The garden, medieval and walled, was lush and fruitful this year, and old friar Matthew couldn’t believe the harvest of herbs he was collecting. The drying room would be full and their winter stocks ample.
As he was collecting the catnip, a pair of ginger speckled and furry ears came into view. A cat’s face emerged from the catnip patch, Its pupils dilated and his gait unsteady.
‘Where are you going, brother?’ Friar Matthew asked. His concern partly for the abbey’s crops and partly for the stoned and disheveled feline who was clearly not meant to be in the private walled garden.
‘I’m looking for adventure,’ said the cat. ‘Plus, I’m trying to find my friend, but all I seem to find are snakes in the grass.’
As if to confirm his statement, a small green and blue adder popped its head up from the bracken and catnip.
‘What did you say? Did you mention me?’
‘No, mate. I’m just looking for my friend,. We were supposed to go on an adventure.’
The adder nodded, and seemed unconcerned when his head became unattached from his long, thin body.
‘Who is your friend, brother?’
‘Humph,’ a horse. You can’t miss him. Walks upright. Arms like a T-Rex. Wears a shirt and puffy pants.’
Tiny corkscrew curls cascaded onto Holly’s browned shoulders and she ran her fingers through them. “Damn it,” she muttered. “No time for a retune”. The stage manager gave her an almost imperceptible nod, just as the festival compere shouted his terrifying words from the stage mic. “And performing here, for the first time since Woodstock… The most iconic and secretive performer ever to grace our Barbarian Festival stage… Holly Bay-Jones!”
And the crows hushed as Holly walked slowly onto the stage. The woman who’d once been a fiery mass of kinetic energy was now an unrecognisable grey-haired OAP. But she still held her famous yellow Rickenbacker guitar, and the crowd waited in near-embarrassed silence for her set to begin. The quiet was broken by a faint and accidental guitar strum, and, in her coarse, and creaking voice, Holly addressed the audience of thousands without fear.
“I don’t know anyone here. But I now that most of you think you know me. Let me tell you now, people. You don’t! And how do I know that? Because even I don’t know me. The person I was, does not equal the person I currently am. And for those of you conspiracy theorists who’ve been wondering where I’ve been all this time, I’ve got something to say that will confirm or deny whatever rumour you’ve chosen to believe. I’m not a young woman now. But I was less than 22 years old when I had my first stroke. Then 23 for my next. Let me tell you, kids. Psychotropic drugs are not your friends. Believe me. I know first hand.
But I can tell you something straight. There’s nothing like a stroke to get you mind aware. Whoever and whatever you are, listen to someone who knows. You don’t need mind-altering. All you need is mind-clarifying, and you aint gonna get that from anything other than the greatest music ever heard. Here at the Barbarian!”
A cheer arose from the front row of the audience. “We love you, Holly!” a middle-aged man shouted, and it was followed by a wolf whistle. “Still sexy, darling!” the man continued, and the audience chuckled awkwardly, though Holly looked as though she hadn’t heard. Perhaps she hadn’t.
“I love you all, too. But I guess you’re not here to listen to a couple of old folk talking.”
She awaited the cheer, and it came. “You wanna hear some music?”
She adjusted the mic stand. “This one’s for Dolly,” she shouted.
#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #musician #dolly parton
‘Creationist,’ he said. ‘That’s what I am.’ I nod, and shuffle in my seat. Willing to listen. Hoping to understand. Struggling to accept. I ask why his scientific mind would be so keen To reclassify all he’s ever known. He says it isn’t like that. He’s seen a video or two. They explain it all. Along with the intellect of Trump. The empathy of Johnson. The terrorism of Labour. I’m sorry, I say, as I leave the room. Torn between out-loud laughs of disbelief And terror for my baby’s mental health.
Emma should have realised that her family weren’t the greatest of influences. After all, who on earth would call their only daughter Emma when their surname is Bezel? Poor Em Bezel was virtually set up for life as a swindler.
Instead, Emma spent most of her life trying her best to stay out of trouble, though it wasn’t easy. Her dad regularly encouraged her involvement in each of his latest schemes: a beach hut hustle; a shop scam; an online dating deception… and Emma determinedly refused to participate in each and every one. By the time she was in her early thirties she was the only member of her huge family who had completely kept out of trouble. But still she found herself in prison. I didn’t do it, she said. I don’t know him. I wasn’t there.
But the police were determined. That’s how it can sometimes be when a crime family is involved. It’s almost a game to the police – who can set up the next family member. Everything possible is used as a bargaining tool, and Emma, good old Emma was simply an expendable pawn and a means towards the end of finally putting away her father, Brian Bezel. Before she knew it, Emma was lost and lonely in a woman’s prison, and was likely to remain there for a couple of years.
The weeks passed slowly. She made friends – just a few – and she learned how to live within the system. She also learned how to accept the constant teasing of her fellow inmates once they worked out her name, ‘Hey Embezzle. Done any fraud today?’ Those who understood it, thought it was so hilarious. It wasn’t , but these jeers were an improvement on the usual idiocy of cat calls and declarations of intended sex from her fellow inmates, and one of the seedier wardens.
Emma’s confinement coping strategy was simple. She wrote. During every solitary moment the prison system granted, Emma would scribble onto A4 pads with the tiniest of writing. The prison’s general hubbub was a major distraction, and headphones, music and other noise cancellers didn’t help much, but eventually she managed to blank it out. Once her own mission was determined, her heart rate slowed, her anxiety calmed, and her life settled. Sure, she was in prison, but it wasn’t the end of the world. It gave her time to make peace with her thoughts.
And that was when Bonny came along. Bonny, an average looking woman of average height and build, with average length hair, an athletic build and soft grey eyes. The outside was mainly average too, but it was the inside that stunned Emma. Bonny’s thoughts. Wow. What a brain. The concepts she put forward. The long and convoluted words she used. The way she tapped into Emma’s own scrappy ideas and developed them into strong and fully formed concepts.
Bon and Em. Emma knew that they were a perfect couple in the making. Their bodies would meld together as would their minds. One would complain, and the other would put things right. That was just how things were and how things would likely always be for the pair of them.
Alone on her bed, Emma would ponder her own responses to Bonny’s hypothetical questions and remarks and every day, her obsession became more intense. Soon, it was clear that Bonny had bewitched her in a way she’d never experienced before, and Emma’s fascination was as much intellectual as it was an affair of the heart. Even the thought of Bonny would send Emma’s toes twitching. She knew she must get to know her better and make things real between them. But how?
The idea came to Emma deep in the night. At these times, lights were turned off and bodies were turned on. Emma would write to Bonny. She’d write of how they might get together and begin a relationship that would last lifelong.
So, Emma wrote. Bonny, as clear in her mind’s eye as she had ever been. Bonny, perfect and thoughtful and considerate. It made it so easy for Emma to pour out her heart. ‘I can’t stop thinking of you… I sit each day hoping you will turn up outside my door… please understand… please listen… please just be real to me’.
And in her story to Bonny, the protagonist, Emma, lost in a prison cell not of her making, presented her would-be lover Bonny with two sides of scribbled pleading. And fictional lover to be, Bonny called Emma to her, and touched her hand. ‘Yes,’ she said.
And in Emma’s reality, the cell expanded along with her emotions, and she allowed herself the beginnings of happiness. Sure, Bonny was a fictional creation. Certainly, she was a fantasy perfect woman, but surely she was a fantasy that could come true, one day.
Emma continued to write, half-smiling, heart beating with a regular flutter, and lips pursed, and looked forward enormously to getting to know the following day’s intake of new girls!
‘I don’t feel like it. I never feel like it. Why would anyone prefer to do their homework when they could lie on the bed and listen to Def Zone?’
Sharon shrugged and looked down at her done, and he knew that she remembered feeling almost exactly the same. Life hadn’t been straightforward back in her own schooldays, when Duran Duran had been her reason to rise each day, and the prospect of dragging herself out of bed and away from them was too horrific to contemplate. She’d told him this many a time when it suited her – but now now.
‘When I was your ages I had two jobs, was studying for my grade 7 on the guitar, and was one of the first girls in our area to join the scouts. I was always busy. Always happy.’
Bailey sighed and stared up at his mum, defiance seeping from every pore.
‘Yeah, and look at you now. Single parent, dull office job, and a shabby little car that’s just embarrassing. Big time.’
Sandra sighed. ‘Do you think that much of me?’
‘No, I think less than that.’ With this nasty comment, Bailey turned to one side and faced the wall – away from his mum. Only barely maintaining his composure, he sighed deeply.
‘So, why can’t you, or won’t you, do your homework at this moment?’
‘I can’t, and won’t do my homework, owing to the fact that I’ve already done my homework.’
‘English. Design Tech. Computers…’ Bailey turned to face her again.
‘Show me.’ Hands on hips stance. Bailey knew she wasn’t buying it at all.
‘Show me,’ his mum pursed her lips at him.
‘I’ve handed it in.’
‘Yes. Yesterday and today.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Well, it’s true.’
As if to emphasise the point, Bailey span himself round on the bed and struggled to sit upright, all in one less-than-fluid movement.
‘You never believe ANYTHING I say!’ He struck his preferred post of both defiance and hurt-little-boy now. ‘Why do you hat me so much? I bet you wish I’d never been born…’
He knew his mum was used to this. He came out with it once every few days. Of course, Bailey also knew how irrational he was acting, and how he was clearly trying and almost succeeding at manipulating his mum, but somehow his need to NOT do his homework won out. Even thought it was due in the next days’s first period, and even thought he wanted to succeed at school as much as, if not more than anyone in his class – in his year, even!
Somehow, something compelled him on.
‘Anyway, I can’t do homework that I’ve already done – and handed in – and the other homework I’ve got is for next week sometime. I’ve got loads of time.’
Bailey scratched his armpit and smelled his finger.
‘Anyway, I need a shower as priority. Homework can wait.’ Bailey stormed from his bedroom, motioning his mum to join him in leaving the room.
‘Come on then, thought you only came in for my dirty uniform.’
He stomped into the bathroom, proceeded to take a half-hour shower, and trudged back to his room, towel round waist, and spots round shoulders glaring angrily while recovering from the heat.
He prepared to throw himself onto his bed, turn up his music, Def Zone’s brand new fourth release – and to begin an experimental chapter of his daydream about Katie Plant, their bass player – when he realised his mum was still in his room, and had likely been for the entire time he’d been showering. Oh God, what might she have found?
‘Why are you still here?’ His shriek was shrill and girlish, and his eyes, like those acne pustules gracing his shoulder blades, glared a fiery red.
‘Get out of my room,’ he yelled.
‘I, ermm, fell asleep,’ Sandra said.
‘You didn’t. That’s so clearly an excuse. You’re been rummaging haven’t you?’
Bailey caught the towel that threatened to fall and expose him.
‘And what about your excuses?’ his mum said quietly bit with determination. ‘I checked your school planner, there are three pieces of work due in tomorrow. Two pieces for the day after, and I know for a fact that you’ve had four detentions this month.’
‘That’s not true. The teachers are liars. They are our to get me. They enjoy getting me into trouble. They are all…’
‘For God’s sake, shut up, Bailey. Put your terrible music on, get your books out and start writing.’
In the end, the argument-like conversation with his mum had taken him much longer than would the homework he’d been procrastinating about. He was grateful that his mum hadn’t snooped even more, given that there were three bage of MDMA in his sock drawer, a replica handgun behind his tshirts, and near enough half a kilo of weed, triple wrapped and stashed in a Tupperwarre pot at the back of his wardrobe.
Let her think he was a typical procrastinating teen. Let her think his excuses were the worst thing he would ever be doing. Let her live in happy ignorance, for now.
It was dark night when we returned, much depleted in numbers, and much wounded in bodies and souls. But we had achieved a victory of sorts. Our village was whole and still standing low but strong against the glow of the moonlight. Tired, hungry and hurting, we knew our words would come, but for now those words were caught tight within our throats, straining against our tense yet weary muscles. The time for talk would be come morning. Once our door had been opened by Ewan, from inside our croft the sweet scents of mutton-broth and fresh grasses welcomed us and gave us peace. We each lay silently and slept till the morning sun was truly risen, and the cattle’s lowing was becoming more urgent, for need of milking and for need of feeding.
I could hear Father preparing bread and cheese and apples for our breaking of the night’s fast, and hear Mother’s light coughing as she also rose. The silence of words would soon also be broken, alongside our fast. Mother limped to her place on the bench, shaking Ewan’s shoulder as she passed. He yawned and sighed. For a boy of merely eleven summers, his need for sleep was deep and intense. My fourteen summers had bade me well, and I was now a young woman, already courting and ready for the responsibilities of life.
As Ewan struggled onto the bench alongside our Mother, his eyes sparkled with the energy gained from his first battle. He’d been training well, and it showed. The first words of the morning came from my mouth. I held his arm as he sat.
‘You did grand, Ewan. That was a fine first battle. One to be proud of’.
Mother and Father nodded in agreement then looked over to me with pride.
‘Your contribution was strong and mighty, daughter,’ said Father, and I knew this to be the truth. Mother nodded and we all sat to eat.
I had been wrong. I’d assumed that this meal would herald analysis of the battle’s highs and lows, but instead we ate in silence. We rose in silence also, each attending to our usual duties.
What had, at first, felt as moments of togetherness, now was confusing.
Why the silence? Had we done what we should not?
I was thinking to speak and to question, when came a friendly deep voice shouting from outside, and at our doorway appeared Geld, a man of more than fifty summers, and the head of our village. We all rose from our benches but he gestured to us to continue with our tasks.
‘Geld,’ said Father.
‘Brother,’ said my Mother, for she was his blood.
‘Angus. Morag. Please eat. You’ve strength enough, but need building further.’
I looked up at my Uncle Geld and he smiled, moving over to ruffle my hair.
‘You were grand.’
‘And Ewan too. Angus and Morag must be proud.’
‘Indeed we are,’ my Father replied. ‘Indeed we are.’
I knew from the times of other battles that had rudely interrupted our peace, that a success would bring a visit from Geld. Father called such times ‘Tidings’ as uncle Geld would bring news from the battlefront, of those who’d died and those who’d lived, and of the results of our battles.
‘So…’ Mother said. ‘Will you tell us more?’
‘I will,’ Geld nodded. ‘Indeed…’
He sat in a bench space I made available for my uncle, and began to talk.
‘We’ve thirteen losses. Of the village’s forty-three, it’s a large number.’
Mother sighed. ‘Who?’
My head went down into my lap. John. Not my John.
‘I am sorry, Fionna. John has not returned.’
‘But he may still be…’
‘He may. But we do not think so. Our enemies were many and were strong. We believe the sword slash to have taken him, as it did twelve others.’
I raised myself from the table.
‘I must go.’
My legs strong but without direction, my chest rumbling with rage.
I left my home with speed and urgency, and forced myself up Stony Crags, till I’d climbed half-way: to where the landscape plateaued and softened into a small misplaced copse. Exhausted and heart-sick I rested my head on my usual stopping place against the beech tree. Its bark, silver and fresh, brought John’s white-fair and glossy hair to mind. He had been my intended one, as I had been his.
Of all of us, he had been the brightest, shiniest star, with the strength of three men, though he was neither Darkhaven’s tallest nor its broadest young man.
But he was my young man, and we suited each other just fine.
As I rested, I felt a tear run its path down my pinkened cheek. It was followed by another and another. I was not alone, I knew that. I was blessed to still have my family around me, but John had been a blessing too, and one I could not and would not lose easily.
Our handfasting was to be held two summers hence.
I wiped my eyes and rubbed my cheeks with the cleanest part of my cloak, then stood to survey the battle’s scene. Our lost warriors would be missed.
I felt some kind of something. Being too young to name such feelings, I allowed them to overtake me. Perhaps I felt merely anger, but it was different somehow, and more powerful – but whatever it was surged up inside me and I stared towards the sky and screamed.
‘John’ I yelled. ‘Don’t be gone. Be here. Be with me.’
The skies wept and screamed along with me.
It was only then that I realised how the rain was soaking me through to my skin, and just how heavy my sword had become, held as it was by my leather and flex strap by my side. It was time to return home and time to consider how best to avenge my John.
The sword tingled in my hand, and raindrops steamed off its gleaming metal as I ran, ready to embrace the comfort of family, once again. And ready to embrace any challenge the Gods might set for me.
Purple heather crackles under my mud-crusted feet as I tramp downwards towards our small, grey dwellings. And the rain begins to fall, thunder booming from some distance away, and I know it will be with me soon. I must make haste. I’ve no fear of the weather but I’ve fear of the people who I’ve been told are following the storm to my village. Bad people who want to take all that’s good and turn it into all that’s not. I pick up speed, almost stumbling over stones and bumps in the ground and I come upon a sheep, forlorn and unusually friendly to me, but having no time to pet it, I shoo it back towards its herd. Then, looking up, I see the beauty of what lies below me in this summer-green valley, framed by hills and mountains of such splendour. I’m proud that this is my home and I will defend it, my kinsmen and kinswomen, with my life if need be.
I am Fionna, my father’s daughter, my mother’s mischievous spirit child and my young brother Ewan’s support at all times. Fionna Armstrong. Strong of arm but not of head, my father would say. But many would disagree. It is of no matter. We are all strong in Darkhaven, our clan’s village. But enemies we have aplenty amongst those who covet fertile valleys and water that sparkles clear, come rain or shine.
I cross the dried up mountain stream bed and my feet kick against an uncommon hardness. I look down at the intrusive shape and discover the hilt of a sword, plunged deep into the peat-topped land. Is it a trap? Are there enemies at hand? It is a simple sword; simple and strong – as I am – and as I slide the blade from the flesh-like peat, it’s clear that the sharpness of the blade has not been affected from its time in the ground. The handle is plain with the exception of two small carvings, and it is a long blade also: long and heavy. But when I fully extract it from the ground it lightens. One hand. Both hands. I was made for this weapon and it was made for me. I examine my find closely and understand how it hadn’t been found before now. A rock has been misplaced from the bed of the stream, uncovering the hilt of a sword not newly placed. Moss and lichen had touched the blade and handle and seasons changed the metal’s colour a little, staining it in shades of heather and peat. Off the path in rarely travelled land, I was truly fortunate to have found this magnificent thing, perhaps placed here in this fertile moorland, in honour of Gods or Goddesses past.
It felt as though it was meant to be. A destiny of sorts, even? I wasn’t usually given to such meanderings of the mind, but the moment I’d stumbled over the sword I felt deep in my bones that I was to move it, to take it back with me and to use as need be.
It wasn’t comfortable to run with the sword tucked away deep underneath my cloak, and I knew I ran the risk of again stumbling and injuring myself. But I had no choice. I could not leave it. This sword was already speaking to me, instructing me, strengthening me… As I ran, I knew the thunder was nearing, their drums of warning banging to alert village and crops and livestock of what catastrophe would be brought in by the storm.
I ran, with no concern for anything other than my return home. I ran with the sure feeling that if I didn’t run there would be blood on my hands and pain in the hearts of all I knew.
As I neared the village, there were calls to me. I ignored all sounds and objects in my path – till I arrived home. My mother’s usual welcoming expression transformed to shock as I sought to hide the incredible sword and told my mother hurriedly all I knew of the weapon and its placement, and about the clan wars soon to be brought by the wind.
‘We’d better do something, Fionna. Your feelings are always true and we ignore them at our peril. The omen of the discovered sword is powerful, and that storm is stronger than it was. I sense something also, but…’ Mother sighed and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear.
I moved towards her and we hugged because there was nothing more to do. Mother left the house to tell her brother, and returned, shaking her head. Our ‘better do something,’ had become ‘nothing can be done just yet,’ because we were ignorant of our enemy and when they might arrive. When my father and brother returned from their working, we ate barley and mutton broth with nettle tops. And shortly after, dried apples and herbs with honey and roots from the fields. It would be a sustaining meal to strengthen us for the battle we were sure was approaching.
The rumbles came upon us harder and faster. Louder with every passing moment. And out of the mist that was gathering with the strengthening of the rain came a shout or two. It was impossible to tell who was shouting and from where. Then my uncle’s voice rang loud and clear, calling us out.
‘Do I use the sword?’ I asked the air. Both the Gods in my head and my Goddess mother answered, ‘Use it’. My father shouted, ‘Do it, Fionna, be grand,’ and left, his own broadsword in hand.
I scrambled for my weapon’s hiding place and the noise came to me more clearly. The sound of horses’ hooves accentuated the thunder’s crashes, and through it all came the sounds of men’s voices like the bellows of wild pigs. Loud and deep and rough, the noise was. Shouting sounds of fear and devilment.
Mother and Ewan grabbed their own swords as they made haste through the door. Mother’s hand circled my waist briefly as she passed, and she pulled me back just for a moment.
‘Be strong,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I replied, and she kissed my long red hair, flecked with straw and dust from the fields.
‘Be grand,’ I said.
‘Be grand.’ Mother ran, unbending and uncollapsed, into the throng of kinsmen and kinswomen we would protect with our lives and with our dignity.
How I wished now for heather under my heels and the soft trickle of a mountain stream from which to take my fill of life-giving liquid; how I wished for peace and harmony and whispered conversations of love in woodland clearings. But this was real. Conflict was as real and as necessary as air was to breathe and water to drink.
Peace was merely a lull between times of conflict, and merely a time to rest and to re-gather strength. The sword had appeared to me for a reason – and if I was to die that day then so be it. I would die with sword in hand and honour in heart.
My mother ran three paces ahead of me as we left our home behind, disappearing into the mist, unknowing of who, if any, might return. I could see them now as well as hear them, those enemies and tribesmen without honour. The men and women we must fight to ensure the safety of our own. And, feet on our native lands and with sword in hand, I was imbued with a power I couldn’t explain.
I shouted ‘Ewan,’ and ran to catch him up, our swords raised, our hearts pumping strong and fearless. We were fearless, even of death. And I wasn’t mistaken, but a green gold light glowed from the tip of my weapon. I closed my eyes, lifted up my arms in simultaneous submission and attack and shouted to the skies – ‘Protect. Honour us. We will be grand’.