Kiss The Sky (Part 1/2)

‘Sam! Come back here and leave those nuts alone!’

‘Nnnnope! Sammy gonna play! Yeeheehee!’

Holly dashed after her infant son, but too late: Sam vanished out the window with a flick of his bushy tail. Holly gazed around at the jumbled mess of her home, the hollowed trunk of a broad oak. A willow-cane chair lay broken in the corner and her acorn cups were strewn across the floor, while an emptied bowl of honeyed hazelnuts mocked her from the windowsill. Holly sat down amid the wreckage and buried her head in her paws, cheeks wet with hot bitter tears.

How had it come to this? Barely three seasons since her family had arrived from the Northlands to their new forest home, building a fresh life amid the treetops. Then a pitiless winter that smothered the land in snow and ripped her dreymate Barkjon from their lives, leaving Holly to raise their son herself.

A distant ripple of birdsong made her look up. Shuffling to the window she gazed upward through teary eyes. Swallows darted through the air twittering to each other; high among the clouds, a distant skein of honking geese glided in formation.

Holly sighed. How glorious it would be to glide above the forest, light as a feather, free from all cares and worries? Instead she was trapped here, harried morning, noon and night by her insatiable son and his ravenous appetite for food and fun. Even the roomy hollow among the tree roots below was a meagre kitchen itself. She gazed around her humble home, the rough walls decorated with numerous feathers. A kingfisher’s turquoise-blue tailfeather. The glossy black wingtip from a starling. A robin’s fiery orange plumage.

She froze. Was that rustling leaves? Branches snapping? Holly hurried to the window, peered out…and leapt back in shock as a massive dark shape flashed past with a fearsome screech, careering down to earth. A muffled crash. Holly peered down; a bedraggled heap of golden-brown feathers lay groaning amid the churned-up leaf litter. Sam was swinging from branch to branch, giggling as he dropped earthward. Holly craned out the window, fear shivering through her. ‘Sam, come back here this instant!’

Too late; Sam was nearing the forest floor, ignoring her frantic cries. Holly gave chase, scaling down the trunk as fast as she could. Far below the monstrous feathered creature had righted itself and was shuffling towards the bushes.

Wth her son dashing straight towards it!

It was a huge male eagle, a gigantic skyhunter with fearsome curved talons. The mighty bird flopped about, right wing dragging limp as it crawled towards the shelter of the dense undergrowth. Sam cut off its escape and crouched before it, holding out a friendly paw.

‘Aaawww, poor birdie, is your wing ‘urted?’

The eagle drew itself up to its full height, fierce golden eyes bulging as it hissed a warning through its dangerous hooked beak: ‘Kaarrhzz! Impudent liddle puffball. Outta my way, or I’ll gobble you up!’

The little squirrel chuckled and tossed a honeyed hazelnut in front of the savage bird. ‘Awww, Sammy won’t ‘urt you. ‘Ave some food, yum-yum!’

The eagle hopped to the nut and devoured it hungrily, just as Holly arrived panting on the scene. Her infant and the deadly eagle were far too close for her to safely intervene. Holding her breath, the squirrelmum inched forward. The fearsome predator turned its scornful golden eyes upon her. ‘Ach, stay back, bushtail!’

Holly bristled, baring her teeth. ‘Not that you care, bird, but that’s my little babe there and if you dare harm a hair on his head, I’ll kill you!’

The eagle glared back. ‘Careful, branchbounder. You dare insult Rorak Bloodbeak, skylord and Ruler of the Icepeaks? None have called me bird and lived!’

Holly folded her arms. ‘Aye, and I’m called Holly by those with any manners. None have dared call me bushtail and lived – er, that includes branchbounder too!’

Holly stepped back as Rorak loomed over her. She thought the monstrous eagle might lunge upon her, but then the miraculous happened: Rorak dipped his head and smiled.

‘Krakarrr! You don’t lack courage, missie. Your enemies must be few indeed or deadbeasts, methinks!’ He jabbed his beak towards Sam, who was holding out another pawful of nuts. ‘Erm…beggin’ yer pardon, o’ course, but you wouldn’t begrudge a brawny hunter his vittles, would you?’

Holly clenched her paws. ‘Only if you promise not to harm my little one, sir!’

Rorak folded his uninjured wing over his breast and nodded. ‘Upon my honour as crag-king, only son of Laird Mactalon, I swear!’ Then he blinked as Sam shook a stern paw under his beak.

‘Silly Wowack. We don’ swear. S’not nice t’swear, y’get sent t’bed! Holly sez so!’

The great eagle threw back his head and screeched with laughter, almost buffeting Holly flat as he flapped his good wing. ‘Oh mercy, we’ve got a fierce lassie here, ain’t we?’

Sam stormed in and began wrestling with the golden eagle’s leg, or at least one hefty talon of it. ‘You leave Mizz Holly alone, ya big bully. Sammy fight ya!’

One of Rorak’s formidable talons looped through the squirrelbabe’s smock and swung him aloft, facing fierce golden eyes. ‘Fur ‘n’ Thunder! You wouldn’t kill a poor defenceless bird like me, would ye, liddle tyke?’

Sam swung a paw at the eagle king. ‘Sammy knock ya beak off if you ‘urt Mizz Holly!’

Rorak dropped him into Holly’s arms, chuckling. ‘I don’t know what your mamma’s feeding you, but it must be mighty fine food to raise such a brawny beastie! Best surrender now, before I’m slain by the pair of you!’ Then he scowled at his crooked wing. ‘Agh, couldn’t even harm a fly now. Still got my beak and talons, mind, so I’ll be sure to handle meself even to a bonnie lad like him!’ He squawked and began preening himself.

Holly set Sam down, smiling as the eagle eagerly munched more nuts. ‘Truce, then. You don’t hurt us and we won’t hurt you.’

The eagle nodded to her. ‘Fair’s fair. Got blown here by the wind some days back. Took shelter in those pines yonder, when some crows mobbed me. Tchah! Spineless cowards, they were. Took ten of ’em to best me – that’s how I hurt my wing.’

Holly moved closer, eyes creased in sympathy. ‘D’you mind if I take a look?’

The eagle turned away, ruffling his feathers. ‘Ach, it’s no concern o’ yours. I’ll be just fine, lass.’

Holly folded her arms. She recognised stubborn pride when she saw it. ‘If your wing doesn’t heal, you’ll die.’

Rorak flexed his wing feebly, winced, then turned a sullen eye skyward.

‘All right,’ he grumbled. ‘Help me.’

Holly moved close and began gently probing his injured wing. Rorak turned his head away haughtily. ‘This is so embarrassing…Ow!’

Holly pinched a tailfeather. ‘Shut up. Had plenty of practice raising Sam here. Hm, no breaks or fractures – looks like you’ve sprained the joint, that’s all. Wait here while I fetch some things!’ She streaked up the trunk towards home, leaving Sam giggling as he tossed more nuts for Rorak to catch.

Soon Holly returned with her medicine bag filled with bindweed, pine resin and motherwort. She crushed them into a compress and bound up Rorak’s injured wing, using a willow twig and wild rhubarb fibres to bind the dressing tight.

‘There! Once that resin sets firm, the wort ‘n’ weed’ll do their work. Don’t try moving your wing much, sir. The more you keep it still, the quicker it’ll heal. Three days should do the trick.’

Rorak gaped at her. ‘Ugh, you mean I’m earthbound for three full days, and can’t fly?’

Sam patted his back in commiseration. ‘Awww, poor Wowhack, you’s grounded jus’ like me. Heehee!’

Rorak snapped at the cheeky squirrelbabe, who fled behind his mother muttering, ‘Choppa off y’tail if ya do dat again, Mista Wowhack! I’s on’y a likkle squiggle!’

With the help of Sam’s nursery rope ladder, Rorak eventually hauled himself aloft with talons and beak. Dusk was falling as the curious trio began supper, Rorak perching outside craning his head through the window. Redcurrant tarts, hazelnut toast with blackberry jam, russet apple slices, fruit scones – the ravenous eagle guzzled them all down, fixing a stern eye on Sam whenever he tried stealing second helpings.

As the moon rose they retired to bed, Sam swaying in his hammock with Rorak roosting outside his window. Holly lay on her bed, smiling as the mighty eagle had his patience sorely strained by the chattering squirrelbabe.

‘Good ol’ Mista Wowhack. You my bes’ matey, ain’tcha?’

‘Oh aye, y’liddle terror. Now you git t’ sleep an’ stop gabbin’.’

‘Righto, I goes t’sleep now. G’night, Mista Wowhack.’

‘Good night!’

‘…See you inna mornin’.’

‘Aye, now be quiet.’

‘I quiet now. Sammy quiet.’

‘Well, I should ‘ope you are, squirrelmite!’

‘Oh I are.’

‘Shush, d’you ‘ear me. Be quiet!’

‘Sammy quiet. You da one makin’ alla noise, Mista Wowhack. Heehee!’

~*~

Three days later, and Holly’s larder of candied hazelnuts was noticeably lower. Still, Rorak had proved an unexpected kitchen helper, wafting his uninjured wing to fan the flames while keeping a stern eye on her mischievous rascal. Already Holly had turned out a superb cauldron of mushroom soup that the eagle guzzled down eagerly and pronounced excellent.

But now Holly had brought him to a sizeable forest clearing, he looked decidedly anxious.

Morning sunlight streamed down as Rorak drummed his claws. ‘My wing still twinges. You sure it’s fixed?’

Holly patted his flank. ‘Sure I’m sure. It’s bound to hurt, just stiff through being idle. You’ll have to try using it. Go on!’

Rorak spread his wings, flexed them experimentally and broke into a shambling run across the clearing. Launching himself off the ground he flapped madly for a short distance then stumbled to rest on the forest floor. Holly hurried after him, applauding. ‘Well flown, sir! Great effort!’

The eagle clacked his beak. ‘Ach, nearly there. I must say, this ‘ere splint’s done a world of good.’ He held out a talon and Holly shook it. ‘My thanks to ye, lass. Oh, look out – ‘ere comes trouble!’

With a whoop Sam dashed by, arms outstretched as he flapped two oak leaves. ‘Heehee, Sammy fly now. Yahoooo!’

Rorak chuckled as the little rascal vanished among the trees. ‘Never a moment’s peace with that ‘un, eh?’

Holly laughed as she unpacked her lunch satchel. ‘Goodness, no! Still, got you to thank for pulling him into line. Fancy some plumcake that he hasn’t stolen yet?’

The eagle munched it eagerly. ‘Bless his liddle heart, ‘e means well. Erm, bring any o’ those nuts with ye, perchance?’

Holly shook her head, smiling as she cut an apple into quarters. ‘Sorry, just Sammy’s cordial and some fruit. Fancy a piece?’

‘Eeeeeeyaaaagh!’

Holly sprang to her feet, horrified. ‘Sammy!’

A dark wriggling mass rose above the treetops. Sam wailed as the squabbling crows lifted him higher. ‘Waaaaaaaahhh! Mummyyyyy, help meeeee!’

Holly raced into the trees, brandishing her daggers as Rorak trotted gamely behind. ‘Wait for me, lassie! It’s too dangerous!’

But Holly was deaf to his warning cries. She streaked through the treetops after them, leaping from branch to branch with her satchel thumping her back. Whenever she lost sight of them above the dense foliage, her youngster’s pitiful sobs spurred her on. Soon she glimpsed a broad green hill rising above the woodland. At its summit was a thick pine grove. The wriggling mass of fur and feathers disappeared into the gloom with a blubbering wail.

Bursting out of the trees Holly stormed up the slope, a dagger in each paw. ‘Mummy’s coming, my liddle scrumpet!’

Harsh raucous squawks echoed through the forbidding darkness as great winged shadows flapped amid the branches. Far behind her Holly heard Rorak’s anxious voice. ‘Wait for me, Holly! Don’t go in there alone!’

Yet Holly was beyond reason. Wild with motherly rage she charged into the grove, yelling the time-honoured battlecry of northern squirrel tribes.

‘Ralakkaaaa!’


Dedicated to Brian Jacques, the best childhood storyteller I’ve ever known

For warrior mice, tyrant rulers and vermin hordes,

For noble quests, island forts and legendary swords

For sumptuous feasts, perilous hares and Badger Lords

Redwaaaaaaallll!

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Pillow Talk (150 words)

I’m delighted to have this story published on Spillwords!


‘Careful, honey, it’s loaded,’ he warned, exiting the bathroom.

His lover lounged amid rumpled sheets, examining the handgun. ‘Does your wife know?’

He scoffed. ‘That dumb cow? She thinks I’m away on business.’

She rolled over to face him. ‘You gonna do it yourself, then?’

‘Nah. Too risky for myself. I’m hiring a professional.’ He crawled up the bed, peppering her stomach with kisses. ‘Once she’s out the picture, I’ll collect the life insurance and we’re minted.’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘What about me? Maybe I could do it.’

He chuckled above her. ‘That’s cute, darlin’. But women ain’t killers. Besides, who’d ever be crazy enough to hire a female hitman?’ He leaned in for a kiss.

Cold metal pressed against his jaw. He froze.

She smirked up at him, her finger on the trigger. ‘Your wife.’

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Fancy reading it on Spillwords? Check it out here.

Semolina (2500 words)

‘Semolina!’ Alice moaned. ‘Every single day! I hate it, don’t you?’

She scowled up at her neighbour George, who was lounging on her garden wall. George shrugged. ‘Dunno, I just eat it. Ain’t that bad.’

‘It’s horrid. Ugh! I’ve had it at lunchtime and I’ll have it for supper — bet you anything.’ Then she brightened. ‘Your folks are having a party tonight, aren’t they?’

George nodded. Her eyes narrowed enviously. ‘You are lucky. Bet you’ll have a lovely supper, not…semolina! What’re you having?’

He shrugged. ‘Everything.’

‘Cream blancmange?’

‘Heaps of it. Buckets of it.’

Alice stamped her foot. ‘Just think! You scoffing blancmange and me eating…semolina!’ (It is impossible to convey in print the intense loathing hatred which such a sweet girl could compress into one word.)

‘What time d’you have supper?’ George asked.

‘Seven.’

The noble knight winked down at his damsel in distress. ‘Listen — if you’re in your summerhouse at half-past, I’ll bring you some cream blancmange. Honest I will!’

Alice beamed. ‘Would you really? You won’t forget?’

‘Not me! I’ll be there. I’ll sneak away and bring it over.’

‘Oh, how lovely! You’re so sweet! I’ll be dreaming of it every minute. See you later!’

She blew him a kiss and skipped away. Blushing, George scrambled to earth. Now: to action!

In the lounge, his grown-up siblings Jack and Lucy were teetering on ladders across the room, hanging up garlands of ivy for the evening dancing. George’s mum supervised from the doorway.

‘Listen, Mum,’ George began. ‘Am I or am I not coming to the party tonight?’

She sighed. ‘For the tenth time today, George, you’re not! A bit higher your end, Jack.’

The martyr withdrew, pouting. ‘But why not? I jus’ want to know why not. That’s all. It looks a bit funny, doesn’t it, having a party then leaving out your only son, at least,’ —he glanced at Jack and hastily backtracked— ‘to leave out one of your only two sons? Looks a bit weird, won’t it? That’s all I’m thinkin’ of — how it’ll look. It’s a young folks party,’ he was warming to his subject now. ‘Well, I’m young, aren’t I? I’m only ten. D’you want me any younger? You ain’t ashamed of folks seein’ me, are you? I’m not deformed or anythin’. P’raps you’re afraid of what I’ll eat.’ Here he allowed a wave of dejected bitterness to enter his voice. ‘Well everyone eats, don’t they? And you’ve got things for us — them — to eat tonight. You wouldn’t grudge me just a bite o’ supper, would you? P’raps it’d be less hassle if I et my supper with you all, rather than a separate room. That’s all I’m thinkin’ of, the hassle —’

Lucy raised her eyes to the ceiling. ‘Can’t anyone, she beseeched the world at large, ‘stop that boy talking?

Jack began descending his ladder. ‘I think I can,’ he muttered.

But the gallant knight had already fled the room.

He prowled into the kitchen, the tabletop laden with cakes and jellies. Suddenly a heavy hand clapped onto his shoulder.

Cook towered over him. ‘Now, Georgie, you clear out right this minute!’

‘I don’t want none o’ your things, Cook,’ he lied. ‘I just came to see how you were gettin’ on, that’s all.’

Cook folded her brawny arms and glared down at him. ‘We’re getting on very well, thank you, George…but nothing for you till tomorrow, you ‘ear? Here, Emma, put the semolina away in the larder, won’t you? It’s for tomorrow’s lunch.’ She resumed cutting sandwiches, keeping a watchful eye on him. George surveyed the dessert table hungrily.

‘Cook,’ he asked, ‘aren’t you going to make cream blancmange?’

‘I am not, George,’ she said icily.

George sniggered. ‘Well, it’d be a pretty strange party without cream blancmange! No one ever has a party round here without it!’

‘Don’t they indeed,’ Cook muttered.

‘You’ll be making one later, p’raps — just a small one?’

‘And why should I?’

George summoned his best impression of the generous negotiator, and nobly plunged on. ‘Well, I’d like to think they had a cream blancmange. I just think they’d enjoy it, that’s all I’m thinking of.’

Cook rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, is it? Well, it’s your mum who tells me what to make and pays me, not you.’

George sensed that he had fumbled the initiative. ‘Listen!’ he said after considerable thought, ‘if I gave you’— he paused for effect, then brought out the staggeringly generous offer— ‘a quid, would you make a cream blancmange?’

Cook winked at Emma. ‘Fine. But I’ll want to see your quid first! No tricks now!’

George rushed upstairs and emptied his piggy-bank. A forlorn 10p piece fell into his palm. He must get a cream blancmange somehow! His heroic reputation to Alice depended on it. And if Cook would do it for a quid, he must find a quid. By fair means or foul.

He crept downstairs into the dining-room, to the charity box on the mantelpiece. He’d tell someone next day, or put it back, or something. Besides, people did way worse things in the movies. With a butter knife he extracted the spoils: three measly 20p coins!

‘60p!’ he fumed in righteous indignation. ‘This supposed to be a Christian household, an’ 60p’s all they can give to the poor. They spend pounds an’ pounds on—’ he looked around and saw a pyramid of peaches on the sideboard, ‘—tons of peaches an’ — an’ green stuff to hang on the walls, and they leave 60p to the poor! Huh!’

His sister’s voice drifted in from the lounge. ‘He’s probably being a nuisance somewhere. He’ll do it all evening, most likely. Couldn’t you make him go to bed early, Mum?’

George bristled. Make him go to bed early! He’d like to see them try! He’d show them, soon enough! He looked around the room. No food in sight, except the heaped plate of juicy peaches on the side.

George gazed at it longingly. They’d probably counted them all and knew just how many there ought to be. Mean miserly sort of thing they’d do. And they’d be counting them every other minute just to see if he’d swiped one. Well, he was going to score off somebody somehow. Make him go to bed early! The rotten cheek! Then he brightened. He’d got it!

For the next five minutes he munched and munched, but when he’d finished the peach pyramid was exactly as he found it, not a single peach gone, only…on the hidden inner face of every peach was a huge gaping bite.

George wiped his mouth with his sleeve. They were jolly nice peaches. The blissful vision washed over him; the horrified faces of the guests after they took the peaches, the thunderous expressions of his parents, Jack, and Lucy. Oh, crumbs! Aglow with triumph he strolled into the kitchen.

‘Erm, Cook…could you make a small blancmange — quite a small one — for 70p?’

Cook chuckled. ‘I was only pulling your leg, Georgie. I’ve got one ready-made and locked in the larder.’

George sighed in relief. ‘That’s all right. I just…I wanted them to have a cream blancmange, that’s all.’

‘Oh, they’ll have it all right; they won’t leave much for you. I only made one!

‘Why d’you lock the door?’ he asked mildly. ‘Must be a real hassle for you to lock the door every time you come out?’

Cook snorted. ‘No trouble at all, Georgie. Besides, there’s pasties, cakes ‘n’ all sorts in there. Remember the last party your mum gave?’

George blushed. On that occasion he and an accomplice had spent the hour before supper in the larder; supper had to be delayed until fresh provisions were beaten up from around the neighbourhood. George had spent the next day bedridden with a stomachache. Totally worth it.

‘Oh, that! Well, that was ages ago. I was only a kid then.’

Cook turned back to the tabletop. ‘Hmph! Well, if there’s any blancmange left I’ll bring it up to you in bed. Here, Emma, put these sandwiches in the larder. Here’s the key — mind you lock it afterwards!’

‘Cook!’ Mum called from the lounge. ‘Would you please come here a second?’

George’s spirits rose. With Cook absent great deeds might happen. Emma took the dish of sandwiches, unlocked the pantry and entered. A loud crash from the kitchen. Emma hurried out, leaving the door unlocked. After she had picked up several broken plates (which had mysteriously slipped from their shelves onto the floor) she returned and locked the larder door.

Safely inside, George sighed with relief. He’d scored off Cook! Crikey! He’d scored off Cook! He was in! First things first: find the cream blancmange. He found the domed dish soon enough and sat down to consider his next move: how to get out?

Suddenly two green eyes gleamed in the darkness. The cat was inside too! Oh hell! Recognising its mortal enemy, the cat set up a vindictive wail. George shuddered with fright. The rotten cat was going to give him away!

‘Here, Pussy! Good ole Pussy!’ he shushed it. ‘Nice ole Puss! Good ole Puss!’

The cat tilted its head, alarmed. This polite address from George was highly suspicious.

‘Good ole Puss!’ George whispered feverishly. ‘Shut up now. Here’s some nice blancmange. Go on, just have a bit and shut up!’ He placed the dish before the cat; after a few tentative licks, the cat decided it was good and dug in. George began sampling the heaped plates around him. Discretion and moderation was key.

First a whole jelly, then four sandwiches from each plate. Then four cakes and pasties off each plate. He wasn’t stupid. He’d learned wisdom since the last party. The cat licked away at the blancmange, purring with satisfaction.

The purring grew louder. And louder.

‘Cook!’ Emma called from the kitchen.

‘Yes, Emma?’

‘There’s some funny buzzing noise in the larder.’

‘Well, go in and see what it is. Probably a wasp, that’s all.’

A key rattled in the lock. Clasping the blancmange to his chest George shrank behind the door, slipping off his shoes in readiness.

The door opened. ‘Aw, poor Puss!’ Emma cooed, stooping to stroke the cat. ‘Did it get shut up in the nasty dark larder, then? Poor Puss!’

Her back was turned; seizing his chance George dashed past her up the stairs like lightning! But Emma had glimpsed a dark shadow flash by. Her scream brought Mum, Jack, Lucy and Cook hurrying from the lounge.

‘A burglar in the larder!’ Emma gasped. ‘I seen ‘im, I did! Out the corner of me eye, an’ when I looked up ‘e wasn’t there no more. Like a shadder ‘e was. Ugh! Lord save me!’

The others scoffed. ‘What rubbish!’ Jack chuckled. ‘You’re always getting a fright, Emma—’

‘Wait a minute!’ Mum interrupted. ‘Where’s George? George!

George sauntered out of his bedroom and peered down at their aggrieved faces, his face the picture of saintly innocence. ‘Yes, Mum?’

Mum folded her arms. ‘What are you doing?

‘Jus’ readin’ quietly in my room, Mum.’

Lucy rolled her eyes. ‘For God’s sake, don’t disturb him, then.’

The grownups bustled away into the kitchen, Lucy berating Emma. ‘It’s those silly books you read, Emma. You’re always imagining such foolish things—’

Lucy was safely mounted on her favourite high-horse. Grinning to himself George returned to his room and carefully pulled the rather battered dish from under his bed. The dish was big and awkward. No chance fitting it under his jacket. He couldn’t march through the hallway out the front door bearing a cream blancmange, brazen and unashamed. No good slipping out the bad door, either.

From downstairs came muffled greetings in the hallway. The dining-room door opened, and the chatter of conversation and rustling dresses faded. They were going in to supper! The dining-room door closed; the coast was clear.

With infinite care, he slid the blancmange from its dish onto his soap dish. Never mind that he’d forgotten to remove the soap. Heat of the moment. Besides, it was only a small piece. At least he could hug it to his chest, partly cushioned by his arm. Safe enough.

He descended the stairs and tiptoed past the dining room, from which echoed the shrill meaningless natterings of Grown Up Business. George scowled; how boring it all sounded! Nuts to them, anyway. Only the front door to go…he stretched out a tentative hand…

A key turned in the lock. George’s heart sank — his father was home!

Dad bustled into the hallway, then eyed George suspiciously. His youngest son standing frozen in an empty hallway rarely heralded peace and quiet.

‘And where are you off to?’

George cleared his throat. ‘Me? Oh, I was jus’ — jus’ goin’ a little walk up the road before goin’ to bed.’ He smiled his fawning toadie smile, a wheedling attempt to evade suspicion (that always fooled nobody). ‘That’s all I’m going to do, Dad.’

Dad shrugged and turned back to the coat rack.

Flop! A large dollop of blancmange fell onto the carpet at George’s feet. With praiseworthy swiftness he covered it with his shoe.

Dad turned sharply. ‘What was that?’

George gazed around absently. ‘What, Dad?’

Dad’s eyes narrowed. ‘What’s that under your jacket?’

‘Where…oh, that!’ he blinked down at the damp patch on his jacket, as if noticing it for the first time. ‘Oh, that’s jus’ — somethin’ I’m taking out with me, is all.’

Dad grunted and hung up his coat. ‘Well, if you’re going for this walk up the road, don’t let me keep you. Just be back after suppertime, all right?’

Freedom beckoned; George darted out the door and down the driveway, just in time to overhear a muffled curse and a heavy thud as the head of the house slid into the dining room on a white glutinous mess.

George!

‘Oh, crumbs!’ George laughed, and ran on. His precious burden had now soaked through his shirt.

His golden-curled damsel was waiting eagerly in her summerhouse, spoon poised. George drew his prize from under his jacket and placed it before her. It had certainly lost its pristine white glory, streaked with licks from the cat and speckled with grime from George’s jacket. It wobbled limply on the soap dish, but Alice’s eyes sparkled.

‘Oh, George! I never thought you’d actually bring it! Oh, you’re wonderful! And I had it!’

‘What?’

‘Semolina for supper, but I didn’t mind, ’cause I thought — I hoped you’d bring it along.  Real cream blancmange…you’re so sweet, George!’

He glowed with pride.

George!’ a furious voice bellowed from next door. He knew that voice. The voice of the father who has finally reached the absolute end of his tether, and is out for merciless vengeance. They’d reached the peaches! Oh, hell! They’d reached the peaches!

‘Aw, George,’ Alice sighed, ‘they’re calling you.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘D’you have to go?’

‘Not me,’ he said. ‘I ain’t goin’ — not till they come fetch me.’ He leaned back in his chair with a carefree grin of benevolence. ‘Here, you try some! I don’t want any, I’ve eaten already. You have it all.’

Her face radiant, Alice dug in eagerly.

Her smile froze. Her look of ecstasy melted into one of icy fury. Her spoon clattered to the floor.

Uh-oh. With mounting dread George snatched up her spoon and took a mouthful himself.

He’d brought the semolina instead!

© Tom Burton, 2020

Pocket Size (1200 words)

‘You’re going to get hurt,’ Flick hissed, clinging onto Vigil’s earring.

‘Ow. What’re you talking about?’ Vigil muttered, balancing the boxes. ‘Nothing in here’s dangerous.’ He sidestepped another apprentice entering the storage room and emerged behind the counter.

‘Not in the back room. You’re going to get hurt while out foiling evil if you keep it up. This woman says thank you and keep the change, and the rude guy beside her is trying to get your attention by snapping.’

Vigil dropped the change into the tip jar and turned to the man.

Shifts at the lab’s storefront, where anyone could purchase potion ingredients and charms from the apprentices, were Flick’s busiest times as a hearing aid. Vigil could hear well enough if it was one well-enunciated person speaking alone, but the chaos of crowded labs, with everyone talking at once? Nope. Forget it.

But being hard of hearing was a feature of Vigil, not a problem. No, the vigilante thing was the problem. Every night after the labs had been shut up, the other apprentice sorcerers would head off for dinner together, watch some falcon displays at the Eyrie, or do other activities like skimming their broomsticks three feet off the ground while hurling balls at one another. Perfectly harmless. Meanwhile, Vigil would tuck the lab’s resident fire-breathing dragon up his sleeve, pull his scarf up over his face, crack his knuckles and go out to foil evildoers.

Even Flick had to admit that it kind of worked. Sort of. A bit. Almost. Vigil dyed his hair to look like it had turned purple by frequent exposure to magic, tucked Flick behind his ear to make the quiet world understandable, and coaxed the lab’s dragon inside his sleeve to breathe fire on command. With his lower face hidden, he passed admirably for a fully grown sorcerer.

But he wasn’t one, and that was going to get him into trouble one day, if Flick didn’t figure out a way to help him. It was a terrible hobby, which Vigil would know if he ever took Flick’s advice.

‘He wants one mud-repelling charm,’ Flick reported as the man talked, ‘and make it quick because he’s an asshole, or because he got mud on his very expensive shoes, something like that.’

Vigil made his thoughtful face, one of the many ways he filled the listening pauses before he could respond in situations like these. ‘Sorry, we’re out of those. Can I get you anything else?’

The man did not want anything else.

‘He said a bad word at you,’ Flick said cheerfully, since it considered cursing mortally reproachful unless done by someone it approved of.

‘I could tell,’ Vigil muttered, watching the man storm out.

Flick itself was watching someone else enter the store— a young witch in a very messy hat. Flick considered itself an expert on fashion, as well as on poetry and Vigil’s safety. It watched the witch beeline right to the shelves of magical candies on the other side of the room, and approved.

‘This little kid at the counter wants ingredients for a stink potion,’ Flick repeated absentmindedly as it mulled over the newcomer, and Vigil went back into the storeroom to rifle through the shelves.

‘Glass eggs, spider eyes—’

‘Gross,’ Flick gagged. ‘You need friends.’

‘—black-spotted mushrooms. Friends would make this less gross how?’

‘They wouldn’t. But they might keep you out of trouble.’

‘And that’s exactly why I don’t need any. I like trouble.’ Vigil returned to the counter with the ingredients for the girl’s basket. The girl winked. Her lips moved.

Flick grinned. ‘She says thanks, and also that you need friends.’

‘Quit it,’ Vigil growled, then plastered a faux-smile for his next customer.

Flick quitted it for all of ten seconds until Vigil was searching the dusty back corners for healing charms. ‘You’re only a baby sorcerer, you can’t go around foiling evil all by yourself. Eventually evil will foil back.’

Vigil bristled. ‘I hired a hearing aid, not a babysitter.’

‘Wrong,’ chirped Flick gleefully. ‘You hired a lizard, and lizards always knows best.’

‘Lizards also always live with several nest-mates, which you don’t have, so you’re one to talk about needing friends.’ Vigil snatched a potion vial from off the floor and straightened up. There was a guilty pause. Lizards are excellent at telling when pauses are guilty. Vigil sighed. ‘I just meant…’

‘Everyone – needs – friends,’ Flick said, trying not to sound like it was going to cry. Unfortunately, lizards are as terrible at not sounding emotional as they are excellent at discerning guilty pauses.

Vigil gently stroked the tiny scales of Flick’s head. ‘Hey, I didn’t mean that.’

‘I could have nest-mates if I wanted,’ Flick sniffled. Lizards’ lying abilities fall squarely between their skills at recognising guilty pauses and not sounding emotional.

‘Of course you could,’ Vigil soothed. ‘You’re the best reptile I know.’

‘Including Crackle?’ Flick perked up. ‘Crackle isn’t even that great a firekeeper. I’m much better at being a hearing aid than it is at making fire.’ Crackle had three nest-mates and its very own nesting hallow in the chimney over the lab’s fireplace, and was very conceited about it (in Flick’s humble opinion).

Vigil nodded. ‘You’re the best hearing aid a sorcerer could have. I’m sorry for what I said.’

Flick blew its nose on a lock of purple hair. ‘Okay.’

Back at the counter, Flick scanned the room for the witch, now carrying over a jar of blue candies to purchase. She looked over the busy apprentices behind the counter, eyes sliding right past Vigil’s face without recognition.

Flick frowned. She’d never recognise Vigil as the plucky hero who’d rescued her from those ogling third-years last night, not when he’d hidden his face so well. Clearly, Flick had to intervene, for Vigil’s own good.

Pushing Vigil’s hair aside, Flick stretched itself out as far as it could without falling off, and waved urgently. The witch didn’t notice. Honestly, humans were oblivious.

Flick flapped its arms some more, and hissed. Surprised, the witch’s eyes flicked around for the noise, before noticing the tiny brown lizard preening with victory, and then to the sorcerer it was perched on.

‘You!’ She squealed.

Flick quickly returned to its hearing aid role. ‘That witch person over there said ‘you!’ very loudly.’

‘Damn,’ Vigil whispered, trying to avoid the witch’s stare. ‘That’s the girl I helped the other night! How’d she recognise me?’

‘Big mystery,’ Flick sounded way too smug.

The witch pushed her way closer to the counter, relentless. ‘You’re that vigilante!’

‘They say you’re a vigilante, and probably good friend material.’ Flick waved at the witch, who waved back.

Vigil batted at his ear. ‘Stop that, stop being friendly! I’m a masked vigilante, people aren’t supposed to know who I am.’

The witch raised an eyebrow at Vigil’s name tag. ‘In that case, why’s your name literally the first half of the word vigilante?’ She folded her arms, smirking. ‘Doesn’t seem very masked to me.’

Flick crowed victoriously. ‘New friend! Can we keep them?’


© 2020 | Tom Burton

3. To Serve and Protect (2300 words)

Tuesday dawned grey and clammy. With the magician snoring and the boy busy scrubbing the attic floorboards, I prowled outside as a golden-furred serval. All was quiet, nothing but damp leaves crunching beneath my paws and the stink of fresh whitewash in the air. Mist drifted across the road — wait! My ears pricked. Something was scratching at the garden gate.

I crept closer, tail twitching. I nudged open the gate —

A tiny mouse darted inside, trailing the foul stench of magic. I pounced, trapping the mouse between my paws with a hiss of triumph.

The mouse’s eyes flashed crimson; it quivered, grew into a slavering Rottweiler with gnashing yellow fangs. I yowled and sprang free, became a brawny black panther whose fangs sank deep into the hound’s neck. But the Rottweiler squealed and shimmered into a serpent uncoiling whip-crack fast. Its poison tail jabbed. The panther roared and shrank back against the rhododendrons, golden eyes creased in pain.

I was having doubts.

The snake reared up; scales turned into shaggy grey hair. It broadened, sinewy limbs bursting forth, dark hairs spouting and thickening, hands curling into claws.

A monstrous werewolf towered over me. I checked it out on the higher planes; hopefully just a reckless foliot with suicidal overconfidence and a colourful imagination…

Nope. It was a fifth-level Afrit of fearsome power, all barbed spines and writhing tentacles.

‘Shit.’ Dazzlingly eloquent, that’s me.[1]

A lime-green Flux spat from the werewolf’s claws. I ducked and it splattered on the wall behind, fizzing and bubbling as the acid chewed into the melting plaster. ‘You jerk! I just whitewashed that!’

The werewolf roared and charged. I twisted aside, gasping as cruel claws raked across my back.

You can’t outfight him, so outsmart him. I grimaced: either way this would hurt. The panther shuddered and shrank, became the squirrel darting between the werewolf’s hairy haunches. He streaked up a tree trunk, raced through the leaves towards the roof —

Blue fire exploded all around. The branch was vaporised instantly, the leaves turned to cinders; the squirrel was blown sideways through the air to fall heavily onto the flagstones. Flames licked over it. Black ash drifted down.

The werewolf lowered its smoking paw with a growl of satisfaction. The squirrel lay still, eyes closed, a limp heap of tawny fur. The werewolf crouched and scooped up its prey in one clawed hand. No response; it grinned, opened its jaws wide —

The squirrel’s eyes snapped open. ‘Suckers!’ He raised a tiny paw.

The Detonation blasted full into the Afrit’s face; it fell backwards, wreathed in green flames as it bellowed in pain. The squirrel dropped from its flailing claws, changed again; the serval ran up onto the pergola, hissing in defiance.

The werewolf howled with rage and hurled a volley of purple Spasms at me. I ducked the first fireball, sidestepped the second and somersaulted over the third. They smashed into the wall, leaving three blackened scorch marks.

‘Nyah-nyah, you missed!’ I jeered. My enemy snarled and raised a clawed hand; dark crackling energies swirled there. It reached back —

And was met with the full force of a Hurricane, head on; it swept the Afrit off its feet and sending it crashing into the wall.

It crumpled to its knees, glaring murderously at me. I shimmered into the lynx-headed warrior again, and beckoned mockingly. ‘That’s it, mate! Come at me!’

It stiffened. Raised its muzzle to sniff the air.

 A first-floor window was ajar.

The werewolf snarled and sprang onto the wall, chunks of plaster raining down as it climbed higher. I loosed a volley of poison darts, but they pattered ineffectively against the wall. Reaching its destination, it wrenched open the window and disappeared inside the house.

I relaxed. Its focus was now elsewhere. With the magician dead, the bonds tethering me would be broken, and I’d be freed from my bondage.

A shrill scream split the air. A child’s cry. It was drowned out by a bloodcurdling howl of victory. The Afrit had found its next victim.

I sighed. A fifth-level spirit was well outside my weight class. No point facing it head-on. Besides, the kid was just another tragic bystander. Innocents died. Happened all the time.

Don’t get involved…

I swung up into the tree with fluid feline grace, higher and higher until I crouched in a fork of gnarled branches. A grimy attic window opposite. Inside, a hulking hairy shadow leered over a cowering figure.

Don’t be stupid. It’s not your concern…

I clenched my paws. ‘Oh, damn.

And jumped.

The boy had shrunk back against the moth-eaten sofa, his only defence a filthy rag. The werewolf rose high, slavering jaws agape for the killing bite —

Then the window exploded.

With a wild yell the lynx crashed into the werewolf, tackling it bodily across the room in a glittering shower of glass. We slammed through the wall and tumbled out into blinding sunshine. Broken bricks and shards of wood rained down around us.

Neither graceful nor dignified, but it did the job. The kid was out of harm’s way.

The Afrit struggled upright, eyes blazing. Playtime was over. I grinned and crouched into a fighting stance. ‘Why don’tcha pick on someone your own size?’

A rusty old spade lay forgotten amid the rosebushes. I blew him a kiss. ‘Come on, matey!’

The werewolf bared its fangs and charged. I sprang towards the spade.

Scything claws slashed down.

My paw tightened around worn wood. I spun around, swinging out with all my strength.

CLONK.

The werewolf staggered away, falling to its knees. I danced after it, spade edge-first like a battleaxe. Victory was mine! I swung down triumphantly at the werewolf’s skull.

Missed.

The werewolf rolled aside viper-quick, the spade sparking on the flagstones an inch from its hairy head. A clawed hand clamped around my ankle. Its grip crushed my essence like a vice. I yelled in pain; I needed to change, withdraw my essence, but my head was reeling, a terrible coldness choking me, my energy leaching from me like blood dripping from a wound. I swayed and collapsed. The Afrit grunted and flexed its arm; I was hurled aside into the wall. My consciousness flickered.

Not a great day, all things considered.

With a roar of victory the Afrit reared up. Two red-veined wings sprouted from its back. It bent its legs, leaped high into the air. Up, up it soared to the roof eaves. Its wings clapped together with a sound of snapping bones; it spun and dived, claws outstretched, jaws agape, hurtling down at lightning speed.

That’s it. I’d endured a lot over the last few days. No matter the faithful servitude, the grudging acquiescence, the sullen obedience…it made no difference. I’d been summoned, constricted, bossed about, gloated over, bullied and generally taken for granted. And now to cap it all, this bloke was joining in too, when all I’d been doing was quietly trying to stop him ruining the flowerbeds.

I lost my temper.

The lynx’s form grew and roughened; tawny fur shimmered into mossy stone. I bent gnarled haunches, my stony wings creaked; two tons of angry gargoyle launched into the air. The Afrit had nowhere to turn; its eyes widened, wings flailing wide, desperately trying to swerve —

No chance.

I felt the jarring crunch all the way to my elbow. Two tons of pissed-off granite stonework punched through a knobbly fist. Bullseye. The Afrit froze in mid-dive, gave a strangled wheeze and crashed down onto the sundial in a shower of masonry.

The gargoyle alighted on the path, hands on hips above his downed opponent. The werewolf was curled over on its side, clawed hands cupped between its legs as it whimpered in agony. The gargoyle clacked his horny beak in satisfaction. Right in the plums.

It’s the little things in life you treasure.

The gargoyle kicked it in the ribs. ‘That’ll serve you right, won’t it?’ A muffled groan; the Afrit shuddered and went limp. ‘Oh, don’t be so whiny. Technically you’re trespassing. And you wouldn’t take the hint — argh!’

I’d glimpsed the shadow rising, sensed the shimmer behind me. I’d flung myself aside. But the Detonation caught me even as I spun away. I crashed among the rhododendrons, emerald flames licking over my torso as pain ripped through my essence.

And the second Afrit rose into view; a monstrous bull-headed minotaur, snorting as it hefted a wicked silver-tipped mace. Blindsided. Again.

I saw my death in the minotaur’s black eyes. Its mace rose high, poised for the final blow…

A fearful roar; the minotaur’s head jerked back. A silver spearpoint jutted through its throat. Behind stood the dark-haired boy, white-faced and clutching his spear. With a tortured effort of will, I raised a hand. My Detonation hit the minotaur directly in its wounded throat, burst the wounded essence. Pop! The minotaur’s head went spinning into a rosebush. The body shimmered and fell apart, sloughing into silvery chunks that melted into the grass. The air quivered with heat haze.

The boy and I stared at each other, panting.

The magician appeared in the doorway, mussy-haired and scowling. Looks like someone got out of bed on the wrong side of bed today. We stared mutely back; the boy clutching the spear in trembling fingers, smoke lazily rising from my side with the rank stink of sulphur.

‘There were intruders —’

‘At least four of ’em, I chased the rest off smartish.’

‘And a Marid, i swear!’

She held up a hand, her face like thunder. ‘L-look at the s-state of my b-b-bloody lawn! M-my precious r-roses!’[2] We cringed under her blistering tirade. Stomping forward she smacked the boy’s head before turning to me, muttering a quick four-syllable word. I tensed far too late; the Convulsion jabbed me sharply in the rear, sending me sprawling onto the grass with a singed bottom and the strong odour of burnt toast.

She stabbed a vengeful finger at us — ‘Now back to work! Both of you!’ — and stormed inside.

I rose, dusting myself off and stooping to the nearest shrivelled bush. ‘Hey fishface, got any shears about?’

‘…In the shed.’ The boy gazed glumly at the ruined shrubs.

I tried to lift his gloomy spirits, make him crack a smile, anything. ‘Cheer up, squirt – it’s only gardening.’ Then an exaggerated yawn. ‘You ever raised a castle on pillars of glass, or cleaned out a cattle stable in a single night? Take it from me, kid, this stuff’s way easier.’ No answer. I tried a different tack. ‘Good character-building, this. Bet your mum ‘n’ dad’ll be super proud of you; good honest labour, top marks in hedge-trimming…’

He gave me a bleak look. ‘Dad left before I was born. Typhoid took Mum when I was eight.’

I gave up.

* *

Wednesday morning. The magician rubbed her hands gleefully as the boy’s quavering voice echoed around the room. ‘Now that the Archmage is severely weakened, it is time to finish him off once and for all. You are hereby charged to go forth to his house and slay him!’

My panther tail twitched. I licked a velvety paw and smoothed back a tuft of hair. ‘Uh-uh. Sorry, missie, but that’s not in my job contract. I’m supposed to protect you, aren’t I? I’m a guardian, not a house-breaker.’

She stamped her foot and waved impatiently at the boy, who spoke; ‘I order you to leave this house forthwith, go to the Archmage’s residence and slay him!’

I stuck out my tongue. ‘Shan’t! If you want that, you’ll have to rescind all previous commandments and issue a new one. Otherwise,’ I sat primly back in my circle, ‘I ain’t budging.’

She hopped and cursed with rage. But she knew I was right — she had no choice but to amend my instructions. She knew the binding words well enough, but couldn’t do it for fear of stammering.

Her apprentice shook his head. ‘Don’t know the words. Can’t do it.’ The panther sat unconcerned in its pentacle, quietly grooming itself.

The magician strove to keep her temper, prompting, encouraging, cajoling and imploring the boy. He just shrugged. ‘I’ve forgotten it.’

She glared at him. ‘You idiot boy! S-say the words, y-you know them!’

His eyes flickered to mine. He smirked. ‘Sorry…guess I wasn’t taught well enough.’

That did it. With a snarl of outrage the magician reached out of her circle and slapped her apprentice’s head.

A faint popping, like bubbles in hot mud. Her shimmering Shield shrank humming into the floor. In overreaching herself, her protective seal was broken. She was stripped bare of all her defences, at my tender mercy.

No chance.

The panther stretched languidly; the stretch arched up, widened, became emerald-green. Fur became scales. The panther was gone; in his place was a gigantic hooded cobra whose head swayed high among the rafters. Golden eyes glittered.

My turn.’

The cobra’s mouth yawned wide as a tomb, it fell upon the woman and swallowed her whole, right down to the heels of her quivering shoes.

The serpent closed its jaws, still chewing; a large bulge slowly inched along its shimmering coils. It gazed at the boy, still standing safely within his own pentacle. He smiled, planted his feet, and began the incantation. His hands were already sketching through the incense-laden air, his movements calm and assured. White plumes of smoke coiled up around me as I vaguely heard him chant the words of Dismissal. Didn’t miss a beat, that kid.

Golden eyes met blue, for the last time. We bowed to each other.

‘Goodbye,’ he said.

‘G’bomf,’ I mumbled. Well, I had my mouth full.

The End


[1] I’m no slouch, but even a formidable third-level djinn like myself knows when he’s outmatched. Even the measliest Afrit is a heavyweight worth avoiding.
[2] True, there were several holes scorched into the grass by molten essence, and a rosebush had cracked in two under the impact of the severed head. But that’s not really the point, is it?

© Tom Burton, 2020