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

Quiet Remembrance

Taranis, god of thunder (retired), opened up his camping chair and pulled out his thermos flask. “It’s a cold night, but not a bad time to remember someone. And it’s quiet.”

Cerne, god of the hunt (retired), dumped his bag next to the cairn of stones. “Have you really brought tea to a memorial feast?” His great hound, Garm, sniffed at the stones and then flopped down next to them.

“It’s good to drop some of this into a hot drink,” Taranis pulled out a black, unlabelled bottle that glowed faintly in the night air.

Cerne brightened up. “That’s more like it.” His breath steamed in front of him and he rubbed his hands briskly together. “I’ll get a fire going.” He looked over to the stones. “Seems only right to remember an old friend with flames and strong drink.”

Taranis busied himself setting up a second camp chair and a small table. He caught Cerne’s eye. “The damp gets right in my bones,” he grumbled. “There’s no need to be uncomfortable.”

Cerne shrugged. “I hadn’t thought of Bran in years.” He pulled out his own contribution. “I brought venison.” He set some large Tupperware tubs on the table. Garm’s eyes followed every movement.

“I suppose you bought it from a butcher, didn’t you,” Taranis grumbled.

The former god of the hunt added some soft white bread in a box. “I’ve been busy.” He paused and looked at the cairn. “Time just slips by these days.”

“It wasn’t until I saw all the fuss in the paper that I remembered,” Taranis said. He set out two large tin mugs and a few more unlabelled bottles. “But I couldn’t let them build over the last resting place of our old friend.”

Cerne built a small fire, carefully arranging the logs and twigs for a long night of burning. He stacked up more firewood and cleared the space as Taranis set out the food and drink. Cerne nodded at the unlit wood. Taranis shrugged and a spark jumped from his fingers to light the campfire. “That’s better. I’ve got some mead and barley cakes to leave for Bran, before we start.”

Cerne nodded. “I suppose so.”

“Hey, grandad!”

They turned around and stared at the newcomers. A red-faced middle-aged man with a battery spotlight was in front of half a dozen lads who were holding shovels and crowbars. He strode forward angrily. “This is prime development land. I had everything set up ready for some residential and a shopping centre and then you bleeding hearts turned up. I’ve paid out good money for the land, but now that it’s a ‘special archaeological site’ it’s worthless.” He looked at the lads behind him. “But with one of those unexplained incidents, and with no way of being able to find the culprits, all the archaeology is going to disappear. There’ll be nothing left for any special interest and before you know it there will be executive townhouses and some convenient shop fronts. So why don’t you coffin dodgers pack up your little picnic and bugger off before things start getting messy.”

“You’re Mr Harris the developer, aren’t you?,” Taranis said. “We’re not leaving. We’re here to pay our quiet respects to an old friend. Just leave us in peace.” There was a brief rumble of thunder. He looked over the lads behind the developer. “I know you, Darren, and you know me. You ought to know better. Now get off back home, and I won’t say anything more about it.” The young lad lost every trace of colour, dropped the shovel he was holding, turned and fled. Taranis looked over the rest of the motley bunch. “Go away.”

“You don’t want to end up with paperwork,” Cerne said to Taranis. He turned to Mr Harris. “I’m sure that there’s ways of working around this. Why don’t we talk this out tomorrow?”

“There are plenty of ways, but they all cost money,” Mr Harris shouted. “I’m not wasting any of that on some dried up bones. So I’m saying – bugger off! I don’t care how old you are, you’ll regret it if you don’t move.”

Cerne sighed and looked at the bunch in front of them before catching Taranis’ eye. “There’s only half a dozen of them. Don’t go too hard on the youngsters. I’ll set up the memorial for Bran.”

Taranis growled. Thunder rolled and a flash of lightning arced across the sky. “Get out of here,” he snarled at the men in front of him.

Garm crawled under the picnic table. He was a big dog under a small table, but he did his best. Cerne patted his head. “Don’t worry, boy. Taranis will sort it out.” He pulled out a small box. “Just stay there, that’s a good boy.”

Garm’s tail thumped on the side of the table as he watched Cerne take out some candles and arranged them on the cairn. A crowbar sailed overhead. Cerne carefully wedged the candles and glanced over to Taranis. “Remember – no paperwork!”

“Coming here to disturb our peace,” Taranis growled as he grabbed a shovel and snapped it in half, throwing the pieces to the side.

Cerne ducked as a part of the handle flew past him. “Watch out,” he said mildly as he lit the candles. He looked thoughtfully down at the stones, ignoring the screams. “Bran would have sorted them out in no time. He insisted on respect.” He picked up the small box of barley cakes. “It’s hard to get proper barley cakes these days. But Mrs Atkins down the road is always happy to help out.” He glanced over and frowned as Taranis threw a young lad across the clearing. “Take it steady, Taranis. These lads aren’t like the old days. They break a bit easier.”

“Damn them,” Taranis roared as a brave lad tried to grapple him from behind.

Cerne sighed and shook his head as he broke the cakes over the mound. “I think Mrs Atkins is a little sweet on me,” he confided to Garm. “And she is a good cook. I could do worse than visit her more often.” He grimaced at another crash and looked back at the fight. Taranis had slowed his punch down enough to let the youngster in front of him dodge and the punch broke the tree behind the lad. The branches of the sycamore bounced gently as they fell. “You’re going to be in trouble if their mums complain,” he said. “And if Gaia finds out about that tree, you’ll be sorry.” He turned back to the cairn and opened up the mead. “I’ll pour the mead out for Bran now, should I?”

“Hang on,” Taranis grunted as he shook off the lad and grabbed him by the front of his t-shirt. “Go away and don’t come back, dog breath!” He dropped the offender who crashed, struggled to his feet and ran, leaving the developer all alone. Taranis turned back to Mr Harris who turned to flee. “Not so fast!” Lightning flashed to the ground in front of the man, singeing the earth and leaving Garm whimpering. “I want words with you.” He grabbed Mr Harris by the scruff of his jacket.

“Remember the paperwork,” Cerne said. “You know you’d get in trouble if you skewer him.” Mr Harris moaned.

“If you had made a decent fire we could have roasted him,” Taranis said, his quick wink at Cerne unnoticed by the terrified man in front of him. “And Gaia will take hardcore offerings for trees at a pinch.”

“She’s gone vegan,” Cerne said. “Let Harris go. We’re here for Bran.”

“Bran would have skinned him,” Taranis grumbled. “And thrown the skin to the dogs in front of him.”

Garm tried to retreat further under the small table as Cerne hid a grin. “Bran had his bad points as well.” Cerne stood and strolled over to Taranis’ captive. “Why don’t you go home. We can talk about this tomorrow, nice and modern and without any paperwork.”

Taranis dropped him. “Don’t try and run. We’ll find you no matter where you go.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr Harris squeaked.

“I’m sure that we can set the misunderstanding straight.” Cerne said. “But tomorrow. Because we want a nice quiet evening to remember our friend, okay?”

They watched as Mr Harris nodded, stumbled backwards, turned and staggered back to his car. Taranis sighed. “He wasn’t much of a fight.” He brightened a little. “But we have the venison, and some of my special home brew.”

“And some time for a quiet remembrance,” added Cerne.

National Meteorological Day

It’s World Meteorological Day and I found this quote:

The trouble with weather forecasting is that it’s right too often for use to ignore it and wrong to often for us to rely on it

Patrick Young

I’ve been thinking of the myths and stories about gods recently and it’s led me to all sorts of snippets. For example, did you know that there is evidence for a thunder god in the reconstructed Indo European language of four thousand years ago? There is a whole section on weather gods from prehistory here in Wikipedia.

I don’t believe in weather gods and thunder gods, but I can see the appeal. When you’re counting on the harvest to keep you alive as the first farmers did, being able to appeal to a deity that might help must be a comfort, even if they are capricious. And, despite knowing the science, a thunderstorm feels supernatural. If you are in the middle of a loud one, when you can barely hear yourself for the thunder and the rain and hail is battering the windows, it doesn’t help to think about electrons and convection movements. It feels like something primeval. I’m not surprised that there is evidence of huge sacrifices of horses and cattle to appease the destructive force.

And I am fascinated that stories and myths can be traced back all those thousands of years to a people whose language we can’t fully know but which developed into so many different tongues as far apart as English and Bengali. That the stories that they told are still echoing around and finding their way out. Thor, who is definitely a thunder god, is still having his stories told in cinemas around the world.

In the flash fiction that I posted on Monday, here, I wrote about a retired thunder god. I can imagine that a retired weather deity wouldn’t be a comfortable neighbour, but I bet he wouldn’t be boring.

Dominoes

“My mum says that you’re the god of thunder.”

Taranis looked up from his game of dominoes at the skinny lad staring at him. Across the table, Cerne, god of the hunt, grinned. Taranis ignored the grin. “I was, lad, I was. I’m retired now, though, and don’t really get involved. You must be Dawn’s youngest.”

“She sends a pork joint to regular, but I think you’re a con artist and a fake,” the lad continued. “And I think you should stop taking advantage.”

Cerne placed his domino down. “Your move.”

Taranis looked at the lad. “It’s Owen, isn’t it? You drive that weird yellow Corsa and your mum told me that you were working with a plumber.”

“You see, that’s it!” Owen said. “Mum gets stuff like that wrong all the time. I’m apprenticed. It’s all legal and properly set out. Mr Barker looks after me and I try and do him proud. I work hard for my money, and so does my mum, and I don’t see why elderly scammers like you should have any of it.” He glared at Taranis. “And it isn’t a weird yellow. It’s a custom wrap. That car is better than anything you’ve ever had or ever will have!”

Taranis grunted, laid down his domino and took a drink from his pint. There weren’t many people in the old-fashioned pub, and they were all carefully ignoring the lad and his demands. “Are you sure that I’m a scammer. I got rid of that problem Josie had.”

“I think it would have gone on its own,” Owen said angrily. He turned to the distant rumble of thunder outside the door. “And don’t try and fake that was you. I saw the weather forecast. Just leave us alone.” Owen turned on his heel and stalked over to his friends waiting at the bar.

Cerne looked thoughtfully down at the dominoes, ignoring the sharp crack of thunder outside. “Of course, a lightning strike on the electrics would just be coincidence,” he remarked. “But it’s obvious that the car is his pride and joy. I’m going to have to knock.”

Taranis nodded as he perused the dominoes. “There’s one thing about lightning that everyone forgets,” he said. “It’s hot.” He lay down a double six.

Cerne narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to have to pass again. So, lightning’s hot. I thought it just started fires.”

“I’ve got a good view of the car park from here,” Taranis nodded at the angled mirror behind the bar that, to the right seat, showed the half dozen cars spaced out in front of the pub. “And I’ve still got decent aim.” He put down another domino with a smug grin.

Cerne pursed his lips and then managed to lay down a tile before standing and peering out of the window. “There’s a lot of smoke out there.”

Taranis nodded thoughtfully as he lay down his last piece. “I’m out. And it’s hard to explain all four tyres spot welded to the tarmac as coincidence, especially with nothing else touched.” Taranis drained his beer glass. “That’s three games all and it’s your round.”

Cerne watched the shocked murmur run through the few patrons before they all rushed out to see for themselves. “I bet you get an extra offering next time,” he grinned. “Same again?”

Taranis nodded contentedly as he watched the confusion outside. “Yep, same again.”

Feeling the Tension

Your monuments, what do they mean?

Build your stone high and shout your deity.

Hope that the stone outlasts the age

Hold tight to written, lawful piety

And when the old roots wrack your faith

When the cold moon bites and rags your mind

How do you hold on to the bitter dregs?

How do you slip into your role assigned?


Old shadows creep and stretch before your feet

Old lanes and lines cross across your path

You’re happy to bask in summer’s generous warmth

Are you willing to take the lash of winter’s wrath?


Look at the stone path, that’s where you tread,

Turning away to turfed green paths that roam.

Is it because your faith outlasts the stone?

Or do you listen when your soul hears home?

Thanks to the Grumpy Old Gods Anthology coming out on 1st April, I was thinking about the tension between old faiths and new and I was reminded of this poem originally posted on a former blog on 4th April 2018. I hope you enjoy.

Don’t Forget the Flowers

I had nearly forgotten the date. I had to rush out and pick up the flowers from the nearest florist in a hurry. I never wanted to miss the flowers on this day of all days.

“Promise me you will buy flowers on my birthday,” my aunt had said. Her fingers had been like claws as they clung onto me. I had stared at the dying woman, in the borrowed hospital bed in her bedroom. The nurse had stared sympathetically at me as the light faded with my aunt and the scent of disinfectant filled the air. “Promise me, every birthday, you buy flowers.” She had broken off, coughing.

I had nodded. “I promise, Aunt Carol. I’ll buy them every year.”

“I should have changed my will,” she had gasped. “I should have made you earn it.”

“Don’t make yourself poorly, auntie,” I had said. “I can get the solicitor in any time.” I had ignored the tiny shake of the nurse’s head. We both had known that my aunt had hours left, but there was no point in upsetting her.

“Flowers on my birthday, keep the house the same, no men, and no foreign food. Remember.” Aunt Carol had coughed and gasped and then fallen back on the pillows, exhausted. They were the last words she ever said.

That was three years ago. Aunt Carol had taken me in when I had lost my parents at the age of fourteen. She had terrorised me, gouged every penny of support for herself and sabotaged any chance I had to make a life away from her. I had cleaned her sparse and spartan house, ran her errands and survived. I even gave up my job to nurse her at the end. I had done my duty. All the money she had clawed from my trust fund, along with all the other money that she had hoarded, was left to me. She had never found a way of adding the clauses that she wanted, so she had just insisted, expecting me to be the good, obedient child that I had always been.

Today would have been her birthday. So I ran out and bought a huge bunch of tulips, a flower that she had loathed. I would put them among the cosy throws and knickknacks that she had hated. And later my gorgeous boyfriend would call, and he would bring a curry.

Things Forgotten

Today is the Saint’s Day of St Frances of Rome. She’s a medieval Italian saint that is the patron saint of motorists. Apparently an angel used to light her way as she travelled around the countryside in a quest to help those in need. My late mother would have had a fit at the thought of me invoking a saint. My view is that when you see an Audi barrelling towards you as it overtakes a learner driver that’s overtaking a tractor, it helps to have something to call on.

My late mother also used to knit bikinis for Barbie dolls, and it’s National Barbie Day, as well as National Meatball Day and National Get Over It Day. For me, it’s more like an ‘Oh Bugger Day’

I was looking through some stuff for the Grumpy Old Gods Anthology (there’s a new one coming out in April, and I love the mix of them), and I found a lot of stuff. I mean, lots and lots and lots of stuff. I found stuff I started but abandoned, stuff I’d submitted, had rejected and forgotten and things that were actually quite good but needed tidying. And they are in every folder. Someone has randomly distributed my writing, scattering it in many places and under many names in a gazillion folders – and that someone was me. I know I’ve got something missing and I can’t find the dratted thing. I can remember roughly what it was about, but not what I called it about three years ago or so. Or I may be remembering something else. Or I did write it, but it got lost when the last computer died. Or it’s somewhere I haven’t thought of looking yet.

So, when it comes down to it, today is National Oh Bugger Day and also National Sort the Darn Computer Out Day. And because that isn’t particularly interested to read about, here’s something that I wrote and forgot.

Stray Dog

I nearly fell off the chair at the unexpected knocking which thundered down the hall. I stood cautiously and edged towards the side window. At least the rain had stopped for now, but it was still cold and windy. The tiny cottage was miles from any streetlight and there was no light over the door, but the moon was bright enough to give me a glimpse of the visitor.

He was tall, and looked well built, and was wearing a leather jacket and a worried expression. He banged on the door again. I crept down the hall, checked the chain and cracked the door slowly open. “Hello?”

“Hi, I’m Carl Armstrong.” He glanced over my shoulder. “Can I come in?”

“No,” I said flatly.

Carl hesitated. “I’m looking for a stray.” He looked over his shoulder at the sound of barking in the overgrown bushes surrounding the garden. “I’m looking for a stray dog. I’ve got some dogs with me, looking for this stray dog. I wonder if he had managed to get into your cottage.” He craned to peer past me again.

“There are no dogs here,” I said. “It’s just a holiday cottage. I got here yesterday and there has been no sign of a dog anywhere. Perhaps you could check with the owner.”

“The dog hasn’t got an owner.” Carl checked again over his shoulder. In the silver light I could see dogs trotting across the weed covered lawn. “It’s a stray.”

“I meant you could ask the owner of the cottage.” I could see Carl better in the light of the hall. He was good-looking enough, with short, brown hair and a friendly, open expression, but he was built like a barn and I wasn’t letting a stranger in, not even for a stray dog. “Anyway, there are no dogs in here.”

“And you don’t have a dog yourself, miss?” Carl persisted.

“No, I don’t have a dog,” I said. “Goodnight.”

I started to close the door but Carl held it open. I may as well have tried to push over a car as push past his hand. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name?” Carl looked at me expectantly.

“Because I didn’t give it to you. Excuse me?” I pushed ineffectively at the door.

“This stray dog, miss, is quite dangerous,” Carl looked around at the pack of dogs now lining up behind him. One of them yipped. “You shouldn’t approach any dog tonight, not even one of mine, just in case. The stray dog is not safe, miss.” There was another bark from the dogs behind him. They were snuffling at each other and restless. “In fact, the dog is sick, very sick. And that makes him unpredictable. You shouldn’t approach him at all.”

“Are you the police?” I asked.

“Not exactly.” Carl leaned back and tried to get a glimpse down the side of the cottage. “You should check all your doors and windows, miss, and make sure that they are all locked. I can come in and help if you like.”

“Dogs can’t open doors and windows,” I pointed out. “But don’t worry, I will definitely be checking everything.”

“And don’t come out if you hear some strange noises from the dogs here,” Carl said, waving a hand at his massive dogs who were now separating into two groups and heading down the sides of the cottage. “They are very well trained, but they don’t really spend much time around people.” There were a few deep woofs from the back garden. “Hopefully there won’t be any problems, but if there is…” He pushed a small card towards me, which I took reluctantly over the door chain. Carl smiled reassuringly at me. “You may like to put the number in your phone if you’re here for the next few days, in case of trouble with the stray.”

“Thanks,” I said, and closed the door firmly. I took a breath and checked the chain, turned the lock and slid the two bolts across the door. I took a step back and pulled the curtain across the door. I listened carefully. I could hear the sounds of barks and howls around the house. The dogs had reminded me a little of huskies as they had milled around behind Carl, which would explain all the noise, but perhaps with some Alsatian mixed in. They were nothing like my sister’s bad tempered shih tzu, at any rate, and far too purposeful to allow in.

I spent some time methodically working around the tiny cottage checking all the doors and windows. Half the windows on this old place were rusted shut anyway, but I checked and placed inconvenient vases and ornaments behind the bigger windows before pulling over the heavy curtains. I had come here to get away from my problems and have some peace and quiet, not to get entangled in a lost dog saga. Finally I checked the back door. It was still locked and bolted and I sighed with relief. Then I went back into the large kitchen and settled back onto my laptop.

The cottage was tiny, remote and cheap and exactly what I needed. I had been desperate to escape so I had thrown my case in a car and driven into North Wales, carrying on until I was tired. Now I was somewhere I couldn’t pronounce, just past Llandegla, and surrounded by dogs.

It wasn’t too bad, I thought, as I settled down in the most comfortable chair in the house next to the small open fire and opened my laptop. The wi-fi was surprisingly good and the house was finally warming up despite the autumn chill. I had bought an insane amount of firewood with my groceries and this morning I had lit a fire not only in the kitchen hearth but in the grate in the small parlour at the front of the house and in the lavender scented dormer, which had helped. The house was clean, although unlived in, and it was enough for me. I checked the card that Carl had pressed on me and start searching the internet.

I tried to ignore the insistent barking and howling that was echoing around the outside of the house and garden. Carl had claimed that his dogs were well trained but they certainly weren’t quiet. I took a mouthful from my mug of coffee and frowned. According to what I could find, Carl was a chef at a pub just outside Chester. There was nothing about the half dozen dogs that had been prowling behind him earlier. I checked deeper. Carl was definitely not a fan of social media, but I tracked him through a few qualifications and college message boards. He was perhaps the only dog-owner I had met who hadn’t filled their pages with pictures of their pet. He was apparently single, seemed to be close to his family, and had nothing to give a reason why he should bang on my door late at night and talk about stray dogs. I took another mouthful of coffee.

At least chasing down the digital footprint of Carl Armstrong gave me something to think about and I wasn’t sitting and brooding about my ex-boyfriend getting engaged to my sister. They had been pretty decent about it. He had broken up with me when he met my sister and had avoided my family for months until my sister got transferred to his office and the rest was inevitable. I had given them sincere good wishes, kept meticulously sober throughout their engagement dinner, handed in my notice at work and fled. They would be very happy. I needed space.

The noise from the dogs was getting louder. I wondered if I dared to risk peaking through a curtain. I put another log on the fire instead and settled back down. There was something chilling about the howls echoing around the nearby fields. I wondered if they were really looking for a stray dog, or whether there was something more sinister. Carl had looked like one of the good guys, but then apparently so did most serial killers.

I set the old-fashioned coffee percolator on the plate over the fire and rinsed out my mug. I peaked through a chink in the thin kitchen curtains. Carl was clear in the moonlight, crouched and talking urgently to one of the huge dogs. I stared for a moment, transfixed. Seeing Carl, who was tall and extremely well-built, crouching next to one of the dogs and looking up, demonstrated their massive size, and it wasn’t just height, like a Great Dane. These looked muscled and hardened, and their immaculate coats gleamed in the moonlight. If the stray was anything like these, I would have no chance. I shivered and went back to pour my coffee.

I had a little more luck tracing Carl’s family. They had apparently owned the Red Lion for generations. There was an online form for bookings and a sample menu, which looked pretty appetising. There was even a picture of the family winning the village tug of war competition. I could see the family resemblance. They were all tall, strong and reasonably good-looking, although most did not look as easy-going as Carl. There was nothing about dogs.

There was an eerie howl echoing along the valley. I checked the clock. It was quarter past midnight and far too late to be looking for a stray. I stared at the fire and wished I had less imagination. Carl had said he was sick. Perhaps he was carrying a new plague developed in a top secret facility. I shivered, then stood and took the last mouthful of coffee in the mug. I didn’t feel sleepy but I did feel cold. I could get a jacket from the bedroom.

The hall still felt damp and I shivered as passed the unheated bathroom. I quickly looked in. I had remembered to check the window, which had rusted shut, but there were no curtains to pull. I paused for a moment in the chill. The room was eerily bright as the full moon shone unhindered and reflected brightly around the polished white tiles. There was no need for a light. Every detail was starkly illuminated in the glare.

For a second the window went dark as a shadow moved across and then it smashed. I screamed in shock and then screamed again. A older, naked man, scrawny and underweight with a crazed look in his eye was climbing in heedless of the risk of broken glass. I backed out of the bathroom and slammed the door shut and raced towards the kitchen. I could hear the scrabble for the bathroom handle and then a desperate, hoarse voice. “No, no, nooooohhh…”

I skidded into the kitchen and grabbed for the poker. “Get away from me!” I whirled around ready to swing. The man was on all fours, lurching and ungainly, his eyes rolling and froth dripping from his slack mouth. Then he flowed. Suddenly instead of the skinny junkie there was a large, drooling hound, its ribs showing through its matted, grey streaked fur and its eyes were rolling. Instinctively I swore and swung as hard as I could at whatever it was.

It wasn’t enough. The hound yelped as the poker caught it, but I didn’t have the strength and the dog barely slowed, leaping at me and snapping, its claws scratching deep as I scrabbled to keep away. There was a blur of teeth, claws and stink as I was nearly overwhelmed, then I fell backwards over the chair by the fire. I grabbed the percolator and hurled it at the dog. The scalding coffee splashed into its face and it screamed and fell back. I took the chance to race out of the kitchen. The front and back doors were locked and the windows were fastened. The quickest way out was through the broken bathroom window.

I dived into the bathroom, locked the bathroom door and wriggled quickly through the window frame, falling awkwardly onto the flower bed outside, rolling out of the mud and on to my feet. Which way now? My phone was on the kitchen table, next to my car keys. I had to head for help. I could hear the creature crashing against the bathroom door and howling. I couldn’t stay here. But where was the nearest help?

“Kelly, over here!” I looked around and saw Carl beckoning me over towards the lavender hedge. “It’s okay, we’re here to help.”

I could hear the door splintering behind me and I swore and ran over to where Carl and his dogs were crouched. In the cold, pale light I looked at the dogs and then over my shoulder. “They’re like him, aren’t they?”

“It’s complicated.” Carl said awkwardly. “But they’re not going to attack you.”

I could hear a crash and another howl inside the cottage. “Werewolves.” I managed. “It’s all werewolves.”

“It’s not exactly what you think.” Carl said. “Yes, but we won’t hurt you. Hang on, you’re bleeding.”

“Are you a vampire?” I asked, my head starting to swim.

Carl looked offended. “Of course not. I’m a werewolf, just the same as the rest of us, but I’ve got clothes with me. It’s not the done thing to walk around naked in front of strangers unless you’re in fur.”

An icy wave ran through me. “I don’t feel very well.”

Carl grabbed my arm. “How did you get this wound?”

I looked down at the jagged tear on my arm. “I’m not sure,” I mumbled.

“Did Roy bite you?”

“Roy?” I stared at Carl. How could a werewolf be called ‘Roy’?

The biggest of the werewolves barked urgently at Carl, who nodded. “Roy is sick. He’s got white jaw. It’s really bad and can send a werewolf crazy. He didn’t have a pack, but he kept himself to himself and didn’t cause any trouble. But now he’s not in his right mind. He may have bitten you.”

“It could have been the glass in the window,” I said.

The main werewolf barked again. Carl nodded. “You’re right, dad.” He turned to me. “We’ve got some first aid stuff in the van in the lane. We’re only supposed to track Roy down, poor lad. There’s a doctor on his way, and some more official back up, but we came prepared. We need to get you cleaned up.”

“I’m sure it’s just the glass in the window.” I said, feeling queasy as I watched my blood drip slowly from my arm.

“Come on, let me give you a hand,” Carl said. “White jaw is pretty bad.” He looked around at the jumpy werewolves who were watching the bathroom window with care. “But it’s easy to treat if it’s caught early enough and we’ve got a great doctor.

I could hear another crash in the cottage. Dimly I wondered how much I would be charged for all the damage. There was a lull in the banging and then a thumping against the front door. The leader of the werewolves barked urgently at Carl, who nodded.

“Roy is hallucinating. He seemed to get fixed on this cottage for some reason. He’s a good man, really, normally wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Carl looked down at my arm. “I’m sure it’s just the glass, really.”

“And if it isn’t?” The world seemed to be fading in and out.

“It’s okay. White jaw can be treated,” Carl said awkwardly. He looked around as the leader woofed urgently. The front door of the cottage bulged and burst outwards. A slavering werewolf staggered out.

It was an awful sight. Foam dripped from his mouth and ran into the matted fur around his neck and chest. His hands and arms were flowing from human to wolf and back, leaking blood from hand or paw and flinching any time he tried to use them. The back paws stayed wolf like but were also bleeding from the glass in the bathroom and he was swaying as he advanced towards me.

Carl pushed me behind him as the werewolves formed an arc, baying at Roy to keep him back. Roy slumped down and started to crawl forward. I was glad to lean on Carl as he helped me back away from the snarls and the snapping. “How did you know my name?”

“I called in a favour and looked up your details from your car.” Carl wasn’t paying full attention. His eyes were fixed on Roy who was struggling forward, snapping at the encircling werewolves.

“Is that legal?” I asked.

Carl forced his horrified gaze away from Roy. “I really need to get that arm cleaned up. Lean on me.”

There were horrified yelps from the werewolves as, in a sudden surge of unexpected energy, Roy leapt over the nearest werewolf and then bounded towards me. Carl pushed me behind him as the drooling beast gathered to spring and then there was a loud explosion. I flinched and stumbled but Carl caught me. I stared first at the stranger who stood next to us, impassive, slowly lowering a large handgun, then at Roy, slowly flowing back to the shape of a skinny, naked old man with black veins spreading over his pale skin.

“I’m sorry, Carl,” the newcomer said. “I know you had a soft spot for Roy. But he was too far gone. I had to take him out.”

“It’s okay, Mike.” Carl said quietly. “If we could have just caught it a few hours earlier…” He trailed off, staring sadly at the pitiful remains. He looked up slowly at the barks from the leader. “Okay, dad, I’ll get Kelly out of here.” He managed a smile at me. “Come down to the van and I’ll get you cleaned up. This is Mike Doyle, and he’s a pretty good medic. He can have a look at it.”

“There’s a doctor on the way,” Mike said soothingly. “He’ll get any infection sorted out.”

“How about the werewolf thing?” I asked, still unable to look away from Roy as a chill ran through me followed by a wave of fever. I felt Carl exchange a look with Mike.

“It may not have been a bite,” Carl said, “And, if it was, it’s not so bad being a werewolf.”

I felt darkness slide over me. My last thought as I passed out was, ‘and the first thing I do as a werewolf is to faint. What a great start.’

£2.34

You can find Kane’s story from the start here.

“I can feel her here,” Joan said. “It’s like she’s breathing down my neck.”

Kane was blessed, if you could call it that, with the ability to see ghosts. As he sat sipping tea in Joan’s knickknack crammed living room, he could clearly see the ghost of Nancy leaning in close to Joan. “She’s there,” he said. “A lady about the same age as you. She’s wearing a blue hat.”

“She always wore blue,” Joan sniffed. “She said it suited everyone. Mind you, it was a close call a few times.”

Nancy caught Kane’s eye. “Well she thought she could wear yellow and she really couldn’t.” The ghost shuddered at the memory.

“I can’t keep going on with this sense of someone peering over my shoulder,” Joan continued. “It’s worse than when she was alive. Tell her to go towards the light, or whatever it is.”

Kane winced. “I’m not very good at that bit.” He looked at Nancy. “Do you miss Joan?”

Nancy sniffed. “We were close, that’s true. But I can’t rest. She owes me £2.34. I can’t seem to get away from that. I’m owed £2.34 and until I get it, I can’t leave.”

Kane turned to Joan. “Nancy says that you owe her some money.”

“I do not!” Joan said indignantly. “I’ve always paid up. We reckoned up after every trip and meeting. We’d settle up who paid for what and where and make sure that we were all square. I could never sleep if I owed money.”

“It’s £2.34,” Nancy insisted.

Joan carried on, unaware. “I have never been in debt – not a penny under or a day late. How dare she!”

“It’s the money from the bingo,” Nancy said. “Just because I died that day didn’t mean that she could get away with keeping my share. And it’s £2.34.”

Kane turned to Joan in confusion. “She said that you owe her from the bingo.”

Joan frowned, then looked at Kane. “It was the day she died. And I was so upset, I forgot.” The colour had left her face. “We went to the Community Centre for bingo. We paid the same for our tickets, took it in turns to buy the tea at the interval and bought our own raffle tickets. The only thing was, we split whatever we won, exactly half.”

Kane tried to work it out. “To be honest, I’m more used to ghosts that can’t rest because they owe money, not the other way around. So, you won a prize of £4.68, that you would normally split. But you never had the chance.”

Joan shook her head. “It was a box of chocolates. They weren’t allowed to give cash prizes because it was for charity.”

“It wasn’t proper gambling,” Nancy added. “So it would be something like a bottle of wine or a candle.”

“They asked for donations,” Joan explained, “And the profits went to a good cause.”

“Everyone took turns,” Nancy said. “And asked that we give a rough value.”

“We all took turns,” Joan said. “Nancy and I used to go halves on a decent prize. You were supposed to give an idea of what it cost so that they could rank the prizes.” She sighed. “We always got something nice, with it being a good cause. Mrs Holloway, down the road, she only gave things like a packet of mints. Well, she couldn’t manage more with her being on a pension and all the trouble her husband is having.”

“We never blamed her,” Nancy added to an unhearing Joan. “You give what you can.”

“And I won the box of chocolates,” Joan said. “I was going to go home and check the price, so I could give the right money to Nancy. It was donated by Mrs Cadwallader, and she sometimes, well, she gets carried away.”

“Joan was always a lot more tactfully than me,” Nancy said. “That Mrs Cadwallader was all fur coat and no knickers. She’d talk about her expensive perfume like she wasn’t seen buying it from the market.”

Kane looked back at Joan. “Nancy said that Mrs Cadwallader sometimes exaggerated.”

Joan put her tea down with care. “I would be ashamed to behave like that. She put it as a £10 prize but got it as part of a sale in the big supermarket at the other side of town. It cost £4.68. And the chocolates were stale!”

“I’d be mortified,” Nancy added.

“But with what happened to Nancy as we left the Community Centre, I didn’t think to hand over any money,” Joan said.

“I got hit by a car,” Nancy told Kane. “I never felt a thing.”

“How do I pay the £2.34?” Joan asked. “I mean, Nancy’s dead.”

“Could you perhaps bury it in the grave?” Kane asked.

Joan shook her head. “She was cremated and her ashes scattered.”

“I can’t go until it’s settled,” Nancy said.

“And what is she going to do with the money if she’s dead?” Joan asked. “I don’t suppose there’s much bingo there.”

“What would you do if you hadn’t had a chance to pay her back?” Kane asked.

“Oh, I’d pay for the tea next time we were out,” Joan said. Her face fell. “I haven’t felt like going out much, now that she’s gone.”

“We went everywhere together,” Nancy said to Kane. “We were inseparable from when we met at school. We even married brothers.”

Kane nodded to Joan. “Perhaps that’s it,” he said. “Why don’t you go out and have a last cup of tea on her?”

Nancy and Joan both frowned, then shook their heads. “A cup of tea is £1.80 in the usual place,” Joan said. “That would be 54p off.”

“That’s too much,” Nancy said. “How about a nice hot chocolate? You have one for you and one for me.”

Kane turned to Joan. “Nancy suggests a hot chocolate, at £2.35 and that you have one for you and one for her and then you’ll be straight.”

“It will still be 1p out,” Joan said. “But I can put a penny into the collection at church – separately, of course.”

“Of course,” Nancy said. She started to fade. “That would be perfect, and we would be settled up.”

Kane watched the ghost disappear and then turned to Joan. “She’s gone.”

Joan held herself upright with only a slight gleam in her eye suggesting how near she was to tears. “I’ll go tomorrow and have two hot chocolates and save a penny for church,” she said firmly. “And I’ll have a word with her nephew. She kept a close eye on him, and I know that she would be grateful if I kept up the good work.”

Kane felt deep sympathy for the nephew. “I’m sure that she will.”

This is sparked by the memory of my grandmother, around fifty years ago. She went to a charity bingo every Thursday afternoon and once won a block of butter – and was very pleased with it! Whenever she went out with my mother, they used to count up every penny spent and work out who owed what with a thoroughness that would make any accountant turn to Modern Literature.

Old and New

Today has been a junk sort of day. I write something, then I junk it. I write something more, then I junk it. It’s like one of the days where, no matter what you do, you keep getting a knot in your shoelace.

I want to keep Wednesdays as a sort of chat day, about what I’m writing (I’m stuck and using harsh language), what gives me ideas (everything gives me ideas – I’m not safe to be let out) and life in general. I woke up today feeling flatter than week old cola, and the writing shows it. I was stuck looking at my emails, and that shows how desperate I am. And that is how I was reminded that today is National Old Stuff Day.

Apparently there are a number of different ways to celebrate this. You can look at different ways to do things and reject the ‘same old same old’ feeling. That would have been fine yesterday when I cleaned some windows with hand sanitiser and it worked! As I have a low boredom threshold with the attention span of a concussed kitten, there aren’t many ‘same old same old’ routines. I could perhaps do with a few, but that’s another post.

Another way to celebrate is to look out some old things and cherish them. I have a few things that I adore, and I thought I would share one. It’s the book above, the atlas of my grandfather’s aunt who, by all accounts, was something of a character.

She was a ‘pupil teacher‘ which was a system where pupils learned how to be teachers at school as a sort of apprentice. I think she used this book as part of that. She also was the village Postmistress for a while.

It’s an amazing book, with historical maps, like that of the Roman Empire

As well as a nineteenth century map of the New England States.

I dipped into it while I was writing Out of the London Mist and Under the Bright Saharan Sky.

And now I am going back to something old and new – the new and hopefully stunning sequel to King’s Silver set in a medieval world.

Hugs and good health to all.