The Empire

Among the fields, the stream hissed and flashed beneath the silver half-moon. Shouldering muskets and hemmed in by towering cavalry, the white-clad Empire marched between the gloomy mountains. And hushed words, bouncing from one man to the next, grew to frenzied yells in every tongue of Europe.

And now clouds cover the moon, and the night becomes intense and wraps tighter around the valley.

A soldier emerges from the dark, staggering as a drunkard and holding his entrails in his stomach. He collapses, pale and shaking, and his shallow breaths become frantic and then slow to a stop. More men throw themselves to the ground among a shower of canister shot, and then lift themselves to their feet, their perfect white uniforms now covered with mud, as they run into the distance. One stumbles on a dead horse, and then falls with blood spreading across his chest.

A block of silhouettes, screaming in strange languages, emerges, faint in the dark, lets loose a volley of gunfire, and scatters as cannon balls blast the ground before them and behind them.

Swinging a sabre back and forth, a shadowy hussar yells into a shadowy mass of bayonets. His words become indistinct amid a successive bursts of artillery from somewhere in the midnight.

A musket ball comes from behind, and he lurches backwards and falls. Limp and unconscious and caught on a stirrup, he bounces along behind his startled horse.

The Enemy is in the Dark. Unseen. Under carts and behind bushes. Disappearing. Entering. Disappearing. But always somewhere.

The ground is blue and black and grey. The white uniforms of the dead can be seen in a paler grey. Three dishevelled infantrymen wander among the twisted carcasses. They do not speak. They would not understand one another if they did, enlisted as they are in the Imperial Army of Babel. But every so often, one of them looks around to the other two, as if to make sure they aren’t looking at him, before bending down to search the pockets of a sprawling and broken comrade. And as the line begins to retreat, the three of them look round to one another for one last time, and vanish into the all-forgetting night.

The enemy tears through the ranks. Each soldier peers through to the indistinct faces of his comrades.

And there is a gunshot. A man collapses. Nothing is seen. Such is the night.

And there is Caesar. Staggering to his feet as his horse kicks mud behind its hooves and rushes into the night. His jacket is torn and down his mud-streaked, sweat-streaked forehead runs a drop of the blood of Charlemagne, a thousand years old. The silver sun of the Order of Saint Stephen hangs loosely now, just about held to his chest by  a single thread.

The Divine Augustus looks around blankly at the frontier of his Imperial domain, churned with hooves and wagon wheels and cannon balls, rows of groaning bodies and abandoned carts receding into the darkness. In a fleeting moment of quiet, the rushing river is still audible, spiralling through the night as always. And the Emperor of the Romans reaches down and feels in the dirt for something. He gives up, and stands upright once more.

He bundles his jacket to hide the marks of his ancient office, and, head down, limping, tries to find his way to the road.

The Immortal

Marshall Howe was the only person out on the dirt track through the village, as the sun began to rise over the limestone hills. People would be out in the fields, but he was the only one in the town. He wandered, drifting and then correcting his course, again and again. He had survived. He had survived and become invulnerable. He had as good as experienced Death, and through that Death had conquered Death. But what was a Conqueror of Death who could not spare others? Who left others to pay his mortal debt?

The Immortal One, who had buried the mortal, and then buried his own wife and buried his own children, took another swig of ale, and he sang, because why the fuck not.

“Come, Jack, let’s drink a pot of ale!
And I shall tell thee such a tale
Will make thine ears to ring!
Da da da da da da da da!
Da da da da da da da da!
That once I saw my king!

The rector, William Mompesson, was next along the frosty track, stepping around the frozen puddles, with bubbles trapped under the surface.

“Good morning, Mr Howe!” He said, cheerfully.

“Morning, Reverend.”

“You’re not usually up this early.”

“It’s none of your business when I get up.”

And the rector kept walking.

“All princes (be they ne’er so wise)
Da da da da with others’ eyes!
Da da da da da da!
Da da da da da interest,
In time to feather well their nest,
Providing for their fall!”

Mompesson was with the King, and his Popish wife and his Popish church services.

Next up was Thomas Stanley, the rector who’d stood up to the King and rejected his Popish new church services.

“Morning, Howe.”

“Morning, Reverend.”

“Have you seen the Reverend?”

“What, the other Reverend?”

“Yes, the other Reverend.”

“No. I mean Yes. He went that way.”

And Thomas Stanley went off in the direction Howe was pointing.

Stanley was with Parliament, and their Christmas-banning, king-killing fanatics.

And both of them had locked the whole fucking town in to infect each other and die, swollen and oozing, and for him to hastily smother them in earth.

But it was over now, and Howe, victorious over Death, kept singing.

“I marvel, Dick, that having been,
So long abroad and having seen
Where merits scarce appear,
For bashful merit only dwells
In villages and camps and cells,
Alas, it dwells not here!”

Stanley caught up with Mompesson outside the church, where he was struggling with a stiff keyhole.

“Mompesson.” the former rector nodded bluntly to his successor.

“Stanley.” The rector nodded bluntly back.

“Are you opening the Church?”

“Well, since the plague has left us, it’s safe again.”

The door creaked open, and the church was filled with the morning sun. Mompesson strode across the worn, Medieval flagstones. And then back again. And then again East and then West. Stanley lurked in the doorway.

Bess Hancock stumbled down the rocky path from Riley, on the hillside, off towards Hathersage. She tripped, on a protruding tree root, rolled across the frosty ground, stood up, and kept going. That was all she remembered how to do.

She got to the track through the village and her pace very consciously quickened. Stiff and brisk. She passed Marshall Howe, leaning on the wall in front of the King’s Head, with his head hanging over his knees.

Howe looked up, and Bess Hancock didn’t look back. But she slowed, and reentered her drifting, stumbling trance. They all knew about Bess Hancock, and that one week that she spent dragging body after stinking, death-infested body out into the field behind her house on the edge of the moors. And somehow, because God either favoured her or hated her, she was still here.

When she was well out of sight, Howe stood up, unsteadily, and looked around as if working out where he was. And he stopped in the middle of the street, blank as three children ran past him, and then he walked on, westwards.

Mompesson eventually collapsed onto a pew at the front of the church, right below the pulpit. Stanley took a few paces in. Mompesson lifted his head, and turned it towards him.

“Do you think what we did was right?” The rector said, suddenly. “Do you think we were right to convince the village to seal themselves off like that?”

“They did right to stick to it.”

“But were we right consigning them to that? 260 of them died.”

How many would have died if it had reached Sheffield, or Chesterfield, or Derby, or Nottingham? It was right. It wasn’t easy, but it was right.”

“But these were good people. You said so yourself. None of them deserved this.”

“You do not understand the mind of God, William. I don’t either.”

Stanley sat down on another pew, some distance away, silent.

On the village green, people were opening windows and doors, and embracing, with embraces that, for the first time in over a year, did not threaten to transmit agonising and hideous death.

In the church, Mompesson spoke again, to himself.

“He divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through the proud. By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent.”

And Stanley continued, lines from Job that each had read again and again for the last year.

“Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?”

The Immortal Marshall Howe staggered into Cucklet Delf. He sat down among the rocks and the grass. And, in another part of the clearing, The Immortal Bess Hancock did the same.

The Forum

The Forum was much quieter than usual. The crowds that on any other day would have argued and jostled and hawked had fled the City, either to Veii or to the Capitoline Hill, or were barricaded in their homes, awaiting the invaders. The only sign left of what this place had been were the wheel-marks and hoof-marks that they had left in the previous days.

The only occupants of the forum now, beneath the glaring white sun-disk, filtered through a rippling, yellow, smoky sky, were a crowd of stern-faced and weathered old men, clad in the fine robes of their ancient offices.

One of the old men awoke from a sleep of a thousand rasping snores, with a dark, wet patch beginning to appear in the splendid white of his toga.

“Have the Greeks been yet?” He asked, hesitantly, looking around at his companions.

“It’s the Gauls, you old fool! It’s the ruddy Gauls we’re waiting for!” One of the men shouted from somewhere behind him.

“Oh, yes, the Gauls. I used to have a slave who was Greek.”

“Be quiet, man!” The same voice shouted again.

“I think he was called Protagoras or Pythagoras or something like that. I bought him the year Furius Medullinus was Consul.”

“What part of that do you not understand?”

“I seem to remember he was magnificent in bed.”

“What did you say?” Came another creaky voice.

“Nobody said anything to you! For Jupiter’s sake, stop spouting off all your ridiculous poppycock and balderdash! We’re supposed to be offering ourselves up for our people and our city. Show some respect.”

At that point, Gaius Flavius, formerly Priest of Mars, let out a deep and anguished moan as his bulbous and blotchy arms forced his body out of his ivory chair. His feet, red and pink and brown and gout-swollen and oozing out among the straps of his sandals, shuffled forward, one and then the next and then the first again, as the old priest winced behind a ragged, grey beard.

Somewhere in the City, there was a groan of wooden beams at last defeated, and a crash as a roof gave way to ravenous flames.

“I couldn’t do anything like that now. The last time I got it up must have been, what, 19 years ago?”

“Did you know that my father fought against Coriolanus?”

“Even then I couldn’t keep up. He was so young and energetic. He was like one of those Greek statues, you know?”

By this point, Gaius Flavius, panting like a dog with exhaustion, had made it to an empty enough patch of dirt behind everyone’s backs. He hitched up the folds of his toga and unleashed a golden torrent of steaming piss, that twisted among stones and bumps and hollows in the ground, too small to be detected by human eyes, and diverged into a shifting and meandering delta, watering every little crack in the sun-baked soil, before each tributary converged once more into a mighty river, rolling down the a wheel-rut.

He gradually made his way back to his chair, sagging under his own weight like an overladen camel.

“Is this how they felt in Veii?” said a senator on the front row.

A few of the men around him looked at him, confused or curious.

A scream, somewhere deep in the blazing city of Romulus and Remus, was abruptly cut short.

“The way their city was destroyed. The way we slaughtered and plundered and burned.”

Nobody said anything for a while after that. Even the ones who were awake.

There were faint shouts, in a strange, Barbarian tongue, rising above the snapping and blustering fires.

Aulus Cornelius Cossus, with lips shrink-wrapped over empty gums, and eyes ringed by time-worn hollows of darkness, grumbled something. The senator who had spoken continued.

“Do you think this is us getting what we were due? You know? I’m just, you know, thinking, as it were.”

Aulus spoke up this time.

“My grandson risked his life for Rome at Veii. He fought…”

The wind blew a cascade of smoke across the Forum. Aulus coughed, violently.

“He fought…”

More smoke. More coughing.

“My grandson fought bravely and…”

Aulus, his gaunt and wrinkled face becoming more impassioned with every time he was cut off by the smoke from his beloved city, seemed resolved to finish his sentence at all costs.

“He won a great victory for his people.”

“And the Gauls are winning a great victory for theirs right now.” The senator retorted.

“Do you want to say that again?” Aulus taunted him. “Nobody talks like that about my family, and about Rome, and get away with it. Nobody.”

Aulus stood up, slow and shaking, placing his fragile, bony weight on an ivory walking stick. He began to shuffle precariously in the direction of the senator who had dared to speak ill of his grandson’s daring exploits.

Another roof crumpled and collapsed with a deep growl.

About a third of the way across to where his adversary was seated, his fragile feet gave way, and his veiny legs began to buckle.

The Priest of Quirinus was quick to his feet, followed more slowly by the two ex-consuls either side of him, and, stifling laughter, he caught the flailing old Equestrian. Lucius, with some reluctance, allowed himself to be helped back into his chair.

The 82-year-old, who the citizens of Rome had elected as Consul on two separate occasions, readjusted his toga and muttered something incomprehensible and toothless.

“Did you know, my father fought against Coriolanus?”

And a lone figure stumbled into the Forum from the tangled streets. She was almost dragging herself forward, coughing up soot from burned and smoke-poisoned lungs. Her patched and threadbare tunic at one point disintegrated into blackened threads, embedded in charred flesh. Her hair, black and tangled on one side, was gone from the other, and where it had been half her face had been eaten by the flames, and was now just bare flesh, stretched across a cavernous skull, glistening pink and then the deepest charcoal-black.

She fell to the ground. She was not moving any more. Her rasping breaths slowed, and became inaudible.

A few of the patricians cautiously got to their feet and began to edge forward, as if each was waiting for the others to move first.

“When are the Greeks getting here?”

the priest of Quirinus, who had caught Aulus Cornelius Cossus when he had fallen, was first to return to his seat. The others who had stood up followed, constantly glancing to one another for reassurance that this was the proper thing to do. The Patricians were still and silent.

And through the streets around the Forum, there were Barbarian cheers, and sword-hilts rapped on the rims of resonant shields.

Cathay

The cabin boy looked down from the crow’s nest, trying to make out the shapes of waves breaking against the ice floes in the fast-encroaching darkness.

“There’s nothing to see down there.” The old sailor muttered from behind an ice-flecked beard. “It’s too dark.”

“I liked it when it didn’t get dark all night.” The cabin boy blurted out, after a few seconds.

“Yeah, that was nice.”

“Is it true that the Sun doesn’t come up all winter as well up here?”

“That’s right.”

The old sailor pulled his cloak tighter around him, as the wind began to blow harder and colder from the frozen ocean.

“I can’t wait to get to Cathay.” The cabin boy said, into the wind.

The old sailor didn’t answer. He probably hadn’t heard.

“What do you think Cathay’s like?” The cabin boy continued, not put off by his companion’s stern countenance.

“Dunno. Never been.”

“I bet it’s amazing.”

“Yeah, probably.”

The cabin boy stopped talking, as if trying to think of something else to say. The old sailor was humming something, low and vague and tuneless. The cabin boy looked down again but in vain now, for the night had wrapped around the ice floes and the sea and the ship.

In the crisp moonlight, the old sailor pulled a piece of dried fish out from somewhere inside his cloak, tore a piece off, and began chewing, loudly. He handed a piece of his fish to the cabin boy, who tore at it with his teeth like a dog playing with a bone.

The sailor went back to humming his incoherent dirge. The wind was quieter now and the creaks of the sailor’s lips became one with the creaks of the ship far below, its anguished groans and pitiful sighs, heard by none but those within.

The cabin boy yawned, and a big cloud of his breath condensed in front of him, before disappearing into the night.

“Tired, huh?” The sailor observed.

The cabin boy nodded.

“Same.” The sailor continued. “But it’s too cold to sleep.”

The cabin boy took a gloved hand out from inside his cloak, and an absent-minded finger began rubbing abstract, swirling patterns out of the frost on the mast, sparkling in the moonlight.

“Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?” He said, suddenly.

“Yeah, I have.” The Sailor responded.

“What’s it like?”

“It’s beautiful. It’s nothing like anything else you’ll ever see.”

“Where do you think it comes from?”

“Dunno.”

“I hope I get to see it.”

“Don’t worry. You will. We’ve got a long winter night coming.”

“It’s my birthday in a week.” The cabin boy came out with, out of nowhere.

“Is it now? Well, I’ll remember to say Happy Birthday to you then.”

“Do you think we’re almost in Cathay?” The cabin boy asked, unsticking his glove from the frosty mast.

“Dunno. There’s no charts out here. Nobody’s been here before us.”

The Arctic wind had sent a great mass of cloud in front of the moon and right across the sky, and now the only things an eye could anchor on were the torches on the distant deck, before endless unknown and icebound darkness.

“Is it true that in winter all the sea up here freezes totally solid, like rivers do, and it doesn’t thaw for months?”

The sailor said nothing. He probably hadn’t heard over the wind and the waves. The cabin boy kept talking anyway.

“But we’ll be alright. We’ll find some land and wait for it to thaw and we’ll keep going to Cathay. We’ll be alright. Won’t we?”

The wind had picked up again, stronger than before. The cabin boy sunk his chin down into his coat.

“Won’t we?”

The crow’s nest swayed, the great oak beams moaned, and the unseen wind shrieked in the masts and hissed in the rigging, tearing across the unknown ocean.

Keep on Running

Entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018.

The desert just, sort of, keeps going. That’s the first thing you notice about it. Endless sand on the left, and endless ocean on the right.

Nothing can live here but the most resilient tufts of grass, soaking up what moisture they can get in the wind from the sea.

I had been on the bus since last night. I had seen the Sun rise over the desert, and it was once more beginning to set over the shimmering sea.

I drifted off to sleep for a moment, with my face against the dusty window.
When I woke up, the bus was pulling over at some run-down old outpost. There’d be an overpriced shop, and a restaurant, and some scummy toilets. The usual. There were no signs of life except a skinny dog with patchy fur and one eye, wandering aimlessly around.

The Sun was almost entirely below the horizon now, and Venus was gleaming in the clear Western sky.

Most of the passengers got off the bus. I waited for the man sitting next to me to get up before I followed. It had been 4 hours since the last stop, at another of these lonely stations, where the desert meets the sea, and I could barely move my legs.

I stood up, clumsily, and walked towards the door, stepping out into the cool desert twilight. None of the other passengers were out here. They must all have gone inside. I paced around the yard a bit, with the decrepit dog watching me intently from a few metres away. I walked round to the other side of the bus.
I recoiled.

Then I looked closer, to make sure I’d seen it right.

There was a pile of sand, that had been blown across the road. And, sticking out from it, a hand. A human hand, with the end of a black sleeve.

I shouted for help, several times. Nobody answered.

I walked over, tentatively. I reached out and touched it, quickly withdrawing my hand at first, and then going back for longer.

It was cold, and stiff.

I took a few deep breaths and started to brush the sand away.
It was the body of a woman, face down in the sand, dressed all in black. I turned her head to see her face.

I leapt back. I leaned in. It was. It was her. I ran. I ran back round and back into the bus. I’d be safe in there. I’d be safe in there. It wouldn’t be real when I was back in there. But it was. It was Caitlyn I’d seen. Her face pure white, her lips grey, her jumper stained with congealed blood, a deep, gaping ravine of blood right across her neck.

It can’t have been. It was three years since she’d died. But it was. It was. She was real. I’d touched her. I’d felt her cold, clammy skin.

I stumbled back to my seat, tripping over a bottle of water that someone had left on the floor without the lid screwed on properly, sending it streaming down the aisle.

There was nobody else on the bus. Everyone who had been here must have left, but I couldn’t see anyone else out of the windows. Just that stray dog.
My phone buzzed. With shaking hands, I took it out of my pocket, unlocked it, and read the message:

“Keep on running, keep on running”

I didn’t think there was a phone signal here.

There definitely wasn’t a phone signal here.

I threw my phone down the aisle.

I began pacing, up and down, up and down, up and down.

Where had everyone gone? Was I alone here now, trapped in this desolate place, at the ends of the Earth?

Then I saw it on the back seat. I saw the swarm of flies first. I walked closer. I could hear them, buzzing incessantly. I knew what it was. I knew what it was that I’d see there. I turned round, and walked quickly away. There it was again, right in front of me this time, in one of the aisle seats.

There were maggots crawling in Caitlyn’s eye sockets. Her hair was falling out, along with chunks of flesh. Flies swarmed around her abdomen, where worms were devouring her viscera.

I turned again and ran for the exit, to get anywhere away from this place. But I slipped, on the water I’d spilled earlier.

I landed next to my phone.

It buzzed again.

The screen was facing up. I saw the message.

“See what I became?”

I ran once more, staggering down the steps and out of the door.

The dog was gnawing on a bone it had found.

It wandered round the side of the bus, back where I’d found the first body. I followed it. I didn’t know where I was going. I just wanted to be anywhere else.
Where the body had been, there were a pile of bleached bones, again half-buried in the sand. In the bright moonlight, I could make out a skull, a few ribs, a few vertebrae, and a femur. That was all there was.

And there was a buzzing sound, on top of the mound of sand. I looked, instinctively, and against my better judgement.

I saw exactly what I’d dreaded seeing.

It was my phone. It couldn’t have been my phone, because my phone was on the bus, but it was my phone.

It was too late. I’d already seen the screen:

“See what you made of me?”

“What do you want from me?” I shouted out loud, into the salty wind.

Another buzz.

I tried not to, but I glanced down, and there it was again. My phone, with a message on the screen:

“Can you keep on running forever?”

The Three Kingdoms

Once, there was a King, and he had three sons. He was old, and knew he did not have long left to live, so he decided that he would divide his kingdom up.

To his eldest son, he gave the North of his Kingdom. It was a vast land, with great forests in the Northern part, from which trappers returned with precious furs, and where huge pontoons of logs drifted down the rivers. And in the Southern part, there were vast tracts of farmland, rolling and golden and brown and green.

The eldest son thanked his father for his part of the Kingdom, and promised that under his reign the fields and forests would be more bountiful than ever before.

To his second son, he gave the South-West. It was much smaller than the eldest son’s portion, but had a coast lined with wealthy ports, where precious and exotic goods from distant and unknown lands beyond the ocean were bought and sold, and scholars from across the world learnt from one-another’s ideas.

The second son also thanked his father, promising to make his great cities wealthier than ever before.

To his third and youngest son, he gave the South-Eastern part of his kingdom. It had a coast, but it was rough and rocky, lined with towering cliffs and nowhere to land anything larger than a fishing boat. And the soil was thin and barren, constantly swept away by the Ocean’s roaring wind and the Sky’s biting rain, and was not suitable for anything but sheep. And the people here caught fish, and raised sheep, and they lived.

The youngest son followed his brother’s in thanking his father for his domain, small and impoverished though it was, and he promised that his rule would transform the land given to him into a mightier kingdom than that of either of his brothers.

A few years after the King’s death, the eldest son’s kingdom was hit by the longest and coldest winter that anybody could remember, and the crops failed. The next winter was longer and colder still, and the crops failed once again. Now ragged children begged, barefoot, by the snowy roadsides. Emaciated mothers looked on powerlessly as their children screamed from hunger. The people caught cats and dogs and rats for food, and some devoured the flesh of their own dead relatives to avoid starvation.

The King of the North sent an envoy to his younger brother, begging for him to assist the people of his Kingdom. The second son sent no assistance. “Why should I help my Brother,” he thought, “When he has taken the largest part of my father’s kingdom, and left nothing for me?”

But the next year, ships from across the Ocean brought with them pestilence, that wandered through the dark and twisted alleys of the Second Son’s rich cities. Roughly-painted crosses appeared on the doors of the tall, terraced houses of the merchants, marking where the Plague had reached its unseen tentacles. Infected corpses were flung hastily into unmarked pits far outside the towns, and covered with lime to keep the infection from spreading. The most learned doctors could do nothing in the face of this new disease. The richest merchants and the poorest beggars alike died in their thousands.

The King of the South-West dispatched a letter to his older brother in the North, pleading for whatever he could do to help. The eldest son offered nothing. “Why should I help my brother,” he thought, “When he has taken the richest part of my father’s kingdom, and left nothing for me, and then did nothing to help the people of my kingdom when they were suffering?”

The youngest son heard of all of this, of the struggles of his brother’s kingdoms, and all the while his subjects kept going. They caught fish, and they raised sheep, and they lived. But their lives of hardship had made them tough, and they were fiercely devoted to their King. He raised a great army from among them, and marched north to his brother’s farmlands, beginning to recover from the famine. The soldiers plundered the land for food and torched the cottages of the peasants. The eldest son’s weakened Kingdom capitulated, and the King of the North handed his crown to his Brother, before being thrown into a dungeon.

The King of the South-East, still seeking to avenge his meagre inheritance, now turned towards the South-West, where his brother ruled over cities devastated by the Plague. He marched his army south, and bombarded those cities with towering siege engines. The Second Son had lost too many men to raise an army to resist his brother, and each city quickly surrendered. Having resigned his Kingdom, he joined his elder brother in the dungeon.

Now ruling over the whole of his father’s kingdom, the King of the South-East watched as his two brothers were led to a scaffold and, before a taunting and jeering crowd in the South-Eastern capital, lost their heads. He then departed for a tour of his new domains. From his carriage, he saw burned-out cottages and barren fields in the North. In the South-West, he saw those once-great, rich cities, shattered and in ruins. And he hated all he saw. In one of the ruined cities of the South-West, he ran away from his retinue. He distributed his regalia among the people of the town, who had lost everything they had to his merciless troops, and, disguising himself in a beggar’s rags, he boarded the next ship leaving for anywhere a long way away.

The Experiment

“I want to show you a project I’m working on at the moment.”

The staircase wound up around the turret, its murky, twisting darkness ruptured by strips of blazing Sicilian sunlight through the arrow-slits. Frederick walked in front of me, his cloak rippling behind him as he negotiated the narrow and uneven steps.

“What is it?”

“You’ll find out.”

The Emperor stopped at a thick, dark door, where a Saracen guard waited, his weathered hand resting on his sword’s elegantly-crafted hilt.

“You see, I never managed to discover the language of Adam and Eve.”

I made a vague noise of acknowledgement.

“The problem is, when you deprive infants of all human contact, they don’t learn anything at all. They need to be shown attention and affection just to survive. So that one ended up as an abject failure.”

I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t really want to know what had happened.

The guard bowed. Frederick said something to him in stern and abrupt Arabic, prompting him to stand to attention once more. The King pushed on the door and it slowly swung open.

“My guards are all Saracens.” Frederick explained to me as we walked inside. “You see, the problem with Christians is that they’ll just do what the Pope tells them. He says I’m getting excommunicated and I’m taking them with me, and they’re gone just like that. I mean, it’s understandable. Nobody wants to spend eternity getting prodded by a demon with a pitchfork.”

My eyes wandered around the room, bathed in the Sun’s dusty rays. There was a row of books on a shelf at the far end, and there was a table with pieces of a huge range of plants lined up, most of which I’d have no chance of identifying. There was a row of glass bottles next to them, distorting and magnifying the light coming through them, casting it into golden patches on the back wall.

On another table, beside an unlit candle with stacks of old wax rising up and surrounding it, a book was open, written in black ink in a precise, practical Arabic hand. I could not read Arabic, but I could make out diagrams of lines meeting and intersecting with circles in deep, black ink against blotchy parchment.

“What I am working on has the potential to either prove or to disprove the very foundations of Christian thought.”

A lizard lay on the window-ledge, its tense and sleek body soaking up the Sun. Hearing our footsteps, it scampered adeptly up the wall and into a crack between two stones.

“This way.” The King of Italy said, briskly, leading me round behind a bookcase. A pale, greasy-haired servant boy was sitting, hunched over, on a low stool next to a large, oak barrel, with an array of ropes holding it firmly against the ground. There was a noise from inside it. Something scraping against the inside, and letting out a strange whimper.

“This is what I brought you here to see.”

“What are you keeping in there?”

“Take a closer look.”

I bent down towards the barrel. There was a hole drilled in one side of it, about big enough to fit two fingers through. I peered in.

There, faint in the dark, was grey and clammy skin.

As my eyes got used to the dark inside the barrel, I made out more features. There, naked and emaciated, crouched in the barrel, with his knees pulled right in under his ragged and tangled beard, was a man.

He slowly began to turn his face towards the hole, and I recoiled at the mere thought of those sorrowful eyes, pleading to be released.

“What do you think?” The King asked, smiling.

“What are you doing?” I responded.

The King of the Germans turned to the servant.

“How’s it going?” he asked

“It’s going fine.” The timid servant replied.

“How long do you think we have left?”

“I think it’s probably a couple more days yet.”

Frederick continued, casually turning back to me. “You see, my purpose is to observe the soul of a man.”

He saw my surprised expression and smiled to himself.

“To that end,” he continued, “a man, like you saw, is deprived of food and water. Lacking such necessities, after a few days, he will perish. At that moment, if there is a soul departing for Heaven or for Hell or for wherever it goes, it will be forced to leave through the small hole in the barrel. My servant will inform me when the moment is imminent, and I will be ready to observe.”

Frederick bent down and stared through the hole, with a big grin. There was an incoherent groan from inside, and the ruler of half of Christendom stood up once more.

“Make sure you keep watching closely,” he said to his servant.

The Leviathan

An abridged version was entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2019.

The whale had appeared on the beach that morning. I think it was Patience Scott who saw it first, just as it was breathing its last, wheezing breaths out of its blowhole, abandoned by the waves along the strip of sand between two headlands towering above the sea.

Almost the whole village had turned out to help drag it off the beach. The harvest had been poor that year, but now we could feast on this extraordinary prize all winter. Tobias Earnshaw had let us use his barn, in the field by the beach, to keep out of the rain during the grisly task of butchering the carcass. Even Malachi Thorpe, who’d been sacked from Mr Earnshaw’s farm a few days ago, and John Wickham, who’d been arguing with him about some money he owed, were welcome today.

The leader was Nathaniel Crawford, whose cousin had gone off to Greenland on a whaling voyage, and who claimed to know what he was doing. He inspected the carcass, checking how everyone was doing, with their knives or axes or saws. Tabitha Holdsworth sat on top, hacking away slices of blubber and throwing them down to a grease-covered Harry Stobbs, who in turn threw them into a precarious stack, until he was beckoned away. Anderson Cockroft stood at the Sea Monster’s vast and bloody mouth, methodically sawing away the fibrous flaps that lined its jaws.

Apparently, they’re called “baleen”, and they’re what corsets are made of. Whales have them instead of teeth, and they use them to filter out the tiny creatures they eat from huge mouthfuls of seawater. There were probably 3 or 4 people in the village who’d ever worn a corset, and certainly nobody knew how to make them, but that hadn’t stopped Nathaniel from handing the 19-year-old farmhand a saw and telling him to get to work.

I don’t think he’d actually spoken to anyone all day, but he seemed happy enough, stinking of whale slobber.

Someone had found an old, rusty harpoon buried in the whale’s thick and clammy skin, that had grown around it years ago. It had been propped up carefully at one end of the room, where the workers occasionally walked past and admired its antique, exotic grandeur.

At sunset, Andrew Metcalfe’s son, who had been sent to fetch some lamps, ran into the barn shouting something incomprehensible. Nathaniel strode over and bent down to listen to him, before following him back out into the twilight.
Work resumed, with some of the other children returning with arms full of candles and lamps that bathed this terrible beast in their light and shifting shadows.

When Nathaniel returned from the dark, he climbed on top of the whale.

“Listen!” He shouted.

There was silence. Nathaniel had that effect.

“Tobias Earnshaw has been murdered!”

The silence became even more silent, before collapsing into a chorus of muttering.

“This was found by the body!”

He pulled a blood-stained butcher’s knife from inside his jacket and brandished it with theatrical relish.

The workers clustered around the head, upon which Nathaniel stood, dispensing justice as if from the mouth of this ancient creature of the deep, that mouth which had tasted the distant saltwater among the scattered atolls of South Seas and among the ice floes of the High Arctic.

“Tabitha Holdsworth! Step forward!”

The crowd parted and Tabitha gazed up to Nathaniel in his cetacean pulpit.

“I put it to you!” Nathaniel bellowed in the most legal voice he could muster, “That you were in possession of the knife that was used to carry out the murder of the late Tobias Earnshaw!”

“I was, sir.” Tabitha responded, meekly. “But it were here until the break. I couldn’t find it afterwards, and I’ve been here the whole time since.”

The crowd murmured assent. Nathaniel allowed Tabitha to fall back, and shouted again.

“Did anyone see anyone going out of the barn since the break?”

The crowd muttered and scuffled. Eventually, four people were pushed forward towards the whale’s jaws. There was Malachi Thorpe, John Wickham, Bethany Coulson, and on the end was Anderson Cockroft, fidgeting and looking anywhere but up to the Judge.

“Can anyone vouch for these people’s whereabouts at the time in question?” Nathaniel asked the crowd.

Harry Stobbs spoke up. He’d seen Malachi leaving the barn, but all he’d done was had a piss against a nearby tree, and then come straight back.
Malachi was removed from the list of suspects and allowed to merge back into the crowd.

That left three.

John was first before the Inquisitor’s scrutiny. He stepped forward, hands in his pockets, and looked up to Nathaniel’s stern face.

“Mr Wickham, were you responsible for the murder of the late Mr Earnshaw?”
“No, Your Honour,” he declared.

“Can you account for your movements at the time of the incident?”
“When I were out, I were just taking some fresh air, round the back of the barn, with my little flask of rum. It’s right smelly in here. I weren’t doing any murdering.”

A voice from the crowd suddenly shouted out.

“He owed Mr Earnshaw a fiver!”

“No, it were a tenner!”

“It were just two pounds!”

The Judge intervened.

“Silence! Silence! Mr Wickham, I put it to you that you did owe to the aforementioned Mr Earnshaw the sum of five Pounds.”

“It were a tenner, your honour, but I swear to God I’d never have murdered him about it.”

“Mr Wickham, that is all.”

John returned to the line. Bethany was next before the Leviathan’s weathered visage.

“Can you account for your movements in the interval in which it has been established that the aforementioned murder of Mr Earnshaw occurred?”

“I just went out for a walk, you see.” She said sheepishly. “I know you all know I’m next to inherit his farm and all, but it weren’t me who did it, I swear.”
She was dismissed and Anderson was summoned, bowing his head as Nathaniel towered over him.

“Mr Cockroft, are you able to account for your movements at the time in question?”

Anderson stared down at his boots. He looked up as if to speak, but then back down. The crowd began to stir.

“What were you doing at the time of the murder, Mr Cockroft?” Nathaniel declaimed again. Anderson remained silent, and looked around and then back to his greasy boots. The murmurings of the crowd grew louder.

Seeing what was going to come next, the Accused seized a hatchet that had been left on the floor close to his feet and darted past the huge and stinking beast, round its great, two-pronged tail and out into the murky night, waving his weapon at of anyone who tried to apprehend him.

It had started raining again, hard. There was no moon, and beyond the flickering circles of orange light from our lanterns, nothing could be seen. But still we searched, as the killer had to be brought to justice.

We’d reached the top of the cliffs, with no sign of our quarry, and the darkness was beginning to fade into twilight, when I saw a swinging lantern and heard, among the roar of the waves far below, a breathless voice coming up the hill.
“I did it! I killed him!” Malachi shouted frantically, between wheezes, as he approached.

We stopped. Malachi was bent over with his hands on his knees.

“He sacked me from my job on his farm. I couldn’t handle it and I just… went for him. I threatened Harry that he had to say what I were doing. But I couldn’t stand back and let you come after that boy. I couldn’t live with that.”

He stood with his back to the Edge, above the distant foam, as the Sun rose on the sea revealing, on a ledge halfway down the rockface, the glinting blade of a hatchet.

Who should be Patron Saint of England?

It’s that time of year again, when people keep thinking it makes sense to ascribe modern nationalities to someone from Classical Antiquity. In past years, I’ve seen people variously claiming St. George was Turkish, Syrian, Palestinian, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian and Georgian (He was born in Cappadocia, now South-Eastern Turkey, and later moved with his mother to her homeland in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina, which occupied the Levant and also a large part of what is now South-Eastern Turkey). Whatever the case, he was certainly not English, and has nothing to do with England apart from being the patron saint of it.

The cult of St George certainly has a long history in England, going back to before the Norman Conquest. He was associated with the Crusades, and then was made Patron Saint of the Order of the Garter when it was founded by Edward III in 1348, ending up with him definitively supplanting the East-Anglian King Edmund the Martyr as Patron Saint of England. Given that he has nothing to do with England, and is a rather unoriginal choice for a national patron saint, being a patron saint of Russia, Georgia, Portugal, Turkey, The Crown of Aragon (inherited by Catalonia and Aragon), Greece, Palestine, Ethiopia, The Republic of Genoa, and Moldova, as well as farmers, soldiers, scouts, herpes, and syphilis. England has plenty of its own Saints that could be used instead. Here are some possibilities:

Edward the Confessor

Edward_the_Confessor
Edward the Confessor
Anonymous (Public Domain), from Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 1003-1005, Islip, Oxfordshire.
  • Died: 1006, London
  • Canonised: 1161
  • Connection with England: Was the King of it
  • Feast day: October 13th

Edward the Confessor seems an obvious choice, as the only canonised King of England, as a patron saint of Kings of England, and as one of the unofficial patron saints who were displaced by Saint George.

He was crowned king in 1043, having spent most of his life up to that point in exile in Normandy whilst England was under Danish rule.

During his reign, Edward spent much of his time trying to make sure the Vikings didn’t invade, trying to make sure his Earls didn’t depose him, and appointing the Norman abbot Robert of Jumièges as Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps most notably, he built Westminster Abbey, in a decidedly Norman, Romanesque style.

He died in January 1066 with no heir, leaving 3 possible successors, all with decidedly tenuous claims to the throne, to sort it out among themselves. Of course, this being 1066, William, Duke of Normandy ended up coming out on top.

He was canonised in 1161 and nobody is entirely sure what he did to deserve it apart from being just generally sort of religious. A lot of Anglo-Saxon Kings became unofficially venerated, but this was the first time one had been actually canonised. He became a patron of the Kings of England, and the namesake of 8 of them (although ironically overlooked in their regnal numbers).

Thomas Becket

thomas becket
Thomas Becket, in a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral
Renaud Camus from Plieux, France [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 1119, Cheapside, London
  • Died: 1170, Canterbury, Kent
  • Canonised: 1173
  • Connection with England: Was English
  • Feast day: December 29th

Thomas Becket (not Thomas à Becket, which seems to have come about long after his death to make him sound more like the theologian Thomas à Kempis) was an extremely important Medieval saint, and a prominent figure in the politics of 12th century England.

Becket was born in Cheapside in 1119, the son of a merchant. In a remarkable example of social mobility for the time, he ended up becoming Archdeacon of Canterbury, and was recommended to Henry II for the position of Chancellor.

As Henry II’s Chancellor, he was extremely obliging and Henry, looking to rein in the power of the Church in England, appointed him as Archbishop of Canterbury. In a surprising turn of events, however, Becket ended up taking his role far more seriously than Henry had expected, and refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have given the King a lot more power over the Clergy. Henry ended up putting him on trial, digging up some financial offences from when he was Chancellor. Becket was convicted, and fled to France.

Eventually, in 1170, the Pope persuaded Becket and Henry to make up, and Becket was allowed back to England.

Later that year, however, Henry got the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London, and the Bishop of Salisbury to crown his son, Henry the Young King, in accordance with the French tradition of crowning the Heir Apparent. Since the Archbishop of Canterbury is meant to crown Kings, Becket excommunicated all three of them, and went on something of an excommunicating spree. This, famously, prompted Henry’s outburst of “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (although the exact words are disputed). Four knights, interpreting this as an order, turned up at Canterbury Cathedral, pulled out their swords, and hacked the Archbishop to death, smearing his brains across the floor when they’d finished with him.

Becket took just over 2 years to be canonised, and Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral became an major pilgrimage destination.

Whilst Thomas Becket is one of the most important English saints, I’m not sure I’d want a patron saint who was martyred for his conviction that the Church should be above the law.

Augustine of Canterbury

augustine statue
A statue of Augustine of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral
User:Saforrest [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 6th Century presumably, Italy
  • Died: 604, Canterbury, Kent
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Led the mission that converted the first Anglo-Saxon King to Christianity
  • Feast day: May 26th

Lots of countries already have a great converting saint. Germany has Boniface, Ireland has Patrick, Norway has Olaf, etc. It would make a lot of sense for England to do the same.

The Roman province of Britannia had become Christian, along with the rest of the Roman Empire, under Constantine. However, in 410, the Roman Legions withdrew from the Province in order to defend the more central parts of the Empire from the Barbarians that were overrunning it. This left room for the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes to take over the Southern and Eastern parts of the Island, now England. As a result, while the Celtic peoples in the West remained Christian, albeit with a weird way of calculating the date of Easter.

According to Bede, the whole thing started when Pope Gregory I saw some Anglo-Saxon boys in a Roman slave market. Being the Pope, his eyes were of course immediately drawn to their angelic fair hair, blue eyes and pale skin. Remarking “non angli sed angeli” (“not Angles, but angels”), he resolved to convert these people to Christianity, and dispatched Augustine to do the job. Another account is that King Æthelberht of Kent, whose Frankish wife was a Christian, asked the Pope to send missionaries. Either way, Augustine was sent to convert the Kingdom of Kent to Christianity.

Augustine arrived in Kent and made himself the Archbishop of Canterbury. Æthelberht was baptised, and the Anglo-Saxons gradually became Christian, even if he didn’t get the Celtic Christians to agree on the date of Easter.

Bede the Venerable

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
An image of Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle
Public Domain. See page for author. via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 673, probably Sunderland, Tyne and Wear
  • Died: 735, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Known for his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • Feast day: May 25th

Possibly the only notable person ever to come from Sunderland, Bede was sent to a monastery at the age of seven. At the age of 14, everyone in the monastery except him and one other person died of plague, leaving them to run the monastery themselves. He seems to have spent most of his adult life writing books about history and how to calculate the date of Easter. He died in 735, having written enough, especially his Historia Ecclesiastica Genti Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) to be one of the most useful sources on the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

Joseph of Arimathea

arimathea
An illustration by William Blake titled Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion
William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: Unknown, presumably 1st Century BC or 1st Century AD
  • Died: Unknown, presumably 1st Century AD
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Visited Glastonbury, according to legend.
  • Feast day: March 17th

Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four Canonical Gospels, as the person who offers his tomb to be used to bury Jesus. His significance to England is rather mysterious, but there are several stories, appearing first in the Middle Ages, according to which he visited Britain after the death and resurrection of Jesus and founded a church at Glastonbury.

Going further, there are also stories tied into Arthurian Mythology, in which Joseph brought the Holy Grail with him on that trip. The Glastonbury Thorn is supposedly a descendant of the hawthorn bush that, in the same legend, sprouted from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff when he planted it in the ground on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury.

Another legend says that Joseph of Arimathea was a tin merchant and visited Cornwall, the centre of tin production in ancient Europe, bringing a teenage Jesus with him. An elaboration of this story says that Jesus actually taught the Cornish tin miners how to extract tin from its ore. The story of Jesus visiting Britain is referred to extensively by William Blake, most notably in And did those Feet in Ancient Time.

All this is, of course, total nonsense and obviously never happened, but I like it when a country has national myths like that. The Joseph of Arimathea myths are important parts of England’s cultural heritage and deserve to be celebrated.

Edmund the Martyr

edmund the martyr
The Martyrdom of St. Edmund
The Morgan Library & Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Born: 841, traditionally
  • Died: 869 or 870, Hoxne, Suffolk (or maybe Dernford, Cambridgeshire, or Bradfield St. Clare, Suffolk)
  • Canonised: Ages ago
  • Connection with England: Former Patron Saint of England
  • Feast day: November 20th

In modern times, Edmund the Martyr is a very obscure saint. He’s mostly getting a mention here due to his popularity in the Middle Ages, and the fact that he was a patron saint of England before St. George was adopted by Edward III.

Very little is known about his life. He’s supposed to have been born in 841, and became King of the East Angles in 855. In 869, England was invaded by the Viking Great Heathen Army, who killed Edmund. The story concerning his martyrdom (which is probably nonsense) is that he refused to meet the Vikings in battle, instead throwing down his weapons and allowing himself to be tied to a tree and shot full of arrows before being decapitated.

When people were looking for his head, the story goes that it called out “here! here! here!” until they found it, with a wolf guarding it from other animals.

Bury St. Edmunds, the location of his shrine, became a very popular pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages, until the abbey was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and he was venerated as a patron saint of England until Edward III replaced him with St. George.

Svartskerry: Part 5

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Abigail was sitting outside, in the dark, on a slimy rock, smoking a battered cigarette. Occasionally she glanced off to one side, or up into the mysterious heights of the tower.

Sophie took a few hesitant steps towards her from the doorway..

“Evening.” Abigail muttered to her.

“Are you… alright?”

“I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

“What was that about, back there? You had me terrified.”

“I told you. this place just fucks with your head.”

“I’ll leave you alone, then?”

Sophie would rather not have left Abigail alone. The place was bad enough if there were two of you.

“You don’t have to.”

“I won’t, then.”

And she sat down, next to her sister. The wind was a bit less fierce now, but the rock was almost too cold to bear.

“You really scared me back there, you know?”

“That was the fucking point, you wanker. I properly had you.”

Abigail suddenly stood up and stared up to the lighthouse.

“Do you want to come inside? It’s very cold out here.”

Abigail hesitated for a moment.

“Sure.” She said, quietly.

Sophie had already got both sleeping bags out, and she took off her boots and climbed into one. As she struggled to find a comfortable position on the cold floor, Abigail just kept pacing, back and forth and back and forth.

Sophie lay awake and stared up at the ceiling. The dull, fading, flickering light of the lamp cast bizarre shadows that took on the hideous shapes of mysterious monsters. And she could not think of anything but that strange sheet of paper, compelling her to put it down, and what Abigail had said she’d heard.

And she was on the boat, with Abigail taking her to this abandoned lighthouse that Alex Jamieson had been to a while back. And the sky was thick with heavy clouds. And the spray from the sea bit at her frozen face and fingers. Abigail wondered where the Skerry was, but it could not be seen and the land could not be seen and nothing could be seen for miles and miles and miles, save for the empty sea, fading seamlessly into the empty sky.

She woke up.

She stared for a while at the ceiling, making out shapes in the cracks. There was something important she needed to get to. She couldn’t remember what, but she was already late. She tried to move, but she was stuck where she was.

She woke up.

Somehow, she had got some sleep. She didn’t know how much. It was still dark outside, although the window was now light up in a deep blue, rather than black. The nights were not long up here at all.

But Abigail was gone. Her sleeping bag was empty, and totally undisturbed.

“Abbie?”

“Abbie!”

“The fuck’s it you want?” Abigail shouted back, apparently outside.

Sophie pulled her hood tight around her head and stepped out to join her in the roaring wind and spray.

Abigail had found a piece of flat ground and was pacing back and forth and back and forth, just like a couple of hours earlier, muttering something.

“Abby?”

“Yes?” She seemed to have only partly emerged from her trance-like state. Only slightly.

“What’s going on?”

She stared, with a terrible stare, into Sophie’s eyes.

“I killed Alex Jamieson.”

“What do you mean? Isn’t he still alive.”

“No. I killed him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Three weeks ago… I… we… we were drinking together. We’d been at The Ship and then we’d gone back to his place.

“It was stormy as fuck. a hundred times rougher than this. Nobody would take a boat out the size of the boat he had. Unless you were insane. But I said he should. I said he should.

“And of course by this point we’re both wankered. But he said he wouldn’t, but I called him a pussy if he wasn’t going to try and get over to Sutheray. At night, in that fucked up weather, pissed off his bollocks.

“And he fucking did it. I went home, I’d been joking the whole time. I didn’t think he’d do it. But the next morning he was gone. And the boat had turned over, and he was fucking gone.”

“What? Really?”

“For real.”

“You’ve been talking like he’s still alive the whole time. Why?”

“I didn’t want anyone to find out. I didn’t want it to be real. I killed a guy. Have you ever killed a guy?”

“You didn’t kill him. It was an accident. It’s horrible, but he was stupid to do what he did. You couldn’t have thought he’d do it. It’s not your fault.”

Sophie wrapped her arms around her sister, and held her, tight. Abigail was slightly taller, but Sophie was on marginally higher ground, and their heads fell onto each other’s shoulders.

And the Sun cast pink and purple and gold fingers across the clouds, shimmered on the sea, and lit up the world to the raucous screams of a thousand gannets.