Extracts

Extract from my Current Project

Please note this is part of a first draft. Any and all words are subject to change!

We approached from the back. The road leading to the house was already lined with coaches. I pulled my self up onto the wall and peered over. Ornamental gardens sprawled in front of me. There was a lake, with a small stream winding from its shores, and a round, faux-temple type structure with pillars and a statue inside. I didn’t see any dogs, or house-guards.

I turned back to Darius.

“Looks good. Let’s go.”

“How am I supposed to get up there?” he called.

I rolled my eyes. “Can’t you magic your way up here?”

“I told you, it doesn’t work like that.”

“Then do it like a normal person.” I reached my hand down. Why did I agree to this?

Eventually, with much awkward scrabbling, and several near falls on my part, he was sitting, panting on top of the wall. I didn’t waste a moment waiting for him and dropped down in to a flowerbed. There was a thud beside me.

“Bend your knees,” I said. “If you break your legs I’m leaving you here.”

I knelt behind a large flowering bush. There was a expanse of lawn leading down to a lake, a couple of beds of ornamental shrubs around the water, and a set of pillars with a domed roof that looked like a tiny temple. After that, there wasn’t much cover until we got to the steps that led up to the house. Orlando said there was a door to the cellars under the steps.

“Ready?” I asked Darius. “Try to keep up. Oh, and by the way, if I get the slightest hint of betrayal out of you, I’ll not only leave you behind, I’ll pay your family a visit, too.”

Darius looked wounded. “What’s it going to take for you to drop that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe complete elimination of my memory?”

Before he could answer back, I set off, keeping as low as possible, ducking behind whatever cover I could find. Darius, to his credit, was only just behind me the whole way, though I could hear him panting and puffing.

We reached the door, and I tried the knob. It opened with a rattle and we slipped into the cool darkness. I paused for a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the gloom.

“Where do we go from here?” Darius asked. I put my finger to my lips.

“Hush. We don’t know who else is down here.”

“Oh right.”

I rolled my eyes again. Did Belle feel this way about me? I was always provoking the same reaction, but I didn’t think I was anywhere near as annoying. I hoped I wasn’t, certainly.

I didn’t risk lighting a flame. Licking a finger, I could feel the air was flowing directly from ahead to behind, so there didn’t seem to be any other exits nearby. I put my hand on the wall and started walking, hoping Darius was following.

The darkness was that all-pervasive sort that makes you wonder if you are stepping through air or treacle. Darkness shouldn’t make it harder to move, but it does. It was a relief when lantern light revealed we had reached more heavily visited areas.

“If you see anyone, ignore them,” I said over my shoulder. “Whatever you do, leave any talking to me.”

My nose told me the kitchens were to the right of intersection we had reached. Up ahead got murky again, which suited me more.

“Hey, you!”

I could feel the waves of panic rolling of Darius as the voice rang down the corridor after us. I turned slowly to see a panting servant leaning against the wall.

“Cook sent me to get some more of the little…what d’ya call ‘ems,” I said, trying to send ‘calm down’ eye-signals to the wizard.

“Kumquats?” he asked and I nodded as if I knew what a kumquat was. “She wants another bag of flour too. Apparently they’re out of the asparagus canapés already. I bloody hate parties.”

I gave him a grin. “Don’t worry, I’ll grab it for you.”

“Thanks. Those cellars give me the creeps.” He turned to leave, then stopped. “What’s his story?”

“Him? He’s hopeless.” I put a hand on Darius’s shoulder. “Cook’s nearly thrown him out three times today already. His poor mother would surely die if her son lost another job. So I’m keeping him out of Cook’s way.” Without waiting to see if he bought it, I pushed Darius down the passage.

“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” he said when we were out of earshot.

“I did indeed. I hope I get the opportunity to spin the tale out a bit more. We’ll make you a legend in this place before the night is out.”

“Please don’t.”

There was a strange smell in the air, metallic, but not like blood.

“You smell that?”

Darius nodded. In the dim light I could see his hair was standing up. That didn’t bode well. I crept forwards, my hand against the wall. The corridor came to an abrupt end, presenting us with three doors, all identical.

“Which one?” I asked Darius.

“I’m not picking. You’ll blame me for whatever we find in there.”

Great. A wizard with a persecution complex. Closer investigation showed that the doors on the left and right were not locked, but the one ahead was, so that made my decision easier. I pulled out my picks, then paused.

“Can you see if there’s any magic on the lock?”

Darius nodded. “They took my stuff, but I should be able to improvise.” He reached up and plucked a hair from his head, and tied this onto a small button he pulled out of his pocket. Muttering over the make-shift pendulum, he held it near the lock. It remained resolutely still.

“Looks safe,” Darius said.

I bent down to pick the lock, and a revolting smell wafted out of the keyhole.

“Ugh, smells like something died down there.”

“Maybe we should look elsewhere. There are probably rats.”

There was a sharp click as the lock gave, and I pushed the door open. The smell was far worse now. Darius retched.

“Keep it down,” I said. “I don’t need you attracting attention by puking.”

Darius clapped a handkerchief over his mouth, struggling not to gag. I couldn’t blame him for being queasy. I’d probably be the same if there was anything in mine. I pinched my nose shut and made my way down the steps.

There were more than I was expecting. We’d descended more than two stories by my estimation when we reached another door. This one wasn’t locked, and from the way the wood was damp and warped, it wouldn’t have taken more than a kick to break through.

On the other side of the door was a large chamber. It looked natural, like a cave, rather than a cellar. A crack in the ceiling let moonlight through, washing everything in a silvery light.

The smell was better here, which made me wonder what I’d missed in the darkness of the steps.

“This looks promising, don’t you think?” I asked Darius.

“If by promising you mean distinctly eerie,” he replied. “At least it doesn’t smell like dead rat quite so much.”

The chamber was large, about twenty feet across, and roughly circular. The stone walls formed a rugged dome, glistening with moisture. There was nothing else in here, but footprints in the dust lead to the back of the chamber.

Darius pulled out his make-shift pendulum. It twitched slightly over his palm.

“There’s magic nearby.”

“Then we haven’t come all this way for nothing.”

I walked to the back of the chamber and stopped. There was a triangular gap, wide enough for both of us to walk through side by side. Which was fine, but I could see as it went further back through the rock that it got narrower and shorter until I’d be almost crawling.

“What are you waiting for?” Darius asked as I stared into the deep black, my palms sweating.

I cleared my throat. “There’s magic, right? You should go first.”

Darius looked at me. “Didn’t have you pegged as a coward, Byran.”

“I’m not. I just happen to like this shape, so I want you to go ahead and trigger any magic traps that might turn me into a toad.”

He put a hand to his chin, one finger tapping at his cheek. “You can’t be scared of the dark, and you wouldn’t get that close to Finn if you really were bothered by magic. Enclosed spaces? That’s it, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “Get down there.”

To my dismay, he patted my shoulder. “It will be fine.”

Great. Rejected in the morning and now patronised by Darius. My life had hit a new low.

“It’s not too bad,” he called from the darkness. “It’s only about fifteen feet and if you stoop, you shouldn’t need to crawl.”

I took a deep breath, regretted it due to the lingering smell, and forced myself into the passage. As the rock pushed in on me, forcing my back lower, all the air seemed to get squeezed out. My heart was loud in my ears already, and only got louder the more I was forced to duck.

Darius was right: it probably was only about fifteen feet from end to end, but it felt like I’d done about fifty when I popped out, wheezing, at the other end.

Darius offered me a hand. “Are you all right?”

I ignored it out of spite, gripping the damp wall as I pulled myself to my feet.

“N-not a word to anyone.” Though Belle already knew and I doubted Finn gave damn.

I looked around while my heart settled down. It was another roundish cave-room, but this one had tiles on the wall and a drain running round the edge. The smell was back again.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this place,” Darius muttered.

“You don’t say.” There was a lantern on the wall and I lit it with Darius’s tinderbox. Brown stains on the wall snapped into focus. “Well, that’s not good.”

“We should go,” he said, backing away. “There can’t be anything good down here.”

“You don’t know that. There might be books. If we find any, I’ll let you keep them.”

I started off towards the door – a proper, normal-looking door thankfully – and he sighed, then followed. When I opened this one, I was hit with that same smell from the steps. It was that cloying, almost sweet smell of something rotting.

It was enough that I almost agreed with Darius about leaving.

The room looked like something out of one my father’s sermons. He particularly enjoyed the ones about the underworld, and how everyone was a whisker away from condemning themselves to it. There would be pain and torment beyond imagination, he would tell us gleefully. Sadistic old goat.

There was a table in the centre of the room, grooves round the edge and a drain underneath it. Cages, some big enough for a person, stood against one wall, while a variety of tools lined the other. They ranged from the precise to the proverbial walnut-mangling hammer.

I took a step back, my heart pounding in my ears. It was taking every ounce of self-control to override my survival instincts to run. There was a reason we were down here and I needed to follow through.

I turned to Darius. The wizard’s face gleamed like a pale moon in the darkness. His hands trembled at his sides as he looked around, trying to keep his gaze falling too long on any one thing. Couldn’t blame him this time.

“Darius.” I had to snap my fingers twice before he would look at me. “Is there magic?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Then find out. I want to get out of here as much as you, but we can’t leave unless we’re sure this has nothing to do with Finn.”

He stared, eyes unfocused, at my chest – probably the only safe thing in the room – and I prepared to slap him. I wouldn’t have even taken any pleasure in it. Then he blinked and took out the button pendulum. It swung wildly over his palm.

“I’ll take that as a yes then.”

He nodded and moved his hand around in a circle. It didn’t surprise me to see it reacting more as he got closer to the central table.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he muttered. “It doesn’t mean it’s connected.”

It was my turn to put a hand on his shoulders. The muscles were tense under my fingers, like an animal at the point of flight.

“Stay by the door,” I told him. “I’ll take a look around.”

He nodded again, gratefully this time, and backed away. I walked down the row of cages, my stomach churning like the sea in a storm. Bile made the back of my throat burn. I hoped Finn appreciated the lengths I was going to for him.

Most of the cages were empty, apart from traces of blood and other things I wasn’t going to look at too closely. On the far side of the room, in one of the smaller ones, movement caught my eye.

“Byran,” Darius called, in a croaky whisper. I ignored him and carried on.

There was a rat in the last cage, lying on its side. Its little paws twitched and clenched as if the animal suffered some sort of palsy. There were gashes and scars all over its body. As I stepped closer, it opened its eyes and I knew we’d found what we were looking for: they were the same blue as flaming alcohol.

“Byran,” Darius said again, more urgently.

“Shut up. Get over here.”

The rat was dying. Its sides heaved like bellows and its eyes rolled in their sockets. I hoped this was the result of its injuries, rather than something to do with its magical nature. I didn’t want to see Finn like that.

The wizard hadn’t come over to join me. I looked up and realised I should have been paying him more attention. He was pointing urgently through the door, back the way we had come and now I understood why. There were footsteps approaching.

There was nowhere to hide in the other two chambers. The only cover between here and the upper cellars was the stone table next to me. I gestured at Darius. He gaped at me, I made a more pointed hand signal, and he got the hint. We scurried behind the big stone plinth and ducked down. The smell here was foul, but it wasn’t going to lock us in a cage and torture us until our eyes glowed at least.

The footsteps were half-drowned by my heart. I itched to peer round, get a glimpse of the person who must have been at the door by now. It could have been another servant, curious now the locked door was open. But my luck had never been that good.

“Gentlemen.” The voice rang out across the room with the confidence of a man with a very large stick. Or a bag of magic rats to back him up. “You’ve been seen coming down here. There’s no sense in hiding. I suggest you come out and explain yourselves. It will go easier for you.”

I ignored Darius tugging frantically at my sleeve and stood up. There was a single man standing at the door, his arms folded like a disgruntled parent. He didn’t look terrible threatening, but then neither did I. A fact many men had learned to their dismay.

I gave him a disarming smile. “Would you believe we were looking for kumquats?”

Advertisements

Happily Ever After, chapter one rewrite

The old, sea-warped gate in the bailey opens with a bitter squeal, dusting me in flakes of rust. I cringe at the sound, hoping the keening seagulls cover it. Sea-salt on the wind mixes with the smell of blood and anticipation in the air. I slip into the narrow space between the inner and outer bailey and signal my team to follow me.

Today, I take back my home. Today, I kill a man and end the reign of a tyrant. The idea of it makes my body tingle. Everything ends today. Either we defeat the Usurper and set the prince on the throne where he belongs, or we fail and nothing matters anymore.

“…Lavie.”

The voice makes me start and I curse under my breath. I’m getting ahead of myself and it will get me killed if I’m not careful. One of the soldiers accompanying me points up ahead and I hear something else. Footsteps.

“Sir,” I correct the man sharply as I draw my sword. “Wait here.”

I slip into the inner bailey and press my back against the wall by the steps. The unseen figure is almost at the bottom and my fingers twitch on my hilt. As he emerges, I step out and drive my sword into his belly.

Our eyes meet in the gloom. He’s not a soldier, just a runner, carrying messages and equipment where they’re needed. He’s also barely more than a boy, fifteen at most. His pale hands clutch at his stomach, trying to push the blood back, and a gurgling cry spills from his lips. I put my sword through his heart. He doesn’t even make a sigh as he falls, eyes now glassy, to the floor.

I choke down nauseous fury. Another life destroyed by the Usurper. There’s no time to mourn or rage though, and all we can do with the body is stuff it out the way by the sea-gate. Our mission is too important to jeopardise for the dignity of a corpse. I add the nameless boy to the list of those I will avenge as I wipe his blood from my sword.

In the shadow of the bailey wall, I split my team. Half make their way to the gatehouse to let in the prince’s army. The rest follow me to the keep. I can hear the battle on the wall raging, steel on steel echoing off the dark stones. Every shout and scream ignites my blood until I’m sure I must be glowing.

The killing ground between the wall and the keep is empty. Maybe the gods favour us, but a wash of dread douses my battle lust. It shouldn’t be this easy.

“Don’t stop until you’re in the keep,” I tell my men. “If anyone falls, even me, keep going. It doesn’t matter who kills the Usurper, as long as someone does.”

I want it to be me. The idea of someone else doing it disturbs me more than any thoughts of swords or arrows. Even still, I run as if every creature from the pits is after me to the heavy oak doors of the keep. They’re not barred, which sends another icy shudder through me.

I remember the way to the throne room with ease. I know that’s where he’ll be. Since our army drew up outside the castle, we haven’t seen the Usurper once. It doesn’t surprise me. He took the castle through cowardice – posing as an envoy of peace and trade, then poisoning King Reynald at a feast in his honour. He’ll be clinging to the throne as long as he can.

The steps to the throne room rise up like a mountain. For a moment, I cannot even contemplate the idea of reaching the top. My legs shake. Sweat soaks the hair under my helmet, spreading through the padding beneath my armour.

“This isn’t right,” one of the soldiers mutters. “Where is everyone?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “It ends, now.” I put one foot on the first step, then the next, and the next until I am standing at the throne room door.

There is a hastily erected barricade across the door that seems to be made mostly of the couriers’ benches. It does nothing to stop us and we tear into it like it was a suckling pig. As enough is dismantled for me to push through, I see him.

As I suspected, he’s sitting on the throne. The Usurper, the man who killed my king and plunged my home into three years of chaos, watches me with a smile. I tighten the grip on my sword and stride towards him.

“In the name of Prince Brendan, prepare to die.” My voice is too high, sharpened by my emotions. His smile grows.

Something gleams in my peripheral vision. I stagger back and catch sight of a bull of a man charging towards me.  I duck as an axe grazes the edge of my helmet.  Deafened and dazed, I bring up my sword, head ringing too much to think beyond that. He swings the axe round and the impact judders up and down my arm. My grip on the weapon falters and my heart starts to beat faster. I bite my lip, forcing myself to focus.

Kicking out, my boot connects with his knee and I push my sword forward, driving his arm back. My opponent grunts with surprise. He wasn’t expecting my strength. They never do. I thrust, out and up, catching him at the point where his gorget meets the neck of his breast plate. The sword squeals over the steel and grates on his collar bone. It does not penetrate far into his flesh, but it’s enough.  As he falls, the blood spilling from his neck in ever more feeble jets, two of my men take down another of the Usurper’s lieutenants. A third man hangs back, injured, but not fatally. I’ve gotten good at telling what’s fatal these last few years.

The Usurper stands up from the throne, King Reynald’s crown perched on his head at a disrespectfully jaunty angle. My hatred seethes like boiling oil. I signal for the others with me to stop. This is my moment. This is what I have been waiting for. His jet-black armour clanks and creaks as he steps down towards me and I examine it carefully, looking for weaknesses.

He sweeps a low bow. He wears no helmet and there are blue veins running under the skin of his hairless scalp. His eyes seem to change colour as I watch.

“I have been waiting for you,” he says in a soft voice that carries through the carnage of the throne room. I can feel the eyes of all my men on me. It makes me feel strangely naked.

“Draw your sword.” My grip tightens on my own weapon. “Or must I cut you down like a toothless dog?”

“My, the young prince did well in finding such a ferocious champion.”

Hah, shows what you know. I found him.

“Your sword,” I say again. My cheeks burn as they flush with anger.

“No need.” His voice is so smooth, like honey on a warm day. There is something equally sickly about it, and my stomach turns in a way that blood and broken bones have not managed. “No need, my dear. I surrender.”

I draw back my sword, ready to swing, ready to take his head from his shoulders. Ready to end it. And then I realise what he has said.

“I…what?”

It is not, on reflection, the best reaction. Brendan would have said something noble, and Harry would have made a quip that shattered dignity like a weapon, but I can only trip over my tongue.

The Usurper kneels at my feet, neck bent in supplication as he offers me the hilt of his sword.

“I surrender.”

 

 

Gone Fishing

Bloody bitch! Mike swore in his head as he slammed the car door. Even now, out here, he couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud. His hand trembled as he tried to force the key into the ignition, and this time he did let one out.

“Shit!”

She was standing at the window, watching him. She wouldn’t come, though. She never came to him. They’d be watching a documentary when she started the argument, something with David Attenborough and oceans, and suddenly Mike was reminded of those fish with the lights that lured their prey out of the dark depths.

That was Cassandra: an angler fish. She exuded a beautiful, warm light that never failed to ensnare him. But then came the needling teeth, telling him he wasn’t good enough, making him feel like he was something she’d trodden in. She was always trying to change him, mould him into something small, palatable. Digestible.

The car roared into life and he burned out the drive, not bothering to change gears until he was halfway down the road. The change in engine noise as he pushed it straight into third was like a sigh of relief.

“Sorry,” he muttered. The car didn’t deserve to be punished for his mistakes. It was his fault. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. God, I’m starting to believe her. That wasn’t the worst, though. The worst was he knew he’d be back. Maybe not tonight. Or tomorrow. But at some point that light would catch his attention and he’d go swimming right back to his destruction.

He headed away from suburbia, out onto the main road through the woods. There was a housing development planned and in a couple of years they’d be gone, replaced by neat semis filled with women like Cassandra. The thought made Mike sick.

He pulled over, not the wisest plan, but the road was empty. He hadn’t seen another soul on it. The headlights lit a strip up ahead of the car, and either side of it faded grey to black in just a few metres. There was no colour anywhere.

Mike walked round to the passenger side, sucking in deep breaths of cold air. The night was still, calm. He was not. His heart pounded and his hands shook. He wanted a cigarette more than anything, but of course, she’d binned them all ages ago.

Maybe…

Maybe, just maybe, there might be one in the glove-box. The car was the one thing that was still his, and perhaps, if he was very lucky, one might have escaped her grasp. He opened the door and leaned in, rooting around desperately.

“Help me!”

Mike stood up, slamming his head against the door. Unsuccessfully stifling a cry, he turned to see who had spoken. There was a girl, standing at the edge of the trees, looking at him. She looked to be about seven or eight, though Mike wasn’t very good at guessing that sort of thing, wearing a long white dress, probably a nightie.

“Um, are you okay?” he asked, not knowing what you were supposed to say to small girls who approached you at the side of the road in their night clothes. He looked nervously up and down the road, half hoping someone would come along to take the responsibility off his hands.

“Please, help me. It’s my mummy,” she said, pulling at a blonde pigtail. “She’s fallen down and she won’t get up.”

“Okay. Um. Don’t worry. I’ll call for help.” He reached into the car and then swore. His mobile was still sitting on Cassandra’s couch. She was probably going through his text messages right now. “Um. Sorry.”

The girl’s face seemed to crumble, and her wide eyes glistened.

“Oh, God, don’t cry. Please don’t cry,” Mike begged. “Where’s your mummy?”

She took his hand in hers. It was warm, and soft. Somehow he found himself comforted by it. Come on, he told himself. You can do this. Help this kid and show Cassandra you’re not a permanent fuck-up.

The girl led him deeper into the woods. There was no moon tonight and Mike could barely see more than a few steps ahead of him. She moved confidently, though, tugging on his hand as he tripped and stumbled. It was getting colder, though that may have been down to his anger dissipating. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before he was shivering convulsively.

“How much further to your house?” he asked.

“Not much.”

She didn’t sound so scared now, and Mike felt a small glow of pride. He didn’t know what he was going to be able to do for her mother, but at least he had given this little girl some comfort.

“Up here.” She tugged at him, pulling him left and up a slope. Brambles scratched at his ankles, drawing blood. There was a strange sound, like something being dragged ahead of them, but it was too dark to see anything. Mike found his heart beating a bit faster.

“Come on!” Her nails dug into his hand like thorns. “Nearly there!”

It was getting lighter. Mike assumed they were approaching a housing estate, until the emerged in a clearing. Everything was still grey, but the trees and bushes were no longer a black, indistinguishable mass. Something else was visible. He blinked, just to make sure, but his vision remained the same.

There was a woman lying in the centre of the clearing.

“Mummy,” the girl said, pointing. Mike nodded, his throat dry. What was he supposed to do here? He wasn’t a doctor, and the closest he came to first aid was knowing you were supposed to do CPR to the rhythm of Nelly the Elephant. He swallowed, feeling his palms growing slick against hers.

Mike let go of the girl and took a step towards her mother. She was lying with her back to him, her long, black hair loose and spilling onto the forest floor. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a cough. Mike cleared his throat and tried again.

“Ma’am? Can you hear me?”

There was no answer, so he took another step, and then another, until he was kneeling by her side. She did not seem to be breathing.  He put a hand on her shoulder, terrified it would be cold and stiff, but it was soft and giving. It didn’t feel much like flesh. He tugged gently and she rolled over.

Mike felt his heart seize up. Every drop of blood in his veins turned to ice and the air rushed from his lungs in a long hiss. He tried to back away, but his limbs were rubbery and useless.

It wasn’t a woman. He didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t human. Running down her body, from the base of her neck to her belly-button, was a long slit. As Mike watched in horror, it started to widen, and before long he could see long, razor sharp teeth emerging. It pushed itself up, so it was standing crab-wise on hands and feet, and came towards him. The thing’s head twisted to stare at him with dead eyes.

Mike scrabbled against the ground, desperately trying to get to his feet. The thing stalked towards him slowly, unconcerned by his actions. Just as its hand was reaching for him, he managed to push up and stumbled back the way he had come, unable to take his eyes off the thing.

“Mummy! Help my Mummy!”

The girl was laughing, dancing around him. Her features were twisted in a ghoulish smile that made Mike’s stomach clench. He turned to run and fell flat on his face. Mike cried out in pain and fear. Looking over his shoulder, he could see something wrapped around his ankle. There was a cord, almost invisible, and when he followed it he could see one end ran from the girl and the other to her “mother”.

The thing was the mouth was getting closer. He could smell it now, a mixture of spoiled meat and rotting sea-weed. Desperately he clawed at the ground, trying to get purchase, but he could not pull himself to his feet. He screamed, begged, prayed for someone, anyone, find him, until words merged together and he was babbling incoherently.

The long, needle-like teeth of the creature closed on his legs, turning Mike into fishfood.

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Goblins

This is a first draft, and the title likely to change too.

Two hours to sunrise and I was already running for my life. Not the best start to the morning, I had to admit, even for me. The sound of dogs – large, angry dogs – was horribly close as I pounded down the muddy streets. Jake the Lock was going to be in trouble when I caught up with him. Selling shoddy lock-picks was fine as far as I was concerned – less competition in the thieving business that way – but selling them to me? There were going to be words about this.

This was the nicer part of the city, which sadly meant it was comprised of wide open streets and houses full of people who noticed things like strange men running through the night. Even the mud was higher quality. I had one chance of survival and I didn’t like it much.

I could practically smell the dogs’ breath now. My destination was in sight, but I wasn’t as confident as I liked to be. I don’t like uncertainty. I don’t get out of bed for less than pretty damn sure. Unless I’m really hungry.

Something snapped at my ankle. I didn’t look round, because only people who want to end up dead look round, but I knew I was in trouble. Story of my life. I blamed my mother.

The creature snapped again, catching fabric this time. I winced as I felt damp teeth slide over my skin. The dog pulled and my foot slipped. I twisted with the practiced reflexes of one who has been in this situation far too often. I wasn’t going to become a mud-covered dog-toy for anyone.

Weight now firmly on my back foot, I pulled the knife out of my right sleeve and threw it. I always kept my least favourite blade there because it was the one I went for first and thus was most likely to lose. I was rewarded with a squeal and the dog let go, pawing at its face. If I’d been an animal person, I’d have felt bad. I’m more of a me person, though.

There were two more dogs barrelling up the street towards me and I resigned myself to losing more than one knife. I’d take the money out of Jake the Lock. As the second dog hit the ground with a whine, I heard a cry of dismay. Great. The masters had caught up with their pets. I spun, slipped a couple of steps and regained my balance.

Yes, there were definitely going to be words.

The bridge loomed up ahead, glowing in the light of the torches. It was a beautiful bridge: statues at each end, smooth, white stone body. I had no time for beautiful things. Ugly things had more honesty in my books. And more value.

Two guards were walking across it, away from me, but they stopped and turned at the sound of shouting. That’s why guards have such a low life expectancy in this city. Always doing silly things like turning round and investigating crimes. These two were lucky. I didn’t have the time, effort or inclination for a fight.

I put on a burst of speed, using the last of my energy, and reached the parapet before they did. Two hands on the cold stone, I swung myself over and then I was falling towards the river, praying I was correct about the depth here. The last thing I needed right now was a broken leg.

The river was freezing and it knocked all the breath out of me as I sank under the surface. Looked like it wasn’t broken bones that were my biggest worry. The current was strong, pulling me towards the ocean like a prized possession. My lungs burned and I had to fight the primal urge to take a breath with all my might.

It was dark too. I couldn’t see the surface. Which way was survival and which way was murky, bottom-feeding death? I kicked, not having any other option, and hoped I was going the right way. I don’t like praying. It can attract attention.

My head broke the surface and I gasped, drawing in a breath of air sweeter than honey. I looked back towards the bridge. The guards and my pursuers were still standing looking for me, but they were a good way away now, thanks to the current. As if to make the point, an arrow hit the water more than ten feet from my little toe. I ducked my head back under the water, leaving my middle finger above the surface for a moment longer, and then swam on.

The river is the blood supply of the city. It passed though the whole length, which meant it was able to drop me off close to home. Pulling myself out, I shook off, making a largely futile attempt to at least prevent myself from dripping. I was cold, tired, and I stank, but damn if the city didn’t stink more.

I think that’s why I loved the city of Neros so much. It reminded me I wasn’t the most unfortunate thing out there.

“Hello, Trouble,” a voice purred in my ear.

I jumped, tripped over my ankle, and ended up on my butt. No, this really wasn’t my day.

“Dammit, Belle, I told you not to do that.”

“Do what?” she asked innocently, twisting a lock of white-gold hair around her finger. Belle was very good at playing the innocent, but it was a bad idea to fall for it. Give her an inch, and she’d break your arm and take your purse before you could say kitty-cat. “Scare you or call you Trouble?”

“Both,” I muttered as I allowed her to help me up.

“It is your name.”

“It’s my middle name.” Seriously. What parent would saddle their kid with that kind of baggage? My mother claimed she could smell trouble on me from the start. If that were true, you’d think she’d keep a better eye on her valuables around me. My “leaving-home fund” had set me up nicely.

Belle looked at me with those golden eyes – the only part of her condition visible – and then said the magic word: “Breakfast?”

“Only if you’re paying,” I said, because she’d expect it. Truth was, I’d give my right arm for some dry clothes and a hot meal right now.

“It’s fine. I’ve got this.” She put her hand on my shoulder and then took it off again with a grimace. “Ugh, you’re cold.”

“Happens when you go swimming before dawn. I’ll meet you at Dales?”

“Sure.” She turned away, heading back up the street at an easy saunter. Men got out of her way. In her human form, Lylabelle was a big woman with the grace and temperament of a bear fresh out of hibernation. She was the ideal partner in crime for a number of reasons, not least being her ability to roll people up into little balls of broken limbs.

My home was a single room over a fishmonger’s shop. It didn’t smell great, but it was better than a tanner’s yard. Moll was setting up as I arrived.

“Got a message for you, Byran,” she called. That’s why I liked Moll. Not What time is this to be rolling home? or Why do you look like a drowned rat?

“Thanks. Anything I need to actually listen to?” Lots of people left me messages, but most of them weren’t worth my time.

“Something about a job. Be at the Jugged Hare tonight if you’re interested.”

“That’s it? Just ‘a job’?”

“That’s all he said, and I wasn’t going to press him for details. You’ve got your work, By, and I’ve got mine. And never the twain shall meet, you hear?”

I gave her a grin. “Fair, fair. Guess I’ll have to wait and see.”

“Go on, get on with you before I mistake you for a fish and put you out on display.”

I sometimes wondered how I would have turned out if I’d been raised by a woman like Moll. She’d never call a child Trouble.

Dry and changed, I made my way to Dales, an eating establishment of cheap but dubious nature. I found Belle sitting at a table in the corner of the room. The woman knew me well.

“Breakfast is on its way,” she said as I sat down opposite her. “Do you fancy telling me what you were doing in the river?”

“Practicing my technique?” I suggested and she gave me a very dirty look. “Fine. I was escaping. A job went bad. Which reminds me. I need to drop in on Jake later.”

“Can I watch?”

A couple of bowls were set in front of us, hot and greasy. Belle slipped the man some coins. She, at least, had a productive evening.

“If you like. Might have something else lined up if you’re looking for work?”

She slurped down a mouthful and wiped her hand over her lips. “My day job pays fine. Look at this.” She set a leather collar decorated with rose quartz on the table.

“Cute. You could wear it as a bracelet.”

“People pay good money for cute, By. Probably why you’ll never amount to anything. Oh, don’t pout. Tell me about your job. I could use some more excitement in my life and you’re good for that, at least.”

“Well.” I cleared my throat. “I don’t really know much about it. Someone left a message saying be at the Jugged Hare tonight if I wanted to know more.”

Belle laughed, and flicked a lump of congealed fat from her bowl at me. “The Hare isn’t excitement, Byran. It’s a death-wish. You been pissing people off again?”

If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was concerned. “Not deliberately. Not interested then?”

“Are you?” she asked, one eyebrow raised. “Seriously, you can’t be considering going to a dangerous place on the word of a complete stranger because there might be a job in it for you? Are things really that tight at the moment?”

Now she did sound concerned and it made me bristle. I didn’t want her sympathy. But… “Things have been lean for a while. I could use a well paying job.”

“Fine. We’ll check it out. Can’t have you depending on me for breakfast every day.”

It wasn’t the breakfast that bothered me. But I was getting to the point where making rent was going to be tough and I didn’t want to let Moll down.

“Whatever it is, I want a good cut.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything yet!” I finished the last greasy mouthfuls and set the bowl down. “Meet you at dusk?”

She picked up my bowl to lick it clean and gave me a dismissive wave.

I only meant to go home for a couple of hours of sleep, but I woke to something soft butting my head in a darkened room. Great. I rolled over to find myself staring into a pair of amber eyes. On a small, buttermilk-coloured kitten.

“That’s how you’re going, Belle?”

The kitten made a soft chirruping sound.

“Fat lot of good you’re going to be if a fight breaks out.”

Somehow her expression managed to convey the fact that she had chosen that shape for exactly that reason. She had a point, I supposed. It was easier to slip out of a bad situation as a kitten than a woman.

“Whatever. Come on, let’s go.” I held out my arm and she scrambled up to my shoulder, where she gave my cheek a friendly rub. She was always better natured and more affectionate as a kitten.

The streets were still busy an hour after dusk. People making their way home, or going out in search of beer and good company. Lovers on their way to trysts. There were fewer on the approach to the Jugged Hare, a dank establishment that backed onto the river. I wasn’t sure whether that was for the smuggling connections or simply because it made it easier to dump the bodies after the inevitable knife fights.

The place attracted a very particular clientele. Mostly men who all believed they were the toughest thing in the room. As long as no one made the claim out loud, there was relative peace. Of course, someone always did.

I pushed open the door, and tried to ignore the quiet as everyone present took in a stranger entering. Every eye would be on me, and if I made contact with any of them, and they saw weakness, I’d be looking for my kidney on the floor.

There was a table in the back corner that looked dark and empty enough for me. Belle dropped down and made herself comfortable on my lap. I paid a passing barmaid one of my few precious coins in return for a pint of what appeared to be horse-piss.

And then I waited.

That’s how these things work. You sit there, trying to work out who is watching you. And they try to work out if you’re genuine or if you’ve got the city guards or a rival gang waiting outside the door. Either of us moves too soon and the whole thing will fall apart.

About an hour and another begrudging beer later, someone approached my table. He was wearing a hood, his face invisible in the murky inn. I wasn’t surprised. Keeping an advantage like that is common. So I was a little surprised when he lowered it.

“Are you Byran Tarn?”

“Who wants to know?” I took a drink, trying to be nonchalant. It was a mistake. It’s hard to be casual when you’re trying to suppress your gag reflex.

I tried to size him up slyly, then decided there was little point in being subtle. This man wasn’t a threat. He was tall and thin, with floppy brown hair and a good crop of pimples. He looked like what would happen if you put a twelve-year-old on a rack and stretched him up to adult size.

“My name’s Darius Small. I was told to meet you here.”

“Really. And who told you that?”

Darius scratched at his ear. “I don’t know his name. He said come here and find you and I’d find out more. I’m guessing you don’t know anything then?”

“Didn’t say that.” I didn’t, of course, but I wasn’t going to admit it. “Sit down. You’re making people nervous and that’s not something you want to do around here.”

He swallowed, looking around him, while I tried to calculate my odds of getting out of here with both kidneys. They were dropping fast. As soon as he was sitting, the barmaid set a flagon down in front of him. I held my breath until he paid for it.

“So, Darius. What exactly is it that you do?”

“I’m…” He lowered his voice to a timid whisper. “I’m a wizard.”

That wasn’t good. I didn’t have much time for those who thought poking the fabric of reality with a sharp stick was a good idea. And those who did it without a licence terrified me, frankly. There are few things more likely to cause disaster than a man who proclaims “I don’t know what I am doing, but I’m going to do it anyway!” I felt Belle shift on my lap. She didn’t have much fondness for magic, either.

“Why do you have a cat?” Darius asked as she poked her head over the table.

“In case I get hungry.” Darius went a dangerous shade of green, but I was more concerned about the way Belle was digging her claws into my leg. I flicked the back of her soft head. “Don’t have a sense of humour failure. This is Lylabelle, my associate,” I added, looking up at Darius.

“But she’s a cat,” he said.

“The wizards are really missing out, not having you in their ranks,” I muttered. “She’s a cat currently. Sometimes she’s not. She’s a were-kitten.”

“Then…she’s very young?”

“Only in this form. Look, it’s a long story and she gets grumpy when I tell it, but the short version is be very careful what you wish for.”

“Oh.”

I was grateful when he didn’t press the matter. Belle was more comfortable with her situation these days, especially now she had learned to make money from it. People didn’t much like cats, outside of the necessary mousing business. But a cute kitten that would come to your house, be attentive to you for a few hours, and then leave without demanding anything thing more than a few coins? Belle had found being a sentient kitten was surprisingly well received in city full of busy, anxious, and lonely people.

Not pressing the matter meant we sat in silence, which was unfortunate. I decided to give it another ten minutes and then risk leaving. I wanted to at least hear the proposal, but I wasn’t particularly interested in being forced to buy another drink, or spending more time with the wizard. He made me nervous in more ways than I had fingers to count.

“Well, looks like we’re all here.”

I jumped for the second time that day, almost spilling my drink. Belle dug her claws in, arching her back. Darius, to my chagrin, seemed the least fazed of the three of us.

“Are you going to tell us what’s going on?” he said to man who had appeared, ghost-like, at our table. There was a nervous tremor to the wizard’s voice that made it sound as if his voice was breaking again.

The stranger slipped into a chair and looked around at us with a predatory grin. He was a weasel-like man, slender, but with the air of one who’d rip your throat out if you looked at him wrong.

“I hope, gentlemen, that I’m going make you very rich.”

I very nearly got up there and then. A good rule in this city is that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A lesson I learned from Belle.

“Most people don’t have a problem with rich,” he said, catching my eye. I pushed myself back down in the seat.

“Most people have less brains than fleas,” I replied, running my hand down Belle’s back. It was relaxing, I had to admit, and I needed to keep my calm. “When a man says he’s going to make you rich, he usually means he’s going to rob you blind. Begging your pardon, of course.”

I watched him, waiting for the reaction that would show I was right. But either I was mistaken, or he was a very good actor. I decided to hope for the former but assume the latter.

“The only robbing is going to be done by your good selves,” he said, resting his elbows firmly on the table. “My boss needs something stolen. Get it for him, and you can take anything you like from the property. Rich pickings, I promise.”

“And if I choose to walk away?” I didn’t like the way the man was smiling. Never trust a man who smiles but isn’t happy.

“Of course you are completely free to do that. But I would like to let you in on a little secret. We picked you two carefully, which meant we watched you closely. And that means we know everything there is to know about you. Where you live, where you sleep. Who your friends are. What you care about. So, walk away if you like, my friend. But I promise you it won’t be the last you hear from us.”

I knew he was going to say something like that.

 

The Worst Kidnapping in the Galaxy – Short Story

This …was not going to plan.

I stared at the body in front of me, dribbling dark red blood onto my cream Antarian leather upholstery.  That was going to stain, no doubt about it. I took a deep breath. Stains were really not the most important thing here.

No, the important thing was that I had a human rock-star in my spaceship and I wasn’t sure if he was still alive. I tried to remember that module of xeno-biology I had taken in the first year. It was a struggle, because I’d mostly taken it to ogle the beautiful silicate life-form from Epsilon-Perseii IX. The memory of her sand-coloured body and scent like the cliffs looking over the beach at home filled my mind, driving out any thought of human anatomy.

“Uuugh…”

That was a good sign, right? They didn’t do that if they were dead, right? I forced away the memory of Raffitia, and looked back at Zayne: human, rock-star, drop dead gorgeous. I liked to think of myself as an appreciator of the greatest art-form there is: the living being. I didn’t like saying that out loud though, because it made me sound unbearably pretentious.

Zayne groaned again and I leaned closer. His skin was a shade paler than my expensive leather seats and it probably wasn’t due to being coated in makeup. His glossy, dark hair fell in soft waves over his neck and shoulders, with a few locks straying over his face. I had an irresistible urge to brush them away, so I could see his long, delicate eyelashes and sharp cheekbones.

I was just reaching for him, when Zayne opened his eyes. He blinked twice, made a choking sound and spewed a foul-smelling liquid all over my boots. I was pretty sure that wasn’t a good sign. I leapt back as he sat up, added to the puddle twice more, and then lay back down again, resting a hand over his eyes.

“Um, Zayne?”

He sat up again and blinked slowly, squinting around him. His eyes, dark as an empty patch of space, seemed blank and unfocused. He groaned and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Where am I?”

His voice sounded different to how I remembered it. It still had that melodic quality that made it ring, but it sounded weaker now, and there was a trace of an accent that hadn’t been there before.

“You’re…” There didn’t seem much point in hiding it now. “You’re aboard my spaceship.”

If he heard me, I don’t think he understood. His eyes settled on me and I felt my hearts quiver slightly. A delicious shiver ran down my left-hand spine.

“Tom. What the hell did you slip me?”

“Slip you?” I wished I’d studied harder before coming here. Then I might be more familiar with the local idioms. Then I might not have a semi-conscious rock-star in my ship and his breakfast all over my shoes.

“Yeah. You drugged me, didn’t you? Someone did.”

I thought he might be annoyed at this, or maybe frightened, but he sounded resigned.

“So, what’s the ransom this time? Let’s get this over with quickly.”

“Ransom?” I repeated, hating myself for sounding so stupid. There was just something about this man that turned my very core to a quivering mess, like fresh slatch-cake.

Zayne sighed, gently probing at the cut on his forehead with an elegant finger. It had mostly stopped leaking now, at least. “You know, Tom, you may be an even worse kidnapper than you were photographer.” He reached into the pocket of his tight leather trousers and tossed something silver at me. “Go on, make the call. I’ve got better things to do than sit here surrounded by my blood and puke.”

I looked down at the little silver rectangle in my hand. “Zayne, I have a confession to make. I’m not a photographer, and I’m not a kidnapper.”

He laughed, though I couldn’t detect any humour in it. “The first one I guessed. The second one is going to require some more explanation.”

“Can you walk?” I asked him, offering my hand. He gripped it and stood up slowly. Zayne took an experimental step forward, but stumbled and ended up clutching my arm tightly. That shiver was racing up and down both my spines now. “Are… are you all right?”

He nodded, though his face was not just pale but vaguely green now. “I’m good. Are you sure you didn’t drug me?”

“No, I hit you with a mic stand.” I hung my head. “Sorry about that.”

“What did you do that for?”  Now he sounded annoyed and I couldn’t really blame him. He was still gripping my arm like a tractor beam, though.

“I wasn’t aiming for you! It all got a bit out of hand after I kissed you.”

We had been slowly moving across the deck of the ship towards the main screen. Zayne was concentrating on his feet, every now and then making these odd coughing-hiccup sounds that were both adorable and alarming. Now he looked up and his face went whiter than the sky on Rigel VII.

“Tom…That’s the Earth,” he murmured, pointing at the screen. “Why is the Earth down there? Where are we, Tom? Where the hell are we?” His fingers dug into my arm.

I took a deep breath. No one ever taught me how to deal with situations like this at university. “We’re in orbit around the Earth. On my spaceship. And my name isn’t Tom. It’s Xct.”

“Now I know you drugged me!” Zayne laughed, his eyes wide. “No way am I actually orbiting the Earth on a spaceship with an alien named Zit.”

“Xct. It’s pronounced Xct.”

“I don’t think I can pronounce that.”

“It’s possible. You do lack an Olfman’s organ.”

Zayne stared at me, as if he had forgotten how to blink. Then his eyes rolled up in their sockets and he collapsed in my arms with a soft sigh.

Zayne woke up about five minutes later, and I was careful to keep my boots away this time. Fortunately he didn’t seem too bad and was able to sit up and watch me with a guarded expression almost immediately after coming round.

“So, Tom or Zit or whatever your name is. Perhaps you better start from the beginning.”

I nodded slowly, feeling strangely nervous. I was aboard my ship; I wasn’t injured; in fact everything was in my control. But I felt terrified at revealing my true self to Zayne. What if he didn’t like what he heard?

“My name’s Xct, and I’m a second year student at Betelgeuse University,” I said, not meeting his eye. “I won a sports scholarship, as I’m not exactly what you would call academic. Last year I took a module in pan-galactic music because it sounded easy and the lecturer was hot. I heard your songs and they… they were like nothing I’d ever heard before. They were like… like…a storm in a nebular crossed with your first kiss crossed with the most painful memory imaginable. They spoke to me, and that was really strange because I didn’t understand the words.”

Zayne frowned, but his expression had softened somewhat. “You’re a fan? I have an alien fan?”

“Oh, you’ve got lots of fans, but I’m your biggest.”

“They all say that,” he laughed. “Go on.”

“Well, I really wanted to see you in person, and this year I found a way. There was a journalism module that included a project to make a report on something outside your own culture. I got my father to pull some strings – planets which don’t have official contact are generally off limits – and he set me up as a photographer for this music magazine who was doing an interview with you.”

Zayne was starting to believe me, I could tell. His eyes were still wide, and his cute mouth was hanging open, but somehow I knew he didn’t think I was lying.

“That… that explains why you were in my dressing room, and why you took such lousy photographs. But not why you hit me with a mic stand. That bit’s still a little hazy.”

I looked down at my boots. I’d cleaned the mess off them, but they still reminded me of my shame. “I…er… I didn’t mean to hit you. You have to believe me on that. You’d just started singing a few lines of your newest track, and I lost it. I just had to kiss you. Have you ever felt like that? Like your life will end right there and then if you can’t touch a person?”

“I can’t say that I have,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. There was a blush of red across his narrow cheeks and I hoped that wasn’t another bad sign.

“Well, one day you will. It’s powerful. You need to feel it for yourself.” I cleared my throat. I was getting away from the point. “I had to kiss you and so I did and you looked shocked, but you didn’t pull away. And then suddenly there was this man in the room and he was yelling, and you were yelling, and then you were crying and I just knew I had to stop him. So I grabbed the mic stand and I swung at him. Unfortunately, you tripped and got in my way and I knocked you out. You fell into my arms and I panicked, so I teleported back to my ship.”

Zayne licked his lips. “I do remember that. That was my dad who was yelling. My music is aimed at the teenage girl market, and he doesn’t like anything that jeopardises said teenage girls idolizing me. Kissing another man in front of a reporter was pretty much the ultimate sin. Wonder what he’d say if he knew you were actually an alien.”  He looked up at me with those big, deep eyes that just seem to pull me in. “So what happens now?”

“I’ll have to get everything cleaned up. There will need to be memory-wiping, and any camera footage erased. I’ll get into a lot of trouble. They might even kick me out of university.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“It was worth it,” I replied and I meant every word.

“Will they have to wipe my memory too?” he asked quietly. “I… I don’t think I want that.”

“Sorry, it’s the rules.”

“But I don’t want to forget!” he cried out, clenching his fists. “I never wanted to be a rock-star. I wanted to be an astronomer. Or maybe one of those people that wave ping-pong bats in front of aircraft. I hate crowds and stage lights make my head hurt. My name isn’t even Zayne. It’s Roger. Roger Davis. Not very rock-star, is it?”

He was breathing heavily, his face scrunched up. I hated to seem him hurt, and hated more that I was the cause of it. But what could I do to make things right? Maybe… I reached out and touched his hand, which made him look up sharply.

“Want to run away for a bit? We’ll probably get in even more trouble, but this is a pretty sweet ship and I think I can show you a few things before they catch up with us.” It wouldn’t fix anything. In fact, it would make everything a thousand times worse. Looking in his eyes, though, I could see he was thinking the same thing. And like me, he didn’t give a damn.

“That… that sounds amazing. Can we see Saturn? And the storm on Jupiter? And get up close to a comet?”

“Anything you want.” His enthusiasm was adorable. “Let me show you the galaxy, Roger Davis.”

“You know, I was wrong about you, Zit,” he said, squeezing my hand. I let out an involuntary squeak. “You’re the best kidnapper I’ve ever had.”

Dead Oak – a short story

I had to face up to it: I was lost. The forest stretched all around me, an identical mosaic of green and brown, as though I was seeing the same photograph on every side. There was no path, no sign of civilisation at all. I might have been the last man alive or the first to visit this God-forsaken place for all I knew. If I didn’t find Siskin, or someone, soon then I was going to be in real trouble.

I do not know what man sees in nature. Give me a pipe, an open fire, and a good measure of aged scotch and I am the happiest man alive. Fresh air causes chills, I’m sure of it. But Siskin had insisted on a “ramble” as he called it, and I did so want to make a good impression, for a number of reasons. So I borrowed his walking shoes and put on a coat and hat too good for the occasion, then followed him out into the great outdoors.

And promptly lost him.

Goodness knows how it happened. One minute we were side by side, discussing some oddity of English law, and the next he was nowhere in sight. I admit I had been watching my feet, rather than him, because I was concerned about the mud. It seemed to me that it would have been terribly rude to spoil a fellow’s shoes, even if they were his second pair. Suddenly there was only silence, broken once by the harsh call of a magpie. I haven’t heard a living soul since.

There wasn’t even anywhere to sit down and bemoan my fate. I wrapped my arms around me, trying not to shiver. The evening was drawing in, and the sun, coloured like a poached egg, was sinking lower in the sky. Siskin had promised we would just be out for an hour or so and would be back before tea was served. His dear, sweet sister, Lucy – one of the reason for wanting to make a good impression – waved us off at the doorstep and called “Watch out for the Witch!” Siskin had laughed it off as a local superstition when I queried her words, and told me not to worry about it.

I think I would rather face a witch than this forest, I thought to myself. At least she could make me some hot eye-of-newt soup! It was such a silly thought, it made me laugh out loud, which was a terrible mistake. My voice sounded harsh and unnatural, and suddenly I was aware that everything would now know where I was. I could feel hundreds of eyes watching me from the undergrowth, which sent a shudder down my spine.

I set off, not really caring which way I went. The sound of my feet in the dead leaves was like whispering, harsh and cruel, and the feeling of being watched only grew stronger. The shadows were growing longer, deeper, reaching for me. I had to stop and give myself a stern talking-to. There had not been wolves or bears in this country for hundreds of years and never anything worse. Still, I crossed myself, just to be sure.

Up ahead, I saw something that gave me heart. It was an old, dead oak tree, standing in the centre of a clearing. This was something new, something I could use to prove I was not simply walking round in circles. How large can this forest be? I wondered. Surely if I walk with my back to the tree I will come across civilization before very long. I found myself walking faster in anticipation of a hot supper.

The oak tree was clearly once a magnificent specimen, even a city man such as myself could see that. I wondered how many years it had stood, how many kings and queens had reigned during its lifetime. It had been struck by lightning, splitting the tree in half right down to just able the height of a man. The branches that remained were bleached white, jutting out like fleshless limbs. There was no moss anywhere on the tree, and nothing grew at all for about fifteen feet around it. The air was still and silent as a graveyard.

Despite the eerie atmosphere of the place, my spirits were raised. I filled my time pondering what would be for supper. I hoped it would be something warm, as the night was almost upon me and there was a distinct nip in the air. Picking up my pace, I thought of Lucy, waiting with concern on the doorstep. Oh, how I longed to see her sweet face again.

And then I stopped.

There, up ahead of me, was a familiar sight. Through the otherwise identical green vegetation I could see the tips of the old, dead oak. It couldn’t be, though, could it? Looking back over my shoulder, I saw only green, but I was certain I had not been turned around. It must surely be another dead tree.

But it was.

Not only was the tree identical, but there on the dark earth, were my footprints. I placed my shoe in one, just to be sure, and it was a perfect match. My heart was starting to pound in my chest and I was shaking like a new-born lamb. Oh, how I wished for a good stiff drink to settle my nerves! I followed my footprints across the clearing to where they disappeared into the forest.

I must have gotten turned around. That was the only explanation. I decided not to try the same thing again, but set off out the exit on the left hand side of the clearing. As I passed, I noticed a strange shadow below one of the lower branches. I couldn’t see what was causing it, but decided not to dwell on the matter. The sun had almost set by now, and the forest was growing steadily darker. In my haste, I tripped repeatedly over roots and fallen branches, catching my clothes and skin on the vicious vegetation. The whole damn forest seemed to be out to get me.

Head down and arms up to protect myself, I ploughed on through the forest, sustaining myself only on thoughts of Lucy. It was almost completely dark, now the sun had set, but every now and then a sliver of moonlight would break free from behind the clouds to grant me a brief moment of illumination. I was exhausted, cold and thoroughly miserable by then. I would have sold my own grandmother for the way home by that point.

There it was again!

I was quite sure I was going mad now. In front of me was that oak tree, pale and menacing, and there were my footprints, criss-crossing across the clearing. My heart was slamming against my breast, trying to break free no doubt. This couldn’t be happening! Tremors wracked my frightened body and I’m sure my eyes were as wide as teacups. Was this my doom? To find myself forever in the shadow of this dead tree?

As I looked up, the dark shape I had noticed the last time seemed sharper, more defined, even in the gloom of night. It was a little way below the branch, and seemed to twist slightly in the air as a watched in growing horror. I thought of Lucy and her telling the story of the witch as we sat talking after dinner yesterday. No, wait, that wasn’t right. She’d mentioned it on the door-step? Hadn’t she?

I clutched at my head, feeling sick with fear. Not only was my direction all twisted up, but my memories seemed to be, too. I was forgetting something. Something important.. With a cry, I took to my heels, running blindly into the depths of the forest. Twigs and thorns snatched at me like grasping fingers. Roots leaped up from the floor, trying to pull me down or break my ankle. I sobbed like a frightened child in a thunderstorm.

What was happening to me? What had I done to deserve such a fate? I had a sudden vision of Lucy, her sweet face contorted in shock. But I would never do anything to hurt her? Why, I had come to the house with the very idea of seeking permission to court her from her brother. Tears ran down my face, and I could scarcely breath for the terror that gripped at my chest.

My foot snagged and spilled onto the ground, my knees sinking into the cold, dark earth. I shut my eyes, for I knew all too well what I would see when I opened them. There was a strange noise, a creaking sound almost, rhythmic. The moon emerged; I could see its milky light from behind the shade of my eyelids. Though my body shook and the tears fell freely, I lifted my head and saw it, swinging above me.

I remembered everything. I remembered broaching the subject of courtship with Siskin, and him laughing at me. When he saw my shock and anger at his reaction, saw that I was serious, he told me there were other suitors lined up for Lucy, and to let the matter lie. I flew into such a rage, demanding to know why I was not good enough, what right he had to judge me so. We quarrelled, loudly and violently, and the dark rage over came me. I pulled out my gun and I shot him dead, just as poor, sweet Lucy walked into the room to see what all the fuss was about. Seeing what I had done to her, I fled the house with one thing on my mind.

There was a body, hanging from a noose on the dead oak tree. And what was more… It was mine.

Happily Ever After – Extract 2

After defeating the last of the Usurper’s forces, Lavie joins her friend Harry and Prince Brendan for breakfast…

(Please note, this has not been edited)

They’re sitting at the small, round table near the west window. The sun streams in, as if eager to join in the meal. Harry, because manners are not catching, is speaking with his mouth full and Brendan is laughing.

I stop in the main room, just listening. Maybe I’m just tired and worn out, but I suddenly feel strangely peaceful and content. I think I can finally believe the war is over. This is how our lives should be from now onwards.

“Lavie! What are you doing standing around like a serving wench?” Harry calls.

I stalk over to the table, grabbing the chicken leg out of his hand as I do. He tries to protest but I’ve already taken a bite out of it.

“Call me a wench again and I’ll cut off your unmentionables,” I warn him, waggling the drumstick. He makes a grab at it, leaning over the table and almost sending a dish of boiled eggs flying.

“Perhaps it was best that my uncle did not join us,” Brendan comments as he butters a slice of bread.

Harry slinks back into his chair. “Sorry.”

“Oh, don’t let me stop you. This is all very amusing. The Battle of Breakfast.” He picks a rose out of the vase in the centre of the table. “Here, I shall give a favour to the winner.”

I’m definitely tired, I decide, as the giggles bubble up from inside me. It’s been a long, long time since anything seemed this funny. As I am laid helpless by mirth, Harry seizes the opportunity to reclaim the drumstick. With a triumphant cry, he stands, one foot on his chair and eats it as proudly as if it were the heart of his mortal enemy. Brendan gives him a round of applause that only sounds slightly mocking and offers him the flower.

Yes, life doesn’t get better than this.

After that, conversation dies away while we eat in earnest. I haven’t had a full meal in days, just picked at bits and pieces. I’m used to it, snatching a bite when I can, but that means I enjoy the luxury of being able to sit down to a meal all the more.

The Battle of Breakfast is about to break out again over the last of the eggs when there is a knock at the door and Lord Vayne enters. Brendan wipes his mouth delicately and stands up.

“Uncle, I did not expect you so soon. I trust your rooms were to your satisfaction?”

He nods absently. “Yes, yes. Fine. Can we get down to business now?”

Brendan gestures to the main table in the centre of the room, and orders a waiting servant to fetch more wine. He heads over to sit down and I join him. Harry stuffs the last egg in his mouth and follows.

Lord Vayne does not look happy when we sit down, but he does not protest this time. A servant sets wine and goblets on the table and pours one for each of us. It seems strange that only a few days ago this could have been used by the Usurper himself.

“Shall we begin?” Brendan asks, looking at his uncle, who nods at the prince over his goblet. “What would you like to know?”

“Has a date been set for the coronation?”

“Not officially,” Brendan replies, “given that we only took the castle yesterday. But I think we should aim for a week’s time. It will be hard work, but I believe it is in the best interests of the kingdom for my reign to begin officially as soon as possible.”

He nods again, looking satisfied for the first time since he arrived. I see Brendan draw a breath of relief.

“We will need to discuss the details, but I agree that the sooner the better. Have you given consideration to those who stood against you and what you will do about them?”

Brendan fiddles with a ring on his finger nervously. “I have. Those who stood with the Usurper will have their land and titles stripped from them and they will be exiled from the kingdom. With the exception of Lord Wester of Ruscity, who will be given fifty lashes and then exiled.”

Lord Vayne raises an eyebrow.

“It’s a promise I made,” he says simply.

The Usurper had put a price on Brendan’s head as soon as he knew the prince was back in the kingdom. Lord Wester had been one of the most eager to claim it. We’d been hiding out in the forests, supported only by a handful of sell-swords we’d employed with money raised by selling Brendan’s books.

We’d tried to be careful, but Wester’s agents had taken Harry when he’d gone into town for supplies. By the time we’d mounted a rescue, they’d given him twenty-five lashes. Brendan had promised at the time to return the favour twice over when he took the kingdom back. I’m pleased to see he has not forgotten his word.

I think it was that incident that decided things for Brendan. He had come with us when we told him the news, but I don’t think he saw himself as a king at that point. He’d spent the last ten years studying with men whose minds were much harder than their bodies, trapped in a tower and isolated from the world. But seeing Harry’s bravery, having someone believe in him like that, galvanized him.

“What then?” Lord Vayne presses. “What of their families?”

“The next in line will be offered the chance to bend the knee and swear allegiance to me. If they do, I will permit them to inherit those lands and titles.”

“Is that wise?” I ask before I can stop myself. Brendan is too trusting at times. Bonds of blood run strong. Who is to say that these people won’t retain loyalty to their family over their new king?

“What other choice do I have, Lavinia? Chop off the heads of anyone who shares a drop of blood with them?” He shakes his head firmly. “Some of them are just children and some of those who did not support me were simply afraid of the consequences. Should I punish children for frightened adults?”

He looks round the table, daring us to contradict him. Unfortunately for Brendan, his uncle does not look impressed.

“I agree with the Lady Lavinia,” he says. I give Harry a kick under the table when he grins at me. “It would be best to make a fresh start of things, ensure your allies are in important positions.”

“There are plenty of men who have served you loyally,” I point out. “It would better to reward them, rather than appoint someone just because of their blood.”

“And what do you say, Harry?” the prince asks.

Harry, who is fiddling with the rose Brendan gave him earlier, looks up suddenly. He seems surprised to have been actually included in the discussion.

“I…I think you should follow your instincts, Your Highness,” he says softly. “I think if the king can’t trust his judgement then we are in a sorry position.”

“Thank you,” Brendan says, as if this decides the matter. “Was there anything else, Uncle?”

“Yes. What consideration have you given to the matter of marriage?”

I get up and hurry round the table to help Harry, who is choking on a mouthful of wine. Brendan looks furious, his brows drawn together in a frown.

“It may surprise you, Uncle, but that has not been foremost on my mind recently,” he snaps. “I have been more concerned about restoring my kingdom and fighting for my life than considering eligible women.”

“Then perhaps it is time. The kingdom needs an heir.”

“The kingdom does not have a king yet!” Brendan retorts.

“I see. Well, I can tell your mind is made up. Perhaps we should continue this when you are more willing to listen to advice.” He gets up and strides away from the table before the prince can say anything else.

Brendan sighs and turns to Harry.

“Are you all right?”

“I…I’m f-fine,” he gasps. His face is as red as the wine and there are tears running down his face. I give his back an extra hard slap, which earns me a glare from both of them.

“He’ll live,” I say.

“Do you think I am being unreasonable?” the prince asks, reaching for his wine. “Should I just bow down to my uncle’s judgement? That’s clearly what he wants.”

“Maybe he’s testing you?” I suggest. “Maybe he wants to know that you can stand up for yourself and your decisions. You spent more time with him at Whitecastle. Was he like this then?”

We’d suffered badly at the hands of the Usurper’s men at that time. Both Harry and I were injured and spent much of the time in the castle’s infirmary. By the time we had recovered enough most of the plans had been formulated.

“Not quite this bad,” Brendan admits. “I think we agreed on more back then.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence between us. Harry is still toying with the petals on the rose and Brendan appears to be focused on his goblet. All the earlier frivolity has faded. I stand up.

“If you’ve no further need of me, Your Highness?”

He waves his hand dismissively. “No, please go on. I’m sure you have things to do, Lavinia.”

I don’t, but I feel like I’m getting in the way if I stay here. I head down the tower steps, wondering what to do with myself. For the first time in a long while I am clean, well-fed, and unhurt. I feel no need to go and train. I should probably be resting my body after the battle this morning, but I don’t want to go back and have Squeak start pumping me for information about my former glories.

There is one thing I am curious about.

The steps down to dungeon don’t look much better in daylight. They’re steep, damp and dotted with green moss. At the bottom is a dark, yawning maw that seems to repel all light. I shiver, but press on downwards.

The pool of torchlight reveals Linton is on duty again.

“Sir,” he greets me.

“Pulled the short straw again?” I ask with a grin and he nods.

“Still, it’s not so bad. At least he’s quiet and undemanding.”

“He doesn’t cause any problems?” Somehow this makes me more nervous than if he was rattling on the bars and cursing constantly.

“No. He barely seems like the tyrant who murdered the royal family, does he?”

“Never forget who he is, Linton,” I warn him. “I know he won’t.”

I make my way down the damp passage to the last cell. Unpleasant puddles dot the ground and I do my best to avoid them.

“Lady Knight, you’ve come to visit me again.”

It’s a step up from Lady Lavinia, but not much of one. “I wanted to tell you that the last of your forces have been defeated.”

He raises one pale eyebrow. “Really? I wasn’t even aware there were any left.”

“A small unit camped out at Oker’s Pass. Their commander slit his own throat rather than kneel to his rightful king.”

“Ah, Moisas,” he says with a smile. “He was indeed a loyal man. But truly loyal men, the sort who will do anything for you, do not tend to be intelligent men. Have you noticed that? You can have undying loyalty, or you can have intelligence.”

I think of Harry, his back ripped raw by the lash, asking me through bloody lips if the prince was safe. I wonder if I could have done it. If they caught me, would I have been able to hold my tongue as the leather bit through my skin and into my flesh?

“You agree with me, I see,” the Usurper says softly. “The question, good knight, is which one are you?”

Happily Ever After – Extract 1

Lavie is sent to investigate an enemy camp, without being noticed…

(Please note this has not been edited.)

Leaving the horses hobbled and a man with them in case we need to leave in a hurry, we move closer. The pass is a narrow gash between two high hills. It extends about a mile and a half before opening out, and is only wide enough for three horses abreast at the narrowest point. The hills rise above, steeply at first then level out for a bit, giving a good space to place archers. It’s the ideal spot for an ambush.

I send the two remaining men to get as close to the camp at the pass entrance as they can, but decide to climb up to the ridge myself. There are fires starting to appear both on the ground and either side so I know need to be careful. I suspect we have the larger army, but without surprise we will lose much of that advantage.

Sometimes I wonder about myself. About how easily all of this comes to me. I might have shunned needle work for beating on Harry as a child, and my courtly manners consisted mostly of remembering to say good night to my husband before going to bed, but I was still raised a noblewoman. There are times when I wake up at night and wonder where this person has come from. It’s not that I hate what I have become, quite the opposite.

I think that’s what scares me most.

I shake my head and push the thoughts aside. Now is not the time to be dealing with them. I concentrate instead on scrambling up the rocky hillside. It’s not difficult, as long as I pay attention, but there’s the risk of breaking an ankle if I don’t watch my footing.

I can see the glow of a fire on the ridge, above and to my right. I can’t get much closer without risking myself, but I want to be able to bring back something useful to Brendan. Keeping close to the ground, I push on a bit higher, until I can crawl out to the edge on my belly.

The camp lies sprawled below me. Judging from the fires, I can tell their numbers are small, probably less than half ours. But that’s all it would take to hold this place for a while. Trenches have been dug at the far end and filled with sharpened logs to stop charges, and in the growing gloom I can see large boulders on the ground that must have been pushed from above. I suspect that, come daybreak, a greater number will be up on the walls, ready to harass with arrows.

I have to admit, I am impressed. I can’t think of a single thing I would have done differently of it were me in charge down there. I take another look, committing the camp, its layout and defences to memory. Fortunately all their traps lie facing the pass. There is nothing that will prevent us riding straight into their backs come dawn.

Satisfied, I crawl away and start to make my way down the hill, just as the man is making his way up. We both stop, face to face, too shocked to respond. I notice one hand is still fumbling on the laces of his britches and I almost laugh. This man is going to die tonight because he chose the wrong moment to piss.

I react first. I have no armour, no weapon beyond my dagger in order to move as quickly and quietly as possible. Stepping forwards, I shove one hand across his mouth. Before he can react, my dagger is in the other hand and at his throat.

“Not a sound,” I murmur. His eyes go wide, and then he nods, very slowly.

Cautiously, I take my hand from his mouth. When he doesn’t do anything stupid, I move behind him, keeping my blade on his throat. I push him gently with my free hand down the slope. It’s an awkward, clumsy manoeuvre, but I need him as far away from his companions as possible.

We are almost at the bottom when he stumbles over a rock. I fall forwards and he rolls away. Cursing under my breath, I launch myself at him as he opens his mouth to yell. If he gets a single sound out we are lost. My heart beats rapidly in my chest, and I’m afraid that the army will hear it, even if I do manage to silence the man.

I can feel him drawing in for a yell as I land by his chest. My elbow strikes out and I catch him just below the jaw. Instead of a roar, what comes out of his mouth is a wet choking sound. I slam my hand over his mouth again.

“That was the last mistake you will ever make,” I hiss.

His eyes beg me for mercy, but there is too much at stake for me to spare his life. My hand goes for my dagger and I curse again as I find the belt empty. It must have fallen from my grip in the struggle. No matter. There are plenty of weapons.

It only takes a moment of fumbling on the grass before my hand closes over a suitable rock. I bring it down three times, hard on his temple and watch the light go out of his eyes. I drop the rock and sit back, breathing heavily. And then it hits me. I’ve made a stupid mistake. Even if I have silenced this man, he has comrades.

And sooner or later they are going to come looking for him.

Fifteen Nightingale Road – Extract 2

The unveiling of the dinosaurs… 

 (Please note this has not been edited.)

Jenna covered Ben’s eyes as she led him down the hallway to his bedroom. Joel and Pete were walking just ahead of them, and she couldn’t help noticing the protective way Pete had his arm round her brother’s shoulder. She missed having someone to do that for her, to be strong when she felt weak.

“You too, Jen,” Joel said, his hand resting on the door handle. “Eyes closed.”

“What?”

“You heard me. If your eyes are open too soon, you’ll spoil the magic.”

“Yeah, Mummy, don’t spoil the magic!” Ben admonished her.

Jenna sighed and rolled her eyes at Joel, but closed them without saying anything further. The murky colours that floated behind her eyelids filled her vision, and she felt a moment of disorientation before someone took her arm and she heard the door being opened.

She felt the grip on her arm lead her into the room and she pushed Ben gently in front of her, hands still over his face. When she had taken four or five stumbling steps, she heard Joel’s voice.

“Okay, stop there! Right, ready? Open your eyes.”

Blinking in the warm light, Jenna found herself face to face with a stegosaurus. It was painted on the back wall, just as Ben had requested, its tail raised as if to attack. Its cold, reptilian eye stared at her, sizing her up.

“Oh wow,” Ben murmured. “Wow!” The last word came out in a long drawn out breath.

“I take it you like it, then?” Joel asked. He was standing behind her, but Jenna could hear the grin in his voice. “It’s not all finished yet, but anything we don’t get done today, I think we can trust your mum to do.”

“If your head swells any more you’re not going to be able to get out the door,” Jenna said drily, but she was impressed. She could handle a pencil or brush reasonably well, but Joel had always been the one with the real talent.

The stegosaurus was not the only inhabitant of the room. There were a pair of velociraptors stalking an ankylosaurus on the wall with the window and on the other wall was a triceratops standing by a nest filled with eggs. There was even a pterodactyl on the ceiling. Not everything was fully coloured in and detailed, but everything had an outline and a face at least.

“What do you say?” she prompted Ben, who was still staring at the room with his mouth open.

“Thanks, Uncle Joel!” Ben threw his arms around Joel’s waist, hugging him so hard he was nearly knocked off his feet. “They’re the best dinosaurs. I don’t even mind that velociraptors wouldn’t have actually hunted ankylosaurus.”

Joel blushed slightly and rubbed the back of his head. “Ah, sorry, Ben. I’m not really much of a dinosaur expert. I just painted the ones I knew. Your mum said I wasn’t allowed to do any of the big scary ones. She didn’t say anything about the little scary ones.” He gave Jenna a wink.

“If either of us has nightmares about being eaten, I’m phoning you in the middle of the night,” Jenna promised.

“I won’t have nightmares, I promised,” Ben said. “And don’t worry, Uncle Joel, I don’t mind a bit. They’re all really cool.”

“I’m glad you like it. Don’t forget to thank Pete, too. He helped lots.”

“I don’t know about lots,” Pete admitted. “I’m not much of an artist. I did the grass, though.”

“It’s very good grass, love,” Joel said, leaning over to kiss his ear.

“Yeah, it’s the best! Thanks, Uncle Pete!” Ben could not stand still. He hopped from foot to foot, his gaze darting around the room, drinking in the sight, taking in every detail. His eyes were the widest Jenna had ever seen them, and his mouth would flap when he spotted something new. A gentle breeze from the open window ruffled his hair occasionally, like a friendly caress.

“Is there anything for lunch, Jen?” Joel asked. “All this excitement is making me hungry.”

“I’m sure I can find something,” she replied. “What about you, Ben?” He said nothing, staring intently at a space near the stegosaurus’ tail. “Ben?”

“I think we’ve lost him to the age of the dinosaurs.” Joel grinned. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and Jenna saw Ben jump and then blink as he had just woken up. “What do you want for lunch, little palaeontologist? Brontosaurus burger?”

“There’s no such thing as a brontosaurus, Uncle Joel. Can I have a cheese sandwich, Mum?”

“That’s the second time I’ve been schooled by a seven year old today,” Joel admitted as they headed downstairs. “I’m just going to stop talking.”

Fifteen Nightingale Road – Extract 1

Jenna’s brother uncovers some strange things in the attic of her new home…

 (Please note this has not been edited.)

They returned to the house with a rainbow of paint cans. Ben had stared at the sample cards intently for what felt like hours before deciding on a shade called Cerulean Delight. It was the exact same colour as the sky on a warm July morning. It would be perfect for the little room, cheerful and light.

Jenna had chosen a green so pale it was almost white for the lounge, and slate blue for the kitchen. There was terracotta for the hall, and a dusky rose colour for her bedroom. They had not decided yet on what colour to do the spare room, but there was no hurry on that. They had to live in the house themselves before they could consider having guests over to stay.

She took the paint cans in and set them down in the hallway. Ben carried the selection of brushes and rollers she had picked up. She had bought far more than they were likely to need, but she couldn’t help it. It had been hard to resist buying lampshades and new taps and a hundred other things while they were shopping. She’d felt like a child in a toy shop.

The house seemed quiet, almost as if it were still and sleeping. There was no sign of her brother.

“Joel?”

“I’m up here, Jen.” His voice drifted down the stairs, sounding muffled.

“What are you doing up there?” She started up the stairs and heard his footsteps on the metal of the ladder. Jenna reached the landing at the same time as Joel made it down from the attic.

“Sorry, I found your torch when I was sorting through the boxes and I really wanted to take a peek up there. Looks like this place wasn’t cleared out properly when the last owners left. There’s still a bunch of stuff up there.” He sounded excited, slightly breathless.

“Bunch of stuff? That’s descriptive!” She reached out and pulled a cobweb out of his blond curls. There was a smear of dirt on his cheek that looked like a scar.

“We have an attic?” Ben asked, awe colouring his voice. “Cool! Can I go up there?”

“No, you can not,” Jenna told him firmly. “I’m not having you fall off the ladder and I don’t know how strong the floor is in there. Besides, it’s clearly filthy and probably full of spiders.”

“It doesn’t look…” Joel started, then caught his sister’s eye. “Yeah, it looks quite…er…wobbly. Best you stay on solid ground, Ben.”

Jenna saw disappointment pass over her son’s face like a cloud. She was glad there was no way he would be able to reach the cord to open the door. Ben was not normally a rebellious child, but the lure of the attic had been strong enough to ensnare Joel, and he was twenty-five, not seven.

“So, what did you find?” she asked, turning back to her brother. As soon as the words were out of her mouth she felt the curiosity building up within her. It was as if she was a child again on Christmas morning, poking her stocking for hints about what lay inside.

“Oh, right.” He disappeared up the ladder again, and then came down, a couple of items clutched against his chest, smearing dark dust over his t-shirt. “There are lots of boxes, but I found these just sitting on the boards. Here.”

He handed the first one to her, a black metal case, with a handle and a lock. It looked like a briefcase, only hard and square. When she took it from him, she could hear paper moving inside. He handed Ben the other object.

“A doll?” Ben’s tone was part confusion, part disgust. “I don’t want a doll, Uncle Joel.”

Joel laughed and took it back. “That’s probably more your mum’s thing as well, isn’t it? Sorry, Ben, I couldn’t find any dinosaurs up there. I looked around as much as I could, but it was getting hard to breathe with all that dust.”

Jenna took the doll from her brother. It was quite heavy, the head, hands and feet made from china. The body, though fabric, was firmly stuffed so it could sit up and hold that position. It was dressed in an elaborate pink silk dress, thick with ruffles and white lace, and had a matching bonnet over its long black curls. Its eyes were dark blue and when she tilted the head, the eyelids slipped down, making it seem like the doll was asleep.

“Looks old,” Joel commented, looking at it over her shoulder. “Might even be worth something.”

“Might be, might just be junk. It will look nice in my bedroom, though.”

“You can’t seriously want to sleep with something like that watching you in the night?” Joel protested. “Your mother’s crazy!” he muttered to Ben, tapping his temple repeatedly. Ben gave him a long-suffering nod.

“Knock it off, you two. Come on, this house isn’t going to paint itself.”

She set the doll on the windowsill of her room. The head slumped forward and the eyelids slipped down. It looked peaceful and content, the sunlight glinting off the dark curls. Jenna folded the doll’s hands on her lap and set the metal briefcase down on the floor near it.

“I’ll have to give her a name,” she muttered to herself.

“Her name is Marie Antoinette,” Ben said suddenly from the doorway. He pronounced it as Marie Anty-net. “You know, like that queen who had her head cut off.”

Jenna turned to him in surprise. She hadn’t expected anyone to have heard her, and she certainly wasn’t expecting Ben to come up with a suggestion like that.

“That’s an interesting name, Ben. What made you think of Marie Antoinette? Have you been studying the French Revolution at school?”

He shook his head. “That’s her name,” he said simply.

Jenna glanced at Joel, who shrugged, looking as bemused by the exchange as she was.

“Very well, Marie Antoinette it is.”