get on my back without it.”
Barney kept walking and Salazar wasn’t far behind him. After an undignified scramble during which Barney swore and Salazar sniggered the brave knight was ready for his helmet and lance. With the helmet on his head, Barney could only see straight in front. It was a deeply unsettling feeling. Then somebody handed him about three metres of tapered wooden pole with a metal point at the sharp end.
“Rest it in the stirrup beside your right foot.”
That helped while Barney found the balancing point.
“Keep it upright until I say. Then just hold the thing steady. I’ll do the manoeuvring.”
Barney grunted and concentrated on finding his balance in the saddle. He had a while, as they joined a line of mounted idiots in search of glory. Salazar was unimpressed.
“Nothing here to bother us.”
When it was their turn, Barney could feel a change in the balance of the great warhorse as Salazar set himself for a charge. Somewhere in the background he could hear the crowd baying for blood and the voice of a herald bawling introductions. Then Salazar bunched his muscles. He set out at a rolling gallop and Barney gripped hard with his knees.
“Here we go, little knight. Couch lance. Now.”
Barney dropped the weapon to lie horizontal pointing over Salazar’s neck to where he could just discern another mounted knight charging along the lists towards them. The point of his lance bit into something unyieldingly metallic with a fearful screeching crash, and the jolt all but unseated him. All but. He twisted the unwieldy weapon, instinctively knowing he needed to free it from his opponent or be dragged to the ground. He fought the lance free, and Salazar slowed to a walk.
“Don’t look now, but he’s down.”
“I can’t look. Unless you could unscrew my head.”
And that was pretty much how it went all day, with Barney and Salazar growing in confidence and trust, until the shadows were lengthening and they’d unhorsed everyone else at least once. Barney was getting bored and his arm was aching when a discordant fanfare of brassy trumpets broke into his reverie.
“Oh bugger.”
“What is it?”
“The King’s Majesty has just ridden up to the lists.”
Even from the perspective of a former chucker-outer this rather changed the game.
“Wouldn’t be a good idea to unseat His Majesty, would it?”
“No. Look. How much do you trust me?”
Barney laid a mailed hand on the proudly arched neck.
“Pretty much all the way.”
“Okay. This is dangerous but it’s our only option. Other than letting his kingship unseat you. And I don’t feel like doing that.”
“What do I need to do?”
“Couch your lance. Sit still. And pray.”
“I can do all of them.”
Barney sat astride his tall companion, and while the windy herald introduced the King’s Majesty with as many flowery adjectives as he could think of, it came to the newly-created ‘knight’ that the warhorse beneath him must be weary. After all, the big stallion had been carrying a big man dressed in a steel suit all day. This required some thought. But just as the green shoots of a plan began to unfurl their leaves the herald finally shut his mouth. Came yet another rather off-key fanfare and Salazar broke into a rolling gallop.

This adventure of Barney and Salazar will continue next week…

Cold

Barren and lifeless and white
The glacier creaks and it groans
Beneath us, the hot path of flight
Awakens the dead creatures’ bones
As we turn to make just one last pass
Of our search in the cold deathly light
Something chillingly taps on the glass
A creature of tremor and fright
The fingers are icy, and crack
As the rime in their crevices breaks
With fingernails horny and black
That pick at the ship till she shakes
As we pull it away from the ice
The hand drips and melts and corrodes
If the power in the ship won’t suffice
We too will be perished and cold
But we’re free and we head for the sky
Where it’s clean and the atmosphere clear
That will teach us to not overfly
Hell. At this time of the year

©️jj

Weekend Wind Down – The Ballet of the Bones

The hard men of the barrios and their cold-eyed womenfolk called it a freak show, but that didn’t prevent them from putting their money into the animator’s cold bluish hands.
He and his dancers performed in a dark, smoke-filled bodega down one of the meanest alleys in the city. Even now, when the show had earned him sufficient to buy a theatre in the entertainment quarter, it suited his purposes to stay right where he was—with his ballerinas stored in an old tea chest in the corner of a store room, cheek by jowl with bottles of bootleg whisky and bathtub gin.
The jumbled heap of bones and desiccated papillae lay silent and unregarded until it was time.
When the drinking den was full of sweating, slobbering humanity, he lifted his gold and ivory baton and called his servants to the dance.
The dancers assembled themselves, while the orchestra tuned its unfamiliar instruments and the fluting voices of a thousand captive songbird souls sang counterpoint to the breathless musicality. The animator drew his cloak about him like the feathers of a bony bird and ascended the rostrum—as he spread his arms the music came together and his creatures danced.
Such was the mesmeric quality of the music and the bird-bone ballerinas that even the drunken stevedores from the docks would stop their brawling and stand quiet until the unearthly music stopped.
Strangest of all, nobody could ever remember precisely what dances the bone ballerinas performed, any more than they could whistle the tunes that turned the smoke-filled air they breathed cold and pitiless, and painful on the lungs.
And still they came, filling the club with their sweat and stench, even as they filled the coffers of the animator and his business partner with gold.
As word spread it became the fashion among the scions of wealth and privilege to brave the foetid alleys of the barrio and see with their own eyes now the bare bones took life from the musics of darkness.
If a few wealthy young men awoke to find their purses unaccountably absent, who was to care. The city watch had enough to do without venturing into places where an officer of the law was likely to wind up with his throat cut in a ditch.
But still they came, intrigued by the promise of something new and uncaring about how such novelty might have been achieved.
The wealthy and important city fathers were accompanied by hard-nosed, heavy-handed bodyguards—and by and large they were safe, unless they got too close to the women who sold their bodies and their diseases with little discrimination.
So matters stood on the night when the Count Himself descended from his high place to see with his own eyes. His councillors begged him to command a performance in the safety of his own palace, but he laughed in their faces.
“This is a thing of the barrios,” he said, “and cannot be experienced anywhere but the place of its birth.”
Knowing themselves beaten, the old men quieted, although the Count’s security detail was armed to the teeth and every one walked with the casual menace of a seasoned killer.
Deeming the entertainment too elemental for the eyes and ears of his lady wife, the Count brought with him the most beautiful and expensive puta the city had to offer. She was exquisite, gowned in silk and velvet, and with her proud, pale face covered by a mask of the finest lace.
They walked the mean street side by side, but she did not seek the support of his arm, and neither did she waste energy peering into the darkness of doorways and alleyways. He laughed and she looked up at him.
“Señor?”
“It is a surprise to find one so beautiful so unafraid.”
“There is little here to fear. I have always found the greed of the sons and daughters of wealth and privilege more problematic than those who do what they must to survive.”
He nodded, but made no comment.
Inside the stuffy bodega she seemed as much at ease as if she was attending a banquet high on the city hills where the air would be scented with almond blossom and citrus trees, not human effluvia and fear. The Count’s bodyguard cleared space for them and she sat down at the cracked and stained table careless of her silken clothing.
Such magnificent disregard of danger and discomfort called to some wildness in her escort and he bent his handsome head to place his lips on the white skin of her wrist where the veins showed blue in the fitful light.
He opened his mouth to say who knew what, but his voice was frozen in his throat by the first sounds of what he was later to call not music.
Before anyone’s ears had chance to become accustomed to the strange cacophony a tall, cadaverous figure, wearing a frock coat and top hat jumped onto a small table and raised its arms.
It was not possible to say from where the ballerinas came, but they filled the stage with their jarringly compelling dance.
When the Count managed to drag his gaze away from the birds, or beasts, or whatever they may once have been, it was to find his companion staring fixedly at her own hands. As he watched her he saw a tear fall from beneath her mask.
“Do you not wish to see this dance?”
“No. I do not. The dancers are too naked.”
He was nonplused for a moment. How could a woman who earned her not inconsiderable fee by being mostly naked be so affected by dancing bones? But he wasn’t without empathy and he quickly understood that it wasn’t prudery, but pity, that brought tears to his fair companion’s eyes.
“You feel sorry for them?”
“I do maestre. Are they not animated nightly and made to dance, without even the covering of flesh to protect their modesty? Of course I feel sorry for them. If you listen beneath the music you can even hear their cries.”
Beauty lifted her head and looked at the stage where half a hundred frail butterflies adorned the wings of the prima ballerina who danced as if her life story was in the steps she took. The bone dancer turned her head to one side and for a moment something glowed in the empty eye socket of her skull.
Beauty said something that the Count didn’t catch and the dancers began to whirl widdershins. Faster and faster they spun and the wild music grew wilder in its efforts to keep pace. But it was to no avail and the sound of a hundred instruments screaming in their death throes brought almost every human in the room to their knees.
As the music faltered and failed, the scrawny figure of the animator screamed. Just once. Before he began melting into his dark robes. The wind, which came from every direction blew through the dancing bones before picking up the desiccated animator and sucking him upwards through the roof to who knew where.
On stage, the bones fell into untidy heaps and as they touched the floor they became no more than dust.
For a brief moment the prima ballerina stood alone, still gowned in butterflies but with the animator’s top hat added to the ensemble.
She bowed, with an irony not lost on The Count, before falling to dust among her sisters.
As the wind blew the last dust away a voice like the rustling of dead leaves filled the room.
“Liberado por piedad,” it whispered.
Then it was gone.

Jane Jago

This story was inspired by the image created by Paul Biddle

Moving Finger

The moving finger writes
And writing, it moves on
The tale told of time
And time its telling tolls
Each moment here and now
Each moment here and gone
Remembered for all time
Or swiftly forgotten
Who tells the moving finger
What moments to record?
What makes a golden memory
Or one of being bored?
What shapes the heart,
The mind the soul
If not each moments span?
Each moment spinning
Forth such dreams
Such hopes, such cares
Such thoughts.
The moving finger halts
And then the page is turned
But where the book is kept
Is something never learned.

E.M. Swift-Hook

Granny Knows Best – The Pandemic

Listen to Granny because Granny always knows best!

If one more person tells me Covid has gone away I will not be responsible for the consequences. The virus has gone nowhere—being far too busy mutating to do the decent thing and die.
Equally, if I hear any more about it not being a serious illness there may be bloodshed.
It’s an illness like any other, which means it will be no more than a minor inconvenience for some people, while it will be life-changing or life-threatening for others.
Being fond of my life as it is, I think a few precautions are in order.
That is not to say that I believe in remaining inside my house like some sort of cowering baby bunny. I don’t. I like to go out. And I enjoy the fresh air as much as the next octogenarian, or maybe more than most!
But.
I get my quota of air on quiet country walks, and the other kind of out is confined to pub gardens because I don’t want to be in confined spaces with potential plague rats.
I also reserve the right to wear my mask. Don’t give me any of that shit about it not protecting me – I know the science and wear a mask to protect other people (and so you can’t see my mouth when I’m swearing at your pigheaded ignorant behaviours).
In addition to which, I would be very grateful if people would keep their fucking distance. I can hear you perfectly well if you and your saliva remain at two metres or more away from me. If you don’t do metres think of it like my chum Mabel who explains it thus.
“It I can reach to crack you on the shins with my walking stick you are too fucking close.”
I’m not trying to tell anybody how to live their lives, though I’m disappointed by the lack of imagination that looks backwards for its definition of ‘normal’.
Stop feeling sorry for yourselves, you snivelling retards, and create something new.
Make your fun in ways that don’t require sharing spit and sweat with total strangers.
The global village was a fun idea until the germs caught on to the concept. Now we should maybe be tending our own gardens…

Darkling Drabble – 3

A darkling drabble offers a shiver of horror in a hundred words…

The whorehouse moved through space, while small drones cleaned up messes and ensured that the male animals ate and rested at suitable intervals. The exquisitely ephemeral females carried out their designated tasks, clad only in clouds of perfume and curtains of exotic silks.

The males smiled fatuously, while their every debauched fantasy was made solid before their eyes.

It wasn’t until the ship docked that the party ended and the painted houris dissolved away. Reality came hard to the meat animals when no-one cared to pacify them any more. Laughing butchers harried the tender flesh into the sausage factory.

©jj 2022

Coffee Break Read – Thirteen

I am breeder number thirteen. In the last ten years I have given birth to seven children. I have never been permitted to see any of them, although I was lucky enough to hear each one cry as it was carried away to the nurseries. I know my babies must be healthy, because I am still here. Those who cannot bear viable infants do not stay. We do not know where they go.
Of the original twenty breeders brought to this place, only I and number eight remain. There have been many others. Some have stayed. Some have gone. Some have died. We currently number eleven. I am the only one who can read and write fluently. Those who raised me until I was brought here had me taught. At that time it was not forbidden.
I count myself lucky. I was raised by foster carers outside this place, and, although I have never been loved, I was raised carefully. Some others are not so fortunate. They have been wrenched from their families because they are fertile. They have had names. They have had mothers and fathers. They have known what it is to be loved. I pity them.
The keepers are not unkind, but we are little more than vessels to them. They consider our physical health carefully; as our only function is to provide the children the rich and powerful cannot make for themselves. Our mental health is less of a consideration, but as long as we perform regularly, and without complaining, they have no reason to make us miserable. Indeed, when it was discovered that I am literate, I was given books, and writing supplies, on condition that I made no attempt to teach anyone else these skills. I am too thankful for the solace to be found in reading to defy this prohibition. I also have my herb garden from whose produce I make simple remedies for female ailments. This is encouraged by our keepers.
For as long as I have conscious memory I have presented the world with a face of mild compliance. It is the hardest thing of all to do, especially when you burn inside. But it has kept me alive. Most of the other women in this place think me odd in the extreme, as I keep myself busy all day; they prefer to spend their days eating sweetmeats and their nights pleasuring each other. All the time, they speculate about the men who come to leave their seed in this place. This speculation is as bad for the mind as sexualised idleness and too much sweet food are for the body. If girls grow fat, keepers will restrict their access to foods, and drive them to the gymnasium for exercise, but if the minds of the same girls are clouded with foolish dreams about the fathers of their babies who is to care?
I have one friend; she is breeder number eight, the other survivor of the original intake of twenty girls. Mostly, number eight and I keep to our own company, although of late we have been joined by number sixty-two, a small, pale girl who had a hard time birthing twins, and seems to find our company a solace.
In order to retain our sanity, we decided long ago never to think about the men whose seed we incubate. We also try not to think about the babies.  Putting men out of our minds is easy, as we never see one. The seed is brought to us by the midwives, who implant it in our wombs with painful devices. And if there should be a difficult birth requiring the aid of a doctor, the doctor’s face is hidden. I have my babes easily, as does number eight, so I have never been even that close to a male person. The truth of the matter is that as far as memory serves me, I have never actually seen a man. The only time I can even remember having heard male voices is when we are gathered together and forced witness extreme punishment being meted out by the masked minions of the Enforcer.
Not thinking about the babies you have borne is more difficult, and I think all breeders have many wakeful nights wondering where our children are, and hoping they are loved. My friend and I never speak of it.
Eight and I take as much healthful exercise as we are allowed. We like best to run in the gardens, although this is not always possible. When we must stay inside, we run on the mechanical roads, and practice the hand-to-hand combat we learned from our friend, number two. She was an exquisite oriental girl who taught us the beautiful dance that is called Tai Kwon Do. She also taught us to balance our minds, and tricks to enable us to always present a calm exterior. When she went away, we were sad, but hid it in the ways she had taught us.
In the evenings, or when we are heavy with child, I read out loud and number eight makes exquisite embroideries. It is not such a bad life; at least we have companionship.

From The Barefoot Runners by Jane Jago. You can listen to this on YouTube.

Coffee Break Read – Hinterland

They were having a fine day out on the hills. Felix had mastered the rudiments of riding quickly and today he was managing to control his stubborn little mount so well that Caudinus had abandoned the leading rein. Having eaten the lunch Cookie packed for them, Felix was running around playing at being a legionary soldier whilst his father and Dai shared a half-bottle of local wine and the ponies chomped contentedly at the grass nearby.
The land here was bleak but beautiful, with ridges of rock, mantled in greenery, jutting into the sky and limiting the horizon from roughly rolling hills. A brisk breeze ruffled hair, lifting the heat of an unclouded sun and somewhere above them a bird keened as it traced an invisible circle overhead. Scant sign of human habitation disturbed Dai’s view, aside from the odd isolated dwelling, little more than drystone shacks with crude slating culled from local stone where crofter families lived. Their sheep, made small by distance were puffs of grey, like dandelion seed heads, against the scrub. This was the hinterland of Britannia, never one of the richer or more developed provinces, at its most primal.
“I’m sorry to spoil the day.” Caudinus voice broke into Dai’s thoughts. “But this wasn’t only about taking Felix for a riding lesson.”
Dai was not too surprised. He had caught the note of significance in the older man’s voice when he had called yesterday suggesting he brought his family over to Villa Papaverus and that the three of them should go for a ride.
“So what’s up?”
Caudinus shifted his position on the rough wool blanket they had thrown over the grass and thistles.
“I’m not sure it is anything, but it might be and I didn’t want to worry Cariad or Julia so this seemed the best way we could talk without either of them realising we had been.”
“I can see that,” Dai agreed. The last thing he would want for Julia, so close to her due date now, was anything to worry about. “What’s the problem?”
“I have had a couple of anonymous threats delivered to my admin staff in the last few days. Unpleasant things – one found their cat mutilated and a message attached to it saying they should tell me to back the right people. Then night before last another was jumped by two masked men and told to tell me that I shouldn’t get in the way of progress.” He broke off. “I might even have some idea who might be involved. A man called Aled Blaenau. He came to see me at the end of last month on behalf of some clients of his, he said. He was hinting heavily that he would be willing to bribe me to nod through a substantial transaction on some potentially contaminated land for his backers. He never actually came out and said so, of course, or I’d have nailed him for it and he denied that was what he meant when I threw it back in his face. I sent him away in no doubt that his efforts were more likely to be counter-productive than anything. At the time I thought he was just a lobbyist who had been over enthusiastic, but now…”
“You didn’t report any of this to Bryn?”
Caudinus shook his head. “I wanted to bring it to you rather than do anything official. As I said, I don’t want our families to become alarmed.”
The sunny day seemed to grow darker and Dai felt a cloud pass over his soul.
“Alright I’ll get on it soon as I’m back in work tomorrow. Nothing official until we have something solid to go on.”
Caudinus nodded and got to his feet.
“Thank you, I appreciate that. But now we’d best get these ponies back home.”
A few minutes later they began heading back to the farm. Their easiest way led through a small wood of stunted oaks and ash trees and that was when it happened. Dai vaguely recalled something stinging his neck and as he lifted a hand to swat it away, the world had turned upside down and slid out of sight into a dark tunnel.

An extract from Dying to be Fathers a Dai and Julia Mystery by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook

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