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Claim To Flame

Another monthly flash fiction tale.  This one’s theme was “flame”, or any variant thereof.

I swung myself into the beer garden of The Crooked Stump, finding Brad, Terry, Stephen and Jules already there.

“ADAM!” they roared as one.

I waved back at my mates as best I could without overbalancing.  They had chosen a round wooden picnic table not far from the fairy tale toadstool slide in the children’s playground.  Of course they had.  Not only was it a splendid evening, but Jules needed a place to take a puff.

“Hey mate, discharged eh?” remarked Brad.

“Or did you just smack the nurse on the arse and get kicked out?” Terry hooted.  Cue wild, puerile laughter from the rest of them.

I carefully eased myself onto the edge of one of the seats and stowed my crutches under the table.

“Not likely, given he was a man,” I replied, wincing as a sudden pain shot up my leg.

“That foot still painful, mate?” said Jules, a cigarette poised before his lips.

“Sometimes,” I groaned.

“You’re bloody lucky you didn’t lose the whole thing,” said Brad, looking pale.

“The doctors said it could have been a lot worse if I hadn’t got boots on,” I told them, “Or the lawn mower had a more powerful engine.”

“Well, count yourself lucky, Adam,” said Stephen.  “You’re back out in time to enjoy the rest of the summer.  How was your stay in hospital?”

“Not bad,” I shrugged, “Competent, friendly staff, clean wards, good facilities.  I even made friends with one of the patients; Caroline Eastman.  She manages a theatre not far from here, when she’s not having her ankle set in plaster.”

“Asked you to meet her backstage some time, eh?” Terry quipped.

“Do your thoughts ever come from above the waist, Terry?” Brad protested.

Apropos of this, Stephen decided to change the subject.

“Tell you what, Adam, we were discussing old TV, Power Rangers, Playdays and all that.  Remember any good shows?”

“What about The Elementals?” I suggested.  “Did you guys watch that?”

“DID I EVER?” Brad blurted out.  “Who was your favourite?  I liked Flood the best, you know, with his icicle darts and that magical surfboard he rode on.”

“For me, it was a cross between him and Typhoon,” said Jules, tapping ash into the ashtray in the middle of the table.  “Remember how he could fight using thunderstorms and tornados?  KABOOM!”

There was laughter and general assent at this.

“I tell you what,” added Stephen, “Not many kids liked Tremor much, but he had a sort of charm for me.  Sure, he was a big, dumb man-boulder, but he was kinda loveable, like a little brother or something.”

“Yeah, you would like him, you weirdo,” Terry snorted, “But can we just talk about Flame for a second?  God, she was gorgeous!  She was like my first crush!  Remember that red hair that flickered upwards when she was covered in fire, and that yellow suit stretched out over her boobs, or those legs?  Christ, Jessica Rabbit’s a dog compared to her!”

“Yeah, she was hard to beat,” I agreed drily.  “I tell you what, let me get my phone out a second…”

I connected to the pub’s WiFi network and opened YouTube.  Then I looked up The Elementals outro so I could play it to them all.

“Alright! I lived to hear this music!” Brad cried joyfully.

Stephen broke into a smile and Jules began humming along to the rocking beat of the theme song.

“Adam, you’re a star,” Terry smiled.  “I tell you, if I could…  Hey!  Don’t pause it, you muppet!”

“Don’t throw a hissy fit, Tez,” I chuckled.  “Take a look at the names right there.  Any seem familiar?”

My four friends’ eyes went as round as saucers.  On the screen, they quite clearly saw, under the credit title Voice Talents, the name Caroline Eastman.

“That’s right, boys,” I said, grinning from ear to ear.  “I shared a hospital ward with the lady who played the hottest heroine of our childhood.  And she’s promised me and whoever I bring with me a discount if we ever come to see one of her plays.  What do you say, Terry, guys?  Fancy going to meet Flame?”

The Wise Woman

I wrote this for a competition where the theme was “fake news”; a subject relevant to today’s headlines, although its setting is far from contemporary.  It didn’t win a prize, but the judge gave it a special commendation.

It was a baking hot day in high summer. The terraces outside Pflaummenwald’s village inn were packed with revellers. Heidi Gerber was in high spirits, but her lifelong friend, Elsa Schwartzmann, was another matter.
“Aren’t you worried at all, Heidi?” sighed Elsa. “We’re only just 40 years old and Germany’s at war for the second time in our lives! Don’t you ever fear for Lutz, Klaus or anyone else? There’s still everything to play for.”
Lutz Gerber was Heidi’s son, a 19-year-old private in Germany’s freshly victorious Sixth Army. Heidi had been quicker to settle than Elsa, whose son Hermann was only 12. But then, unlike Elsa’s late husband Dieter, Klaus Gerber (currently a reservist in the Volkstȕrm) had been eight years his wife’s senior.
“Elsa,” Heidi laughed, “The war’s as good as won! Poland’s beaten, Norway’s been taken and the French lasted less than two months! And just listen to the radio these days! London’s a wreck, the U-Boats are thrashing the Atlantic convoys… we can’t lose!”
“I just hope you’re right, Heidi,” Elsa replied coolly. She sipped her wine and sighed again.
The trouble was, no-one in Pflaummenwald shared Elsa’s scepticism these days. To them, she was a just a cranky old widow, bitter and lonely, her parents long dead and all her other relatives too far away to visit often. Some of them suggested she secretly hoped she’d say the wrong thing. After all, that could be fatal these days…

Pflaummenwald lay in the south-west of Baden-Wȕrttemburg, about half way between Freiburg (where Elsa worked on the production line in an electronics factory) and the Swiss border. Elsa was satisfied with her job, but the factory manager, Herr Gottleib, was stunned by a concern she raised with him one afternoon.
“We should be making more practical things, Sir!” she protested. “All our radio sets are for homes! We should be making radios for the Wehrmact, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine! They’re the ones who really need them!”
“Rubbish, Elsa!” Herr Gottleib retorted. “The Fȕhrer would order more radios for the troops if they were needed! Unless you think the Fȕhrer is an idiot?”
Elsa quickly shook her head. She knew better than to disagree with that.
All through 1940 and 1941, Elsa kept quiet and got on with her work, as endless triumphant rhetoric resounded throughout Germany. Crete was captured, the Balkans fell and Field Marshall Rommel held off Wavell’s forces in North Africa. Then, having flattened the Poles two years before, the Axis armies began moving East in earnest…
“Mutti,” Hermann asked one morning in the autumn, “What are Papa’s old skiing clothes doing by the door?”
“I’m giving them to the troops in Russia,” Elsa explained. “I don’t think our boys are equipped to fight through the winter.”
“I’m sure that not true, Mutti,” said Hermann, after a telling hesitation.

1942 arrived. Russia held and America entered the war. Elsa chuckled to herself on the day when, at the government’s insistence, Herr Gottleib retooled his factory to produce radios for the armed forces. He let all his workers have one of the surplus home sets as a gift.
As the year wore on, the residents of Pflaummenwald noticed Elsa become much happier, but also turn into the most ludicrous and insufferable gossip. She scoffed that carpet-bombing Malta had done nothing to damage the Allied campaign in North Africa. She joked that the U-Boat fleet was losing track of shipping convoys in the Atlantic. Heidi even stopped talking to her for a while, after she insisted that the troops’ cheerful Christmas message from Stalingrad was faked.
Elsa understood. It would be hard for Heidi to accept rumours that the Sixth Army was cut off and couldn’t break out. Lutz was over there with them.
But sure enough, early in 1943, the Axis troops at Stalingrad surrendered. Heidi came to Elsa’s doorstep that same night, ashen-faced, shoulders slumped, eyes red and hollow. Once seated in the lounge, she explained why.
“Klaus has shot himself. He’d heard today that Lutz has been taken prisoner by the Soviets. Elsa… I don’t think Lutz is ever coming home.”
All through the evening, Elsa tried to comfort Heidi. She listened to, and accepted, Heidi’s apologies. Finally, Heidi took Elsa by the shoulders and fixed her with a piercing gaze.
“On my son’s life, I will not repeat it to a soul,” she intoned, “But tell me where you get your information,”

The next day, Elsa drove Heidi south of Pflaummenwald, to a hillside that lay within sight of the Swiss border. She and Dieter had taken walks there while they were courting. Here, in a hollow at the base of an old dead chestnut tree, Elsa had stashed Herr Gottlieb’s complimentary radio set, wired to an old car battery. For months, she had come here to listen to Swiss radio news, then pass it on to others, claiming it was merely rumour.
Elsa knew how risky this was. The penalty for listening to foreign radio was 30 months in jail.
“But I couldn’t stand only ever hearing one side of the story,” she explained. “I preferred to risk prison than live free and ignorant.”
“Elsa,” Heidi smiled, “You’re braver than I’ll ever be.”

1943 wore on. Field Marshal Montgomery, newly in command of Allied troops in North Africa, decisively beat Rommel back. Russia began reclaiming lost territory. Mussolini’s Italy crumbled, dams were bombed on the Ruhr and even Germany’s vaunted U-Boat fleet was humbled. Throughout the year, Elsa and Heidi listened furtively high in the hills, wise to the facts while other Germans marched to a false tune of hope.
One October evening, Heidi gazed south to where Switzerland lay.
“We should flee, Elsa,” she said, “You, me and Hermann. The Allies will be at the gates any day now. We need to get out before that happens.”
“Wise words, Heidi,” Elsa smiled, “And isn’t it remarkable that you were the one to say them?”

 

 

The Music Never Died

Another flash fiction story, this one with the theme “budding”.

CLEAR LAKE, IOWA, USA, 3RD FEBRUARY 2019

A great heated tent had been erected in the snow-bound city park, surrounded by metal bleachers packed with onlookers.  Inside, standing in tiered rows, were nearly two hundred identically dressed young Caucasian men.  All of them had numbers pinned to the lapels of blue or grey teddy boy suits, with sleek, curly black hair and black-rimmed glasses.

Mayor Warren Duke addressed the eccentric crowd from a podium at the front of the tent.

“This day, sixty years ago,” he said, “A tragedy began here that lies heavily on the hearts o’ music lovers everywhere.  Itchin’ t’ make a tour date in Minnesota, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles P. Anderson, the Big Bopper, chartered a plane at Clear Lake, headin’ for Fargo, North Dakota, ‘cos their tour bus had broken down.  But bad weather forced the plane down, killin’ everyone aboard.  It was known as the Day the Music Died.”

A murmur of saddened assent rippled through the crowd at this.

“But in commemoration o’ those lives lost,” Duke continued, “Today, Clear Lake is proud t’ host the awards ceremony of the Diamond Anniversary International Buddy Holly Lookalike Competition!”

A roar went up from both the spectators and the lookalikes.

“With the help o’ generous corporate sponsors,” Duke beamed, waving with affected nonchalance towards the logos on the banner behind him, “We set up local competitions all over th’world t’ find the fan who can truly capture not only Buddy’s likeness, but his spirit too.  These lucky few here were selected locally, an’ from them, we can now choose th’ three overall winners!”

Cheers and applause resounded as Mayor Duke was handed three glittering envelopes.

“Our third place winner is… (He eased a card out of the envelope…)  Number 132, Rowan Friend, from Buddy’s own home town; Lubbock, Texas!”

The crowd roared once again as Rowan Friend walked to the podium to claim his trophy, sash and ceremonial cheque from the event’s sponsors.  Strangely, he didn’t seem very happy.

“Congratulations, Rowan!” beamed Mayor Duke.

Second place went to number 67, a Belgian named Jean-Michel Trudeau.  The grand prize winner, however, was number 111, Hiram Woods from Atlanta.  The crowd exulted as the awestruck winners staggered to the podium and received their prizes, yet Rowan Friend stayed silent, looking distinctly nettled.

“Well done, all of ya!” the Mayor laughed, before striding across the podium with his microphone.  “Now let’s hear what our winners got to say!  Rowan, ah gotta say, you look kinda grumpy.  Feelin’ the ol’ Green-Eyed Monster a bit, perhaps?”

“Nah, it ain’t jealousy, Mr. Mayor,” drawled Rowan.  “It’s just it ain’t logical me winnin’ third.  Yah see, y’all, the music never really died.  Rowan Friend is just an assumed name.  Ah am Buddy.”

“Aw, now that is winning spirit, y’all!” Mayor Duke roared.  “He really does believe he’s Buddy!”

Rowan Friend sniggered softly as laughter and applause burst from the crowd.  A twinkle came into his eye as he leant towards the microphone.

“Do I?”

Next moment, the crowd gasped in horror as Rowan Friend faded away before their eyes and his sash, trophy and cheque fell to podium floor.  As everyone present, including Mayor Duke, glanced around desperately trying to see where he had gone, a chill breeze swirled around the bleachers, bringing with it soft laughter and a familiar, melodious singing voice.

“Oh, that’ll be the day when I die…”

 

The First Draconian

This story was one I wanted to write for a competition that required stories about magic.  When I realised I was never going to get it to fit the 500 word limit, I decided to keep writing it independently and post it on my blog when it was finally completed… and now it is.  I hope you enjoy what I’ve written.

Welcome, weary travellers, to the mystical realm of Viridia!  Please, don’t be afraid!  I am Magnus Ruber, leader of the Draconians.  We are this land’s mightiest and most magnanimous defenders, and our story is the most fantastic tale our land has ever told.  Please, sit down and rest while I tell it to you.  I promise you shan’t be disappointed.

I was once a boy named Magnus Bookerman, only child and apprentice of Horace Bookerman, a meek and studious herald from a little town called Haycroft.  Surprising, isn’t it?  Anyway, that meekness must have rubbed off on me, for I was a frail, timid child who was a popular target for bullies.  By far the worst of them was an oafish young squire named Tommy Bones.  If he and his cronies got me alone, they would poke me, kick me, pelt me and sing their favourite taunt until I cried.

“Dead mummy Bookerman!”

My mother, Sylvia, had died giving birth to me.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that teasing me like that was pretty low.

But I found a chance for retribution one day when I was sixteen.  My father had sent me down to the river to fetch water.  As I neared the bank, I saw Tommy and his gang hurling dirt clods at a flaxen-haired girl in a purple cloak.  Since the gang hadn’t seen me, I took a chance to get revenge on Tommy while also saving the poor girl.  I crept closer, hid behind a tree and let out a throaty bellow.

“RAAA-OOOAR!  RAAA-OOOAR!”

I was imitating the roar of the dire bear, Viridia’s most feared wild beast, which I had once learned from a huntsman’s son named Peregrin.  Now, lots of people say bullies are really cowards, and I must say, Tommy Bones and his gang were certainly not an exception to that rule.

“Run for it!” squealed Tommy.  They scattered.

I helped the grateful girl to her feet.  Underneath her cloak, I could see she was fair of face, but slightly nervous, as I often was.  Her name was Rue, and she offered me dinner at her father’s house two nights hence as thanks for my courageous actions.

Guess what?  Rue’s father was a wizard!  Even better, Gnaeus (that was the wizard’s name), had a wondrous gift to offer me, and with good reason.

“Magnus, Lord Morbus is about to invade Viridia.”

My blood turned to ice at this.  Morbus was an evil mage who had usurped the throne of his homeland, then conquered all the surrounding kingdoms, ruling over them with obscene cruelty.  His name was a byword of fear in Viridia, for his dominion now bordered our lands and we were quite sure that he would seek to claim our verdant lands before long.

“His army is twenty times the strength of ours,” Gnaeus explained.  “If he invades, we shall be vanquished within weeks.  But there is an untested spell I have been working on that may bring about his doom.  This spell would create a single warrior who alone is mightier than the greatest army.  All I need… is a volunteer.”

A look of mutual understanding passed between us.  Wonder and dread flooded my soul with equal measure.

“I will give you until morning to decide, Magnus,” Gnaeus said sagely.

Next morning, he and Rue led me to cave under a nearby hill.  Long ago, a thousand knights had fought and killed the great dragon Negrus near this spot, yet with the last of his strength, the vengeful beast had dived towards the warriors, crushing many of them beneath his bulk.  The remains of both men and beast were buried in here.

“Through my magic arts,” Gnaeus explained, “I can call upon the souls of Negrus and the warriors, imbuing one man with all their strength, skill and resilience.  Are you ready to be that man, Magnus?”

For most of last night I had lain awake asking myself that question, weighing up the risk of being killed by an untested spell with the horrifying possibility of Morbus’s tyranny reaching Viridia because I had done nothing.  I fixed Gnaeus’s eyes and gave my reply.

“I am.”

“So be it,” breathed Gnaeus.

He raised his magical staff and began a great, resonant chant.  A gale swept through the cave, nearly knocking me over.  Then a great vortex of smoke formed before me.  It enveloped me and rushed into my open mouth.  I glowed as if encircled by lightning and then… an incredible transformation began.

At first it was agonising, as my bones warped, fangs pushed through my gums and claws sprouted from my fingers.  But then my body swelled upwards and outwards, and a wave of euphoria surged through me.  My pathetic human garments burst apart and I roared in bestial delight.  I felt invincible!

Magnus Bookerman was gone forever.  Now, where he stood, was the being you see here before you; Magnus Ruber, the first Draconian.  I stood upright as a man would, with humanoid arms and legs, but my body was now part dragon, with gleaming ruby scales, a snaking tail, sharp yellow spines running down my back and great bat-like wings sprouting from my shoulders.  And what a body!  It was ten feet tall and as strong as a herd of elephants, with steely muscles bulging from every square inch of it like knotted iron.

“And now,” I snarled, flexing a boulder-like bicep, “To vanquish Lord Morbus!”

Smashing out of the cave, (the entrance was slightly too small to admit me) I beat my wings hard and soared into the sky.  I powered upwards until I reached cloud level, then turned to see the massed phalanxes of Lord Morbus’s troops near Viridia’s south-eastern border.

Only two divisions of Viridian troops were stationed in that region and Morbus had expected a swift, decisive victory.  He sat behind his forces on a great sedan chair, smirking at the thought of his men crushing Viridia’s forces like ants.

Oh my friends, how rudely I awoke him from his dream!

Swooping down on Morbus’s army, I cut down a whole column of soldiers in a single dive!  As the soldiers screamed in confusion I dived again, smashing another column out of existence.  Archers and crossbowmen shot at me on the third pass, but their arrows and bolts bounced off my scales like raindrops!  I laughed sardonically, then swelled up my broad chest with a great breath.  The foolhardy troops perished in a jet of withering flame.

Even though I was one against fifty thousand, the fight was no contest.  Endowed with the strength, discipline and fighting prowess of a dragon and a thousand knights, I was now a one-being army.  My muscles, as fluid and powerful as ocean waves, drove blows from my fists, feet and tail that shattered bones, buckled armour and smashed siege engines to splinters.  My fiery breath and the downdraft of my wings felled others still.  Soon Morbus’s surviving troops were fleeing like frightened mice and his lordship was shrieked and stamped in bitterness and rage!

Time for the coup de grâce, I thought.

Snarling, I took to the air, streaked towards the cursing tyrant and seized him by the ankle.  I carried him high above the battlefield and held him over my head.  I smiled with satisfaction at the thought of how utterly powerless Morbus now was.

“MERCY!” Morbus screamed.

It was only then, my friends, that I hesitated.  Only hours ago, I had been a callow youth who could never have dreamed of killing another human being.  Now I had slaughtered tens of thousands of men and was ready to do away with a man who was begging for clemency.  Would I truly become a monster if didn’t give Morbus a second chance?

But then I remembered the news we Viridians had heard from the kingdoms Morbus had conquered.  How often had that monster stood over a helpless victim, delighting in his merciless disregard for their humanity as he ordered them tortured or murdered?  No, he did not deserve the mercy he had denied so many others.

I opened my jaws wide, saliva dripping from the fangs within.

“NO!  NO!” Morbus shrieked.

But his pleading was in vain.  I clamped my jaws round Morbus’s waist and bit down hard.  His scream of agony stopped as suddenly as a candle flame being snuffed out.  The two halves of the evil mage’s lifeless body plummeted towards the tortured ground, spilling a fresh fall of crimson rain upon it.

Oh my friends, make no mistake; it was a terrible day.  A day of blood, savagery, screams and endless death.  As I flew back down to the ground, remorse clawed at me as I despaired at the thought of all the lives lost that could have been so much better used.  I hung my great head and prayed for their souls.

Yet out of the tragedy came glorious triumph.  With Morbus dead, his empire fell apart within a year and all the citizens of those lands wept with the joy of once again knowing they were free.

Overnight, I became a national hero in Viridia.  Feasts and festivals were held throughout the land and my victory became an official holiday.  The king built me a mansion house, specifically designed for my great size, along with a training ground and gymnasium.

Better yet, Gnaeus went on to use his spell on other timid and feeble young men, transforming them into a legion of unspeakably powerful warriors who would forever keep Viridia safe; my Draconians.  Oh, my friends, how proud I am to lead them!  Even now we fly far and wide over the free lands, righting wrongs and having many a wondrous adventure.  Monsters and villains flee at the mere mention of our name, while good folk stand tall and cheer as we pass!

But it wasn’t just men who Gnaeus transformed.  As time passed, I fell deeply in love with his daughter Rue, and she with me.  Yet how could she truly become my lover when she was human and I a Draconian?  Gnaeus had the answer.  He modified his spell to transform Rue into the most lovely dragon woman, with emerald green scales, a svelte, sinuous figure and deep golden eyes that flamed with passion.  Viridia rejoiced anew the day we kissed beneath our wedding bower.

What’s that?  Ah, no, that’s not quite the end of my story!  You see, the first time I returned home to Haycroft as a Draconian, all the villagers turned out to welcome me.  My father was taken aback at my monstrous transformation, but was still weeping with joy as he threw his arms round my sinewy neck and I held him in a powerful embrace.

As this happened, however, I scanned the crowd and found one person in particular was absent.  Excusing myself, I flew high and scouted the area.

Can you guess who I was seeking?

Well, I found him sneaking away north through the forest, almost unrecognisable under the hooded cloak he was wearing.  I swooped down and blocked his path.

“Tommy, why are you running away?” I asked calmly.

Yes, it was Tommy Bones, the boy who had bullied me so mercilessly when I was a boy, showing without any doubt how false his courage had been.

“Don’t you know why, Magnus?” Tommy whimpered.  “You’re going to rip me apart, aren’t you?  You’re going to get revenge for all the times I’ve been horrible to you!  Tell me you’re not!”

Suddenly, for all my strength, I felt very humble.  Visions of the slaughter I had caused and the memory of Morbus’s helpless screams came back to me vividly.  I sighed, put one colossal hand on each of Tommy’s shoulders and looked down at him with all the gentleness I could manage.

“Tommy, you were a cruel and thoughtless boy,” I said, “But you are clearly sorry for your deeds and I would be worse than any bully if I used my powers that way.  Come back to Haycroft with me, so I can prove to you how forgiving I can be.”

I tell you my friends, when the townsfolk saw me flying back to Haycroft, bearing a smiling, laughing Tommy in the centre of my broad back, the celebrations became twice as joyous as before.

So what became of Tommy, you ask?  Well, nowadays when the Draconians are on parade, Rue and I ride at their head on the back of a magnificent gryphon.  He’s a wise and gentle beast with an eloquent tongue, and we love to share news, gossip, poetry and the occasional cheeky joke in our spare time.

That’s right, my friends.  Gnaeus agreed to transform Tommy too.  I am proud to have him as a friend in times of trouble, just as I have Rue to love me.  Gnaeus may have made me stronger than a thousand men, but take it from someone who knows; all the strength in the world is meaningless if your heart is empty.

Rest well, travellers.  Pleasant dreams until the dawn.

 

A Quartet of Fools

Procrastinating again!  I meant to put up at least one other piece of writing this month, but other things got in the way.  Anyway, this is another flash fiction story, the theme this time being “fool”.  It helps if you know Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”.

 

The Duke’s Head was the gloomiest and most forlorn of Illyria’s alehouses, free of gaiety and song on the finest of nights.  Yet on storm-lashed nights such as this one, it was an especially morose establishment, and none were in higher dudgeon than a man and woman huddled over a wine carafe on a central table.

The drowsy patrons started, however, when a handsome young page boy burst in, shook the rain off his cloak and made straight for the couple.

“Master Feste, Mistress Mariah!” he squeaked.  “I bring you news of the most grave and extreme import.”

“Sweet young Pierre,” Mariah sighed, smiling wanly as she noticed him, “Doth the Countess Olivia know thou seek us?”

“The bonds of friendship sunder all titles,” Pierre said defiantly, “And it is in friendship’s name I come.  My unfortunate fellows, Sir Toby Belch is dead.”

A wave of dismay rolled through The Duke’s Head at this.  A gasp came from a curious patron in the corner, whose hat was so loose it covered half his face.

“Rue the day!” Feste wailed.  “How came this to be, good Pierre?  ”

“As is his wont,” Pierre told them, “He had been feasting this night, imbibing in a most Dionysian fashion.  As the evening closed, he made visit to the garderobe, where a fire of utmost agony struck his bosom.  The servants called for a surgeon, but alas it was too late for him.”

“Oh woe on us loathsome conspirators!” Mariah howled.  “You and I, Feste, are discharged for our deceit, but Sir Toby has suffered the zenith of retribution from the Fates!”

“Suffer ye not, gentles,” Pierre said brightly.  “A fellow of yours seeks thee, with news as would thrill Persephone in her dire incarceration.  See, here he comes!”

In came Sir Andrew Aguecheek, capering over to Feste and Mariah’s table, arms spread wide.

“Feste and Mariah, poor unfortunates!” he called happily.  “I am set to depart Illyria with next light in the east, but first I sought you to offer my assistance.  Would you care to escape these lands and your ignominious dismissal, to serve in my household as you once did with Countess Olivia?”

“’Tis curious you would offer such, Sir Andrew,” Feste shrugged, “When Sir Toby made mockery of your friendship and sated himself thanks to your gold.”

“S’blood, honest Feste,” chuckled Sir Andrew, “But his passing is his penance and these past weeks of falsehood and unrequited passion have schooled me in wisdom, as I believe you have too.”

“Thank you, sweet Pierre, for bringing Sir Andrew hither,” Mariah said to the eager young page.  “Sir Andrew, once I thought you free of sense, but your generosity humbles this poor wretch.  Truly a merry trio of fools we make and such shall bind us.  What say you, Feste?  Shall we away with him?”

“Most certainly,” Feste beamed, “Away from all retribution and regret we shall journey, to a sweeter life!”

Sir Andrew bought them both a fresh jug of wine and they dispelled the miasma of gloom in The Duke’s Head with a merry song.  Pierre bid them farewell, then scurried back to Countess Olivia’s estate before he was missed.

As the trio celebrated, the stranger in the corner with the outsize hat sighed and walked out of the tavern unmarked.  Hidden behind his crude disguise, Malvolio had heard all that transpired.  Fate had made a fool of him too, for Sir Toby’s death had cheated him of the retribution he had sworn.  He would simply have to assuage his hatred some other way…

 

 

Why All Men Kill

This is another one for my monthly group.  Since it was written for the March meeting, the theme was “The Ides of March”.

***  2:32PM, 15TH MARCH, PRESENT DAY  ***

***  BELGRAVE SQUARE, CENTRAL LONDON  ***

“Today is a dark day for London.  The Bellarabian Embassy has been taken over by the National Islamic Brotherhood; a notorious guerrilla faction who fight the perceived persecution of Muslims in Bellarabia.  Live at the scene is Anita Bashir.  What’s the situation there, Anita?”

“Well Peter, police and Special Forces units have cordoned off Belgrave Square and surrounded the embassy.  However, they do not yet have permission from the Bellarabian government to occupy the building.  Hostages have been taken, but the NIB has not yet issued any demands.”

“Thank you, Anita.  For our viewers’ information, the National Islamic Brotherhood formed five years ago, following the death of Bellarabia’s president, Gennady Yilmaz, who had laid out plans to rapidly industrialise his notoriously backward nation.  The leader’s widow, Olia Yilmaz, took over his presidency and set his plans in motion, investing heavily in the development of agriculture, mining, hydroelectricity and the petrochemical industry.  While the UN has criticised Mrs Yilmaz’s casual attitude to religious sensibilities, NIB rhetoric concerning forced evictions and brutalities levelled directly at Muslims is very likely exaggerated.”

“Wait, Peter!  Something’s happening!  A man is being led at gunpoint to an upstairs window of the embassy.”

 

Until moments ago Scarlet Wolf, the red-masked NIB commander masterminding the siege, had merely been watching over the Bellarabian hostages he had lined up on the upper floor of the embassy, their hands bound with plastic zip ties.  Now, he seized Omar Vatsiznov of the visa and immigration department by his shirt front and pulled him to his feet.

“STOP!” screamed the ambassador’s PA, Stefania Gushenko, in Bellarabian.  “He’s done you no wrong!  Let him go!”

Midnight Wolf glared at her.

“Transmit our demands to the British and the Bellarabians,” he snapped at his second-in-command, Flame of Vengeance.  “It’s time to show them we’re serious.”

Flame of Vengeance transmitted an e-mail using one of the nearby computers, while Scarlet Wolf pushed Vatsiznov towards the window.

 

Lieutenant Patrick Flynn of the Royal Marines was ensconced in a chestnut tree in the middle of the square, still bare following the passing winter.  His sniper rifle was trained on the upper floor of the Bellarabian embassy, where a bald, unassuming little man in square glasses was being shoved into view at the window.

“Wyvern, do you have a clear shot yet?”

That was Flynn’s C.O., Major Stephen Curtis, radioing him from his mobile HQ.

“Negative, King Dragon,” Flynn replied.  “They’re using the masonry as cover and with this breeze blowing I might easily miss.  Are C Squad ready?”

“Affirmative, Wyvern,” Curtis said crisply, “But still no permission from the Bellarabian government.”

Lt. Flynn cursed under his breath and willed the Bellarabian government to hurry.

 

“Your leaders and the harlot Yilmaz now have our list of demands!” Scarlet Wolf screamed across Belgrave Square in English.  “If we have no assurance they are met, we will kill one hostage every ten minutes!”

“President Yilmaz will never submit to you!” a security guard yelled in Bellarabian.

“Silence!” ordered Flame of Vengeance.

Lt. Flynn tried to take aim on Scarlet Wolf, but he was out of view behind the mullions.  Only a small part of his gun arm was visible.

“Why are you doing this?” wept Stefania Gushenko.

“BECAUSE THEY FEAR YOUR POWER, STEFANIA!”

There really was silence now.  It was Omar Vatsiznov who had spoken, yelling in English so that everyone understood.

“It’s why all men kill, isn’t it?” Vatsiznov continued.  “It’s the same reason Brutus and the senators killed Caesar, today, on the Ides of March, two thousand years ago.  It’s why all murderers and assassins kill.  Strong as they may seem, they, or someone else, fears the power the victim has.”

Lt. Flynn was stunned.  In all his years in the military, he had never seen a civilian show such foolhardy temerity at such a time.

Then, an idea flashed into Flynn’s head, one so crazy it just might work.  He only hoped Vatsiznov had that little bit more courage left.

“Thirty seconds, gentlemen,” Scarlet Wolf shouted, remembering himself.  “Our demands or his life.”

A tiny red dot blinked on and off at the tip of Vatsiznov’s shirt collar.  He thought he had imagined it at first, but then he saw it again.  Scarlet Wolf, however, failed to notice it.

Will he understand? Flynn wondered desperately.

“Twenty seconds,” warned Scarlet Wolf.

Again, Flynn turned his laser guided sights on and off, aiming at Vatsiznov’s shirt collar.  Vatsiznov gave the very smallest of grins.  Flynn’s heart rose.  Somehow, he had understood.

“Wyvern, what are you doing?” Curtis snapped in Flynn’s ear.

“Major,” his communications chief announced, “We have permission from the Bellarabians to send in C Squad.”

“Ten seconds,” Scarlet Wolf shouted.  “Nine, eight…”

Omar Vatsiznov moved like greased lightning; spinning round, wrenching Scarlet Wolf’s gun arm skyward and hurling him to where he had been standing a heartbeat before.

A shot rang out across Belgrave Square.

Ayres’ Ice Cream Parlour

A first now; a story written freshly for my blog!  This is a story I tried out for my tale about the taxi that takes you where you need to go, rather than want to go.  I discarded it, however, when I found I couldn’t make it short enough.  Enjoy.

Not.  One.  Pound.  LIGHTER!!!!

Gordon felt himself scream the words in his mind.  First Kirsty had turned him down, then the packaging company had announced they wouldn’t be renewing his contract three days before rent was due…

And now this!

Gordon pounded his fist against the feeble bathroom wall, causing everything in the two metre square space to shudder.  Once more, he looked down at the needle on the scales, barely visible over his overhanging belly.  His vision began to blur with tears.

What’s the use? he thought to himself.  Those Weight Watchers classes haven’t helped at all.  It’s no wonder Donald quite.  I’m fat, I’ve always been fat and I’ll die fat; alone, jobless, homeless, not a hope in the world.

Then, in his despair, Gordon came to a foolish and misguided resolution.  He took off his towel and robe, returned to his unkempt bedroom and put on fresh clothes.

If I’m going to die fat and alone, he thought bitterly, then let it be doing what I love best.

Gordon lived, irony of ironies, in a tiny flat above a fried chicken shack, not far west of Limehouse station.  It was shortly after sunset on a chilly evening in early March when he walked from there to the minicab station in the nearest side street and announced his intended destination to the attendant there.

“The Baskin Robbins restaurant on Whitechapel Road, please.”

No point walking if I’m going to make myself fatter, Gordon considered.

Gordon wasn’t sure why, but the look that the sour-faced, middle-aged lady behind the glasses seemed far more searching than it should have been.  It was like she wasn’t just observing him, but also seeing into his heart, and disliking what she found there.

Without a word, the woman picked up the receiver on the radio set next to her and spoke.

“Passenger for the Baskin Robbins parlour.  Theo, this is one for you, I think.”

Once Gordon had paid his money, three silent minutes passed before a pitiful-looking apple green Yugo sputtered to a halt in the orange haze of the streetlamp outside.  Gordon stared in bewilderment at the archaic little car, driven by a swarthy chap with a broad smile and oily black curls, beckoning wildly for him to jump in.  Gordon turned back to the attendant, nonplussed that she expected him to ride in this!

Well? her withering gaze seemed to say.  Are you getting in or not?

So Gordon squeezed into the back seat of the Yugo.  He literally did; his vast gut had to squash up behind the front seat even when the driver rolled it forward for him.

“Sit tight, my friend,” beamed the man.  “I’m Theo.  I take you where you need to go.”

It was a brief journey but one of the wildest Gordon had ever had the misfortune to experience.  Theo drove like a madman; roaring along streets like he was a rally driver, following about 2 centimetres behind a ten-ton lorry, wrenching the wheel the instant a corner came up, and all the time jabbering like a parrot.  Pandemonium!

It was only when Theo slammed to a halt ten minutes later that Gordon noticed something was vitally wrong.

“This isn’t Baskin Robbins!” Gordon fumed.  “This is nothing like it!”

“Is an ice cream shop, no?” Theo chuckled.  “‘S what you wanted, eh?”

Instead of Whitechapel Road, Theo had taken Gordon to a narrow side street, scarcely lit except for the bright, pleasant-looking establishment that he had stopped in front of.  A clean, white-tiled counter with stools beside it shone through the plate glass window.  A green neon sign read;

Welcome to Ayres’ Ice Cream Parlour

“I can take you to other place if you like?” Theo sang.

“No, never mind.  This is good enough.  See you,” Gordon muttered, slipping painfully out of the car.  He didn’t fancy another death-defying ride in Theo’s old banger.

Gordon opened the door of the restaurant.  The tinkle of the overhead bell caused the blonde-haired lady behind the counter to look up from the sundae glass she was drying up.

“Good evening, sir,” she said warmly.  “How can I help you?”

For a long moment, Gordon didn’t speak.  The lady had a startlingly disarming manner.  She didn’t look much in her short-sleeved blue-and-pink check shirt, plain white apron and matching glengarry, but something in her manner left Gordon feeling like he was in the presence of someone truly special.

“Er… I’ve never been here before,” Gordon stammered.  “I don’t quite… know… what..”

The lady giggled sweetly.  “Not to worry.  Why don’t I choose for you?  What about and Ayres Special?  Best ice cream in the house.”

“OK, I’ll try that,” Gordon shrugged.

Swiftly, deftly, expertly, scooping and pouring, twizzling and twirling, scooping and pouring, the lady put together the largest, most mouthwatering, most perfectly sculpted ice cream sundae Gordon had ever seen.  Twelve beautifully rounded scoops of ice cream sat in the glass, all different flavours, along with chocolate shavings, chopped nuts, crushed honeycomb and a bright green sauce covering it all that somehow made it seem all the more delicious.  The whipped cream on top was light yellow rather than white, with a gleaming glacé cherry plonked expertly on top of it.

“There you go, Gordon,” the lady said warmly.  “Eat up and I’ll put it on your tab.”

Gordon seized the long-handled spoon she offered him and started to devour his Ayres Special with relish.  It was only when he was outside, 90 minutes, three sundaes and £24 later, that he realised the woman had known his name even though he hadn’t introduced himself.

 

Gordon was back in Ayres’ Ice Cream Parlour one sunny morning some time later, finishing off another Ayres Special, when the bell rang and someone called his name.

“Hi, Gordon!  Put it there, pal!  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Gordon stared blankly at the proffered, sinewy hand, then at the handsome, beaming face attached to it.  A sense of déjâ vu came over him.

“Do I know you?”

“Of course you do, mate!  I’m Donald Prentice!  You know, from Weight Watchers.”

Gordon broke into a delighted smile and seized Donald’s strong hand in his own, now much firmer, grip, pumping it like mad.

“DONALD!  This is unbelievable!” Gordon cried joyfully.  “Not only is it great to see you, but you look so… well…”

“Not fat?” Donald grinned.

Gordon was speechless in the best way.  Six months ago, with Christmas looming, Donald had quit Gordon’s Weight Watchers class, not a gram lighter than before, and none of the members had seen him since.  Now he stood before Gordon a changed man.

In the place of a shapeless torso, multiple chins and thighs so fat they constantly touched, Donald was trim, clean-limbed and handsome, with a firm layer of muscle evident beneath his t-shirt.

“Donald, what happened to you?” Gordon babbled.  “You were fatter than I was when I last saw you.”

“One sec, Gordon,” Donald replied.  “Steffi m’dear, could you fix me up with an Ayres Special, please?”

“Of course, Donald, my lovely,” the blonde-haired waitress called back.  She proceeded to make up Donald’s order with a flourish.

“Now, Gordon, you asked how I got this way,” Donald said.  “I’ll answer that by asking you, how do you think YOU started losing weight?”

This was an apt observation.  Gordon too was much leaner than he used to be; no worse than the average person on the street, and getting better, he was sure of it.

“I guess I’ve been eating better,” Gordon shrugged, scraping up the last of his ice cream.  “These few months I’ve not craved any of the usual muck I used to guzzle down all the time.  I just sorta stopped.”

“And yet you visit this place regularly?”

Steffi finished Donald’s immense sundae and slid it down the counter into his outstretched hand.

“Sure, I love it,” Gordon replied.  “I just can’t get enough of these Ayres Specials.  I had three on my first visit and can’t stop eating them.”

“Oh Gordon,” Donald sighed.  “Isn’t it sinking in yet?”

“Isn’t what sinking in?” Gordon said, with a puzzled expression.

“The reason you’re here,” Steffi piped up, “The reason you’re slimmer, the reason you keep coming back.  It’s because of this ice cream parlour.”

“I think it’s time we told him, Stefania,” Donald smiled.

“I think so too,” Steffi nodded.

Steffi pointed a slender finger at the door and windows and muttered something.  In a flush, the shutters slammed and a sign popped into view outside;

BACK IN A FEW MINUTES

Another muttered phrase, and Steffi’s apron, shirt and little white hat fell to the ground, replaced by a white shift, like something out of an ancient Greek epic.  Steffi’s hair now hung around her shoulders in flowing tresses, and Gordon actually gasped at finally seeing what stunning, nymph-like beauty she truly had.

“Gordon, my true name is not Steffi Ayres,” she said with a winning smile.  “I am Stefania, enchantress of the Sisterhood of Circe, friend to the Gods of Old.  Donald was helped by the ancient arts of my husband and I to reform both his body and his spirit.  And we aim to help you too.”

Gordon wondered if Steffi had slipped something strange into his sundae.

“You…  Your husband?”

“Douglas!” called Steffi.  “Could you come in here, please?”

There was now less light in the restaurant due to the closed shutters, but to Gordon it felt like there was even more shadow hanging over him when the man he now beheld angled himself through the kitchen doorway.

Douglas was well over two metres tall and twice as broad as Steffi (or Stefania).  He wore a purple toga that left his arms and legs bare.  These seemed as thick as tree trunks, while a great arch of sinew curved over his mighty shoulders and chest.  His thick, curly beard and hair were flawlessly brown and perfectly coiffed.  Even the lines of time that creased his face seemed to melt into one another and make the smile he wore all the more winning.  Douglas was the most perfect specimen of masculinity Gordon had ever met.

“My dear Gordon,” Douglas said in mellifluous tones, “Welcome to my ice cream parlour.  And to your new life.”

“What is this place?” Gordon squeaked.

“Its common name, and ours, you already know,” Douglas explained, “But secretly, it’s a gateway; a gateway to a world beyond yours where Stefania and I nurture the most unlikely individuals.”

“Like you and me, old friend,” Donald said, patting Gordon on the back.

“You made Donald this way?” Gordon spluttered.

“Easy when you’re a demi-god,” Douglas shrugged.

Demi-god?!?”  Gordon was doubting his sanity.

“You see, Ayres is a variation of my father’s name,” Douglas went on.  “I’m the son of a mortal woman and Ares, God of War.”

“Take a look at the photos on the walls,” said Stefania.

Lining the wall behind the counter were photographs of many seriously overweight men tucking into Ayres Specials, all bearing written recommendations, as if they were celebrities.

“Now take a look what these men look like… TODAY,” Stefania grinned.

With a twist of her finger, the photos vanished.  Now it was as though the picture frames were windows into an immense, ancient courtyard, where massive sets of weights were being pressed, curled, deadlifted, hauled and more by the most powerful, God-like men Gordon had ever seen.  More remarkable than the men’s bodies, however, was the fact that some of them had clearly once been the obese men in the photographs!  And now every one of them was a mountain of pure muscle!

“Those men all became my students,” Douglas said proudly.  “Once they though they’d never get slimmer.  Now they can tear down trees, wrestle with elephants, tie knots in iron girders and snap ships’ mooring ropes with their bare hands.”

“The Ayres Specials are how it starts,” Stefania explained.  “I’ve discovered a serum that I mix into the green sauce.  It burns off your fat, bulks up your muscles and most importantly, gives you the impetus to avoid the wrong foods and get stronger and fitter still.”

“So what do you think, Gordon,” Donald beamed.  “Are you willing to let Doug and Steffi make you fit enough to take on the Gods?”

Gordon could scarcely believe anything he was seeing or hearing.  An ice cream run by a witch and a man whose father was a war god?  Sundaes that could turn you into an athlete who could wipe the floor with an Olympic weightlifter?  It was insane; he must be insane!

Any yet he couldn’t disbelieve it either.  His friend, once 200 kilograms of pure lard, had become a love letter to strength in just 6 months.  He himself was not trimmer having eaten vast ice cream sundaes most days for 12 weeks.  He had just seen a woman pull down iron shutters without her hands and turn photographs into portals to another world.

He looked down at his empty sundae glass.  Then, he looked round at Donald, Douglas and Stefania, all smiling in welcome.  He smiled back.

“Just show me what to do.”

There was a joyous group hug, (Douglas’s, of course, was especially powerful,) then Gordon was led into the kitchen while Stefania put the restaurant back to the way it should be with her magic.

“Come along, Gordon,” Douglas said happily.  “You’ve got work to do and people to meet.”