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Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: violence/gore)
West coast of the Skalderlund –
Skibergekop docks




Emme walked high above the rocks and the foaming water. The sun was setting beyond the ragged arms of the bay, turning the sea orange and iron. Dwarf pines clung to the rocks of the mountain, high above Emme’s head, their branches atremble in the wind.

At last the path turned inland again, switching back on itself many times, dropping to the sheltered inlet where ships docked. Emme could see her house from where she stood. She could also see the squat block of a tower, the kop that guarded Skibergekop, sitting across the harbour.

The cliff path was an unnecessary and dangerous detour, but it meant that nobody could see her coming and going, or ask about the tears in her eyes.

Now it was time to face what was coming. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and turned off the path into a thin belt of firs. A few moments later she found the rock face of the crag and the clearing where her elders were already waiting, talking in hushed voices despite the screen of trees and the distance to the kop. Emme’s father saw her at once and met her eyes, smiling slightly despite the sadness in his gaze.

‘Emme!’ Riun Eswelt stood and greeted her, ‘we’ve been waiting for you. Come, come, sit by your father.’

Emme sat on the halved log next to her father. He reached down and gave her hand a quick squeeze. Riun looked around the small group. His smile faded as he began to speak.

‘Gertha Ramusdatte would have liked to have been here tonight but she is grieving. Her son, Ramus, has been sent to the Morskyde Isle.’

There was a collective noise of sympathy. Emme glanced at her father but said nothing. Riun’s fists clenched as he went on. ‘They’ve taken all our sons to dig the black fire. How many come back from the isle? Ramus was fourteen. A few months your senior, Emme. They have not yet resorted to sending daughters, but what if they do? What if the Damskalde finds tomorrow that not enough of the cursed stuff is making its way to the Stonewood? What if our wives are made to join the dockhands, putting black fire in jars, feeling the years shorten in their veins?’

Emme winced. Riun noticed and calmed himself. ‘We can only plot for so long. Jorve Damskalde’s army needs changesmiths. Changesmiths need morskyde to work their craft. Without the black fire and those that can work it, how would Jorve keep his headmen in line? How would he take the warm northland away from the Owerisi?

‘I say we can only plan for so long. The King is sending his Harthers and his soldiers north. The roads have never been so empty between here and Stone-Storharthen. So we take action.’

Riun sat down. Karla Birksdatte stood to speak, the grey tresses of her hair seeming silver in the failing light. ‘Riun, we all agree, I think. But we’ve talked of assassins this and assassins that for years, my dear, since we started these meetings. Who can do what needs to be done? No one has ever come close to killing Damskalde.’

‘They say he wears a morskyde charm that makes him immortal,’ Riun said.

Karla dismissed the idea. ‘Shit that may be and shit I believe it is, but to kill the King – it is an asking that puts life in the balance. We have no lives to spare.’

‘We have no lives at all.’ Anvar stood up. He caught his daughter’s eye and Emme looked away. ‘Myself least of all. I am dying. I will be dead before winter.’

‘Anvar...!’ Karla raised a hand to her mouth. Riun half rose from his seat. Elga Helmswife looked from Anvar to Emme and back, her eyes bright with emotion.

‘I knew. He told me,’ Emme said, to their gazes away. She did not want to be hugged or comforted. She could meet her father’s eyes, that was all. He looked on her with pride and nodded. She nodded back, the slightest movement.

‘I would go.’ Anvar continued. ‘No risk to my life matters. But I cannot kill the Damskalde. I will weaken too soon. The task will take time, time I do not have. But...Emme...Emme has time. Soon she will have no father, no shelter, nothing but time.’

The shock this statement brought was greater still than the last. ‘She’s a child!’ Karla protested.

‘No shelter? We would... of course we would take her,’ Elga spoke across the older woman, ‘Helm and myself, how could we not?’

‘She is not a child.’ Anvar looked weak. Emme did not want to believe it but she could see it now, in his bent posture. He seemed tired and her heart ached for him. ‘She has had her first red month. She is a woman...’

‘A maid!’ Karla’s grey hair came loose of her tresses as she shook with emotion, though Emme could not see if it was more anger or sorrow that moved her. ‘She is not an assassin!’

‘Neither is my father. Do you know an assassin we could ask?’ Emme found herself speaking. ‘Father would be asked questions – Riun the same, and he would be missed, reported. I can disappear. Maidens are sent off for marriage often enough. Our hut belongs to the kop and when father... when father dies...’ Emme began to struggle. Unborn tears hurt her eyes. She blinked and carried on. ‘When father dies, I will lose him and the hut both.

‘Elga, thank you. But you can’t feed me as well as yourselves. If Headman Ochse finds you harbouring me... orphaned boys go to the ships and orphaned girls to the kop. I do not want to slave, in a kitchen or a bed!’

‘But sweetheart...’ Elga put out a hand as if to reach Emme that way, ‘how can you think... to kill a man... a king!’

‘I will attract fewer eyes. Fewer questions,’ Emme insisted. Anvar nodded, his eyes glistening. Elga shook her head but said nothing more. Anvar put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder and smiled down at her.

‘Emme is right. I have spoken to Rerrik, on the docks. He is bound for Morskyde Isle, then Hvaldrekop, where he goes inland. He will get to Stone-Storharthen, this year or the next. Rerrik has been breaking king’s-law longer than we, and he will know a way. He will bring the tools to Emme and Emme will do it, if she can.’

‘If she’s caught, they will kill her,’ Riun said bluntly. ‘Worse than that, most like. Torment. Rape.’

‘You’ll not scare me.’ Emme looked him in the eye. She was barely fourteen, but he couldn’t meet the fierceness in her. ‘I will face that anyway and you know it. Ochse is a cruel headman.’

‘There is no safety for a maid in the kop,’ Karla conceded.

‘It is settled.’ Anvar stood behind Emme, his hands protective on her shoulders. ‘Before I begin to waste away, she will take the Stonewood road. This week. I do not want her memory of me lessened by... the way I will become. She goes this week. To the Stonewood and the citadel.’

Emme steeled herself, but the elders raised no protest. She was going to Stone-Storharthen.
Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: violence/gore and strong language)
Southern Oweris on the Rissiyan Peninsula –
The edge of the Verdalund



One of them was already bleeding.

Obrin watched with growing interest as the two men circled each other at the crossroads. The ground was uneven with cart-rucks, the mud dry under the sun. The younger duellist seemed to see with his feet, moving light and easy. His sword was dripping.

His opponent was fully armoured on his torso, broader and a head taller. Even his sword was larger. His feet scuffed at the dirt as he tried to reach the younger man with lunging swings. In Obrin’s estimation the man was probably not from nobility, a lowborn who had risen to become a pactor, swearing his sword to some minor lord.

The big pactor missed, stumbled. The other man’s thinner blade nicked him between the plates of his suit. The pactor’s arm dropped. So did his shield.

The young swordsman turned aside as he came on, whirling away from the big man’s last dogged swing. His arm straightened and his blade flashed. The point and a few inches tore into the pactor’s neck from the side. The blood began to bubble, then squirt, washing across the big man’s breastplate as he fell sideways, his shield arm raised, empty hand reaching.

The victor bowed, almost in parody of tradition. His breathing showed that he had been pressed hard by the fight. Obrin could tell that if the younger man had been held longer, he might have been the loser. The boy – he couldn’t be older than sixteen – was a good fighter, but by no means exceptional. Fast, but not strong.

Without further ceremony, the boy sheathed his sword and knelt to strip the armour from his foe. The watchers began to return to their business, the farrier and the carter arguing over their wager. Obrin waited until the attention of most was elsewhere and slipped forward to talk to the duellist.

‘Well fought.’

‘Thanks. Friend.’ The boy’s voice sounded young, to match his looks. He frowned warily up at Obrin, taking in the elder man’s battered mail, the long knife at his belt. The boy had green eyes, quick to take in detail. ‘Is that a longbow?’

Obrin’s longbow was unstrung, wrapped in canvas across his back.

‘Yes. Sharp eyes, you’ve got. Are you an archer then, as well as a sword?’

‘No. You going to help me with this?’  the boy gestured at the dead pactor. He’d got the breastplate off and was working on the backplate straps.

‘No lad. I’d rather not. I’ll drink with you when you’ve sold the steel, but I don’t want to see the sharp end of frontier law – the war’s not far away lad. They’ll hang or head you for stealing.’

‘It’s mine by right!’ The boy stood up, affronted. ‘All the Lords and the Three Fathers decreed that a contest of honour gives the victor right ownership of a pactor’s armour. If he’d had a horse, that would be mine as well!’

Obrin smiled. ‘Their law, lad, not ours. The contest of honour is for the pactors. Are you a pactor?’ The boy shook his head. ‘No. So if another sworn man comes along; a captain or just someone that knew this poor sod, and wants your head for it, they’d get it.’

‘Shit.’ The boy looked around quickly, then got down to pull off the man’s mail coat. ‘This’ll be the last one then. Thank you, Coz.’

Obrin laughed, ‘I’m near twice your age, so don’t make me your cousin. You’ve done this before?’

‘Every inn along the coldroad from Greenwheat Keep to here. Four men. Never get the armour’s worth, of course, but I get it off my hands and get to sleep on feathers. And what do you do, Uncle?’

‘I’m not your uncle either. Call me Obrin, or Bowman.’ Obrin waited for the boy to gather up his spoils. They walked off the crossroads and across the yellowed grass towards the inn.

‘Ameryn,’ the boy said at last. ‘My name.’ He seemed loath to give it.

‘Worried that will mean something to someone? I reckon you’ve come further than from Greenwheat. Am I right?’

Ameryn looked evasive but he was smiling. ‘Buy me beer and we’ll see where I come from.’ He shook his dark fringe out of his eyes, keeping his grip on the pillaged armour. ‘Looks like some new freemen are in off the coldroad. Might be one of them needs some good steel.’

Obrin looked back over his shoulder at the crossroads. The pactor was diminished, seeming naked despite his padding. Ameryn had left the boots, at least, but one of the peasants or another wayfarer would get them. Two labourers were already dragging the corpse to the side of the road, laying it in the shade of a hayrick. One of them straightened and shielded his eyes from the high sun, staring darkly back at Obrin. The bowman shrugged slightly and turned back to the inn.

The innkeep poured dark beer into clay tankards and left them to it. Obrin drank and found it was clean and full flavoured, which was a surprise.

‘I’ve not had a drink this good since Delverkeep. In a little hamlet just off the coldroad, good strong cider they gave me. This is good too, but I didn’t have to pay for the cider.’

‘You stole it?’ Ameryn asked.

‘No lad. They gave it me. A gift for going to join the fight, down in the Verdalund.’

Obrin mused on the plan as he drank. He still wasn’t sure of it. The bloody Verdalund. A hundred years ago it had been Sufower, the southern stretch of Oweris. What’s it to me? Hay and root crops, and some good vines in the warmer north, near Greenwheat town. Not my town, not my land. But a hundred years before that, the whole of the Skalderlund had been Rissiyan. Rissiyans would fight for it, even if they had to fight the Skaldermen.

‘Bloody Skaldermen,’ Obrin said aloud.

‘You hate them, do you?’ Ameryn asked, bored, eyes scanning the inn.

‘Nah. Not as such.’ Obrin tipped back his tankard. ‘I’ll fight ‘em, kill ‘em if I can. If I can get paid to do it, at least. I’m going south to find a decent company. If they’ll have me I’ll sign up. It’s not got much to do with hate. I’m too well seasoned to hate the men I kill.’

Ameryn didn’t seem that interested. Obrin cursed the young for their youth.

‘Well I have bought you beer, lad, like you asked. Where’s home to you?’

‘You first, Bowman.’ Ameryn’s reluctance to talk about himself seemed a little forced. Obrin shrugged.

‘Alright. So I’m from Yastaris. Big land, nearly as big as here. East and north.’ Obrin found himself doing that fool thing men did, trying to draw a map in the air with his hands.

‘I know where Yastaris is,’ Ameryn said scornfully. ‘What are you doing in Oweris?’

‘You’ve been educated then. Most people here don’t know what lies twenty miles away. And I’m here to earn a fortune by the stretch of my bow. And you’ve still not told me where you’re from.’

Ameryn shrugged, making a show of draining the very last of his beer from the tankard. Obrin snorted, amused by the lad’s bravado, and waved over one of the inn’s girls.

‘More beer for both, fill us up, pet. You’d like Yastaris, lad. The sun is warm in the north, and it’s all easy slopes and olive groves.’

They said that in the south, the mists would freeze solid, binding the forest together, tree to tree. Obrin doubted that tale, but cold was cold. He was not marching south for the weather.

Before Obrin could try the boy for more of his past, more armed freemen came into the inn, and Ameryn became focused on selling his loot. He sold the greaves and pauldrons to an infantryman from Lord Randin Westower’s foot regiment. The plate harness went to a captain from Lord Pollyn Daysong’s pikes, for twenty silver risi. It wasn’t quarter of what the armour was worth, but the man looked suspicious and Ameryn didn’t seem to want to give him a reason to ask questions. Understandable. Lord Daysong would lose his lands if the Skaldermen won through and came north. If Ameryn was accused of murder or even theft, the lord wouldn’t hesitate to take his head.

‘I’m from Ousinghall,’ Ameryn told Obrin halfway down his third tankard, with all the armour sold, ‘but my mother came from Silrada. I favour her, looks-wise.’

‘Freeangbhari lass was she?’ Obrin asked. ‘You’ve the right colouring. Skin with a touch of sand, my papa would call it. Olive-dark.’

‘Does it matter?’ Ameryn asked tersely. He put his drink down.

‘Not a bit.’ There was silence between them for a while, while the inn filled up with officers and their men from the road. Obrin drank comfortably, unbothered by his companion’s attitude. He wondered where the lords’ regiments were making camp.

‘So you’re bound south to fight?’ Ameryn asked at last, as if he hadn’t believed the longbowman the first time.

‘If I can find the right company to march with, yes. Otherwise I’ll keep myself to myself. The risk of death is one thing, but I don’t aim to fight under fool pactors who’ll get me killed quick, or lords who’ll get me killed quicker.’

‘I heard the Lord of Westower is a good commander.’

‘A successful one, yes.’ Obrin chuckled. ‘He earned that reputation fighting the lords of Highower, and he won all his battles. Spent too many men to do it. Some lords will spend men like copper, but I’m worth more to me than coin. A free company won’t waste its men if it can help it. It’s good to fight a war you can win, as long as it’s a war you can survive. No coin in the other sort, not that you can spend afterwards.’

Ameryn considered Obrin over the rim of his tankard. ‘You’ve no more honour than me, Bowman.’

‘Leave honour for the pactors. Talking of sworn men, it’s not many lowborn lads that can fight and kill a proper warrior like you did – you’ve been trained. I know it. C’mon, tell Obrin, and he’ll keep it to himself.’

‘Do keep it to yourself, or you’ll die before you ever smell a Skalderman.’ Ameryn grinned to show how little he meant it. ‘I was an armiger for Gorday Cassimer.’

An Armiger. It made sense. Ameryn moved like he’d been trained to fight and he had natural talent, but he didn’t have the character of a pactor. He lacked the finish that came with the weight of baptismal honour; the refusal to fail.

‘Did you ride with Pactor Cassimer at Stow Point?’

Ameryn scowled. ‘No. I’m not much good on horseback. He took his son. I was a better armiger than Verilyn but he always out-tilted me. I’d put him on his back in the melee though, that’s for damn sure.’

‘When did you get out of his service?’

‘When I deflowered his niece at harvest feast.’

Obrin snorted dark beer as he laughed. He put the tankard down and wiped his mouth and nose, still chuckling. ‘That would get you out of his service, aye.’

‘She wanted me as much as I wanted her.’ Ameryn was melancholy, Obrin saw. The boy was staring across the dark room, his hair falling across his eyes. ‘She had to cry rape, didn’t she? Else Gorday would have given her to the Bowl Sisters. He’s very religious. Fornication is a sin.’

‘So is lying about something like rape,’ Obrin pointed out. ‘You should have run away with her if you wanted her that bad. Or otherwise kept it in your britches.’

‘I don’t blame her for it.’ There was a slight quaver in Ameryn’s voice. He shook himself and tipped back the last of his beer.

‘I fucking would.’ Obrin watched his companion with an odd sense of compassion. The boy wasn’t anything to him, sure, but he was a poor little fool. Some advice couldn’t hurt him. For a moment Obrin considered suggesting that Ameryn join him in searching for a banner to fight under, but he dismissed the idea at once. He was a veteran and he knew green boys well. Ameryn wouldn’t last in the press, against a veteran Skaldermen army.

A lot of green boys would die before summer ended, green boys fighting over green land. They would bleed red.

‘You should go north,’ Obrin said after a while, ‘forget about the girl. Silly cunny would only have brought you grief. Or children. Or both, most like. Go north, Penhower, or Owervayle. Silrada maybe. See the city your mother came from.’

Ameryn considered the advice, turning the empty tankard in his hand, so that the clay grated against the table. His eyes were distant but he nodded. ‘Yes. Maybe I will. Maybe I should. I’ll never be a pactor, but there’s other work for an ordinary blade in Silrada.’

‘So I hear.’

‘Thanks, Obrin. What will you do?’

Obrin looked into the depths of his beer and shrugged. ‘Drink this up. Find a company. Loose arrows at some hairy Skaldermen. Live and come back north with money in my purse, or die and see if my spirit really does get poured into God, like the Bowl Brothers say.’

‘Luck, Bowman Obrin.’ Ameryn gripped the older man’s arm as he rose.

‘Aye. Luck, Ameryn of Ousinghall.’

Try not to get killed.
Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: violence/gore)
‘I can’t feel my feet,’ Gabriel said.

His pale pink feet were mapped with blue veins, shrouded mercifully by his carpet slippers. His ankles, chafed and reddened, were now numb too, and his hands were losing sensation. Everywhere else, a tingling in the skin, unpleasant, like the onset of pins-and-needles. A cold sweat broke out and Gabriel shivered, suddenly, violently.

Sam sat across the coffee table from Gabriel and watched.

When the numbness stole across Gabriel completely, it was like anaesthetic, only he was still awake. He lay, contorted into an awkward position, old body half-in and half-out of the armchair, arm stretched across the coffee table, head level with his empty glass.

Light came through the drawn curtains across the room. Gabriel could see them, refracted through his empty coffee glass, as if the dark fabric had been poured in. He’d closed the curtains to keep out the bright sunlight, but somehow, it poured in anyway, filling and blurring his vision. Slowly, the glass, the sugar-bowl, and the teaspoon, still heaped with grains of Demerara sugar, faded. His eyes were succumbing last of all.

His body felt like a heap of hard sponge, tightly encased in latex. There was no surface feeling, no sense of cold or warmth, no contact with the armchair or coffee table, just the slight compression of his numbed weight and the darkness of being trapped in his own head.
                                     
                                       

Gabriel sat in his battered armchair, cigarette smoke coiling around him as he took a tremble-fingered drag. The room was comfortably dark, most of the bright daylight of the outside world blocked by the black curtains across the window that overlooked the little bungalow’s garden.

Gabriel glanced at the clock. Five minutes.

With some effort, he got back to his feet, shuffling across the room to the curtains, drawing them back enough to open the window a crack. He blinked in the bright light, turning his head aside as he tossed the stub of his cigarette out into the garden. The untidy grass beneath the window was littered with faded orange cigarette stubs. Gabriel closed the window, then the curtains, trying to block out as much brightness as possible.

There was a polite knocking at the door. Gabriel shuffled to open it, slippers making a soft rubbing sound on the threadbare carpet. The locks clicked back, one by one.

‘Sam!’ Gabriel wheezed, shaking Sam’s hand, inviting him in with a feeble pull. Sam was in his late twenties, good looking, stylish without any sense of pretence. His smile always made Gabriel feel grateful.

‘Come in, come in. How are you? Has it been very busy at the hospital? Always is, this time of year, I seem to remember…’

Sam entered the close gloom. He took off his shoes and hung his vintage jacket on the plastic coat-hook screwed into the wall by the door. His vivid socks looked out of place on the faded patterned carpet.

‘Shall I draw the curtains, let some light in?’ Sam asked.

‘No. Too bright.’ Like every other time you’ve asked. Gabriel returned to his seat, which faced a matching couch across the coffee table. He sank slowly into the brown embrace of the armchair, breath creaking along with the tired frame of the old furniture.

‘Shall I make us some coffee, Doctor Mann?’ Sam asked.

‘Godssakes boy, call me Gabriel. I’m not practicing any more. How are your studies?’

‘I receive my Fellowship at the end of the month,’ Sam said, moving into the small kitchen. Gabriel heard the kettle and the clatter of a tray on the slightly sticky countertop.

‘Oh yeah?’ Gabriel turned awkwardly in the armchair so he could see Sam through the door. ‘Well done lad, congratulations. You’ll make a fine pathologist. Very fine.’ He watched and waited, blinking owlishly as Sam brought in the tray, with the cafetière and two tall glasses, low handled.

‘You always make good coffee,’ Gabriel said, watching as Sam slowly pushed down on the plunge, pressing the filter to the bottom so that the coffee stood, dark and clear. ‘Fellowship, eh? God, that brings back memories. It’s no small thing. Royal College of Pathologists. Royal.’ He emphasised the word, leaning back in the armchair.

Sam smiled modestly. ‘I may be able to stay in Coventry, retain my residency. But I’ve been offered something in the clinical pathology department at Birmingham,’ Sam stopped halfway towards pouring coffee into Gabriel’s glass. ‘Bugger. Forgot the sugar.’ He went back into the kitchen.

‘Well, you’ll do well wherever you go, I’m sure,’ Gabriel called. ‘You always were a promising student, you know.’ Too clever by half. Everyone’s bloody favourite.

Gabriel could see Sam filling a floral china bowl with Demerara sugar. ‘You were a good teacher. A great doctor, Gabriel.’

Flattery. ‘I was.’ Gabriel coughed suddenly, curling up with the force of the spasms. After a moment or so the fit passed and he reached for a cigarette. ‘Three– God, was that only three years ago, Sam?’

Sam coughed as well, perhaps in sympathy. He returned with the sugar bowl. ‘Nearly four. Do you have to smoke, Gabriel?’

‘With coffee, yes, I do.’

‘I can’t believe there are still doctors who smoke,’ Sam mused, pouring the coffee and offering sugar. Gabriel accepted two, then left a spoonful beside his glass in case he wanted more. ‘Let alone pathologists who smoke,’ Sam continued.

‘Fuck it. I retired late. Not much life expectancy for a doctor after retirement, you know. You really were a good student,’ Gabriel went on. ‘Uncanny, a quick study.’ He raised the coffee glass to his lips and drank carefully, the folds of skin at his neck bobbing, hands trembling a little with the effort. ‘You put up with all my shit. I know I could be a bit much at times.’

‘You were a bit fierce,’ Sam acknowledged. Gabriel wondered if he was being kind out of pity.

‘You could take it though,’ Gabriel said. ‘You were bright, thick-skinned. You could take it.’

‘Not everyone could,’ Sam said mildly, looking around the room, taking in the dusty bookshelves and piles of discarded copies of The Lancet.

Not everyone? Gabriel’s suspicions flared. ‘Why do you come and visit?’ He asked, impulsively, stubbing out his cigarette.

Sam wrinkled his smooth brow. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You’re top of your class, handsome, young, popular. I’m an old dog with knackered lungs and no friends. Why do you come here every week?’

Sam’s expression was closed, hard to read.

‘You were my teacher.’

‘For barely a year.’

‘My first teacher.’

‘You had others.’

‘Nobody pushed me as hard as you.’

‘I pushed everyone hard!’ Gabriel’s voice crackled as he raised it, the sound of his weary lungs suffusing the shout. ‘Everybody else hated me for it. I had to retire…’

There was a long quiet. Sam said nothing, but his lips twitched slightly. Gabriel saw.

‘You come here every week and treat me kindly. But I can’t help think you’re here to torture me with politeness, smother me with false respect! Or maybe you’re just curious. Observe the old man as he dies, is that it? You despised me back then. So why are you here now?’

The rant dissolved into wheezing and a series of small, piteous coughs.

‘You did push everyone hard,’ Sam said at last, his cool blue eyes dispassionate, professionally detached, ignoring the spittle lacing Gabriel’s stubbly chin. ‘Some might say you bullied people. Piled the stress on.’

Gabriel shuddered. For weeks he’d been wondering. I should have known. It was too easy. Pitifully easy, to accept friendship when it was offered, like a glass of water in the desert.

‘It wasn’t my fault.’ He sounded petulant, even to himself. He saw the quiver of amusement around Sam’s thin mouth.

‘What wasn’t your fault?’ Sam was as calm as if he were asking about a patient.

‘You know. The girl.’ Don’t you play with me, puppy.

What about which girl wasn’t your fault?’ Sam was merciless. Measured. Gabriel clenched his fist and sucked down a few gulps of coffee to stave off another coughing fit.

‘Jessica. Hadley. Jessica Hadley. She killed herself. Herself,’ Gabriel said defiantly. ‘You can’t say I drove her to it – nobody put the needle in her hand and nobody made her do it, she did it herself.’ A long silence.

‘Was she too weak, Doctor Mann?’ Sam asked.

‘I don’t…I don’t want to talk about this.’ Gabriel hugged himself into the armchair, looking away. It wasn’t fair. He was old and sick.

‘Do you remember, in my first year with you, what I wanted to do?’ Sam asked, suddenly cheerful again. Gabriel was unnerved by the change.

‘What you wanted to do?’

‘You know, my specialism.’

‘Oh. You wanted to be a coroner, didn’t you? Why? What’s it got to do with…’

‘You didn’t want to talk about Jessica. I’ve changed the subject,’ Sam said lightly.

‘Oh. Thank you.’ Gabriel drank the last of his coffee, put the glass down next to the spoon, still heaped with sugar. He felt shaken, but maybe the assault was over. ‘You, uh, you wanted to focus on post-mortem pathology, but I advised against it.’

‘That’s right. I wasn’t best suited to it. You were right.’ Sam nodded, smiling at the memory. ‘I just do better with living bodies than dead ones, I suppose. How was your coffee?’

Gabriel felt a sudden chill run through him, like something turning over in his stomach. He looked down at his empty glass. A paranoia writhed to the surface.

‘Sam…’

‘Yes, Doctor Mann?’

‘What did you make your specialism, in the end?’

‘Molecular pathology.’

Gabriel swallowed. He tasted sweet coffee, lingering on his tongue.

‘Sam.’

‘Yes, Doctor Mann?’

‘What did you put in my coffee?’

Sam’s smile crept into place. He folded his hands in front of him, leaning forward. Gabriel found himself looking deep into those cool eyes. ‘What are you saying? Gabriel?’

‘I want to know.’ Gabriel stuck out his bottom lip to stop it from trembling. ‘If you’ve fucking killed me, I want to know. I want to know what. I want to know how.’

‘Pathologically speaking?’

Certainty replaced paranoia. It was worse.

Sam smiled again, but it was more bitter than coffee, joyless and angry. ‘We were talking earlier about Jessica. Shall we make a deal, Doctor?’

‘What deal? Tell me…you fuck!’ Gabriel’s voice was broken by a heaving cough.

‘If you admit that you bullied Jessica Hadley until she committed suicide, I’ll tell you how you’re going to die.’

The chill of fear ballooned inside Gabriel, making him want to scream.

‘Not me…she… Not my fucking fault!’ He coughed again. Sam’s lip curled in response, a predatory tic, almost a snarl.

‘Then maybe you can guess. No doubt you’re trying to think about the various pathogens I might have slipped into your coffee. I’m happy to sit here and watch you flounder, grasping at straw after straw, disease after obscure disease.’

‘For the love of God, Sam, she’s dead, it can’t be helped…’ Fuck her! Fuck you!

‘You haven’t got long,’ Sam spat.

For a long time they sat in silence, Gabriel concentrating on his breathing. There were viruses capable of surviving high temperatures. Most of course, were not lethal…

‘It was my fault,’ Gabriel said, dully. ‘I didn’t know she would kill herself, but I was cruel. I was a bully. It was my fault.’

Sam nodded slowly, eyes glittering. ‘Generation after generation of students suffered your ego, your projected frustrations. Most dropped out. Young students, trying to make themselves into new, better forms of themselves, to make a difference. They believe in that, live for it. You may as well have killed Jessica outright.’

‘Killing me doesn’t make it right!’

‘No. Your guilt makes this easier, but it isn’t the reason why.’ Sam dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand.

‘Then why?’ Gabriel felt sick, and the feeling of cold had spread to his hands and feet.

‘Because you’re old.’

Gabriel stared.

‘You’re old, you haven’t got much left, and it’s wasted. You’re already decaying and you’re not even dead.’ Sam’s hands gestured as if he was highlighting his old teacher’s body, every point of decay and dissolution.

‘It’s not a virus, if that’s what you were thinking,’ Sam said. ‘It’s not bacterial either. Nor fungal. I didn’t get anything from the hospital, no tissue samples, no swiped biopsies. I wouldn’t even call it a disease, what I’ve given you.’

‘What is it?’ Gabriel’s voice was the whisper of defeat. The young man opposite him was strong – muscle bound to healthy bones, clean tissue throughout his organs, a set of unspoiled lungs. A specimen that put Gabriel to shame.

‘You remember the speech you made, first lesson of yours I ever took?’

‘What pathogen, Sam?’

‘I remember it. We all had the potential to succeed, you said, as long as we received the wisdom on offer – yes, you used the word wisdom – offered by the doctors teaching us. That if we came through, received our fellowship at the end of our long years of study, it would be because we had taken on the knowledge of our elders. A new generation, made strong by the old one.’

‘What is it?’ Gabriel was pleading.

‘You made that awful joke, that it would be as if a part of yourself was inside us. You winked at the pretty girls, didn’t you? We all had to “contract the diseases of effort and knowledge”. Utter bullshit, but it amused me. Impressed me even.’

‘Please, Sam. What have you done to me?’

‘I have put a part of myself inside you.’ Sam’s eyes were glittering again. ‘One day, I’ll be the one dying, and then perhaps some lucky pathologist will get to examine me. See, I’m unique.’

Gabriel blinked in incomprehension. There was an odd prickling in his palms, in his feet.

Sam leant forward and coughed lightly, almost elegantly, into his hand. He held his hand above the coffee table and let something run between his fingers. Small, pale brown grains sprinkled across the surface of the table, joining a smattering of coffee grounds beside Gabriel’s glass. Very slowly, Sam nudged the teaspoon, still loaded with its little pile of golden brown sugar.

‘A handful of these mixed in with your sugar. Every week. For weeks. I’ve enjoyed the process of talking to you, teasing out details of your life, but I needed to wait. It wasn’t going to work yet, not until today.’

‘What is it?’ Gabriel stared at the spoonful of sugar. ‘What are they?’ Through the screaming wall of fear bearing down on him, there still flickered that old curiosity.

Sam licked his lips. ‘Eggs.’

He sat back in the sofa, pleased with himself.

Gabriel opened his mouth to protest the impossibility of that, but a realisation stopped him.

‘I can’t feel my feet,’ Gabriel said.

                                       

Sam watched Gabriel twist and buck as the process forced him into paralysis.
Whistling to himself, Sam got up and walked around the coffee table. He took hold of Gabriel’s shoulders and manhandled him back into the armchair. The thin muscles twitched and clenched under Sam’s hands. Gabriel’s eyes were open, but were misting, turning grey.

‘I know you’re still there, though I don’t know if you can hear me,’ Sam said, returning to the sofa. ‘But for what it is worth, I will stay with you throughout this. You won’t be alone. You won’t feel anything. And then, there won’t be anything to feel.’

He sat, glanced at his watch, settled down to wait.

Gabriel’s motionless body began to move. His chest heaved up and down, as if due to deep breathing, though the pattern was irregular, odd. His stomach, bulging obscenely, began to sink. His head rocked forward, chin over the collarbone, limp.

After an hour of watching and waiting, Sam was rewarded with the sight of Gabriel’s torso collapsing around the frame of his ribs. It was like accelerated footage of decomposition. The young were voracious, and once feeding, multiplied rapidly. There was no blood.

Sam felt weak. He had waited almost too long for this.  

Gabriel’s legs and arms remained, bony and skinny as they had become in his decline, but otherwise untouched. The good stuff was in the abdomen and the chest. Even those diseased lungs had value. Now, Gabriel’s corpse was like a glove without a hand in it, emptied, used up.
Eaten.

The crawling, susurrating mass moved out of the body and over the armchair like a many-legged shade, glistening in the thin light that broke through the gap between the curtains. Then, as one swarm, the new generation left the old doctor and flowed across the room in a rustling stream, flowing under the coffee table towards Sam.

Sam sat back and spread his arms, letting the colony wash up his legs and across his t-shirt, some over the fabric, some tickling his skin beneath it. His breathing was quick, ragged with excitement and anticipation.

He opened his mouth as wide as he could, as if trying to please a dentist, his head thrown back in supplication.

The colony poured into Sam in a black tide, young life returning home from the spawning ground.

It felt incredible. Sam got to his feet, revelling in the rush of energy, the sense of power and movement within him. He went to the window, standing in the thin slice of daylight that came through the closed curtains. His shadow fell on Gabriel’s corpse.

Sam pulled the curtains apart. Light flooded the room. Now, Gabriel’s body was washed with daylight. Sam picked up Gabriel’s right hand, examining the yellowed skin of his fingers.

Sam took one of Gabriel’s cigarettes and lit it.

Then he arranged a gas leak and left.
ReGeneration
Written for Memnalar's annual Halloween Prose competition: 2014 - Camera Obscura.

The image provided as stimulus for this piece is here: Outtake III Thanks to Tiganusi for an intriguing piece of photography.
I wrote the piece trying to bring together elements of horror fiction I enjoy, from Stephen's King's sense of the uncanny in the ordinary, to somewhat over-the-top science-fiction influenced horror. As it turned out, I focused on tension and dialogue as much as possible, so I'm not sure how much of my influences made it in. I involved the well-used trope of fear of death explored through old age, and added ideas brought up by the biology of reproduction, which in many species involves necrophagia, typically of the parents by the offspring. The title is a pun in line with this idea, as I hope is apparent.

Naturally, the sub-genre of body horror is an influence as well, as it joins nicely with idea of old age to express fears of mortality as well as the "gross" factor. The nature of the two characters' professions colludes with this, as pathology is arguably all about what happens to and within the body.

I hope you enjoy!
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All things burnish.
A curtain wall of cloud surrounds
toasted hills and wet black road
with buttermilk.

The blue sky is holding a long note
the warm major chord sings
before the deep breath inward.

As the terraces of cloud
blush lavender
birds wing home to glory-green:
reedbeds fat with summer,
trees reaching with a ready yawn
colouring;
suntan copper
fire-touched-fawn
plough brown.

Tumescent berries harden
crimson in banks of thorn
tweaked to tart-bright nubs
in dark thickets-

the delight of August as she dies
nipples plucked by birds
is slow and beautiful
sweetened with bouts of tears.

In this light
the raincloud greatcloak
smooths the dusk
across fire-set fields, a shade of grey
best fit for a wedding dress
vowing a warm night
and the sleep of tired lovers.
All things burnish
Written in the front passenger-seat of a mini-bus coming home to Great Yarmouth, England, from Killarney in Ireland, specifically a section of road running from the East Midlands into East Anglia.

Not sure if I like it but it is what it is.
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He hailed from a floodbowl under a map of white fuel
but did not stay there,
burning up the flat roads with his heels
to drink the wide blue yawn of Norfolk
and knock the sleep from his eyes with ivied oaks,
that stand lonesome by patchy fields.

He missed the fog, egged from swarms of fat jets
the flight-path lullaby,
the humpy-bumpy flags of barley and rapeseed
heights that hang higher than flat Norfolk,
he missed ancient houses bulging white under black thatch,
not thrust flint-square in blocks of chalk.

The salt winds cleaned sweetly in answer
to years of huffed fug,
and coastal roads, California, Scratby
webbed around the broad broads of Norfolk
smoothed his once lumpen views into green frames and blue mirrors,
blown clear, then cloudy with great white alps.
Front cover:
autumn-hills.deviantart.com/ar…

My new book, Osric Fingerbone and the Boy Murderer has now been released through Amazon.

You can find the draft chapters that formed the root of this book right here on deviantArt, under Dark Gentlemen in my gallery. Within a couple of days you will be able to buy paperback - the ebook is currently on sale!

So YAY!

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Get hold of me on here, or email me at m.i.jarvis.author@gmail.com

I'm also on facebook. www.facebook.com/michael.israel.jarvis

All the best, power to your art.

camar yo adh

xxx
  • Mood: Eager
  • Listening to: Dragonforce / Rodriguez / Bayside
  • Reading: Mistborn
  • Watching: Game of Thrones
  • Playing: Skyrim
  • Eating: Soup
  • Drinking: Ruby Rooster Craft Ale

deviantID

Autumn-Hills
Michael-Israel Jarvis
Artist | Professional | Literature
United Kingdom
Some facial hair. A living room. Glasses. Hair parting.

Sexy, no?

Current Residence: Great Yarmouth / Northampton - United Kingdom
deviantWEAR sizing preference: Erm, XL probably
Favourite genre of music: Rock usually, but anything that I like the sound of
Favourite photographer: Nomis Sivraj
Operating System: Windows 7
MP3 player of choice: iPod nano
Wallpaper of choice: Montage of Naruto characters
Skin of choice: I like my skin. It keeps my insides in.
Favourite cartoon character: Kyouraku Shunsui
Personal Quote: Fair enough.
Interests

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Add a Comment:
 
:iconchimeradragonfang:
ChimeraDragonfang Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2014
Birthday cake  icon 
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:iconautumn-hills:
Autumn-Hills Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2014  Professional Writer
Thank you! :D
Reply
:iconpaintedwolff:
PaintedWolff Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Wow I love your writing, it's much more... real, I guess (sorry, I'm bad at describing things)
Especially Skin Deep; you kept me reading, the story was fanastc. My writing's to dark  XD
Reply
:iconautumn-hills:
Autumn-Hills Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2014  Professional Writer
Cool, I'll check yours out when I get a chance!

Thank you very much!
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:iconkadarian:
kadarian Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2013
Featured here: [link]
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:iconautumn-hills:
Autumn-Hills Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2013  Professional Writer
Thank you! I'm honoured.
I will be following your blog!
I hope Gravedigger satisfies your appetite for gore and excitement.

I'm on Facebook: www.facebook.com/michael.israel.jarvis

Please stay in touch, and once again, thank you.
Reply
:icondelorean7:
Delorean7 Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2012
Happy Birthday!!!
As a small present, here's a link to a great song: [link]
Laters
-7
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:iconautumn-hills:
Autumn-Hills Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2012  Professional Writer
Twas cool!
Reply
:iconautumn-hills:
Autumn-Hills Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2012  Professional Writer
Cheers dude! Will listen to this in a bit.
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