Beasties

The crowd was a restless beast. Feet pounded on floorboards. Last minute bets rang out. Tension oozed down the walls and through the air. An oily serpent gathering every heckle and cry to itself, pulsing and growing and filling what space the jostling bodies could not occupy.

Taggart sat below all of this. He was in a dimly lit room, the only source of light was a bulb dangling on a length of electric chord. It jerked and shuddered with every footfall. Light flickered against the bare walls. Bits of dirt jostled free from the wooden slats above and danced around Taggart like some poor man’s confetti. His eyes were closed and he sat on a concrete bench. It was nothing more than a cold, grey slab. The chill pressed against his naked skin and into his muscles and bones. His feet rested on hard packed earth. Distantly, Taggart could hear his name weaving through the crowd. Distantly, he could feel fingers squeezing his shoulders, but Taggart was in a far off place and he wasn’t ready to come back. Not yet.

“Tag, come on boy.”

The voice floated down to Taggart. It plucked at him, an echo getting louder, digging into him and pulling, pulling.

Taggart let out a slow breath. He opened his eyes. Dull eyes, like the cracked surface of a dried riverbed. Or a potter’s clay still waiting to be glazed. But they would change soon. Just like the rest of him.

The fingers kept digging into Taggart’s flesh, a rhythmic and urgent motion. Taggart rolled his shoulders back. It was his way of letting his Keeper, Kabeer, know that he had surfaced. Taggart didn’t want to talk. The words would cut through his focus. They would shatter the fragile calm that he had constructed over the last hour.

Kabeer released his hold on Taggart. There was a loud clap as the Keeper’s hands came together. Taggart let the noise roll over his body.

“Ah! There’s my boy!”

Kabeer stepped around and leaned his face into Taggart’s.

Kabeer’s was an old face. A grizzled face, lined and pock marked. Grey stubble covered his cheeks and a thick scar ran against the line of his jaw. There was a slight stoop to his body where age had taken his strength and gravity was pulling him down, but Kabeer fought back. You could see it in the clench of his jaw and in the spark of his eyes. His body may be falling to the ravages of time, but his mind would not. He stared at Taggart. Burning blue eyes piercing into flat brown.

“Are you ready, boy?”

Taggart nodded. It was the only acceptable answer.

Kabeer’s lips stretched and parted to reveal yellowed teeth. A side effect from the almost constant use of tobacco. Taggart could smell it on the old man’s hair and clothes. A stale cloud formed when Kabeer exhaled. It was a wonder the pipe wasn’t currently stuck between his lips. As if sensing the thought, Kabeer stepped back and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a dark, red pipe along with a bag of dried leaves. His fingers danced a familiar routine across the worn wood and into the folds of the little packet. His eyes did not leave Taggart.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Get at it, boy. It’s time to let the Beastie out.”

Taggart stared at his keeper for just a moment longer. He watched pipe meet lips and smoke curdle into the room. And then Taggart let go.

It started in his eyes. Always his eyes. The mud cracked and a burning amber flooded into the open space, pushing and drowning the brown away. His pupils shuddered. Some unseen force pulled and pushed till the black spheres became diamonds. The shift rippled down his spine and Taggart folded into himself. He dropped from the bench. Joints popped. Muscles tore. Heat seared across his skin.

Taggart was silent through it all. It hurt. Oh gods it hurt. He was ripped apart and sewn back together again and again. Of course it hurt.But it was a familiar pain. A constant in his life. Not like the first time. Never like the first time. Taggart took the pain. He gave into the shift. He let himself become.

A shiver rippled across Taggart’s new skin. It was thick and grey and covered in hard, bristle-like hairs. He had a tail now, barbed and deadly. The tip glistened with the promise of the poison inside. A ruff of a mane started between pointed ears and travelled toward a dip in his back. He stood on all fours, much bigger than he had been only moments before. Kabeer stood beside him, barely at a height with Taggart’s shoulders, but even still, Taggart was small for a Beastie. He didn’t see it as a flaw.

Taggart raised his snout and sniffed at the air. Thick gobs of drool hung from a row of razor teeth. He shook his head and flexed his paws. Kabeer smacked Taggart’s side. Taggart growled softly. He needed a moment, just a moment, to get used to this form. Kabeer was always impatient.

“We don’t have all day, boy.”

If it was strange for Kabeer to call a grown man, boy, it was even stranger for the old man to say it to a Beastie that could rip him to shreds in mere seconds. Taggart didn’t dwell on the thought. He didn’t have space for petty concerns. He had a job to do and he would do it well.

With a final shake of his head, Taggart strode into the tunnel and emerged onto the arena floor.

The crowd erupted.

Taggart gave them no heed. The people that came to watch these fights were nothing more than bloodthirsty scum too scared to get their own hands dirty. They’d sit up there, protected by money and status. And they’d look down at Taggart and at whatever other Beastie had been sent into the pit and they’d watch them tear each other apart. They didn’t deserve his attention and if not for the debts he owed, Taggart would not be their entertainment.

The ground shook. Taggart fixed his eyes to the tunnel opposite his. Growls and thuds echoed from the darkness beyond. A hush descended on the crowd. It was a new fighter, at least, new to Taggart. He did not recognise the name, but whoever and whatever was coming to face Taggart, it was colossal.

It seemed for a moment that the entire space held it’s breath. Only the pounding of those massive feet against the dirt and the roars of that thing filled the space. And then the Beastie exploded onto the sand.

Dirt scattered into the air. The Beastie blasted a circuit around the arena. It growled. It roared. It stood up on it’s hind legs and pounded at it’s chest. The crowd was a mess of shrill delirium. The Beastie was giving them exactly what they wanted. Exactly what Taggart refused to give. It was a sore point for Kabeer that Taggart refused to show boat. That the crowd so often threw their support at his opposition. But Kabeer had no room to complain. Not when Taggart kept his purse full. It was the win that mattered. Not the spectacle.

Taggart kept silent watch as his opponent continued the wild performance.

While Taggart’s Beastie looked like something crossed between a boar and a hound, this Beastie was a Gorilla through and through. A massive, hairy primate that could crush Taggart in one hand. Wicked fangs descended from it’s jaws and muscles bulged from every limb. Deadly, for sure, but if this pre-fight performance told Taggart anything it was that this fighter was erratic.

A deafening buzz sounded across the arena and the crowd fell silent. The Gorilla turned to face Taggart and without warning, it stormed at him. The fight had begun.
Taggart sidestepped the first charge easily. The gorilla turned with him and charged again. This time, Taggart moved toward his opponent. He ducked beneath one meaty arm and sliced his claws against the other Beasties ankle. It was a small strike. A graze, really, but the Gorilla shrieked with uncontrolled rage. Taggart dropped back and surveyed his opponent. For all it’s size, this Beastie was rash and undisciplined. A hand came smashing down. Taggart skirted out of harms way. He ducked around the Gorilla and then struck from behind. His teeth sank into the Gorilla’s exposed flesh. Copper flooded his mouth. Taggart let go and darted out of range.

Taggart spun, muscles bunched and ears alert, ready for the next attack. But it didn’t come. The Gorilla was standing in the centre of the arena, staring down at it’s side. At the blood oozing out of a row of puncture wounds. A minor injury for the arena, and yet, it had caused this Beastie to loose all focus. Taggart watched those hairy arms shudder. His ears pricked at a quiet whimper. The Gorilla looked up and Taggart met it’s eyes. The only thing that glistened in those deep, green pools was fear.

Taggart growled.

This wasn’t an undisciplined fighter. Not some brute used to winning on size alone. This Beastie was inexperienced. New to the ring and the pain and the bloodshed. Taggart growled again. The organisers should know better than to match fresh fighters against him, no matter their size.

Taggart paced a circle around the Gorilla. It had one giant hand pressed against it’s side. Blood pooled between sausage fingers. It eyed him warily. It was afraid to charge. It was afraid to be struck again. But the match wouldn’t end until one of them crashed into the dirt. Until one of them stopped getting up.

Taggart moved in. He would make it quick. It was the only gift he could give this rookie and maybe it would serve as a lesson in remembering to keep your guard up.

Taggart was a bolt of lightning. He moved in and out, landing quick blows and small strikes. The gorilla howled and spun and tried to keep up, but Taggart was fast and his movements dizzying. In a matter of seconds, Taggart saw his opening. His tail flicked out and the barb struck the Gorilla deep in the chest. Taggart held it there for only a moment, a quick pump of poison into the Gorilla’s veins and then he pulled back and retreated to the other side of the arena. The Gorilla looked down at it’s chest. It looked at Taggart and for a moment, it seemed like the Gorilla would charge, but then it’s body began to sway.

The poison took hold fast. It wasn’t enough to kill the fighter, but it would result in a burning fever that lasted for days. Unpleasant, but the fastest way to get both of them out of this pit. Taggart watched the Beastie twist and sway and then the colossal thing crashed to the ground. The arena shook. A hushed silence descended over the crowd. There was no cheering. There was no sport to this match. Taggart had been too efficient. It had happened too quickly for any of the audience to follow the fight. And Taggart would pay for it. The audience had not got their money’s worth. The organisers would take it from the winnings and Kabeer, in turn, would only increase the debts that Taggart owed. It was a high price to pay for a small act of mercy. A high price for a match that should never have been fought.

Taggart turned, ready to leave, but a flicker of movement caught his eye. He turned back to the arena. The Gorilla was shifting. They weren’t supposed to do that. Not in the arena. Not in front of the audience. Taggart watched, at first in fascination and then in horror. The body kept getting smaller. And smaller.

Too small.

Taggart ran. He shifted into human as he went, exchanging four legs for two and the cover of his animal hide for fragile human skin. He didn’t care. Damn the rules and damn this place. That fighter was too small. Taggart skidded to a halt beside the body. He dropped to his knees.

A boy. It was just a boy. Taggart cradled one hand beneath the boy’s head and another around his shoulders. He pulled the unconscious form onto his lap. Taggart felt like a giant. His hands were too big, his fingers too clumsy.

This boy too small.

Taggart had been ten the first time his Beastie had surfaced. He remembered the fear. The pain. He remembered the confusion. This boy was barely past his first shift. How was he in the arena?

Taggart looked at the tiny body and at the wounds he had inflicted. At the torn flesh and at the blood. How was there so much blood?

The wounds would have been nothing on an adult, but a child? Taggart looked at the chest wound. The poisoned wound. Already it was red and angry. Already the inflammation spread. Taggart could feel the heat of the fever gathering. The boy’s eyes flickered below his eyelids. He moaned softly.

“I’m sorry,” Taggart whispered. “Oh gods, I’m sorry.”

Taggart adjusted his hold on the boy. He stood. Match officials were hurrying into the arena. Kabeer approached from the left and from the right, the boys Keeper, Elena. It didn’t surprise Taggart. She was a hard lady. Perhaps the most cutthroat of the Keepers. She had to be. She was a woman competing at a man’s game. Taggart understood her why, but it didn’t mean he had to like her. He pulled the boy closer.

“Tag, put the boy down.” Kabeer spoke cautiously.

The Beastie simmered behind Taggart’s eyes.

“He needs medical attention.”

“And I’m sure he will get it.”

“Now Kab! I gave him an adult dose!”

The panic rose in Taggart’s voice. A growl lingered in his throat. Kabeer stepped back. He motioned to Elena. “I am sure his keeper will see to his medical needs.”

Elena stepped close. She looked at the boy and then she motioned to one of her henchmen, “Boyd, take him to the cells. Give him comfort. If he makes it, he makes it, but honestly dear, healers are expensive and I don’t think he’s worth the investment.”

The last was directed at Taggart. A game. Elena knew that Taggart would take the bait. Of course he would. Elena was soulless. She would leave this boy to die.

“I’ll take him.”

Elena arched a brow. “And will darling Kabeer cover the transfer fees?”

Kabeer shook his head. Taggart glared at the both of them. “I’ll take him.”

“You understand the transfer and the healer’s fees will come out of your pay? All future needs, come from you?”

Taggart nodded. He could survive the arena. He could live the pit. The boy didn’t need to.

“I’ll take him.”

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Madame Gresham’s Finishing School for Ambitious Young Ladies

It was almost a kiss. Moonlight had dappled against their skin; a kaleidescope of shadow and light filtering through the oak canopy. The chirrup of night bugs had filled the air and Fiona’s eyes had fluttered closed. Her body had moved closer on instinct. She had felt his breath, felt his lips brushing against hers.

But then Ashely had dropped from the tree above them.

Reverberations slammed through the earth and Fiona jerked back. She was only half aware of Dane scrambling to his feet. Her eyes were on Ashley and then onto Sonja who was circling in from behind. Fiona cast her eyes around until she found the third, Jules, materialising out of the mist.

Where had the mist come from?

Fiona didn’t have time to figure that out. Her heart was a fluttering mess. She was in trouble. A lot of trouble.

“Fiona Harding. Breaking the rules. You know, I almost didn’t believe it when Madame briefed us, but… here you are. Even the mighty fall.”

That was Jules, cool voice and cool stride, her eyes dead set on Fiona. Ashley chuckled. “Oh give her a break Jules, she was just having a bit of fun.”

Jules’ attention shot toward Ashley. “We are not here for fun. And Madame wouldn’t see fit to give her a break.”

Ashley’s eyes glittered, cheeky retort no doubt ready, but Dane’s voice cut into the night.

“Ladies! If you’ll excuse me.” He made a sweeping bow and shot a quick wink at Fiona. Fiona’s cheeks warmed. She couldn’t help the grin that split across her face. Dane matched her grin and then he backed away, melting into the darkness as quickly and quietly as the girls had materialised out of it.

“Well you are in a lot of trouble Fiona. I’d try not to grin like an idiot if I were you.”

Fiona’s face went blank. She turned to look at her best friend, but for all of her words, Ashley was grinning like a Cheshire cat. Fiona’s lips twitched up again, but then Jules spoke and Fiona rolled her eyes.

“Shall we get this over with?” Bored. Serious.

Fiona sighed, got to her feet and dusted leaf litter from her butt. With a quick stretch and rolling of her neck, Fiona started back toward school. The other girls formed a tight triangle around her. Ashely and Sonja taking either side at the front and Jules following behind. It was all a bit much. Sure, Fiona had snuck out and sure, she had gone to meet a boy, but she wasn’t about to make a run for it. Where would she go?

A few short minutes later and the wrought iron gates loomed. The girls paused. Sonja stepped up to work the intercom and while they waited, Fiona found herself staring at the metal plaque adorning the red-brick wall. Big, curling letters proclaimed:

Madame Gresham’s Finishing School for Ambitious Young Ladies

And then the school motto in a slightly smaller font, but just as bold and daring:

Bring your own Knives

It had been that line that had made Fiona choose this school. Out of all of the schools that had promised to transform young girls into new versions of themselves, better versions of themselves, only Madame Gresham’s had said anything about the finer arts. Fiona was certain some of the other schools would teach the arts, but they were shoehorned into overcrowded curricula and lacked any real importance. Madame Gresham, on the other hand, had structured her entire curriculum around the arts. Madame Gresham was forward thinking. She was bold.

And she was incredibly hard on all of her girls.

The gate swung open and Fiona swallowed a lump of fear. She and the other girls moved onto the school grounds. Her gut tightened with each step. Beads of sweat glistened along her arms.

Oh Fiona, what were you thinking?

She hadn’t been thinking. Not really. With Dane it had been all butterflies and adrenaline. Not how Fiona should be. Not what Fiona had been taught. Too soon, they were at the school buildings. Too soon they were moving through doors and along carpet lined hallways. Too soon, they stopped in front of Madame Gresham’s office. Sonja stepped up and tapped her knuckles against the wood.

“In,” came Madame Gresham’s voice. Dulled by the walls it had to travel through, but still strong. Solid. The hairs on Fiona’s arms stood to attention. She breathed deeply.

Calm. Poise. Strength.

The door swung open. Fiona let out the breath. The procession proceeded into the office. Madame Gresham did not look at the girls. She was busy looking over a file, my file, Fiona realised, and while her eyes did not stray from the pages, she spoke.

“Good work girls. Now off with you. Fiona and I need to have a little chat.”

As one, the girls bowed and backed out of the room. Ashley gave Fiona’s hand a quick squeeze as she passed, but nothing more. It was the only support Fiona would receive. The only support anyone could give. Fiona had made this mess on her own and it was hers to clean up.

Fiona waited. Madame perused the file a moment longer, then she placed it on her desk, her slender fingers brushing the pages and she looked up at Fiona.

“Did you have a lovely time, dear?”

“I…” Fiona’s words caught in her throat. It was a trick. Say yes and betray her training. Say no, and Fiona would be a liar.

Madame did not wait for Fiona to respond.

“You are one of my top students, Fiona.” She gestured to the file. “And yet, how easily a quick smile from a handsome boy had you loosing all sense.”

Fiona swallowed. Her voice stuttered. “I did not loose all sense, Madame.”

“Oh?”

“My training has prepared me for…”

“Did you think you could trust him?”

Fiona paused. Her spine tingled.

“Where are your knives?” Madame asked. Fiona swallowed. She looked down. Her hands went to her hips. Her fingers brushed leather and buckles, but no hilt nestled into her palm. There was no steel to weigh the scabbards down. Her knives were gone. She looked up at Madame, her eyes now wide from shock.How had she not felt her knives being taken? How had she not felt their absence?

Just then, the door opened. Fiona watched as Dane entered the room. She watched as he walked to the desk. She watched him place her knives on the polished wood and she watched him give Madame Gresham a sweeping bow before leaving the way he had come. He did not look at Fiona even once. Her stomach roiled. Fiona had to fight with everything she had not to be sick.

“Did you think it was love?”

Love, no. But the start of something, maybe…

Madame sighed. “It is a hard lesson, Fiona. Trust is a valuable commodity and not one to give out lightly, especially not by one of Madame Gresham’s girls. I trust you will be more discerning in the future?”

Fiona nodded. Her face was a mask, a stone statue with no emotion, but inside, Fiona was breaking.

Mushroom Clouds

The hive was beautiful. A drop of sunlight twisting in lazy loops. It all but glowed with promise and Harry licked his lips in anticipation. He squinted up at the hive and his brain began to whorl. The hive was a good six meters from the ground, but that was hardly the problem. The real problem, the thing that gave Harry pause, was the Gigantus Fungalus.

Gigantus Fungalus were a rare species of giant mushroom and this hive, this beautiful font of sweet treasure, was nestled deeply within the black fronds of one such mushroom. Harry stroked his stubbled chin. Even within the Neglar Marshes, a veritable paradise for fungi, the Fungaluswere rare and Harry’s prime directive was to keep them safe.
Well, his actual job was harvesting honey, but it was his personal belief that one could do so without unnecessarily hurting the environment. The whole thing with the bees was unfortunate, but Harry had heard some interesting stories of keeping bees in boxes, almost like livestock and he was eager to try it out for himself. If all went to plan he would be able to secure the queen from this hive and…

“So can I cut it down yet?”

Barnaby.

Barnaby was… well, Barnaby carried enough size and weight to make up at least three extra people. His ego was of a complimentary size. Harry scowled at his partner. Of all the muscle in the village, why had he been paired with such an unconscionable jerk?

“No. You can’t cut it down. Ever. We have to preserve the ecosystem. Now shhh. I’m thinking.”

Harry circled the giant toadstool. It’s trunk was a musky off white, the cap a dull brown. The black fronds fluttered in the wind playing a taunting game of peek-a-boo with the hive. Harry pressed his hands against the trunk. It swayed slightly at his touch. They would never be able to climb it, but Harry already knew that. The giant mushrooms could not support the weight of a man. Yet, some of the other species could.
Harry squinted at the surrounding flora. He spied the telltale yellow of Agricarum Agricarum and hurried toward the outcropping. As was particular to this species, they grew in a kind of radiating spiral, each mushroom an offshoot from the one before it, creating a step-like effect. The tallest barely came to a third of the Gigantus Fungalus, but Agricarum were notorious for their springy quality. Harry clambered up onto the smallest one.

“Oh come on! Just let me hack at it!”

Harry ignored his partner and began a gentle bounce. If he could use the Agricarum as a spring board, perhaps he could launch himself high enough to grab the hive.

“You look like an idiot.”

Harry bounced a little higher. He smiled at how quickly he was gaining height and then he was falling. His feet sunk into yellow cap. Puffs of black spore shot out from under the Agricarum. Harry didn’t get a chance to react. Momentum pushed him into the air once more. When his feet found yellow again, the spore cloud erupted. Harry floundered inside the dark cloud, choking to find breath. Struggling to orient himself. He misjudged his footing, hit the cap side on and crashed roughly to the marsh floor.

Harry crawled into clean airspace and heaved. Barnaby stood a little off to the side, shielding his face with a bandanna. His voice was muffled, but Harry didn’t have any trouble deciphering the words.

“Genius plan, Mastermind.

Harry stood up, still hacking spore from his lungs. “Eh… I forgot… that… about Agricarum.”

Barnaby rolled his eyes at Harry and then he unhooked the Machete from his belt. “Right, my turn.”

“No wait!”

Barnaby paused and for a moment Harry thought that his partner had listened, but then he saw the play of rainbow light against the ground and heard the telltale hum of Anisop Pterras. Harry turned to face the large insectoid. It was hurtling straight toward them. Harry felt his chest tighten. The Pterras was as beautiful as it was deadly. All iridescent wings and gnashing mandibles. Man against beast. It shouldn’t have to be that way…

And it didn’t.

“Wait! Stop! Bandannas up. You don’t have to kill it!”

Harry didn’t wait to see if Barnaby had obeyed. He sprinted toward the yellow mushrooms, hoisting his bandanna over his mouth and nose as he went. He clambered up onto an Agricarumand he began to jump. His feet pounded into yellow and he rose into the air. Clouds of mushroom spore following him up. Black filled the air and soon Harry could not see a thing, but neither could the Pterras.

Lungs burning and body drenched in sweat, Harry finally stopped. He waited for the clouds to clear and then he made his descent. He smiled to himself. The spore clouds had been a great idea for the Pterras, but what of the hive?

Harry found Barnaby black with spore. Only his eyes shone out and they were red with anger.

“Are you done?”

“A thank-you for saving me from the Pterras would be nice.”

Barnaby gave Harry a cold stare. “I don’t need any saving.”

It was then that Harry noticed the machete still in Barnaby’s hands. Barnaby swung the blade with practiced ease.

“NO!”

The Machete sang through the air. There was a dull squelch and suck as it cut deep and severed flesh.

It felt like an eternity as the Gigantus Fungalus crashed to the floor.

Barnaby hoisted the machete over his shoulder and began walking toward the cap, toward the destruction and the prize. Harry followed after him, whimpering along the entire length of the trunk.

Beneath the fronds lay the few shattered remains of what had once been a hive. The honey had made a tasty meal for an undisturbed  Anisop Pterras.

“Why,” Barnaby muttered, “Out of all the brains in the village, did I have to get the dumbest one?”

The Dress

The dress was torture. Lace dug into flesh. Satin coiled, a slow compression from waist to throat. Below, swaths of pallid pink crested atop roiling waves. Raega was drowning. She tried to remain steady, eyes fixed on the mirrored wall before her, but she was drowning and today she could not hide it.
Atop the fitting box she stood, hands fisted by her sides. She’d force her fingers into a more natural pose, but each time they would slowly curl back and betray her anger. Her eyes weren’t any help either: large and red rimmed within a face tensed from holding back rage. Two tailor’s assistants working below her didn’t care to notice, but Haimler did. He was a man nearing sixty, but still in the prime of health. A strong presence in this room full of fluff. Raega watched his reflection as he watched her. She waited for her Master of Wardrobe to speak.
“Is the dress not to your satisfaction, Lady?”
“No, Haimler. It is not.”
The assistants paused in their work. Raega felt the air thicken. It was as if someone had placed a wad of cotton over the room, muting all of her senses. Raega wanted to scream. She wanted to claw at the lace on her neck and gasp for air. Instead, she maintained her stiff posture. She studied the emotion unraveling across her face. Haimler stepped forward. She could not bring herself to meet his gaze.
“This was your mother’s top choice, but I do have other samples for you to consider.”
Haimler clicked his fingers, and the assistants all but sprinted from the room. Raega fought the urge to scramble after them. She kept her eyes fixed to the mirror and the bloated pile of fluff she had been transformed into. She knew this had been her mother’s choice. Her mother’s choices were as suffocating as the dress Raega now wore. Raega didn’t want to go to The Club, and she didn’t want to liaise with the other young nobles. Yet, she had been going, if only to please her mother and to keep the peace. She was willing to sacrifice one evening each month to uncomfortable dresses and even less comfortable company, but she was not willing to sacrifice herself.
“You need to be more approachable.”
“Excuse me?”
“The young men find you difficult to talk to. You glare too much. Smile. Be more… feminine.”
Haimler cleared his throat, startling Raega out of her remembered conversation. He motioned toward a rack of dresses and held out his hand to help her from the fitting box. She lifted her skirts and stepped down, but before she could make her way toward the rack, Hailmer leaned in close.
“Lady Raegalynn, in my personal opinion, it would not be a bad thing for you to take a more decisive role in your choice of clothing. I am, after all, your Master of Wardrobe.”
And then he stepped back, leaving Raega to wonder if his words had been true, or only imagined.
The dresses Raega’s mother insisted she wear, the dresses all the noble ladies wore, existed in the realm of washed-out pinks and blues, sickly things that had been drained of their life. The dresses on this rack were different, the fabrics dipped into a much darker colour range. One of the dresses was a deep plum; another, a soft forest green. The necklines varied in their placement, and not all of them were as heavy in the skirt. Raega trailed her fingers down the sleeve of the deep plum gown. She followed the bumps and grooves as the floral design swirled down the arm. These dresses would no doubt cause a stir at The Club, but they still existed within that realm of fluff and lace. It still felt like they had been designed to smooth over the sharp edges. They would still render the wearer soft and approachable.
Haimler stepped forward, “Are these dresses more to your liking, Lady?”
Raega trailed her fingers down the curve of one of the lower necklines. “They’re very pretty Haimler.”
“But?”
“But I don’t want to look pretty.”
“And how is it, that you would like to look?”
Raega turned to her Master of Wardrobe. A smile twitched across her lips.
“Deadly.”

Return

Dust lay thick on the furniture. Spots of sun leaked through the worn curtains. Somewhere, a rodent skittered away on clawed feet. Kayla stood in the middle of the living room and sighed. She wasn’t sure why she had come. She had given so many years to this place, to the waiting. It hadn’t given back, yet she couldn’t help but feel guilty for having abandoned it.
Kayla stepped around the couch and into the kitchen. Her breath caught in her throat as her hand grabbed toward the nearest wall. She swayed on the spot, fighting against what her eyes saw but her brain refused to believe. Standing beside the antique stove was her sister. Her twin sister. Gone was the unsure teenager who Kayla remembered. In her place stood a confident woman with beaded dreadlocks gathered atop her head and a hand resting easy on a solid fighting staff. The strangeness was still there. That haunting way she tilted her head as if listening to something a million miles away. The way her eyes looked glossed over yet swam with swirling clouds. And the voice, as if speaking from another place:
“Kayla. I have been waiting for you.”
Kayla didn’t know if she should laugh or cry or scream.
“Waiting for me? You’ve been waiting for me?” She shook her head. “I waited for you. For six years, Ruta, I waited.”
Ruta closed her eyes and lifted her chin, catching a breeze that wasn’t there. No, that wasn’t here. How easy it was to watch her sister drift between two worlds and feel that anger rise again, anger at not being given the same gifts as her twin.
Anger at being normal.
Kayla thought she had moved past all of that, but this shock and storm of emotions thrust her back into childhood. She knew how hard it had been on Ruta -she had watched her sister struggle with even the most mundane of tasks- and still Kayla had wanted to be the one that was different.
Ruta came back to the room. Her eyes focused on Kayla. Ruta didn’t look like she struggled with things anymore. Ruta didn’t look like someone who saw her gifts as a disability anymore.
“Why did you stop waiting?”
It wasn’t an accusation; just curiosity. Kayla let her body slide down the wall. Her eyes stared at nothing.
“I lost hope. I started to believe mom was right. You had to be dead.”
“I was dead. I will be dead again. We are all trapped in the cycle of life and death. Living is just unbecoming and reconstructing. Death and rebirth. You die too. We all do.”
Kayla looked long and hard at her twin. Ruta was right. Kayla could not find even a spark of the teenage rebel she had once been: a young girl willing to take any risk just to be different, to feel different. That girl had died.
Kayla could feel herself dying again. A cycle of unbecoming and becoming again.

Buhle

Buhle dipped her oar into the Lagoon. Ripples spread out across the surface, distorting the once prosperous city that lay beneath the water. It had been called Cape Town, but that was before the ocean invaded the land, before the world went mad and before humankind changed. Now it was simply the Lagoon: a place where life flourished above the water and memories twisted in the currents far below. It was those memories Buhle sought. It was those memories that all Salvagers sought. At least, it was that curiosity and desire for something more that first drove them to join the salvaging crews. But time and failure weathered the spirit. Many gave up. They returned to their homes, ready to forget, to become respectable members of society once more. Others simply salvaged for the raw materials their people could use and forgot the dream. They stopped believing that technology could be recovered. It had drowned along with their ancestors.

Water swirled and pressed against the wood of Buhle’s oar. She pulled back, feeling the pressure of the oar’s passage. She felt it through her skin, muscle, bone. She felt it pressing against her spirit, that pushing, suffocating sense that the water had nothing to give. The water could not answer her dreams. It was a terrifying feeling, but the more time she spent below the surface, the more time she spent staring at the strange lines of circuitry, unable to decipher their secrets, unable to bring them back to life, the more it felt like truth. The Lagoon could not answer her dreams.

But it had not crushed them.

Buhle’s gaze drifted toward the distant foothills and the flat-top mountain that rose from them. Even from this distance, she could see the pristine white walls stretching across the summit. The people that lived atop the mountain -the Table- had secrets. At night the mountain glowed with yellow dots, like stars dropped from the sky. The lights did not flicker or dance. They remained chained in place, perfectly still and obedient. The lights on the Table did not burn like fire.
The Table did not share its secrets. Because secrets were power.

To leave the Lagoon, to step onto dry land and enter those foothills meant slavery. It meant torture. Death. Children were taught from a young age never to leave the water, but The Table had secrets, and as far as Buhle could see, the Lagoon had only ghosts.

A soft croak pulled Buhle from her thoughts. She gently rested her cheek against the toad perched on her shoulder and smiled faintly.

“Ah Buddy. You’re right of course, one battle at a time.”

They sat like that for a moment, the toad croaking a soft, almost purring melody and Buhle breathing in the contact like it was a drug. Then her village came into view, and the spell broke.

Thick concrete squares pushed up and out of The Lagoon. They were the last surviving remnants of Cape Town: the top-most stories of high-rise buildings standing defiant against the water. Coloured cloth fluttered on balconies, and everywhere was the activity of people. Men and women gutting fish, children running about and playing in the water. Still others pushing off in canoes to go hunt or fish. Floating walkways had been constructed between the buildings, and the rooftops served as common areas for people to gather. The high-rises made for easy homes -many villages such as this one existed across the Lagoon. Buhle took in a deep breath as she steered toward the docks. This visit was a farewell. She couldn’t tell her family that, wouldn’t tell them her plans, but she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving without one last chance to be with them. One more day of laughter with her brothers, one last chance to be wrapped tight within Goggo’s warm embrace…

But they would have to forgive Buhle first.

“Molo Buhle!”

Buhle looked up and smiled, the tension easing slightly as she marveled at the ridiculous enthusiasm Wezi could muster for waving. Nathi did not show the same outward excitement, but he was smiling broadly.

“Molweni, my brothers!”

Wezi leaned over to grab the canoe, mooring rope already in hand. He spoke as he worked, every action a vibrant release of energy, “Goggo will be so happy to see you! She has been asking, -and when will that little one that makes all the trouble be coming again?- Goggo makes like life is boring with just me and Nathi at home.”

Wezi’s words should have felt soft, a laughter in the breeze, but they burrowed into Buhle’s chest and held fast. She stood up, her muscles feeling as if they had been replaced with solid stone, and heaved herself onto the jetty. Wezi bounded forward, arms wide to hug his little sister, but then he paused. He stared at the toad on Buhle’s shoulder.

“You have been making trouble.”

Buhle curled into herself. Her eyes stung with the promise of tears.

“Yeah… but… I can still get a hug, can’t I?”

Buhle choked on the silence that followed. Out of all of them, she had told herself, at least Wezi would understand. Now she stood before him, broken and exposed, as he contemplated her with a deep intensity he rarely allowed people to see. Buhle turned back toward her canoe.

“If you… If you think I should go…”

“Oh no… no, Boo, of course you can still get a hug. Hey, it’s okay. You’re still my little sister.”

Wezi wrapped his arms around Buhle and pulled her in tight, switching effortlessly from manic playmate to protective big brother. Buhle nestled into his warmth and allowed a few tears to escape. The hug was over too soon, but when Buhle pulled back, she saw Nathi was already on his way to the apartment. A whimper escaped her.

Wezi wrapped an arm around Buhle’s shoulder.

“It will be better if Goggo has a few moments to prepare. This won’t be easy for her.”

“I know.”

And Buhle did know, but it still stung. Nathi didn’t wait to say hello. He didn’t even give her a chance, he just… left.

“C’mon, let me take your bag.”

Buhle handed her belongings to Wezi and started walking. Her muscles were twitching. This was hard. This was so much harder than she had ever imagined it to be.

“Hey,” Wezi said gently. “It’s going to be alright, you’ll see. Goggo will find a way to blame me and Nathi. You know how it is.”

Wezi’s voice suddenly erupted into a terrible imitation of Goggo. “You call yourself big brothers? Hai! You let my granddaughter run off with a Salvaging Crew! My granddaughter! Of course something like this would happen! You are a disgrace as brothers! Disgrace!”

Buhle couldn’t help but let a smile cross her lips, “You let me run away, huh?”

“Of course. You couldn’t possibly do anything without first obtaining our brotherly approval.”

“And do you approve?”

There were several beats of silence. Then Wezi said, “I understand.”

Buhle grabbed onto those words, simple yet layered with so much meaning, and held tight. No matter what happened, Wezi would always be waiting on the other side of it. Wezi would be her beacon in the darkness.

“Buhle…”

Buhle blinked and found herself barely an arm’s length from Goggo. She wanted to throw her arms around the old woman. She wanted to confess and cry and have all her sins washed away in soothing lullabies, but that look on Goggo’s face…

“Goggo?”

Goggo stretched her hand out toward Buhle, but jerked it back with a cry. She brought both hands up to her chest, fisting them in her clothing. Tears gathered in her eyes, and her voice broke on a single word,

“Why?”

Buhle looked at her grandmother. There was no pride shining in her eyes, no warmth, no love. Only the hurt and the shock and confusion that Buhle had caused. Buhle didn’t know how to process it. Goggo, her Goggo, in so much pain because of her.

“I… it.. it was an accident. I didn’t mean for…”

Buhle hadn’t meant to lie, but the look in Goggo’s eyes broke her, and the words tumbled out. There was always talk of spontaneous bondings. No one could actually confirm the phenomenon existed, but the first familiar pairs could not have been deliberate, and so the theory remained valid. Her lie was plausible.

“How?”

Buhle took a deep breath. It had taken months of careful study and planning. She had spent hours talking to the Bonded, finding out the strengths and weaknesses of their familiars. She had been exhaustive in her quest to know how the bond was formed and all the nuances that came with being Bonded. And then she had made her decision and gone out to find her toad. What she hadn’t spent enough time considering was the impact it would have on Goggo. Truth be told, no amount of time spent considering her family would have changed her mind. Even now, standing in the midst of the pain, she knew she would not hesitate to make the same decision. And so Buhle told them a story as close to the truth as she could allow.

“I was salvaging near the marshes. My mind was elsewhere. I wasn’t concentrating on what my hands were doing… I… I touched a toad and it just… it felt warm. I fell into the warmth… I didn’t think to pull back. I hadn’t realised… and then… ”

“No!”

Goggo was shaking.

“No! I can’t do this. I can’t… Buhle? Buhle! No!”

Goggo turned away from Buhle and stormed into the apartment block. Nathi ran after her. Buhle stumbled back. She stared at the door. Just a few weeks back, that door had offered her sanctuary and a place to belong. Now they were barriers keeping her out. Now she was the one her family needed sanctuary from.

“I’m going to go sit on the roof,” she told Wezi. “Go to Goggo. She needs you.”

“Are you sure, Buhle? I can stay with you.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Wezi nodded once. “I’ll come find you once she’s calmed down.” And then he disappeared behind that now impenetrable barrier.

#

It was Nathi who found Buhle perched on the edge of the roof. The sun was setting across the Lagoon, and the chorus of night bugs just beginning. He took a seat beside Buhle. The two of them sat there, legs dangling off the side, watching the world turn orange. When he finally spoke, his words misted over with emotion.

“Mom used to have a toad. It was a leopard like yours. She called him Spudge.”

“Mom… mom’s familiar was a leopard toad?”

Nathi nodded.

“Ah Boo, the picture you painted today. You look so much like her and then… and then you have this toad on your shoulder…”

“No wonder Goggo freaked out as much as she did…”

“Yeah.”

Buhle wiped away a tear. She had been young when their parents had died-barely walking. Goggo had spun fairy tales of their lives, but she had avoided talking about their deaths. Familiars were to blame, that was all Buhle was told.

“How did they die?”

Nathi shuddered. “It was a lake gull. It came out of nowhere and snatched Spudge. Dad had a gull as his familiar, and he sent it after the one that had got Spudge, but something went wrong. They flew into this huge flock, and soon all the gulls where snatching for Spudge. Dad’s gull didn’t stand a chance, but he tried to fight them all. Mom was screaming on the floor and then dad was crashing down beside her and… well… Uncle Themb, he -he always said that was no normal gull, that someone sent a familiar to snatch Spudge… but…”

“Why would someone want mom dead?”

“Yeah.”

Their deaths had been brutal. No wonder Goggo didn’t want to talk about it. Buhle had come home with a toad and dredged up all of those memories. A toad, just like her mother’s. Goggo had looked at Buhle and seen the ghost of her deceased daughter. Maybe if they had told Buhle… maybe if they had been more open…

No. Buhle would still have chosen to take a familiar. Her parents’ story was not the first she had heard. It was not new information. It happened, it was a risk, but it was rare. And that was the thing about being bonded. It was a two way street. The creature to whom you bonded gave you powers, but in return you gave it your life. You were forever tied and, anything that happened to your familiar happened to you too.

“I’m sorry,” Buhle whispered.

Nathi shook his head. “I always thought that one day you would come home like this. Deep down, I think Goggo has always known too. You’re restless. Always searching for something more. It was always going to happen.”

“Will she forgive me?”

“I don’t know. But she will feed you. Are you ready to go down?”

Buhle nodded. She would eat, and she would sleep, and maybe she would catch a glimpse of light in Goggo’s eyes.

#

The oar felt heavy in the water now. Buhle let it drag as tears fell freely down her cheeks. The village was behind her, nothing more than a few smudged blocks on the horizon. Before her, a cluster of canoes waited. Buhle felt broken. Broken and stupid and entirely unprepared. One last day to spend with her family, she had thought, one last day to recharge, and then she would be ready. But the day had left her broken. Dinner had been suffocating. Every time Buhle had tried to explain herself or talk about familiars, Goggo would look toward her. Goggo’s eyes would bore into her and tear little pieces of her heart until it felt like only ribbons remained. You hurt me, those eyes said. You knew that this would hurt me, and yet you did it.

Buhle had not been able to sleep. In the morning, she had chosen to pack her canoe and be on her way, forgoing her original plan to stay for lunch. Wezi and Nathi had hugged her fiercely, making sure she promised to stay longer next time. Goggo had watched it all and finally, when it was all done, she had approached her granddaughter. Buhle had stepped forward, she had tried to embrace Goggo, but Goggo had stepped back, her head shaking.

“I will always love you Buhle, but I need time. Your choice brings out my darkest memories, and you lied when I asked you why. I’m sorry, Buhle. I need time.”

The words sunk into Buhle. She was leaving the water, but her ghosts would be coming too.

Park Date

Donna curled her fingers over the handle bar and pushed, her knuckles white against wrinkled skin. She heaved with all the strength her eighty-three-year-old body could muster. The shopping trolley groaned, but it remained rooted to the sidewalk.


“Oh bugger that!”


Donna kicked at the back wheel lodged in a crack. A crack that was proving itself a worthy opponent in an unsanctioned duel. Donna huffed ,and with hands on bony hips, she scanned her surroundings.


The hazy noise of traffic swam through the air, and everywhere she looked, people moved. This one hurrying to a meeting, his briefcase swinging in a dangerous rhythm. That one talking on her phone as if every word coming from her mouth was the most pressing. All of them milling about like busy ants. All of them the same and none of them willing to stop and help an old lady out.


“Not this old lady.”


Donna surveyed her trolley again. Thick blankets bulged out of the top, her worldly possessions tucked safely beneath them. She had some freshly scavenged groceries in one corner, and an assortment of pots and pans were tied securely to the trolley’s sides. They clanged as she went about her day. Donna liked that. She called it her music. By all accounts it was a lot more pleasant than that drivel people listened to these days. But until Donna could get her trolley free, she would not be listening to her music.


Donna squatted beside the trolley and wrapped her hands around the frame. If she wanted the trolley free, she would have to lift it. The trolley was heavy and Donna old, but she couldn’t see any other way. She, like the people flowing around her, had a very busy and very important day ahead of her. Donna flexed her fingers, tightened her grip and lifted. That is to say, she tried to lift the trolley. There was a brief moment where the wheel hovered above the crack, but then the trolley thunked back down and Donna’s breathe wheezed out.


“Excuse me, ma’am, let me help you with that.”




Donna looked up at one of those “Tech” people. They were easy to spot in a sea of suits and ties. Their casual clothing stood out like one great big middle finger to the status quo. Donna had no idea what they actually did, but the world was changing faster than she could keep up, and they had something to do with it.


The Tech guy shuffled to the front of the trolley, and Donna got out of his way. In a matter of seconds, he had the trolley free and standing on smooth sidewalk once more.


“Thank-you,” Donna said. “I don’t know what I would have done without you. It’s my anniversary today. I’m going to the park to have lunch with my husband.”


The words gushed out of Donna. They always did when someone looked at her like she was a real person. Donna was so used to being glanced over, or stared at like she was some kind of incurable disease, that when someone showed her a thread of dignity, she grappled for a connection. She wanted to feel seen, and she would do anything to hold onto that feeling for just a little bit longer.


“Well congratulations,” the Tech guy said. He reached into his wallet and drew out a five-dollar note. “Here. Its not much, but happy anniversary. Get something good for dessert.”


Donna could feel the tears gathering as she took the money and hugged it close. “Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. John likes those cookies with the jam in the middle. I’ll get some of those.”


“That’s a great choice.” The Tech guy smiled. “Well, enjoy your meal. Your husband is a lucky man.”


Donna smiled, and the Tech guy left. Just like that, she was invisible again, but her heart was lighter than it had been moments before.



Donna got behind her trolley and pushed it down the street. The park John loved best was not far. There were lots of trees and a beautiful pond where people would come to feed the ducks. John liked ducks. Aa messy kind of elegant, he’d say. Not show-offy like the swans or scavenging rats like the pigeons. They got the balance right. They reminded him of Donna. Donna wasn’t so sure she liked being thought of as a duck, but she liked the idea of messy elegance, and so she let John tell her she was like a duck and married him all the same. It wasn’t a fault that John chose such strange ways to compare things. He tried, Donna knew what he meant. That  was all that really mattered.


Donna could see the park now, but first, she needed to stop and get the cookies. She turned down a side street and made her way toward a petrol station. Petrol stations were usually more expensive than grocery stores, but they would let Donna buy stuff without hassling her. Grocery store staff got real antsy when she walked in. They would try to usher her out quick as possible, using their bodies as shields to hide her scruffy form from other shoppers. It didn’t matter to them that she had money. She lived a different kind of life, an unacceptable kind of life, and for that she couldn’t be trusted. It was ridiculous. Donna had never stolen or done any sort of dishonest thing in her life. She certainly couldn’t say the same for some of those fancy rich folk that got to do whatever they damn well pleased. Donna shook her head. It was better to pay a little extra for the cookies.


True to form, the petrol station cashier barely gave Donna a second glance. The cookies were bought and paid for, and Donna left the store happy to have been treated like a regular person. She pointed her trolley toward the park and clanged her way down the sidewalk.



Donna had set up her picnic blanket beside the pond. Ducks waddled about the perimeter, their beady little eyes on the meager spread. Donna’s excitable chatter rose above their quacking, “The bread buns are a little stale, but they’re still good. And you have to try the apples. They’re only a little bit bruised, but so very sweet.”


She smiled at her husband. “I met a nice young man today. He helped me when my trolley got stuck. And he gave me money to buy the cookies. They’re the ones with the jam in the middle. He said you’re a very lucky man to have me.”


Donna leaned over. She brushed her fingers against the faded photograph that sat opposite to her. The man in the picture was a much younger John than Donna could truly recall, but when she propped the picture up against a rock like that, it still felt like John was looking at her.


“I think I’m the lucky one,” Donna whispered. “With you by my side, I was never invisible.”  

Another MerMay! Another Video!

 

Here is MerMay number 6! I went with a barnacle and seaweed look for this Mermaid. I rather like the barnacles and think I will explore them further throughout Mermay.

Video wise I have mostly removed the wobble. Except for that time I hit my phone with my shoulder… 😛 There is a small bit of sketch lost on the top of the screen which I do need to address, but otherwise I am pretty happy with my “making videos for YouTube” progress.

I hope you enjoy and Let me know what you think! 🙂

 

 

 

I have a YouTube Channel!

 

I have very recently been diving head first into recording process videos for my art and dun dun dun… Here is the very first video up on YouTube!

I do still have a bunch of kinks to iron out. Mostly this is related to just getting the camera angle right/minimising wobble etc.  And should be relatively easy fixes… should be…

But for now, here is the video, wobble and weird angles included, of a charcoal sketch for MerMay2018!

Please let me know what you think, and if you have any advice for recording large, easel based works, I am all eyes!