Thaw My Frozen Heart (3/3)

Owen pushes open the barn door. Sunlight spills across the huddled group as Arn rises from his chair. ‘Owen! Join us.’

‘Sure,’ Owen sighs. ‘By the way, you’re all going to die.’

Their eyes widen. ‘What?’ Ilsa gasps. Owen slouches into a corner, leaning against damp brickwork and folding his arms.

‘The bishop of this shithole is … ugh.’ He mimes a strangling motion. ‘Well, he’s beyond crazy. Over the top into new levels of batshit insane, and convinced that Gresit’s salvation lies in you people being torn to pieces by an angry mob.’

Matteo grunts. ‘When?’

‘Before sundown.’ Owen drags a hand over his face. ‘By his logic you have to die before the Night Horde appears to conduct their next raid. You all need to hustle out of here before the mob arrives.’

Ilsa raises her chin. ‘What happens if we stay and survive?’

‘Well then the Night Creatures come anyway and the church’ll blame you, and it’ll just start all over again. They’re baying for your blood out there.’

Arn frowns at his boots. ‘This is wrong. To be driven out for a lie that will doom these people, it’s not a Romani fault.’

Owen’s jaw tightens. ‘We had an agreement. I see the bishop, you leave.’

‘I don’t think it’s a Belmont fault, either.’

Owen advances on him. ‘I don’t care. You need to leave, and leave now.’

Ilsa shakes her head, flushed with indignation. ‘We can’t abandon these people, not in their time of need!’

Owen glares at her. ‘These “good people” believe you’re causing their time of need!’

‘Only because they’re misled by the Church!’ Matteo counters. ‘Does one run away when someone spreads lies about them?’

Arn nods, his eyes gentle. ‘What have the Church slandered about the Belmonts? That you were corrupted from dealings with the supernatural, that you mock God, that you’re a threat to the common good and that evil follows in your wake wherever you go. That you even love the monsters you slay. What did you do in the face of all that?’

Owen glowers back. ‘I didn’t run away,’ he grits out. ‘Isn’t there somewhere you can hide?’

‘Only down here.’ Matteo levers up a trapdoor in the corner, revealing a damp gloomy cellar below.

‘But what is your plan?’ Arn asks. ‘You don’t really have one, do you?’

Owen’s jaw clenches remembering the bishop, those pale bulging eyes aflame with madness … ‘Don’t really trust men with plans, no.’

‘No?’ Matteo raises a sceptical eyebrow. ‘And yet here you are, a hundred miles from home. Which of us is really running?’

Owen bristles. ‘You calling me a coward?’

‘No.’ Arn raises a placatory hand. ‘Never that. He’s calling you defeated, Owen Belmont. You fought your battle, long and hard. And decided that you’ve lost.’

Owen stomps into a corner. ‘We didn’t have a choice,’ he mutters.

‘Perhaps,’ Ilsa has risen to her feet, resting a hand on her father’s shoulder. ‘But we do. We carry with us the gathered wisdoms of this great country. We’ll use them to fight our battles. Alone, if need be.’

Owen sighs, suddenly bone-weary. ‘You’ll lose.’

Arn nods gravely. ‘We might well lose. But if nothing else, we might show someone that although battles are won and lost, there’s a far greater war at stake.’

Owen turns to him. ‘With Hell’s armies?’

‘No.’ Arn’s eyes gleam with resolve. ‘The war for our people’s very souls. Because if we truly are the sort of wretches who will butcher one another for a madman’s sick fantasies, perhaps it’s right and just that demons from Hell should rise up to wipe us all out. Like pigs for slaughter.’

Ilsa steps forward as her companions rise to their feet, closing ranks. ‘It’s time for those of us who fight that war to stand up and be responsible, Owen Belmont. Be account for our crimes and deeds alike. And if not …’ She closes her eyes. Bows her head. ‘Perhaps you should leave. These people are under our care. Will you abandon them, or stay and defend them for as long as it takes?’

Owen clenches his fists. ‘I said –’

‘Let’s be clear,’ Ilsa cuts him off, glaring into his face. ‘We don’t know you. You’ve been wandering alone for months. You creep around from town to town. You’re bitter and lonely and stink of ale, and you seem to me to be at least half-crazy. But we need you now.’ She pokes him in the chest. ‘I don’t need any bluster or low-key swagger from you. I need you to commit to saving these people. Because my life ain’t worth living if I can’t save theirs.’

Owen glances aside at Arn, who meets his sullen glare. Arn’s grey eyes are resolute and unwavering. ‘Time to choose, Owen Belmont. You’re either a jaded, cynical, wandering drunk … or the last living son of a proud warrior dynasty of heroes. Which is it?’

Owen turns away towards the door, shoulders sagging in weary resignation.

Then he halts.

‘No.’ He turns back, hand drifting to his swordhilt. ‘I’m done taking orders. You’re hiding. All of you. Right now.’

*

Weird, isn’t it. You meet people one at a time, they seem decent and kindly, they’re got brains that work, but then they get together in a mob and you hear the voice of the people.

And it snarls.

The townsfolk descend upon the barn, faces twisted with malice as they brandish torches, pitchforks, scythes and crosses. Soon a sea of fire surrounds it; two men step forward to batter on the door with sledgehammer and axe. The door shudders under each blow, and finally bursts inwards with a splintering crash.

The priests move in. One-Eye. Burly. A young slab-faced blond. A raven-haired brute with scarred cheeks. Flanked by his four thugs in black cassocks, the leader prowls inside. A scowling archpriest, his gold-trim purple stole falling from shoulders to knees. His eyes are cold flints beneath cropped iron-grey hair as he surveys the near-empty room; only Owen Belmont in a tattered travelling cloak, facing the candlelit mantelpiece.

‘Where are the Gypsies?’ he demands with low, grizzled menace.

Owen’s shoulders unclench. ‘I’ve put them somewhere safe.’

‘You defend evil!’ The archpriest’s hand curls into a fist. ‘Give them to us!’ He waves his knife at the chanting mob awaiting outside. ‘We’re here to wash this town clean of heretics, to rid this town of those filthy –’

‘Shut up.’

The archpriest steps forward. ‘Excuse me?’

Owen rounds on him. ‘You’re not getting the Romani. You’re not getting any blood today, so shut. The fuck. Up.’

Smack! He flinches as the archpriest backhands him across the face. ‘You will give us the Gypsies,’ snarls the archpriest, his voice like a fraying rope about to snap, ‘so we can save this town!’

The smarting sting of pain, the bone-deep burning ache. Owen glowers back. ‘This town’s long gone. It was lost ever since you and your scumbags moved in!’

Smack! ‘And what?’ The archpriest turns away. ‘You’re here to fight us?’ He smirks as his goons chuckle. ‘You’re here to convince our flock that nomad black magicians are good for Gresit? And that it’s the presence of men of God who brought the Night Hordes down upon us? When your unholy family dabbled in the Dark Arts and consorted with Satan himself?’

Owen glances around the gloomy room. A quiet desperate atmosphere crackling with coiled menace, five thugs all glaring back at him, hard as nails and full of hostility toward the unwanted outsider.

‘You know where I live?’ he asks.

The leader’s smirk widens. ‘P’raps I could beat it out of you.’

‘You really couldn’t.’ Owen shakes his head. ‘I don’t live anywhere anymore. Not since you fuckers burned us to the ground. I drift around from place to place. Here, there, everywhere. So if I walk out of here tonight – and I will – I’m in the wind. You’ll never find me till it’s far too late. Count on that.’

‘You’ll never leave here alive!’ the archpriest sneers. ‘Not unless I choose to let you. Not until you bleed for it.’

Owen smirks, thin and terrifying. ‘You won’t use weapons in here. Not in front of all these townsfolk. But I won’t come quietly – there’ll be a mess. Churchmen spilling blood? Pretty sure that would piss off your Almighty no end. I’m here to help and you want to have me beaten up – not very Christian of you, is it?’

No answer. Owen nods and continues: ‘And I’m not worried about hand-to-hand either. Not against whiny little crybabies like these. You remember how it always was back in the old days, hm? Any monsters that came crawling and started stirring shit up, who did you call?’ He spreads his arms. ‘The Belmonts, that’s who. Hard monsters need harder killers. I was one of those killers. And I’m happy to be one again tonight. Against all of you at once, if you like.’

Nobody speaks. The archpriest’s face hardens; his thugs exchange worried frowns. ‘These people are ours to command!’ spits the archpriest. ‘If God hadn’t wanted them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep!’ He clenches his fist. ‘Does not Scripture tell us: Blessed are the meek?’

‘And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness,’ Owen finishes, ‘for theirs … is the kingdom of Heaven. I remember. Do you?’ He smiles, the warm flush of pride sweeping through him. ‘Y’know –’

‘Silence!’ hisses the archpriest. ‘Look at you!’ His voice drips with mocking contempt. ‘Your family are all dead! You’re alone! You’re a pathetic wreck. You stink of beer and piss – you can barely keep your eyes open!’ He gestures to his thugs. ‘What d’you even hope to achieve against us?’

In the hushed silence that follows, the faintest glimmer of a smile flickers across Owen’s face. ‘Absolutely fuck all.’

The archpriest scoffs. ‘So you’re going to die for nothing? For heretics you don’t even know?’

‘I don’t know any of you.’ Owen turns his back on them, gazing into the pools of candlelight. ‘But that doesn’t matter, does it? My family – the family you demonised, burned alive and excommunicated – has fought and died through generations for this country. We do this for Wallachia, and her people. Even those who scorned us, who rejected us. We don’t have to know you at all. We do it anyway. To defend those who can’t defend themselves. And it’s not the dying that ever frightened us.’ He shrugs off his tattered muddy cloak, revealing the golden family crest emblazoned on his back. The rising phoenixes gleam proudly in the torchlight. ‘It’s never having stood up and fought for you.’ He turns and faces them head-on, shoulders squared and head high. ‘I’m Owen Belmont, of the House of Belmont. And dying … has never frightened me!’

Silence … then the archpriest reverses his knife grip and drops into a fighter’s crouch, eyes glittering with bloodlust. ‘Good!’ His lackeys draw daggers. Move in.

Oh, for fuck’s sake … ‘Have it your way, then,’ Owen deflates with a tired sigh, his shoulders slumping; one hand drops to rest upon the chair rail. ‘You’ll burn them all if I don’t leave?’

‘That’s a promise,’ Blondie chuckles, leering. ‘Maybe we’ll have some fun first. ’Specially the redhead. I likes a fighter.’ He licks his lips. Cups lewdly between his legs. ‘We’ll hurt her so bad she’ll be begging to die –’

Owen moves.

He pivots, one arm arcing around and the chair arcing with it. It smashes into the archpriest and Blondie as Owen launches past onto the others. Ducks a wild knife slash. Crashes a scything hammerfist deep into Burly’s sternum, two hundred pounds of boiling fury behind it. For Arn. Burly crumples boneless to the floor, rasping for air as Owen whirls onto the remaining pair. Sidesteps One-Eye’s feral lunge and drops him with a knee to the balls. The heel of his hand driving up into Scarface’s throat. Cracks his larynx. Scarface gurgles. Eyes popping. Choking and gagging. Owen sinks a fist deep into his belly and crunches an elbow full into his face. Lets him flop onto the floorboards, wheezing. Innards slopping around inside.

We didn’t protect this land by being nice.

One-Eye shoves off the wall and lumbers in. Knife glinting. Panting with bloodlust. Owen spins away and the blade hisses past his ribs. He steps in. Grabs One-Eye’s knife-wrist. Lunges forward.

And stabs his left thumb into the thug’s remaining eye.

One-Eye howls in agony as Owen propels him across the room. The knife clatters to the floor. Owen hooks his fingertips into One-Eye’s right ear and squeezes. Holds on with his thumb. Like pushing it through a bloody steak. One-Eye’s eyeball is nearly out. He’s screaming and flailing, beating madly on Owen’s forearm. Owen holds on. Tightens his grip. Pushes deeper.

No mercy. No quarter.

No more Mr Nice Guy.

The archpriest struggles up onto one knee. Claws for his knife. Owen kicks out at his face. Misses. Catches him in the throat. Crushes his windpipe. He collapses, choking on his smashed voicebox. One-Eye is still screaming. His frenzied blows weakening. Owen rams him back into the wall, splayed out and defenceless. Clamps his bandaged skull and drives three jackhammer punches deep into the bandages, right into his ruined left eye socket. One! Twice! Thrice! One-Eye topples limply aside. Blood spraying from his nose. His bandaged face a mask of gore.

For Helga.

Blondie lurches upright amid the splintered wreckage and flaps a feeble desperate swipe. Too slow. Owen catches his flailing wrist and crashes his forearm right through Blondie’s elbow. Shatters the joint. Like snapping a wishbone. Blondie screams and falls to his knees, sobbing. Wham! Air punches out of him from the brutal fist into his stomach. Another and another, a flurry of heavy savage blows, a crippling barrage of punches in a fast deadly rhythm, five six seven eight. Owen pounds him over and over again, a withering storm of crashing fists. Like a butcher tenderising a steer. He lolls, barely conscious as Owen slams his skull back into the wall.

We’ll hurt her so bad she’ll be begging to die

Blondie sags forward, just as Owen unleashes the final crushing uppercut into his throat. A colossal, primitive, primeval blow, driven all the way from the centre of the earth, pulsing through the wet straw floor up through his knee, his thigh, his waist, his torso, his shoulder, his arm, his wrist, his clenched fist, every muscle and every tendon and every fibre twitching just once, rippling fast in perfect explosive devastating harmony. A beautiful blow, flooded with two hundred pounds of scorching rage and dusty ancient echo-memories left behind from savage prehistory, his fist swung in a vicious scything arc deep into soft gristle and cartilage and crushing right through it.

For Ilsa.

CRUNCH.

Blondie’s head snaps back like a ragdoll. He hangs slack and motionless for a second, then his legs crumple and he topples onto his face in a sprawled tangle of limbs. Like an ox in the slaughterhouse. His skull thumps on the dusty floor.

Walk away from that, you bastard.

Burly and Scarface are writhing around on the floor, groaning. One-Eye is limp and unmoving. Out cold. Or worse. So is the archpriest. Blondie too.

Owen straightens up amid the carnage and breathes out. An awestruck silence has fallen over the crowd, disbelief mingled with terror at the twisted carcasses at his feet. Every face fixed upon him, holding him frozen in the glare of hundreds of horrified eyes. A black-robed figure shoves his way to the front; another priest, dishevelled and panting as he raises a shaky claw at Owen and screeches, ‘There he is! There’s the murderous heretic! Someone seize him!’

Fear churns through his gut; Owen glares around nonetheless, hand drifting to his shortsword as he faces his fate. ‘You can try.’ The townsfolk wilt back, wide-eyed with dread. Owen nods. ‘That’s right. I’m walking out of here.’ A muffled thump behind him.

The priest’s face twists into a venomous sneer. ‘Yeah? You and what army?’

‘Ours,’ calls a mild voice.

A massive surge of movement at his back; before Owen can even blink, a swarm of Romani are flanking him on either side facing, not Owen, but the mob. Men and women standing as one, closing ranks around him, all of them glaring towards the priest, and Owen, awestruck and overwhelmed, sees cold steel emerging everywhere; hatchets and hammers drawn from belts and beneath cloaks, swords unsheathed from scabbards, knives pulled from sleeves and apron pockets. A line of gleaming steel faces the mob; even the urchins brandish wicked shivs. Owen gazes around at them all, a lump in his throat. Good people, all of them. Hard as nails. Steadfast and loyal. Steely resolve etched into every weathered face, ready to strike down the first one who dares take a step toward him.

Ilsa squeezes his arm, smiling. Arn beams proudly at him, iron-shod quarterstaff slung across his shoulders like a water-yoke. Matteo salutes with a crooked grin. ‘All right, mate?’

Owen smirks back, feigning nonchalance. ‘Eh, could be worse.’ Then, heartfelt, a deep surge of gratitude welling up: ‘Thank you.’

Ilsa’s eyes soften. ‘We owed you one. You helped us first.’ She pats his back. ‘Now we’re even.’

Owen smiles back, then a flicker of movement catches the corner of his eye; Burly trying to limp away unseen through the crowd. ‘You.’

‘Kill them!’ Burly roars hoarsely, jabbing his knife at Owen. ‘Kill them all!’

‘No.’ Owen advances on him, smiling grimly as the crowd murmurs uneasily. ‘You’re very big on ordering other people what to do. Telling the good people of Gresit to commit murder for you. Let’s see how well you do all on your own.’ He draws his shortsword with a grin that’s all teeth. ‘No flunkies. No backup. Just you ‘n’ me now. One on one.’ His smile widens as the townsfolk step away from Burly, giving him a wide berth. He nods at Burly’s trembling hand. ‘I see you’re carrying a blade. Wonder if the people of this great town of Gresit have ever seen their priest draw a knife before?’

Whispers ripple through the crowd.

‘Your long knife, my shortsword,’ Owen continues, his warrior blood singing in gleeful excitement of the fight ahead. ‘Let’s fucking go.’ He sees the priest’s stance hunch lower, weapon readied but hesitation flickering in his eyes. A bead of sweat trickles down his brow.

‘C’mon!’ Owen taunts him, voice building. ‘Come onnn. You were fine with persecuting these people the same way you persecuted mine. You had no problem beating an old unarmed man just this morning. Hm?’

More ugly scowls. More angry mutters. More disgusted head-shaking. If he could just swing the townsfolk his way, get them to turn on their masters, then maybe there’s still a chance. ‘You had no problem lying to these good people about the Romani. But they know better. They know who the real enemy is.’

Burly glances around wildly, into a wall of stony faces. ‘The Gypsies brought this evil upon us!’ he pleads, voice cracking.

‘No they didn’t – and you know it. The Romani stayed here, to offer aid. It was your bishop who brought all this down upon us! Your bishop … who started it all! By burning a defenceless woman! She wanted to help, she wanted to heal – and you fuckers murdered her!’

Burly’s eyes dart frantically left and right, seeking an escape. None. All around the townsfolk’s faces are twisted in revulsion and contempt. Owen feels the crowd drifting nearer, enthralled by his words, but keeps his gaze firmly fixed upon his enemy. Making sure every damning word stabs home. ‘You’re done terrorising people. You brutalised and tormented whoever you wanted. You would have made murderers of these good people too, but the only one here … who isn’t innocent …’ he levels his shortsword at Burly in a grim challenge, ‘… is you.’

Pounding footsteps behind make him turn, flinching from an unseen attack. But the man rushes right past him with a vicious yell …

… and sinks his knife deep into the priest’s belly.

As one the crowd roars and surges forward like a raging pack of wolves, descending on their doomed target. Burly manages one terrified blood-choked shriek before they fall upon him like locusts in an angry tide of vengeance. A knife plunges into his back. A pitchfork skewers him through the throat. He falls, gurgling blood.

And the blades flash down.

And the cudgels rise and fall.

Wow. Well … that’s that, then.

Owen smiles grimly, sheathes his sword and walks away, deaf to the butchery behind him. The Romani are gathered by the broken fountain.

‘Good riddance,’ Matteo mutters darkly, as Ilsa rubs Owen’s back and Arn clasps his arm, eyes shining.

‘That was quite some speech,’ the elder smiles proudly. ‘Prepare it beforehand, did you?’

Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Shut up.’

Other townsfolk are drifting closer. ‘What about the bishop?’ one calls, and there’s a rumble of answering growls.

Owen shrugs. ‘Sod him. Let the demons rip him apart for all I care. Fucker deserved it.’

Another man gulps. ‘But if we kill him –’

‘I won’t defend these self-righteous pieces of shit. I literally will not.’ Owen steps aside, gestures open-palmed at the church spire behind him. If that’s what God’s driving at, Hell it is for the rest of these pompous bastards. ‘What they did, what they wanted to make you do, I’m not going to say forgive it. But don’t do it because you think it’ll save you. Maybe he dies tonight to the demons and it’ll still mean nothing at all. Satan’s even more crazy than your batshit-insane bishop and God’s not even going to notice a damn thing. He doesn’t care. You’ll never undo what happened. What you did. So don’t be sorry – be better! The only way to stop this is to fight back. Kill the demons when they come.’

‘But they can’t be killed!’ wails a woman.

‘He can kill ’em if he’s really a Belmont, right?’ someone else mutters. ‘The Belmonts could fight monsters.’

‘The Belmonts dealt with black magic!’ an unseen voice snarls, ‘everyone knows that!’ And – as Owen opens his mouth to explain yet again that no, they fucking didn’t and could people please wait to be ungrateful bastards until he’s done saving their sorry arses? – the woman shuffles closer, pawing desperately at his tunic. ‘Can you summon your own demons for us?’ she pleads. ‘Is that how you’ll defeat the Night Horde? Please!’

Owen gapes at the crowd. After a minute, he manages, ‘Salt. Salt kills demons.’ His eyes rake over the villagers, taking in their weapons, assessing the situation. ‘Back to the far side of the square!’ he bellows, voice ringing out like a clarion call. ‘Pikes, up front, now!’

‘What?’ yelps a man, hugging his makeshift spear. ‘Why?’

‘Because I’m the only one here who knows how to fight these things.’ Owen yanks him close by the collar and turns to the wavering crowd. ‘Everyone with a pike or long weapon, get out in front with me!’ He drags the man into position, thumps his back encouragingly. ‘Hold steady. Eight in front, eight behind and eight in between, pikes forward!’

The people jolt into action, scurrying to and fro as directed. Owen’s had plenty of practice ordering untrained crowds around so he falls back into it easily enough. A lot like being a sheepdog: you go here, you go over there, you pack together in the centre because you’re all-but-useless even by my embarrassingly low standards, and if you’re stranded out in the open your head’s going to get torn off so stay close with the flock.

He backs up toward one of the more intact buildings and waves a hand. ‘We’ll be taking up position here. Funnel them down here into a chokepoint. Going into the buildings is a deathtrap, hellfire’s worse in enclosed spaces, so everyone stay clear outside, clustering up for defence. Double row of pikes to keep them off people, then those of you with knives and swords rush in once they’re skewered. Any demon who keeps its distance, I’ll take out myself. Stick the kids in the centre. For now, sharpen everything, make sure it’s not about to break, and gather any extra pikes you can.’ He gazes around. ‘I need a priest! One who was properly ordained, in a church!’

A hushed silence … then a black-clad deacon shuffles out of the crowd, raising a timid hand. Owen beckons him over. ‘Grab some people, go to the nearest well, start drawing water to bless. You know what to do for holy water, yes? Go!’ He cups his hands to his mouth and calls, ‘I want salt over here! As much as you can find!’

Soon more puffing citizens hurry over, lugging pailfuls of salt. Owen gazes around at the hesitant townsfolk. ‘Everyone with a sword, pike or axe, wipe your blades in the salt.’ He sighs as they shuffle forward to plunge their blades into the buckets. ‘We’re in for a long night.’ The deacon returns with sloshing water buckets, kneeling over them and hastily chanting prayer after prayer as his companions sprinkle handfuls of salt into them. Soon all the buckets are all blessed, the townsfolk lining them up alongside the salt pails before hurrying into the surrounding houses with more.

The deacon cringes back as Owen approaches. ‘I don’t punch people who haven’t punched me a couple times first,’ Owen grunts. ‘Don’t worry.’ He peers at the buckets. ‘So this should actually be holy water. Huh. One less thing to worry about.’

The deacon frowns. ‘You, ah, can’t tell?’

Owen stoops and plunges his hand into a bucket. Cold saltwater splashes up his forearm. ‘Well, let’s see now, hmm … I’m not a demon, so no.’

The deacon nods cautiously. Owen gazes around the circle of townsfolk, points to the buckets. ‘Holy water burns demons, so I want the ground here as soaked as you can make it. That won’t kill them, but it’ll sting them bad when they land. A distracted demon isn’t busy ripping anyone’s guts out. To kill them …’

Owen strides towards the salt pails and lifts a handful into the air. ‘To pierce a demon’s hide, all you need is to salt the blade. Salt messes with their healing, prevents their flesh from knitting back together. Salt kills demons.’

‘How come you can touch it?’ squawks a fishwife.

Owen grinds his teeth, resisting the urge to throttle someone. ‘It’s salt!’ These idiots. There really is something wrong with Gresit, unless it’s God fucking around to see how much more raw stupid insanity needs to be crammed into Owen’s personal fucked-up Hell before he gives up and beats his own skull in against a wall.

Someone else answers with, ‘He’s a revenant, not a demon.’

‘I’m not a revenant,’ Owen clarifies, and then can’t stop himself: ‘And no, salt does work on a revenant. And a revenant wouldn’t be helping you anyway because, oh yeah, it’s a rotted lunatic monster.’

Everyone’s staring at him like they’re still unconvinced, like he’s already a shambling corpse spouting nonsense. He’s doesn’t look that bad! Right?

Right?

‘Revenants can’t move under direct sunlight,’ he tries, and oh, that gets a mutter of acceptance. That they find vaguely convincing. Terrific. He sighs and lets the salt flow through his fingers into the pail. ‘Just remember: salt doesn’t need magic. If you can still taste it, it’s salt and it’ll work against monsters. Just salt will be enough for us to win. So!’ He gestures at the various pails and jugs. ‘Wipe all your blades with it. After a few strikes, it’ll be worn off and you’ll need to add more. But it’ll only take a few strikes to fight off the Night Horde. They’re not like an army of men. They rely on near-invulnerability to compensate for their low numbers. Shock and awe. They won’t have that tonight.’

Owen turns to walk off when the deacon clears his throat: ‘Er. Wouldn’t you be better off remaining inside until the sun’s finished setting?’

He resists the urge to eye-roll into next week. ‘What do I even have to do to convince you people?’

The man raises open palms placatingly. ‘It’s only – I don’t think anyone’s left to care about what you are, but … it’s clear your eyes can’t stand the sunlight.’

‘That’s just the hangover,’ Owen grinds out. There’s nothing unnatural about how the sunset slices over the rooftops and stabs right through his skull, the throbbing pain lurking there, snarling like a cornered rat. Fuck hangovers.

The man nods again; that sickeningly agreeable way of people who don’t actually believe a single word you’ve said. ‘Is it seriously harder to believe I’m hungover than that I’m a rotting lunatic monster?’ Owen grumbles. ‘I’m marinated in booze!’ Bad enough he’s wrapped in a constant hovering reminder about how much less all of this could hurt, can’t beer be good for anything nowadays?

‘You already told them you’re dead,’ Ilsa pipes up behind him.

He rounds on her. ‘What? No, I said I’m not a revenant. Not. Not is the literal opposite of yes.’ He turns back to the deacon, scowling. ‘C’mon, shouldn’t you know better? You guys do the last rites and funerals and shit – you know corpses, don’t you?’

The deacon grimaces at the ground. ‘… It would hardly be surprising if a Belmont couldn’t rest forever, even if you managed to get a decent Christian burial. And … that is doubtful.’

Seriously, God? He’s just fucked for being a Belmont? ‘I’m not a revenant,’ Owen growls.

The deacon nods hurriedly. ‘I know! I know.’ He hesitates, then: ‘You said the Night Horde came because the bishop – because the Church – persecuted those who were innocent. What dreadful tragedy befell the Belmonts … it’s much the same, isn’t it?’

‘Won’t say people haven’t tried over the years, but they didn’t succeed,’ Owen mutters. His heart pounds, his head throbs; at least that’s proof he wasn’t spat up from the grave. He grins. ‘But hey, what kind of Belmont would I be to lose a fight to men?’

The deacon just frowns. Owen sighs. ‘So you really think I’m some undead raving monster here for revenge on you lot. Shouldn’t you, I dunno … do something about that if you’re so scared of me?’

‘It seems you’re the only hope these people have left. Besides …’ He gestures at Owen’s still-dripping arm. ‘It doesn’t seem there’s anything I could do to harm you.’

‘Great. Great pep talk. Real encouraging.’

‘Well, you’ve already managed to touch water and it didn’t kill you,’ Ilsa deadpans behind him. ‘If you can get soap involved, perhaps there’s still some chance for you yet.’

Instead of any snarky comeback he just smiles at her like a gormless idiot. She rolls her eyes and turns away sharply, face hidden by her hood.

Fine, fine. Smiling is terrible. Message received, God: he’ll keep to stoicism for the rest of eternity. Ugh.

Owen turns back to the crowd, gazing over the rabble with pitchforks. ‘We’re taking these streets back. All right? There’s a wave of monsters coming, and we’re the rock to break that wave. If you face down a demon and it cowers, drive it off. Once they’re scared they stay scared. But if it tries to fight back – and the big ones will fight, because that’s all they know – then you will kill it! Burn it or stab it or hack its head off! Be merciless! Kill it dead! Do you hear me?’

A murmur of reluctant assent. Owen rolls his eyes. ‘I said do you fucking hear me?’

This time there’s a roar. Every face alight with flinty determination.

‘Good! And we’ll go on and on until every one of these streets is safe, from end to end! And then we’ll do it again! Until every one of these scaly bastards is dead or running screaming for its mum and these streets are ours! Because …’ He leans against the wall to catch his breath, and his next words are almost a whisper, ‘because tonight we will be cruel to them, and through our cruelty they will remember us … They will be sickened by us, they will whisper nightmares about us, and they will fear the people of Gresit … for tonight … together, united … we are something terrible.’

An awestruck hush falls. He smiles in the silence. ‘Sound good?’

A moment’s pause; then a full-throated roar fills the air like a thunderclap. Fists are pumped skyward, weapons brandished triumphantly, voices raised in excited cheer.

‘YES SIR!’

BOOM. Heat washes over his back as the square is bathed in firelight; the crowd cower and gasp at the searing column of flame rising into the darkening night.

‘It’s them!’ Ilsa growls. ‘They’re coming!’

Screams and explosions erupt in the cold night air around them. The ground shakes; fire belches from a nearby alleyway as dark gibbering shapes hoot and chitter within. Owen raises his voice over the demons’ shrieks. ‘Pikemen! Four paces forward!’

The townsmen march forward and halt, Romani and citizens standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The demons prowl closer, hissing and flinching from claw to claw as they squelch through holy water. Owen glances up at the surrounding windows. ‘Buckets! Now!’

The shutters are flung wide; washerwomen and housewives lean out to heave their bucketfuls over the invaders, who shriek and recoil as the holy water sizzles into their flesh like acid. Oily black smoke oozes from their bubbling wounds.

Enraged, a winged goblin bounds forward toward the defenders, unfurls leathery wings and pounces high with a delighted squeal. Jaws agape. Claws bared.

‘Rear pikes … up!’ Owen yells. As one the pikemen swing their weapons upward and the lunging goblin impales itself on their spearpoints. The line shudders as it twists and flails, claws lashing wildly.

‘Cut him down!’ Owen roars. A swordsman swarms in, hacking at the goblin’s torso as others hew at its limbs. Another goblin chitters and begins flapping ponderously away, but Owen’s whip coils around its hindleg and yanks it earthward. Another hurled bucketful of holy water sprays across the cobblestones, blue fire licking up the goblin’s legs as the Romani hack it apart with salted longswords and axes.

‘Salt kills demons!’ yells Owen. ‘Don’t forget! Spread the word!’

A woman screams. A huge horned demon lumbers out of the billowing smoke, shaking its shaggy mane and gnashing curved tusks. Gutting weapons. A primal hunter with no interest in magic or rules. A creature that would slaughter everything in its way. The perfect predator, from its meat-ripping fangs dripping with venom, to the dried gore crusted beneath its claws, the searing hatred spilling from blood-red eyes. It snarls and opens its jaws, chest glowing with internal fire.

‘Watch out!’ Ilsa cries.

Owen dives aside and the fireball scorches past him, blasting apart the house behind. Agonised screams echo from the burning wreckage; blackened bricks and charred timbers rain down as the shockwave shudders through Owen’s bones. The monster bellows in triumph.

And charges.

The townspeople cower back, the demon’s blinding wrath scattering them like broken wisps of straw. Swordsmen and pikemen alike waver before the insane fury of its rampage; anyone within the arc of its scything claws and snapping jaws is overwhelmed and torn apart. Arrows hiss into its scaly hide but it presses forward heedless of jabbing spears and slashing swords, deaf and blind to anything but its ravenous thirst for bloody slaughter. The defenders falter before the frenzied brute as it plunges on, howling with glee, twisting this way and that in search of fresh meat, snapping spears in two like dry matchsticks.

Owen runs forward, whip cracking through the air to slash across the demon’s back. The demon rounds on him, snarling as its jagged wound hisses and bubbles. Owen rolls aside and the demon’s fist pounds into the ground. Breath punches from his lungs as it seizes him round the waist, raising him up towards gaping jaws. The foul reek of rotting meat washes over him …

The beast howls in pain and lurches forward; Owen glimpses Ilsa behind, lowering a broken spearhaft. Matteo sinks his hatchet deep into its footpaw and it crumples to its knees, grip loosening. Vision blurred, ribs grinding, Owen gropes for the silver-tipped stakes at his belt and draws them both, ramming them deep into the demon’s throat. Its claws open and he crumples to the mud.

The demon is writhing and flailing, its wicked claws gouging the cobblestones. ‘There’s an army of us! An army! From Hell!’

Owen rolls over, hand clamped to his aching ribs. ‘Listen,’ he growls, ‘when you get back to whatever steaming underworld shithole you crawled from, you tell them … there are still Belmonts up here.’

‘Nooo!’ the demon shrieks in agony as its glowing wounds bubble and swell up. ‘The Darkness is coming. He’s coming! He’s coming for you all!’

‘Yeah?’ Owen rises onto his hands and knees, bloodied and battered but unbowed. ‘And when he gets here, I’ll beat his arse too!’

The demon throws back its horned head and screams.

The world turns white. Searing heat blasts over them as blinding light fills the courtyard. When it finally fades, the demon is gone. Just a smoking crater deep in the earth, black blood smeared across the cobblestones and the lingering stench of charred flesh. The demon’s severed head lolls at Owen’s feet drooling blood.

The remaining goblins cower back whimpering as Owen staggers upright, every muscle and bone screaming in protest. ‘Look at them burn!’ he yells back at the hesitant townsfolk. ‘Look at them die! I know you’re all still tired and scared, but they’re just bloody animals! They’re only vermin – and vermin get put down!’ He cracks his whip, eyes hard as jagged flints. ‘Now let’s kill these bastards!’

He charges forward with Ilsa and Matteo beside him, a wall of spears at his back. They crash into the demons with a roar.

Then it’s a frenzied blur of slaughter. Adrenaline hissing through his skull like a raging storm. On his right Matteo grimly rams a longsword two-handed into the press of scaly flesh, his hatchet buried deep in a goblin’s skull. On his left Ilsa’s knives flicker and dart like vipers’ tongues as she stabs and slices at her snarling enemies. The night is thick with choking smoke, screaming women, wailing children and the bloodthirsty howls of the invaders. His world is fire and blood, a cacophony of anguish in his bleeding ears. He has his shortsword in one hand and his whip in the other, and the Night Horde pour out of the smoke towards him. All the snarling and howling and screaming fades, his prey lined up like dominoes before him, nothing else in the world but himself and a courtyard full of targets. He stabs and hacks and feints and slashes with his whip, whirling onto his next enemy with seamless clinical fluidity, smooth as a flowing river. He’s in the killzone and it’s beautiful, it’s flawless, it’s what he was born to do. And Owen –

‘Owen! Owen!’

A hand patting his face. Owen shakes his head, panting and blinking away smoke. ‘It’s over,’ Ilsa murmurs, cupping his chin. ‘We won.’ The world swims into view, Ilsa crouching before him and …

The courtyard is littered with corpses.

Demons are sprawled everywhere, sliced by swords, skewered by pikes, bludgeoned by hammers and chopped apart by axes. A heap of stinking slimy hell-flesh glistens at Owen’s feet, knife buried in its heart; he slowly calms his nerves, steadies his breathing as Ilsa helps him upright.

It’s eerily quiet. Nothing but the faint sizzle of burning meat and the distant moans of the wounded. It’s early evening and the first stars are glimmering above and Gresit is still standing. Huh. Arn is seated by the fountain, a gash down his forehead, hugging a sobbing widow close. The Romani gather around Owen; he sure isn’t expecting a warm welcome but a grinning woman thumps him on the arm (ow), Matteo thrusts a bowl of food at him (no beer? Uuugh) and a girl nuzzles into his side, hugging his knees. Owen absently ruffles her black ringlets and she giggles, snuggling closer.

Dazed townsfolk wander about; some drift closer to him, wide-eyed with shock and gratitude, babbling questions and praises.

‘Thank you, Belmont! Thank you!’

‘You saved us, Belmont!’

‘Here’s my granddaughter! Thank the brave man, Greta!’

‘Are the demons finally gone?’

‘Bless you, Belmont!’

There is hugging. So much tearful hugging that Owen nearly gets a cramp in his face from flinching.

Demons? They’re dead. All of them. There won’t be another attack anytime soon. Yes, really. Yes, really. Go home, actually sleep. No, eww, get off me. Seriously, people. This thing you have for hugging has got to stop. Bugger off, please and thank you. Do none of you idiots understand what personal space is. No, get off me, lady. Is that a mug of beer, mate? What? For free? I bloody love you. Eww, that’s enough grabby hands, miss, thank you. All the hugging and crying should be directed at Ilsa. Hug her all you damn well want. Take one for the team, Ilsa.

God? Can’t vouch for God today, sir, I’m absolutely not the guy to ask. But yes, I agree, burning the totally-not-a-church down to ashes tomorrow morning is a fine start. No clue whether it’s fixable from the bishop and his goons, Christ alone knows if it’s redeemable, yes ma’am, I agree that’s fucked up and creepy and in conclusion, fire. (‘Vindictive much?’ Ilsa mutters, because she’s terrible.) And now everyone’s staring at him. Bloody hell, an expectant audience. He groans. Puts aside his bowl and straightens up.

In the hushed silence, a woman calls out timidly, ‘Are the demons really the Church’s fault?’

Owen rounds on her because no, God, it’s not that simple: ‘How many burnings did you all watch?’ he demands, fists clenched. ‘How many people died because the rest of you spineless cowards let it happen, how many people were beaten and persecuted and imprisoned and tortured and exiled, while the rest of you looked away, kept silent, stepped aside and did nothing? Any one of you could have stood up and said, “No, we won’t act like beasts anymore. No, we’re better than this.” Why didn’t you?’

And thank fuck, finally some of these idiots have the basic decency to look ashamed. He gestures to the smoking heaps of charred flesh. ‘See these shitty bastards? They’re bloodthirsty, heartless, vicious and cruel. But they never burned and tortured and ripped each other apart and dared call it morality.’ What was it his father used to say, bouncing Owen on his knee? “Don’t despair at the world’s injustice. Get real mad first, then you can fix it.” Well, he’s seething now. He sweeps an arm over the burning devastation; the ruined buildings, the twisting columns of black smoke rising over the rooftops, the broken corpses spilling their guts into the mud. ‘You didn’t deserve a bunch of baby-eating freaks. But you could’ve done far more to prevent all this horseshit. So much more!’

He’s not really sure what the point is here. All right, he could’ve done more. He knows that now, because he already learned that, but then he did that. He stepped up, didn’t he? Got the job done. Because that’s what Belmonts do, when push comes to shove. Quit wingeing, knuckle down and do the work. Because there’ll always be things that go bump in the night. And Belmonts are the ones who bump back. Always have. Always will.

Owen sighs. ‘So yeah, demons were eating babies because your bishop burned one too many blameless people. He killed an innocent healer so God got real pissed and told Satan: “Go wild, kiddo. I won’t stop you”.’ Shocked gasps echo from the crowd, but Owen doesn’t care. It isn’t using the Lord’s name in vain when these idiots need an long-overdue ego check on responsibility, right? Right, God? But yeah, you pompous cloud-surfing bastard, on balance it was mostly the fault of their fucking homicidal bishop.

An elderly man casts a fearful eye skyward. ‘But if we beg God for forgiveness, show him we’re truly sorry –’

These morons. Ugh. ‘There’s no use praying to any God, because He sure ain’t listening!’ Owen fumes. ‘What, you thought you’d plead to Heaven for help, hoping all will be forgiven and God comes running up like an eager old greybeard, bowing and scraping, thankful He’s finally been remembered? Well it’s not like that! It’s all you! No Gods, no divine laws, no eternal judgement keeping you in line. What’s even the point of having Ten bloody Commandments if you won’t! Fucking! Listen!’ He jabs a furious finger at them. ‘Don’t you get it? Not Thou Shalt Not … Say I Will Not!’

A stunned silence falls. The deacon limps up nursing a bloody arm, face twisted in nausea. He throws a lopsided salute. ‘Church is deserted, sir. Doors broken down. No sign of the bishop, but there’s blood everywhere. Claw marks all over the lectern.’ He tosses something down with a clank. A pectoral cross, dripping with gore. ‘Looks like they tore him apart.’

Huh. Makes sense all the other priests would have all retreated back into the church, their pogrom in ruins, the crowd all against them, those whining bags of shit bidding their time indoors, waiting for everyone else to be slaughtered so they could emerge and smugly tell their corpses I told you so. And finally, days after leaving the place alone, the demons had crawled right in. Sanctity lifted long ago. An all-you-can-eat buffet just waiting for them. A bloodbath. A massacre. A feast.

‘He’s dead, then?’ Owen grunts. ‘Well, good riddance. God, I hate priests.’ A pause, then, heartfelt: ‘Fuck, there are some shitty people in this world.’

‘Indeed,’ Arn murmurs, a tired smile on his face. ‘But there are some good ones, too.’

‘Yeah?’ Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Do tell me when one turns up.’

‘You’re not all bad,’ Ilsa grins. ‘Little rough around the edges, maybe. But you’re a good bloke, just –’ she digs him in the ribs, smirking, ‘– not a very nice one.’

Finally. Something we actually agree on. Hooray.

Owen gazes over the jubilant scene, Romani mingling with townsfolk, talking, laughing and comforting each other. It won’t last, he thinks. They’ll soon see it can’t work out. I’m a drifter, always on the road, always alone. Better that way. Plenty of demons still out there, roaming the countryside. Sooner or later I’ll have to leave here.

But for one day at a time … let it be tomorrow.

The babbling chatter halts as Owen rises to his feet, the town instantly quietening. They wait, breathless, hoping for another visionary speech from him.

‘Goodnight,’ he grunts.

And stumbles off to bed.

© 2021 | Tom Burton

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Thaw My Frozen Heart (2/3)

‘Welcome to our humble dwelling.’ The elder gestures towards a broken-down hovel in the snow-strewn yard. A gaping hole yawns in the roof. Place looks empty and abandoned under the pale noonday sun. ‘Please – come inside. Meet my people.’ Owen suppresses a sigh and follows him indoors.

Inside is a small meagre room ringed with candles across the floor and empty fireplace hearth. Owen hangs back as the elder is immediately surrounded by a swarm of anxious Romani, clad in rough homespun garb of earthy browns and greens. The crowd chatters excitedly away like squabbling magpies, and Owen winces at the rush of voices; it’s giving him a headache, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a tankard of good strong beer.

‘Father!’ A young redheaded woman shoves through the crowd to fling her arms around the elder, hugging him tightly. ‘Thank goodness you’re safe!’

‘Thank you,’ the elder smiles back at Owen. The woman’s face is buried against his shoulder, but Owen isn’t about to spoil their moment of happiness.

‘Mhm. You’re welcome,’ he grunts, a pang of envy flickering in his chest at their tender embrace. How long has it been since he was last held like that?

‘We feared the worst,’ the woman murmurs, voice muffled by her father’s robes. Then she pulls away and smacks his shoulder. ‘I told you it was too soon to go outdoors! It isn’t safe!’

‘And I told you it was necessary to offer aid to these townsfolk, Ilsa,’ the elder sighs, gently disentangling himself and beckoning at Owen.

Owen moves forward into the candlelight. Several Romani gasp. Others shrink back, looking wary. Whispers ripple through the crowd. The Romani watch him without welcome; the hands that have reached for bowstrings, and clenched around knife hilts, do not relax.

‘What’s he doing here, Arn?’ mutters a thickset bearded man, glaring at Owen. His hand drifts toward the hatchet on his belt.

The elder raises his hand. ‘Peace, Matteo. I was waylaid by some of the priests but unharmed, thanks to this man.’ He sighs. ‘Although I fear there may be trouble ahead because of it.’

Matteo’s eyes narrow. ‘What did you do?’

Owen shrugs, smirking. ‘I’m a little rusty. They’re both still alive.’

‘You used violence?’ Matteo bristles with outrage.

Arn lays a hand on his kinsman’s brawny shoulder, smiling apologetically at Owen. ‘The younger generation believe words can speak far louder than actions.’

‘Well, you’re Romani.’ Owen rolls his eyes, scratching his prickly stubble. ‘Words are what you do.’ God, he could sure use a drink right now.

‘You know of us?’

Owen approaches the window, resting his elbows on the sill and savouring the cool breeze. ‘My family’s always been on good terms with Romani. Although,’ he chuckles with fond remembrance, ‘my father once got into a fistfight with an elder. Fun times.’

‘True Romani don’t fight,’ Matteo mutters, and Owen can just hear his frown. He smirks and turns back, straightening up.

‘When he tried to convince the elder to have your oral histories transcribed onto paper.’ He relishes the flash of shock on Matteo’s face. ‘Let’s just say the elder … disagreed.’

‘Ah, yes,’ Arn chuckles, nudging Matteo. ‘We are rather protective of our old ways, I admit. History is a living thing. Paper is dead.’ He gestures towards the firepit in the corner, where a rabbit slowly roasts on a spit. ‘Would you like something to eat?’

Owen brightens. ‘I’d prefer something to drink!’

‘Matteo, bring our friend some water.’

‘Oh, erm – never mind,’ Owen grimaces.

Ilsa wrinkles her nose at him. ‘You stink of beer, y’know that?’

‘You –’ Owen starts to growl, then finds himself on all fours retching bile. Ugh, he’d forgotten how much it hurt trying to throw up on an empty stomach.

Arn kneels beside him rubbing his back. ‘Are you all right?’

‘He’ll be fine once he staggers back to a tavern.’ And wow, the disapproval is positively oozing off Ilsa.

‘I just need some water,’ he grunts to the floor.

‘Preferably the kind with alcohol in it.’

Harr harr, lady. And also: fuck you. ‘Eat shit and die,’ Owen groans, lurching upright. He tries to spit the rancid taste from his mouth but his tongue is swollen leather. Ugh.

Arn gives him an appraising look. ‘So you’ve attempted to stop drinking before?’

His stomach still churns, but at least it’s not trying to claw its way up his throat anymore. ‘You probably haven’t heard because you’re too busy riding caravans from one place to another, but the rest of us have to trudge through big empty tracts of nothing without a single mug of ale, and sometimes there’s enough nothing that it’s a real pain in the arse. But I’m not going to get drunk if I’ve got to be sober, all right? I just …’ he winces, ‘I usually didn’t.’

Ilsa smirks. ‘You say such believable things.’

Owen flips her off, turning to Arn. ‘Listen, perhaps you could just tell me why you’re all here?’

Matteo draws himself up to his full height. ‘Romani live anywhere they deem right –’

Owen cuts him off. ‘Yeah yeah, I know that, genius. But you’re nomadic tribes. Usually. You don’t settle.’ He nods around at the unfurled bedrolls, the baskets of herbs and clay jugs of water. ‘Yet you lot seem to have been here quite a while.’

Ilsa raises her eyebrows. ‘And how d’you know that?’

Owen’s jaw tightens. ‘Because the locals are all blaming you for the night attacks.’

Arn and Matteo exchange bleak frowns. ‘The church’s doing,’ Matteo groans. ‘They always need someone to scapegoat!’

‘To divert people from the truth,’ Arn sighs sadly, hands sliding into his sleeves. ‘How the church itself brought the Devil’s hordes down upon the land. They incurred God’s wrath themselves, and He turned away in shame.’

Owen gives Arn a long dubious look. ‘Really.’

Arn nods. ‘There were Romani in Gresit a week ago. Then’ – his voice hitches – ‘then the church burned a woodland healer at the stake as a witch.’ He gestures towards the overflowing baskets of herbs and plants. Drooping bells of aconite. Posies of hemlock. Bundles of sweet-scented rosemary. Sprigs of heather. Yellow-eyed chamomile blooms. Spears of purple lavender. ‘This was all we could salvage from the ashes of her home.’

‘Shit.’ Owen scrubs a hand through his unkempt blond hair, grimacing when his fingers come away greasy. ‘But you didn’t answer my question.’

Arn bows his head sadly, dragging a hand down his face. ‘There’s no structure left here in Gresit. No doctors, no medicine, no aid. The bishop’s men prowl these streets by day, the Night Hordes paint them red with blood every night.’ He looks up with pleading eyes. ‘If you truly know Romani, then you know we never turn away from those in need. We can’t. We have a God-given duty to help. So that is why we remain here. Despite the harassment. Despite the ill feeling towards us. You understand, yes?’

Owen nods curtly. ‘I know you’re a nomadic people who gather hidden knowledge, memorise it, carry complete spoken histories with you. That you have practitioners of healing within your tribes.’ He glances aside at Matteo, a faint smile of grudging respect. ‘That you despise battle, but would never run from it. I’m a Belmont; it’s our job to know these things.’

Matteo’s eyes widen in newfound admiration. ‘A Belmont? I thought your family had vanished long ago.’

Owen scoffs mirthlessly. ‘If “vanished” is the polite way of saying exiled, vilified, and burned out of the ancestral home, then yeah. That happened.’

‘Then you know what it’s like to be driven out for a crime that wasn’t your making.’ Arn’s eyes are gentle with sympathy. ‘What are your plans, Owen?’

Owen huffs a breath, counting off on his fingers. ‘Find some more food, find some drink, get drunk, eat some food, move on.’

Matteo frowns. ‘That’s it?’

‘Maybe find a tall tree, go sit in it, watch the shitshow unfold tonight before I move on.’ Seriously, can people not take a hint? Attachments are dangerous. Caring gets you hurt. Caring gets you killed. ‘Watch the good little people dying horribly, all that fun bollocks.’

Ilsa’s face twists with disgust. ‘You feel no compassion?’

Owen rounds on her, fists clenched. ‘This is what the church wanted. My family were the only people who could’ve fought the armies of Hell, but they didn’t want our help! They hated us, hunted us down, burned us out and cursed our name. Because they wanted to fight the darkness all on their own shitty terms, good fucking luck to ’em!’

Arn bows his head. ‘But the ordinary people of Wallachia, they never had a choice. They were left alone to suffer! Abandoned. Forgotten.’

Owen turns away with a snarl of frustration. ‘For evil bastards to win power, all ordinary common folk have to do is stand aside and keep quiet. They thought they could just idly let the church burn innocents without wondering who they actually were? Let them chase out so-called “heretics” without questioning if they were persecuting those who fought monsters for their ungrateful arses – then declared them black magicians and devil-worshippers for it?! There’s always a choice. And they. Chose. Wrong.’ He sighs and unclenches his fists; all the tension sloughing off him like water, leaving him wrung-out and drained of anger.

It’s quiet enough he can hear the candles sputtering. And now everyone’s staring at him. Ugh.

‘They always do,’ he mutters in the sudden hush.

Arn sighs sadly. ‘Well, find a good tall tree, Belmont. Tonight you can watch us die, too.’

Owen shakes his head. ‘Don’t be stupid. Leave now. While there’s still time. Head south, hook up with another caravan train. No need for you to be martyrs for townsfolk who hate your guts.’

Suddenly Matteo is on his feet. ‘She was his sister!’ He blurts out.

Arn whirls on him. ‘Quiet, Matteo!’

‘I don’t care!’ Matteo turns back to Owen. ‘It’s Arn’s sister they burned at the stake.’ His voice cracks with sorrow. ‘We can’t even bury her body now. It’s not our way to just leave our dead unattended to! We stay for the people of Gresit, to offer them our aid.’ He bows his head. ‘And in memory of her. To continue her work, what little legacy she had left.’

Arn’s eyes are brimming with tears. He squeezes Matteo’s shoulder. ‘Yes, we do. We won’t turn our backs on those in need. Helga would never allow it.’

Owen breathes out. ‘So … you’re staying to die with the good people of Gresit, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because you don’t even have your sister’s body to bury?’

Arn nods miserably. ‘If you want to put it that way.’

Owen sighs and turns on his heel, stalking to the window. His jaw clenches as he gazes outside at the lengthening shadows. Late afternoon. Only a few hours of daylight left.

His next words are dredged up from deep within, the clawing ache of weary resignation. ‘If I go see the bishop, will you please leave before nightfall? Wait outside the town walls. Give your aid to any survivors left when the Night Horde finally rips through this place.’

Matteo frowns. ‘Why would you do that for us?’

Owen rounds on him, fuming. They’re going to come for you soon. These “good people”–’ he air-quotes exaggeratedly ‘– want their pound of flesh tonight. It’ll be a pogrom. They were chattering on about it in the marketplace this morning. Real eager too. It’ll be a little hard to give your aid to these “good people” if you’re dead.’

Matteo’s eyebrows rise. ‘But you didn’t answer my question.’

‘Look,’ Owen sighs at the ceiling. ‘I know what it’s like to be persecuted by your own countrymen for an accident of birth. Who your parents were, where you came from.’ He turns away, addresses the candles on the mantelpiece. ‘If I can convince the bishop to back off, will you please leave this town before sunset?’

Arn inclines his head gravely. ‘If that is your condition for speaking up on our behalf, then … yes.’

‘Great,’ Owen cracks his knuckles and strides to the door. ‘I’m leaving now. Don’t go walkabouts looking for people to give support to. Stay right here.’

‘Belmont …’

He bites down a groan before turning back to Arn.

‘It’s not dying that frightens us,’ the elder says softly. ‘It’s living without ever having done our best.’

‘I don’t. Care,’ Owen grits out. ‘You’re leaving tonight, remember? Don’t go outside. I’ll be back soon.’

‘But why’re you even doing all this?’ Matteo has stood up, eyes creased with concern. ‘Why help us? Why now? Why you?’

Why, indeed?

Owen glances left. Glances right. Shrugs. ‘Well I don’t see no bugger else.’

Isla folds her arms, glaring at him. ‘Owen, can you at least manage not to kill anyone while you’re out?’

He shrugs. ‘Perhaps.’

‘I want an actual yes.’

‘We all want things.’

Owen,’ Matteo grinds out.

Owen rolls his eyes, clasps a hand to his heart and recites with extremely poor grace, ‘I promise on my honour as the last living Belmont son not to let the priests’ slimy guts ruin my second-best tunic, so help me God.’ He spreads his arms, smirking. ‘Happy now?’

‘It’ll have to suffice,’ Arn smiles, eyes twinkling. Not wallowing in despair anymore, so that’s a plus. He pats Ilsa’s shoulder. ‘Relax, daughter. He isn’t all crazy. Just mostly.’ She snorts, throws up her hands and stomps away into a candlelit corner to pout. Matteo is glaring across the room at him, arms folded in an expression as intentionally reproachful and threatening as possible.

Owen just grins back smugly.

*

Sunlight explodes in his face. Owen winces and steps out into the yard. Even with his best squint, the afternoon sun’s doing his throbbing headache no favours.

Boots crunch through the icy slush. A shadow falls across him. And suddenly there’s a knife pointed at his throat.

‘Careful there,’ Burly drawls, his voice mockingly teasing. ‘Me knife hand’s not too steady. I could slip ’n’ take yer eye out.’

Owen groans. Great. Real comedian, this one. More thugs in priestly robes surround him. Brandishing knives. Spears jabbing aggressively. Skinny – now One-Eye – glares from beneath a heavily-bandaged face. Two archers are kneeled on crumbled masonry blocks, training arrows on him. Eight thugs in total.

‘The Bishop of Gresit requests your kind attendance at the church,’ the grandfather-beating arsehole tells him.

Owen smirks. ‘Actually, I don’t think I’m allowed into churches.’

‘The bishop says he’ll make an exception in your case.’

Owen chuckles, raising open palms. ‘No. Seriously. I realise you’re all trying to menacingly abduct me, but I’m excommunicated.’ And they’re all pointing sharp things at him, but sod it, he wasn’t scared by this lot before either.

Burly’s scowl deepens. ‘The bishop said that the terms of even major excommunication mean you are obliged to appear when summoned by the Church.’

Owen frowns skyward. ‘Well, shit.’

‘Yer a Belmont, aint’cha?’ One-Eye snarls.

Play dumb.

Owen feigns blank ignorance. ‘What’s a Belmont?’

Not that dumb, smartarse!

‘You are!’ One-Eye bristles. His neighbours shudder and cross themselves as he jabs his knife at Owen’s coat-of-arms. ‘That’s a Belmont crest! House o’ Belmont, Family Belmont!’

Owen shrugs. ‘Never met ’em.’ He smiles wearily at Burly. ‘Let’s go meet your bishop, eh?’

‘Nah!’ One-Eye shoves him. ‘Yer a Belmont! This is all your fault!’

‘I dunno what you’re talking about, mate.’

One-Eye’s smirk widens. ‘Everyone knows the Belmonts traded in black magic. The Belmonts consorted with monsters!’

Owen rounds on him. ‘The Belmonts fought monsters, sonny.’

Another priest shrinks back with a fearful moan. ‘The Belmonts were cursed by the church. Banished! Disgraced! Their lands taken ’cause they were evil. And now the Night Hordes run amok across Wallachia. Black magic fouls the land. Whose fault is that?’

Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Well it ain’t mine.’ He smiles pleadingly at Burly. ‘Let’s go meet your boss, hm? Then I’m leaving. Okay?’

One-Eye folds his arms. ‘So you can lead all yer monster friends back here?’

Owen crushes him with a glare. ‘So I can find somewhere to piss and somewhere else to sleep far away from this fucking dump!’

‘Enough!’ Burly seizes One-Eye by the collar and yanks him ahead. ‘Let’s go. Bishop’s orders.’

‘Fine.’ Owen gives a sarcastic bow. ‘Who am I to deny the will of God?’

Burly glowers at him. He smirks back as the others surround him. ‘It’s great to see you fellas. Really. It’s going to be more fun seeing you getting ripped to shreds by demons later, but –’

Ow. Getting poked by the sharp things still hurts. Where does everyone even get the energy for this? ‘Hey,’ Owen snaps. ‘You aren’t gunna like it if I don’t come quietly.’

‘You ain’t in any position to be making demands,’ Burly sneers. ‘You can’t fight all eight of us.’

To which Owen’s primal wolven brain perks up, growling: Why the hell not?

Down, boy.

‘All right, fair,’ Owen tells the sky. ‘Though theologically I think I’m well within my rights to at least argue, aren’t I?’

‘No, you’re not. As an excommunicated –’

Owen pinches the bridge of his nose, grimacing. ‘Wasn’t talking to you. Look, let’s just meet the bishop already. But if I enter the church and catch fire or something,’ he smirks, ‘it’s your fault.’

The rest of Gresit should be making themselves scarce. Everyone knows that a lot of priests armed with pointy things making a fuss about someone doesn’t end well for anyone else who gets pulled in either. You put your head down, walk on by and pretend you didn’t see anything.

But people are craning their necks out of windows and doorways as they walk past.

Owen waves and calls, ‘Sorry for the delay! I’ll be at the western courtyard in – would you stop that!’ He twists out of reach of One-Eye’s knife and kicks the man’s feet out from under him. ‘I’m trying to get to your goddamned murderous bishop to be threatened already! I’d already be there if you’d quit fucking around!’

Apparently that’s priest for ‘please skewer me’.

He wouldn’t say he’s particularly great in close quarters. Plenty of monsters can turn you into gory paste in a single blow so it’s wiser to fight at a distance. Hence the whip. These pigheaded priests, however, stab and swipe and slash like they expect his only countermove to be feeble cowering. And he’s certainly had practice with getting clear, keeping ample distance, dodging and weaving, swatting their pathetic attacks aside with his leather vambraces. Only needs to elbow one crack in the face and he’s free of their shitty attempts at encircling him. Breaks the man’s nose nicely too; he crumples to his knees groaning, blood pouring from his smashed face.

Then it’s enough to snap Owen’s whip right in front of the pack before anyone else can rush forward. They pull back, raise their weapons hesitantly like it’ll defend themselves against him. Idiots. ‘Put. The damn pigstickers. Away,’ Owen growls. He doesn’t want to fight them. Or rather, he does. But wrath’s only wrath when it’s disproportionate. This here is wholly reasonable and proportionate dislike, why he snapped his whip in front of their noses instead of into. If anything he’s got to be careful not being too lenient here – wouldn’t that be a sin too? Should be. You shouldn’t have any right to turn someone else’s cheek.

Point is, he’s fine with whatever carnage happens to them later. They brewed all this horseshit up, fair they choke to death swallowing. ‘Your orders,’ he barks, ‘were to march me to the church. Where I’m going. Can we just move this along?’

One-Eye darts forward, blade flashing. Owen grabs his knife-wrist and slams a fist into his windpipe. The crunch of cartilage beneath his knuckles is a delicious sound. One-Eye crumples to the ground, clutching his throat and gurgling.

‘Now stay down – aw, fuck.’ Another paunchy idiot lurches in jabbing with his spear, but Owen slips inside his reach and wrenches the spearhaft aside, nose to nose with the wide-eyed priest. And oops, his knife just can’t seem to help pressing into this moron’s jugular vein. While he tries and fails to stifle his panting. His wheezing. His tears.

‘Look into my eyes,’ Owen growls. He nods down at One-Eye sprawled wheezing in the dirt. ‘D’you fuckers really, really, wanna make my day any more annoying right now?’

‘N-n-no,’ whimpers the tearful idiot. His spear clatters to the floor.

‘Good boy.’ Owen smirks and shoves him away into the street. Nobody moves. He turns his back on them, coiling up his whip. ‘Seriously? Have you chumps ever fought anyone who actually knows what they’re doing? Or just innocent bystanders?’ Still. Calm. Unruffled. Eight hostile armed goons surrounding him at knife- and spear-point.

Psychology. Fighting’s all in the head. Win it before you get in it.

‘Put the pigstickers away, boys,’ he repeats.

Burly glances down at his blade, then back at Owen. ‘How do I know you’ll come with us?’

‘I’m happy to talk. I was planning on a drink later anyway, but since you’re here, now’s as good a time as any. Your boss-man’s got questions. So’ve I. We’ll hash it out face-to-face like civilised folk, right? Not at knifepoint. That’s a coward’s trick. You a coward?’

Burly’s face flushes pink. ‘No,’ he growls.

Owen nods, palms open and empty. ‘So put those knives away, and we’ll go meet your boss. That’s what you wanted, right?’

Burly’s eyes widen. No waver, no blink or false bravado in Owen’s eyes. Just calm, quiet, supreme self-confidence.

The silence deepens. Burly hesitates for a long moment, gaze flickering helplessly between Owen and the knife loose in his hand. Then he huffs a breath and snaps around, nodding at the others. They step back. Bowstrings ease. Spearpoints rise. Knives scrape into sheaths. The leader rams the stiletto back into his waist sash, glowering at Owen. ‘Fine. No weapons. C’mon.’ The others shuffle their feet and look away. No longer top dogs. Spooked by an unarmed man. Uncharted territory, for goons who made their living hurting elders and bullying defenceless townsfolk.

Owen shoulders past the leader towards the church. ‘Let’s get going, then. I haven’t got all day.’

The others trudge after him. Dispirited. Humiliated. ‘Don’t try anything funny, bastard,’ One-Eye croaks, rubbing his bruised throat. ‘We ain’t done with you yet.’

Owen just shrugs in the hush of the street.

You aren’t holding me at knifepoint anymore, either, he thinks. Psychology.

*

The church looms before them, a bleak foreboding place under the pale afternoon sun. Twisted skeletal trees. A raven flaps overhead with a harsh cark!

What a dreary place.

The priests heave open the huge double doors, glowering as he walks inside and … wow. It’s so empty in here. Just him and the bishop awaiting somewhere ahead. Big imposing church, fine, but still … Place looks barely used. The world went to hell outside but there was no one cowering within these walls, no desperate prayers or wretched sobs. There’s not even clawmarks of the Night Horde anywhere, and yet no one sheltered here during the long nights of bloody terror. The bishop’s choice? Theirs?

Given what happened, perhaps it might be the one good decision the steaming shitpile ever made. The whole population packed inside here thinking it’d do anything to keep demons out, it’d be like eels hiding in a stewpot.

Owen walks towards the podium. The head madman isn’t there. Wait … yes, there the fucker is, gliding in from the side on soft-soled shoes, all calm and slow and dramatic in his black vestment robes. As if the sky’s not already falling. Owen groans; why do only his entrances always get fucked up? That’s unfair.

The bishop halts at the lectern, framed against the afternoon sun streaming through the arched windows. Showoff. He opens his mouth and nope, fuck that. ‘You’re a biblical sort,’ Owen calls out with a smirk. ‘When all this is over, you’ll be likened to a certain apostle of Jesus all over Wallachia, I’ll tell you that.’

The man frowns sternly beneath his klobuk. ‘And yet here you are, going around stirring up my flock.’

Owen shrugs. ‘Only difference is, you didn’t even need thirty silvers to betray your god.’ Angry mutterings behind. Cloth rustles. Footsteps approach.

The bishop raises a hand; the priests halt, weapons half-drawn. ‘I am the Bishop of Gresit.’ He nods aside; Owen senses the lurking goons melting back into the shadows. ‘Apologies for your rough escort hither – my men love to be dramatic.’

Owen gazes coolly around; the huge arched windows, the distant puddles of candlelight, the yawning vaults of gloom. ‘Well thank Heaven you’re above all that,’ he mutters. ‘What the hell d’you want with me?’

‘All in good time.’ The bishop gazes down at him, finger idly tapping the lectern. ‘You’re a Belmont, I take it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Interesting family,’ muses the bishop. ‘Interesting history. Fascinating house too. All gone now, of course. Burned to the ground, wasn’t it?’

Yes.’

‘Don’t glare at me, my good sir. I didn’t burn it.’

Owen folds his arms, seething. ‘Is there a point to all this? Or did you summon me here just to gloat?’

The bishop’s face glows. ‘I’m here to save Gresit.’

Owen chuckles. ‘Huh. And how d’you intend to do that?’

The bishop’s voice hardens. ‘I brought you here to answer some questions. Not. Ask them.’

Owen gazes coolly back. ‘Well, tough shit! How exactly do you intend to help these people by killing Romani?’

The bishops sniffs in disdain. ‘The Gypsies brought these troubles upon themselves. Their wretched sins. One cannot live without God.’ He snickers. ‘Quite literally, these days.’

Owen scoffs. ‘So you think the Night Hordes came … because people weren’t religious enough?’

The bishop glares down his nose, like Owen’s merely a smear of horseshit on his velvet shoe. ‘I did what needed doing,’ he spits.

Unease curls through Owen’s gut. ‘But you were there for the burning of that healer, I heard all about that.’

‘Oh yes.’ And sod everything, the bastard’s actually preening. ‘I arranged it, in fact,’ he purrs. ‘The woman was a witch, after all. She consorted with Satan. Practiced his filthy dark arts.’

Owen’s scowl deepens. ‘But she helped people, she aided them when they sought her out –’

‘She was a witch!’ The bishop leans forward, fingernails digging into the lectern. It’s as if the lid has been pulled off some dark writhing nightmare, his face a hideous twisted mask of derangement and fury and utter viciousness: his serene calm facade cracks; his eyes glitter with malice and he hisses, crazed and hysterical, utterly certain in his blind righteousness, ‘She deserved it!’ Chest heaving, he fishes out a handkerchief and wipes a fleck of spittle from his mouth. Breathes out. Suddenly calm and composed once more.

Owen folds his arms. ‘Riiight. And I’m here to be disciplined, is that it? Made an example of? Just like her?’

‘Not as such.’ A faint smirk flickers across the bishop’s face. ‘I have a gift for you.’ He holds out an open palm, his silken voice making Owen’s skin crawl. ‘Your life, Belmont. Take it and go.’ He clenches his fist, draws it to his heart. ‘Tonight, the Gypsies will be dealt with, and then Gresit will be secure.’ His gaze hardens to flint, voice lowering to a venomous hiss. ‘But I refuse to toil so hard for the soul of this town, with an excommunicant heretic within its walls! You could undo everything by your … unholy presence.’

Owen’s stomach twists with dread. ‘My God,’ he mutters. ‘You really believe that horseshit, don’t you?’

The bishop’s lip curls. ‘You will leave Gresit by sundown, or you will not see the morning. Do I make myself clear?’ He closes his eyes, rests a hand upon his Bible as his voice drips with scorn. ‘Despite the crimes you’ve committed against my aides, despite the crimes your family has committed against God … I will be merciful. Just this once. You will walk safely … until sundown.’

Owen’s hackles rise. ‘My family committed no crime,’ he growls, jabbing a furious finger at the bishop. ‘You bastards simply decided we were wrong to defend this land against the supernatural, to defend its people when they couldn’t defend themselves! And now –’

WHAM. The bishop’s fist thumps the lectern as he bellows, ‘You Belmonts have never understood the power of the Word of God!’ His eyes bulge with self-righteous fervour, a maddened gleam in his wizened face. ‘The people of this town are mine, and they’ll do as I command in His name.’ His wrinkled hands curl into claws as he looms over the lectern, glaring down on Owen like a giant predatory vulture. ‘By morning, no Gypsy will be left alive to defile these streets, and you will either be gone … or be dead!’ His eyes glitter; his next words are a calm, chilling whisper. ‘Do you understand?’

Yes,’ Owen snarls, glowering in impotent rage.

The bishop smirks. ‘Do this for me, begone from this town by sunset, and perhaps the matter of your family’s excision from the church may be, hm … considered.’

Wow, Touchy rat-bastard. Owen snorts and turns away, flipping off the ceiling as he goes. ‘No offence, pal, but you’re only just a bishop. Excommunication came from a liiittle higher up the ladder than your scrawny arse.’ He stomps towards the huge oaken doors.

The bishop splutters in outrage. ‘What do you think you’re –’

Owen raises his voice. ‘Going to save the good people of Gresit you’re blaming for you having murdered some old innocent woman. Physically save, mind. Not spiritually. Hate to step in the shitty job you’re doing of that,’ he says, more to the cutthroats with crosses who are squirming by the door, like they’re finally having second thoughts about standing between him and the exit.

‘Run all you want, Belmont,’ taunts the bishop. ‘It changes nothing. Our word is law. The Gypsies burn before sundown. Leave, before we hunt you down and drive you out. You have one hour.’

‘Right.’ Owen squares his shoulders. ‘Thanks for the heads-up.’ He tries to shove a priest out of his way and the man actually shies back like he’ll get filthy heresy spilt on him if Owen even dares touch his robe. God, they’re really that fucking scared of him all of a sudden? Well, he’ll take wary fear over belligerent shanking any day.

‘Don’t do this, Belmont!’ the bishop calls after him. ‘It’s a useless waste. Your family couldn’t save their own damned souls. And you can’t save these people!’

‘Yeah?’ On the sunlit threshold Owen turns to glare back, steely and resolute. ‘Watch me.’

To be continued…

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Pocketful of Time is now available from Amazon Kindle

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Thaw My Frozen Heart (1/3)

The sun’s barely peeking over the frozen pines, when Owen Belmont wakes to the sound of screaming.

His eyes flicker open, hands drifting to his shortsword and his whip handle … before he slumps back against the treetrunk with a weary huff. Wails of anguish drift through the chilly dawn mist.

Ugh. Not again. Still here in this godforsaken wilderness. His fingers brush over his weapons: silver-tipped rowan stakes strapped to his thigh: check. Steel shortsword: check. Consecrated leather bullwhip studded with vicious sky-iron barbs: check. Coin pouch, getting lighter every day: check. He uncurls with a groan, wincing from the gnarled tree root digging into his back. Along with the familiar distant ache everywhere else that says he’d gotten the shit beaten out of him but was too blessedly drunk to feel it properly. The taste of bile and shitty mead sours his throat. Yep – there’s a tavern through the dripping trees behind him. A walled town squats on the floodplain ahead, echoing with screams.

Great. More monsters. His favourite. Of course he wouldn’t get a chance to rest. Of course it was just his luck that the stupid shit-stain town ahead would be attacked by Night Creatures. God forbid he could have one night to just get hammered and pass out like any other man after spending a month sober on the road through Wallachia, stuck playing hero because he was the only Belmont left alive to do it and fate had decided he wasn’t getting a night off no matter how much he deserved it.

Leaves rustle overhead; birdshit splatters his shoulder as a woodpigeon settles on a branch, cooing smugly like the feathery bastard it is.

‘What the fuck!’ Owen growls at the grey sky. God doesn’t answer, so he continues, ‘If this is – if this is Purgatory, I was fucking well purified already! I was pissing sacrament! What more d’you fuckin’ want?’ Still silence. ‘I can wait all damn day, y’know!’

Great. Really great. Another miserable day in this shithole. Gresit lies ahead, the last stop between him and starvation. The next town forty bloody miles away. This day’s just getting better and better.

He staggers to his feet and starts walking, every muscle groaning in protest. He’s cold. It’s gloomy. He’s wet through. His muddy cloak is soaked with dew; even his horsehide boots are half-sodden. He’s too shitfaced for mysteries. He’ll trudge along this shitty mud track into town, find breakfast, find another tavern, drink away more of his ever-shrinking family fortune, perhaps find a quiet back room somewhere and pass out again –

Christ alive, lady, will you PLEASE stop screaming.

She does. Thank Christ.

An inhuman screech rends the air; four gaunt winged Night Creatures lope across the floodplain towards the wood. The leader pauses, raises its fanged muzzle to sniff the air then continues on, a bloody arm hanging from its jaws. Charming.

But his stomach twists into itself like gnashing teeth, demanding breakfast, and Owen … well, best not stand around to get more filthy birdshit on him. He spits a bitter chuckle. No one. There’s no one else. No one left.

But there’s still monsters to fight here, and he’ll be damned if the last Belmont freezes to death in a ditch instead.

Crawling up a trickling sewer beside the main gate is even worse. If his (woefully threadbare) luck is holding out, he’ll be able to slip by a dozing guard into town. No mess. No hassle. No need to shank anyone. Instead, emerging from stinking darkness, Owen finds a spear badly levelled at him by some bald scraggly-bearded geezer.

‘Well excuse me,’ Owen grimaces, nodding at the jumbled wreckage choking the entrance. ‘I’d’ve been happy to go in the front, y’know. If it wasn’t barricaded against flying monsters.’ It won’t even be hard to throw a dagger and take out this pathetic excuse of a sentry. But what’s he got to fear, exactly? Getting jabbed with a blunted spear by a doddery old sod?

To his surprise, the guard puts up his weapon, the spearbutt rapping on the flagstones. How disappointing. ‘What brings ye to our town,’ the man grunts, and Owen can’t tell if his dreary flatness is exhaustion or petty sarcasm. ‘Who’re you, stranger?’

And just. Just fuck it. Fuck everything. ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ he snarks back. He’s not sure what he’s expecting to get out of that – anger and maybe a derisive stabbing for his flippant blasphemy …

The man rolls his eyes, shuffles aside and mutters ‘Move along, then.’

Huh. Their defence here really is horseshit. Who’d have thought?

He shivers at a fresh gust of icy wind, pulls his tattered cloak closer around his shoulders. A window creaks open and chamberpot filth splatters into the muck ahead. Terrific. Just another lovely day in Shit Town.

His stomach grumbles again. If he doesn’t need food to live, is that gluttony? But he was never eating so he wouldn’t starve, now was he? You eat because you’re hungry. Fuel in the stove.

It gets worse when he reaches the town square. Festooned above the marketplace, like ghastly festive bunting: a dripping web of slimy pink entrails, steaming under the feeble winter sun. Wails of despair drift from shattered windows, no doubt inconsolable mothers huddled over blood-spattered empty cradles. Half the surrounding tiled roofs have gaping holes like broken teeth where Night Creatures must have crashed through, bloodstains smeared over the crumbling rubble.

Slim chance the inhabitants are still around. Alive, even.

He approaches the nearest market stall, flashes a coin. ‘What’ll one silver get me?’

The stallholder eyes him dubiously over the chicken she’s plucking. ‘Bit of dried goat.’

He nods. ‘I’ll take it. Thanks.’ He waits while she carves off a thin sliver of leathery meat, scanning the grim vista. Sobbing victims rock back and forth under ramshackle lean-tos, crosses clutched to their chests. Some enterprising chump is prodding at the hideous canopy of fly-ridden entrails with a broom. Another hefts a boxful of stinking guts behind him. But most townsfolk trudge listlessly by on the bloodstained cobbles, eyes downcast. Newly orphaned. Newly widowed. Lives torn apart by fang and claw. Drained of all hope.

‘Ain’t seen you before,’ the woman mutters.

He shrugs. ‘Just passing through.’

‘You’ll wanna pass through quicker.’

Well isn’t that ominously vague. ‘Yeah,’ Owen mumbles around a mouthful of goat. He nods at the miserable carnage. ‘Guess you’ve had some trouble here. Any defence effort?’

A headshake. ‘Don’t need it. Got us a tribe of Gypsies in the Old Quarter. Once we’ve done what needs doing, the demons’ll clear out and leave us alone.’ She glances around, leans in close. ‘Know what I think? I think them Gypsies bought this plague down upon us. Ever since we let ’em in, those devilish baby-chompin’ freaks o’ nature come swarming over the walls every sundown.’

‘How many nights now?’

‘The demons? Only four.’

‘Only.’ He gazes around at the devastation. ‘Right.’

She settles back with a contented grunt. ‘The bishop’ll fix things. If those Gypsies just do as he says when he tells ’em, then this mess will all get sorted out. Else he’ll burn ’em, just like he burned that witch.’

Owen bites back a groan of frustration. Of course. Of course they’d find scapegoats. He’d seen it play out already, he knows the seething desperation, knows how fast people switch allegiances when nothing’s worked yet. Another goddamn lynching, when all other rational options are long burnt out.

‘When was that?’

‘Five nights back.’

‘… Right.’ He straightens up because Belmonts don’t slouch, nods at her. ‘Thanks for breakfast.’ And then he says what he shouldn’t, because it’s not like there’s ever consequences for running his idiot mouth off: ‘You know it’s not just Gresit getting attacked, right?’

‘Lot of places have Gypsies,’ she points out. ‘Lot of places let Gypsies through.’

Lots of places don’t feel the need to throw innocent women on bonfires either, but there you are. ‘Where’s he now?’

‘The bishop? Working. Praying for us.’ She nods towards the church spire above the rooftops a few streets away.

‘You here for the bishop, then?’ a passing man mutters, and it’s not at all friendly, but neither is there the energy of crackling menace behind it.

‘Want a few words with him, yeah.’ Owen turns to the newcomer. ‘Listen, before sunset, gather all the pitchforks and pikes you got.’ And oh lord, he should not have said that judging how the man’s eyes gleam hungrily. ‘No. Forget all that. We’re not having a pogrom. Not the Gypsies. For the Night Horde, all right? Those’ll have to be fought off tonight but I’ll help with that. But there needs to be holy water, as much as possible.’ Hopefully there’s some junior cleric around here who can still bless the stuff. ‘Could you pass that along? Get someone on it?’

The man frowns. ‘I … I dunno if the priests will even listen to me. They’re saying …’

‘I know what they’re saying. It won’t happen. No lynchings, understand?’ Owen claps him on the shoulder, says in his most confident voice, ‘Anyone who refuses to help, they couldn’t even bless water if they wanted. Try the deacons until you find one who will. And start gathering salt. All right?’

Other bystanders are gathering around. ‘But what if the bishop says no?’ someone pipes up.

‘Then … some bloodsucking demon rips him apart tonight, I guess?’ God, it’s like herding sheep here. ‘Doesn’t change a damn thing. This kind of shit isn’t stopped with human sacrifice.’

‘Didn’t you say you could help?’ another voice demands of him.

‘They won’t be here tonight if we kill all the Gypsies!’ someone else argues.

‘But … if we kill the Gypsies and the demons come anyway –’

‘They’ll come,’ Owen adds sourly.

‘– we’ll go to God with their blood on our hands!’

Is that a message? The last thing he did pissed God off this much? He’s pretty sure his last crime was trashing a tavern defending his family name, and if God’s going to take issue with that, well … screw him. ‘Better to die with demon blood on your hands,’ he mutters to the world at large, even if it’s literally his own blood half the damn time. ‘Look. I’ve got things to do. I’ll be back before sundown. Anyone who wants to live, gather out in the open square. Hellfire’s far worse in enclosed spaces – don’t hide indoors.’ And then he says, like a complete idiot, ‘It’ll be okay. I’ll be right here with you. I know how to handle this.’

Turns out, this doesn’t just make desperate townsfolk leave you alone and a dozen end up trailing after you, like whiny goslings. ‘Seriously, piss off!’ he shouts, and they all cower back fearfully. ‘Believe me or not, I don’t have time for this horseshit! Leave me alone! See you later.’

The gloomy houses tower overhead as he treks through the narrow alleyway. Church just ahead, right? Easy enough.

Three figures round the corner and pass him by; two priests – sombre black knee-length robes, crimson belt sashes, white collars, surly expressions – roughly manhandling a third. An old man clad in a mishmash of ragged clothing meekly lets them shove him along. Although … Owen slows and glances back. Judging from their hulking builds and hatchet faces, these two look far less doddery old churchmen and more likely recent escapees from the local lock-up. The three halt in the shadow of the alleyway.

‘I warned you,’ growls the burlier priest. ‘Can’t say I didn’t warn you.’ He draws a metal cross-shaped stave from his tunic and slaps it into his meaty palm, scowling.

The elderly man just spreads his arms, smiling. ‘But you didn’t listen to me, sir.’

The stave jabs into his chest, forcing him backward. ‘Are you talking back to me?’

He brushes the stave aside with a weary sigh. ‘No, I’m merely talking to you. Anyone can see that we Romani are not responsible for what horrors befall this place.’ His gaze is mild and unafraid, even as the thugs circle him like prowling wolves.

Owen’s jaw tightens. He clenches his fists. ‘No, just keep walking …’ he mutters. ‘You’re leaving, okay? You’re done saving people. Caring’s for morons. You’re not getting involved.’

‘So now I’m stupid, eh?’ Burly gets in the elder’s face, seething. ‘I work within the light of God Himself, but you can see things I can’t? You sorcerers dancing around fires with yer potions and yer … black magic?’

The elder chuckles. ‘There’s no magic, sir. We are here to help. That’s all.’

Burly seizes his collar and drags him nose-to-nose. ‘Gypsies don’t help. Gypsies are tainted! You attract evil, and you an’ yours were told to be out of Gresit by sunset yesterday!’ He clamps the elder’s chin, forces his eyes upward. ‘See? The sun is up! Take a good long look at the sunrise, old man.’

Owen exhales. Don’t get involved … walk on … ignore them … stay out of it …

‘Will killing an old man make you less scared of the dark?’ asks the elder, his voice tinged with amusement. Pretty ballsy of him.

‘I dunno,’ purrs the priest. He smirks to his bald, leaner companion. ‘P’raps it’ll just make me feel better …’ He raises the stave.

Don’t be a hero, don’t be a bloody hero …

Aw, fuck it.

And Owen strikes.

Like an uncoiled viper, his whip hisses through the air. A sickening crack and the priest’s stave clatters onto the cobbles.

Followed, moments later, by the thug’s severed forefinger.

Burly crumples to his knees, nursing his mangled hand as blood pulses over his wrist. ‘You bastard!’ he howls.

Owen grimaces. ‘Aw, hell. Sorry. I was only trying to snatch the stave out of your hand – how’s your finger?’

What fuckin’ finger!?

Owen’s smirk widens. ‘That’s no way for a man of the cloth to talk. Best go get that looked at, eh?’

‘Kill the bastard!’ Burly snarls. Skinny hesitates, wide-eyed.

‘Look, I don’t like priests,’ Owen sighs, ‘I mean I really, really don’t like priests. So leave now, and we’ll say no more about this, hm? No hard feelings?’

‘Kill him now!’ Burly roars.

‘Last warning – this’ll get nasty.

Skinny’s face hardens. He drops into a fighter’s crouch and snarls, brandishing a wicked stiletto.

Owen’s eyes narrow, warrior blood bubbling with glee. ‘Ooh, now that’s a funny thing for a priest to carry. That’s a thief’s knife.’

Skinny twirls his blade and darts forward, eyes hungry for blood.

‘Seriously?’ Owen teases. ‘I might be a little rusty, but I’m stone-cold sober today. Someone’ll get hurt.’

He dodges Skinny’s first pathetic lunge, snares his knife-wrist with the whip and yanks him aside. ‘Now stop it, I just –’ he dodges another slash. ‘Cool it, mate.’ He sidesteps a wild overreach, dancing around the flailing idiot. ‘C’mon, man, just calm down.’ The blade hisses past his face. He slams a knee into Skinny’s balls, crunches an elbow into his jaw and lets him blunder away, spitting blood. And yes, all his buried ancestors must be rolling in their graves and yelling ‘Just knife this fucker already!’ and he’s so unforgivably sloppy as to get his tunic ripped by a lucky backslash, his forearm grazed by a third vicious lunge. He’s trying, all right? He’s doing his best. Not everything needs to end in a pile of bodies all the freaking time. Whether dodging the first attack or flurry of attacks, deflecting punches, letting people smack him around and blow off some steam – always better to give folks a chance to tire themselves out and just stop fucking escalating things.

But there’s no convincing Skinny. He whirls around and attacks again, knife hissing. And suddenly Owen’s had enough. Plan Resolve Shit Peacefully So These Chumps Stand Down And Bugger Off is already dead on arrival. He’s tried talking them both down, already gave this vicious sadist more than enough chances to stop trying to stab him to death, and this guy just. Won’t. Take it. He’ll get murdered by his own viciousness later, probably.

The crack of the whiplash is a joyous sound and Skinny staggers away, moaning as he cradles his wrecked face. A jellied crater of gore where his left eye once was. Owen nods grimly. Yep, God, that’s what it takes. Not just him being bloody-minded.

He’s relatively certain neither of these arseholes are quite up for knifing him in the back just yet and, well, so what if they try, right? Is God going to be all, you wrathful piece of shit, striking a man of the cloth while he was striking down an elderly unarmed pacifist, now you’re in Hell and every time you do that you get stabbed to death? Because sod anybody who thinks that’ll change his mind. He’s slain plenty of monsters, he can find time to flay some bastard’s hand halfway off too.

‘Pick him up,’ he growls at Burly, coiling up his whip. ‘Take him back to your church. Don’t bother this man, or his people, again.’

He watches them limp off down the alley, leaning on each other. Probably fetching backup, but that’s a problem for future-Owen. Present-Owen has to deal with the victim, who’s finally raised his head and smiled.

‘You have my thanks, stranger,’ the elder murmurs, bowing. ‘I hope you don’t bear the consequences. Although … must you have used such wanton violence?’

Owen stares. He knew the Gypsies were pacifists, but … ‘Elder, they were going to kill you in a dark alleyway.’

The elder hums. ‘And I am thankful to you, but I fear it was unnecessary. Still, might I know my saviour’s name?’

He eyes the now-glaring midday sun and thumps the crest on his tunic. ‘Owen. Owen Belmont.’

The elder’s eyes widen. ‘A Belmont! Your family is renowned, sir.’

If by renowned you mean cursed, excommunicated and burned out of house and home for fear of dark magic, then yeah. We’re a thing. ‘We know a lot about rare beasts,’ Owen settles on.

‘About how to kill them,’ the elder frowns.

Fine. Be an unappreciative old fart, why don’t you. ‘About how to kill things that kill people,’ he grudgingly agrees. ‘Which Night Creatures do, what with being demons and all.’ And isn’t that the understatement of several centuries. ‘Monsters don’t get written into the family bestiary because they were fangy creatures we felt would make good wall trophies. They’re just another slithery bastard that’s fast, vicious, stupidly durable and very good at killing people. My family didn’t hunt stuff for the fun of it. We go after trouble. Always have.’

‘And sometimes trouble finds you?’ The elder chuckles, eyes twinkling. ‘God must really hate you.’

Owen snorts. ‘Don’t sweat it. Everyone hates me. Trouble finds us Belmonts just fine.’

The elder gazes down the alley, where the priests disappeared. ‘But the church isn’t trouble.’

Owen rolls his eyes. Whatever you say, pal.

The elder bows his head graciously. ‘Thank you for your kindness. And, I think, your restraint.’

Owen nods back, already scanning the shadows for danger. ‘You’re welcome, Elder. Might I accompany you to your wagon train?’

The elder shakes his head. ‘No need. We’ve settled here in Gresit. No caravans.’ Because of course the idiot’s got a suicidal death wish, helping townsfolk who want him dead. Of course. Then he shrugs. ‘But I would be most glad of your company to our lodging. The streets aren’t safe nowadays.’

In other news, water is wet. Owen forces his face into his best inoffensive grin – and it is pretty damn good, seven times out of ten he got to go back to undisturbed drinking – and nods down the street. ‘So, getting out of here, old timer?’

The elder considers him evenly, then smiles. ‘Very well … Lead on, Owen Belmont.’

To be continued…

© 2021 | Tom Burton

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Horse’s Mouth (1000 words)

‘Any sign of civilisation, Benson?’

‘It seems not, Sir.’

Alfred scowled out at the miserable grey drizzle. Typical misfortune. First the car spluttered out its death throes in the middle of the wilderness. Then slogging through an ankle-deep mire to this crumbling barn with its leaky roof, already drenched to the bone. Darkness falling. The rain showed no signs of abating. And now his stomach was rumbling. Marvellous.

Beside him, Benson rummaged through their travel bags. He paused.

‘Pardon me, Sir, but…this article appears to have found its way into our luggage.’

He held up a fox-fur coat. Alfred scoffed. ‘Very funny, Benson. That’s brand new!’

Benson’s arched eyebrow was the only crack in his deadpan mask of politeness. ‘Hm. I assumed it’d gotten into your wardrobe by mistake, Sir…or else been maliciously placed there by your enemies.’

Alfred flushed. ‘I’ll have you know that I bought this in Cannes!’

Benson’s face was blank beneath his bowler. ‘…And wore it, Sir?’

‘Every night at the casino! As I passed by, all eyes turned.’

‘And I daresay, quite a few stomachs.’ Benson refolded a pair of trousers and tucked them away with meticulous care. ‘I can only hope the poor animal died a peaceful death, Sir.’ He paused again. ‘You’ll pardon me for mentioning it, Sir, but…’ he lifted out a straw boater with the delicately strained grimace of someone handling a bag of dog faeces. ‘I can only assume a tradesman left this behind.’

Alfred snatched it from Benson and jammed it on his head. ‘This is known among the fashionable elite as a 42nd Street Skimmer, Benson. I told the boys at Bates it was essential, and they delivered the goods.’

Benson’s eyebrows rose. ‘So no mention was made of a carnival, or…fancy dress occasion, Sir?’

Alfred rolled his eyes. ‘Benson, it’s perfectly good headwear!’

Benson sighed. ‘Gentlemen do not wear straw hats in the metropolis, Sir.’

‘Nonsense, Benson!’ Alfred trudged to the entrance, gazing out into the miserable haze. ‘Stiff upper lip, then? Carry on regardless?’

‘Indeed, Sir.’

‘Come, Benson!’ Alfred strained his eyes, squinting into the gloomy distance. ‘I think…yes! I see a light!’

‘It’s merely the rain playing tricks, Sir.’

‘Pish-posh. I’d bet my hat that’s a cottage, well supplied with tea, ham sandwiches and a roaring fire.’

Benson turned his head, eyed the boater with a spark of barely-suppressed glee. ‘Bet your hat, Sir?’

‘Not really, Benson!’ Alfred jammed the hat down firmly, hoping to prevent the wind – or overeager valets – whisking it away. ‘It’s rather essential in the current conditions.’

Benson inclined his head; water poured off his bowler in a graceful waterfall. ‘That, I am willing to concede, Sir.’

‘A truce, then!’ Alfred grinned, scrambling over a drystone wall towards the hoped-for light. ‘Between you and my hat, at least until we can get out of this bally rain.’

Benson vaulted the wall with his usual grace as Alfred surveyed the boggy field he was sinking to the knees into. A twisted tree close by, with a rather menacing brown horse sheltering beneath it. Alfred shivered with apprehension – one thing to admire the equine species hurtling around a track when yours truly safely placed bets behind a sturdy fence, quite another for a face-to-face encounter in a dark muddy field.

‘We will walk past him, Sir,’ Benson soothed. ‘He will not bother us.’

‘I don’t know, Benson. He looks rather…morose.’

‘I am sure that he is simply wet and cold, much like ourselves, Sir.’

The horse barely looked up as they picked their way through the mud to the middle of the field. It was only as they drew level with the tree that the creature caught an unfamiliar whiff and trotted over sharply. Alfred screwed his eyes shut, bracing himself for the inevitable trampling.

‘…Benson?’

‘He is not threatening us, Sir.’

A reassuring touch to his arm encouraged him to open his eyes, but then a blast of warm, horsy breath on his face, and the lids were firmly shut once more. ‘What does the dashed beast want, then?’

‘I think he may be a trifle hungry, Sir. Perhaps we could- oh dear.’

Alfred paled. ‘What?’ Benson’s voice had risen a few octaves – Benson scarcely ever pronounced the words ‘oh dear’ without good cause. At the same moment, Alfred became aware of the cold patter of rain on his all-too-bare head. ‘Benson?’

‘I am afraid that…he has eaten your hat, Sir.’

The blighter had, with no way of getting it back – once the boater vanished into the equine maw, even Benson seemed uneasy about trying to extract it. An alarming number of large chomping yellow teeth, the shredded remains of straw rapidly vanishing between them.

‘Come, Sir,’ Benson tugged on his arm, Alfred staring in dismay as the last scraps of the boater were devoured. ‘I believe you were right – there is a light after all.’

He squinted, and…Yes! There was a twinkling glow at the end of the field, shining like an warm welcoming beacon.

‘I did like that hat,’ Alfred sulked as Benson steered him towards the far gate. His hair was now soaked through. ‘And even if you didn’t, Benson, you have to admit it did a bally good job of keeping the rain off.’

As he approached the wall and prepared to throw a leg over it, he felt something settle on his head. The rain stopped.

‘You may borrow my bowler, Sir. We are nearly there.’

Benson’s bowler was far too big for him – his head not nearly the same measure as the brainy Bensonian cranium – but it kept the rain off as well as the boater. Of course, the top of Benson’s head was now as soaked as the rest of him, whilst Alfred’s own hair was still soggy underneath the bowler. But it was the thought that counted, and offered the young master a new reserve of comfort as they attacked the last hundred metres of mire together.

‘Thank you, Benson.’

He couldn’t make out Benson’s face out through the rain, but Alfred knew that he’d be allowing himself a small smile, most especially because he knew Alfred couldn’t see it. A valet has to keep up appearances after all.

‘Not at all, Sir.’

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Wedding Worries (600 words)

‘But if you –

‘I’m not wearing it.’

‘But Gemma’s spent all this – 

‘I’m not wearing it.’

‘… How about if I –

‘I’m not wearing it, Sue! How many times?!’ Alex scrubbed a hand through her cropped hair, fuming. She eyed the bridesmaid’s dress sprawled on her bed with the tight-lipped revulsion normally reserved for vomit stains. ‘It’s hideous.’

‘It’s … a lovely colour.’ Sue said feebly. Alex snorted and stomped into the living room.

‘Forget it, I’ll phone Gemma. What’s her number?’

‘No, Alex. If this needs doing, it needs to be done with tact.

Josh waved from the sofa. ‘So: how was the hen do?’

Sue grunted, trudged over to the sink and poured herself a large seltzer water.

‘… Not brilliant,’ Alex ventured. ‘Off the leash with her chums, turns out Gemma’s quite the party animal. Well, actually a complete party animal.’

Josh winced. ‘I thought she was a health freak and a total stickler for sobriety.’

‘Perhaps when her fiancé’s around, she is.’ Alex shrugged. ‘Once her friends got a few cocktails inside her, she kept bugging Sue to try one.’ She squeezed Sue’s shoulder. ‘But Sue stuck to her guns, like a good girl.’

‘Oh go on, Sue. Oh go on. Why don’t you like having fun, Sue? Why are you so boooring, Sue? Maybe just one drink. Oh go on … Sue parroted her tormenters with a shrill nasal squawk before flopping down on the sofa, muttering, ‘why can’t you be like us, Sue? It’s nooormal to drink, Sue …

Josh patted her knee. ‘Poor sizzywops. Why didn’t you just say you were pregnant?’

‘Didn’t have a chance,’ Sue muttered. ‘That excuse was taken She turned to glare at Alex.

‘Not my fault,’ Alex raised her hands. ‘Never actually said it! I just … didn’t deny it.’

Sue groaned into a cushion. ‘And all the bridesmaids have a mandatory singing rehearsal tomorrow! How do I get out of it?’

‘Tell her you’ve got leprosy,’ Josh shrugged. ‘C’mon, Sue. Might be more fun than you think!’

‘Turning up probably is your safe ticket out,’ Alex grinned. ‘I’ve heard you sing, after all.’

Josh waved the hair shears and a cosmetic brush. ‘Thought you might fancy a do-over before the big night, Al –

‘Come near me with those,’ Alex smiled sweetly, ‘and I’ll rip your arms off.’ Both brush and shears instantly vanished.

Sue sighed. ‘We still need to tell Gemma.’

Alex chewed her lip. ‘We could say I’ve gained weight … because of the baby.’

Josh snorted. ‘But they saw you just two nights ago; you can’t’ve put on that much since then.’

Alex bristled. ‘I could’ve, quite easily; I was wearing baggy clothes then, like always.’

‘Hmmm,’ Sue sounded unconvinced. ‘So what were you going to wear?’

‘A tux, of course!’ Alex brightened. ‘Already hired one – it’s in my room.’

‘Well, go try it on, then,’ Sue grimaced. ‘And we’ll keep thinking.’ Alex grinned and swaggered out the door.

I could wear the dress,’ Josh ventured, after pondering for a few minutes. ‘And…pretend to be Alex?’

Sue blinked. ‘Would you actually do that?’

Josh hesitated.

Sue folded her arms. ‘Josh … Alex and I are actually trying to sort out this crucial situation for a friend’s wedding day. We are not lying with our feet on the sofa, picking our nose and making idiotic suggestions. Would you mind either taking this seriously or not saying anything at all?’

Before Josh could make a reply – idiotic or otherwise – the flat was rent with a howl of outrage.

Alex emerged from her bedroom with a livid scowl, wearing a white shirt and dress trousers unzipped at the waist.

‘I have put on weight!’ she roared. ‘They don’t bloody fit!’

© 2021 | Tom Burton