The Castle

There is a castle on the hill

A king sat there in days of old

His knights were brave, his ladies fair

A pinnacle of brave and bold

Minstrels there were, and jesters sharp

Ministers with wisdom deep

Priests and monks in cloistered nooks

All knowledge gathered in his keep

There was a knight, a lady fair

A false man and a desperate fight

A riven kingdom, empty hope

A funeral pyre and fading light

The story’s old and patched with songs

On threads that wore out long ago

Who knows the truth of treasure there

Before the final overthrow

Young lads go there to try their hand

Digging the vaults and dusty hall

The tombs are empty, nothing’s there

A bird’s nest in a broken wall.

Some nights, when Venus sails the sky

And Mars is courting near the moon

They say that ghostly dancers whirl

To echoes of an ancient tune

Splendour and crowns have tumbled down

The painted walls have faded pale

And while we bustle round our lives

Dust slowly settles on the tale. 

A Game of Cards

“No, absolutely not!” Flynn said.

The hulking boggart facing him grinned. “You need the information. I have the information. You give me what I want and I’ll give you what you want.” The grin widened. “And what can go wrong with a game of cards?”

“You’re planning on playing poker with the Rev Darren King,” Flynn said. “He’s an exorcist. He’s a vicar. He’s used to facing demons. I’m not sure he even knows the rules, Vernon.” He looked around the cavernous warehouse at the watching boggarts and wondered if facing demons would be easier.

“That’s what I thought,” Vernon said smugly.

“I know the rules,” Darren said, irritation rolling from him in waves. “What are the stakes. I won’t stake my soul or anything that will affect my mission.”

Vernon hunkered down on one side of the kitchen table pulled to the centre of the hall. “It’s easy. We both start with equal chips. If you win, I tell you all I know about Mercury. If I win, I still tell you about Mercury, but you owe me a favour. And I won’t breathe a word about anything if you don’t play.”

“You really need to see someone about your gambling addiction,” Darren said as he sat on the hard kitchen chair opposite Vernon. “What are the rules?”

“I thought you knew the rules.” Vernon scoffed.

“I mean, is it the Texas game that I’ve heard about?” Darren said. “And is it played with a standard deck or is it like piquet where some cards are removed?”

Vernon’s grin couldn’t get wider, but he looked a happy boggart as he picked up the cards. “It’s a standard deck, draw poker. Bring over the drink, boys.”

“I’m just on water,” Darren said. “You know what I face. And I’m always on call.”

“That’s fair enough,” Vernon begrudgingly agreed.

“Let me play instead,” Flynn said as he watched Vernon expertly riffle shuffle. “I can give you a good game.”

“But then I don’t get to boast that I played cards with Darren King,” Vernon said. He handed the cards over to Darren. “Deal.”

Darren shuffled the cards with a loose, overhand shuffle and frowned at Vernon. “This is a waste of time.”

“Not if you want that information,” Vernon said, watching a young boggart in a mini skirt and heels stack the chips in front of the players. She poured a large whisky for him and placed a bottle of water next to Darren. “Go on, padre, let’s play cards.”

Flynn didn’t want to look. Darren wasn’t exactly wholesome. He had what looked like a good relationship with his girlfriend, and was a working minister as well as an exorcist, but he wasn’t exactly a little ray of sunshine. Darren had no tolerance for fools, no time for idiots and was ruthlessly determined. He also lost the first two hands. He wasn’t the sort of man who played cards. He would be more likely to read an improving book. Why couldn’t he have taken Darren’s place? Of course, if Darren just lost the games then at least they would get the information quicker. They would still owe Vernon a favour, though, and he wasn’t a nice boggart. The rotting warehouse was cold and damp but Flynn could feel a trickle of sweat between his shoulder blades and his stomach was churning. He straightened up. He was an immortal elfen that could deal with any amount of boggarts and was not in the mood for nonsense. On the other hand, Darren was mortal and comparatively fragile. He helped himself to a glass of the cheap whiskey.

“This place is a mess,” Darren said as Vernon dealt the next hand. He unscrewed the cap on the water bottle. “You should get yourself a decent place.” He took a mouthful from the bottle and grimaced. “Really? You had to use cheap vodka? You could have at least used the decent stuff.”

Vernon’s eyes narrowed. “I thought vodka didn’t taste of anything,” he said.

“Neat vodka is hard to miss,” Darren said, picking up the cards and looking around. “Do you have rats here?”

“Do rats bother you?” Vernon asked hopefully.

Darren stared at him. “I wouldn’t last long as an exorcist if they did. I just thought I saw one.” He threw in a chip.

Vernon glanced down at his cards. “We don’t usually get them in. Perhaps they followed the scent of fresh meat?” His heart wasn’t in it, though, and Darren’s mocking smile wasn’t help. “And I’ll raise.”

Darren grunted. “I’m sure a lot of your boys would be better in somewhere warm out of the draughts,” he said, tossing in another chip. “Just halfway decent chairs would make a difference.”

“What, and all nice covers and that?” Vernon sneered. “These are street boggarts. What sort of boggarts are you used to?” He threw in another chip.

“I used to have Mr and Mrs Appuck in my parish, and I see quite a bit of Mrs Tuesday,” Darren said, throwing his chip in. “Their houses were immaculate.”

Vernon grunted as he tried to ignore the reference to some of the most feared boggarts in the country. “That’s the old ways, though. We don’t need any of that.” He checked the diminished stack of chips and his hand. “I call.”

Flynn kept his face carefully neutral as Darren’s flush beat Vernon’s two pair. A suspicion started to grow as Darren bickered over the water that was brought to replace the vodka. Darren wasn’t paying that much attention to his cards, apparently, just throwing in the chips as he grumbled. Vernon was insisting that the water was fine and suddenly found himself once again running his decent full house into a straight that Darren had given no sign of holding.

“I suppose I do have the advantage,” Vernon said, ignoring his dwindling stack of chips and dealing the next hand. “Normals can’t read boggarts. It’s a well known fact.”

“Fold,” Darren said after a glance, pushing his cards away from him and taking a drink of the water. “That’s better, and nice and cold. I don’t suppose you need a fridge down here.”

“There is nothing wrong with this place,” Vernon said, scowling as he pulled in the tiny stake. “And it’s discreet.”

Darren sighed as he took the cards and shuffled. “Did you never think that activity in an abandoned warehouse would look suspicious?” He dealt the cards. “You’re going to get more attention here than a nice bar or restaurant where you expect to see people coming or going.”

“A restaurant?” Vernon stared at Darren in disbelief, then checked his cards. He glanced at the small pile of chips at his hand. “I raise.”

Darren pushed in his chips. “And you get a nice bit of cash from the business. Of course, you have to have a bit about you to do the wages and all that, but it’s surprising how it can work. You could even open a casino. The bank always wins.”

“I know my way around a poker table,” Vernon said. “All in.” He pushed the last of his chips towards the centre.

Darren pushed his chips in. “You would be better off supervising,” he said.

“Full house,” Vernon said, placing down his cards.

“Straight flush,” Darren said, placing his own cards down. “Now, tell me all about Mercury.”

Flynn was uneasily aware of the boggarts crowding around. It was an odd atmosphere. On one hand, this cocky vicar had just beaten their leader without apparently paying attention. On the other hand, Flynn got a sense that the gambling was becoming a problem. He breathed a little easier. They were probably going to get out of here in one piece.

Vernon smiled ruefully at Darren and held out his hand. “I’ve got it all typed up and I’ll send it to the usual email,” he said. “Thank you for the game.”

“Thanks,” Darren said. He hesitated. “What favour were you going to ask?”

Vernon shrugged. “My youngest is getting married in a few months, and it would have looked good to have someone like yourself tying the knot.”

Darren stared at him for a moment and then laughed. “I love doing weddings. Let me know and I’ll see what I can do. I hardly ever get to do weddings.”

Vernon nodded. “I guess you get too many funerals.”

“More than you can imagine,” Darren said with a grimace. “But that’s the nature of the work.”

Flynn interrupted. “We need to get on,” he said. He nodded to Vernon. “Good game to watch.”

Vernon snorted. “Watch me get beat. I’ll get the info to you.” He thought for a moment and then shrugged. “Mercury is a bastard. I’m not saying I’m helping out an elfen and a normal, but give us a call if you need some back up. Just don’t tell anyone.” There were nods around the room. Mercury had no friends here.

They had driven a few miles before Flynn turned to Darren. “Where did you learn to play cards like that?”

Darren didn’t glance from the road. “I used to be in the Navy, remember, in the Royal Marines. I learned to play cards there. And it came in very useful when I sat up with Mrs Tuesday for a week when she had pneumonia. She really knows how to play cards.” He flicked a quick glance at Flynn and then turned back to driving. “Mrs Tuesday is an elderly boggart with an evil sense of humour and makes Vernon looks like a toothless pussycat. She’d have had those boggarts cleaning so that you could eat your dinner off any surface in the place and left them grateful to her. After that, Vernon wasn’t so tough.”

“You learned to play like that from an old lady?” Flynn asked sceptically.

“From an older boggart card sharp with a dirty mind,” Darren said. A notification rang from his phone. “It sounds like Vernon has kept his word. Let’s see how close we can get to Mercury now.”

Mirror Mirror

Rose opened the door a crack and timidly peered at the two men outside in the grubby yard. “Hello.”

“Good evening,” the dark haired man said. He was impossibly handsome and his hard muscles showed under the thin, well-washed shirt. The air of dangerous focus that hung around him was at variance with his clerical dog collar. “My name is Darren King, and this is my associate, Flynn.”

“I preferred being called Vertiver,” his associate grumbled. He was just as tall and muscled but more casual in t-shirt and jeans. A shock of thick red hair hung to his shoulders. He noticed Rose’s appraising gaze and smiled like the devil. “I didn’t realise that you were so young and beautiful. We should have been here sooner.”

Rose found herself blushing and tried to claw back some control. At 24 she was no longer used to being thought young, and she hardly thought she was pretty. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”

“In what?” Flyn leant against the door frame, at least six inches taller than her and full of flirtatious intention. “You don’t know why we called.”

“The Church fund?” Rose guessed. It had to be some sort of scam.

“May we come in?” Darren asked, glaring at Flynn.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Rose said. “I mean, as a woman living on my own, I have to be careful. I’m sure that you are both perfect gentlemen, but I don’t want the neighbours to talk.”

“But you don’t live on your own, do you?” Flynn leant in a little closer.

Rose stepped back involuntarily. “I want you to leave,” she forced out, “Or I’ll call the police.”

“You can call the police if you like,” Flynn said. “He’s with them, sort of.”

“I’m not police,” Darren snapped. “Flynn stop intimidating this woman.” He turned to Rose and tried a professional smile. “We have reason to believe that you have a haunted mirror.”

Rose stared at him as all colour drained from her face.

A deep voice behind her spoke. “It’s okay. We knew that this day would come.”

Rose shook her head. “I can’t lose you.”

Darren and Flynn exchanged glances as Flynn pushed past Rose and into the tiny hall with Darren following close behind.

The hall was a marked contrast to the grubby yard and grubby street outside. Inside was completely different. Pale walls and clever lighting gave an illusion of airy space in the narrow entrance. The wooden floor was polished and a subtle hint of lavender hung in the air. The men followed Rose as she retreated to the living room. Darren shut the front door firmly behind them.

The living room was a similar revelation. Outside there was a dirty street, cluttered with rubbish. Inside was a cool, understated minimalism centred around an unexpectedly ornate mirror. It had a flat copper sheen, picked up by the few decorating accents, and it only showed the magical inscription to the knowledgeable.

In front of the mirror was a transparent, ghost-like figure, an older man, with streaks of grey in his dark hair, lithe and slim in a grey, three piece suit. Magical energy whirled between the pale hands. Rose grabbed the iron poker and whirled to face them. “I don’t know how you found us, but I won’t pay you and you can’t take him. Leave us alone.”

Darren raised a sceptical eyebrow then, with snakelike speed, caught Rose’s arm, lifted, turned and pulled. The poker clattered onto the floor leaving Rose trapped in an impersonal, iron grip. Flynn moved with equal speed. His hands darted out, tangling his own magical energy into the glow in front of the ghost and unravelling it, reeling it in and catching it in a spinning, glowing sphere above Flynn’s left shoulder. Colour drained from the apparition and it faded into a translucent shadow. There had been barely enough time to breathe and suddenly Rose and the spirit were completely at the men’s mercy.

“I wish people would not jump to conclusions,” Darren said. “You have a haunted mirror, obviously. We are here to release the spirit. If there is any threat, we would deal with it, but it appears that there is an amicable arrangement here. I can’t see any reason for us to be involved any further once the spirit is released.” He grinned. “If the spirit behaves, that is.”

Flynn was staring at the apparition. “Lucius? Is that you?”

“Vertiver, what are you doing here? I was searching for you but got trapped.” Lucius managed a roguish grin. “I wasa at least aware enough that they couldn’t control me. They gave up trying to make me haunt properly, but they still sold on the mirror. I laid low, until I was lucky enough to meet Rose.” He paused and looked at Rose with love in his eyes. “Unfortunately they were still tracking me. We’ve been trying to hide from them.”

“You did a good job,” Flynn said. “I would never have thought to find you in a dump like this.” He smiled at Rose. “But the decorating is as excellent as ever.”

“You know who is tracking you?” Darren asked. “I’m trying to catch up with them. Flynn isn’t the only spirit we’ve managed to release over the last few months. Someone or something, somewhere, is making a fortune from fear, while trapping non-normals and effectively torturing them into slavery.” He released Rose and stepped back warily.

Rose stared at him. “You’re not going to try and take Lucius away.”

Darren shook his head. “Flynn should be able to release him. But we should step out of the room while it happens. Perhaps the kitchen?”

The kitchen was as minimalist and airy as the rest of the house. Darren leant against the counter. “How do you feel about Lucius?”

Rose blushed. “It’s complicated.”

“Do you love him,” Darren asked.

“Like I said, it’s complicated,” Rose said. “I think so. And I think he loves me.”

“Has he said so?” Darren said.

Rose felt her face glowing with embarrassment. “He said that he gave his word it was love and not lust that he felt,” she said. “He promised.”

“That sounds like love.” Darren said. “I’ll have a proper talk later, but you know that your life is about to get…” Darren searched for the right words. “Fairytale romances can be difficult. But they can work.”

“They can?” Rose asked cautiously.

Darren nodded. “I’ll have a proper talk later. For now, do you have records of any contact with the people looking for Lucius? Someone called Mercury?”

Rose nodded. “I kept everything.” She pulled out her phone. “I’ve saved everything, taken photos of the letters, made notes of conversations, times and dates – the whole lot. And I’ve saved it in plenty of places as well.” She jumped as a sudden crack rang through the room next door.

Darren ignored the noise. “Here are some places to send copies,” he said, pulling a small notebook from his jeans pocket and scribbling some notes. “Once you have sent them, change passwords and find another safe place to copy them. There shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s best to stay safe.” He tore out the page and handed it to Rose. “We’ll take it from there.”

Rose shook her head. “I’m sure that Lucius will want to be involved,” she said. “I don’t think you could stop him.”

The sound of Flynn swearing and the smell of brimstone seeped into the kitchen. Darren took no notice. “It may take some time for Lucius to regain his strength. Besides, he needs to look after you. Mercury doesn’t like being thwarted. We’ve heard enough to ask you and Lucius to move to a safe house.”

“A safe house?” Rose stared. “But I thought you weren’t police.”

“Other people than police have safe houses,” Darren said. “And you and Lucius have a lot of catching up to do.”

Tied In

Darren looked around the small flat. The chill of an unwelcome and supernatural presence hung heavily and the bunch of flowers his host had brought in with them was already shrivelling in its supermarket cellophane. “Yes, there is definitely a problem.” He frowned. “Can you tell me a little of the background.”

Emma looked around her, wondering where to start. “It’s been going on for a few weeks. I thought it was the guttering at first. I got mildew on the wallpaper in that corner, for some reason, but the plaster behind it was dry. The landlord couldn’t work it out.”

“What’s the landlord like?” Darren asked.

Emma shrugged. “I’ve been here around three months. He leaves me alone, and I’m glad of it. But the boiler is in good working order and the appliances are quite new.” She looked anxiously at Darren. “I’m tied into the lease for another nine months. I can’t just walk away from it. I need to get this sorted.”

Darren grunted. “What about the neighbours?”

“There’s a man downstairs, a little older than me,” Emma said. “He’s in his late fifties, I suppose. He works in the week and gets drunk on Saturdays.” She grinned. “He starts singing punk anthems around 8.30pm and is usually quiet by 10. He seems pleasant enough. I’ve not really spoken to him.” She nervously adjusted a cushion. “Won’t you sit down?”

Darren shook his head. “How about upstairs?”

“The flat directly above is empty,” Emma said. “It was a mother and a couple of kids. They moved out the week I moved in. I’ve not heard any noises. Apparently the leases ran from the same dates. She was tied in as well.” She watched Darren pacing up and down the flat with leashed energy. He was not her idea of a priest. Priests, in her opinion, were not tall, well-muscled and ridiculously handsome. And they definitely did not wear well washed supermarket jeans with heavy boots, a faded black shirt and a leather jacket with their dog collar. They also had better people skills. Emma felt that she was getting marks deducted for silliness. “I suppose you could get in there, if you needed to.”

“I’d rather not start by breaking and entering,” Darren said. “Do you know why the people above left?”

“I thought priests could get all sorts of permissions,” Emma said. “I can give you the number of the agency.”

Darren peered through the blinds and out over the car park. “I’m not good with bureaucracy. And did they say why they were moving?” He turned and gave Emma a pointed look.

“Sorry, Phoenix next door said that they were moving in with the woman’s boyfriend,” Emma said. “Are you sure that I can’t get you a cup of tea or coffee?”

“Phoenix?” Darren said. “What sort of name is ‘Phoenix?’ Does she think she’s a superhero?”

Emma thought of the plump, dishevelled lady next door. “No, I don’t think so,” she said. “She told me that her name was revealed to her in a sitting. I think she used to be called Tina.”

Darren stared. “What?”

Emma smiled weakly. “She’s very nice, but into the new age stuff. You know, Tarot cards and crystals and stuff. I never believed in it much, until this.” She gestured helplessly at the blackened flowers on the table. “I think I’ve heard it described as, ‘weird washing powder and knits her own rice’. She follows an alternative lifestyle.” Emma trailed off a little in the face of Darren’s evident disapproval. “She’s saving up for a smallholding.”

“Does she look like she could farm?” Darren asked.

“Um…” Emma didn’t like to be cruel but the man downstairs had more than once been called to help Phoenix with spiders. Besides, she didn’t seem like the outdoor type. “I’m not sure.”

Darren shook his head. “Let’s hope that she’s bad at saving.” He paced back across the room. “What’s this?” he asked, waving a hand at the macrame wall hanging.

“Phoenix gave it me,” Emma said. “She seemed to think that it was lucky.”

Darren looked closer. “How long has it been here?”

“She gave it as a house-warming present.” Emma looked embarrassed. “She was insistent that I put it up straight away, and she always checks that it’s there. It’s not really my taste.”

Darren frowned. “Did you tell Phoenix about the problems?”

Emma nodded. “She said that the previous tenant had the same issues and that’s why he moved out as soon as the lease ended. But then she said she knew someone from her spiritualist group who could help me out. She was quite keen, but I felt better with someone more traditional.” Emma shot an uncomfortable glance at Darren, who looked absolutely nothing like a traditional priest. “I didn’t want to offend her, but I don’t feel comfortable with crystals and that.”

Darren sighed. “Do you have anywhere to stay if things go bad?” he asked.

Emma looked around nervously. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if your neighbour starts harassing you?” Darren said, looking closer at the macrame piece. “Do any of her group turn up here?”

Emma thought for a moment. “I don’t think that I’ve seen anyone. And I can’t just leave here – like I said, I’m tied into the lease.”

“It depends,” Darren frowned and then pulled out a pocket-knife. “The flat isn’t cursed. This knotted thing is.”

“What?”

“It’s a scam that seems to have been doing the rounds of the area,” Darren said. “A nice neighbour brings in a housewarming gift that you have to put up straight away. And that neighbour can keep coming around and checking that it’s still in place. After all, the neighbour is so nice and helpful so you can’t really stop them coming in. And that knotted thing holds a curse.”

“It’s macrame,” Emma interrupted. “And it is nice.”

“Yes, quite pretty,” Darren agreed. “But the nice neighbour, Phoenix in this case, knows someone and while they won’t charge, they will accept donations to their group. It’s all for good causes and above board, of course. They make sure that you’re so grateful that the curse has gone that you’ll be generous. And they’ll encourage you to come along and be part of that group. Before you know it, you’ll be buying their crystals at inflated prices, and paying for workshops and blessings and courses in their faith.” Darren almost spat the last word out. “I’m a minister of the Anglican Church, the Church of England. My faith is my rock. And I’ve worked with all sorts of Christians, from Greek Orthodox to the most austere Presbytarian, and their faith has been just as solid. I’ve worked with Imams from the mosques, and Buddhists and Sikhs and Wiccans and pagans and all the shades of faith, all of them taking strength from their beliefs. This is nothing to do with belief. This is to do with greed and spite and malice.” He took a deep breath. “Could you give me a moment to compose myself.”

Emma watched in silence. Darren appeared to be praying in front of the macrame hanging. She could feel the atmosphere changing around her. There was still the edge of decay and despair, but now there was a charge of electricity around the room, like the beginning of a thunderstorm. She jumped as there was a knock on the door.

“Emma, are you alright?” Phoenix called through the door. “Is everything okay?”

“Keep her away from me,” Darren muttered as he frowned at the macrame in front of him. He muttered some words and a quick flash of purple light ran around the knotted hanging.

“It’s okay, Phoenix,” Emma called. “I’m just in the middle of something.”

“My telly’s gone all funny,” Phoenix called. “How about you?”

“I’ll check in a minute, Phoenix, and I’ll be around to let you know,” Emma said, stalling.

“Are you having a manifestation?” Phoenix called. “Should I call Mercury? He can be here in twenty minutes. I’ll give him a call, shall I?”

“No!” Emma shouted. “I mean, no, it’s okay. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Let me in, Emma,” There was an unexpected steel in Phoenix’s voice. “I can help.”

Emma forced herself to stay back from the door. Phoenix’s voice was strangely compelling and it rang around her head like a chimed wineglass. “Just five minutes.” She looked back at Darren who was raising a hand slowly towards the hanging. He muttered a few words in what sounded like Latin and carefully, every inch of him braced for action, slit the rope at the bottom of the hanging.

Emma was flung back by the force of the blast as something hot and foul-smelling washed over her, pushing at her like a tidal wave. At the same time she heard her door splinter and Phoenix fell into the room through the ruined frame. Darren turned and spat out a few strange words which Phoenix seemed to knock physically aside. To Emma’s horror, Phoenix bounded across the room with unheard of grace and speed and grabbed Darren by the throat. Darren raised his shoulder, spun, broke the hold and continued around to get the momentum for a hard kick to Phoenix’s side. Phoenix gasped and then swung a wide, arcing punch but Darren ducked under. “Get out!” he yelled to Emma.

Emma turned to the door but lightning flashed across the room and blocked her path. She turned back. Darren was fighting hard against Phoenix, who seemed, somehow, to be a lot stronger than usual, and, as Emma watched, Phoenix picked up the sofa and hurled at Darren, who ducked. Emma turned back to the door as the sofa frame cracked behind her. The air in front of her seemed to be somehow thicker there, somehow darker. The lightning swirled and crackled, discharging around the ruins of the door frame and the corners of the windows. A shadow was forming.

She turned back to the fight. Darren was keeping Phoenix at arms’ length, dodging and blocking as he weighed up his options. “Emma, you need to get out,” he yelled.

“The door’s blocked.” Emma turned back and flinched as a sharp crack of thunder echoed through the flat and suddenly there was a man standing there, tall dark and absolutely furious. He glared past Emma, as Phoenix swung Emma’s favourite lamp at Darren’s head. Emma flinched as the lamp hit a mirror.

The stranger gestured at Phoenix who spun around as she noticed his presence. “No!” she cried out, “No, I can explain…”

The stranger gestured again and Phoenix twisted, wreathed in the same purple lightning. Somehow she was being folded, smaller and smaller as lightning crackled around the room. In front of Emma’s appalled gaze, the untidy, plump woman was turning and twisting like an origami crane, her features blurring as she shrank. Darren stepped clear. “Wait a minute!”

It was too late. Phoenix screamed one long, last scream and then twisted into a small, knotted, brown bundle of tattered hair and fur which fell with a prosaic thud onto the floor. Emma stared and then jumped as the stranger stepped forward and bowed to Darren.

“My thanks for your rescue, sir. I apologise for any distress and inconvenience to you and your fair lady. I am Vertiver, and I have been trapped by this creature…” he waved a dismissive hand at the bundle on the floor, “…for far too long. I owe you my life, and more.”

Darren shook his head. “No, I’m happy to help.”

“My life was a mere existence, trapped and twisted, forced to perform harsh magics.” Vertiver bowed to Emma. “I apologise for the unpleasantness I brought. I swear that I would not willingly torment a lady.” He turned back to Darren. “My rescuer, my lord, I owe you my freedom. I cannot turn away from my obligation.”

“You can,” Darren said with conviction. “You really can.”

Vertiver shook his head. “You are mortal. I shall pledge to serve you for the rest of your days. That is my oath and my word. I can do no less after being freed from that prison, that dark, dreary, desperate dungeon where I was bound by their cursed knots.”

“No, not at all.” Darren stumbled over his words in his haste to get them out. “No obligation, seriously, my duty.”

“But it is my honour. And no service could be more onerous than the labour recently forced,” Vertiver said, bowing again. “You are a priest? Well, that should make my service interesting and with far nobler deeds than my late captor.”

“Bloody hell,” Darren said.

Eggs for Breakfast

“These are hard,” my mother said. “You should make some new ones.”

“Sorry, I’ll get them done now,” I said.

“I don’t know why you can’t them right first time,” Mother complained. “It’s not like you never cook eggs.”

“Sorry,” I said as I put the pan back on the heat. “Maybe I should get the pan hotter first.”

“You never think!” Mother said. “You’re going to have to have them. I can’t have them going to waste. And what about dinner? I suppose you haven’t thought about that?”

“I’ve got some chicken out of the freezer,” I lied, knowing what would come next.

“I don’t fancy chicken,” Mother said. “I think that we eat too much chicken. Is that toast fresh?”

“Yes, it’s just come out,” I said as I buttered it quickly and slid it on to the plate. I pushed it over to her and cracked two more eggs into the pan.

“You could have at least cut the toast for me,” Mother said. “I have to do everything. You have no consideration for me. I’ve had such a bad night.”

“Sorry,” I repeated, as I quickly poured tea into her mug. “Here, this will help.”

Mother took a sip. “Is this milk okay?”

“It’s fine,” said, turning the eggs. “I had some in my tea when I got up earlier.”

“It tastes off,” Mother said. “Could you open a fresh carton?”

“It’s the last carton,” I said. “I usually pick it up after work, but there was that after work meeting, remember, and I didn’t have time before getting home to cook dinner.” I slid the new eggs onto her warmed plate and pushed the toast nearer.

“You’ll have to pick up some tonight, and some eggs. We seem to go through so many eggs with you wasting them.” Mother shook her head sadly. “So what are we going to have for dinner if we can’t have chicken?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You should know!” Mother exclaimed. “You are the one in charge of the kitchen, you should know what we have. We’ll just have to order pizza. I know you say you don’t like it, but you should have thought of that before getting the chicken out. And today of all days! You know I’m out for the day with Mrs Timmins and you didn’t even press the blue dress.”

“What blue dress?” I asked, bewildered.

“The one in the wardrobe. It’s been there so long that it was looking sad. I’ve had to put on this pink one. Of course, if you took me out more, it wouldn’t matter so much.”

“But you know I work,” I said wearily and took a bite of the eggs she’d rejected. They tasted fine.

“I keep telling you that you should give up work and get carer’s allowance. You and me could be quite cosy, just the two of us here,” Mother said. “I don’t know what you need your job for. They only pay a pittance.” She looked out of the window. “There’s Mrs Timmins – I have to go! Where have you put my bag?”

I watched her leave, sipping my tea as she glared one last time at me through the window as she climbed into Mrs Timmins’ car, then breathed out. Finally she was gone. I dumped my unwashed plate and mug into the sink and raced upstairs to grab my one remaining bag. My job paid extremely well, thank goodness, though she never knew, more than enough for the very reasonable rent on a tiny flat near work. The down payment had cleared, I’d picked up the keys and today was the day I moved away from Mother and into my own home. And what was more, I thought, as I shut the door and pushed the keys back through the letterbox, I would never, ever have to eat eggs for breakfast again.

Dreaming

As I sleep, my faerie lover

Curls against my back and sighs

Deep in slumber, resting with me

Dreaming of pearlescent skies

Matching me in dreaming’s dances

Stepping through my idling mind

Petals fall in springtime meadows

As winter’s cares are tossed behind

When I wake, I don’t remember

In the dirty light of day

My days are creeping through my autumn

But in my sleep, I dream of May.

Just One Day

cupcake
Image from Unsplash, taken by Melissa Walker Horn

It’s just one day.

Getting ready in this household is never a calm, ordered procedure. I don’t know anyone with organised mornings, and they’re certainly chaotic here. But finding the missing school book and digging out the car keys seem to float past me this morning. I don’t say anything – it wouldn’t be fair. I just carry on as usual.

It’s just one day.

I’ve done the school run so many times, that it’s on autopilot. Even the the frankly erratic driving of the vans and the chaos of the roadworks seem somehow muffled, like the teenage texting happening next to me.

It’s just one day.

And I’ve washing to do, dinner to make, errands to run, and it’s all in the same quiet bubble. I remember to pick up the small cake, just like last year, but keep it quiet. I don’t want to make a fuss. I don’t want to upset anyone. It’s personal, and private to me.

It’s just one day.

And now the hustle and bustle of the day has passed, and I have a few moments alone, I can look at that cake. Your cake. Your birthday cake. I lost you, my baby, far too early to know whether to get a pink cake or a blue cake. I never saw a smile or heard a giggle. I never soothed you or comforted you. You left before you arrived. Today, if you stuck to the due date (and babies never do) would be your birthday.

It’s just one day.

And, though you normally rest quietly in the shadows, today I remember. Just one day to think of what could have been. Then I leave you once again to rest until next year. I love you, my darling.

Movement

brown house surrounded white trees
Image from Unsplash, taken by Craig Cooper

The day is without motion, all is quiet

The smoke across the valley rises straight

And in the silent room that is my kitchen

I sit and nurse my tea and slowly wait.

I careful move, not to disturb the silence

The frost is hard and the brittle grass is white

I sit and chill within the silent garden

The sunshine has no heat, just frozen light

As slow as moss, I move back to the kitchen

And breathe while waiting for my heart to fill

One day I’ll thaw and rattle through the hours

Till then the light, the day and I are still.

Dark Cupboard

bald eagle door chain lock
Image from Unsplash, taken by Thom Milkovic

Jim looked around. “It’s not a bad little flat,” he said. “It’ll turn a good profit once we’ve tidied it up a bit.”

Steve nodded. “It really just needs a few coats of paint and perhaps new doors on the kitchen cupboards. Everything is pretty sound.”

“She didn’t want to leave,” Jim said thoughtfully. “I mean, she handed over the keys alright, and the place was cleared, but she kept warning me about the cupboard.” He nodded to the cupboard set into the wall, with chipped paint and an ornate chain.

“I’ve got the bolt cutters here,” said Steve. “I’ll get into it in a sec.”

“I’ll nip back to the van and get the camera,” Jim said. “She seemed a sweet old dear, and a little confused, but she may have been playing crafty. There could be structural stuff inside that cupboard and there go our profits.” He glanced over at Steve. “Don’t start without me, we need to document this.”

“I’ll get it opened up,” Steve said. “I’ll get the lamp shining in by the time you’re back. It’s probably where she hid the empty bottles. She was talking about spirits when she left.”

“Or it could be a Ouija board,” Jim said with a shudder. “You know I hate anything like that.” He glanced uneasily at the cupboard. “Back in a tick.”

Steve shook his head as he heard Jim clatter down the stairs. You couldn’t even read your newspaper horoscope around Jim. He hefted the bolt cutters and checked the chain. It was steel but old and the bolt cutters were top of the range. The chain fell apart without much effort.

The cupboard was dark inside, much darker than Steve expected. He pulled out his phone to use the torch and shivered as a cold draught ran through the room. He looked closer and saw a few chalked symbols, faded and barely visible under some dusty leaves, on the base of the cupboard. The stench was stomach churning.

“There’s nothing here, Jim,” Steve called, heading to the windows. He had to get some fresh air into this room. “But we may have a sewer line issue.” He tugged at the window catch. “Have you got some WD40?” The window was jammed, no matter how hard he pushed and shoved. He frowned. They had been fine earlier and there had been nothing in the survey. He could hear Jim on the stairs. He had better get the chalk marks wiped off before he got here, or he would have a fit. “Hang on, Jim, I need a cloth.” Steve strode over to the door, shivering as another blast of icy stench ran over him, and grabbed the door handle. It wouldn’t move. “Jim, the door’s stuck. Give it a push, will you?”

There was a rattle. “I can’t shift it,” Jim said. “Is there a lock?”

Steve peered at the door. “I can’t see anything.”

“I’ll get the toolbox,” Jim called. “Back in a tick.”

The light in the room dimmed. Steve turned around, hit by another icy, stinking draught, but there was nothing over the window and the sun seemed just as bright. He shivered as the room got colder and, as he heard a low, malicious chuckle, he wondered if they would have been better leaving the cupboard alone…

My Room

Image from Unsplash, taken by Clint Patterson

I thought I heard your voice,

But it was just an echo.

Outside a car door slammed.

It was spilling laughter around it,

People were shouting across it,

And I think it reminded me.

And that is all the noise I hear.

The room is silent.

I stopped the clock

As its loud ticking hurt me.

The shadows through the curtains

Rise and fall with the daylight.

My room is dark and paused.

I should light a candle.

I should eat some food.

I should breathe carefully.

I should get some sleep.

I should push myself out of here.

I am here, quiet in the dark.

You have gone and are elsewhere,

In the daylight and warmth.

And that is all.