Tribute

cooked meat on wooden surface beside drink and foods in bowls
Image from Unsplash, taken by Alexander Kovacs

Cerne, god of the hunt (retired) lifted his head at the same time his great hound, Garm, pricked up his ears. After a few moments, there was a knock on the door. Cerne frowned at Garm. “I’m not expecting anyone, old boy. Who do you think it is?” He wandered down the hall and opened the door. He flinched as the middle aged woman in bright pink waved her arms wildly and screeched.

“O Great One! I, Madeline, beseech your aid!” She made a passable attempt at a curtsey.

“No, please stand, er, Madeline.” Cerne stared as Garm backed away. “Would you like to come in?”

Madeline looked terrified. “I would not presume, O Great One,” she declaimed loudly. “I merely come seeking a favour. I bring tribute.” She waved at the pile of shopping bags behind her.

“But let’s not disturb the neighbours,” Cerne said. Garm had retreated back into the living room.

“Of course,” Madeline said, in her normal voice. “I’m sorry.”

“And you can call me Mr Cornwall. I’m retired, but I help out where I can.” Cerne looked at the pile of bags. The morning was looking up.

“It’s my Mikey,” Madeline said. “He’s everything to me, O Great One, I mean, Mr Cornwall. He gives meaning to my life. And now he has gone.”

Cerne did not feel like dealing with errant lovers. “I’m not sure that I can help much with this,” he said. “I’m good at hunting.”

“I spoke to Dawn and she said that you were so kind with the wedding and everything,” Madeline said. “And I knew that you would be good to a helpless old woman missing her only companion, my reason for living.”

Cerne had a bad feeling about this. “I’ll do what I can,” he said. “So, tell me about Mikey.”

“He’s got the sweetest nature and is so gentle.” Madeline rummaged in her handbag. “So many people say that he is a complete angel. There’s not many that have a lovely nature like him.”

“Hey, Cerne! Have any of your neighbours lost a dog?” Taranis wandered around the corner holding a small chihuahua. “I found this lad down the road looking lost and I thought I’d ask around.”

Cerne wasn’t sure whether his old friend was going to be a help or a hindrance. “Madeline, this is Taranis, retired god of thunder. You can call him Mr Thomas.” He looked hard at Taranis. “I’m in the middle of a consultation.

Madeline shrieked as she saw Taranis. “O Great One! You found him!”

“What?” Cerne said.

“What?” Taranis looked at Cerne.

“My Mikey, you’ve found him!” Madeline moved fast for a woman of her age. She hurtled down the path towards Taranis.

Taranis stared in horror at the large pink lady advancing at speed towards him. “Umm…”

“My Mikey!” Madeline grabbed at the small dog who leapt into her arms, his tail wagging furiously as he licked his owner’s face.

“That’s Mikey?” Cerne said carefully.

“My little Mikey,” Madeline sighed. “He’s such a good boy, except when he runs out when the nasty meter reader called.”

“I can see it’s your dog,” Taranis said. “I’m glad I found him for you.”

Madeline ignored him and raced back up the path to fling her arms around an appalled Cerne. “You are just as good as Dawn said. Thank you for granting my request.”

“I found the dog,” Taranis said behind her.

Madeline ignored him. She attempted another curtsey. “O Great Cerne, Mighty Hunter, Lord of the Forest, thank you for bringing back my lost dog, after hunting him down and rescuing him from his peril.”

“He was wandering around the petunias at Number 43,” Taranis said. “And I found him.”

Madeline stared worshipfully up at Cerne, tears in her eyes. “Thank you for making an old woman very happy,” she said, her voice breaking. “Accept my offering. And you can keep the bags.”

Cerne watched, stunned, as Madeline walked away, hugging the chihuahua close. Then he looked at the bags. “What happened?”

I found a lost dog and you got the tribute,” Taranis said. “What is it?”

“Give me a hand,” Cerne lifted up two of the bags. “And let’s get away from the neighbours.”

Taranis lifted the other two bags and followed his old friend inside. “I didn’t recognise her,” he said. “Is she new?”

“Probably,” Cerne set the bags down in the middle of the floor and started unpacking. “I hope so.”

Garm woofed and trotted over as Cerne and Taranis unpacked box after box. Taranis rubbed the dog’s ears. “She included dog treats for you, old boy, as well as our goodies.”

“Honey cakes!” Cerne said. “I hardly ever see these. And they’re made properly, without any of this baking powder nonsense.”

“This is decent wine,” Taranis pulled out a bottle. “It’s not any of the supermarket rubbish.”

“And venison!” Cerne pulled out some more boxes. “A joint of venison with venison sausages, venison burgers…”

“This roast pork is perfect.” Taranis looked up at Cerne. “I found the dog.”

“But she came to me with the tribute,” Cerne said. He shrugged. “We split it.”

Taranis nodded. “Sounds fair.” He thought for a moment. “We can send a quick blessing her way as well. It seems only right.”

Cerne nodded. “But let’s do that before we have the wine.” He tossed a few dog treats to Garm who snatched them out of the air and crunched them with gusto. “Then we can drink a toast to Mikey.”

This story is part of the Stormdance Quarterly Blog Hop. Why not check out the other contributers to the list?

Dragon’s Tale by S. R. Olson
Coming Out by Katharina Gerlach
Rabid Rabbits Revenge by Jemma Weir
Jory’s Gamble Juneta Key 
The Ballad of Jamie Stewart by Vanessa Wells
Moon Flower by Melanie J. Drake
Battlefield by Barbara Lund 

Words

“It’s definitely my mother-in-law,” Elaine said. “She loathed me.”

Paul Kidson glanced briefly at her, then looked back at the glyphs he was chalking on the wall. “It’s tricky to know exactly what we’re dealing with,” he said.

Elaine watched anxiously over his shoulder. “She always said that she would come back and haunt me.”

“Did she die recently?” Paul asked. He meticulously measured an angle and moved across the room to mark another glyph.

“No, it’s been a few years,” Elaine said. “But Dave, my husband, he’s gone abroad on a six month placement that was too good to miss, and my son is at university now, so it’s just me. I think she thought I would be an easy target now,” Elaine added bitterly.

“I see,” Paul kept his opinions to himself. He marked another glyph. “Could you step into this circle here – through the gap, not over the markings, please.”

Elaine, her eyes round, stepped through the gap. Paul closed the gap with chalk and took his position in his own circle. He looked hard at Elaine. “Do not interrupt me. Do not question me. Do not make a sound.” Inwardly he sighed. The damn thing only manifested if Elaine was present, so he had to have her here. He didn’t like working with an audience, though, and he didn’t have much hope that she would respect his concentration. He raised his arms centred himself and began.

Paul found himself fighting for mental balance. He was used to vague presences and a flicker of a candle flame, but this was different. The air grew thick around him and smoke drifted and spiralled. He concentrated hard on his words. A corner of his mind noted Elaine shivering in her circle but she was blessedly silent. He was aware, however, of an underlying muttering. Whatever was haunting this house had a lot to say. A bookshelf toppled over in the corner and Elaine flinched. Paul ignored both it and the crash in the kitchen. He needed to divert the power. He looked over at the jar open in the centre of a chalked triangle. The smoke was swirling nearer but was not near enough. “Spirit, I give you leave to speak!” It was a mistake.

“That woman is in my house without my son!” an older woman’s voice snapped. “That woman is in my house.”

“You know it was my money that paid off the mortgage,” Elaine yelled. “And I paid a load of the bills.”

“But it’s my house,” the voice shouted. “And you are a trollop.”

“After all I’ve done for your son, this is what you’re like?” Elaine shouted. “You should have been down on your knees thanking me, Brenda, for all I had to put up with.”

“You are in my house and you are a slut,” Brenda’s disembodied voice shrieked. “And you haven’t cleaned behind the bed in the spare room.”

“Nobody’s been in there for months!” Elaine yelled back. “Why should I kill myself with housework, working all the hours, then coming back to an empty home with your son away with what he calls his job. I bet he’s not dusting behind spare beds while he’s away.”

“Busy with work?” Brenda’s voice suddenly sounded smooth, like poisoned syrup. “Busy with that young man you call Mick, and you ought to be ashamed.”

“You leave Mick out of this!” Elaine shouted. “And I remember hearing all about you and Bert and what your poor husband thought of it all. You have no room to talk.”

Paul fought for concentration as the allegations and insults flew before he managed to push out the final syllables, helped by Brenda’s increasing focus on the argument with Elaine. With an incongruous pop, the smoke snaked into the jar and curled up, vibrating. Paul muttered a few protective syllables, stepped over the chalk line and flinched. A crack of electricity ran through the air but, before the smoke could escape, Paul clipped the lid over the jar and wrapped it quickly in red thread. He stood, wincing, and said a few more words before nodding at Elaine. “You can come out of the circle now.”

Elaine stumbled across the chalk line and stared at the jar. “Is that her?”

“It could be something using her voice,” Paul said. “It sounded like generic insults to me. I think it’s more likely to be a malevolent spirit.”

“It could be her as well as a malevolent spirit,” Elaine said. “That woman was poison.” She glared at the jar. “She spoiled my engagement, my wedding, my honeymoon, my first baby, the Christening…” She looked at Paul, pale faced and swaying next to her and then down at his arm. A burn mark had sliced through his shirt from wrist to elbow and deep into the skin beneath. “You had better run that under the cold tap before you do anything else.”

Paul looked down at the livid mark, then across at the jar, which was rocking slightly. “I think I’ll just take care of one last thing. I don’t want whatever that is to have the last word.”

Chat: Take Three Words…

I write Flash Fiction every Monday (or try to) as a way of going to the writing gym. The plan is to shake some ideas free, wake me up and get me looking at writing from a different angle. Sometimes it really works, and sometimes it’s an epic fail.

The last few months seem to have been filled with fiction that links to other projects. There’s been a lot of fiction that went with King’s Silver and the latest Grumpy Old Gods anthology. I also felt that my writing was sounding a little dark. I needed to change things up.

My usual source of inspiration is wandering around a supermarket, washing up, driving or generally minding my own business and letting my thoughts wander. Sometimes I worry about where my imagination takes me. It feels like my train of thought has left the station and I’m left behind, picking daisies on the railway tracks and then suddenly an idea about magic creeping into a Medieval fantasy world ambushes me (King’s Silver). Or what happens if someone uses the steampunk power to create a monster in the East End of London (Out of the London Mist). This time I was drawing a blank, so I thought, what the heck, and googled writing prompts. I had a little rummage and found this – Writing Exercises which has a load of great ways to start ideas. I went for the ‘Take Three Nouns’ prompt. My prompt was ‘Attic, Bookcase, Forgiveness’ and I wanted to write something completely new.

(I’ve just clicked on it again and it came up with ‘Adventure, Castle, Necklace’ and how can you not write a story about that. ‘Thrill, Clown, Butterfly is more of a challenge. I can see me going back there.)

So I sat down with the three words in my mind and thought about the ideas that they sparked in me. I really wanted to do something different, and definitely not something spooky. Which is why, of course, I wrote a piece that belongs with the ongoing story of Kane and has a strong supernatural slant. Completely not different and utterly spooky. You can find the story here and the background with Kane here.

I quite like writing the gentle little snippets, like I Never Knew Her Name’, but there seems to be something deep inside me that says that it isn’t a proper story if it’s entirely in the real world. That stories should have a hint of magic and wonder about them.

I suppose that I ought to try more prosaic subjects. After all, it’s supposed to be an exercise to keep my writing fresh. On the other hand, no matter what I try, spooky keeps creeping in. I’m working on the principle – if it’s fun to write, then I should go for it!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Up in the Attic

Kane’s story can be read from the beginning here.

“I’m so sorry to involve you,” Adele said. “But I was finding it…” She trailed off and looked unseeingly past Kane and through the window behind him. “I’m hoping that it will be nothing and I can pull myself together.”

Kane managed a reassuring smile. “It’s okay. Sometimes it can be noises in the pipes, or mice. I’ve been called out to all sorts of places, and it isn’t always ghosts.”

Adele relaxed a little. “You were recommended by someone from my aunts’ church,” she said. “He said that you were more sensible than the usual ‘ghostbuster’ and I didn’t need to worry.” She hesitated. “But you will tell me if you see anything? Even if it’s not what you think that I want to hear?”

Kane nodded. “It’s always easier to deal with the truth,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me a little about the background?”

Adele ushered him into the immaculate, if old fashioned, kitchen. “I was brought up by my aunts,” she said. “It’s sort of complicated. My father was their half-brother, and twenty years younger than them, after his father’s second marriage. And he was quite old when I was born…” Again she trailed off, staring into space. She forced herself back into the present and flashed a brief smile at Kane. “I was two when my parents died and my aunts were in their late fifties. Neither of them had married but had lived here since they inherited from their parents.” She glanced around. “It was all that they had ever known.” She paused again.

“It must have been a challenge for everyone,” Kane said quietly into the silence.

“I suppose so,” Adele said. “I think that they did their best, but it was…” She looked down at the cup of tea she was clutching. “They didn’t approve of modern clothing, or music, or make up or anything. I mean, they grew up in the sixties, but it was like they were Victorian. But they did their best. And they really encouraged me at school. They didn’t understand computers, but they still bought me top of the range kit with all the extras.” Adele paused again. “They understood some things, though. I was always allowed privacy. That was more than many of my friends had. After I was about nine or ten, they said that my room was mine alone. They wouldn’t go in there. And they didn’t. I suppose it’s because they insisted on keeping their own space. They were always fair.” Adele swallowed. “I was never allowed in the attic. They said it was their space, just like my room was my space. Even after they passed, a few months ago, I didn’t want to go up. And that’s where the noises come from.”

“Are you worried that their spirits may be there?” Kane asked. “I’m sorry to ask, but how did they die?”

“Covid,” Adele said. “They were both elderly, it was the start of the pandemic before any of the vaccines, and they were already frail. They never had a chance.” She swallowed again. “I really miss them, even though we had been arguing. They weren’t sure about my boyfriend.”

“What does he think?” Kane asked.

Adele managed another smile. “He dumped me when I wouldn’t sell the house. The aunts were right about him. Sometimes I really miss them.” She looked up at Kane. “I’m sorry to be so maudlin. I suppose that you’re used to it.” She looked a little closer at the slight young man sitting opposite her. “How did you start with this? Mr Eastham said that you had a lot of experience.”

Kane smiled. “I’ve always been able to see ghosts. I just got into the way of helping people out. I can’t make ghosts do what I want,” he added, “but sometimes they listen to me. I usually pass on messages so that they can rest.”

“I’m sure that the relatives are grateful,” Adele said.

Kane thought for a moment. “It depends,” he said, trying to be tactful. “You meet all sorts, but it has its rewards.” He set his cup down and stood up. “I’d like to see the room, please.”

The stairs from the hall to the bedrooms were wide and sweeping but the stairs up to the attic room were cramped and twisted. Kane followed Adele as she forced herself up the final flight, her back straight and determined as she pushed open the solid wood door and walked forward. “Come in,” she said. “This is where the noises are coming from.”

Kane stepped past her and looked around. It was a snug room, a little dusty now, but you could see the good order shining through. There was a table in the centre of the room with two dusty glasses still on them. Two wing backed chairs were placed either side with cushions placed to support an elderly back. Footstools to help creaky knees were placed neatly to the side. There was an old-fashioned radio sat on top of a huge mahogany bookcase and small lap blankets and shawls folded on a rack in the corner. Kane braced himself as he saw the two ghosts of elderly ladies sitting upright and prim in the faded chairs. “Good morning,” he said politely.

“He can see us, Elsie.” The taller of the two ghosts stood and nodded. “Good morning, young man. I’m very glad to see you.”

“Do you know, Mildred, I thought that we would be here forever.” Elsie stood next to her sister and smoothed down her insubstantial skirt before turning to Kane. “I hope you wiped your feet before coming up here.”

“Yes, miss,” Kane looked nervously between the two ghosts. “And Adele showed me where to wash my hands.”

Mildred snorted. “That is as maybe. Well, now that you’re finally here, we have a message before we can get away.”

“It was all very difficult at the end,” Elsie added. “We weren’t allowed visitors. I was quite upset.”

“We both were,” Mildred added. She looked at Adele. “You had better say something to her. The child looks like she has swallowed a fishbone.”

Kane turned to Adele. “I can see two elderly ladies.”

Adele nodded. “I can see by your expression that it’s them. Are they telling you off?”

“Not yet,” Kane said cautiously.

“Don’t be smart!” Mildred snapped. “Seeing us doesn’t make you clever. And don’t slouch!”

Kane found himself straightening up. “No, miss.”

Elsie drifted over to the bookcase. “We have had a long discussion about this,” she said. “And we have agreed that there are two main messages. The first is that we want Adele to know that we are proud of her.”

Mildred nodded. “We may not have always showed it.” She pursed her lips. “We always felt that there was too much silly emotion around. We didn’t feel the need to go around expressing ourselves. That’s for the youngsters. We kept ourselves busy.”

Elsie nodded in agreement. “So you should tell Adele that we are both proud of her. She may not feel that. She always lacked confidence, you know, though we did our best. But if she looks in the bookcase, she may find some reassurance.”

Mildred drifted next to her. “And she should make more time with the young man from next door but two,” she added. “We always stressed that she should look for a young man in a profession and not a trade…”

“The washing could be dreadful if you married into a trade,” Elsie interrupted. “But it’s not so bad now with the new washing machines.”

Mildred gave her sister a sharp look before continuing. “He may only be a plumber, but he has a kind heart which is more than that other good-for-nothing has.” She sniffed hard and glared at Kane. “He wanted her to sell the house so that he could get the money, you know. We heard him on the phone.”

“And then poor Adele would be left without anything,” Elsie added. “Because men of that sort never stay around.”

“Pay attention, young man!” Mildred floated over to Kane. “Tell Adele about the young man next door but two and the bookcase. And that we are very proud of her.” She looked over to her sister. “Well, that’s that. Now we can go and find father.”

Kane watched the ghosts of the elderly ladies fade away before relaxing and turning to Adele. She was looking through the bookcase, looking pale. She looked up at Kane. “They kept everything.”

“They said that they were proud of you, and that you should pay attention to the young man next door but two,” Kane said. “Are you alright?”

“They kept everything.” Adele pulled out a folder. “Every school letter, every piece of art, every report. And they put notes.”

Kane looked over Adele’s shoulder. Attached to the school report was a sheet of paper covered with copperplate notes. “They really didn’t like your maths teacher, did they?”

Adele stared at the paper. “I know that I always got good marks after the first parents’ evening and he never said a single word to me in class after that.” She looked closer. “I always wanted them to be proud of me. Why didn’t they tell me?” She handed the folder to Kane and pulled out another. “And these are all the school photos. They put notes next to them about how well I was doing in the science classes, and how they were impressed by my essays. They even planned out how to buy the right books for me, as a reward.” Her voice broke. “I feel like I’ve finally got there. I’ve finally made it.”

“They also mentioned the man next door but two,” Kane said.

Adele managed a smile through the tears. “We’re going for a coffee tomorrow. They’re probably right about him too.”

Writing a Strong Woman

Many years ago, I saw a writing prompt that asked for a story with a ‘strong woman’. This made me think. Why a ‘strong woman’? Why not a ‘strong person’? Why not a ‘good character’? I could see the point, though. Women have been seen as something to rescue for centuries, so perhaps it made sense to encourage a female lead. So I sat back and wondered what would make a strong woman.

My first thought was a woman in a steel corset waving a sword around. Or perhaps one of those amazing martial artists or tough superheroes. I love the Marvel films and have spent far too many hours watching impossible fight scenes. But my mind wandered and I thought about all the strong women I knew. The ones who kept it together with work and families life in general. But what was it that made a woman ‘strong’? It was the same things that, in my opinion, make a man strong. It’s the ability to keep going when times are tough. It’s about being kind to those around you, even when you are hurting. It’s about doing the right thing when it is hard and standing by it. It’s reaching out and helping others up, even when you are falling apart. Guns and swords aren’t included in my definition.

And that led to Dinner at Dark, a story where two vampires, four werewolves and two ‘normals’ sit down for a dinner party and when things went wrong, it is the housekeeper that holds it all together. I had a blast writing it, all those years ago, and I was reminded of it when I was lucky enough to talk to L Bachman on her podcast. So I went over it, corrected some punctuation and it is free until 17th April. You can find it here.

I would love to hear your views on strong characters, please leave a comment.

Particular

I looked down at my husband’s grave. The funeral had been yesterday and the flowers were already drooping. I stooped and pulled out a faded leaf. Alan always liked things just so, and it was the least I could do for his memory.

He had liked his tea brewed for exactly four and a half minutes. He had insisted that his newspaper was placed at the side of his breakfast dish with the sports pages showing. He had always checked that his dinner knife was exactly perpendicular to the edge of the table. I accommodated his little ways as the years went on. After all, a prize winning research chemist had to have a few little foibles after working with dangerous chemicals all these years.

But while he was so particular about the brand of salt on the table and the angle of the curtains when they were opened, it was a shame that he had paid less attention to other details. It was always risky taking a mistress who worked in the same lab as you and who also dealt with dangerous poisons. And his genius for new compounds was lacking when it came to cyber security. I had known all his personal passwords for years, and I suppose plenty of other people had as well. Perhaps most dangerously, he forgot that once, long ago, I had also worked in the lab with him on dangerous chemicals, the same lab I regularly visited to bring his freshly home-made lunch, with the sandwiches always cut on the diagonal.

The police had found the email apparently from my husband to his mistress, ending their relationship. They had found poison in the mistress’s bag, coyly left next to my husband’s coat in the cloakroom where I left his lunch. They had ascribed the hysterics she had to guilt.

I straightened the roses – not lilies. My husband had been particular about flowers as well. If only he had been as particular and paid attention to me.

Write What You Know

MacBook Pro near white open book
Image from Unsplash, taken by Nich Morrison

Someone asked me about research today, and it got me thinking. How much research do I do? And then I wondered – what is research?

The thing about being an author is that all sorts of stuff gets lumped in. For example, in my story It’s a Deal included in the Grumpy Old Trickster Gods anthology, part of the story is set at the seaside. I didn’t research it. I remembered. When I was a kid, living within a reasonable drive of the North Wales coast, we visited the seaside towns a lot. I remembered the rundown amusements lining the promenade and the greasy fish and chip vans that sold the most amazing food. I remembered the sand on the pavement and the seagulls calling over the rumble of the generators as the hot fat sizzled and spat.

Looking over my writing, mist keeps turning up. I’ll admit to checking the chemical composition of the London smog and the formation of fog in an urban setting as I wrote Out of the London Mist. I remembered the time we were driving over the Denbigh Moors. I must have been around four or five at the oldest. Father stopped the car, right in the middle of nowhere, and we got out. It was a single track strip of tarmac with moor and mist either side. There were no fences, and sheep loomed in the mist. Father explained to me that we were in the middle of a cloud – that the clouds were so low that they were hiding the hills and we were in them. When I write about mist, I remember the sense of wonder and mystery that went with it.

And speaking of Out of the London Mist, I was given a facsimile copy of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, a Victorian book of housewifery and recipes, as a wedding present, over thirty years ago. I was fascinated by it. I think I read it through, and then I picked up other old housewifery and cookbooks. When I came to write about Lady Clara’s household crises, I knew which cookbooks to consult. I had seen adverts in the endpapers for the first types of baking powder and tinned meat. I double checked with all sorts of sites for the details. Anything I mentioned in Out of the London Mist and Under the Bright Saharan Sky is absolutely double and triple checked. All the food and drink was on sale and easily available in 1900. All the places, currencies, even Shepheards Hotel in Cairo, were checked and rechecked and absolutely there in our world. But it was the memory of the fun I had with the cookbooks that helped me to know where to look.

And it was the memory of a classroom project, over forty years ago, that made me double check the maps of the East End of London for 1900 rather than currenGoogle Maps. Between the London Blitz and the redevelopers of the 1960s, the streets of London’s East End of are now very different to the streets that the monster stalked. It was memories of news coverage when the Canary Wharf Tube Station, that opened in 1999 that made me check whether certain tube stations were open in 1900 and whether there was a direct line between points of interest.

I have the attention span of a concussed sparrow, so I can enjoy topics like Medieval law, neolithic copper mines and feathers on dinosaurs. I don’t pretend to know much about these subjects, but because of the interest I’ve taken, I know a little and that I need to look. I have an idea where to start. For me, research is Sporcle quizzes, YouTube videos, documentaries and non-fiction books in all sorts of subjects so that as I write I remember that I have to check, and double check and re-check.

When writers are told to write what they know, perhaps this is what they mean. That writers should dip into their memories and experience so that even though the story is peopled with vampires and werewolves, there is still that edge of reality about it. That the detail of lilac in May and honeysuckle in August make the far-fetched story a little believable. Besides, if you take a broad view, research is so much fun!

Trouble at the Feast

“Thank you for coming, Mr Cornwall, I mean, sir, I mean, my lord…” Dawn trailed off, twisting her hands nervously together.

Cerne, god of the hunt (retired) looked around the wreckage of the wedding reception with some concern. “It’s okay, Dawn. You can call me Mr Cornwall. I think the important thing now is to work out what happened and how to put it right.” There was a roll of thunder in the background and Garm, Cerne’s huge dog, stood closer to Cerne and looked fearfully around.

“I didn’t think this would happen,” Dawn said. “I mean, they said that they were worshippers of the natural principle. I thought that they were sort of aligned. Like that time those lovely Swedish people came for a visit with Lord Thor. So when our Amber got engaged to their Gawain, I thought it would be okay.”

Cerne patted Garm’s head. Taranis may have been retired, but when the two thunder gods had started drinking, it had taken all his persuasion to stop things before they became paperwork. “I haven’t seen them around,” he said carefully as he looked over to a middle aged woman being talked down from hysterics by what looked like a bridesmaid. “But that doesn’t really mean anything. So your daughter got married to their son?”

Dawn nodded. “I mean, my mother always said that they were a bit peculiar. Each to their own, I say, but they were a bit, well…” She searched for a kind version of her words and gave up. “She’s home made everything and the type who wants to knit her own rice, and he’s so keen on saving money that I swear he’d have second hand toilet paper.” Her hand flew to her mouth as she remembered that she was talking to a god. “I’m sorry.”

“It looks like it has been stressful for you, don’t worry about it. So, what happened?” Cerne ran a reassuring hand over his trembling dog.

“We invited Lord Taranis, of course we did. He’s always been good to us, and I didn’t think it would matter, with them being all open minded.” Dawn flinched as lightning shot overhead, followed by a rattle of thunder. “And it got a bit silly on the run up to the wedding, with them wanting to save money and Mike wanting to give Amber a proper send off.” Dawn looked over to where her husband was looking sadly at the wreckage of a marquee. Shredded pink ribbon blew around the garden in the rising breeze. “We had some terrible arguments with them. Mike said that he was happy to pay, and it was only once if it was done right, and they shouldn’t worry. But Gawain’s parents couldn’t bear to see us spending money. They took the ribbon back to the shop three times before I hid it properly.”

“They didn’t like pink?” Cerne asked, bewildered. Beside him Garm whimpered as lightning flashed again. “So, Lord Taranis is in there, is he?” Cerne nodded at a separate, smaller catering tent. “If that is where the strong drink is, it’s going to be a problem.” He looked up at another rumble of thunder. “And it’s going to start raining hard any minute. You need to get stuff inside.”

“No, they didn’t mind pink,” Dawn said, looking over to a middle aged man in a bad suit standing alone outside the garden next to a row of cars and avoiding everyone’s glances. “It’s just that they thought it would be better to cut up a sheet and dye it pink. Shirley said she could do it with avocadoes. They don’t even eat avocadoes!”

Cerne wasn’t sure what an avocado was. “Dawn, I really think that you need to tell me what upset Lord Taranis and you need to tell me now!”

Dawn wrung her hands as women started frantically carrying plates and platters into the house. “We set up the wedding food as a proper dinner. We ordered plenty of beef and some salmon and a special side of roast pork for Lord Taranis. He’s always particular, and we always get him the good roast pork. Our family have always done our best.”

Cerne nodded. “Lord Taranis insists on the good meat for a feast. He may have even given you some if you couldn’t manage it, to make your daughter’s wedding special.” He tried a reassuring smile on the woman in front of him. “And he has always praised your cooking.”

Dawn’s eyes brimmed with tears. “We always got him the best stuff. We ordered a barrel of mead as well, and Mike had racked up extra home brewed beer and wine, and everything.” There was a crash from the catering tent, and lightning hissed down and split the tarmac on the road outside.

“If you have Lord Taranis hiding with Mike’s home brew, you need to tell me what happened quickly,” Cerne said. “You know what he gets like.”

“Gawain’s parents called the caterer and changed the order,” Dawn whispered as smoke from the burnt road drifted across the garden. “They said that we needed a more cost effective menu.” The first fat droplets of rain splashed on the broken tables piled up on the side of the lawn.

Cerne felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as Garm pressed his huge body against the god’s legs. “They didn’t give him fish, did they?”

A bellow came from catering tent and the sound of smashing glass. Dawn started sobbing. “They gave him the vegan option.”

Home Brewed

clear glass mug with brown liquid
Image from Unsplash, taken by Pradnyal Gandhi

“Are those your new neighbours?” Cerne waved a hand at the lads setting up some speakers next to a barbecue in the garden next door.

Home Brewed

Taranis nodded. “They moved in last week. I think they’re sharing the house while they’re at college.” He took a slow sip of his home brew. “I’ve given them the first word, and I’ve let them have a housewarming, and now we see what happens.”

Cerne looked sideways at his old friend, “You just go looking for trouble living next to student housing. I never get any trouble from any of my neighbours.”

“And where’s the fun in that?” Taranis drained the last mouthful of his beer. “This batch of homebrew came out pretty well. It’s much easier to get the ingredients these days.”

Cerne nodded. “I used to have to grow a lot of stuff myself. It’s much better now there is that internet.” He looked down at his glass, filled with golden liquid that glowed in the last of the days’ light. It tasted of summer and sunsets, with spices and lightning as an undertone, and filled a heart with wild wind and thunder and warmth of heaven’s fire. It was a brew for the gods, not frail mortals. “Are these the glasses we stole from that pub in Brighton?”

“I knew we were going to get kicked out anyway.” Taranis stood up creakily. “Especially after those bikers started.”

Cerne caught him eyeing the lads in the garden next door. “Remember, no paperwork.”

“That’s always my motto. Whatever you do, no paperwork.” Taranis wandered into his kitchen and came out again with a couple of bottles of his home brew and a plate of sandwiches, thick with roast pork. “Lisa sent some more pork around, after I sorted out the people parking in front of her house.”

“You had a word with the council, didn’t you?” Cerne said, grinning and throwing some pork to his dog, Garm, who sat patiently next to him.

“And no paperwork,” Taranis said. He poured himself another drink and topped up Cerne.

“Hey, grandpa!” The redheaded lad from next door hung over the fence, far too close to Taranis. “You want to switch your hearing aids off now. We’re going to party.”

The scruffy one with dyed dark hair slouched over the fence next to him. “And my dad’s in the police, so there’s nothing you can do. Just get used to the loud music.”

“It won’t be that loud, will it?” Taranis said, allowing a slight hint of weakness in his normally booming voice.

“This kit cost more than you ever earned in your life, grandpa,” The redhead laughed. “They’ll hear it all the way down to the Estate.”

Cerne put his hand on Taranis’ arm. “No paperw- Bloody hell!” The dark-haired lad had switched on the sound system and it vibrated through the houses and gardens, making Garm yelp in dismay.

The redhead laughed again as he turned the music down, though keeping it at a level that could rattle windows. “We’re starting off quiet, grandpa, but don’t expect it to stay this level.”

“Well I never did.” Taranis sounded frail. “That’s a very loud system.”

“Don’t overdo it,” Cerne muttered to him.

“I tell you what, young man,” Taranis mostly hid his grin from the lads. “Why don’t you have a drink on me? I’m sure we can work things out.”

“Homebrew?” The redhead looked sceptical.

“It’s a bit stronger than average, so take it steady,” Taranis said. There was a brief rumble of thunder, unnoticed by the lads, but Garm hid under the table and Cerne grinned.

“We can manage more than your cocoa, grandpa.” The redhead took a large swig and looked at the bottle. “Hey, this is the good stuff.” He passed it on to his nearest friend.

Cerne watched the redhead. “It’s taking it’s time kicking in.”

“I went for smooth rather than strong,” Taranis said. “It’s not like it’s for a proper feast.”

Cerne checked his watch. “Perhaps it was the ingredients,” he said. “Even with a smoother brew it normally hits quicker. Ahh, there it is.”

One by one the lads started shivering, huddling into themselves and staring at sights that only they could see. The dark-haired lad was rocking slowly to and fro and his blond friend was sobbing. The redhead was noisily sick in a planter next to the patio door.

“Look at me!” Taranis commanded, all trace of the frail old man gone. He waited until all their frightened eyes were turned to him and then pointed at the sound system. With a sharp crack, a bolt of lightning did several thousand pounds of damage and left an echoing silence. “Now go inside, sleep it off, and remember to think of your neighbours next time.”

Cerne watched them slink off. “That was a bit harsh, wasn’t it?”

Taranis fondled Garm’s ears as he slunk out from under the table. “They’ll be fine tomorrow. It wasn’t the really strong stuff, and there won’t be any paperwork.” He fed the huge dog another piece of pork. “Another glass?”

A little warm up to my entry in the Grumpy Old Gods Anthology, out today, which you can find here