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.