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Here are five short stories written by Martin Vaux.


Halcyon is literary fiction. The Corn Maiden is folk horror. Big Red Buttons is science-fiction. The Me-Be is horror. The Song of the Banshee is fantasy, written as part of the Lords of War Lore Chronicles.


All rights reserved.


Kathryn had been the one who had pushed to purchase the old watermill. None of the machinery worked, of course, but the house was watertight and, although the ground floor had been flooded in the past, they had spent the summer after they bought the place sweeping out those old rooms, Kathryn on her hands and knees, her dress rolled up and pegged at her thighs, scrubbing the terracotta tiles from dirty-black to warm ochre. 


Together, they had whitewashed the rough-hewn walls, had replaced the skirting boards, repainted the single-pane windows that had, themselves, required hours of washing with warm water, soap and sponges, but in due course they came to gleam, and the house was flooded with light.


They laid old, moth-eaten rugs across the hard floors, swept the chimney, and used black cast-iron tools when laying fires at night, prodding logs cut, split and laid to dry from the few acres surrounding the mill. Even so, smoke from their evening fires would be fanned by the gentle breeze that teased down the chimney, and the earthy smell of it would drift through the house, persisting until morning.


Nonetheless, the two had been happy there, sat in old wicker chairs padded by musty, goose-down cushions. They had sheepskins which they pinned to the white walls downstairs and would gather down on cold evenings, wrapping themselves within them, she gently leaning into the crook of his arms and humming, looking at the fire as it crackled and spat, hearing the rushing of the water outside.


The irony, of course, was that when Kathryn fell pregnant and bore Jonah she barely wanted to return to the mill. It sat there as a folly of sorts, locked with its fat iron keys, and as the boy had grown they had visited it only twice. Once before they knew Kathryn was ill, and during that stay David had explored what might be involved in re-digging the gullies that would enable the water to flow back through the races and into the old millpond, which was full of sapling trees and damp, claggy brush. They had walked together along the dip in the earth where the flume had once run, him beating back the bracken and long grass with the end of a switch he had purloined from some undergrowth, she clutching Jonah, carrying him although he was too heavy, but was sleepy, resting his fat cheeks upon the soft lining of her coat, which she had turned out upon her collarbone.


The second time they went back, Kathryn was too sick to go walking. For so long she had wanted to stay in the town, where the hospitals were, and the supermarkets, bright conveniences open at all hours, illuminated by strip lights. She had sought to be so close to the fizzing static of modernity for Jonah, in case of emergencies, so many of her decisions made for his benefit and against the grain of what had been her desires before she had become a mother. But then, in her final days, when she knew she was close to dying, she had wanted to be driven out to the watermill, away from the hustle and bustle of things, to lay in one of those old, uncomfortable beds, the mattresses full of dust and time, wrapped in muzzled blankets, with one of the small windows propped ever-open. David had worried that this would make her cold, but she did not seem to mind, and when she was strong enough she would go to the window and look out across the rushing water, seeing the simple bridge with its loose stones, Jonah paddling in the eddies at the edge of the banks, smiling.


“David,” she had said to him, on one of these occasions, “I think it might be best if you and Jonah come and live here after. Not for always, perhaps, but I think it might be good for you both.”


David had stood watching her, leaning on the crooked doorframe, the tin mug in his fingers steaming with hot tea, and had not responded. All he cared to do at that time was watch her. To be close enough to smell her. To see the soft corners of her lips where her smiles bloomed out from, the honest smiles of her past and the newly forced, pained smiles of the present – smiles that were meant to say, “Everything is fine,” but really said, “I am hurting, and I love you, but please do not speak because I am so desperately afraid and do not know how to reply.”


They had not been able to stay in the mill right at the end, even though that is what Kathryn had wanted. He had been too fearful to let her die there. Wanted to do everything he could to keep her with him, even for a few more hours. Minutes. Seconds. He knew it had been cruel to rush her to the hospital, to have strapped her into the car and inserted the safety belt that she had not had the strength to fasten herself. And Jonah had sat quietly in the backseat, not really looking to him or to his mother, mutely aware that things were desperately wrong. Those small dark eyes, wet with tears he did not let fall, his mouth crumpled up like used fish and chip shop paper.


They had driven through the evening, all dressed in snug woollen jumpers, mud on all their boots, him focused on the road, staring out into the long darkness overhung by trees. He had driven too fast, careering around bends in the route, looking to get to the bright lights of town as quick as he could. To return to help, to assistance, to relief for Kathryn, and perhaps find someone who had good news for them. And when the town was in view, across the long valleys with their looming viaducts and sporadic clutches of coppiced trees, he had turned to look to Kathryn smiling, happy they were nearly there, only she had passed away in the passenger seat beside him, her head lolling as if she were at rest.


If Jonah had realised, he had not let on. He had simply sat in the backseat, looking through the window glass into the murk of the night, hearing the car engine thrum and rattle between the gear changes. Then, when they had arrived at the hospital, David had led his son to a kind nurse who had sat with him, and he had not let on, and had touched the boy’s face and run his fingers through his hair, and walked away so he could see someone about having the body moved.


After that day, David and Jonah were rarely found but a few metres from one another. Often, they were side-by-side, inseparable, habitually holding hands through the worst of it. The funeral, with the blue sky shining down with a sort of terrible optimism, everyone dressed in black and Jonah looking so smart. His hair combed. A small necktie tucked into his tiny buttoned jacket. At breakfast each morning, when David would spread cold butter onto warm toast, knifing thick loads of plum jam or marmalade onto it to pack the boy full of some sort of sweetness. And when he had cooked as best he could, hearty stews of lamb, chicken and beef, old recipes for casseroles, dumplings, pies made with spices and pastry, vegetables and offal. He would scrub vegetables, carrots, leeks, potatoes, fat mushrooms light as angel breath, adding salt, wine, celery for depth of flavour, but Jonah rarely had an appetite and commonly much of what David prepared went uneaten.


For the first few weeks, they had stayed at their home, Jonah off school. They had watched television together, gone for long walks in the park, wrapped in coats and jackets, with mittens on their fingers. They had taken trips to the cinema, the ice rink, skating together and not really talking. David had let the lawn become overgrown, not worried about weeding the flowerbeds, and had focused instead on reading Jonah bedtime stories, and on always having a hand on his boy – in his fine hair, on the nape of his neck, on the back of his tiny hands where it seemed as if just one of his broad, grown-up thumbs would cover all of the young boy’s soft skin.


Jonah had gone back to school, tried to mix in with his friends, tried to focus on his studies, and David had gone back to work, spending long days in meetings, staring blankly at computer screens. Neither had been successful in their endeavours, not really, and so one day, without much thought or notice, they agreed together to not go back to pretending life was as it had been. With some money in the bank, David closed up the house, emailed his employer to say that he would be going away for a while and was not sure when he would return. The pair climbed back into the car with the belongings they thought they might need. They passed by a supermarket and bought essentials, and then made the long, winding drive back out to the watermill, seeking solace from the silence of their lives in the frothing tumble of its rushing depths.


It had felt like camping at first. They found that they did not really have enough pots or pans, glasses, knives and forks. David did not much like having to do the washing-up by hand, and he often sighed as he swept out the fireplace of a morning, gathering all the half-burnt ash into a heavy dustpan before disposing of it into the overgrown millpond. He wondered how sustainable this was, staying out here for so long, just the pair of them, cutting themselves off from the world. The place had no telephone, was barely wired for electric lighting, and the single cold-water pipe was temperamental. Still, with a little advance planning he was able to heat water in a large iron pot over the fireplace, filling the cast-iron bathtub in fits and starts, getting it to a place each evening where Jonah could wash in steaming heat before David tucked him down in bed. After this was done, and the boy read to, or told tall tales from David’s own memory, David would close the doors upstairs and clamber into the bath himself, by now lukewarm or even cold, and he would wash himself and his aching muscles, and would think of Kathryn, and would weep quietly, his only company being the river.


There was plenty to keep them busy, of course. Initially, they simply went exploring, venturing through the trees grown fat and yellow-grey with lichen. Jonah enjoyed leaping onto the mushy flesh of fallen, rotten trunks, giggling as bark split open and disgorged orangey tendrils of damp fibre. Both wearing wellingtons, their faces wrapped with scarves, they wandered to the edges of the wood, sloshing through puddles, kicking up rotten leaves, noticing snowdrops sprouting, the bright butter blooms of aconites, primroses, and the dancing heads of daisies.


As the daffodils began to clamber from the soil hither and thither, and the purple stains of sweet violets shocked the cold spring mornings, the pair took to fishing. They went downriver, to spots where the water did not run quite so fast, using worms they dug from the ground, David pressing them onto hooks and lures he had left in a box in an outbuilding. They often used some of his old bulk and dropper floats, sometimes spending hours on end getting a little chilly and dank. But often, when the water was clear, they would catch a roach, or a chubb, or a barbel, and Jonah’s eyes would sparkle with glee.


Their evenings were often spent in quiet, David reading to Jonah, or Jonah himself leafing through books. He started to take an interest in trees and birds and fish, and would run his fingers along soft pages, scouring for details. At other times, he would read short novels, fairy stories mostly, or tales of knights and wandering adventurers. Sometimes, because the current through the electric cables was so weak, they would light candles and between them, with the glow of the fireplace, and the pop and crackle of the burning logs, time would seem to slip by with little fuss or concern, or much of anything at all.


Into March, with the pale wood anemones showing their faces, and the marsh marigolds blooming in the muddy clag, Jonah started to look to spend more time by himself. David was worried about this, of course, and always wanted him to stay in earshot. They started to communicate then by calling to one another.


“Where’s my boy?” David would holler.


“By the bridge!” would come the sing-song response. Or, “At the weir!” or “Mill pond!” or simply “Here!” and David would smile, pottering about, sorting this or that.


He set himself small projects. Clearing out long-dead flowerpots, stacking them in the lean-to to use later. He swept the flagstones outside with a hard-bristle brush, looked for a time at the remnants of the mill mechanisms, the space where the millstone had once been. And he counted the old millstones about the house, finding five in time, most half-eaten by the hungry earth, lost beneath mounds of whispering grass. Eventually, as it had all those years ago, his mind turned to digging out the gullies, for no particular reason. He just wanted to, wanted to see if he could rebuild the sluice gates, clear out the tale race, and see about letting the river return to the leats.


To do this, David dusted off an old shovel and pickaxe, striding out of a morning with Jonah, who had found some binoculars somewhere. While David would swing his axe at the earth, the cold air biting at his nose and his lungs, the blood burning in his shoulders, Jonah would find spots to sit or lay against the ground, hiding himself from view to spy at sparrows, starlings, blue and yellow tits, elegant wheatears and, in due course, a chiffchaff – something which filled the small boy with joy.


Day by day, as David dug and scraped and scrabbled at the ground, picking stones and silt and rubble from about the penstocks, he began to feel stronger. The skin on his hands had been soft, and although he suffered blisters and bruises, and the spaces between his digits chapped and bled, in a few days his wounds always healed, often felt numb in the cold, and he became proud of the new, leathery flesh that grew in rough patches to replace what had once been there. 


One afternoon, bursting with pride, Jonah came running to him, grasping him by the hand and dragging him over small hillocks and divots to a favoured spot for birdwatching. He had David duck low on a ridge, and the two laid together, Jonah finding what he sought before passing the binoculars over.


“Look,” he whispered, pointing. “There, by the bank, by that willow.”


David did not see it at first, focused instead on a tangle of roots by the edge of the water. But he scanned and scanned, looking left and right, before spying it, the bright azure of its plumage, the burnished gold of its belly, the black stab of its eye and its beak.


He looked to Jonah, who grinned widely. “It’s a kingfisher, Daddy,” the boy said. “And if you wait and look, you’ll see, over there, in the bank… oh, just watch. Watch!”


Doing as instructed, David put the binoculars to his eyes and observed, seeing the kingfisher perched high, barely moving, before suddenly, quick as a flash, it took wing, darting down into the water, emerging with a minnow held aloft, tail dangling. Next, the bird fluttered back to the bank, chomping, its tail feathers fanned, to where peeping heads then emerged, dancing and bobbing hungrily back and forth. That cluster of chicks was eager, clearly, for river-fresh vittles.


“My book says,” said Jonah, softly, “that there could be more than a half-dozen in there, but it’s so hard to count. I keep watching and trying, but it’s difficult to see.”


David laid down the binoculars and wrapped an arm around his son, who protested and first and then giggled. There was no resisting, ultimately, and David duly gathered up his child and held him close to his chest, placing the boy’s small head to the space above his heart and gripping him gently but tightly.


“I love you,” he said, barely louder than a whisper.


“And I love you too,” came the muffled reply, and the two lay there, beneath an overcast sky, for a long while, enjoying the warmth of one another.


The pair did not exist in total isolation, of course. When necessary, they would drive to a nearby village to pick up provisions, restocking their larder with tins and jars, buying fresh bread, milk, fruit and meat. Happily, the house had a small refrigerator, and there was a rattling old chest freezer that David cleaned and plugged into a socket in the outbuilding. There, amongst the soil and unplanted bulbs, slowly rotting sunchairs and tools, David spent quiet afternoons cleaning the fishhooks and mending the rods when necessary, cutting tangles of fishing line and rethreading spools as and when.


Jonah, meanwhile, spent his days adventuring. He built dens in the wood, collected pine cones in great numbers, because he found them beautiful and precious, and when he found rubbish, old carrier bags, wet clods of newspaper and magazine, or crisp packets with faded logos, he collected them. A lot of this rubbish went into the dustbin outside the mill, but from time to time he would also gather wood and twigs and interesting pieces of detritus he had found, and would make small fires. He liked to sit near them, relishing the warmth, and slowly feed bits and pieces to the flames. Crisp packets, in particular, were great fun, letting off foul black smoke and burning bright green and blue when tongued by the blaze.


Aside from the birds, which he liked to spy and tick off in his Ornithology book, he also noted other life forms or their traces. A family of otters, upriver, swimming together in smooth, serpentine shapes, whiskers trembling. The distinct shape of deer hooves in the mud. Badger tracks. Mole hills. He often found collections of rabbit droppings, though rarely saw their source, and as his father dug and sweated in the earth Jonah found himself at the centre of a kingdom of sorts. He came to think of himself as the Lord of the River, and he even made himself a small walking stick out of a thin, winding length of hazel branch. This walking stick, in his mind, doubled-up as a sceptre, and sometimes as a spear, and after a while he came to fit a particularly pleasing piece of flint in the head of the wood. It was not sharp enough to stab anyone, he knew, but it felt good in his hands, made smooth, he presumed, by years and years of having been in the water, and he believed, in his young heart, that the spirit of the tributary had somehow made its way into that stone, giving it magical properties that he could call on should be ever have the need.


Most of all though, Jonah liked to watch the kingfishers. Every morning he would race to the spot across from their nest and check in, waiting to see the adult bird hunt and feed her young, revelling in the progress the growing birds made as they began not just coming to the mouth of their nest but also hopping out onto the water, wetting their bright young feathers before fluttering back, ungainly, towards their hole in the muddy bank.


He knew, from his reading, that it would not be long until the birds were pushed out, to fend for themselves, and that once this happened the odds dictated that not all of them would survive. And although he had originally thought there might be six or seven birds in the brood, he now counted only three juveniles in his daily observations, perhaps because others had already perished, or perhaps because, back when they had been but little hungry mouths, he had not been able to accurately ascertain their number.


As time passed, the music of the rushing water was unchanged. Fists of ramsons burst from the earth, white as ivory, while a blanket of slithering bluebells stems rose from the floor of the woods, their heads violet and fragrance sweet on the breeze. All the while, David dug and raked and dragged earth from inside itself, shaping and emptying the gullies, filling buckets at first, and then a wheelbarrow, with loam, rocks and stones which he deposited in a great mound out of view of the house. And he kept watch of Jonah, who was growing beautiful and wild, his hair a constant tangle, in need of a cut, but neither really cared to engage in grooming. David himself let his beard grow long and rambling. He enjoyed how the insides of his pale fingernails were always lined with muck, and one day, while bathing, found mud in the rim of his ear that might have been there for a long time, unnoticed.


Of all the things he loved, liked and loathed about the mill, the only one that truly irked him was laundry. How simple it had been, he thought, to toss clothes into a machine, add power and a glug of conditioner, then press a button. Now, when it came to it, he had to fill up the bathtub with warm water, and scrub with his bare hands against an old washboard. His knuckles ached when he did it, far more than from the cold, and over time he looked mostly to only clean underpants. He pegged these on a length of fishing line in front of the fire in the evenings, leaving them smelling faintly of smoke, and when it came to shirts, jeans, socks, pullovers, pyjamas, and all other items of apparel, he and Jonah agreed, by silent decree, that they would only really launder things when it became absolutely necessary.


Otherwise, it might have been that David and Jonah lived happily at the watermill for a long time. David had tried not to think about money, and he knew that in a while they would have to return to the townhouse, to the lives they had had before, and when they did they would probably have to answer a few questions. Nobody knew where they were really, he thought, save perhaps from the bank, who would have been able to tell where he was by the details of his cash withdrawals in the village. But they had no telephone, no internet connection, no television, no newspaper subscription. The meagre electricity bill was paid automatically, as were all the bills at the townhouse, for all the services they had been paying for but not really using, had not, on reflection, needed, and although it might be nice to return to a place where hot showers were as simple as a twist on a tap, where meals might be ordered and delivered, packed with sugar and brightness, in less than an hour, or where there were people with all their amusements and concerns, David did not much care to go back. He must, he knew, sooner or later, to see about Kathryn’s will, and face up to the people who would want to know where they had gone, and to put Jonah back in school, and return himself to the world of work and suits and agendas, but perhaps, on reflection, not all these things were necessary. Perhaps, at the bottom of it all, the mill was where they belonged.


Soon enough, the time came for David to climb down into the mill pond and clear it. He was getting close, he knew, to being able to break the final dams of earth he had left, to open the mended sluices that he had picked clean and knocked into shape in the evenings, refitting the parts into their rightful spots, and to let the races once again run wet. And he could, he thought, just let the water pour into the millpond as it was, filled with detritus and vegetation and young trees. In his mind, however, this sat uneasy. Although once the water was in and had flowed deep enough into that chasm so that most of what was there would be covered and lost, he would know it was there. He would know that the job had not been completed, and needed finishing, so with a lot of effort, involving ropes and an old wooden stepladder, he descended into the claggy mayhem of the millpond with his shovel, his pick, some shears and an axe, and he began the process of clearing it. 


Progress was slow, and the amount of work more than he had estimated. He hacked away at tuffets of thick, wild grass, levelled sappy infant trees, found pieces of machine and stone slabs and rusted metal. He had to wear heavy gloves, was not strong enough to lift much of what he encountered, yet gradually, slowly, wilfully, he emptied a few square metres, then a few more, and a few more still.


On one momentous morning, he found the remnants of the waterwheel. It had clearly, once, stood vertical, and quite what its fate had been was difficult to determine. Most of the wooden paddles and slats, edges and spokes, had rotted away, leaving only hard, rusted, very beautiful pieces of ironwork. Lengths of bracing, like plates of armour, huge bolts forever doomed to stay welded to their nuts by decay, and a huge heavy axle that might have taken three or four men to lift.


Most of what David found, he piled up to one side, building a huge bonfire. But the fragments of the broken waterwheel were somehow sacred, he thought, and so he left them as he found them, anticipating that they might dwell forever in that place, drowned in a watery grave.


That same day, Jonah was watching the kingfishers a little way off, joyously observing their anxious flights further and further from their nest. Above them, always, their mother watched, showing no pride. Instead, she appeared affronted somehow, as if bemused at their progress, her beak tucked in close to her chest. But then, all of a sudden, she began flying, flapping her wings unlike before, and her children took so little notice yet Jonah looked on, his eyes growing wide in unseen panic.


He roved with his binoculars, up and down the river, trying desperately to find answers. When he did, it was already too late, for one of the young kingfishers, so electrically blue, was suddenly a mash of feathers, the orange of its breast folded up into a bloody knot in the jaws of a blackly-slick otter.


“Oh no!” said Jonah to himself, his voice a low moan. “Oh no,” he repeated, seeing now that the otter was not alone.


Indeed, the otter who had killed the bird had done so for prey. It was the mother, Jonah assumed, and a little way off from her three young pups yipped and gambolled on the riverbank. 


The terribly beautiful shape of the mother otter slid through the river, fighting the current with ease. She paddled with the young, limp kingfisher in her mouth, towards her children, and laid the dead bird between them. Jonah watched this, feeling as if he ought to cry, but he could not. Instead, he saw the mother return to the water and float downstream like driftwood, the kingfishers flitting this way and that all a-panic.


It did not take long, Jonah observed, for the otter to slay first another of the young kingfishers, this one as it returned to the nest. She waited, and when the bird came close she leapt slightly up from the bank, catching the back of the white-frilled neck, snapping it with total abandon.


Again, she swam up the edge of the river, again depositing the body by her young, and again she floated downstream.


Next the mother bird perished. It looked, to Jonah, like she was trying to attack the otter when this happened, drilling towards the predator with her sleek black beak, pinions spread wide and resplendent. And as the sun of the day filtered down through the sky, dappled in places by the leaves of the trees, Jonah saw her killed, just like her progeny, carried shortly off to be consumed.


While the pups tore and growled at the flesh of the birds, Jonah observed the last murder. The final kingfisher juvenile, not learned enough to understand, not wise to the ways of the world, returned to the nest as if nothing was wrong. And once again, the otter struck, only this time she did not leave the corpse for her young to eat. Instead, she paddled back up against the river’s flow, whistling and singing to her babes. The kingfisher’s body in her jaws seemed to make no difference to the sounds she could make as she frolicked and rolled in the water, her coat glossy and slicker than clay in the rain, and after a while of cavorting, and eating, and pawing at their bloody chops, the whole holt of beasts slid into the water, making their quiet, horrendous way home.


Once it was over, Jonah lay for a while, first on his front, then his back. Beside him was his walking stick, his sceptre, his spear, and when his eyes eventually fell on it he felt ashamed. He knew, in his heart of hearts, that there was little he could have done, that nature was cruel, and death came for us all, but still, his cheeks burned, and he pulled the smooth flint from the head of the staff and hurled it into the river. 


When it broke the water’s surface, it did not seem to make a sound.


Picking himself up, Jonah carried the stick with one hand, slinging his binoculars over his shoulder. He walked back towards his father, trying not to let on how sad he felt inside, and when beside the millpond he spoke up.


“Can I come down?” said Jonah, seeing the space that his father had cleared.


David turned, observing his son, and as he looked up at him, stood on the rim of the deep, empty pool, he felt that the child looked much taller somehow, and not just because he was being looked at from below.


“Of course you can,” David replied. “But watch your step. The ladder is tied on, but the rungs can be slippery. And once you’re down here, keep your eyes out for bits of metal. They’re everywhere, and the last thing we need is to be rushing off to hospital.”


Jonah did as he was told, carefully making his way down and seeing that the millpond was all but empty. It was darker down there, and colder, by virtue of the sun not reaching all its quarters. Confidently, however, Jonah walked over towards the vast pile of wood and rubbish that his father had cleared, brandishing his stick in one hand.


David watched him do this, and watched also as Jonah carefully put his binoculars on the floor, and took off his coat, and his satchel, and then grasped the length of hazel with both hands. The boy raised one knee, and then brought the stick down upon it at speed, snapping it in half, before tossing the two ends onto the pile.


“Think we should set it alight?” David asked, stepping closer to his boy.


In response, Jonah nodded, and that was enough for David, who clambered out of the millpond and returned, moments later, with a jerrycan and a box of matches. 


Warning Jonah to stand well back, David emptied the contents of the jerrycan onto the pile, splashing the foul-smelling liquid this way and that, and then, quick as a flash, he brought out the matches, positioned just far enough away to strike three at once and toss them at the tangled heap.


The two stayed together for a long time then, watching the flames smoulder and singe, huge rolling gulfs of wet steam rising up at first, blocking the sky and making them both cough and laugh. Before long however, the worse of the moisture burned off, and the blaze crackled and ate at the wood, and the burning grass whined and popped, and Jonah stood before David, who reached over his shoulders and held him. As the fire glinted in their eyes, and warmed them head to toe, Jonah finally wept, and so did his father, and their tears fell onto one another and the earth.


The following morning, when they woke, they found that the ashes were still licking away at themselves. Jonah helped David, mostly without speaking, and the two made everything ready. Primed, prepared, their labours concluded, the two knocked out all the dams and opened the sluice gates, and the river slid with icy fingers through the earth, tentative at first, or so it seemed, perhaps nervous because it had forgotten the sensation. But before long, the water was gushing through the gullies, splashing and surging down the flume, and the millpond, slowly but surely, began to fill, and man and boy chuckled and smiled as it did. 


That evening, while they sat before the fire, wrapped in the sheepskins taken down from the walls, stinking of mud and sweat and smoke, spooning another of David’s lamb stews into their mouths, watching out for molten-hot coins of carrot, and chewing on sugar-sweet flesh from onions, Jonah turned to look his father dead in the eyes. 


He spoke softly.


“Do you think,” he said, “that we might go back now? Not forever, of course, but for a while. And maybe we can come here sometimes, in holidays, and at weekends?”


David felt as if something had lodged in his throat, and although he was not choking on his dinner he knew that he could not speak. Instead, he nodded, and Jonah said no more. 


The two then sat, watching the smoulder in the grate, and outside in the dark the millpond slowly filled, and in the days to come the water brimmed up to the tail race, from which it flowed back out into the body of the brook.

The Corn Maiden

At least she was at peace, Robin thought to himself. He looked at her there, his hands in his pockets, breath caught in his lungs. She was laid in a long pale line that ran up a cot of gleaming stainless steel, her marble skin made paler still by the bright white light from the harsh bulbs buzzing overhead. Somebody had covered her with a sheet from the collarbone down, presumably to protect her modesty, which seemed strange to him for one reason or another. And her hair must have been washed, or at least rinsed out, as the warm honey blonde was touched by pink. It looked greasy to him, like she needed a soak in the tub. 

Chuck coughed, and Robin realised that he had been stood there for some time, just looking at her, although quite how long he could not have hoped to say.

“It’s her alright,” said Robin, not looking away. “As you well know.”

“Sorry Bobby,” Chuck replied, holding his hat to his wide belly. “It’s a technicality. I had to ask you down.”

Robin nodded, wondering if the same person who had covered her up had closed her eyes on purpose. He wondered also if they ever left a set of dead eyes open for people to see what colour they were, and he wanted to know, suddenly, if her eyes were still just as blue now as they had been just yesterday.

“What now?” Robin asked, peeling his gaze up and towards Chuck’s grizzled maw, not quite looking at him, but near enough.

“Well, Donna has some forms for you to sign, and then there’s her personal effects. We’re gonna need to hold onto them for a while, her wristwatch here, her rings, necklace and such.”

Robin looked to a side table where Carline’s things had been laid out in need rows. It was all cheap stuff really, trinkets he had picked up for her to mark special occasions, the day Eloy had been born. 

“More technicalities, I suppose,” Robin said.

Chuck nodded, then strode over, put a hand on Robin’s shoulder and led him to the door. He opened it, and wandered with him out into the hall, down the corridor with the sticky green linoleum floor, the avocado paint up to shoulder height, above which were the plain white walls marked with scuffs and gauges and grooves. 

They went down the wooden stairs together, Chuck ambling step to step, one hand on the long beech balustrade, the other holding the rim of his hat. A silence hung between them that seemed to hiss, like the static in the air of a rising storm. They had known one another too long. Since high school. And Chuck had gone bald, got fat, and Robin had got stronger, grown quiet, but all the years between them were like a ladder or a rope, and hand by hand, step by step, they could follow the months right back, one by one, to days when they were just two dumb country boys with not a care in the world.

“How are things on the farm?” asked Chuck, eventually.

“You’re full of questions you know the answer to today.”

“I don’t often come by, I know, but Whit said you had another rough one.”

“Too dry,” Chuck sighed, glad they were nearly back at the secretarial pool. “Another year like that one, and I’m done.”

Chuck clicked his tongue on the roof of his mouth, not needing to say how sorry he was, that he knew plenty of folks suffering a similar fate. Farms all over the county where the wheat would no longer grow as it did, stood limp and short in ugly black rows, falling jagged, fit for little else than ploughing back into the earth.

The pair walked together, close enough to touch, along another long corridor, same linoleum, same avocado, same white. Here and there notices had been stuck up asking people to not spit, not smoke, be polite and such. To say something if they saw something. 

Robin did not pay much attention to the flyers, and had always thought walls like these ones held nothing but noise, but he did think one of those notices might have dated from as far back as the War on Terror, which seemed, to him, like a lifetime ago.

“And here’s Donna,” said Chuck, passing Robin off onto a cheery girl with curly brown hair and a mole at the corner of her smile. And Robin did what she said, signed the forms she gave him, not listening, not thinking about where Chuck had sidled off to, not thinking much at all really. Except about what colour Carline’s eyes were now, under those lids, shut tight like sleeping butterflies. And the more he thought about it, the more he struggled to remember quite the shade of blue they had been before, and as he returned Donna’s pen to her, and turned on his old boots and made his way out beyond the reception desk, towards the light of day, he wondered how long it had been since he had really looked properly at that tiny white face.


Driving home in silence, Robin felt the rumble of his truck on the road, enjoying the feel of the surface change from tarmac to concrete to dirt as he made his way out of town, down the highway, and off towards the farm. He liked the way that his tires kicked up dust the nearer he got to his own door, enjoyed staring across the long flat fields that spread out wider than the open palm of an almighty hand. And he thought very little, not until the house was in view, and Mother was there, sat on the veranda, her bony hands working away, twisting and turning and winding in her lap.

He pulled up to the carport, parked, and on clambering onto his feet made his way round to where she was waiting, the faded gingham of her old dress rippling at the touch of the wind. She did not look to him but he came in close, stepping up onto the stoop and looking down at her there, her long grey hair dry and coarse and frayed as old twine. 

He observed her for a time, her wide thumbs and long fingers, her nails packed deep with grime, enjoying seeing her thread the thin bands of wheat over and over into tightly-patterned loops.

“Mother,” he said, eventually, in greeting as much as anything.

“Son,” she replied, still not looking up, still working away, packing the dry stalks into one another in concentric circles that reminded Robin of geometry class.

Eventually, when he had stood there a long while and she had reached a good point for stopping, she craned her neck up and round, squinting as she regarded him, the afternoon sun at his back.

“Amelia came by,” she said, slowly. “I told her to wait. She’s in the kitchen.”

Robin nodded, taking her meaning, then stepped into the house, pulling back the screen door and pushing himself into the gloom. 

He walked on through and sure enough, there she was, little more than a kid, thin as a rake and dressed in her Sunday finest, her tiny feet dancing over the shimmering tiles like those of an elfin dancer.

When Robin walked into the room, Amelia had been staring at the refrigerator door, looking through the knick-knacks and postcards, receipts and bills held up by magnets. Some of the magnets had come from state fairs, some from holidays. One was from the National Park Robin had gone to at Carline’s behest, camping with her under the stars near a slow-moving river where they had both been sucked raw by mosquitoes. 

“Afternoon,” said Robin, smiling to her as she pretended to be startled.

“Oh my! I didn’t hear you there,” she said, placing her hand on her solar-plexus as if to steady her heart. “Your momma told me to wait to see you. I wanted to offer you my condolences in person.”

She took a step nearer to Robin, tossing her head slightly so her long golden ringlets bounced and fell back again over her shoulder. She had bows in her hair the colour of cornflowers, and her lips looked wet to Robin, slick like the flesh of a strawberry cut open and left to sweat. But Robin moved no closer to her, knowing what was proper and what was not, and instead leant on the doorframe.

“How long since you finished high school?” he asked her.

“I’m 21, Robin. I’m my own woman.”

“I bet you are,” he said, letting his white smile bloom and then linger a moment too long. Quickly then it dropped back into his widower’s mask, and was gone.

The two made small talk. Robin put on the kettle for tea, and Amelia determined to handle the rest, not knowing her way around the kitchen. Robin sat, eventually, in one of the farmhouse chairs his father had carved from an old oak struck down in an electrical storm. He pointed Amelia from cupboard to cupboard, curious how much of this she might remember in the future, or whether he might have to remind her again and again and again.

“It’s all just so awful,” she eventually said. “First you lose Eloy, then just a few years go by, then this. Must be so hard.”

Robin shrugged, thinking for a moment before saying, “I guess. I got Mother still, and she looks out for me.”

Amelia turned to him, scrunching her mouth up to one side. “Really Robin, your momma looks out for you? Ways I see it, you’re holding the weight of the world on your shoulders, and no man can do that for long, no matter how wide those shoulders might be.”

She said this flirtatiously, pointing at him, before realising now was not the time. And then, with the tea steeped, the pair sat and talked, whiling away long summer minutes that slowly stretched out into hours. 

She wanted to know about Eloy, which was something Robin often found women curious about. Their heads cocked at angles. Their sympathetic sighs. 

He guessed it was because it had made the papers, and there had been an investigation, with Chuck on the TV for a day or two, and he had been interviewed. Even he had thought he had looked handsome how they had filmed him, stood out in the yard, his dark hair flecked with silver at his temples. But no men ever asked him about any of it, not since the tiny body was found, laid out in that northernmost field, undergrown limbs and cold torso spread long over a span of furrows, neck snapped apart like a twig.

“They suppose he just tripped,” said Robin, “but we searched all over for him before. There was a rabbit hole nearby, and he was still just a little kid. Must have run, tumbled, landed funny. Was Carline who found him. Was never the same after that.”

While Robin told the story, a well-worn tale he had rehearsed and repeated over and over until it was worn smooth, Amelia shifted her chair closer, leaning over the broad table top, and before either seemed to realise she was holding his vast, strong hand, with its tanned skin and scarred, chapped fingers, and against his flesh her own looked like that of a doll, plain and pure, save for constellations of freckles.

She regarded him then for a good long time, her eyes cool and deep and wet, and he looked back, his dark gaze unshifting, locked down and battened tight as a slip-knotted noose. 

The moment was broken when Mother arrived, her dry cough rattling like a shrunk windowpane, and Amelia snatched her hand away, straightening her hair and pulling at the shoulders of her dress. 

“Well, it’s done at least,” she said, pottering around the kitchen, opening and closing drawers, seeking something impatiently.

“What do you need, Mother?” Robin asked.

“Damn woman,” she replied. “Never kept anything straight. Ah! There we are!”

Mother turned, her spindly fingers crossed and grasping a length of red ribbon, a thin grin puckering her weathered cheeks. She crept over to the table, Amelia turning to watch her, observing as she laid down her work of complex artistry and tied the ribbon about one looping arch in a tight, delicate bow. Then, she held her creation aloft by one finger, as if hanging the totem from a fleshy hook.

“There now,” she said. “Finished.”

Mother pointed her extended finger towards Amelia, then turned her thin neck to look down at the girl sat in one of her dead husband’s chairs.

“Know what this is?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” Amelia replied.

“Ah well, it’s magic,” she said, smiling with just one side of her face. “Magic of the ancient kind, brought here a long time ago when my people first came to this place. See…”

Mother leant nearer, holding the small sculpture so Amelia could see its intricacies up close. 

“This here is the head, this the heart, this the skirts. We call it a corn maid, or a dolly sometimes.”

Amelia reached out to touch the figure, and Mother let her.

“She’s pretty, ain’t she? Just like you.”

Amelia smiled, her cheeks flushing somewhat, and Robin made to stand.

“I’d better get to work,” he said, his pulse suddenly beating strongly, his veins in his forearms standing proud.

“Oh now,” Mother replied, “the sun’s already looking to come down, and Amelia here walked all this way. Didn’t you walk all this way, Amelia?”

“Oh no,” she said, shaking her tiny head, “my Daddy dropped me off down a-ways, and I walked from the turnpike.”

“Walked from the turnpike? Oh my,” said Mother, tutting. “Well, that won’t do. There are all manner of strange things out there on the land, and when the sun goes down they comes outta their lairs, and all look to travel abroad.”

Amelia giggled, putting a hand to her mouth.

“Don’t you try spooking me,” she said. “I ain’t no fool.”

“Oh no, no!” Mother continued. “I meant nothing of the kind, sweet girl.”

Mother inclined herself nearer, still holding the corn doll on one finger, bringing her other hand around so she might put it under the girl’s chin. She smiled at her, adding nothing more, and Amelia stared up, her mouth not able to hang open. 

She was scared then, no longer finding things quite so funny as she had just a moment before.

“No,” said Mother, stepping back and passing the corn doll to Amelia in one swift movement. “There’ll be no debating. Robin here will drive you home just as soon as you’re done fixing my girl up in the hall. Think you can help Robin with that, Millie? Don’t mind if I call you Millie, do you?”

“No ma’am. And… Yes, ma’am,” Amelia replied, appealing to Robin, who had observed the interaction while waiting, still and patient as a standing stone.

Robin held out his hand, and Amelia reached out and took it, rising to her full height which stretched no further than Robin’s core. And he led her back into the front room of the house, to the lintel above the front door, where he dropped her hand and touched her hips, mutely informing her that now it was time to stand still.

He left her then for a moment, and she obeyed him, not moving from the spot where he had placed her, and soon he returned with a ballpeen hammer, a single nail, and a low carved milking stool. He placed the stool before the door, stepped up onto it, and looked down to Amelia, beckoning to her to pass him the doll.

“Don’t mind her,” he said, his warm smile again spreading over his face. “She’s got all kinds of crazy traditions.”

Amelia looked to the doll at first, then understood what he had said, and passed the corn maiden up to him, and he pressed the tiny figure to the lintel, pushing the nail into her fibrous heart with one thick finger and his thumb, near the same hole he had made last year, and the hole he had made the year before, and the one from the year before that, and so on and so on back through decades. 

Then he pulled back the hammer and knocked it forward once, twice, three times, and it was done.

When he was finished, Robin climbed back down, replaced the milking stool and the ball-peen hammer in the depths of the house, then returned to Amelia, who still had not shifted from the spot where she had been placed. She wore a blank expression, and this worried Robin, so when he was alongside her he reached down and placed a soft, tender kiss on her cheek.

Whatever spell had kept her frozen like that, his tiny, vast, brazen gesture broke it. She turned to him, looking up again with those wide wet eyes, and wrapped her arms around his wide chest, feeling the harsh material of his work shirt against the softness of her smiling skin. 

And when a few moments had passed, and Robin had held her for long enough but not too long, he shifted his body, opening the door and walking her through it, out into the gloaming, where the sun was deep in its descent, and the air was alive with buzzes and clicks, and the crickets sang, and hunger waited in the shadows out of sight and almost entirely out of mind.


That winter proved to be a long one. Dark nights rambled, wild winds blew, and Robin and Amelia kept counsel with few but one another, much like cold strangers huddled around the sputtering embers of a fire, struggling simultaneously to stay warm.

Before the season turned, Robin had organised Carline’s funeral. Out of shame perhaps, or out of propriety, Amelia had stayed away, hiding at her parents’ house and pretending she was sick. Her mother and father had returned from the wake, she drunk and walking sinuous in her black dress, he with his tie pulled loose and top button undone, both telling her of how good a man Robin was. 

They informed her how he had spoken so fondly of his wife, of the loss they had both felt when their poor boy had passed. They spoke of the sad accident, of the chances of a falling roof tile having struck her on the back of her head. The said all in attendance had revelled at the reception that followed, at which Robin’s mother had read palms and made grand prognostications, demanding every attendee drink up. Whisky had been guzzled, they reported, and sad songs played on the piano and jukebox, and when Robin had arrived, an urn under his arm, everyone had raised a glass to Carline.

Then, a few days later, Robin had invited Amelia to stay, and her parents had been quietly encouraging. Robin told Amelia not to worry about gossip, that the house might be old, and might creak from top to bottom, but that nobody would see her there. That there was nothing about which to feel ashamed. And whenever Robin was with her in the days and weeks that followed, his huge shape alongside her own, she felt safe and secure and like she might very much like to be in that house forever. That it was a calm place, ramble down but modest and good. And Mother kept herself to herself, taking long woodland walks, gathering mushrooms and herbs from the undergrowth, drying roots and grinding powders and always treating Amelia with kindness.

The trouble was, of course, that Robin was not always with her, and throughout September he was out in the fields, ploughing from dawn until dusk. And with Mother so often absent, Amelia was left alone in the house, alone with the sounds it made and the strange spaces in rooms where sometimes she would pass her hand through the air and find her skin turned to gooseflesh, taut and breathlessly cold. 

There was the scarecrow, too, that stood in vegetable patch out back. It was innocent enough, she thought, but there was something about the ragged hat it wore, the torn shirt and stained denim of its decaying dungarees. The painted face, made of hessian sacking, its tar-black smile and plaintive eyes, thick as paintbrush ends, each a staring chasm that seemingly beckoned her nearer. 

She disliked the way it stood in all weathers. Disliked the way it looked back at the house. Disliked how, in the time it had stood there, parts of it had rotted away, exposing damp straw and what looked to her like skeletal remains. These were, on closer inspection, just loose pieces of wooden frame, each pressed into the body of the scarecrow, giving it the illusion of a human shape. Having tramped out there once to settle her nerves, twisting her ankle on the uneven ground as she did so, she vowed to not go close to that figure again. Nonetheless, each morning she would come downstairs and walk through the empty house, and no matter what she did, what she planned, whether darning clothes, reading a novel, or delineating in charcoal beautiful artworks over the pages of her sketchbooks, she always seemed to end up stood at one of the back windows looking out at the scarecrow, and it appeared to her that when she did this the scarecrow not only looked back but that day by day, dawn by dawn, the eerie figure in the distance moved nearer.

It disturbed her too that one day, when she went to look for Carline’s urn, she could not find it. She sought high and low, became restlessly curious about its location, and in due course felt compelled, having held her silence for so long, to ask Robin quite where it had gone.

The question, when she first uttered it as they lay side by side in the deep of the night, seemed to ring in the air like a firework. But Robin, in his quiet way, did not answer with words. Instead, he climbed naked from the bed, tossing the sheets to one side, then padded barefoot downstairs and out into the yard, across to the cab of his tractor. Amelia watched him do this from the window, his dark silhouette outlined by the moonlight, buffeted by the night winds, and she heard first the clack of the cab’s door open, then a few moments later the rich thud of it closing again.

She had returned from the window shuddering, the room suddenly very cold, and when Robin was back, the urn in his grasp, he spoke in the most apologetic of tones.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I kept her with me. I figured you wouldn’t want her in the house, what with you being alone here all day.”

She forgave him in an instant, felt foolish and embarrassed, and once Robin had placed the urn down on the dresser she drew his body to her and they made love, him holding her with all his might and she surrendering to him, feeling his strength against her fingertips and revelling in his earth-moving power.

Only then, in the weeks that followed, things became less settled. The days continued much as they had before, with Amelia filling the hours as best she could, sometimes calling her parents on the telephone, speaking to them calmly for the most part, but she became increasingly feverish and afraid, for her nights became longer and more treacherous, and her parents began to worry.

At first, she simply found herself waking, she told them, more often than not with a start. She felt, in the beginning, like there was someone stood beside the bed watching her as she slept, but once roused she would look and search and see nobody there in the dark – not even the hint of a shadow that did not belong in the room. And Robin would be there, soundly sleeping, and she would cradle her body into him and he would hold her, half-waking, and normally she would drift back to sleep.

As the weeks stretched on however, Amelia felt less and less able to return to her slumbering, and woke less as if someone was watching her but instead felt, more and more, as if there was somebody sat at the foot of the bed where she slept. A shape with long blonde hair not so unlike her own, always facing away, who seemed, as far as she could tell, to be weeping.

Whenever Amelia looked for this figure, of course, there was nothing to see, but should she look away, or close her eyes, or simply lay there in bed staring at the ceiling, Robin’s shape beside her, she would come to feel in her heart, in her mind’s eye, and in her gut, that the shape was Carline’s, and that her restless spirit disapproved of Amelia’s presence.

With little choice, as she saw it, Amelia had Robin drop her in town, and she stayed once again with her parents. There though, back in her childhood room, with her posters on the walls and rack of CDs from bands she no longer liked, she felt lonesome and sad, and missed Robin, and his smell, and the way he held her. And her parents now seemed so much smaller to her, so much older, more frail, and they had few things to say to one another. Amelia felt that her presence was unwelcome there too, in fact, so before long she once again summoned Robin, who came to fetch her with his broad smile, and they returned to living together in the house on the wide farm, where the winter blew thick and damp, and where, because of Robin’s work, the fields became less and less barren.

As Christmas grew close, Mother then had Amelia take down the corn maiden, who by this time Amelia had all but forgotten.

“The sowing is near done,” Mother said, “yet there are still furrows to plough, and the doll has its last gift to give.”

And Mother explained to her Millie that Robin would take the corn doll out to the final field he was set to plough, and that he would drive her into the earth, and that she would bring good luck and a better harvest, and perhaps even more gifts than that.

Duly, Robin did as she said he would, and before Midwinter Amelia found that she was pregnant. She felt happy and blessed by this fact, and then on Christmas Day Robin climbed down on one knee and proposed to Amelia. She accepted with glee, and was further overjoyed when Robin began to mark occasions with the giving of gifts. Small jewellery items mostly, few things of real value, but each one she treasured because he had given it to her.


Yet come New Year, the hauntings did not stop, and the scarecrow seemed to have moved ever-closer. In Amelia’s dreams it was sometimes at the back door leering, or sometimes inside the house, sometimes in bed beside her, reaching over to rake her swelling stomach with its rough stick paws. And to ward off these dreams, Amelia would pretend to sleep, waiting until Robin was snoring, and then she would wander the house, quietly moving from room to room, hearing the creaking and the settling of the timbers in the dark. 

She became so tired in time, and so pale, that she began to feel a little mad and wild within herself, but she did not tell Robin, who was working so hard, and Mother made her tinctures and strange broths to drink, telling her that they would calm her nerves, help her sleep, give her solace, and would be good for their blossoming baby. 

Then came the day that was always set to come, which occurred when the first touch of spring had arrived, and the green shoots had started to sneak from the soil, reaching to the blue skies like fingers. Once again, Amelia’s curiosity had gotten the better of her, and she wondered about whether if she moved the urn outside then the hauntings would stop, so she went to the dresser and picked it up, only when she did she found it incredibly light. 


Then, when she lifted the lid, she realised that the urn was empty.

This scared her, but she tried to stay calm, and when Robin returned that evening, she asked him what had happened to Eloy’s body when he had died.

“He was cremated,” said Robin, plainly, “and his ashes were ploughed into the land. And the summer after, we had the richest crop of my lifetime.”

It was then that the horror dawned on Amelia, and that the scarecrow felt closest of all. For in her belly grew a son who might one day be ash, and she herself might become ash too, until ploughed to the ground, where she’d come from.

And as she supped on her brews, as directed by Mother, she felt so terribly tired. 

She could run, she thought, and perhaps make it to town, but the ground was uneven and grasping.

Besides, she thought, as everyone knew, there are all manner of strange things out there on the land, and when the sun goes down they come out of their lairs, and all look to travel abroad.


Xargon the Indifferent leaned back in his gravity chair and sighed.


“Stupid Universe,” he said.


Pushing himself backwards from the monitor, out into the room, he lifted up his many heavy heads and went into the kitchen. 


Once there, he studied the buttons on the Ambrosia dispenser, running one of his many fingers down the little pictures. He grimaced, acknowledging that all the options resulted in more or less the same beverage. Still, he’d forgotten to fill his thermos that morning, so Instant would have to do.


Xargon punched a button at random. The machine hummed, clunked, then rumbled. Expelling a small cardboard cup, the device vomited up a single, carefully measured, piping hot serving. It was powdery, multicoloured and shimmering, and as Xargon eyed the shifting liquid he considered whether he might prefer to simply look at the contents of the cup rather than drink it. 


Before he had to make a decision about which course of action to pursue, his co-worker, Dalahad the Jubilant, walked into the kitchen.


“Morning Xargon,” said Dalahad cheerfully, tapping the dispenser button labelled ‘Decaffeinated.’ 


“Is it?” replied Xargon. “These solar-cycles are beginning to blend into one for me.”


Dalahad smiled wryly.


“Getting wrapped up with your universe, huh?”


Xargon nodded, using his many hands to rub the many bags under his many eyes.


“I’m finding it quite demanding. I didn’t think it would be like this,” he said. He scratched his many chins with his many fingers, feeling many bristles.


Dalahad put half of his many arms onto half of Xargon’s many shoulders.


“Universe management takes a lot out of you,” Dalahad said.


Xargon nodded, feeling many tears welling up in his many eyes.


“It’s just… I wish I’d never started it. It’s a shameful thing to admit, but sometimes I curse myself for ever having pressed that big red button,” he whispered.


Dalahad sighed, reaching over to many tissue boxes, and passed many tissues to Xargon. Xargon nodded thankfully, and vacated his many blow-holes.


“I think,” said Dalahad, “that we all feel like that sometimes. But maybe that’s the point? Leave anybody alone with a big red button for long enough and at some point they’re going to push it. I don’t care who they are. It’s inevitable.”


Dalahad turned and walked out of the kitchen, leaving Xargon alone. 


Xargon sipped at his little portion of Ambrosia, and realised that Dalahad had not picked up his cup when he’d left.


“Hey, I forgot my drink!” said Dalahad, poking his head around the kitchen door.


“Thought you’d be back,” said Xargon, smiling as he handed Dalahad the little cup. 


“Seeya later,” he said.


Dalahad departed without saying anything else, so Xargon collected his thoughts and, with the remnants of his rapidly cooling Ambrosia, went back to his Universe Station.


“Nose to the grindstone,” he said to himself, sitting back down in his gravity chair. 


“Grist to the mill…”



I had not seen Adam or Chaka for a decade when it happened. Not since University. 

We had lived together for a year, the two of them downstairs, me upstairs, in a damp but spacious town house, but when our tenancy was over we had drifted apart. And after university I had moved to London while Adam and Chaka, who I had hardly seen in months by that time, moved back to Bristol. When we had been close, I had travelled to Bristol with Adam, had met his parents and saw him and his band play in some sleazy venue somewhere. But that had been back in the day, and such times had long since passed.

Originally we had bonded over a love of the same music. PJ Harvey, Martin Grech, Nine Inch Nails. Adam was an incredibly talented guitarist, and he would sit in his room in halls during the first year of our respective BA programmes, finger-picking tunes over and over again by candlelight, his headphones on and cranked up to the max. He had been studying Law while Chaka was an English student. Chaka and I first met through a lecture series called Sex and Sensibility, and we got along well, sharing in the pains of reading Samuel Richardson and a mutual love of horror movies.

Back when we were living together, I was out a lot, drinking and carousing, and it was typical for me to come home early in the morning or late at night to find Adam and Chaka curled up in their room watching some obscure flick they had special-ordered on DVD. 

“Dude, have you seen Cannibal Holocaust?”

“Dude, of course!”



Incidentally, I am not pretending that Cannibal Holocaust is an obscure horror movie. For a horror buff, Cannibal Holocaust is the kind of movie you watch early in your deep-dive down into the depths of celluloid depravity. I would not pretend to be someone who has ever plunged into the real darkness – the space in the ocean where sunlight does not reach, where the snuff porn and bestiality live. Lots of films down there feature gaps where people have edited out the illegal parts so they can still sell their movie, and if you are a real aficionado you can find the movies with the gaps filled in. And I did see a couple of moments of movies with the gaps. Those harsh edits, always because Adam invited me to. 

And don’t get me wrong, I have watched my fair share of films with retarded girls getting beat up and tortured. 

Films where mannequins or killer clowns with chainsaws execute bizarre and fetishist acts on children or animals. 

I went down deep enough. 

But seeing horse cocks nearing open cunts, and real-life cow necks slit, the surging of blood foaming up, and heard those animal moans as wild eyes rolled back into dying skulls… the pressure got too much for me. 

For Adam and Chaka though, there was no fear. No stopping them.

The kind of places Adam bought that shit, he registered with fake names, created fake bank accounts, had things delivered to stores down the road and paid them to hold stuff for him. Movies would arrive in cardboard boxes covered in reams of tape. Adam would have to cut his way in with kitchen knives to reveal blocks of DVD and video cassette cases bound round and round in bubble-wrap, drowned in Styrofoam pellets. 

This was in the days before Amazon, of course. Days when that kind of delivery was pretty unusual.

It was not like that at the start. At the start it was, “Dude, have you seen Cannibal Holocaust?” By the end, it was, “Dude, I’ve got this movie where real life cannibals eat this chick. They kill her, and then they eat her dude!”


The way Adam used to speak made it seem like it was no big deal. He was always so smiley, so happy. When I had met his parents they had been normal. Fucked up of course, just like everybody else’s parents, dead-eyed mum cooking rice in the kitchen, pot-bellied dad with back hair poking out of his vest, sprawled in front of the TV, but they were normal, and Adam was normal, and Chaka was normal. Sure, Adam played heavy metal, but it wasn’t like his room was made up to look like a dungeon, or that he tortured vermin for fun or anything. He had a regular kind of bed-spread, a grey ocean with white seagulls. He did his laundry the same time each week, and wore big fluffy slippers around the house. Beat-up trainers when he went out.

Whatever the case, in the last year of university I moved in with other friends, Adam pursued his ambition to be a lawyer, and after graduation Chaka became a primary school teacher. I would see updates from them on social media. Adam and Chaka out at the park, looking happy and handsome, drinking champagne, wearing awesome sunglasses or fancy dress costumes for some party or other. 

Other than that though, there was no back and forth.

One day however, as I scrolled and scrolled, bored after a day at work, I saw that a mutual friend was getting married – another guy I had not seen for years – and I noticed that Adam was not in his Stag Do photos. I thought this was strange, as Adam and he had been pretty close, even after university. They had lived together in Bristol, I knew that, and for whatever reason that made me feel like reaching out.

Rather than messaging Adam, I sent a message to Chaka, and before long she and Adam had agreed to come and stay with me and my new wife, Ali, in our little house on the outskirts of a leafy old town.

I told Ali about the sudden plans, and she was moderately excited about the idea. I omitted to tell her about Adam’s movies, simply saying that he and Chaka were old friends that I had not seen for too long, and that it would be nice to reconnect.

They drove to see us. It was spring time and starting to get warmer, and Adam was driving some kind of soft-top sports car. It was red but I cannot remember the make or model. Still, just like back at University his hair looked awesome, his stubble was carefully maintained, and he was smiling that big white smile.

When I opened the front door to greet them, one thing took me back. Gone were Adam’s ripped jeans and heavy metal t-shirts. Instead he was wearing a smart shirt and slacks. No trainers. Shiny, patent-leather shoes instead.

Chaka, meanwhile, had not seemed to change. She breezed in wearing a big grin, her voice husky, like she smoked twenty-a-day despite the fact that she would never think to touch a cigarette. For Chaka, getting drunk was the way to have fun – so drunk that whenever you went out with her somebody would lose something they would never get back, and in the days when we had been close that had suited me down to the ground.

“What’s up, motherfucker!” she said.

This made me happy of course. I like people who speak to me how I want to speak to them.

“Hello pricks!” I said, embracing them one after the other. “Come on in and let me show you the place!”

At the time, Ali and I were renting a two bedroom house on a housing estate. The estate wasn’t particularly salubrious, each house the same, with the same scraggy gardens laid out in rows, but the town it had grown out of, like a pre-fabricated cancer, was a delight. It had its own ruined castle, the remnants of an abbey, a beautiful pedestrianised area with pubs along a riverbank... we couldn’t really afford to live there, even on the edge of the tumorous housing estate, but we had wanted to stay so did. For a while.

Once Adam and Chaka had unpacked enough of their junk to be getting on with, off we went to town. To ensure that conversation never dried up, I packed the afternoon with activities. Ali was not exactly thrilled to be seeing the same castle and same ruined abbey yet again, but walking through old places and drinking at pubs alongside the river was nice, and we ate at a great restaurant with views of the water.

The whole day was nice, in fact, and in the end we did not talk all that much about anything of note. Not until dinner.

Ali opened up the topics of conversation, asking Chaka about teaching at primary level and about life in Bristol. I asked Adam about what had happened to his band, and about life as a lawyer.

As we all chatted away happily enough, I sat there wondering why I had really invited them to stay. I could not figure it out, and the question itched in my brain as I stared at Adam’s face, over which his sunglasses still hung, even though it was dark, and I realised that we probably had not seen each other in so long because something about him scared me just a little.

“Babe, do you want dessert?” Ali asked. “I’m only asking because if not then we can head home for coffees and whisky maybe?”

“Sounds great to me,” I said. “No coffee for this guy though,” I said, pointing at myself. “I need my beauty sleep!”

Once home, we kicked around records, playing songs, drinking booze. At one point, as always happened with Chaka, she started dancing. There was something about the way she dressed which made me uncomfortable. Dresses that were always just a little too low-cut around the chest yet so short that when she moved you could not help but glimpse see her underwear.

I remember vividly that on that night her undergarment setup had been bright green. When she danced, putting her hands above her head, it was next to impossible not to notice. 

In response, I had looked away, but Ali didn’t mind. She and Chaka set up tune after tune and danced, and I looked to Adam who sat, swilling whisky, a cigarette in between his fingers, looking at the two girls and smiling that smile.

“So, you and Chaka gonna finally tie the knot?”

“I don’t think so dude,” said Adam. “I’m just not the marrying kind of guy.”

I nodded, and the conversation died there. I tried to spark a chat about something else, not that I remember what it was, and in the end I abandoned them, heading into the kitchen to wash some dishes and keep myself to myself.

Bed time rolled around and everybody thanked everybody for a good time. Adam and Chaka retired to their room and Ali and I slid in between the sheets in ours.

“Have a good time, baby?” Ali asked me.

“Not sure,” I replied.

She murmured in that way she did when she was falling asleep, and with the lights all off and the darkness wrapped around us it was not long before she was quietly slumbering.

I, on the other hand, lay awake. I tossed and I turned, harrumphing and sighing, trying my best to get comfortable. This was not a one-off occasion, I should say. Sleep has always been a problem for me, and on that night I was especially disturbed. The trick, I find, on nights like those, is to remove my pillow and lie on my front, pressing my cheek into the bed. More often than not, if the bedsheets are cool enough, and my mind is clear, this method gets me halfway to dreamland.

That night, thankfully, the tactic worked. I was halfway to sleep, right on the verge, when the sound of screaming erupted from the room next door.

“You bastard!” came the shriek. “You fucking fucker! You promised me you wouldn’t, and you went and fucking did it!”

It was Chaka’s voice, of course. She was furious with Adam about something – so angry that it sounded to me like she was going to kill him.

I leaped out of bed and Ali followed, somehow waking from her sleep and getting upright in the time it would take to snap your fingers.

I turned the landing light on and knocked on the door of the guest room.

“Guys, are you okay?” I asked.

“You fucking fucker!” came the continued screams. “What have you done? What have you done!”

I could not hold myself back. I had to see. So, I turned the door handle and barged into the room.

The light was on and everything was so bright. Chaka, who was wearing a skimpy nightdress, was stood on the bed right, in the corner. She had flattened her body as best she could, and was pressing her palms against the walls as if trying to make herself disappear.

Adam, meanwhile, was sat on the bed. He was still in his shirt and slacks, although he had kicked off his socks and shoes. His sunglasses were resting on his forehead, and I noticed that inside his shirt, the buttons of which were undone down past his chest, he was cradling something. 

It was a creature of some kind, hairy and moving and… almost singing somehow, the noise spilling out through the pinstripes.

“What the fuck is that?” said Ali. “Hold on, is that a dog?”

Adam chuckled, his white smile seeming somehow even whiter.

“It’s not a fucking dog,” said Chaka, tears welling up in her eyes.

“It’s a Me-be,” said Adam. 

“A what?” I asked.

“It’s a me, only little and furry,” he said.

I looked to Ali and she looked back at me, understandably confused.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“It’s a fucking demon!” said Chaka. “Adam saw a documentary about them, didn’t you, you prick!”

With that it seemed like the spell was broken on Chaka. She clambered down off the bed and pulled a pair of jeans on over her nightdress. She wouldn’t look at Adam. Instead, she slammed her belongings into her suitcase and started to zip it up.

While Chaka packed, I looked at Adam. He was transfixed. With one arm he was cradling the Me-be and with the other he was reaching inside his shirt, tickling the creature with one outstretched finger.

“A coochy-coo!” he said. “A coochy-coo!”

Ali, who had clearly had enough of this, walked out of the room and back into our bedroom. I heard her go and sit on the end of the bed, whereas I just stood there watching. Watching as Chaka packed up Adam’s stuff. Watching as she grabbed her purse and dug out their car keys.

“We’re leaving,” she said, grabbing Adam’s arm and pulling him to his feet.

“Okay,” I said, all but dumbfounded.

Chaka stormed out of the room, half-dragging Adam, but Adam had one final thing to say. A parting shot.

“If you ever find yourself wanting one, all you have to do is wait until it’s dark out, and then say, out loud, ‘Me-be, Me-be, come to me.’ If you do that, before you know it one will pop up beside you, in your fucking bedsheets dude!”

He smiled that wide smile one last time, his white teeth glinting. And with his sunglasses up, I could see his eyes, and inside them was a kind of deep happiness. A look of joy and profound pride.

The next thing I knew, he had followed Chaka down the stairs, his arms still cradling the strange little shape. Then came the sound of the front door closing, the throaty noise of the car engine starting, and in no time at all they were gone altogether.

I say gone, but the smell of them was still in the house. In the lounge, records still lay here and there. Used glasses and coffee cups were still on tables, mantelpieces and shelves.

My first action was to strip their bed. I don’t know why, but it felt right. I bundled all of their sheets up and threw them into the washing machine, adding extra powder and conditioner before punching the button marked ‘Go.’

Next, I cleared the sitting room, packing the crockery into the dishwasher and setting that running too. 

I smoked a cigarette, had a fresh glass of whisky from a fresh glass, and when all that was done I turned off all the lights and went up to bed.

When I got to the bedroom, Ali was still sat on the end of the bed, staring into space.

“Babe, are you okay?” I asked.

“What the fuck was that, sweetheart?” she said.

“I don’t know, honey. Let’s just go to sleep.”

We climbed into bed again, each remaining on our respective sides, each staring at the ceiling. With the lights off and the house empty we lay there listening, both of us staying silent, both thinking similar things.

Eventually it was her who spoke.

“I cannot have been real,” she said.

“Of course not!” I replied. “What, Adam summoned a fucking demon? Come on. What a load of horse-shit.”

“Yeah, but Chaka seemed pretty freaked out.”

I could not argue with that. Chaka had always seemed fine with Adam doing whatever to me. It was as if she would let him get away with murder. But not this time, clearly.

“Maybe they were pranking us?” I said.

“Babe, if they were pranking us then they did a bang-up job. I’m properly freaked out.”

“Okay, well, what would un-freak you out?”

“I tell you what,” she said. “What would un-freak me out is if you said that freaky Me-be shit and nothing happened.”

I rolled over and stared at her in the dark.

“Why me?” I said. “Why don’t you do it?”

She smiled at me through the gloom.

“Because if we had a mini-version of me running around the house then I am not sure I could stand it. But a mini-version of you? I would love that.”

Lying on my side and facing her in the bed I rolled my eyes, sighing deeply. 

Then, quick as a flash, before I could second-guess myself, I said it.

“Me-be, Me-be, come to me.”

Ali’s face turned from a smile to panic and then, behind me in the bed, just between my shoulder-blades, I felt it move.

Before I knew what had happened really, I had shunted towards Ali in the bed, flipping my body over and lashing out with a clenched fist. 

When the blow landed I felt the Me-be’s body buckle, and something came over me that I did not quite understand. 

I lashed out again and again, a deep yell pouring out of my mouth in a way I that could not control. Again and again I struck, feeling the wet warm hair, and the blooming warmth in the bed beside me, spattering back into my face and mouth.

When I had stopped punching, and lay there panting, Ali turned on her bedside lamp.

On the sheet, right next to where the pillow goes, in the spot where, when I can’t sleep, I rub my face, there was a mess of flesh and bone and hair. 

So much hair. 

Hair just like mine. 

The colour of a mouse, but long and thin and fine, and matted with blood.

My fist was covered in blood too, of course. My chest. My face, neck… It was soaked into the duvet, the mattress, my pyjama bottoms. 

That was a long night. A night of peeling back more bedspreads, of waiting for one load of laundry to finish before I could begin another. Of my scrubbing at the mattress with a sponge and soap and water, trying to use salt to soak up the gore. Of Ali showering first, crying when she found clumps of flesh and bone in her hair. And then my showering after, clearing out the rims of my ears. The insides of my nostrils. Brushing my teeth again and again, washing my hair over and over again.

When I was done, I cleared the plughole. More hair. Fragments of something that looked like tooth.

Ali ended up sleeping on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. 

I didn’t sleep at all.

In the wee-small hours, as the sun was coming up, I dug a hole in the back garden into which I placed a cardboard box. Inside the cardboard box I laid the remnants of the Me-be, which I had wrapped in a supermarket carrier bag so as not to spill any more blood when I had carried the tiny thing down the stairs.

It had weighed so little. 

I filled the hole in with claggy earth, finishing the job around dawn. Once that task was complete, I booted by computer with bleary eyes and started to look for new properties to rent in the area.

We moved out within the month, and our marriage broke up not long after.

I have not heard from Adam, or from Chaka, since. 

And I have not been back to that old town, or the housing estate with the identikit houses, all their gardens just the same, laid out in row after row after row.

The Song of the Banshee

In the south west reaches of the Republic of Civis, far from the bustling city streets of the capital, the towns with their tall houses or the broad mountains which teem and bustle with all manner of creature, the Peatlands stretch wet and wide and welcoming.

Few choose to live in the Peatlands, but those who do are used to seeing travelers. Traders ferrying goods great distances, adventurers seeking glory and gold, priests on pilgrimage through the wind and the rain. Those who pass through the Peatlands carry with them as few belongings as they possibly can and stick to the high ground through the bogs and marshes. They seek shelter in the homes scattered throughout the endless fields of sludge, looking to get out of the cold - for the Peatlands are a frigid and miserable place. As they journey, they accumulate stories from the local residents. Some of these tales are ancient, dating almost from the dawn of man. Some are happy stories, of love and wealth and joyful marriage. Some are idle gossip, some are faerie stories, some are accounts of war or pestilence or misfortune.

Many are fresh stories however, born of recent tragedies which ache like open wounds. They tell of the beasts which live in the bogs, of the sweet music or the blood-curdling screams which are carried for miles by the gales.

"Block your ears with wax," is the advice.


"Carry fire with you," is the guidance.


"Never follow the singing," is the warning, "for the songs will lead you only to death."


The stories told by the Peatlanders are often ignored by travelers, of course. The men and women who stop overnight in those isolated hamlets or lay their heads in their ramshackle, weather-beaten inns are normally the sorts of folk who think they have seen some of the world. They believe they know what is real and what is not. That they can tell the difference between a folk tale and a personal history.

Those who heed the warnings are the faces who become familiar in the Peatland lodges. They learn which families bake the best bread, or offer up the best stews. They pass through year after year and see children grow, get married, bear children of their own.

The others, those who ignore the stories, are rarely seen again.


As for the travelers who live to wander further afield, they often carry the stories with them. They retell the tales to others, to their friends and families, or to other journeymen such as themselves on late evenings when fires have burned low.

The stories they tell stick in the mind.

They tend to go a little something like this.


There was a man named Corraidhin (or Breanainn or Loegaire or Suibhne – all are one, more or less, to the outsider). He was a bright fellow, little more than a boy, but with a beard and his first sword and enough wisdom that his father told him he ought to live by himself and think to raise a family. Sure as the sun rises, he met a girl who he came to love, and before long the two were married and his bride (whose name might be Luigsech or Genovefa or Aideen) was with child.

Corraidhin knew how to build a fire and, with his kin, he gathered wood and stone and mud, and he erected a house out in the wilds of the Peatlands. He settled there with his wife and worked hard in the peat fields, hunting and furnishing his life. His child was soon born, and he built new rooms onto his home, laying thatch on its roof and carving fine tables and chairs, beds and shelves, whittling and working to ensure the crafts of his forefathers were not forgotten.

As he grew older, his limbs became thicker, his beard longer, his eyes less sharp. Day after day he would labour in the wilds, his ears plugged with thick mud to block out the worst of the winds and the sweet songs they carried - the wail of the Banshees who waited, ever hungry, ever lonesome, in the dark.

Life in the Peatlands was not easy, but with hard work and spirit, folk could be comfortable. Few had time for reading, but all knew songs. Families and friends would meet in the Mead Hall and grow warmer and warmer with one another. Feuds would erupt over trade and other types of desire, but Corraidhin would be steadfast, noble and kind. He and his family were known to others as good people - true Peatlanders, true to the old ways, and virtuous souls through and through.

Little sooner than Corraidhin’s first born arrived, his wife would be with child again. As he worked day to day, his sweet babe (who might be an Ailill or a Cathan, a Ruari or a Neala) would learn to crawl, then to walk, to talk and then to question, as children are wont to do.

Amongst all the infinite numbers of mysteries, such as who made the stars, or how wide was the world, one day the babe asked, “Father, why do you come home each day with mud in your ears? It does make you look terribly strange.”

Corraidhin said, as any father might, “When I was little older than you, I asked my father the same question. My Da’ told me, sweet child, that there is music on the wind which leads men off to their death. If my ears are blocked up, I cannot hear it. I block my ears so I can return to you, day after day, which is all I could ever want or hope for.”

“But why,” the child then asked, “is there music on the wind?”


“The Banshee,” Corraidhin replied. “They are terrible beasts who hunger for meat, and the meat on men’s bones is their favourite.”

Corraidhin’s wife, of course, then said enough was enough, that there was no need to scare the child, and that no-one had seen a Banshee for years. That most of those beasts upped sticks and left, heading to the Deserts of Tusk and the City of Umbra, where all the other monsters and dead men roamed. She told the child that there was nothing to fear, that it was better to be safe than sorry, and that now it was time for bed.

The next day, Corraidhin went to work as he always did, taking with him some flatbread, some ale in a flagon, and his long-handled spade. He dug peat from daybreak to nightfall, loading a simple sled up with the sweet-smelling black muck, which he dragged back to his house. On arrival he was hungry and sore, but expecting the sight of his growing family he knew that his aches would vanish once he felt the sweet embrace of his wife and the clinging hands of his child.

Opening the door of his cottage however, his wife was not calm or glowing with the beauty of gestation. She was instead weeping and wailing, beside herself with worry and helpless to leave the safety of the house in her condition.


She was talking to him but he couldn’t hear her until his pulled the mud from his ears.


Then the terrible truth was revealed.


“It’s little Ailill,” she wailed. “I looked around in the mid-afternoon and the door was open. I’ve searched all about the house, but there’s no sign…”


Corraidhin, not looking to waste time eating or resting his weary bones, then took up his sword and a bundle of torches. He told his wife to stay where she was in case the child should return, and he struck out across the peat with his heart in his throat.

He knew a little tracking, and the child’s footsteps were easy enough to follow at first. In the near-constant winds and rains of the Peatlands however, tracks are soon waterlogged, so time was of the essence.

Gladly, Corraidhin saw that the child had heeded the advice he had given and stuck to the high ground, avoiding the deadly, clutching depths of the bogs and marshes below. As time went on however, and his torch struggled to stay lit against the gales, he lost the trail.

What next, he thought? To return empty-handed to his wife? The longer the infant was out in this weather, the higher the chance the elements would claim her. No, he thought, he could never forgive himself if he gave up. He would push on, all night if he had to. He would retrace his steps, and soon enough he would find little footsteps to follow.

Then, on the edge of his hearing, a sound made itself known to him the like of which he could have never imagined. The voice was pure and bright as the summer sun, sweet as honey, like a mother singing a lullaby as they laid a babe down to slumber.

Of course, thought Corraidhin - the child had followed the music! Fear rose in him again, impelling him to action.

He thought of his father’s warnings, and of the advice he had chosen not to mention to his own offspring - that although the meat on men’s bones is the Banshee’s favourite, it is the flesh of children they savour most of all.

Corraidhin raced through the wind and the rain, following the song. It drew him in, as if he had many gentle hands reaching out to touch him, pulling him nearer. Each footfall in the mud splashed down, soaking his britches, flowing over the top of his boots and flooding the spaces between his toes. Rain ran from his beard in torrents, down inside his jerkin, chilling him to the bone. He was aware that all of this was happening, but he felt none of it - all he was, all he ever would be, became absorbed, preoccupied entirely by the siren song.

It wasn’t long before Corraidhin found the creature. It resembled a woman, slender yet twisted somehow, with pale eyes and pallid skin which looked, to him, like a long-drowned corpse. Matted and tangled hair hung long from its scalp, filthy from the mud of the marshes, and at its feet, being pulled apart and half eaten, were the remains of his beautiful, inquisitive child.


Still, as it ate and chewed, the creature sang on as a mother might when the sun goes down.

The Banshee saw Corraidhin as he approached through the rain and, when the creature noticed the sword in his hand, it stopped its singing. When the music faltered, Corraidhin found it inconceivable that the creature’s foul mouth, filled with cracked and broken fangs, and spilling over with the blood of his loins, could ever emit such a sumptuous serenade.

The time for thinking was over then, and Corraidhin leapt forth, swinging his sword how his father had taught him. Yet, the Banshee stepped backwards and away, sucking in a deep breath, which seemed to almost pull the air from Corraidhin’s lungs.

Before the Peatlander had time to blink, the Banshee emitted a sound far more befitting its monstrous appearance: it was a shrill and terrifying shriek - an uproar so calamitous and foul that Corraidhin’s heart all but stopped beating in his chest. Indeed, the sword in his hand cracked and shattered, breaking into a dozen fragmentary pieces.

Corraidhin stood stunned, rocking gently on the spot, waiting for his pulse to once again drive blood around his body. He felt his whole form giving up. He was suddenly so tired and so cold and so alone, and the Banshee looked at him with a hunger that might never be satiated.

Out of the corner of his eye, Corraidhin then saw the corpse of his sweet child at his feet. He looked at the broken hilt in his hand, and knew that, although splintered into fragments, there was still enough blade to the weapon to slay the beast.

The Banshee leapt at Corraidhin and the man - the warrior, the father, the noble peat-cutter - fought with all his might in his dying moments, stabbing the Banshee again and again until he could no longer battle on.

Days later, after Corraidhin and his wife had failed to visit the Mead Hall for one night too many, a group of men then struck out to visit his homestead. Inside it they found his wife, alone and hungry and terribly, terribly afraid. Shaking and desperate, she told them, through chapped and thirsty lips, what had happened all those nights since passed.

She had waited and waited, she told them. They ought to be back any moment.

The men then scoured the peat fields around the cottage, and eventually found them. A pile of three corpses.


On the top of the sombre funeral mound was a Banshee; it had bled out and been savaged, presumably by wolves, but the wounds from Corraidhin’s broken sword were plain for all to see.

Beneath the Banshee’s body lay Corraidhin’s; he was handsome and pale, his face calm and relaxed with the pallor of death.

Lastly, at the bottom of the pile of corpses lay that of young Ailill. Or was it Cathan or Ruari or Neala?


Whatever the names, it was the saddest sight those Peatlanders ever saw, and served as a reminder to one and all that the winds in the wilds sometimes blow with a song that is nothing but ruin to follow.

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