A bird succubus that comes in a storm; a bed-and-breakfast from Hell; secret histories from before fairy tales and myths; an asylum from beyond your darkest nightmares…
This is a collection not for the squeamish or faint hearted – be prepared to have your spine tingled: this is not a book to be read alone, at night. But here you’ll also meet wonders, including fairies who wield snow and a horse that rides on the air; you’ll participate in a mermaid orgy and see how sensuality can lead to predicting the future.
Including the award-winning story ‘A Flicker of Time’, this collection displays the creative talents of the Australian author R. A. Goli – a rising star in the fiction world.
A WISE PERCH AND A WARM HEARTH
Rain pelted my feathers as I studied the outside of the manor house, so heavy as though the gods had emptied their chamber pots. Light from a hearth-fire shone through only one window, just to the left of the spectacular rose window which dominated the façade. The full moon peeked out from behind a smudge of gray clouds and I saw two gargoyles adorned the gables, flanking the single tower. Grotesque forms with hardened wings jutting from their backs, talons hooked over the edge of the roof; an ominous sight. The stately home was surrounded by large trees: grey leafless branches, specters swaying in the breeze as fog drifted around their trunks like sentient life forms.
It was late, just after midnight and the evening was graveyard quiet. The orange light filtered through the gap in the curtain, creating a welcoming glow. I took flight and dove towards the window, landing on the sill. Wind pounded the brickwork, rattling shutters and sneaking in under my feathers to chill my bones. I shifted my head as I peered through the glass; my sharp vision took in the capacious and resplendent room. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling; their candlelight flickered as air moved through the drawing room. At one end, a huge bookcase loomed, each shelf bursting with thick tomes. The other end displayed a welcoming hearth, though its embers were dying, causing ghastly umbras to stretch across the floor. The man was seated in a large chair facing the fire; the shadows danced across his face as he rested his head upon a velvet cushion. He was dressed in a white shirt, dark vest and black trousers. A long black coat had been flung over another chair and he had kicked off his shoes; one stockinged foot lay across the other. He slept restlessly, an open volume upon his lap. I tapped at the window with my strong beak. It took several more raps at the glass before the man jolted awake, startled by the noise on such a dreary night.
He placed the book aside, nudging the empty teacup that rested on the rickety side table. He stood, eyeing the chamber door, then flinched when the purple curtains fluttered from an icy gust of wind, the old window not quite meeting the frame perfectly. I watched curiously through the curtain’s gap, as the man muttered to himself and languidly made his way to the door. He paused, then flung it wide open, to be met by nothing but darkness. He stood transfixed for a moment and I thought I heard him mutter something; perhaps the name of his lost love.
‘Who’s there?’ he called into the gloom. ‘Leave me to my misery.’
He slammed the door and leaned against it, hand to his chest.
I tapped again, more gently this time; the man turned to the window, his face a bloodless mask of anguish and fear. He approached to investigate the sound and drew the curtains aside with a trembling hand. His body sagged with relief when he saw me; a simple raven, and he lifted the pane and welcomed me inside. I flew up to the bust, which sat atop the chamber door and shook out the water in a flutter of feathers.
‘You startled me,’ he said. He closed the window to the frigid night and returned to his wingback chair. After a time, he became drowsy and drifted off to sleep. Now was the time. To have done it earlier would risk frightening him or worse, having him question his sanity. I had to take care. I flew from my perch and drifted in circles until I came to rest upon the floor in front of the hearth.
The air shimmered as the transformation took place. My feathers were absorbed only to reappear as hair as I misted into my human form. I stood naked in front of the hearth, my locks the same ebony color of my feathers, drifting seductively down my back like a silken waterfall, a small tuft between my legs. So dark in contrast to my pale featherless skin. As a woman, I’m young and nubile, as far as humans go; twenty-five years old, all the better to appeal to this charge who was only a few years my senior.
I took a breath and centered myself, becoming familiar once again to these lanky appendages. With practice, I’d become as graceful as when in raven form.
This was my first time as a harbinger of pleasure. I’d had sex in my human form before, I knew how to please a man, or woman, or both at once if need be, but this man would be my first charge. That alone made me anxious and a cold lump settled in my gut. If something went wrong, or he refused me, then I’d be demoted, losing my freedom to fly where I pleased, at least temporarily. I knew a harbinger who’d had her wing clipped, rendered unable to fly for almost a year until her next molt, for that very reason. I pushed the negative thoughts aside as I closed my eyes and focused on my training.
A memory of a time I’d been with Mordella came to mind, she’d become my favorite trainer, partly due to her sense of humor and natural beauty. Like me, her true form was Raven, but when I nuzzled the dark fur between her legs, I found her human musk enticing. She’d taught me which parts of the woman to press, which to stroke with a firmer hand, and I recalled delicately probing her clitoris with my tongue and fingers and becoming excited by the glistening sheen that appeared on her pink lips. I’d pushed two fingers inside her then and used my thumb to rub her bud as I rhythmically moved my hand back and forth, faster and faster until she moaned loudly and her body shuddered. Afterwards, she had told me I was ready for my first assignment.
My clit twitched and my nipples hardened. I was ready. I cawed softly, but the sound was melodic through my human lips, a siren’s call to lure the man. His eyes fluttered open and he sat upright in his chair; his jaw dropped.
‘Who are you?’
‘You needn’t be alarmed, I’m here to aid you.’ I smiled, hoping to put him at ease.
‘Aid me with what?’
He stared at me from his chair, his eyes trained on my face. It appeared to be a struggle for him and I flipped my hair with one hand and smiled when his eyes drifted over my body, lingering over certain areas a little longer than others. I shifted my feet apart and felt the slightest breeze caress my womanhood. The wet heat of my arousal grew under his scrutinizing gaze. He licked his lips, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
He stood to fetch the long black coat and wrapped it around my shoulders.
‘Are you hurt? Lost?’ He looked from window to door. ‘How did you get in here?’
He took a step away from me as if afraid.
‘Who are you?’ he asked again.
‘Who I am is of no consequence, it’s what I am that matters.’
‘What are you then?’
I didn’t answer, instead I took a step forward, then another until I was standing close enough for him to touch me. He didn’t. I saw him swallow. Nervous perhaps. My obsidian eyes bore into his and I recognized his need and curiosity. He slid a hand through my silken hair and pulled me close enough to kiss. His lips sent a shiver through my body and I moaned, then pulled away. I was there to serve him. I shrugged off the coat and sunk to my knees, undoing the laces of his trousers and tugging them down. He stroked my hair as I curled my fingers around his already hard shaft. It was warm in my hand, I rubbed, felt the loose skin beneath my palm.
‘You don’t have to,’ he said.
‘I want to.’ It was the truth, my arousal was growing with each touch, each lingering look. ‘Do you want me to?’ My mouth was close enough for him to feel my hot breath on his skin.
His breath hitched. ‘Yes.’
I smiled and tentatively traced my tongue against the head; he moaned softly and I slid my mouth over the entire phallus. His moans increased as my lips and tongue teased with gentle, long strokes, then aggressive sucking. I felt the wetness between my legs increase and I began working my thighs back and forth, rubbing my labia together. The wind moaned outside, making its way through cracks in the walls. His hands moved through my hair and across my back and he gently rocked his hips forward against my mouth. My clit throbbed impatiently and when I could bear it no longer, I slid a hand between my legs and circled it with two fingertips. I moaned against his cock and suddenly he shuddered and released his seed. I withdrew my hand from between my thighs and watched him for a moment, waiting for him to recover, for there was more I was to do this evening.
He leaned forward and kissed me, a slow passionate kiss and while our lips were pressed together, his fingers slid through my wet folds and teased my bud. I’m in awe of human sexual responses, it’s almost as if the body had a mind of its own. A moment later he pulled away, kicked off his trousers, then guided me onto the rug in front of the hearth. I lay on my back, knees in the air. Twin crossed swords hung above the mantle, behind him; a beautiful tapestry depicting a couple dancing covered most of the wall. He hovered above my breasts for a moment before taking a nipple into his mouth and biting gently, then moving to the other breast. I squirmed as his lips moved down my body, kissing, licking and biting, until finally he moved between my legs. I should stop him. I felt his hot breath on my cunt and my clitoris throbbed dully as he licked circles around it until he finally flicked his tongue against it. I groaned in pleasure. Soon his gentle licks where replaced with long, firm strokes on my center and I started moaning to the gods. I’m supposed to be pleasuring him. I wondered briefly if I’d be chastised for this indiscretion, then remembered a conversation where I was warned this could happen, and as long as the charge was satisfied, the harbinger’s pleasure was inconsequential. Suddenly I didn’t care, as the first wave of my orgasm radiated out.
He pulled away abruptly and coughed into his mouth. His brow creased. To my absolute horror he pulled out a wet black feather. I sat up, snatched it from his hand, tossed it into the fire and kissed him quickly, hoping to distract him. With my free hand I once again curled my fingers against his cock and began working my hand up and down. He hardened quickly, then scrambled out of the rest of his clothing. Now we were both completely naked, the orange glow of the fire reflected off our sweat-sheened skin.
His weight pinned me to the floor as he teased my cunt with shallow plunges. He arched into me, his cock sliding deep, stretching my walls open as he fucked me, steady and slow. I raised my hips in time with him, dancing to a beat no one could hear but us. His hands rested on the floor beside my breasts as he impaled me over and over again, his cock now moving like a piston. If I would have spread my legs any further apart, I was sure they would have snapped off. His hand snaked its way to my pulsing clit where he rubbed aggressive circles as he plunged into me. I cupped my breasts in my hands, rolling the nipples between my fingertips.
My climax, frightened away earlier by a misplaced feather, had returned with a vengeance and it ripped through me like a tsunami. A tingling electric heat shuddered through my body, satisfying and slow and I cried out as he groaned and strained, then collapsed beside me.
We lay still while we caught our breath, sweaty and sticky, his arm was thrown haphazardly across my belly. Soon he slept, but I could not. I slid out from beneath his arm, still heady from the musky smell of our sex and opened the window. The cool breeze kissed my skin, drying my sweat and reinvigorating me. Feral dogs bayed outside as I changed shape again and wriggled my way back into my feathered body. I hopped over to the hearth and watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed and hoped he’d have pleasant dreams. Hoped I’d done enough to wrench him from his dark mood of misery.
Outside the wind howled as I plucked out a feather from my breast and gently placed it in his upturned palm. It was important he would know it was no dream. The other harbingers said the charges sometimes asked them to stay, which is why it’s best to leave while they slept. I looked at his peaceful face and wondered if he’d ask me. I can see why one would be tempted, but I cannot. If I did I’d lose my magic, stay in human form indefinitely, never to fly again. Besides, there are so many more people to help.
I took flight, before I dared wake him. The rain had eased, though frost crystals still covered the trees making them appear white. The sky was as grey as the dying embers of a fire, with just a hint of pink, signalling a fine day lay ahead. The city was carpeted by a shifting fog as I flew over bridges and castles, between towers and past churches. An eerie, undulating cry rang out and echoed through the empty streets below and I wondered if it was him. Has he woken to find me gone and spiraled into a pit of despair? I tried to force him from my mind; reassure myself that he still slept by the hearth. Mordella had warned me some harbingers become attached to their first charge and that’s where the greatest risk of losing someone to their human side lies.
‘What do you do if someone asks if you’ll stay or come back?’ I’d asked her. She had explained she told her charges the same thing and advised her harbingers to do similarly.
‘You pluck out the feather and tell them Nevermore.’
It’s quiet again; buildings loom like monoliths against the ashen sky. The sun will be up in a few hours. I fly with a sense of urgency, eager to get home. Afraid I might turn back.
The stench coming from the butcher’s shop covered the street like a sickly-sweet blanket. Rotten meat, what was left of it. That and the decaying remains of the thing I’d killed that first day I’d ventured out. Split its skull with a hammer, like cracking a soft-boiled egg with a spoon. I’d thrown up straight after. Makes me laugai think back at it now since I’m wearing clothes I’d ripped off a decaying carcass in an attempt to hide my own scent. I’m almost used to the stench now, it barely even made me gag anymore. I crept past the butcher, hairdresser and the old pizza shop and headed for the corner store, the empty backpack clung to me, pasting my shirt to my sweaty skin.
I opened the door without a sound – I’d removed the bell that’d hung above it a long time ago – and closed it softly behind me. I stood in the dim store, listening for any movement, any noise. Satisfied I was alone, I clamped the aluminum bat between my thighs and waddled down the aisles, filling my bag with canned goods. For once I was glad I’d lived in a small rural town instead of a city. Probably went a long way in explaining how the store hadn’t been looted. The zombs had only trashed the butcher and pizza stores, for the meat I’d presumed. I hadn’t seen another live human being in over eight months.
I let the bag slide to the floor and gripped the bat with both hands. I felt my scalp tingle and tighten; the shiver continued down my spine. A vein in my neck pulsed and my heart hammered, like a fist trying to punch through my ribcage to freedom. I took a deep breath. There, from the storeroom came the undead thing, a male. I crouched, peering through a gap in the shelves. He sniffed the air, then trained his milky white eyes directly on me and I shuddered. He keened and shambled towards me, a jerky movement, one limp leg dragging behind him, the shoe torn and bloody. I stood in the middle of the aisle, waiting. Ready.
‘Come on, meatbag.’
When he turned down the aisle, I saw a large ribbon of flesh hung from his neck and one of his arms was twisted and broken. His rotted tongue slid from his mouth to mop up the pink drool that hung from his bottom lip and a handful of maggots fell to the floor. I grimaced but kept my eyes and feet steady. He hobbled towards me, good arm outstretched, the other flopped uselessly against his side.
I stood my ground, then parried at the last second and smashed the bat into his back. He fell to the floor, arms sprawled. Without hesitating, I cracked the back of his skull as hard as I could, twice, and only relaxed when I saw the contents spill onto the worn linoleum. I wiped sweat from my brow and smelled my top.
‘Might need a new outfit.’
I suspected it was more the noise I’d made than my scent, but I’d watched the walking corpse smell the air before heading directly for me, so I removed the newly killed zomb’s shirt and put it over what I was wearing, then continued shoving food into my bag.
Back at home I cleaned myself up and put the food away, then prepared dinner; cold beans and crackers, too tired to attempt to make something that tasted good. I’d managed to ration well, but after eight months the few stores in the strip mall were nearly empty, as were the houses within walking distance. Soon I’d have to go further out for more supplies. Or starve.
After my meal, I went upstairs to bed. I’d shared the small two-story house with my mom. Since the apocalypse started, I’d boarded up the windows and doors on the ground floor, but the bedroom ones I’d kept somewhat clear, so I could watch my surroundings. I peered down the long driveway. I’d reinforced the waist-high wrought iron fence at the end of the property with sheet metal I’d found in a neighbor’s garage, so now the fence was seven feet. Zombies corralled outside of it on occasion after I’d done a supply run. I wondered why they never climbed it. Too stupid?
I thought back to when the devastation hit; the beginning of the end of the world. Mom had gone to work as usual, but I’d been holed up in bed with the flu. I’d already skipped two days of college lectures and my fever was worsening. Freezing one minute, boiling the next, I’d wake intermittently hearing strange sounds; shouting sometimes, sirens others. I’m not sure how many days I’d lost but when my fever finally broke and I’d called out for mom, there was no answer. My cat, Dahlia, was hiding under the bed hissing. I searched the house but there was no sign of mom. I’d tried her cell but the phone lines were down. When Dahlia’s hissing turned into a crazed caterwaul, I’d ran upstairs to find her smashing her head against the window through the gauzy curtain, as though trying to escape. That’s when I noticed the chaos in the street. There was a mass exodus of pets and suburban wildlife. I grabbed Dahlia but she screeched and clawed me, so I shut her in my wardrobe and tried to ignore her banshee-like squeals and frantic scratching at the door. She’d turned feral.
I returned to the window and held the curtain aside and saw what had made the animals flee. Neighbors emerged from their houses, bloodied and screaming. I watched in horror as they tore each other’s limbs off and bit into one another’s flesh. I’d remembered something from an old zombie movie I’d seen; ‘They’re not your neighbors and friends. Not anymore’. My pulse thudded hot and loud in my ears as I watched the carnage. I stood frozen, for what felt like hours but was probably only minutes as my mind tried to understand what was happening. A scream caught in my throat. Finally, I let the curtain drop and backed away, my mouth moving soundlessly as I called for my mom who wasn’t there. I’d locked my bedroom door, dragged the dresser in front of it and hid in my cupboard crying silently while clutching Dahlia to my chest until I fell into an exhausted slumber. I awoke the next morning with a stiff neck and soiled pants; the cat was hiding in a box on the top shelf.
I’d slowly crept to the window and peeked out. I drew in a ragged breath as my stomach did a flip, threatening to send a stream of bile up my throat. The street was a crimson river where severed body parts floated on asphalt. The phones were still dead. I’d moved furniture in front of doors and windows and didn’t leave the house for three weeks, only venturing outside when the food ran out. The water and gas had stopped working by then too, but I’d managed to collect water in bottles and buckets and kept them covered with cling wrap. I’d begun to think like a survivor.
My world had gotten so small since the apocalypse. Dahlia had taken to following me around upstairs after hiding in my cupboard for the first month. She never did come downstairs though. I was so thankful to have another heartbeat in the house, another thing I could talk too, but what I’d give to see a living person.
Sitting in my room, eating stale cereal and watching the street from the window, I saw a female zombie amble past the drive, her brown hair knotted, her jacket torn. She carried a brown attaché case and was missing a shoe. My heart skipped a beat.
‘That one looks like mom.’
Dahlia didn’t respond, just slept on the bed beside me, curled in a little ball. I smiled and scratched the back of her neck, under her collar, then turned back to the window.
‘Thinner though. Must’ve lived nearby, thinks she’s coming home from work. I don’t recognize her.’
I put the dry cereal down on the bedside table next to the mother-inlaw’s tongue – the poor plant was begging to die – picked up the cat and held her up to the window. ‘Do you?’
The undead woman kept walking, her ungainly stride made it hard to tell and her spindly arms were pale and twisted, nothing like mom’s. Then she was out of sight. I kissed the top of Dahlia’s furry little head, my eyes trained on the now-empty street.
‘The hair was the same color, definitely. And didn’t she have a bag like that, or was it black?’
Dahlia let out a chirpy-meow.
‘Did you actually look? Cos if not, then you’ve got no say in the matter.’
I put the cat back down and continued my breakfast, but the longer I sat there, the more convinced I was it was mom I’d seen.
‘Mom had that exact same skirt!’ I put down the cereal again and rushed to her bedroom, rifling through the wardrobe. When I returned, Dahlia was sniffing the cereal but not eating any. ‘The skirt’s not there, I think it really was her. I’m going out there.’
Five minutes later I’d unlocked the gate and stepped out onto the street, bat in hand, zombie-gut stained clothing on. It was quiet, I quickly headed in the direction mom went. When I turned the corner, I saw a new zombie carcass, one that hadn’t been there the last time I’d explored this area. That made me nervous and I looked around, wondering where it’d come from. It was lying on the street, legs missing, chewed or hacked off. When I got closer it must have smelled me because it looked up, nostrils flared, then let out an anguished wail like a starved lunatic. I whimpered and my stomach twisted into knots as it crawled towards me, its toothy grin smeared red. From behind, I heard an answering groan then another and it jolted me into action. I brought the bat down onto its head and shattered its skull with a sickening crunch. A spreading pool of blood and fleshy bits radiated out from the zombie’s head. I turned and ran to the safety of home.
It wasn’t like in the movies where a horde of undead would run the hero down and then he or she would somehow escape – this was real and I was no heroine. I could handle one or two zombies, but any more than that scared me shitless. I was thankful my street was so quiet. I supposed that was the main reason I didn’t want to leave my lonely little sanctuary. I was afraid.
‘It wasn’t her,’ I said, safely back in my bedroom.
By the way her ears flicked, I suspected Dahlia didn’t believe me.
‘I’m sorry, I got scared.’ I flopped on the bed. ‘What am I supposed to do, I have no guns? I wouldn’t even know how to load or shoot one if
I ran my hand down her back, felt the bony protuberances of her spine and wondered how much weight she’d lost. She didn’t want to eat, I was forced to spoon feed her a slurry of cat food I’d mushed up. I’d tried to tempt her with human food but it’s not like I had anything better. I sighed as warm tears filled my eyes and blurred my vision. ‘I wish mom was here.’
A few days later I woke up to find Dahlia lying on the floor in the corner of my room. I’d raced over to her, panic forming a hard lump in my gut. She was breathing, but it was labored. I grabbed a syringe and tried to force her to drink but it just dribbled out of her slackened jaw.
‘Please be okay. Oh, Dahlia, please be okay.’
She looked at me with tired eyes and let out a mournful meow. I choked back a sob and held her paw, unsure what to do. I tried to stand her up but she was too weak and her legs collapsed underneath. I ran to the kitchen and fetched a can of tuna I’d been saving and offered it to her, placing little pieces on her tongue and hoping she’d eat. It didn’t work and she let out another cry which broke my heart. Her eyes stayed on me, pleading as I crouched beside her and bawled.
‘Don’t leave me, you’re all I have.’
It was pained and quiet and I’d suspected took a lot of her energy to voice. I picked her up and held her to my chest as she took her last few strained breaths, then was silent.
Later I ate the tuna and cried feeling lost and alone. Knowing I’d never see her fluffy face, feel her warm body against mine as we slept, never hear her scratching the rug. She’d become my whole world and as far as we knew, we were the only two creatures still alive. My grief manifested as a sickening lump in my belly which made me want to vomit. The skin around my eyes was swollen and red and my throat was raw. I’d never known this kind of suffering, not even at the thought of mom being gone because this was real. My anguish was palpable.
I burned her body in the bathtub. I couldn’t chance her reanimating and I didn’t have it in me to crush her brain. Besides, I didn’t want to bury her and have the undead dig her up and make a meal of her body.
I’d thought it’d had been quiet before, with the absence of traffic and sirens, or the sounds of distant trains or birds; all the noises that would’ve been ordinary just a year ago, but with her gone, the house was like a crypt.
Losing Dahlia was not even the worst of it for me because I’d completely emptied the nearby shops of anything useful and only had about two weeks’ worth of food left. What I should’ve done is packed up the remaining food and water, found a car full of fuel that still worked, taken Dahlia and driven to the city, to find people, more food, mom. I could’ve found a vet clinic and gotten something for her. What? I wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter because I didn’t do any of that and when the food ran out, I sat on the bathroom floor, razor blade poised over my wrist, ready to end my misery. I was absolutely alone. The last person on earth. Hopeless. There was nothing out there for me. Mom wasn’t coming back and I was too weak, too scared to search for her. I wondered why the movies referred to the first person infected as ‘Patient Zero’, didn’t they usually count backwards? Shouldn’t I be zero? The last person. My hand shook, the thin blue veins at my wrists began to blur as tears spilled down my cheeks. A sick sense of dread settled in my gut as I pressed the blade against my skin. Before I could lose my nerve, I sliced!
I dropped the blade and grabbed my bleeding arm. Heat seared from my hand and up to my shoulder. Agony. It wasn’t deep enough, I realized, but still it bled like a red fountain, running down my arm and splashing against the tiles. I wrapped a hand-towel around it, clenched it tight to stop the bleeding. Eventually it did stop, I pulled out the first aid kit, cleaned the area with alcohol swabs and bandaged it properly. It stung and throbbed constantly as I lay in bed, preventing me from sleep. The four headache tablets I took did nothing, but it was all I had left. Eventually sorrow and exhaustion took over and my eyes fluttered closed. I’d made a decision though; I’d leave for the city the next day.
Backpack full of all the water I could carry, fresh bandages, clean underwear, a knife, my bat, some candles and matches, I headed for the front gate. A screech made me flinch and look up. My jaw dropped open as I watched a flock of birds flying west. Birds. Real birds. If there were birds flying, I should follow, if there’s any life that’s where it’d be.
I rushed forward and opened the gate quickly without checking the peephole first. In the middle of the road stood the zombie woman from the other day, her back to me. I slid the bat from my backpack, keeping my eyes trained on the back of the meatbag’s head and readied myself for the crunch. Something’s different. The clothes weren’t the same. This woman wore pants.
The woman turned and I let out an anguished sob as my mom growled, quiet but malicious. Crimson skin and hair hung from her lips. She lurched towards me, her awkward gait made her slow and I pushed the end of the bat into her stomach. She fell backwards onto the road. She moaned as she got up. I ran back into the drive and slammed the gate shut. My mother clawed at it, shrieking and pounding. From behind the block of houses, I heard a keen in reply, then another from the opposite direction. How long before they come?
I stood back from the gate and looked skyward. In the distance I saw the black smudge of birds and knew I’d never make it. I had a difficult choice. Could I bash my own mother’s head in? I dropped the bat and fell to my knees. The aluminum tinkled and rolled away as I wailed into my hands moaning about the unfairness of life. My zombie-mom continued to bash the gate. More groans from the street, closer now. Blood thundered in my ears and an icy clutching sensation filled my belly. I stood shakily and retrieved the bat. I’d have to do it now. I was absolutely alone. The last person. Zero.
I pushed open the gate forcibly and knocked my mother back. It’d started to rain and it made it harder for her to get up on her wobbly, zombie legs. She shuffled towards me and I pushed her back again.
‘Oh, mom. I don’t wanna do this.’
A groan from the end of the street. I saw two shambling in from my right and another from the opposite end of the street. I looked at my mom as she scrambled to her feet for the third time. Fear spread over me like a dark cloud.
‘I love you, mom. I don’t want to be alone anymore.’
I dropped the bat, ripped off the bandage that covered my wounded wrist and held it out to her. The zomb lunged for it and pulled a chunk of flesh free with her blackened teeth. I screamed, my mind spun as I watched red rivulets mix with the water on the road. I fought waves of revulsion as the pain spread up my arm and through my whole body. The other zombies were closing in. It’d be pointless if I was too damaged to reanimate. I yanked my mother inside and slammed the gate shut with my free arm. The world spun and I fell onto my back, the zomb still gnawing at my arm, tearing strips of muscle and sinew away. I watched wide-eyed as she feasted, a giggle of madness in my throat. Not alone.
‘Don’t eat too much, mom.’
I gulped in air as my mother slurped at my forearm. My breath hitched when she snapped my arm off at the elbow, sat on her haunches and devoured it like a dog with a turkey leg.
My breathing stopped then and what little life I’d had left, drained away in a warm, red pool from my severed arm as another flock of birds flew overhead, westward.
THE EXECUTIONER’S DAUGHTER
‘Happy Birthday,’ Cladeas said as he planted a kiss on top of Felian’s head. She smiled up at him and then at her mother who sat at the opposite end of the table. From behind his back, Cladeas produced the gift, wrapped in white cloth and tied with string, placing it on the table in front of her. Surprised, Felian looked at her mother who shrugged in response.
‘What’s this?’ she asked her father as he sat back down.
‘It’s your birthday gift,’ he said.
‘But, you and mother already gave me my gift this morning. That beautiful dress.’
‘Well, here’s another. This is a special birthday, you’re a grown woman now.’
Felian smiled and drew the parcel towards her, pulling on the string to loosen the bow. She unfolded the cloth covering and stared at the contents, her brow furrowing in confusion. It was an axe. The handle was hand carved; the axe head smooth, its sharpened point gleamed in the candlelight. Her father had made this with love and care. She just didn’t know why.
‘It’s beautiful father, but….’.
‘Cladeas, you can’t expect her to do this. Take that thing away,’ her mother said.
‘I’ll do no such thing. She’s to be married and raise a family like any normal woman her age.’
Felian realized what her father had meant for her, but she knew better than to interrupt her parents while they were bickering. She reached out and touched the wood. It was as smooth as a pebble and though she could see the intricate lines of the knots in the wood, she could feel no imperfections. She picked it up, testing its weight. Much heavier than she’d anticipated, the handle slipped from her grasp and the head knocked the table loudly.
‘Felian, go and fetch another pail of water before it gets too dark,’ her mother said, annoyed. She glanced at her father who nodded. Felian left, leaving the axe behind. There was plenty of water in the house already; they simply wanted to discuss her future without her overhearing. She didn’t mind really. It would give her a chance to think.
It was different in the past. For Felian’s grandfather, Hograth, as the King’s executioner he was held in high esteem, commanding as much respect as any famous jouster or knight. Admired by all for his strength and resolve, lords from neighboring counties also engaged his services. He had passed his skills to Cladeas, who was raised with the intent of taking over the role and relished the opportunity. He often told Felian about his training and how he was gifted with his own axe upon his fifth birthday.
But times and people’s attitudes had changed. Executioners were no longer revered and many were forced to wear masks or hoods, keeping their position a secret for fear of being ostracized. Her father wore no covering when he stood on the dais and swung his axe. He’d told her once he had no reason to hide his face, he was professional and efficient and the guilty could ask for no more than that.
After fetching the water, Felian gently set the bucket down and squatted under the kitchen window to listen.
‘But there are no suitors, Moira. She needs to earn a living and I need to pass on my knowledge. It’s tradition.’
‘To be replaced by a son, not a daughter.’
In the height of her grandfather’s career, Felian’s aunts had benefited from Hograth’s position. Suitors would present themselves to the women, bearing lavish gifts and asking for their hand. Eventually, they were both wed to successful merchants and were very happy with children of their own. Felian’s family had all expected it to be the same for her, but no suitors had come forward and now, after all this time, she suspected none would.
‘Why not train one of your sisters’ boys then?’ Moira continued.
‘Those scrawny little weasels couldn’t behead a chicken, much less a man.’
‘That’s no way to talk of your nephews, Cladeas. Now this discussion is over, I forbid it.’
‘Forbid it, Moira?’ Cladeas shook his head. ‘I’m sorry my dear but you cannot forbid it. This is happening. I’ll not leave my daughter without a way to provide for herself when we are gone. She may never get married and only have herself to rely on.’
‘You’ll be dooming her never to be married if you make her do this. People don’t see the executioners as noble men doing the King’s work anymore. They think of them as hedonistic sadists. And what of Felian, a woman executioner? Whoever heard such a thing? She’ll not only be ostracized but possibly run out of town.’
Felian stopped eavesdropping when she heard her mother sobbing. Leaving the bucket by the door, she went to the barn to check the animals. Her father provided for his family, certainly. The large house they lived in, one of the biggest in the village was bestowed on them as a part of his position. The barn and the surrounding paddock were overstocked with chickens, pigs, goats, and horses. They even had three cows. No one else in the village had three cows. But her mother was right. There had been no suitors. And though she was helpful around their small farm, she was trained to be a wife and mother. She had no other skills. She rubbed at her temples, a headache beginning to brew. What a way to make a living. Ending the lives of the guilty. She couldn’t do that, could she? The way her father spoke, it was clear she had little choice. She sprinkled some extra feed, watching the chickens scratch the ground, pecking at the grain. She had killed plenty of chickens. She had even helped her father slaughter the pigs when they needed the meat. But this was much different.
For the past few years, Cladeas had developed pain in his wrists, especially when it was cold. On very bad days his knuckles would swell and it hurt to move his fingers. The arthritis had caused a loss of dexterity and his retirement would come sooner than planned. With no sons or son-in-law in his future, his daughter was forced to pick up the axe and begin her training.
Not a stranger to chopping firewood, now her father had her chop every day to build up her strength and accuracy. Her other chores reverted back to her mother. Felian was to concentrate on her lessons. He also made her pull the hoe repeatedly across the paddock to strengthen her back and legs, much to the amusement of her mother and the horses. Her evenings were spent learning the anatomy of the human body from texts which had been passed down from executioner to son.
Beheading chickens she was adept at. They were small and it was easy. Felian found it much harder when her practice shifted to beheading larger animals. Still, she trained, grateful in this kingdom beheading was the preferred form of punishment and the church was responsible for burning heretics, not the executioner. Soon she alone would be duty-bound to support the family. If she didn’t take over from her father, they would be homeless. Ownership of the house and land would revert to her, as long as she remained in the King’s employ as an exterminator of the guilty.
Three years passed quickly and it was time for her father to retire his axe and for Felian to be sworn in as the new executioner. Cladeas had stipulated his daughter wished to remain anonymous and would wear a hood at all executions. The King and his advisers agreed to keep her identity to themselves. Felian was concerned since she would own the house, people would know she had taken over from her father, but Cladeas assured her one of her stupid cousins would probably take the credit and doubted anyone would care enough to investigate the truth. She was surprised the King hadn’t balked at the fact she was a woman. He had told her if she could do the job half as well as her father, then he wouldn’t care if she were a dragon crossed with an auroch.
Finally, the day came when Felian had to perform her duty. She was to behead Sir Thomas Mogram and his wife, the Lady Melena, convicted of treason for harboring traitors in their home. As she steeled her nerves in the executioners’ quarters, she could hear the crowd booing as the prisoners were taken out to the large wooden dais. She pulled the hood down to cover her face and picked up her axe. She hoped her loose clothing, once belonging to her father, would be enough to hide her slight frame. Though muscular and strong, she didn’t have the burly appearance of most people in her position and did not want anyone to guess at her sex. She stood reasonably tall for a woman, at around five feet and six inches, perhaps people would be fooled into thinking she was a short man.
As she opened the door and stepped outside, the glare of the sun pierced her eyes and she raised a hand to shield her face. After giving herself a moment to adjust, she began walking towards the dais. Clapping and a roaring cheer emanated from the crowd, as she approached, her axe in hand, increasing in volume the closer she got to the wooden platform. The dizzying cacophony was matched only by her heavy breathing. She was sweltering under the cloth, with only small holes to see and breathe through. She felt as though she couldn’t suck in enough air and took large gulps, swallowing loudly. Her tongue stuck to the dry roof of her mouth. Sweat ran in rivulets down the back of her neck and her palm felt sweaty against the axe handle. Her shoes made a hollow sound as she stepped onto the platform and walked to the block. It was large and solid with a curve for the prisoner to place their neck, smoothed from years of use. Felian could see the previous axe markings in the wood, stained with the blood of the past. The Justice read out the crime and sentence and Sir Thomas was positioned on his knees in front of the block. His torso rested against it with his neck on the curve, his head pointing slightly downward. Felian took a deep breath and stepped forward. Her heart was thumping loudly in her chest, the blood rushed in her ears, drowning out the noise of the crowd. She looked out into the sea of faces and saw her father a few rows back. He nodded and smiled encouragingly. He was proud of her. And though he couldn’t see it, she smiled too, fighting back a sting of tears. She gave him an almost imperceptible nod back, then faced her target. She wiped her sweaty palms against her breeches, gripped the axe with both hands, then swung from her right side, over in an arc and brought the axe down heavily on Sir Thomas’ neck.
The crowd gasped. The shot was perfectly accurate. Right in the middle, but Felian could see the man’s head hung loosely but was not completely severed. Blood was pooling on the ground underneath but she wasn’t sure if Sir Thomas was dead. Her eyes widened in shock and she searched the crowd for her father. When they locked eyes, he mouthed the word ‘again’ and she hastily brought the axe down once more. It took a third go before the man’s head was completely removed from his body. Felian watched the head roll along the dais as the crowd seemed to collectively sigh with relief. Men moved forward to clear away the mess and through Felian’s daze, she could hear Sir Thomas’ wife screaming hysterically as the guards tried to drag her to the block. She heard the angry shouts of the crowd and knew they were directed at her…………….