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A Day at the Zoo no.9 – The Outback Exhibit

We’ve nearly come to the end of these musings from my day at London Zoo, but something else will soon be taking their place; something much more exciting!  There’ll be the usual flash fiction tales and entries for writing competitions, but just for now, enjoy my musings on meeting the wildlife of Australia.

Again, as in other enclosures, there’s no room for the ‘roos to go bounding over to me, or for the emus to streak over.  The only thing they can do is scratch for their food, their movements either fluid and sinuous, or sharp and punctuated.  Unable to stroll or trot, the wallabies “lollop”, scooting by to find some decent “tucker”!  Black swans and Radjah shellducks paddle in the makeshift creek nearby, sifting for food just as the first settlers in the land panned for something much more valuable, even if it was inedible.

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A Day At the Zoo #8 – Tree Dwellers

I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties severely this month, but that will change as of September.  Just for now, here’s another of my musings after a day at London Zoo.

The sloth lives up to her name as she lazes in the foliage.  A mild, unhurried and affable face looks back at mine as she deftly slips along the branches.  One she is perched, her extraordinary curling toes begin to groom her fur.

There are, however, more surprises than the sloth among the trees in the jungle enclosure.  Brightly coloured birds circle the canopy and fleet-footed monkeys scamper along within it.  Some spring between trees as though pricked by a nail while others scratch themselves against the bark.  They are a comical sight to be sure, but one cannot help but marvel at their mastery of arboreal life.

Brilliant birds trill and chatter in the aviary; hardly surprising that their sharp songs are continuous as intruders are passing by almost continually!  But if you look with the senses of an artist, it is merely nature’s music and jewellery.

Black and white colobus monkeys sit sedately, or caper round their climbing apparatus, not as nimble as the marmosets, but still a wonderful sight.

On The Way To Miami

Once more, a flash fiction piece, on the theme “Break”.  I originally wrote this story purely as dialogue, but it worked better as full prose.

The sun was setting on a balmy Georgia spring evening. On the verandah of an ornate house in the suburbs of Savannah, a fastidiously neat middle-aged lady was pouring iced tea for three young men and herself, as they sat on green cast iron garden chairs.
“So, Preston,” she said as she sat down, “Were the roads good?”
“Smooth sailing all the way from Charlotte, Aunt Holly,” her crop-haired, wiry nephew said with a smile. “And there’s no roadworks anywhere between here and Miami.”
“The real problem was the SatNav,” droned Daryl, his slouched, thick-set, lank-haired companion.
“Or rather, Mike and the SatNav,” Preston said edgily.
“Yeah,” Mike uttered sheepishly. He had close-cropped hair, like Preston, but was much taller, thinner and more athletic.
“This lame-brain told the device to take us to 263 Larson Drive, Savannah,” Preston said irritably, jabbing a thumb at Mike, “Rather than 263 Carson Drive. We ended up in completely the wrong part of town.”
“Why didn’t you stop him when you saw he was going the wrong way?” Aunt Holly asked.
“He was playing Magic The Gathering with me,” Daryl grinned. “This dude gets pretty engrossed with that game when he plays it.”
Aunt Holly snorted. “Next time use a map, like motorists used to!”
“Actually, Ma’am, it’s quite good we got lost,” Daryl shrugged.
“No shit, buddy,” Mike chuckled.
Aunt Holly gave an indignant squeak.
“Better not curse here, guys,” Preston warned. “She’s a strict Baptist.”
“Then best not tell her our plans for Spring Break,” said Mike, pretending to stretch out contentedly while giving a theatrical wink.
“So why was it good you got lost?” Aunt Holly persisted.
Preston began the story. “Well, Aunt Holly, when we found that we were lost, Daryl jumped out of the car because there was a 7-11 nearby and he needed the bathroom. While he was walking over there, Mike reprogrammed the SatNav properly and turned the car around.”
“We were just driving towards the 7-11 to collect Daryl,” Mike continued, “When we see him further down on the sidewalk, yelling at this crazy black chick with real short hair while trying to pull this tyre iron off her!”
“She was about to go into this dude’s driveway and smash his car!” said Daryl, flinging his arms up. “I managed to block her but then she went for me!”
“So we run up and I pull the tyre iron off her and throw it away,” said Mike, “Then I shout at her and demand to know what she’s doing attacking Daryl. She yells she was after the, quote, ‘cross-burnin’ cracker in there who put that on his car roof’. You see Ma’am, Clorinda – that’s what we found out her name was later – had taken exception to the man’s Dodge. He’d painted it to look like the General Lee.”
“You ever watch The Dukes of Hazzard, Aunt Holly?” Preston smiled.
Aunt Holly shook her head. “I don’t hardly watch anything except the news and National Geographic.”
“Well, in that show,” Preston explained, “The heroes, Bo and Luke Duke, do all kinds of crazy stunts in an orange Dodge Charger with the Confederacy flag on the roof. The General Lee, they call it. This guy was obviously a fan of the show.”
“Well, this Clorinda isn’t going to let it lie all the same,” Mike went on. “She’s still pis… er, angry that the car’s named after a confederate general. But just then Jeff, the man who owned the car, comes out of his house with his wife Mary.”
“The joke was on Clorinda!” Daryl laughed. “Turns out Jeff’s wife was black! Boy, did she look awkward!”
“Well Preston, Mike, Daryl,” Aunt Holly smiled, “It sounds like you did Jeff and Clorinda a good turn. I hope they were both grateful.”
“They were,” said Mike. “In fact, Jeff treated us all to a cup of coffee before we went on our way.”
“How nice,” said Aunt Holly, still smiling. “Well, I’ve made your beds ready for tonight. I hope you all get a good night’s sleep. I’ve sure you’ve got some exciting things planned for Florida.”
“Somehow, I doubt it’ll be half as exciting as what happened today,” said Preston, smiling back. “Cheers!”
They all gave a toast with their glasses.

 

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.