Saturday, December 20, 2014

The MerQueen

The MerQueen, queen of the deep,
Monarch of coral-made throne,
Reigns from her fortified keep,
Built on stone and Fomor bone.
She bids lost souls to find her,
And strains them through her baleen,
The Tyre mollusks all mind her,
Charybdis calls her Queen.

The MerQueen, queen of abyss,
Monarch of seafloor so vast,
Reigns with clammy cold kiss,
All who go before the mast,
Risk becoming her vassals,
Death Knell toll and billows roll,
Dine upon pearls and mussels,
Gain the world but lose your soul.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Old Grey House

There stood once an old grey house upon a lonely hill in the moors. The house was quiet. No servants bustled downstairs, no one dusted the corners and ancient vases. No one tended the garden, it overflowed with thorns and shriveled white roses. Poison ivy filled the vegetable beds.
When night fell, no light burned in any window. Sometimes the moon gleamed on a window pane but otherwise the house was a silhouette of blackness. A scream split the night.
Sun rose upon the misted moor, grey-white fog wrapped the hills and naked trees. Grey grey grey. A white face peered out of a high window. The face belonged to a girl.
As usual, the moors were empty, the unused road nearly invisible.
The pale girl cried silent tears. The sun floated over the mists but failed to burn them off. Silence. No birds sang, no brook burbled, no wind rattled the bare tree limbs. Nothing. Red eyes longed for the horizon. Silence. Silence. Silence.
Then a bell.
The white face withdrew from the window, then peered cautiously out, searching for the source of the sweet tinkling music.
It was a young shepherd with his bell choir of sheep. He was new in these parts and sought a quiet pasture, away from the overgrazed fields around the village. He had heard only vague rumors of the old grey house, whispers, and incomplete tales. Obliviously, he led his sheep into the moors. The old grey house crept into view, rising like a broken headstone on the hill. He paused to gaze upon it.
Dead vines curled up the cracked stones, the casements were faded, the roof sagged, and the walls seemed to bulge out. Leading his sheep closer, he scanned the windows, curious if anyone lived in this ruin. He saw the white face vanish and reappear. He led his sheep closer still.
The white face peeked around a black curtain. He waved. The face disappeared. Closer still, he led his sheep, to the very edge of the garden, ringed with a low stone wall.
The shepherd eyed the windows, most with heavy moth-eaten black drapes pulled across them, the rest, shuttered. He peered at the elaborately carved door. It was rotten and splitting. An old green knocker hung listlessly, its fearsome countenance saddened with tears of corrosion.
He stepped over a low spot in the wall, about to head for the door. A movement above caught his eye. It was the pale face.
Now that he was closer, he could see that it belonged to a colorless but very beautiful girl. Her blond-nearly grey-hair tangled about her head like a halo, the stray hairs lit up like fire in the sunlight that pierced her dark window. Her lips were white and cracked, her eyes were grey and filled with an elixir of sadness, terror, and despair. But there gleamed within a small drop of hope.
The shepherd smiled at her and saluted. “Hello!” he called, his voice startling in the quietness.
The girl glanced around nervously.
“What is this house?” he asked. “Who are you?”
The girl put an urgent finger to her lips. The shepherd crossed the bramble covered garden slowly, picking his way over vicious thorns, an abandoned scythe, old wooden stakes and a rotten cart. At last he stood below the window and called up quietly, “What’s the matter?”
The girl shook her head and pointed at the road then made a motion like she was pushing something away.
She pointed at him, then at the horizon.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Go,” she said in a broken whisper.
“I’m sorry I trespassed, I didn’t know anyone lived here.”
“To live,” whispered the girl, “or to die, how sweet that would be. Alas, no one lives here.”
“Go!” she insisted. But he didn’t move.
“So you don’t live here?” he asked.
“I said no one lives here, to live is to be alive and I am not.”
“Are you a ghost?” he asked
“No. I am not alive, but I wish I could die.”
“What are you doing here?” the shepherd asked, looking up into her sad colorless eyes.
“I am trapped.”
“Then why don’t you jump out of that window and I’ll catch you?”
“You don’t want to help me.”
“But I do.”
The girl seemed about to reply when she suddenly whipped her head around as if she’d heard something inside the house. She glanced back at the shepherd and he saw terror in her eyes and a blood red tear tracing down her cheek. Then she pulled her curtains closed.
The door creaked open and he jumped.
A grey woman stood in the doorway. Her hair and skin were grey and she was dressed in a grey gown and bonnet.
“Take your prying eyes somewhere else,” the woman said, her words coming out tonelessly, like dead things.
“I’m sorry, but I—”
“Go away,” the woman said. “Leave us alone.” She slammed the rotten door closed.
The shepherd stumbled back, glancing up at the high window. He stepped on something that crunched. Looking down he saw that it was a sheep’s skull. He retreated from the garden and stood with his sheep on the grey hillside, looking up at the stark old house with its curtained windows.
At last he turned and led his sheep away over the lonely moors. The girl watched him go through a slit in her curtains.  She saw him glance back. Once. Twice. Thrice. And he was gone and she was all alone.
When the shepherd returned to the village that night he asked at the tavern if anyone knew anything about the old grey house and the beautiful colorless girl. The patrons eyed him fearfully, most of them gathering their things and leaving. But an old grey man beckoned him over. The shepherd sank into the dusty old cushion and the cloud of spiced tobacco smoke.
“Lad,” the old man said, “what do you want with the old Hopenheim House?”
“I want to know what it is and who lives there.”
“Why?” the old man asked, peering at him quizzically.
The shepherd hesitated. “Curious,” he said at last, trying to shrug.
“It’s just a house,” the old man said. “Or it was before terrible things began to happen. Lord Hopenheim had his country seat there. He was the third cousin of the well-known Lord Hopenheim, Earl of Dunwick Sladge. He had a daughter, an only daughter to whom he left the house and lands. She married well, a knighted poet, I believe, and they lived there on her inheritance for many years and had seven children, three sons and four daughters.”
The fire popped in the now empty tavern. Eerie silence settled in the blue pipe smoke. The old man puffed for a bit then went on. “The eldest son married a fine young lady but they were both killed in a carriage accident. The poet died. Fever overtook him. Not long after that, the second son was lost at sea. The inheritance was running out and so the lady remarried. They say the roses in the garden died the night she brought her new husband home.”
“Who was the new husband?” the shepherd asked.
“Oh, some fine gentleman, I presume. He was distantly related to the Hapsburgs. He had no land, but money, and lots of it. But not all the money in the world could save the eldest daughter. She died of an illness that no one was ever able to identify. The second and third daughters also died, of the same disease is all anyone can guess.”
“What about the fourth daughter? And the third son?” the shepherd asked, leaning closer.
“The youngest daughter was going to tour Europe,” the old man said sadly, “but before she left there was an incident. The last son fell from the roof of the house and died in the garden. They say the girl pushed him. A doctor came from Bamberg and declared her insane. The lord and lady keep her locked in that house and no one comes or goes.”
“No one?”
The old man shook his head. He sucked on his pipe and blew a smoke ring. “If you’re wise, you’ll stay away from that house.”
The shepherd took his sheep over the misty moors the next day and wandered in sight of the old grey house. He peered through the fog at the high window. It was black. The moor was silent. The trees stood still and black, bird-less. No breath of wind touched the grass.
He led his sheep closer. The silence was heavy, glowing. The mist seemed to thicken around the house, greyer and greyer until it solidified into stone. The shepherd led his sheep closer still but not a breath stirred the black curtains.
To the very garden wall he led his sheep, staring up at the high window. The grey was marred with color, blazing, stabbing the shepherd’s eyes with its intensity. From the grey casement of the black window dripped a stream of purest red.
The shepherd stepped over the wall and crossed the garden, eyes riveted upon the red. He stood below the high window and gazed up.
“Hello?” he called, his echo stopped dead in the mist, falling back harshly on his ears.
Silence. Red.
The shepherd picked his way through the thorns to the door and seized the corroded knocker. Bang! Creak. Bang! Creak. Bang! The echo froze in the mist. He might have been trapped in a tiny cell for all the noise it made. The door was wet, dripping tears of decay.
Silence. Red. The shepherd went back to the window and looked up.
“Is any one there? Are you alright?” he yelled into the suffocating fog. He glanced at the ground floor window directly before him. It was also curtained and silent. He looked back up at the high window. Silence. Red.
The curtains on the ground floor flung open. The shepherd cried out and jumped back into a rosebush.
Behind the rippled old glass sat the grey woman in a moldy old wingback chair. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes wide and glassy, blood smeared her white nightgown and hands which were frozen in claws. Her mouth was open in a silent scream, her teeth broken.
The shepherd tore himself out of the rosebush and ran madly through the garden, ripping through thorns and ivy and finally tripping over the wall. His skin crawled violently and dripped with ice. He stared fearfully back at the old grey house.
All of the windows were curtained. Everything was silent but the house seemed to shiver and rise menacingly before him, drawing the fog in around it, darker and darker…He gathered his sheep and herded them away over the misted moors, glancing back every three steps, his neck prickling with eyes that were not there.
What had happened to the girl?
The shepherd found the old man that night at the tavern.
“I went back to the house today,” he stuttered. “I-I saw a corpse in the window! The lady, I think she’s dead!”
“I told you to stay away from there!” the old man exclaimed, crossing himself.
“Someone should go investigate!” the shepherd insisted.
“No, no,” the old man said. “We mustn’t put our foot in the door of Hell. Who knows what might come bubbling out?”
“Something’s happening in that house,” the shepherd said. “Something bad and that girl’s in there…”
“Stay away from Hopenheim House,” the old man said, tapping the ashes out of his pipe and standing. “Please, for your soul’s sake.”
The old man hobbled out of the tavern.
“Someone has to save the girl’s,” the shepherd whispered to himself.
He went back to the house the next day.
As everything had been quiet the day before now all was raucous noise. The wind howled, the naked tree branches clattered, the sheep wailed and loose shutters on the old grey house banged incessantly. The shepherd hunkered in the cold gusts with his sheep, watching the high window for sight of the beautiful girl. The red stain was dark and colorless now.
The angry clouds swirled above him in arcane shapes. The trees cracked behind him and he jumped, looking back at the stand of tall black trees some three hundred yards distant. His sheep nibbled at the grass. The shepherd sat upon a mound. He glanced down at it; he hadn’t noticed it before.  He ran the loose dirt between his fingers. It had been freshly turned. He was sitting directly atop a newly filled grave. He whipped his head up to look at the empty high window.
Then a loud crack! came from behind. Scrambling around on the grave he saw a limb snap from high in the crown of an ancient tree and impossibly sail on the violent wind straight towards him.
He stared, frozen as the limb ripped across the impassable distance. It flew up and crashed down towards his head. He jolted and dove—but not fast enough. The tip of the branch smacked his head.
The pale face appeared in the window. She looked down on the shepherd fallen with the branch beside her mother’s grave and a red tear spilled from her eye. The shepherd did not move. She heard a creak from downstairs. She threw open her window but the shutters slammed on her, blocking out the light of day.
The creak was on the stairs. She pushed at the shutters but they would not open. She beat her fists on them, scrabbled at the splintery wood with her fingers. The creak was in the hall. She took up a candelabrum and banged on the shutters but they would not open. The creak was outside her door. She frantically hammered on the shutters, again and again. They splintered.
Her door creaked open. She faltered. The creak was in her room.
With a violent shiver she gripped the candelabrum and took a step back. The creak was directly behind her. She threw herself with all her might against the shutters.
They broke apart, one falling into the garden, the other swinging loose on a single hinge. Daylight surged in. Her door banged shut. She slowly turned to look over her shoulder. The room was empty.
She climbed out onto the windowsill. The wind whipped her hair around her face and the black curtains flapped like voluptuous wings. The trees crackled like fire and the sheep wailed over their fallen master who lay beside the grave, the branch cradling him like a skeletal hand.
The girl stood on the sill. And jumped.
The wind ceased to howl, the sheep watched in silence.
The streak of white met the earth with a crunch. The sheep bleated in unison and the wind caressed to moors softly. The girl tried to sit up. With a cry of agony she fell back. Her leg was twisted in a peculiar attitude. She tried to rise again, but she could not and she fell back again, but this time she did not rise.
The shepherd awoke to silence as the last hint of daylight faded away. The clouds above were black. The sheep were clustered around him, shivering. A little lamb licked his face. He stood, rubbing his aching head. He peered up at the high window. He saw the dangling shutter. He stumbled closer till he could see over the garden wall. A white shape glowed at the base of the house, just below the high window.
A red flame flickered by the door. The shepherd darted forward and hid behind the stone wall. Peering over it, he saw the flame move across the garden to the white shape, which he could now make out to be the girl.
The flame was carried by an indistinguishable figure. It scooped up the girl and glided back towards the door.
“Stop!” shouted the shepherd, leaping over the wall. The shadow did not stop. The shepherd ran after it. Halfway across, something caught his shin. He fell. Something sliced into his stomach. He cried out. The door banged shut.
The shepherd picked up the rusty scythe and stumbled across the rest of the garden. He threw himself against the door. He tugged on the handle—it came off in his hands. He pounded on the rotten wood, gasping in pain as blood sheeted down his abdomen. Panting, he lurched back and hefted the scythe. It sank into the wood with a squelching thunk. He pulled it out and sank it in again. And again. And again. He fell against the door clutching his wound, resting on the scythe stuck in the door. The wind screamed around him, blowing dead rose petals into his eyes.
He wrenched on the scythe, twisting it from side to side. He could hear the handle splintering. The door squelched and in the blackness of night he felt the wood oozing something slimy onto his skin. He cringed and kicked the door. He felt it cave and a hellishly hot gust of air blasted out into his face.
A bleat from behind startled him. The lamb had followed him into the garden. He turned back to the door and explored it with his hands. There was a hole big enough for him to slide through easily; something thick dripped from the edges.
The shepherd crawled through the hole and fell onto the flagstones inside the house. They were warm. The air was thick and hot, stirring in odd eddies of warmth, heavy with sickening odors of unspeakable things. It was pitch black.
He tried to cover his wound, staunch the flow with his hand, but blood spurted between his fingers. Cold air blew through the gap in the door and hooves clopped on the stones. The lamb had followed him into the house. It nudged his hand away from his stomach and licked at the cut.
The blood slowed. The shepherd’s heart slowed. The lamb nuzzled him. He dragged himself to his feet and leaned on the scythe. He couldn’t see anything. He crept forward, one hand outstretched. He inched across the flagstones. All was silent. Except for a sinister dripping sound. Plop…plop. Hot wind blew on his face.
His outstretched hand met something. Something cold. He spread his palm over it, feeling its odd contours. His stomach dropped as he realized it was a face.
Jerking his hand back he tripped on the lamb and fell. He cowered on the floor, waiting. He couldn’t open his mouth to speak or cry out.
Silence. Hot wind. Warm stones.
He hauled himself up with the scythe. The handle broke and he sprawled in the dark. He stood, shakily, and holding the blade of the scythe in one hand, he felt about in front of him with the handle. Twenty steps and he had met nothing. He didn’t know were the lamb had gone, all was silent.
He bumped something with the broken handle.
A dim red light flared somewhere on the next floor. He could just make out the top of the stairs. He stood at their foot. The hot wind seemed to be wafting down the steps from wherever the red light was. The shepherd inched up the stairs, cringing as they creaked. He was almost to the top, peering down a dark hall and a distant doorway spilling red light onto the wall. Suddenly he felt something.
He spun around and looked up at the shadowy chandelier which he could barely see in the dim light. It was made of strings of black glittering crystals. Shadows lurked among the strands of crystal. He thought he saw eyes glinting, but they were probably just crystals.
Then the chandelier tinkled. Something was moving within it.
The shepherd fled up the last few steps, dropped the broken handle at the top, and ran down the hall. He slammed the door shut and found himself in another hall, lined with curtained windows. At the far end was a giant mirror. Opposite the windows was a door, flung wide open, ruddy light flooding out of it. The shepherd made his way towards the door slowly, hefting the scythe blade.
In the mirror he saw the door he’d just closed opening silently. The shepherd darted through the open door, pulling it shut and ramming the scythe into the floor to block it from opening. He turned around to look at the room he’d just entered.
He was in a library with tall black windows reflecting the glare of a blazing red fire. Books rotted on the shelves and floor, strings of glistening ooze hung from the chandelier and bookshelves. Something dark dripped down the wall.
In the center of the library was a table. Lying on the table amid rotting books and bones was the girl. Her leg was twisted around, her foot nearly level with her elbow. Her fingers and mouth were red. The shepherd limped towards her.
The girl opened her bloody mouth and immediately shut it. The shepherd drew up short as she pointed at the carpet before him. In a pool of blood lay a lump of flesh. The girl pointed at her mouth.
“Your ton—” he stopped, revulsion wracking his body. He rushed to her side and seized her red-stained hand. Her neck and bodice were covered in symbols she’d drawn with her bloody fingers.
Circles, crosses, and squares.
The shepherd looked into her soft grey eyes. A scarlet tear formed in her left eye and streaked her white face. The hot wind stirred her halo of tangled white hair.
“Come,” he whispered to her. She shook her head sadly, glancing down at her broken leg. He squeezed her hand. “I’ll carry you.” Her eyes looked into his with such a potent flood of hope, gratitude and fear that he trembled. Then she glanced over his shoulder and her eyes widened in terror. She opened her mouth in an unintelligible cry.
The shepherd spun around. The library door was bumping against the scythe. Gently, experimentally. Then it blasted open; the scythe snapped with a twang and the fire went out. The room was plunged into stifling darkness. All was silent. The shepherd held his breath, listening, tensed to leap upon the slightest sound.
Something cold seized his arm and flung him across the room before he could even cry out. He slammed into gooey books and fell to the sticky carpet. An ice cold hand gripped the back of his neck and he screamed. It lifted him up and dragged him across the floor. He reached up and seized the frigid arm. He swung a fist in the dark. It plowed through the air as the arm dropped him. His head cracked on something hard. A wordless cry came from the girl.
Lightning flashed outside, illuminating the room for an instant. The stark white image of the girl throwing herself on some dark silhouette burned into his retinas. An inhuman shriek split the air, followed by a snarl and a thud.
Lightning flashed again. The shepherd dove at the dark silhouette. They both fell to the floor, limbs tangling. The dark thing raked his chest with its claws. He tried to grab its throat. It flung him off. He landed across the unconscious girl.
The window glowed with another flash of lightning and the shepherd saw the thing clearly outlined. Tall pointed ears, long spindly fingers with claws. He heard it step towards him in the dark but he couldn’t move. His eyes were fixed on the blackness. His chest heaved with uneven breaths. Another step. And another. Lightning failed to silhouette it as it had moved away from the window, but the light gleamed off its red eyes.
Darkness. The creak was closer. Darkness. Silence. It was right before him, he could feel the cold wafting off it. Darkness. He could feel it reaching out for him. The cold wrapped his face.
Lightning flashed. The thing reeled away, arms flung high. The lamb stood in the doorway.
Darkness. The pounding of tiny hooves. The inhuman shriek.
Lightning flash: the lamb leaped at the thing fleeing across the library. Darkness. Lightning.
The thing tripped on a book. Darkness. “Baaa!” The inhuman shriek. Lightning: claws flashing, blood, a cry from the lamb.
The shepherd scooped up the girl and fled, tears streaming down his face. Howls from the thing drove him down the hall. The floor was wet. In a flash of lightning he saw liquid running down the walls. He ran faster, splashing now, through the door, into the next hall. He glanced back and in the curtain-dimmed lightning he saw the silhouette limping after him, one clawed hand outstretched, the other melting at its side, dripping into the ooze on the floor.
The shepherd put on a burst of speed, the girl flopping in his arms like a broken doll. The chandelier glittered in the lightning. He slowed, searching for the top of the stairs.
The thing plowed into his back, sending them all crashing down the stairs. He dropped the girl. The chandelier burst into dark red flame. The shepherd raised his head out of the red sea on the floor. The stairs were a waterfall of blood. The creature, dribbling as bits melted off it, crawled on all fours towards the girl. The shepherd scrambled up, slipping in the ankle deep blood. Red rivulets ran down the walls, dripped from the banisters, and poured over the steps and off the landings. Red fire dribbled from the chandelier, hissing into the blood. The broken scythe handle came over the waterfall and plopped next to the girl.
The creature reached out its dripping claws to grasp the girl.
The shepherd rushed forward, kicked it in the head and snatched up the splintered handle. The creature snarled with its great array of needle-like teeth. The shepherd drew back his arm with the broken handle. The thing lunged for his face.
He plunged the splintery handle into its chest. It sank in deep; the thing’s teeth came to a stop just before his eyelashes. It howled, hurling stinging spittle into his face. He pushed it away and it fell with a splash into the blood.
The shepherd picked up the girl and slid towards the exit.
The creature screamed and raised its arms. Glancing back, the shepherd saw the chandelier swinging towards them. He ran faster, slipping and skidding. The chandelier swung down and the chain snapped. It hurtled towards them.
He dove through the broken door into the stormy night, cradling the girl.
 The chandelier shattered on the floor, bursting through the rest of the door, sending balls of flame flying. The shepherd covered the girl with his body.
Flames and debris rained down around them. Lightning flashed.
The thing inside the house wailed and sank into the blood. The shepherd hefted the girl and stumbled through the garden, away from the crumbling house—the fire, the blood—past the garden wall, down to the grave.
The wind was still. The lightning ceased. The old grey house fell with a roar. Dust billowed up. The shepherd collapsed with the girl on her mother’s grave. He shivered violently. The girl was still but he could feel her gentle heartbeat. His sheep gathered around them.
The clouds parted and moonlight spilled onto the grave. The girl’s eyes fluttered open. She smiled weakly at the shepherd and he pulled her closer. Her eyelashes brushed his cheek in a delicate butterfly kiss. A crystal clear tear fell from her closed lids.
A nightingale began to sing in the trees.

In the morning, the old man led the villagers in search of the shepherd.

They found two bodies lying on a grave surrounded by sheep. The old grey house was gone, only rubble remaining and the rosebushes were heavy with fresh white roses. Birds sang in the trees. The two corpses wore blissful expressions, their eyes sweetly closed in free and merciful death. They still held each other tight, her eyelashes on his cheek.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Spider-Woman

     The first thing he noticed about her was that she had a lot of claws. She had claws instead of finger nails, but she also had a claw sprouting from each knuckle. That must be terrible inconvenient! He thought.
     “How do you get into your clothes? Don’t they catch?” he asked.
     She smiled, at which he noticed the second thing about her: her teeth were extremely large and wicked sharp. “I sew them on,” she said in a slippery, silky voice.
   “Sew them on?” he asked. “You stitch ‘em to your skin?”
   She laughed, her teeth’s razor edges glinting in the light from the sparkly stalagmites that sprinkled the cavern like lampposts. “No, no,” she said, “I make my clothes around me, like spinning a cocoon.”
   “Then you must be a caterpillar?” he asked.
   “No,” she said, taking off her sunglasses.
   That was when he noticed the third thing about her and ran away screaming. Her eyes were black glossy orbs, like a spider’s.
   He kept running and screaming and didn’t stop, not even when she called after him. “Oh, don’t run, Little Boy! I’m not going to eat you. Just suck out all your blood and juices!” He ran faster, leaping over broken urns and little piles of dirt. 
   He ran towards the gaping mouth of the cavern where he’d entered only minutes before. He could see the outline of the “BEWARE” sign posted in the entrance. It was so far away.
He glanced behind, but didn’t see the lady. He skidded to a stop beside one of the glittering stalagmites and frantically searched the vast shadows.
   “Little Booooooooy!”
   He looked up and shrieked, jumping out of the way in the nick of time.
   The lady face-planted in the dirt, her eight limbs sticking out every which way. A silken thread connected her to the ceiling.
   He wasted no time gawking, but set off across the cavern at once, heading for the large opening by which he’d come in. there was an assortment of unbroken urns to one side of the opening. He heard the lady behind him, scuttling over the debris.
   “Wait, Little Boy! I have treats! I’ll give you a cookie!”
   He’d heard that one before. He didn’t stop. He was puffing now. It was such a large cavern and the air was rather stale.
   “Stop, Little Boy!” the lady huffed behind him. He was almost to the opening. “There’s a tractor in this labyrinth! A really old International harvester! I can show you! It still starts and I have the key!”
He faltered, glancing back. The lady waved a cluster of keys with a fat keychain in the air.
   He tripped on a big rock and fell, skinning his knee. He began to cry. The lady smiled, halting some ways away. She pushed a button on the keychain. With an electronic beep beep! a large door closed over the cavern entrance.
   He rubbed his eyes, sobbing harder. He didn’t want to get dried like an apricot.
   The lady scuttled up and patted his head. She gave him a cookie and he started to feel better. As he munched he peered around at the urns.
   “What’s in those?” he asked.
   “Let me show you” she said, opening one. It was empty. She closed it with a frown and opened the next one. It was filled with big, pearly balls. She closed the lid, smiling with her large pointy teeth. He shuddered, finishing off his cookie.
   “Did you make those pearly things?” he asked.
   “Yes,” she said proudly, flexing her claws.
   “You’re a very talented lady.”
   “I know, aren’t I!” she said excitedly. “The thread I weave is unbreakable!”
   “That’s impossible.”
   “No it’s not, my thread can only be cut by my claws!” She said, gesturing grandly with her wild assortment of claws. He whistled.
   “Of course,” he added, trying to sound thoughtful, “everyone in my village makes their own clothes, too, you know.”
   “What?” the lady said, sounding a bit perturbed. “But I thought they bought ‘em from factories.”
   “They make ‘em,” he said solemnly, crossing his fingers secretly.
   “Hmph!” the lady said. “Well I can walk on walls. And I am very fast.”
   “I out ran you,” he pointed out. “And everyone in my village can run much faster than me.” (he didn’t have to cross his fingers that time)
   The lady scowled.
   “Can you stand on your head?” he asked.
   “Of course.” She said, promptly performing the trick. Her six legs kicked in the air, all of them jointed three times.
   Bummer, he thought, but that’s right, she prolly goes upside down on the ceiling all the time, like earlier. When she was back on her feet she grinned pompously. “Can you?” He did, a little clumsily.
   “Hmph,” she said. “Not as good as me.”
   “Mebbe,” he said. “But I bet I can do more cartwheels.”
   “I doubt it, I can do forty in one direction, turn on the forty-first and come back to the beginning.”
   “Bluffing!” he said. “Let’s see it!”
   The lady flashed her wicked teeth and did exactly that. On her way back he shouted, “That’s nothing, you’ve got so many limbs it’s not fair! Flip all the way into the air, without a single leg touching the ground!” She frowned but sprang into the air. He hoped his calculations were correct. Yep. She smacked into a stalactite mid flip. Lady, dust, debris, keychain, watch, and sunglasses clattered to the floor.
   “You stupid little boy!” she moaned. He ran forward as she began to pick herself up. She grabbed her sunglasses.
   “That was amazing!” he exclaimed, sidling up to her. “You almost had it! There’s no way I could do that. It must be the spring loaded propulsion of all those feet!” he picked up her watch.
   “Of course you can’t do that,” she said, stepping forward, reaching for the watch. Her skirt fell over her dropped keychain. She snatched the watch. “And neither can anyone in your village.”
   “True,” he said as the lady glanced around the floor, looking to see if she’d dropped anything else. “But!” he said loudly and she looked at him with annoyance in her arachnid eyes. “I bet you can’t squeeze into one of them urns as good as I can. My village are very compactible people.”
   “Ha!” the lady said. “I’m the best at tight spaces.”
   “Fit in that empty urn, then.”
   The lady grinned smugly and skittered back towards the urns. He quickly scooped up the keychain and followed. It was difficult concealing the huge keychain in his hand, it had five different keys, the electronic door opener, a can opener, a corkscrew, and—
   “Ow!” something very jagged and sharp. The lady glanced back at the sound of his cry. “My knee,” he explained.
   The lady took the lid off the urn and set it down. “I’m not stupid,” she said grabbing him before he could react. Shoot, she must have seen him pick up the key.
   But no…she looped a shimmery rope which she seemed to have pulled from thin air around him and cinched it tight. It was very thin, but no matter how he struggled, it didn’t budge. This wasn’t good, unless…
   “You aren’t going to trap me in that urn.” The lady said. “Anyway, I could kick off the lid. This is the last trick. I’m going to drink you afterwards, my darling beverage.”
   “Please,” he begged. “I have a brother who is much juicier than I.”
   “I’ve heard that one before,” she said, “and I’m not falling for it again!” She grinned before sticking her head in the urn. He slipped closer as she struggled in, her legs kicking wildly.
It was a good thing she kept an old claw on her keychain. He started sawing. Once the lady was jammed into the urn tightly, she triumphantly said, “See!”
   “Yes, very good,” he replied as the rope snapped off, “see if you can manage to turn around in that tight space.” She grunted.
   “Phooey,” she snorted, “it’s much too tight, I’m coming out to suck you dry like a juice box!”
   “Naw,” he said, slamming the lid closed.
   “Hey!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing? You little brat!”
   He quickly tied the rope across the lid, securing it to the handles on either side. Unbreakable, she’d said. Even by her spring loaded six foot kick.
   He heard her struggling inside. But the empty urn was a much heavier kind than the others, which was why she hadn’t used it for her eggs, because she couldn’t tote it around. He didn’t know this, of course, but he was quite happy to see that the urn did not wobble around.
   To be safe, he hefted the rock that he’d tripped on, on top of the lid. Then he pulled out the keychain and clicked the button. The cavern door slid open with another beep beep! letting in the weak sunlight. But he didn’t go out.
   He checked the keys on the chain. One had the IH logo. Yes!
   He turned to the big cavern and the little holes on the far side. He’d barely scratched the surface here and there was a tractor down there somewhere and he had the key.

   Off he skipped into the darkness, pulling a glowing rock from one of the stalagmites, with the lady howling behind him from the urn, “I wasn’t going to hurt you! Let me out so I can kill you!”

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"A Hole in the Ice" book excerpt

Coming September 2014 from Little Bird Publishing House

     A cat yowled somewhere in the distance. Further away, someone fired a gun. A man, dressed in black, slipped out of a dark alley; the mist swirled around him. He breathed in the acrid, smoky air, and glanced at the hazy moon.
Turning a corner, he looked nervously behind him. Was that a lantern? Or the gleam of the moon on one of the burnt out lamp-posts? Ahead of him someone ducked out of sight. He hunched his shoulders in an attempt to appear smaller and dashed down an alley. Without looking behind him, he turned onto the next street and crossed over a bridge, passing sooty stone walls and flickering lamps. Down a dark lane, up another alley, he ran as swift and soft as he could. He stopped, panting. Looking behind him, he saw a shadow move. As he had feared, he was being followed.
He slipped into a side street, one hand protecting the secret pocket in his waistcoat. Something moved in the fog and caused him to alter his course. He went left, then right, then left. A top hat loomed menacingly out of the darkness, blocking his path. Ducking around a corner, he watched as the figure ambled by, its cape stirring eddies in the fog. The figure stopped and looked about, then moved on.
Once it was gone, he sighed in relief and set off again. Then he heard something ahead of him, a scratching like a thousand pens on parchment, a scrabbling like fingernails inside a coffin.
He turned and fled down a narrow pathway, passing several dark openings. Slipping into one of the openings, he emerging on a wider street that followed the river. The noises grew louder behind him, the scuttling more frantic. Silent lightning forked in the sky, lighting up the smoke wreathing the rooftops. The man in black ran across an ancient bridge spanning the murky river. He looked to the right, down the river. The top hat mirrored his crossing on the next bridge.
Shrill squeaks drove themselves into the black clad man’s ears. Glancing back he saw a moon-gilt mass teeming over the cobbles of the bridge. He suppressed a cry and ran faster. If he could only reach the embassy and his comrades—but he had to go downriver—he would have to outrun the top hat.
He careened around a sooty corner, bumping into a ragged figure. He cried out, but the figure was hatless, merely a beggar or murderer. The man in black pushed him aside and continued to run. He was now on a lane lined with dark shop windows.
The squeals followed him, building as they grew closer. The beggar screamed behind him. The man plunged into a y-shaped intersection. He hesitated for a moment, then ran left.
He stopped dead by a cold lamppost as noiseless lightning again sliced the sky. He hugged the lamppost with stiff, frightened fingers. The top hat stood in the middle of the road.
Behind him, the cobbles roiled under the moonlight, scratching, scraping, and scrabbling. The moon winked out as the clouds and smoke choked off its light. In the murky darkness the man could see hundreds of glittering beady eyes. The man whirled around and made to rush the top hat, maybe slip past in the dark.
A lantern flared red in the night. The man in black skidded to a halt. The lantern turned to reveal the head of its bearer. The head grinned, all aglow, like a scarlet carnival mask. The man was trapped.
The swarming eyes surged towards him and rats crawled up his legs. Their claws tore his trousers and scratched his skin, a froth of biting, clawing, squeaking terror. The man in black fell screaming to the cobbles as the hungry rats poured over him. The head turned its lantern so the light spilled onto the rats. They shied away from the bright red glow.
“Back!” the head commanded, sweeping off its top hat. The rats obeyed, squealing in protestation of the light. The owner of the head and hat stooped over the wailing man in black and searched his pockets. He soon found the secret pocket and its occupant. He slipped the round shape into his own pocket and stood, replacing his hat. He turned his lantern on the rats and strode off into the fog, driving the vermin before him.
The man in black moaned and a last silent flicker shot through the tattered clouds. The Thames continued to flow sluggishly and darkly along. The moon reappeared from behind a tattered cloud.  Somewhere nearby a cat yowled.

Chapter One: When People Have Dinner

As darkness fell, Parsifal paced in the upstairs hall, stopping every few minutes to peer out of the window. He wanted to be the first to see his uncle’s carriage, but the fog caused the gate at the end of the gravel drive to melt into obscurity. Finally, when it was impossible to see anything further, he gave up his watch and went to his room.
He collapsed in a chair and picked up a book. But Parsifal couldn’t focus on reading; his imagination wouldn’t stop playing with the possible identities of the guests his uncle was bringing. What if the Prime Minister came for dinner? Or the Duke of Wales? It was possible, given his uncle’s prominent status. Parsifal hoped his uncle would stay a few days. Perhaps, if he was lucky, his uncle would go riding with him before he left again. It had been so long since the last time…
Excitement downstairs interrupted his reverie. Maids were rushing about and Mrs. Hue, the housekeeper, could be heard barking orders. He hurried to the window in the hall. Carriage lights glowed on the drive; wheels creaked and a harness jangled. When the carriage pulled up to the house, Parsifal  tried to smooth out the tail of his dress jacket as he dashed down the stairs, wanting to make a good impression. He joined Mrs. Hue by the door and heard the voice of his uncle, Lord Keazund, ring out with authority, like a great pipe organ. Another voice answered, this one a musical air on the viol. Mrs. Hue watched through the peep-hole and waited. Footsteps sounded on the front stairs. At the last moment, before anyone on the other side could turn the knob, Mrs. Hue flung the door wide open. Lord Keazund did not seem at all perturbed. He merely stepped over the threshold, filling the hall with his commanding presence. His chiseled features were handsome and fashionably pale. Few people were taller than him, and those who were, did not seem so.
 “Good evening, master,” Mrs. Hue said jovially, taking Lord Keazund's coat.
 “Good evening, Mrs. Hue,” he said . Then he turned to Parsifal and greeted him with a single nod of the head and the mere acknowledgement of his name.
Parsifal nodded, mirroring his Uncle. He didn't let the cool greeting give him the pang it usually did as he was too preoccupied looking at the people behind him.
Standing directly behind his Uncle was a woman. As she stepped into the lamplight, her hair shimmered. Her features were soft, like the lines of a light sketch. She was not a glamorous Parisian; there was nothing overtly sensual about her, and yet her simple pastoral beauty was completely riveting.
“This is my nephew, Parsifal,” Lord Keazund said. “Parsifal, this is Lady Vasille.” Parsifal bowed deeply and she curtsied back.
 “It is a pleasure to meet you,” Lady Vasille said, and she sounded as if she actually meant it.
“The pleasure is mine,” Parsifal said. Lady Vasille slipped out of her cloak and passed it to Mrs. Hue with a friendly smile. Parsifal tried his best to stop staring and turn his attention to the other guests.
Four more people entered the hall. The next to be introduced was Sir Oaktree, an average man with whiskers. The only remarkable thing about him were his cruel green eyes that gazed over everything with a scorching ferocity. He was followed by Mr. Carrion, a sallow looking man; Mr. Dorril, a fat man; and Sir Morris, a cheerful red-cheeked fellow.
Lord Keazund led the way into the dining room. He sat at the head with Mr. Carrion, Sir Oaktree, and Sir Morris on his right. Lady Vasille sat on his left.
 “Come sit here,” Lady Vasille said to Parsifal, gesturing to the seat next to her; forcing a disappointed Mr. Dorril to sit in the next seat down.
Parsifal couldn’t believe his luck. He yanked on his cuffs and wished he’d paid more attention to his appearance earlier that evening. He sat down between Lady Vasille and Mr. Dorril and studied his uncle, wondering if he was really going to be allowed to dine with them.
Mr. Dorril took up slightly more space than the conventional table setting, pushing Parsifal closer to Lady Vasille. Their proximity meant his elbow brushed hers. Even through his evening dress, his elbow tingled at the contact.
He turned to apologize, but somehow the words wouldn’t come out. She smiled at him and he felt oddly warm. He smiled back. The maids were rushing the food and wine to the table. Mrs. Hue had retreated to her place by the sideboard, making sure everything ran smoothly.
“As I was saying in the carriage,” Mr. Carrion said, “the Eastern Republics are a serious threat to the control of power in Greater Europe.”
“On the contrary,” Lady Vasille said, “They are completely unimportant.”
“Unfortunately, Lady Vasille, they do have enough power to affect us,” Mr. Carrion said.
“How, exactly?” Lady Vasille asked. “Besides trade being disrupted by their little wars?”
“No, but ideas and political movements are contagious.” Mr. Carrion looked annoyed,
“That is entirely so,” Lady Vasille agreed.
“And they might oppose our ideas and stir other countries against our movement,” Mr. Carrion continued, unwilling to let his point go.
“Yes, exactly! The Belarian Alliance is already doing that,” Lady Vasille said.
“But,” said Mr. Carrion, “the Eastern…” 
 “The Belarian Alliance is the real threat, Mr. Carrion,” Lady Vasille said reprovingly. “The Eastern Republics revere the Belarian Alliance, if the Alliance dies, the Republics will lose faith; kill the leader and then the Republics will die, too.”
Mr. Carrion looked confused, “Well, I suppose...”
Lady Vasille turned away from the discussion as the rest of the company joined in with venom. “Politicians,” she said to Parsifal, “Talk, talk, talk.” She yawned, and Parsifal gave a start. He had just been enjoying using all his well-polished manners in front of such prestigious people and then one of them yawned for the whole table to see and no one noticed.
“I expect you know quite a bit about them being as you live with one.”
He cleared his throat nervously. “Um, not exactly.”
“Oh, that's right, you probably don't see much of your uncle, do you?” Lady Vasille said, biting her spoon thoughtfully.
 “No, I don't. He's usually away, doing . . .” Parsifal shrugged, “whatever he's doing.”
 “How long have you lived with Lord Keazund?”
 “I was seven when my uncle adopted me.” He glanced over at his uncle who was in full political swing. “So about nine years,” he sighed.
 “You're just sixteen, then?” Lady Vasille asked. Parsifal nodded. Lady Vasille continued, “Orphaned? That's terrible.”
 “They never found my mother,” Parsifal said defensively. “She disappeared on an expedition to Siberia. All they found was a strip of blue ribbon from her hair.” It was what he always said on the subject, trying hard to smother the ungracious feelings of resentment. He still wondered why she had run off on an expedition to Siberia, of all places, when he was so young. It didn't make any sense.
“Oh,” Lady Vasille said, nodding her head and pressing her lips together to indicate that there was little more she could offer. She changed the topic. “If you're sixteen, you'll be introduced into society soon, won't you?”
 “I hope so,” Persifal said, letting out a light laugh, relieved that the tricky subject of his orphan status had come to an end.
“Do you live in London?” Parsifal asked.
“Sometimes, but I also have a house in Berlin.”
“Germany,” Parsifal said. “What's it like there?”
“It's a wonderful place; it has a really old feel, like layers of memories hang like a thick dust in the air.” She looked straight into his eyes. Hers were warm and deep. Time slowed; his lonely heartbeats drawn out in the silence.
Lady Vasille turned back to her plate and the clink of silverware resumed. Parsifal looked away awkwardly, and caught sight of his uncle gazing at him and Lady Vasille. His face was mostly unreadable, but there was a mixture of something there that made Parsifal feel suddenly guilty.
“How exactly do you know my uncle?” Parsifal asked as soon as his uncle looked away.
“I have a little influence in areas that he would like to have influence in, so he has taken me into his plans.”
“You're not a politician, are you?” Parsifal asked with concern. He'd never heard of a woman politician.
“Of course not. I despise the creatures,” she replied, smiling at Lord Keazund who had glanced over at them again. “But you don't have to be political, or even in the government, to have power.”
“What is my uncle up to?” Parsifal asked, suddenly interested in politics.
“He has the most diabolical plan,” she said before turning to the maid. “Some pudding, if you will.” She turned back to Parsifal. “It involves a trip, and that's  as much as I should probably tell you.” Deftly, she changed the topic, “Thanks for sitting between me and Dorril. I sat next to him in the carriage. Not pleasant.”
Dorril was close enough to hear, and Parsifal assumed he had by the way the large man shifted uncomfortably.
“Um, you're welcome,” Parsifal said. “Who are they?” He looked pointedly at the assembled company. “What does my uncle want from them?”
“Some of them may be useful in more than one way,” Lady Vasille replied. “Others...” she pouted alluringly, “may not. Time will tell. That's why we’re all here having dinner; talk reveals things.”
 “Perhaps too many things,” Lord Keazund said, looking directly at Parsifal. The rest of the company, except Sir Oaktree, were in a loud debate about the way business was conducted in Belgium.
 “Or too few,” Lady Vasille said.
 Lord Keazund looked at Vasille and she looked back defiantly. Finally Lord Keazund turned to Parsifal. “By the way, your tutor is being replaced. Dr. Liam is no longer welcome under this roof.”
Parsifal wanted to ask why, and would have, but his uncle had already turned away. The rest of dinner passed in a flood of arguments and debates. Afterwards, Lord Keazund and his guests departed to the sitting room, probably for more of the same. Sir Oaktree was last through the door. He stole a look at Lady Vasille. Parsifal watched Sir Oaktree's hand drift down to his pocket and Parsifal caught a glimpse of something metallic. Sir Oaktree’s pocket watch? Sir Oaktree glanced around again and this time caught Parsifal looking. His cruel eyes hardened and his hand jerked out of his pocket, guiltily.
“Sir Oaktree!” Lady Vasille called from within the sitting room. “Where is that paper you wrote for The Critical, I wanted to see it.”
Sir Oaktree glared at Parsifal before striding into the sitting room, “You have heard of my modest writings?” he said. Parsifal watched the room disappear as Lord Keazund closed the door from within.
Parsifal waited a moment, then crept up to the door. He put his ear to the crack, straining to hear. Sir Morris was saying something about Sir Oaktree and The Critical. Lady Vasille asked something. Sir Oaktree replied and Sir Morris interjected.
“If only someone had a copy of the article,” Lady Vasille said.
 “I believe I left my case in the carriage; I may have one in there,” Sir Oaktree said.
A chair creaked. Lord Keazund spoke, “I’ll have someone retrieve it for you.”
“No need, your Lordship,” Sir Oaktree said, “I need some fresh air and this is just the excuse to stretch my legs. If I may?”
 “The carriage house is around the back,” Lord Keazund said. Footsteps came towards the door. Parsifal jumped back and retreated hastily down the hall. The handle turned. Parsifal hid in the dining room.
“Bloody Morris, can't keep his mouth shut. They already suspected me. It'll be even trickier now,” Sir Oaktree muttered as he hurried past.
Parsifal waited until Sir Oaktree’s footsteps receded, noting how the footsteps didn’t sound as if they went in the direction of either the back or front door. Parsifal gave up the espionage; he didn’t want to be caught when Sir Oaktree came back. He retrieved his book from upstairs, returned it to its shelf in the library and headed in the direction of the bathroom. As he walked down the hall he savored the moments of the whole affair. He tried to decide what to think about Lady Vasille, and how radical she had been with her disregard for proper etiquette.
The bathroom door stuck for a moment, as if bolted, then gave way. Someone else was already inside.
Parsifal didn’t have time to stop. He bowled into Sir Oaktree, who went stumbling into a shelf. Scented soaps rained to the floor. Sir Oaktree dropped something, which clattered down amongst them.  
 “Sorry! I didn’t realize… I…” Parsifal offered in flustered apology.
Sir Oaktree grabbed something off the floor and stuffed it into his pocket, looking around wildly, as if he expected someone to attack him.
 “I’m terribly sorry,” Parsifal continued, “I didn’t know you were in here.”
Sir Oaktree glared at Parsifal as he stepped around him to the door, then exited hastily, slamming the door on Parsifal. He stared at the door for a moment. “Curious,” he said to himself, bolting the door. The bolt was stiff; one could easily pull it only part way, if they weren’t paying attention. Parsifal turned to the water closet. He was reaching for the towel when he noticed something on the floor, laying amongst the similarly shaped soaps on the floor. He picked it up. It was the size of his palm and was slightly warm. The lid was clasped shut with asimple clip, and a rectangle-shaped hole in the lid showed a wire suspended vertically across the middle of it, making it clear that it wasn’t, as Parsifal had initially assumed, a pocket watch. He drew it closer to his eye and looked into the slit. Inside there was something moving, swirling; a throbbing, pulsing power.
Parsifal was mesmerised with curiosity, he couldn’t resist flipping open the lid. A small spinning wheel was suspended in  liquid; it  quivered slightly under the tremble of Parsifal’s hand. A small magnifying glass was hinged to the side of the apparatus. Strangely distorted figures decorated the face, but on closer inspection he could make out,  N, W, E, and an S. The wheel spun erratically. It was a broken compass. Sir Oaktree must have dropped it. Parsifal slid it into his pocket. He’d try to catch Sir Oaktree before everyone went to bed; he didn’t think Lord Keazund would be pleased if he barged in on their little meeting.
The next morning, sunlight shone through the window, illuminating the pale green wallpaper and making it brighter than usual.  Parsifal began the morning ritual, rising, washing and dressing. Whilst attempting to align his  contrary cravat, he caught sight of the broken compass laying on the dressing table. ‘Strange’ he thought, ‘I was sure I left it in my pocket.’ He reasoned that the maid, who came in every morning before he awoke to fill the wash pitcher with hot water and remove his clothes from the day before, must have found it in his pocket and set it there.
Parsifal had meant to ask Sir Oaktree if it was his and see it safely into his hands, but the party of dinner guests had stayed in the sitting room until long after Parsifal had gone to bed. He resolved to try and give it to Sir Oaktree at breakfast. He finished his cravat with a resigned sigh and picked up the compass, stuffing it into his pocket as he headed downstairs.
“This house is much too green,” he said to himself, walking down the green painted hall with its equally green carpet. “Makes one feel quite nauseous.”
He arrived to discover that the breakfast table had only one occupant: Mrs. Hue.
 “Are they all still in bed?” Parsifal asked, sitting down at the table.
“No,” said Mrs. Hue, “they left last night. All of them. Lord Keazund included. That man just can't stay home!”
 “You mean they left in the middle of the night?” Parsifal asked. That was disappointing. Not only had he failed to return the broken compass, but he hadn’t said goodbye to his uncle… or Lady Vasille.
“Yes. And with a woman, too,” Mrs. Hue said. Parsifal did not answer, he was too busy eating sausage and thinking on the lovely Lady Vasille. Mrs. Hue continued, “Maybe he's found himself a wife, at last.”
Parsifal swallowed his sausage, almost choking, before exclaiming, “Mrs. Hue, please, remember your place. Lord Keazund was with a party of politicians; they were all about business.”
Mrs. Hue brushed the admonishment aside, still seeing Parsifal as the small round faced boy she’d bounced on her knee. “Ah, but that’s the perfect cover; he can't go riding about with a lady by himself. Wouldn’t be proper,” Mrs. Hue said knowledgeably. “By the way,  before he left Lord Keazund told me to tell you that he would be finding your new tutor as soon as possible.”
“Why is he replacing Dr. Liam?” Parsifal asked, sure that the all-knowing Mrs. Hue whould have some insight.
“Your uncle didn't say, he just muttered some vague thing about how he should have realized earlier or some such rot.”
The doorbell rang and the maid, Suzette, scurried past to answer it. She returned with a man in tow.
 “Dr. Liam,” Suzette announced before hurrying out. 
 “Why are you here?” Mrs. Hue asked indignantly.
 “To fulfill my tutoring duties, of course,” Dr. Liam said.
 “Well,” Mrs. Hue said stuffily, “Lord Keazund is replacing you, so we have no need of you.”
“Ah, but until the replacement arrives, I should continue teaching, yes?” Dr. Liam said. Mrs. Hue harrumphed and said, “Well, seeing as I don't know when such a replacement will arrive, I suppose you may continue for now.”
Dr Liam smiled.
Lessons began after breakfast, starting with Advanced Application of Calculus, then the Practice of the Fine Social Arts, followed by Dancing, Drawing, Music, Enhanced English, and Geographical History. Every other day, Dr. Liam would insist on French. It was pleasant to listen to his Scottish accent. Dr. Liam was easy to understand. The way he presented new concepts made them clear, and his lessons were cleverly planned. Parsifal was doing marvelously well. So, why was Dr. Liam being replaced?
“Dr. Liam,” Parsifal asked, during Dancing, “why is Uncle sending you away?”
Dr. Liam paused before replying, “I can only guess...” he paused again, “I thought this would probably happen, aye, knew it would. I haven't gotten anything official from him yet. I expected a warning.”
Parsifal looked past the spectacles, into the stern gray eyes. “What about?” he asked.
Dr. Liam shook his head, “I only know that one must be very careful about what is done and what is said. This is not a conversation we should have.” Parsifal went to protest but Dr. Liam raised a sad smile and shook his head again, “I think we should take another go at this Bavarian Waltz, don’t you?” Dr. Liam held out his arms and Parsifal took his hand in his. They went through the waltz again and no more was said.
Throughout the rest of lessons, Dr. Liam often glanced out of the window, or started at sudden noises, such as when a pen dropped to the floor. It got worse as the day wore on. The tutor glanced around more frequently, running his hands through his hair and fiddling with his cuffs. Parsifal watched in concern, it was clear that the Dr. was on edge, but couldn’t bring himself to ask what was wrong.
Dr. Liam left earlier than usual, not staying for afternoon tea. Before he went, he pressed a manila envelope into Parsifal's hand, saying,
“Sorry I couldn't stay longer, lad. I hope you have learned enough. I tried. But perhaps not hard enough.”
Parsifal stared dumbly at the envelope. He didn't understand his tutor’s words, nor the sadness in his eyes. Dr. Liam had been a wonderful teacher. What did he mean?
 “Thank you,” Parsifal stammered, “thank you for teaching…” There was more he wanted to say, but Dr. Liam was smiling sadly and already turning towards the door.
With a pang, Parsifal watched as Dr. Liam left. His good, amiable, brilliant teacher, gone. When he returned to the tea table, he was more than a little irritated by Mrs. Hue's attitude about it.
 “The sooner the replacement shows up,” Mrs. Hue said, “the better.”
 “He was a good tutor,” Parsifal protested, picking up his teacup.
“Not if Lord Keazund is getting rid of him,” Mrs. Hue said, picking up a scone and sniffing it suspiciously.
 “I have no idea why he should do so,” Parsifal said.
 “Precisely. We have no idea what sort of man Dr. Liam could be,” Mrs. Hue said.
“How does that connect?” Parsifal asked testily, sipping his tea. It needed more milk.
Mrs. Hue turned and yelled down the hall, “Suzette, are these scones perfectly fresh?”
 “Yes ma'am, baked 'em just now.” Suzette's voice drifted back.
 “What I should like to know,” Mrs. Hue said, putting the scone back down, “is who will be replacing Dr. Liam?”
Parsifal let Mrs. Hue ramble on; he was too busy thinking about other problems, like how he was going to return the compass. The longer he left it, the more he felt like a thief.  Now that the guests had gone, he'd have to wait until Lord Keazund came back. His uncle should know the address.
 “How well do you think uncle knows Sir Oaktree?” Parsifal asked Mrs. Hue.
 “Who? That creepy little man? Haven't the slightest,” Mrs. Hue said. Parsifal sighed but she wasn’t quite finished. “He seemed to know the Lady Vasille well enough. I wonder when they'll get married – your  uncle and that lady – she looked like a good match. Pretty enough. Lord Keazund needs to settle down and raise a family properly.”
Parsifal had no wish to repeat the breakfast time conversation and so stood, putting an early end to afternoon tea. He headed to his room with the intention of dressing for a refreshing afternoon ride. Undressing, he found the broken compass and manila envelope. He was about to open the envelope, but stopped. The old compass tingled in his other hand, forcing him to set the envelope aside for later. He opened the compass lid.
There was something strange about the piece. Again, he felt the throb within it – like a heartbeat. He lifted the magnifier and looked through it, expecting to see enlarged cardinal marks. Instead, there appeared a substantial smudge on the glass. He tried to wipe it off with his finger, but it didn’t do any good. He scrubbed at it with his sleeve. Had the smear just changed color?
He brought the compass closer and a chill settled on him as the smudge cleared to show moving shapes. Impossibly, it was as if small figures moved on the other side of the glass. Parsifal brought the magnifier right up close to his eye. All at once there was a loud rushing sound and he could no longer hear the birds chirping  through the open window.