Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Devil Appears








My mind's in a mess, so cluttered with worry
Can't handle the stress, reasoning's gone blurry

The strings of my mind, break one by one
Myself I must find, livings no longer fun.

Falling through darkness, no landing in sight
This world is my weakness, my eyes see no light.

Is it angels I hear, or devils in the dark
Tell me what to fear, the flood or the ark.

The tightening noose bite's into my neck,
God, cut me lose, I shouldn't die yet.

No air in my lungs, I'm weakening fast,
My life's just begun, that step was my last.

The Devil appears from deep in his lair,
Now that I'm here, I wish I were there.


The Original Paper - Circa 1988

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Scarlet

Scarlet has been in my life for as long as I've been alive. The early years are hard to remember, those images are faded by time and age. What remains are fleeting snapshots snatched from childhood with the corner of my eye. A ghostly figure built of fairy dust, starlight wishes and hope. I remember raucous laughter while she was chased during tag and I recall an image of whirling limbs as she attacked sun warmed ocean waves. Mostly I remember her shoes. Patent leather and ruby red. Of all the things I remember about her, those shoes are the clearest.

Time is cruel, the way it takes a perfect moment and moves it along. It happens slowly, like the tiny drip destined to reduce an iceberg to the size of an ice cube. Ironically, the passing of time instilled even more sparkle in Scarlet, if such a thing were possible. She was kind and welcoming, familiar and mysterious, she was one of us but yet she was apart. All the girls all wanted to be her friend while the boys, well, we didn't know quite what to make of her, but we knew she was special. As her years moved into double digits she was rarely seen without a wine-red coat which had a hood framed by a band of white fur. Homage to her name I guess.

It was during my college years that Scarlet really bulldozed her way into my life. It was a time filled with excitement, adventures and new experiences. She rose like a shooting star to become the queen of all she surveyed as well as queen of my heart. Every dance she attended was more ecstatic for her presence, every conversation she took part in, more memorable. It was like she infected the people around her with exuberance. To say we were friends would be stretching the truth a long way. I was more like a Moon, slowly circling her distant friends while she was the Sun, the great hot centre of all existence and how I wished to crash into that Sun and feel the burning magnificence of her beauty.

I watched her from afar and became more and more enamoured. It was hard not to notice how the steady drip of time gifted her previously slender body with curves designed by a genius. It is said that hunger is the best sauce and for her I was starving. I imagined how it would be to taste her full red lips, a sensation only a dream could do justice and a dream I would never wish to wake from. I fell deeper and deeper in love with her without even realising it. That was until the terrible day arrived. It was the day she turned her gaze on me, terrible in the most magical way. At first I thought I was mistaken, a hallucination of my own making but I was wrong because a few days later, it happened again. 

I am not sure how to describe what happened between us, I guess the best way to put it is that she was my everything, while I was but a distraction. I should have seen it but I was blind, blind to everything but her. What started, started innocently and oh so slowly. A sideways glance, a half formed smile, a nod of recognition, a passing touch and then disastrously we spoke.

Even on those lucid moments when I felt my feet skidding on a dangerous path, I dismissed the notion. How could I not, the ride was so thrilling. She would copy her notes from me after skipping class and repay me with a smile. She would eat half my lunch before parting with a kiss on the cheek. Along with another thousand tiny things I felt blessed to be included in.  What did sting were the nights out at a movie or a club or a pub. These were always crowded affairs and I hated them all for encroaching.

It seemed we were never alone and I would always have to share her attentions with the world. Slowly a cold thought began to prod my mind. Was it real? Was she my one? I wanted to listen but I was in too deep. I kidded myself that I was equal to the challenge and one day it would be right. I had no idea this dream was spiralling into a nightmare.

It was a Saturday and Scarlet wanted to see a rock band in a neighbouring town. I begged my Father and eventually he loaned me his car. I never felt so proud as I did the moment I drew up at the club with a goddess by my side. As the engine died she twisted the rear view mirror toward her so she could apply a fresh coat of lipstick, red of course. Her tongue made lushes sweeps over the gloss and I would have died for a taste. When we walked through the doors of that club the world changed, nothing would be the same again.

The music was thunderous and the room was jammed with people. Scarlet let out a little yelp and dashed into the throng on the dance floor. For the rest of the night I caught glimpses of her as she danced wildly before the band. She would come back to me when she was thirsty but her eyes never tired of sweeping the room. By the end of the night she was amid a crush of new found friends, some girls, mostly men and she bathed in their reverence. When the last encore was played and time had been called she appeared dragging a hesitant girl and two eager men in her wake. 

"I told them they could come back with us. It's alright, isn't it?" It was now she choose to unleash her full power on me and resistance was futile. I nodded my assent and felt something die inside the way it did every time she did this to me. 

The road home was dark and bushes whipped at the passenger door when misjudged a bend. I lifted my foot slightly off the gas and let the car coast through the turn. Scarlet sat half turned in her seat so that she could yammer drunkenly with the strangers in the back. All the words were slurred and spoken far too loudly. I had nearly stopped listening when the guy behind me said, "Hay, is this as fast as she goes, Driving Miss Daisy?"

The comment stung and I felt my ears go hot but I resisted the urge to press down on the accelerator. I was going fast enough.

"YEA! Miss DAISY!" howled Scarlet into my ear and followed it up with a high pitched cackle. They were all laughing now and I looked across at her, my dream, my nightmare. 

Her lips were still as red as they had been at the start of the night but the beauty was gone.  Before my eyes she was transformed into a horror, a witch or a vampire. She was a demon that was sucking the life from me and the realisation snapped something inside my mind. I gripped the wheel tighter and dropped down a gear. The engine revved high and I slammed my foot all the way to the floor. Under the car I felt the tyres shimmy then grip. We shot forward and all four in the car cheered.

The rev counter hit red and slammed her up a gear. Scarlet rocked in giddy abandon banging on the dash while screaming, “Faster." I slid the car into a bend letting the bite of the tyre's draw me round where we should have tipped over. The people in the seat behind me were stunned into silence and the only thing that could be heard was Scarlet's manic laughter above the screaming engine. 

Who's Miss Daisy now’ I thought as I drove the speed even higher. Pleas to stop came from behind me but it was too late. They'd forced me and now they were going to pay the price. I do believe I'd gone a little bit mad and it was only when a solid wall of hedge appeared in the distance that sanity reared its head again. I was going too fast to make the turn and I knew it.


I slammed on the breaks and locked out my arms trying to control the wild animal the car had become. I felt the back slide out and slam into the mound of earth that bordered the road. Time slowed down as the rear wheels rose into the air. I was sure it was going to flip over when it stalled, seeming to float for an age. When it came back down, it came down hard rattling my eyeballs. I blindly fought the wheel and felt another huge jolt followed by a third. Mercifully all movement stopped and I sat there paralyzed by fear. There was no sound, nothing, all I could see before me was a spider web of shattered glass. Slowly I looked to my left and Scarlet had her head thrown back, her mouth agape, pointing at the roof. Why was it so quiet?

Slowly my brain began to leave in new sensations as it came to terms with what had just happened. If I'd not been crazy before I surely was now. When the sound returned it was a gale of laughter that filled my ears, not screams. It was then that I finally accepted that Scarlet was insane, deep down, drag you to hell, crazy.

The years following that night have not been easy. I know Scarlet, my Scarlet, nearly destroyed me. In my bones I know she'd do it again if I gave her the chance, but it’s not easy. She's deep inside me, part of me, always there. These days when I catch a glimpse of her on the street or in others arms, I make myself see her for what she is, a great red dragon waiting to rip me apart. 

Even now, there are times I dream of impaling myself on her razor sharp claws, but resist, just.  

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Thirty Pieces of Silver

Jimmy Kingston chased after the ambulance as it rushed toward the hospital. He tucked the nose of his car right up against the bumper of the thing and followed it through intersections, red traffic lights and all manner of insane manoeuvres but that changed when they pulled into the hospital grounds. While the emergency vehicle zoomed straight up to the covered entrance of the Accident and Emergency unit, he had to divert off into a warren of car parks to search for a space, a task that was harder than it seemed. By the time he found a place to leave the car he had a ten minute walk back to the main entrance.

When he got inside there was no sign of Kenny. Without asking for directions Jimmy made his way through to the treatment rooms and searched for himself. It was not long before he spotted Kenny in the middle of a huddle of doctors. The room was big, ringed on the outside by beds and treatment areas while the middle of the room housed what could pass for the command deck of The Starship Enterprise.

For once, Jimmy didn’t barge in head first, he knew he had to let the doctors do what they must. If he went barging in it would only complicate things. He found a chair by the wall and sat down to wait. About twenty minutes later the cluster of lab coated medical staff splintered, each intent on their own particular tasks. Jimmy stood to intercept the oldest of the group.

“Excuse me, Doctor,” said Jimmy standing in the man’s path. Instead of looking annoyed or harried, the silver haired man smiled, closed the file he was reading and gave Jimmy his full attention.

“How can I help?” he said cheerfully. Jimmy liked the man instantly. His calm, his control, was reassuring in the circumstances.

“I’m Kenny’s Da. Can you tell me what's going on, is he going to be alright?”

“Ah! Mr Kingston, I was on my way to ring you as it happens. Let’s take a seat for a moment,” the doctor said directing Jimmy to the chair he'd just vacated. Once they were seated the doctor smiled and folded his hands loosely over the peach folder resting on his knee. Before he began, Jimmy noticed the smile slip, it was replaced by a countenance hovering somewhere between sombre and deadpan.

“Kenny is in a serious condition but it could be so much worse. Honestly, he is one of the luckiest men I’ve ever come across. A fall from such a height is nearly always fatal or debilitating to such a degree that life would be forever altered. It would seem that the way Kenny fell was key to his good fortune. His velocity was substantially reduced but the big saving factor was hitting the shopping unit the way he did. On impacted the roof crumpled, as the glass exploded air was expelled. Basically the shop acted like one huge airbag.”

“Thank God! So he will be alright,” he said feeling a wave of relief wash over him.

“At the present moment, the signs are good. His reflexes are all positive but that is not to say he's out of the woods. There is substantial soft tissue damage along the spine and the swelling is hampering our ability to rule out spinal damage completely. We have scheduled an MRI but what we must do is give Kenny’s body time to settle. When the swelling subsides we can assess what long term issues he may be facing.”

“Hang on, are you saying his spine might be damaged?” That word rocked Jimmy to the core. In his mind he saw wheelchairs and a lifetime of disability for his son.

“All things considered, there’s a good chance of some damage. It’s the extent which is unknown,” said the doctor, he looked down at his hands and folded them a little tighter, allowing Jimmy time to process what he'd just been told.

“How long before you know?” asked Jimmy, a crack creeping into his voice.

“The scan will tell a lot but it may take a week or more for the swelling to dissipate fully.  Kenny could have a long hard road ahead of him, I think it’s best to prepare yourself for that.”

“Does he know?” asked Jimmy nodding toward his son’s bed. The doctor looked over, his face was unreadable.

“He hasn’t come straight out and asked, so we've said nothing more than he’s a lucky lad. I think he knows he might be in trouble, but he's not ready to face that yet. Right now it's best to concentrate on keeping his spirits up. There is no point in worrying him about something which can’t be fixed or may not exist at all,” said the doctor. He rested a reassuring hand on Jimmy’s shoulder and rose to his feet.

“If you need anything just ask. We’re here to make sure Kenny gets the very best care.”

“Thanks for that,” nodded Jimmy, but his heart was sinking through his gut as if it had turned to stone. He felt sick, physically ill. It was a sensation he could never remember feeling before.

The doctor walked away and Jimmy made his way over to Kenny’s bed. A pile of clothes lay a chair beside the bed. They had been cut away by the look of them. An oxygen mask covered Kenny's face and there were dozens of cuts on his exposed skin where the exploding glass had bit. His head and neck were secured between padded boxes, it looked like his son was jammed in a huge vice. Jimmy could see straps under the blanket and he knew they were there to stop Kenny moving. Jimmy rested a hand in his son's forehead. The skin was clammy and grey, his eyes flickered under heavy lids, as if he were dreaming. A monitor near the bed beeped rhythmically. An IV needle was taped into Kenny’s forearm and a small smear of blood stained the sheet.

“Kenny,” Jimmy said, his voice low, the boy didn’t move.

“Kenny, it’s me,” he tried again. A nurse appeared.

“He can’t hear you but that's normal. We've given him something to help him sleep. It’s best if he does. He'll be more comfortable and he won’t move as much.”

“I want to stay with him?”

“Of course. Would you like a cup of tea?” she said with a smile. Even in hospital the power of a good cup of tea could not be underestimated and it took some of the sting out of his pain. It was just the kind of thing his mother would have said, she was a great one for the cup of tea.

“That would be nice, thanks,” he said giving the nurse a thankful smile.

When she'd gone Jimmy moved closer to the bed and looked down on Kenny. He felt guilty about all the times he'd been so hard on the lad. He was trying to do right by him, in his own ham fisted way. Life was tough and he wanted to be sure that Kenny was ready for it. Now look at him. His life was only starting and it had nearly been snuffed out. Jimmy pulled up the blanket, covering the exposed cuts and bruising. He realised that his greed, his love of power and money had caused this. He could have lost Kenny today. He sat on the destroyed pile of clothes and looked at his flesh and blood.


“I’d give anything to go back to yesterday,” he said quietly to himself. Could that ever happen he wondered? Was it possible to stop what had begun before the price got too high? Jimmy settled into the chair and watched his son sleep and thought about what could have happened.

Two hours later the doctor reappeared.

"We're taking Kenny down for his scan now, Mr Kingston."

Jimmy got to his feet but the doctor placed a hand on his shoulder and said, "There is nothing you can do for now. The procedure could take several hours and after that we are going to get Kenny settled into a ward. It might be best to go home, get a little rest or something to eat, there are long days ahead of you."

"I really don't want to leave him, Doctor."

"He's going to be sedated the whole time. Its better you're fresh for him when he wakes up." Jimmy looked at Kenny and knew the doctor was right. There was nothing he could do.

"I'll be back later."

"Check in with reception, they'll let you know which ward he's in."

"Thanks Doctor, look after him, will yea?"

"Of course, Mr Kingston."

Jimmy made his way out of the treatment area. The first thing he saw when he entered the waiting room was Pete and at least four of his guys pacing up and down like caged animals. Pete walked toward Jimmy and asked, "How is he?"

"Not good," snapped Jimmy his normally short temper surfacing.

"Ah, Hell," said Pete shaking his head.

"We could have been putting him in a box," snarled Jimmy letting Pete feel the sharp side of his tongue. He needed to lash out, to vent the fear which had invaded his body. He couldn't afford to be weak and after all he paid Pete and his bunch of gorillas enough, they should have been there to protect his lad.

"I'm getting out of here for a while, make sure nobody comes near this place."

"Nobody will get within a mile,"

Jimmy started walking away when Pete spoke again, "Boss?"

"What?"

"There is one other thing," said Pete shuffling on the balls of his feet.

"Go on!"

"It's Joey. He's missing. He flew back in with the money today so I went round his flat to collect and the place was in darkness. No sign of him or his sister. I went round to the hair salon where she works and they said she left as normal after work. I got them to ring her but nothing, same for Joey. I left a man at their flat but still no sign."

"Joey's not stupid enough to rip me off. He'll show up," said Jimmy, dismissing Pete's concerns with a wave of his hand.

"I just thought you should know," said Pete turning to his men, his ears burning from the way he'd been spoken to. Jimmy walked out the door, his missing twenty grand bothered him slightly but it was nothing in comparison to what he was facing now. He had to go home and break the news to Kathleen.

***

Dawn rose over the city and a cool mist swirled among the buildings. Nothing but windblown trash was moving on the street when a cavalcade of police vehicles swarmed out of the station gates, a half dozen unmarked units leading the way. Adams had barely slept, his brain wouldn't let him. The meeting with Judge O'Donoghue had gone well. He signed the warrant with little more than a glance at the paperwork. The rest of the evening was a blur of phone calls, strategy meetings and briefings. It had been well after midnight when Adam's head hit the pillow. Five am the whole task force assembled for a final run through. Door knock was scheduled for six am across the board. Holding teams would move in on the closed business premises of Jimmy Kingston as well as the offices of his accountant. They would make sure nobody interfered with evidence while the main bulk of the forty strong task force took Kingston's house, and vehicles apart, brick by brick if necessary.

Sims occupied the passenger seat while three battle clad breech officers sat in the back. Two of them cradled sledgehammers and pry bars while third had what looked like a large briefcase attached to a number of steel bars. It was actually a hydraulic door spreader and ram. Adams himself had seen Jimmy's new door being installed and was able to give some good intel to the breach team. It was a reinforced steel core door with a multi lock system. There had been some discussion about using a water charge to blow it but Adams had vetoed the idea. He did not want to be facing a media storm if someone happened to be behind the thing when it blew. Either the door would go with the ram or it wouldn't.

The element of surprise was vital, they needed to be in the house before Jimmy, or anyone else, had the chance to purge computer drives, break up phones or burn documentation. The main job of these security doors was not keeping out a determined force, it was to give the people on the inside time to get rid of evidence.

Adams thought the city was beautiful at this time of the morning, innocent even. They rolled through the streets while thousand slept only feet away. He felt like a knight leading out a war party from a slumbering castle to catch an enemy unaware. He glanced over at Sims who was nervously picking at the stab vest she wore, tension spilling out of her fingertips. He on the other hand felt calm. He was on the move, taking action, it always steadied him.

He pulled up a few streets from The Garrison, a pre-determined rally point. He let the engine run while he stepped out of the car to watch the convoy of vehicles arrive. The gathering happened wordlessly and the radio strapped to the shoulder of his own stab vest hissed with static, but nothing more. When he was satisfied everyone was in place he raised his hand to the armoured personnel carrier holding the breach team and it moved away from the kerb to fall in behind him as he moved out. Adams was leading this assault himself.

He turned into the The Garrison in second gear, his engine a low steady hum. He did not want to give away his presence until the very last second if possible. He slipped easily over the speed bumps and drew to a halt outside Kingston's house. As one, the doors of both vehicles opened and remained open as the team silently dispersed. Adams stood back as the three black clad men who had been in the back of his car quickly arranged themselves at the door. Dual hydraulic rams were positioned at knee and head height while the third man knelt beside the drive unit. Once they were ready the team's leader nodded at Adams. It was his moment.

Adams moved forward and tapped on the door with his finger before announcing in a voice that could not have been heard three feet away, "Gardai, We have a search warrant for this premises, open the door." After the slightest pause he did the same again then stood back.

The man with the hydraulic box flicked a switch and a powerful battery operated pump hummed. He pressed a button and both rams moved, forcing themselves against the door frame, spreading it wide until they reached the limit of their power. The men holding the rams, dropped to the ground and retrieved their hand held sledges. Splintering wood and creaking concrete told of the incredible power of the device. Another switch was flipped and a second bolt moved forward on bar, driving the door inward, bending and twisting bolts and hinges. When the device was at full extension, the hammer men moved forward and struck, driving the door all the way in.

The breach team rushed in one behind the other, riot shields and weapons drawn. They stormed the house shouting "Gardai," and securing one room after the other. The word "Clear" indicated each room secured. Adams and Sims entered on the heels of the team, standing in the hall while the team did their work. A grey haired woman in her late sixties appeared on the landing, pulling a dressing gown around her, shock on her face. The breach team rushed past her and searched the upper floor of the building. Adams moved forward and addressed the woman.

"I'm Detective Stephen Adams, we are executing a search warrant of this premises, among others. Are you Mrs Kingston?" The woman shook her head and pulled her robe tighter, in much the same way her lips pinched into a scowl.

"Her mother," was all she said.

"Detective Sims will accompany you to your room so that you can dress. You are not permitted to remove anything from the premises and must follow her instructions precisely. Do you understand?" The woman on top of the stairs nodded and Sims went up to take her to the room. Adams looked around the down stairs, the place was completely empty. The officer in charge of the breach team approached Adams.

"The old woman is the only occupant of the house. It’s clear from rafter to floor." Something was not right about this. Jimmy Kingston should be here, he nearly never left the house.

"Did it look like someone left in a hurry?"

"No sir, just nobody home."

"Thanks. You can radio the search teams to come on up. You had better take up a position on the head of the road. Search every car coming or going. This place is a rabbit warren and most of the residents are on Kingston's payroll."

"Yes sir," said the man following his team out the ruined door.

The old woman came down the stairs wearing a light jumper, slacks and house slippers. Sims directed the woman into the sitting room and Adams followed. When the lady was seated Adams asked, "Where's Jimmy and your daughter?"

"At the hospital, with Kenny. They've been there all night."

Adams hadn't thought they would spend the whole night there, it surprised him. He expected to catch Jimmy sleeping. It might even be a good thing. If he was not in the house there was no way he could have interfered with any evidence. They might just hit the mother load.

"You'll have to remain in the house for the moment. Hopefully this won’t take that long," said Adams to the old lady as search teams moved in. Adams turned to them and said, "Start in the roof lads, work your way down."

The house was soon bursting with people. A steady stream of sealed evidence bags started filling van's to be ferried away from the scene. Adams caught a glimpse of Inspector Kelly as he quickly rifled through tons of bank and phone records found in a press in the kitchen. If the smile on his face were anything to go by, the possible bill facing Jimmy Kingston just jumped from a million and into the millions. This was going to sting hard and Adams only wished Jimmy was here so he could see the look on his face.

***

Joey woke up with a splitting headache. The bedside table was covered with empty miniature bottles of booze but they sure packed a full size punch. His stomach churned when he tried to sit up. He barely made it as far as the bathroom when a fountain of liquid vomit exploded from his mouth. He lay for a long time with his head resting against the cool foot of the toilet, his closed eyes couldn't stop the world from spinning. Eventually he forced himself to stand and splashed cold water on his face before drinking water directly from the tap. Two minutes later he was vomiting again.

Once he'd showered he felt better, but that feeling vanished when he looked at his phone. Like he expected there were a dozen missed calls from Pete and several messages, the contents of each became more and more threatening. The core message was always the same, "Where's our money?"

Joey thought about shutting off the phone but he needed it on in case the lunatic holding his sister rang. His finger hovered over Pete's name but he couldn't make himself press down. As if by magic, the phone sprang to life in his hand, Pete Pit bull Byrne himself.

He slid his thumb over the screen and held the phone to his ear.

"Where the hell have you been?"

"I was just going to call you," said Joey, thinking it was actually the truth, nearly.

"I don't care. Where the hell are you and you better have the money."

"I have the money but there's a problem. Someone snatched my sister and they’re going to kill her unless I hand over the money." The silence on the other end lingered. Joey didn't think that Pete was all that bright if the truth be known, but at least he wasn't shouting.


"Who?"

"I don't know, he didn't say but he sounded like a poncy fucker."

"Where are yea?"

"You must think I'm thick? You would be around here in a second."

"That's not your money, Joey. Don't be stupid. Jimmy will kill yea," said Pete, his voice soft now as if he was talking to his stupid kid brother, giving him solid advice.

"And if I don't Sarah dies! Tell Jimmy I'll work for him for the rest of my life to pay back the cash, anything he wants, but I got to get Sarah back, I got to! If that's not good enough, tell him he can kill me. I'll give myself up as soon as she is free."

"Joey don't ..."

Joey didn't give him a chance to finish. He hit the red button and threw the phone on the bed as if he was afraid it would jump up and bite him. Five seconds later it rang, a minute later it rang again. Joey turned the volume down and tried to ignore the vibrating in his pocket while he gathered his stuff. It was time to get moving.


"HOW MUCH!" he said, or more accurately yelled, when the receptionist pushed a bill toward him with Mini Bar charge of €237 euro printed nice and big.

"You had quite the night," she said snottily and began clacking on her computer with a dismissive air.

"I thought they were included in the room, yea know, competently."

"I think you mean complementary and no they were not. You paid Room Only which means you only get the room."

"Yes, but they were in the fucking room, how was I to know?"

"If you're refusing to pay the bill I'll have to call the Guards," she said in a way that made it clear she had the number already half dialled.

"I'll pay it," said Joey angrily ducking down to extract a few notes from the cash in his bag. He mumbled Robbing bastards under his breath.

"I heard that," said the woman. Joey stood and pushed the notes across the desk, his face burning red. She made change and shoved it back with a disgusted snarl on her lip. Joey took his change and shuffled away toward the door. As he pushed it open the corner of his eye caught the dirty look the girl was sending his way. He couldn't help himself, he turned back and roared, "Robbing Bastards!" then ran as fast as he could.

***
Jimmy was alone with Kenny when Pete opened the door and said quietly, "Boss."

Jimmy stood and stretched, it had been a long night. He followed Pete out into the hall and spotted Kathleen coming with two cups of coffee. He took one from her and said, "Thanks love." She had taken the news of Kenny's attack a lot better than he thought she would, in fact she had been a rock of sense. She calmed him down when the doctors came back with nothing new after the scan. All they said was, "It will take time." He was about to blow a gasket when she rested an arm on his and said, "No news is good news." It had been just the right thing to say at just the right moment.

She went back inside and left them alone in the corridor.

"Joey has been in touch," said Pete.

"I knew he would," said Jimmy taking a sip of his coffee.

"Someone's kidnapped his sister and want's the cash in return for her," said Pete as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Jimmy felt the coffee catch in his throat and nearly went down the wrong pipe. It make him cough and a little came out his nose.

"What the hell? You told him that was not his money."

"Of course but he's determined to save her. He is not taking my calls now."

"I'll kill the little bastard!"

"I told him that too."

"This is crazy! Nobody knew he had the money except me and you."

"And a few of the boys."

"You think it could be one of them, looking to make a quick score and let the kid take the ride for it?"

"Na, not our lads"

"You said that about Collins and look what happened there?"

"I never liked Collins there was always something wrong with him. Anyway, Joey said the guy talked like a ponce."

"Hang on, he knew," said Jimmy walking down the corridor and back up again. He always thought better when his feet were moving.

"Who?"

"The Ferryman. He knew Joey had been ripped off. I told him."

Pete knew that this was one of the times to be quite. That was when Jimmy's phone rang in his pocket. He fished it out and looked at the number. It was his accountant.

"Yea?"

"Jimmy. I can't get into the office. CAB have it sealed off under bench warrant. I think you better get over here."

"You better have nothing in there that I won't like!" snarled Jimmy into the phone knowing what a lazy bastard his accountant was.

"Of course not!" said the man in a way that made Jimmy sure he was lying. He punched the off button savagely.

"Greasy git!" he roared, causing a nurse to glare at him from the far end of the corridor.

"What?"

"CAB are raiding the accountant's place. You can bet they are over at mine as well! Stay here with Kathleen," Jimmy said as he raced away toward the exit. He had to see what was happening.

***

Darren eased his eyes open.

"Oh Jesus," he said and rested the heel of his hand against his forehead to try and quell the way it throbbed. If the Irish Sea was made of porter, he thought, he could have drunk it dry last night. He leaned into Clare's side of the bed but it was empty, which gave him an idea. She was sure to have some painkillers in her bedside locker, women are always taking those things. He rolled over and pulled the drawer, rummaging through it without lifting his head from the pillow. He had pulled out a makeup tubes, hair brushes, hair straighteners, scrunchies, lip balm, before giving up his contact with the pillow to raise his head. He rummaged through the drawer and right at the bottom he came across a package of Paracetamol.

"You beauty," he said and pulled out the shiny green box. He flopped back down on the bed and opened the box but noticed something stuck to the back of the package. He pealed it free and read the name not believing what he was seeing. Detective Stephen Adams. A dab of dried pasta sauce smeared the card, it was the same one he had thrown into the bin the other day. What the hell was Clare doing with it?

His headache forgotten he threw back the covers and put his feet on the ground. He flipped the card over in his fingers again and again before turning back to her drawer, searching it completely, eventually dumping the contents out on the duvet. There was nothing else, even so the card was enough. Had she been snitching on him? No way! He couldn't believe that.

He snatched a pair of jeans and pulled them on. She'd better have a damn good answer. He walked down the hall and into the kitchen. Clare was doing the washing-up while Martin ate scrambled egg and toast at the table.

"Morning, want a coffee," she said over her shoulder.

"What's this?" he asked holding up the card, somehow managing to keep his voice level. The blood drained from her face when she saw the small white piece of cardboard he was holding.

"Well? What are you doing with this?"

"I...I don't...”

"Don't what, Clare? Don't know how it got in your bedside table? Don't know how it jumped out of the bin? Or is it you don't believe I found it?"

"I was scared, alright! I thought I was losing you and I didn't know where to turn..."

"So you turned to him?"

"NO! I just kept the card in case."

"In case of what?"

"In case something happened and I needed help, you needed help."

"These people don't help the likes of us," he said waving the card and he felt his words echo back off the walls. He didn't know when he'd started shouting but one look at Martins huge scared eyes told him it had been a while back. He laid the card on the kitchen table and rested his hands on either side of it. He let the words swim before his eyes, Detective Stephen Adams. He knew Clare didn't come from the place he'd come from. To her the law was there to help. In his life the law only tore families’ apart, separated parents from children, rewarded weakness with pain and took what they wanted when they wanted. In Darren's opinion, the cops were as twisted as any criminal walking the streets of Dublin. He could to see things from her point of view but he knew that if they were to have any future together she would have to see things from his.

When he looked up, Clare had moved away from the sink and had two bubble flecked hands over Martin's shoulders, protecting him, reassuring him.


"This is my life. I'm a good man but not one that is measured by the rules these people make. I told you yesterday that you are first for me and always will be. That's all I can promise. It is time for you to make a decision, a real hard one," he said pushing himself away from the table and walked to the front door of the apartment. He unlocked it and opened it full before turning back to Clare.

"If you want to be with me, there is no safety net, there's no white knight coming to save the day. In this life we help ourselves, we look after our own, and only family counts. If that's not what you want, the door is open. Use it."

He hung his head and walked back down the hall to the bedroom. His head spun, this time it wasn't from the hangover. What had he just done?

He heard a chair scrape on the kitchen floor, and movement, but no words. Seconds passed to become minutes while he sat on the corner of their bed. How he wished she would appear in the door and take him in her arms, but she didn't. Then came a noise that chilled his bones, his own front door closing followed by silence, a silence so dense it was a living thing.

No! She couldn't leave, he had to get her back. He bounded from the bed and raced down the corridor. He skidded to a stop a few feet into the living room. Standing there by the kitchen table was Clare with Martin in her arms, his forehead rested against her blond hair. On the kitchen table was the policeman's card, ripped into a thousand pieces and heaped in a tiny pile.


"You're all I need," she said, before he scooped them both into his arms.




Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Thirty Pieces of Silver - Nowhere to run

Adams’ journey to the station was less a drive and more a hate filled rampage through the city. He careened within inches of slow moving cars, having to stamp on his breaks, time and again, to avoid crashing. He used his horn as a weapon of intimidation until eventually cars made way for him. In the end even that wasn’t enough and he unleashed his siren. The flashing blue lights cleaved a path through the crawling cars as cleanly as a hot knife splits a pound of butter.

What had happened between himself and Jimmy Kingston was a thing of nothing. Being disrespected and dismissed by criminals was nothing new, in fact it was the norm. In itself the slight altercation could not account for the rage he currently found himself embroiled in. What was really getting to him was the impossibility of his job, trying to defend a community which refused to co-operate. To solve a case, where everyone knew, but nobody would say a word to the likes of him. The miles of red tape and frustrating politics which poisoned every single aspect of the police force. Jimmy Kingston was only a tip of a very large iceberg trying to sink him. Even Adams himself knew that when the red mist descended over his eyes there was no turning it off until he ran out of steam. Knowing it was one thing but being able to control it was a completely different matter.

When he got back to the station he threw the office door open with such force that it crashed into a desk occupied by a bookish clerical worker, toppling her In Tray and all the papers it contained. He stomped past without even a sideways glance. Everyone in the office ducked for cover as he made his way across the room, his rages were legendary and anyone could end up on the receiving end of them. He rounded the corner of his own desk and snatched up the phone receiver. He dialed quickly then waited for the call to be picked up at the other end. He walked a few feet to a bank of filing cabinets, pulling the curly telephone cord to its limit. As the ringing filled his ear as he ripped open drawers and rifled through the contents. He removed some files before slamming the metal drawer’s home. After twelve rings the phone was answered.

“Criminal Assets Bureau,” said the cultured female voice on the end of the line.

“About time! Did I disturb your tea break?”

“No…”

“Don’t even think of answering that!” he bellowed into the phone. His quip was cutting and he heard the person’s jaw on the far end of the line snap shut.

“Inspector Kelly,” he said, the half question half demand more rude than informative. 

“Who will I say is calling?” she said, her previously happy tone was now guarded and resentful.

“Detective Adams, and make it snappy!”

“Hold the line please.”

Adams was about to argue when his ear was filled with a horrible version of Green Sleeves.

“God dam it,” he said to himself, he cradled the phone between his shoulder and his ear, he used both hands to search through the thousands of files. He had finished his search of the cabinets long before the maddening music in his ear stopped.

“Hello, Detective Adams, what can I do for you today?” Inspector Kelly asked in a cheery Cork accent.

“How close are we to having Jimmy Kingston’s nuts in a vice?”

“Petty close as it happens. Four, even three weeks could see us ready to conduct a raid,” the man said sounding very happy with himself.

“What if we were to push that timeline up to three or four hours?”

Adams could feel the man on the other end of the phone sitting back in his chair, trying to distance himself from the idea. To call a spade a spade, CAB was nothing more than an accounting department where the staff had warrant cards and a licence to carry guns. Despite that, Adams had huge respect for the members of the unit. The guns they carried were for their own protection. Members of Criminal Assets Bureau were the most feared guards in the country, and as such, the most vulnerable. There had been more than one death treat levelled at them, and countless attacks on their homes or the homes of their families. Adams thanked his lucky stars that he didn’t have to conduct a bomb search of his car every time he went to the shops, unlike them. What made them so feared were the powers they'd been given. With a simple bench warrant they could walk into any house or business in the country, search it from top to bottom, and take the lot. That is unless the person of interest could account for the money they had of course. They had the criminals shaking in their boots.

“If that were to happen, hypnotically speaking, we could miss out on at least half the goods we might otherwise get.”

“It’s a chance we might have to take. Things are gathering speed and we need to take some action, and we need to take it now.”

“Kingston’s business assets are a house of cards waiting to fall. We’ve been conducting surveillance on every one of his shops and laundrettes, logging customers, compiling price lists and average spend matrixes, not one of them are legit. The cash he is running through those books would be impossible to make. In one particular case, the laundrette in South Great Georges St, they would have to run every machine, twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year to achieve even half the income that shop declared last year. Our surveillance show’s an average of only seventeen customers a day, using one machine at a time. That bill alone could run into the millions.”

“So we have grounds for a search warrant?”

“We have grounds and plenty of them, but there is a ton more stuff that we could dig up on Kingston. If we strike too soon, all that might slip through our fingers.”

“It’s a chance worth taking if it stops this bloody war. I want to go first thing tomorrow, can you get your team up to speed if I arrange a warrant?”

“Of course, if I must,” the inspector said, his words breathy as he exhaled while he talked. It was clear he didn’t like it but would go with Adams if he felt it was the best course of action.

“I’ll be back to you within the hour,” Adams said and hung up without saying goodbye.

“Sims!” he bellowed across the open plan room. Her desk was empty and he needed her.  He pulled out his phone and dialled her. A phone rang on her desk. Adams killed the call.

“Where the hell is she?” he asked himself out lout. He pushed back his chair and stalked toward the small kitchen used by all the offices on this floor. He poked his head inside the door and bellowed her name again, the room was empty. When she spoke from directly behind him, Adams jumped, the fright making his bad mood even worse.

“Yes,” she asked, her voice calm in the face of his roaring.

“Where have you been?”

“The bathroom, is that alright?” she asked, her right eyebrow cocking high.

“Get on the phone and find out which Judges are sitting in the four courts today. We need a warrant to search Jimmy Kingston’s house, cars’ and businesses, the lot.”

“Ok,” was all she said before walking back toward her desk. Adams stormed back to his own area and continued making calls and collecting evidence files from the stuffed cabinets behind him. Ten minutes later she laid a sheet of paper with all the judges sitting today on the desk in front of him, one name was ringed, “O’Donoghue”.

“There are plenty available, but he will see you in an hour, if it’s that much of a rush,” she said, her tone controlled and her face blank.

“Perfect,” he said lifting the page and adding it to the growing stack of paperwork he had accumulated. Sims remained bent over his desk, her eyes boring into him.

“Yes?” he said at last.

“Stephen,” she said, the word was followed by a long pause, pregnant with restrained anger.

“Yes?” he asked again, this time the edge on his words was less. She never called him Stephen, nor did she generally look at him so coldly.

“Don’t ever make the mistake of speaking to me like that again.”

“I…”

“No, don’t say anything. It’s done, but if it happens again, it will not end well. Is that clear?”

Adams looked at five foot five woman leaning over his desk and felt like an insect before a giant.”

“It won’t,” was all he could say, his voice barely above a whisper. She said nothing but turned and walked away, her back stiff with anger.

Adams’ busied himself looking over the list of Judges but his eyes saw nothing. His brain was a whir of embarrassment, shame and regret. He had let Kingston under his skin, he had behaved like an ass and in the process upset one of the best investigators he had ever met. Adams let out a deep breath and considered all the paperwork piled in front of him. He dropped the list of Judges and leaned back in his chair. He needed to get his head together. He looked at the yellowing roof tiles above his head and slowly closed his eyes. He didn’t move for a good twenty minutes. When he sat forward again his mind was clear and made up. He scooped up all the files and jammed them under his arm. He walked across the room and stopped in front of Sims desk. He hoped he looked more confident than he felt. After cooling down, he still felt the decision to raid Kingston was the right one. Sims’ head was hung low over a witness statement as she typed the handwritten document out, word for word. She knew he was standing there but refused to look up, she was still mad at him. He coughed and saw her fingers pause above the keys.

“Fancy taking a trip?” he said, his voice was all lightness and flowers.

“Depends, where?”

“To see Justice O’Donoghue and stick a boot into Jimmy Kingston.”

“In that case, count me in,” she said, pulling the coat from the back of her chair and standing up without even closing down the computer.

Adams tossed his keys in the air between them, and she deftly snatched them out of the air. Her eyes looked from the keys to his face and back again, he'd never given her his car keys before.

“You drive,” was all he said and walked toward the door. The smile on her face said she understood the gesture was probably as close as Detective Stephen Adams had ever come to apologising.  He felt on balance again, he knew he was on the right track at last.

***

The Ferryman sat in the small office suspended above the derelict factory floor and watched as the gagged and hooded blond woman tried to break the cable ties which bound her hands and ankles to the steel chair she sat on. Her white blouse was a startling contrast to her dank surroundings. Nothing had moved in this place in years, dirt, grime and rust had claimed the rotting factory as its own. She had grown tired of trying to yelling, not that anyone could hear her anyway. This place was like one of those Russian dolls. It was a building, within a building, within a building. Added to the fact it sat on a little-used part of the docks made it a perfect place for his needs. Nobody ever came, nobody had reason to come. He could walk away from here and leave the woman tied just as she was. Her body might be found years from now, a dried husk of rotting flesh, still attached to the chair by plastic loops.

He stood and stretched, hearing the bones in his neck crack as he swiveled his head around. Once he had collected the money from the kid, he was getting out of here, this city, this country. Dublin was getting a too hot for his liking. He might try Germany for a bit, or even Spain. There was always work for him in Spain. A few years soaking up the Mediterranean sun would be a welcome change to the damp rain soaked days in Ireland. He had things to arrange before he vanished again. Things to do.

He walked down the metal stairs leading to the factory floor and he saw the woman’s head turn toward the noise. Her body froze, rigid with terror. He knew what was running through her mind. Was he coming to kill her? Was he coming to let her go? Was he going to do something much worse? The hood covering her face billowed has her breathing raced. He rarely got this close to his victims. He had to admit that the woman’s knowing her position was a huge thrill. He always held the power of life and death over people but they mostly were ignorant of their plight. He stood in front of the woman and bathed in her fear.

“Whmmm,” mumbled the woman through her gag. She had said, what. 

She was terrified but still trying to be tough. She was close to his own age and he could tell she had once been a very pretty but hard living or a hard life had taken its toll on her looks. The beginnings of wrinkles around her eyes, the way the corners of her mouth turned down slightly, as if the disappointments of the world were hanging there constantly. He moved closer and watched the way her chest rose and fell, the swell of her breasts straining the materiel of her white work blouse. Through the unbuttoned neck he could see her skin was flushed and a spattering of freckles dived down her throat and vanished in the depths of her clothes. He moved closer, her smell drifted in the air, he inhaled deeply. He could still detect the perfume she'd applied either this morning or sometime during the day. He could smell shampoo and something a little bit astringent, perhaps bleach or hair dye. Mostly he could get the hot musk of woman and fear. It was a heady scent. He reached out his hand and let his fingers trail down the exposed skin of her lower jaw. She tensed but didn’t try to move away from his touch. He let his fingers trace the raised ridges of her neck tendons and followed them over the rise of her collar bone, then down.  He felt heat pumping off her and the soft swell of her breasts touched the tip of his finger. Her chest stopped rising and falling, it remained still, waiting for what she feared most.

He loved having total power over this woman, knowing that he could do anything and it would happen. The thought of such power was far more erotic than the woman herself. Driven on by the thought he forced his fingers roughly under the material of her bra and cupped the fullness of her breast. At his touch she flattened herself against the back of the chair and her chest rose again, faster than before. Her flesh was soft, not a good soft. He'd thought she would feel firm, but she didn’t. He could feel the ridges of her nipple play over his skin but there was no hint of hardness. He pulled his hand away and backed up a few steps.

It was as if the woman he looked on now was a completely different person to the one he had looked on just seconds before. Gone was the girl who had once been a beauty, in her place was a terrified middle aged woman, with nowhere to go and nothing but survival on her mind. The woman on the seat before him was only hairs breath from passing out or soiling herself. He wiped his hand on the leg of his pants trying to get her stink off his skin. It disgusted him. He felt rage bubbling through his veins. How had it all changed so quickly?


He stormed away toward the door, away from the filthy being that had so nearly infected his soul. He should have known better, distance was good, it was always good. The sooner this was over the better. It would take him a day at the most to arrange what he needed, then he would be gone forever.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Riley and the Wizard

Riley and the Wizard

The world is a very old place, and it has not always been as it is now. Today we live in the era of science, but there was a time when nature and magic were the powers that governed the Earth. What is true now, was not known then, and what was true then has been sadly forgotten by most.

Over two thousand years ago a boy called Eoin lived in a tiny village on an island called Ireland. To him, the island was his whole universe, a world complete, perched on the edge of a wild ocean and he'd not yet travelled further than a day’s walk from the cluster of huts he called home. Eoin had heard stories of lands which lay across those vast waters, but he was sure they were nothing more bedtime stories for children, and could never be true.

The island was covered in forest and was a land of plenty to those who called it home, but it was not without its pearls. The woods were home to Wolf, Bear, Eagle and Boar, all of which could slay a man if he were not careful. Then there were the other-world creatures, magical beings like elf’s, fairy’s, trolls and the like. The island was a kingdom of tribes, ruled by chieftains, heads of the biggest clans, and of course the mystical ones. The enchantresses, the witches, the druids and the wizards. These were the ones who held the power of life and death.

Eoin’s clan was small and didn't have a chief of its own but his father was a great hunter and provided much of the game which fed the villagers. At this time Eoin was still a boy, and where there's a boy, there must be a girl. For Eoin, her name was Roisin and she was the daughter of the blacksmith. They were the same age and he thought she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, but like all boys of that age, he'd rather cut out his own tongue than tell her.

One day, the men had gone hunting and Eoin was left watching over the goats. All of a sudden he heard screaming come from the village. The sound chilled his heart and it could mean only one thing, attack. He left the herd and raced toward home. As he neared, he saw group of men rushing between the huts trying to take what food and livestock they could, they were bandits driven by hunger and greed. Eoin rushed forward, his mind filled with only one person, Roisin. He grabbed a thick bough from a wood pile as he passed and bashed a raider over the head as he came out of a hut struggling to hold a young girl. The raider collapsed and the girl escaped, Eoin ran on. He came to a skidding stop outside Roisin’s home just as four raiders closed in on it. He swung the stout timber and connected with the jaw of one man, hearing a satisfying crack as the bone broke. The others paused, circling outside his reach. The standoff only lasted a few moments before they rushed at him from all sides. Eoin fought like a wild animal, like a wolf, but three on one was going to be too much. A lucky blow caused one man to scream in pain and stagger away holding his forearm. Eoin turned his head and saw the most amazing sight. Roisin was standing with her back to his, holding one of her father’s swords in her hands, swinging at the raiders. Side by side they fought, for minutes or hours, time lost all meaning, until salvation appeared in the guise of the elders rushing from the forest. The raiders fled, Eoin and Roisin collapsed in exhaustion, their chests heaving with exertion, fear and relief filled their minds. She looked him in the eye and in that moment Eoin promised himself he'd never look at another woman with love in his heart.

On the day Eoin passed from boyhood into manliness, he approached Roisin’s family and asked to take her as his wife. The arrangement was welcomed by all and as soon as the water ran low in the river they were wed. The young lovers were never apart, either by day or by night, each gazed upon the other as if they alone existed. You might think their lives were perfect but all was not well in the world. Famine gripped the country and raiding parties become more and more frequent.

Eoin took his father’s place as the protector of the clan and won many victories. In those days, war was common and honour was all a man could call his own. Many times when two clans faced each other, the dispute would be solved without a blade being raised. Where battle was unavoidable, the victorious clan were honour bound to take all surviving combatants under their protection.

Side by side, Roisin and Eoin defended their lands, defeating many attacking chieftains. At the end of ten years, Eoin found himself ruler of all the people from the Blue Mountains of the east to the Grey Cliffs of the west. At last, peace came. Unlike other Chieftains, Eoin never took another wife, only Roisin would ever share his bed.




A year after peace arrived, Roisin’s belly began to swell and soon the truth of her condition couldn't be denied and there were no happier man than Eoin in all the world. On the day of the birth, Eoin the Red waited outside their home, more frightened than at any other time in his life. He endured hours of listening to his beloved suffer the trial of birth and vowed he'd never subject her to such pain again. What scared him even more was when the cries suddenly stopped and silence hung over the village, Eoin the Red held his breath. Then a child’s cry rose into the sky and he nearly wept with delight.

The door was pulled back and a wrinkled old nurse beckoned him inside. Eoin ducked under the low entrance and held his breath. The air was warm, steam rose from a pot which bubbled in the corner. Roisin lay on a bed of pelts holding a swaddled bundle to her chest. She smiled and Eoin rushed to her side.

“Are you good my love?” His first and only worry was for the woman who held his heart.

“Better than ever, look,” she said holding out the bundle for him to take. Eoin hesitated, afraid to take a thing so tiny in his arms.

“A girl,” said the ancient nurse as she dipped a cloth into the bubbling pot to wash it clean.

“A miracle. Take her, she won’t break, she's as strong as her father,” Roisin said, still holding the baby in outstretched arms.

Eoin looked down and saw the most perfect thing God or man had ever created. His heart swelled with love until it was fit to burst in his chest and he felt a tear creep close to his eye. He sniffed it away because, after all, he was the chief. He took the tiny baby in his hands and in that moment he knew his heart now belonged to two. A tiny hand extended from beneath the swaddle to wrap around the tip of his finger.

“She has the grip of a warrior,” he said in amazement and smiled at Roisin.

“She's a fighter for sure, born of her father.”

“Born of royalty,” muttered Eoin, speaking to the baby.

“What? You’re calling her Riley?” said the nurse who was near deaf.

Roisin smiled and raised her eyebrows at him.

“Why not,” he said. “Riley fits her well.”

At the sound of her name the baby gurgled and gave the most powerful chieftain in the land a grin. This time, Eoin the Red couldn’t stop a tear spilling down his cheek to vanish in his bushy red beard.


In the years that followed Riley not only captured the heart of her parents, but the hearts of everyone in the clan. Eoin the Red decided to move the seat of his kingdom west to a place more easily defended from those who might be jealous of his success. He picked Lough Tully. Lough is the Irish word for lake, and this particular lake was on the mid-point of Eoin’s lands. He set about building a Crannog Village, a development anchored around a central island, connected to the main land by a long bridge. A Crannog is a building which sits above the water on huge stilts, making it near impossible to attack by surprise.  As Eoin and Roisin’s empire grew, so grew the number of connected wicker buildings until they occupied all but the deepest parts of the lake.




Riley grew up the most beguiling of children, she was a girl of great beauty but she lacked even a trace of vanity, her love of nature and her ability to weave happiness into any situation brought joy to everyone. Most chieftains would pray for a son but Eoin thanked the great creator for the girl he had been blessed with. He knew she was destined to lead their people after his hair turned silver, a position she would have no trouble holding because she had the best partsof both her parents. 

Turning nine was a huge milestone in any young person’s life, it marked the end of childhood and the beginning of something very important. It was the year a clan member began to earn their place among the elders.  Riley’s ninth year was approaching and Eoin the Red wanted to celebrate it in a manner that would never be forgotten. He decreed there would be a feast unlike any seen before. He sent riders to the four winds with invitations for every chieftain, king, druid, wizard and enchantress in the land. Every powerful person would attend, it would be talked of for a generation. 

Unknown to Eoin, on a cold and miserable morning, the messenger carrying an invitation for Malten the Twisted did something terrible. Malten was a cantankerous old wizard but his magic was powerful and respected by any man with a brain in his head. Esker Wood, the place he called home was reputed to be haunted by a thousand uneasy demons and as a result was avoided by all. It was one of the most malevolent places in the whole of Ireland. The messenger stopped at the edge of the wood and tried to urge his mount forward. The horse rose on his hind legs and refused to go a step further. After a few tries the frustrated and frightened messenger looked over his shoulder. There was nobody for miles. Fear got the better of him and he reached into his pouch, withdrawing the invitation scroll and cast it into the edge of the wood.

“Find it if you want, I've brought it far enough,” said the messenger before galloping away. The wind caught the scroll and blew it deep into the woods where darkness and thorns eventually stopped its tumbling journey.

As the weeks passed, excitement grew and nobody was more excited than Riley. She'd been promised a new cloak to wear at the gathering and she secretly hoped her father would present her with a sword of her very own as a mark of her value to the clan. The week of the celebration approached and nobles started arriving. Soon it looked as if a huge fair was taking place, such was the number of tents that littered the ground. On the day before the feast, the largest Ox in Eoin’s heard was slathered and mounted on a spit above a roasting pit. It would take a full day to cook the huge beast fully.

As night fell, Bo, apprentice to Eoin’s stable master was left in charge of turning the spit till dawn. The time passed slowly and in the darkest hour of the night, Bo’s eyes spotted a shadow moving toward him.

“Who’s there?” he cried, reaching for the club he carried to ward off Wolfs attracted by the smell of roasting meat.

“None but a weary traveller, cold from the night and tired from walking. May I rest by the warmth of your fire?” said the shadow.

“Come closer so I can see you,” the boy said.

An ancient man shuffled into the ruby glow thrown out by the fire and Bo was annoyed at himself for being scared of such a pathetic individual. The man was so old he made the trees about him look young. His back was so twisted he could barely stand upright. As he walked, the few remaining strands of hair attached to his head swung to and fro about his sunken cheeks.

“Sorry for my rudeness grandfather, of course you can warm yourself," Bo said.

“Thank you, you are kind,” said the elder as he shuffled the rest of the way forward and eased himself onto the ground near the roasting pit. The old man stared into the embers and seemed to drift on a sea of his own thoughts. The spit creaked as Bo turned the handle and the stars slowly made their way across the sky. An hour later a yawn escaped the boy’s lips. A little while after came another.

“The hour is late,” said the old man.

“That it is, and many more to go before dawn,” said Bo, stifling a third yawn.

“Let me repay your kindness by turning the beast for a spell. You must be weary.”

The man was right, Bo’s arms were strong but they were indeed aching. Perhaps ten minutes would be fine, as long as he keep watch.

“I’d be beholden to you for a spell of rest, thank you,” said Bo, and the old man struggled to his feet. As he took the handle Bo noticed for the first time how long the man’s fingers were and how wickedly sharp his nails appeared to be. Bo settled himself on the warm ground and watched. The ever circling animal, combined with the heat soon made his eyes close.

When Bo woke he had no idea how long he’d slept but the old man was gone and the Ox flesh was spitting above the glowing fire. One side was nearly black having not been moved in a while and Bo jumped to the handle. He cursed himself for being so stupid and trusting a stranger with his duty. He turned the beast not letting the burnt section dwell above the flames. By the time morning came, even Bo couldn't tell the burnt patch from the rest and he breathed a sigh of relief.  He wondered why the old man had vanished without waking him. The truth of the matter would have been clear if Bo had only seen what happened when he closed his eyes. The beggar was no beggar at all but a Malten the Twisted. His lack of invitation was an insult that stung him to the core and he desired vengeance. As soon as Bo had fallen asleep, he’d stopped turning the beast and dipped his hand into the folds of his cloak to withdraw a potent powder. He sprinkled it over the roasting flesh and recited an ancient incantation. Magic seeped into every ounce of the meat and once the rite was complete he simply vanished into the shadows.




The day of the feast was a sight to behold. The banquet was due to begin with the last cock crow in the evening and continue until dawn. Riley couldn’t contain herself and constantly dashed into the kitchens to pick at the fruits and berries piled high on the dishes. The cooks ran after her playfully swiping at her escaping bottom with cooking sticks but she was far too nimble for them. By mid-day she was stuffed to the gills but still kept picking. As the elders gathered to begin the feast, her full tummy had turned sour and was biting her guts.  Noticing her discomfort and the green tinge to her skin, her father drew her to one side.

“Are you feeling alright, Riley?” he asked softly.

“Yes Father, I am fine, just a belly ache.”

“You don’t look well,” he said, resting a hand on her swollen tummy and the pressure made Riley wince. He looked at her and raised his eye brows making it clear he was not taken in by her deception.

“All these people are here for me. How can I be sick?” she said cried.

“They’ll still be here even if you take a rest. When you feel better, you can join in the celebration, it will last long enough,” he said kissing her on the head.

“Are you sure Father?”

“Go,” he said with a laugh and turned her toward her bedroom. His swiping fingers were much quicker than the cooking sticks and caught her playfully as she hurried away.

When she woke, it was already getting bright. She realised she must have slept all the way through her party and was furious that nobody had woken her up. They'd let her miss all the fun and she felt like crying. She jumped out of bed and rushed onto the deck. It was very quite and that made her worry because the world was never this quiet. Riley reached the great hall and the sight before her was one straight out of a nightmare. There were bodies everywhere, piled one on top of the other, not one of them moved. Plates were still laden with food, goblets overflowing with ale, some candles still flickered as they burned to the quick. She searched among the bodies and soon found her mother and father slumped side by side at the head of the table. Riley lifted their heads and tried to wake them.

“Wake up, wake up!” she yelled over and over again as she shook them but nothing changed. They were warm and breathing deeply as if they were asleep. Why would they not wake?

That was when she heard footfalls coming at a run. It appeared she wasn't the only one left. A few seconds later a young boy came racing into the hall, skidding to a stop when he laid eyes on all the bodies. He was followed in by Ruairi. Seeing him made Riley's heart leap. Ruairi was the next best thing to having her father here to help. He'd been part of the clan for years, even longer than her father had been Chieftain. Now he looked after her father's stables. Ruairi rushed forward and scooped Riley up in his strong arms and hugged her to his chest. The boy regained his composure and began moving between the bodies trying to raise them from their stupor.


“What is going on? What's happened to them?” she cried and buried her face in Ruairi’s neck.


“I don’t rightly know child, but it’s a wicked unnatural thing. Magic of some kind is all I can think,” the old man said. 

“They are alive,” said the boy dropping his head onto a man’s chest to listen for a heartbeat.


“We have to wake them, Ruairi. We must do something!” said Riley drawing her head back so she could look at him. Her face was wet with tears and she was so very frightened. It must have shown because the old man’s expression went from confused to sorrowful as he looked upon her and his eyes watered before he spoke.


“I’m a simple horse man, Riley. I know nothing of magic except that it’s best avoided.”

That answer wasn't good enough. Riley wanted him to know what to do, he was all she had right now.

"There must be someone who can help?”

Ruairi seemed to think for a few minutes and looked around the room. Something must have occurred to him because he quickly let Riley down and got to his feet. “Perhaps. Wait with Bo, I’ll return soon.”


The old man hurried away and Riley went to sit beside her parents. She stroked her Mother’s long black hair and sobbed quietly as Bo stood to one side not knowing what to do. It wasn’t long before the old stable master returned with a healer woman hurrying behind him. She spent some time examining the sleeping people before looking to Ruairi and shaking her head sadly.

“They’ve been enchanted, there is nothing I can do.”

“There must be something!” cried Riley.

“I only wish that were true. I can heal wounds and kill a fever, but this is something else entirely. This malady is not of nature’s making, it’s a dark magic and can only be cured by one thing, magic. It’s not a healer you need it’s a druid.”

“If it’s a druid we need then we must fetch one without delay,” said Riley standing among the adults like she were one of them. Looking from one to the other with eyes which had shed their childhood shades.


“Would that it were so easy, little one. Every mystic in this part of the world lies here, slumbering,” said the old man throwing his arms open wide.

“NO! It can’t be so, there must be someone,” demanded Riley beating her hands against the old man’s chest. He took her in his arms and felt her shoulders move as she sobbed. Then the healer woman spoke.

“It’s said there's a witch in the mountains to the north who never leaves her home. Perhaps she can help, if she exists that is.”

“Can you get her and bring her here, Ruairi?” asked Riley looking into his eyes. Riley thought her heart would break when the old man shook his head.

“I’m an old man, it takes me half the morning to get from my hut to your father’s stables. If he were not such a kind person I would have been cast me aside years ago. That is why he gave me Bo to assist me in my duties. I fear I'd not be able for the journey and if something happened to me who would come then? Also, who will guard our kin while they are laid so low? My duty is here.”

“Well if you won’t go, I'll have to go myself,” she said, defiance making her words sharp.

“You can’t, it’s too dangerous, your Father would never allow it,” said Ruairi, crossing his wrinkled old arms over his chest. Riley gave the old man a stern look, she loved him like an uncle but that was not going to stop her doing what she must. Her father had fought when he was no older than she was. Now it was her turn.

“I’m not a child anymore and like you said, who else can go. My family needs me, I’m not going to let them down,” she said, her eyes were red from crying but now they also glowed with determination. She would not just stand by and wait. Something had to be done and wishing for a solution would not make one appear.

“I’ll go with her,” said the boy who had been standing to one side listening. They both looked at him and he puffed out his chest but there was trepidation in his eyes.

“You’re not much older than Riley,” scoffed the old stable keeper, a scold which hurt the boy’s feelings. There was no question in Riley’s mind, she was going with or without the old man’s blessing. If Bo wished to come, he was more than welcome.

“Time is wasting, we better ready ourselves for the journey,” said Riley and walked toward the door with the boy hot on her heels. It didn’t take her long to gather her bow and some warm clothes to wear on the journey. When she crossed the bridge Bo was already waiting for her with his club, made from the knotted root of a fallen ash tree.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“Ready,” he replied confidently, patting the handle of his weapon. A noise came from behind them and they turned as one.

“The miles will pass quicker on these,” said Ruairi, as he led two of her father's best horses toward them. Draped across their haunches were food sacks and water skins. Riley had never owned a horse but she could ride as well as anyone in the clan. Bo lived with these beasts every day and easily vaulted onto his mount. Ruairi helped Riley up and patted her leg when she was settled.

“Take care of each other,” said the old man.

“Take care of my family, we'll return as quickly as we can,” she said, mimicking the way she'd heard her father speak. Confidence and authority colouring her words. The youngsters galloped north and Riley tried her best to sit tall but she couldn’t help feeling like a little girl pretending to be all grown up.


For most of the day they rode north only stopping to let the horses graze and rest by a river. Bo ate a little from their food store and tried to encourage Riley to do the same but she refused. She was too worried to eat, in one day her whole world had been turned on its head, now she had nobody to rely on except a stable boy and an ancient horseman.

As night fell, Bo spotted a large pond and suggested camping there. It was as good a place as any so she agreed. Riley tended to the horses while Bo collected wood to start a fire. He was good with a flint and soon had smoke curling up from the kindling. When darkness fell the flames were strong and warming.


“I’ll take the first watch,” said Bo trying to be her protector. Riley was having none of it. He may be a boy but that did not make him any more capable than she.


“I don’t think I can sleep, it would be best if I stand first watch and wake you when I get tired,” she said. The boy saw sense in this and nodded his head. He wrapped himself in his cloak and lay in the warm glow of the fire. In no time he was breathing deeply. Riley sat with her back to a tree and gazed into the flames. She felt so sad, so alone, and if she were honest, terrified. She didn’t feel herself drift off into sleep, but sleep she did.

A twig snapped and Riley’s eyes fluttered open. The night was deathly quiet which was a bad sign. When danger was near all the tiny forest creatures held their breath. She stilled herself, breathing gently and listened. Away to her left, a branch moved and leaves rustled. Something was circling the camp. That was when the breeze carried the stench of animal to her nose.

“Bo,” she hissed. The boy mumbled in his sleep but didn’t wake.

“Bo,” she said, a little louder this time and the boy woke.

“What is it?”

Riley pointed into the woods, her eyes big but her lips remained tightly pressed together. Bo reached for his club and got to his feet. Riley let her hand drift to the bow and she slotted an arrow on the string without having to look toward her fingers. The fire had dwindled and only glowing embers remained. Another bush shook, whatever was out there was large. Riley hoped it was a deer who had wandered to close but she doubted it.

When the undergrowth parted her worst fears were confirmed. A huge brown bear swung his head side to side looking from Bo to Riley and back again. Its shiny muzzle sniffing the air, saliva dripping from its huge yellow fangs, the rubbery lips rolled back to reveal its gaping throat as it let out a roar and threw itself up on its hind legs. The animal was twice as tall as Bo and it had the eyes of a killer, black and soulless.

Bo was rooted to the spot, he moved neither forward nor back as the beast reared over him. Riley was just as frightened but she was also angry. Angry at whoever had bewitched her family, angry at being forced out across strange lands, angry at the bear for looking to eat them, just plain angry. She drew back her bow string as far as she could and let her arrow fly. The shaft struck the bear in the face just as it gave another huge growl. The arrow passed straight through the cheek and hung from the beasts gaping mouth. It was far from a fatal blow but it clearly hurt. The roar changed into a squeal of pain, a sound which freed Bo from his prison of fear. He raced forward swinging his club while Riley let loose another arrow, this one struck the animal square in the shoulder but failed to penetrate. The beast struck out at Bo, its razor sharp claws passing a fraction from the tip of his nose. Bo struck out at the beast and this time he connected with the injured mouth driving the arrow a little deeper. The Bear roared and dropped to all fours, charging away into the undergrowth, swinging his head violently side to side as if he was trying to dislodge the pain he felt.

Riley and Bo stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the undergrowth where the bear had vanished. Her body hummed with tension but that passed quickly and shakes ran through her arms and legs. She looked at Bo and noticed he was shaking too. Her Dad had often spoke of the great strength he felt during battle and how it left him drained afterwards. That was how she felt now, drained.


“We'd better build up the fire again, he might come back,” said Bo, his face had gone very white. She felt so cold it was like the night was trying to get at her bones. She hung her bow around her shoulders and followed him along the lake shore picking up dead branches to feed into the flames.

Throughout the night they took turns keeping watch, jumping every time a breeze moved a branch fearing the injured bear was returning to rip them limb from limb. Thankfully he never came. They both managed an hour or two sleep which was better than nothing. When the sun rose they checked their bearing and set off north once more.




As they travelled they passed several settlements and were greeted by more than a few people. The villagers were curious and asked why such youngsters were in strange parts but Riley insisted they avoid such questions. She was sure it would be far too dangerous for her sleeping kin should word of their tragedy become common knowledge. The last thing she wanted was a hoard of bandits descending on their lands when it lay unguarded. All they said too any who questioned them was, they’d come from the south and had business in the mountains to the north. Simple and true. They got more than a few disbelieving looks but none tried to stop them continuing on their journey.

On the third day the heavens opened and rain drenched them to their skins. Riley had never seen such a torrent in her life. The drops were as big as robin’s eggs and each seemed to have ice crystals at their core. Both she and Bo had their cloaks wrapped tightly around them and despite having the warmth of a pony between their legs, they shivered uncontrollably. When they finally reached the base of the great northern mountains they were capped by roof of black cloud. Bo was beside himself with joy at having reached their destination, but Riley was less than delighted. The mountains stretched from horizon to horizon and the Witch might be on any of them. She thought they were no closer to finding help they they had been three days ago. As luck would have it, an old woman chose that moment to come limping around a bend on the path.

“Excuse me, Mother, I have a question,” said Riley as the woman came alongside her horse. The woman paused and looked at the child riding a man’s horse. Riley dismounted so she would be at eye level with the old lady. It was only then that she noticed how thin the woman was, painfully so. Her cheeks were sunken and her eyes bulged in withered sockets. Riley knew that the poor retch was starving. The old woman looked at her with yellowed and nervous eyes. Riley turned back to her pony and retrieved a packet of food. The woman’s eyes grew huge as the parcel was placed in her withered hand and she devoured what she had been given like a wild animal. Riley stood silently until the food was gone and the woman’s composure returned.

“Thank you my child, you are truly kind,” said the old woman bowing deeply.

“Are you from these parts?”

“I’ve lived all my life in the shadow of these black hills,” said the old woman throwing a less than loving glance over her shoulder.

“We’ve travelled a long way to find a mystic woman whom we’ve been told lives here. Would you know of her?”

The old woman’s eyes became slits and she looked at Riley hard before answering.
“A mystic you call her, witch would be a better name. She'll do you no good. You’re best off going back home and forgetting this silly idea.”

“Going back is not an option for us and any help you could give would make our journey shorter. It would be a blessing. Could you even direct us toward the right area?”

“Kind girl, take my advice and leave that place undiscovered.”

“Even if it were to cost me my life, I must find this woman,” said Riley letting the woman see both her pain and her resolve in the matter. The old woman thought and her eyes softened. She turned slowly and pointed up the face of the mountain which rose above them. Close to the top a large portion of the hill was missing as if some huge beast had taken a bite out of it.

“She lives on yonder mountain peak, inside that great hollow. You’ll not miss her for she’s the only living thing on that whole mountain. Nothing but crows and the she-devil dwell there,” said the woman and she spat on the ground as if the mere mention of the Enchantress left a nasty taste in her mouth.

The old woman hurried away her eyes cast to the ground. Riley called after her, “Would you take some food for the road?” but not even the offer of rations would make the woman slow her flight from the home of the Witch.

“What kind of place are we going?” asked Bo, clearly the woman’s reaction had frightened him. What had seemed a straight forward task had taken on a sinister note. What they might be facing could be far more dangerous than any hungry bear.

“I don’t know but we must keep going,” Riley said throwing her leg over her horse before urging it forward. 

The mountain path began to rise steeply. As they travelled higher, the trees grew sparse, then vanished altogether. A sea of bracken flowed across the mountain, as thick and unforgiving as any fortress wall. If it were not for the path they would have been stopped in their tracks. They rode on, each step taking them closer to the roof of black cloud which hung unbroken above them. The rain eventually thinned until mist hung in the air like a living thing. Near the summit even the bracken vanished. The path petered out when they reached a near vertical incline of loose stone, the remains of boulders shattered by a millennium of harsh weather. They tethered their horses to a large rock and continued the climb using both hands and feet. When they crested the scree slope they spotted a tiny house built in the darkest part of the bowl shaped hole. Riley was the first to start down the incline, Bo fell into step behind her. There was no sign of life in the little building or anywhere around it. As they approached, it became clear that the only part of the house not made of stone was the door. It was a wicked looking thing, made of tortured branches interwoven at impossible angles and any gaps were stuffed with moss and heather. Riley studied it and could see no joins or pegs holding it together. She rose her hand to knock when the door slowly swung open. She looked in but the interior was completely black, there were no windows and the weak daylight refused to pass the open door.

“Come,” a voice said. The words were so quite they may have been a whisper in her mind rather than real words. Bo drew back a step but Reily steeled herself and moved inside. It was like diving into a container of pitch. She couldn’t see the hand she held out before her. The house looked tiny on the outside, but inside, echoes rang into the distance.

“We mean no trouble,” she said into the darkness.  “We’ve come to seek your help.”

“Help? No one ever comes here,” came a whisper from the darkness.

“We have. We’ve come a very long way to talk to you.”

Riley felt something brush her hand and even in the dark she knew it was Bo. He whispered in her ear, “Offer a reward.”

The voice in the darkness chuckled, “Reward. Clever boy.”

“Our clan, my father, has fallen under a spell. His name is Eoin the Red and our lands are rich. If you break the spell he will rewarded handsomely,” Riley called into the darkness.

“Ha! What good are riches to the likes of me? What is treasure to one, is tiresome to another.”

“Please you've got to help us!” she cried.

“Silence, I do nothing but what I choose,” snapped the voice. Riley stood still and held her breath. She listened to feet sliding over stone as the enchantress moved. It was hard to pick out her position, she seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once.

“What kind of ailment has lowered them?” the voice asked at last.


“They sleep without waking,” explained Riley.

“How interesting. How many slumber?” Riley could hear the witches' voice change. Something about this intrigued her.

“Two hundred, perhaps more. My clan and all the nobles gathered to celebrate my coming of age.”

“Amazing! A truly remarkable feat. I knew it had to be an act of epic proportions when I felt the ripples so far away,” said the voice, she was closer now and there was no mistaking the excitement she felt.

“We desperately need your help. Can you break the spell,” cried Riley. It was frustrating speaking to one she could not see.

“You know nothing of our ways, what you ask is impossible,” snapped the voice, annoyed at being questioned by one with no qualification to do so.

“I won’t believe it! Show yourself, there must be something that can be done,” said Riley stamping her foot and balling her fists. Her blood was boiling and she was ready to fight.

In the darkness a light flared and a tiny flame danced in mid-air. It was like a lantern, but one which needed no wick or oil reserve. It was a lantern of magic. The flame grew brighter and cast out brilliant light. They got their first look at the witch and she was nothing like Riley had expected. She was tall and straight with long golden locks. Her skin was as pure as an untouched snowfield and her smile was endearing. To look at her, you would bet she had no more than twenty years on this earth. There was something about her which made Riley believe she was much much older. Something she couldn’t put her finger on, yet.

“As you command, little one,” she said with a slight bow and a good natured smile.

“You said you felt it, how can that be?”

“The realm of magic is a sensitive one. When a spell is cast it sends out vibrations which can be felt, if one has the knowledge. The greater the cast, the bigger the ripples and the farther they travel,” she said, as if explaining the simplest thing ever.

“It’s still only a spell, and if a spell can be made, surely it can be broken?” said Riley.

“That, as it happens, is true.”

“Then why can’t you help us? Don’t you want to?”

“Want or not has no bearing. This spell was cast by an accomplished wizard, of which there are only a few, and it takes time for such a spell to weaken.”

“How long? How much time?” asked Bo, speaking at last.

“Twenty, perhaps thirty years.”

“They can’t wait that long. Is there someone with more power than you?” demanded Riley who had let her frustration and anger run away with her tongue.

“You’re being insolent, child,” said the Witch, anger peppered her voice but look of calm remained glued to her face. Yet again, Riley sensed something unseen as it rippled through the woman. It was like another lived under her skin.

“I mean no disrespect, forgive me,” said Riley quickly, bowing her head. She knew she'd gone too far.

After a time the witch spoke, “Such a spell could be removed, but only by the one who cast it. You could ask them for all the good it would do you.”

“We don’t know who cast it, if we did we would hunt him down and make them take it back,” said Riley letting her warrior lineage show in the strength of her words.

“Ah, this is something I can gladly help you with. The only one powerful enough to make such a spell, besides me, is Malten the Twisted, of Esker wood.”

“He can break it?”

“If he so chooses,” said the witch with a snooty tone.

“He’ll have no choice,” said Bo, rising to the sting of the mystic’s words.

“I wish you luck, he is one miserable being,” said the witch turning her back. The flame began to dim.

“Come on,” whispered Riley to Bo but her good upbringing made her bid the witch farewell.

“Thank you for your time, Lady. We are in your debt.”

“True,” said the witch quietly.

Bo and Riley had nearly reached the door when the woman spoke once more.

“Before you go, I'll give you one piece of knowledge that may serve you in the future.” Riley stopped and turned to face the eerie woman now dappled in half-light.

“Sometimes the juiciest berries are found in the thickest thorn patch.” It was a piece of nonsense but Riley bowed as if she had been given a great gift, “I shall remember that always.”

They left the house and the door shut by itself as they passed. They moved away as quickly as they could. It was only when they had reached the lip of the cut-out did they look back.

"How could it be so huge inside," wondered Bo.

"Magic I guess," said Riley as they paused to catch their breath.

"I thought she would be older,” said Bo.

Riley said nothing but she knew in her heart that the woman had not truly shown herself. The vision they'd seen was a mist thrown over their eyes by her magic. Her true self may have lived since the dawn of time. Riley knew they had been lucky, she'd seen a world of misery in the witch’s eyes. She feared they had not seen the last of her.





Esker Wood was a place known to all, even to one as young as Riley. The reputation of the wood is what made it so famous. Legend had it that the woodland was possessed by evil spirits and many who ventured there were never heard of again.

A sadness hung over the traveling pair as they descended the mountain. They'd failed to get the Witch to help, and now they were destined to face the Wizard who had lain their kin low. Riley couldn't help but feel blue. Even though they ventured on. She felt as if she'd already failed. Something of her mood must have shown because Bo finally broached the subject.

“Are you alright, Riley. You seem distant?”

“No, I’m not. How did I believe I could accomplish this task? It’s too much!”

“It’s hard but it's not over. We’ve had a setback but that is all. There is still hope.”

“Us? The hope of our families? That is as good as no hope at all.”

“I won’t listen to such talk, not after all we've done already.”

“Humph,” said Riley, her face falling into a sulk. For the first time since leaving Lough Tully she acted like a child.

“Would a hopeless person face a three day journey across dangerous and unknown lands?” asked Bo. He was clearly annoyed with her.

Riley didn’t respond.

“Would a hopeless person stand firm against an attacking bear and be victorious?” he continued.

Still she wouldn't rise to the questioning but silently acknowledged he had a point. She had surprised herself in the moment with the bear. She felt the courage of her father run in her blood.

“Would a hopeless person climb a mountain to face a witch who is feared the length and breadth of the country?” This time Bo's tone was softer and that got to her.

“I guess not,” she mumbled into her chest.

“Do you take me for the kind of man who would place his life in a hopeless person’s hands?”

This surprised her. First he referred to himself as a man and now that she looked at him he was closer to that mark than a boy. Second was that he looked at her as their leader. She hadn't given their ranking any great thought and had assumed they were simply in this quest together. 

“I hold your life?” she asked, the words were short but the meaning was infinitely long.

“Of course, you are my Chieftain now and I'd follow you to the end of the earth. If you are hopeless, then what’s my existence worth?”

“I’d not thought of that.”

“You had better start. I need you, we all need you,” his voice was earnest and he looked at her with nothing but trust in his eyes.

“Well then, we'll have to succeed this time. Malten will release our people if it’s the last thing we do,” she said, her drive renewed in the face of Bo’s belief.

“I have no doubt at all,” he said smiling.

“There is just one thing,” she said, looking across at him as he rode alongside her.

“What is that?”

“I need you just as much, or more.” She watched the boy go red as pride filled his chest to bursting.

They travelled till dark but were still a long way from Esker wood. The next morning they rose with the sun and only paused twice to allow their mounts graze and take some water. Still they had to camp under the stars but they knew their goal wasn't far away. If truth be known neither of them wished to take on that particular woodland by the light of the moon. Even the mid-day sun might not chase all the shadows from such a place.

When the sun rose again the air seemed even colder than it had been in the mountains of the north. As they rode on, the temperature continued to drop and soon they found themselves at the edge of the wood. It seemed the woods themselves sucked the heat from the day? There were no buildings to be seen in any direction and they passed nobody that might give them directions. When they reached it, the edge of the forest was almost a sheer wall of intertwining branches. Ivy, Brambles and all manner of stinging shrubbery grew in the spaces between the tree trunks. The word impenetrable was made to describe this place.

Riley looked over at Bo and said, “Are you sure you want to follow me into this? I'd not think any less if you.”


He looked annoyed and healed his pony, forcing it into the gloom. The animal worried at its rains but he was well trained. Even if it's eyes were wide with fear it obeyed the person perched on his back. Riley had to admit she was glad Bo went first because she wasn't sure she had the nerve to continue alone. Her horse took some persuading but eventually it followed Bo into the darkness.

The wood were alive with sounds. Frogs crooked, insects buzzed, birds twittered, wolfs barked and crows cawed in the canopy above their heads. So little light reached the forest floor that it was perpetual twilight. Mushrooms and toadstool’s sprouted from every available surface and mist covered everything like a thick blanket. Riley had no idea which way they were going or where the Wizard might call home but it seemed best to keep moving deeper.

They might have been traveling in circles for all she knew, one section of wood looked much like the rest. It wasn't until they heard the thunder of water did she truly know they'd reached a part of the forest they had not visited before. The trees cleared and a bluff appeared above them. They followed the sound of rushing water until the waterfall appeared and on the edge of its plunge pool nestled a tidy timber cottage with a pig sty and livestock pens. It was a picture of happy industry.

"Do you think this is his?" asked Bo.

"It doesn’t look like a wizards home to me. More like a farmer or a woodsman's," said Riley.

"Why do you say that, it's the only place we've seen?"

"Look at all the animals, and the vegetable garden. Why would a wizard have these things?"

"Because even wizards eat,” said a voice from behind them, making them both jump with fright.

"You scared us!" said Riley holding a hand over her heart.

"And you invade my land without being invited," snapped the bent old man. Riley got herself together and dismounted. She looked at the old man and knew in her soul she'd found Malten the Twisted. He was well named.

"We've come seeking a powerful wizard who calls these woods home." said Riley feeling hate in her heart. This was the creature who had hurt the ones she loved beyond life.

"Then you've found him. State your business quickly before I turn you into toads like I've done countless times before."

Riley thought about all the croaking frogs she'd heard on their journey and wondered were each of them an uninvited visitor? She hoped not. She looked at Bo and could see fear. Now was the moment she'd been born to carry. She knew it in her bones. It was time to act like a leader not like a hurt child. She breathed in and exhaled her bitterness. 

"Did you bewitch my family?" she asked. The directness of the question threw the wizard off balance.

"If i did, I had reason. Who are you girl?" he stammered.

"I'm Riley, daughter of Eoin the Red," she said, pride filling her words.

"Then I did and I've no shame of the fact. He insulted me and such a thing I will not abide." snapped the old man sending his nose toward the sky.

"What terrible thing did he do which justifies such vengeance," demanded Riley.

"He invited all the great people to his feast, but snubbed me. Me! The greatest of them all."

"That sounds nothing like my father. If he had a problem with you he would stand before you himself. My father is the bravest of men." said Riley, standing toe to toe with the wizard and feeling every ounce his equal.

"Whatever you say wont take back his slight.”

"But you could take back what you did. There'll be no answers unless my father speaks, and there  is no possibility of that while he sleeps."

"I care not. Be gone before I lose my patience." said the magician dismissing the children with a wave of his arm.

"We're going nowhere until you break your spell and release my family," she said folding her arms in defiance.

"You'll have a long wait, little one,” he said and shuffled past them toward his house and slammed the door behind him.

“What are we going to do now?” asked Bo. Riley looked at the old man's closed door and knew that no matter how much she wanted to force the old codger to release her people she had no power over him. The witch had been right, if the wizard was going to do it, he had to want to do it.




“We keep trying. Let’s find a place to make camp and see what we can think of.” said Riley trying to keep the weariness she felt from her words. During the night a saying her Mother had used many times came to her in a dream. You trap more wasps with honey then vinegar. When she woke she knew what she had to do.

The next day she stood outside the wizard’s house and knocked on the door. He opened it and glared out at her.

“What do you want?” he barked.

“We gathered mushrooms for breakfast, we have far too many. We thought you might like some.”

“Do you think a few mushrooms will change my mind?”

“I hope your heart will see the truth, but the mushrooms are a gift.” She laid the bundle of fresh picked fungus on his doorstep and walked away. She heard the door slam and turned around. She smiled when she saw the mushrooms had gone. Everyday Riley brought the wizard some new gift foraged from the woodland.  Everyday he slammed the door in her face but the gifts would still be taken. After two weeks she was beginning to lose hope he'd ever lift the spell but she knew she must persevere.


One day she and Bo found themselves close to the edge of the forest where they were gathering blackberries and other fruits of the forest. She reached among the thorny branches to retrieve a particularly juicy looking fruit and a vicious thorn opened her skin as cleanly as a knife.

“Oh you wicked thing,” she said as she sucked on the cut to dull the pain. That was when she remembered what the witch of the mountain had said. Sometimes the juiciest berries are found in the thickest thorn patch. She looked back toward the berry and was thinking of trying for it again when she noticed something white in the depths of the bush. Riley felt her heart race in her chest. Was the witch’s gibberish something important after all? Riley reached into the bush, the thorns tearing her skin but she didn't care. She was nearly up to her shoulder when her fingers closed on a piece of parchment. She unrolled the scroll and was amazed to see it carried her family seal. It was Malten’s invitation to her birthday feast. 

“Bo! Come quickly,” she cried as she jumped up and down with excitement.

“What’s happened?” asked Bo as he rushed through the undergrowth.

“Look!” and she handed over the invitation. “He'd not been forgotten and this is the proof. He'll have to listen to us now.”

Riley snatched the parchment from Bo’s hand and raced away toward the wizard’s house. She found him trying to net a trout from the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.

“Look at what we found,” she said, thrusting the paper into his wrinkled hands. He squinted as he deciphered the words on the paper.

“It's a trick,” he said and threw the paper to the ground. Riley rushed after it before it could blow into the water.

“It’s not a trick, I swear. I found it in a bush at the edge of the forest. Look, see where the thorns have ripped it, and the way the damp has made the writing run. It’s not a trick. You were invited but something must have happened to the messenger.”

She could see the wizard face change as he processed in this new information. He took the scroll back from her and slowly walked back to his home. This time the door closed softly rather than slamming. Riley was heartbroken, Even though the wizard held proof in his hands he was not going to remove his curse. What more could she do to convince the man. She felt hot tears running down her cheeks and huge sobs racked her body. Bo put his arm around her shoulder and tried to comfort her.

When the wizard spoke from behind her his words were softer than she'd heard come from his lips before. She looked and he was wearing a long cloak and held a tall walking staff in his hand.

“The road will not get any shorter if we linger. Are you ready to go?”

“Go?”

“To wake you friends. I think they've slept enough, don’t you.”

Riley jumped for joy and rushed away to gather her belongings. An hour later they were on the road for home and the wizard seemed to have no problem keeping pace with them. Bo offered to give the wizard his horse but the man refused.





It took them a day and a half to reach Lough Tully and Ruairi was waiting for them when they arrived. Riley rushed into his arms.

“It’s so good to see you my princess, I have been worried.”

“Have they woken?”

“Not as much as a stir. I've made them as comfortable as possible and stood guard over them but trouble is coming soon, I'm sure. Word is traveling and we are in great danger.”

At this the wizard moved forward and said, “Bring me to them.”

“Who is this?” whispered Ruairi.

“He's come to help,” she said with a smile.

When they reached the great hall, she saw that Ruairi had fashioned beds of straw for all who slept and laid them in straight lines. Riley rushed to her mother and Malten followed. He knelt beside her and from the folds of his cloak he withdrew a stoppered bottle. He let a single drop of liquid drip onto her mother's lips and then recited a charm in an ancient elfish language. The wizard then did the same for her father. Nothing happened.

“Why aren’t they waking?” Riley cried.

“It may take time. Magic is not an exact thing and this was a strong spell. I cast it in anger and for that I am sorry.” The old wizard shuffled on and repeated the procedure. Bo lit a fire and got some food. They all sat around and waited. By the time darkness fell none of the sleeping people had stirred. It had been such a long day, Riley didn't even notice when her eyes began to close and sleep took her.

Her dreams were interrupted by someone shaking her. She opened her eyes and found her mother standing over her.

“Why are you sleeping here, Riley. You should be in your bed,” said her mother softly.

“You’re awake,” she cried, jumping up to throw her arms around her mother's neck. As they hugged Riley saw lots of people rising from their cots, stretching the aches from their bodies. Most of them looked a bit bemused as to how they ended up in such a predicament. That was when Riley saw her father sit up and rub his head.

“Father!” she cried and few into his arms.

“Oh my head,” he said trying to shake the pain out of it. He looked at her and smiled. “When you turn ten, I think we'll have less of a party, or at least one where ale is banned.”


Riley cried with joy as all her family were safe once more. From near the door, Bo, Ruairi and Malten looked on with joy in their hearts. The little Queen had won her first great battle.




The End