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Excerpt for Bards and Sages Quarterly (October 2018) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Bards and Sages Quarterly

Celebrating Our Tenth Year in Publication


October 2018


Volume 10, Issue 4


Editor-in-Chief

Julie Ann Dawson


Editorial Assistants

Julie Hedge

Lance Schonberg

Samantha Payne

Brian Koukol


Internal Art

Bird of Magic Branch by Denny Marshall




©2018 Bards and Sages Publishing

www.bardsandsages.com

Print ISSN 1944-4699



Stories are © their original authors and republished here with permission

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The Floor Is Lava

By Doug Lane



Camilla awoke to discover the floor was lava.

Or looked like lava. There was no heat or smell, only a molten shimmer of red and gold in a lazy river rolling across the room. The furniture stood on the glowing surface like Superman, unaffected. It should have been in flames. She should have been.

It had none of the hallmarks of a dream. Light, sound, the ambient smell of the apartment--all rang true. Real. She felt awake.

She watched the floor. It still resembled lava.

She grabbed a tissue from the box on the nightstand, crumpled it, tossed it in the middle of the room. It burst into flame and was gone. She chased it with the pink plastic hairbrush from the nightstand drawer. It took a little longer, but it also smoked and hissed as it dissolved with a burst of warmth and an essence of sulfur.

Camilla decided she wasn't testing it further by dipping a toe.

Her heart thudded harder as she considered Abigail, sent to bed without supper. While Camilla was double-shifting at the store, Abi snuck to Monica Dolan's house all the way over on Hanover Street, instead of the library on the next block she'd said she was visiting.

“What were you doing over there?”

“Nothing.”

“Must have been something for you to lie to me and then go all the way there.”

“We were talking.”

“Your cell phone minutes run out?”

“We were talking about how parents are always acting high and mighty.”

If the lie got her grounded, the backtalk earned her bed without supper. “Try sassing me with a hungry mouth.”

It hadn't been easy since Abi's father put on his coward clothes and slinked off to God knew where. Abi adored the man. She was growing more lukewarm on Camilla, blamed her for Larry's departure. Camilla was doing her best, but the reality was long hours and a need to balance Abi's self-sufficiency with rules and trust. How else could Camilla protect her while keeping a roof over their heads?

Camilla wondered how long the floor had been molten. What if Abi got up in the middle of the night to raid the kitchen? Or to pee? She might already be one with the red-golden flow, a pop of heat and--

Camilla forced herself to focus. “Abi, honey? Stay in your bed. Don't get out of it, even for a second. The floor--” the words caught, sounded more absurd aloud than in her head. “The floor is lava. Abi, can you hear me?”

The hiss from the floor was the only answer.

She needed to get out of the bedroom, down the hall. The window was no good for either. It opened onto a ledge in the old building's air shaft: five stories of space, straight down. That left navigating through the apartment from her bed without touching the floor. But the building hallway floor might be the same. Or the elevator. There was no way to navigate the length of the hall or the stairs beyond. She needed the fire escape. Open steel bars and grated steps. No floor.

She tried to remember the game. It had been years, but she recalled rainy days scrabbling over furniture and tabletops at her grandmother's house--her, Maya and Cindy, her brother Marvin, his friends Jerry and Stitch. She could see the room, could almost feel the scratchy fabric of the plaid couch, the cool tile in the bay window that was 'Home' and the way Grandpa Jack's recliner opened if you hit it wrong, tossing you to the floor if you weren't ready.

What were the rules? Furniture surfaces, window sills, anything that kept you off the floor afforded safe passage around the room. You couldn't move furniture. That made it out of bounds. She had a vague recollection about pillows or cushions; when they played in Jimmy's house on Lexington Street with its broad, sunken living room, didn't they throw such items on the floor to use as stepping stones?

The notion flared and died as quickly as the feather pillow with which Camilla tested it.

She scanned the room, figured the safest route to the door: bed to highboy dresser to mirrored lowboy to chair. Simplicity ended at the doorway. The door swung inward. Camilla could open it, but there was no way around the corner to the bookcase in the hallway. Even then, it was too far with no landing pad to Abi's doorway, more empty space beyond to the living room. If Camilla reached the living room, ample furniture led to the fire escape. Only if.

She heard a scream. Not Abi. Outside, echoing through the air shaft. Then another. Then silence.

She needed to leave the bedroom. She stared at the doorway. The walls. The cracks where bad prior patch jobs were showing new defects, the building shifting from age and time and--


She studied the tools available to her. She settled on the lamp. The base was metal, weighted. Weren't the walls just cross-connections of studs and crossbeams? Ladders hiding behind the sheetrock?

Worth a try, she thought. She was never getting her security deposit back. The damned floor was lava.


* * *


She was surprised at how easy the game became when you had no qualms about busting holes in the walls. Sheetrock cracked, and hardware popped. The mess cleaned itself up, broken and dusty fragments of wall vanishing into the glowing floor with a white-noise hiss. The hardest part proved to be the weight of the lamp, repetitive swings wearing on one arm while Camilla gripped for dear life with the other. Twice, the lamp slipped, only the cord wrapped around her wrist saving it from the floor.

Once she got the hang of it, developed a rhythm and a feel for the underlying wall structure, it was like cutting an aisle through high grass.

When she reached Abi's room, Camilla didn't fool with getting through the doorway. She kicked at the exposed back of the sheetrock wall of Abi's room, knocked it out from behind. Screw heads hung onto paper and gypsum like souvenirs as the board fell, flared, and was gone.

Bed, desk, beanbag chair like a purple island. Abi was nowhere to be seen.

Fear crept close again, terror Abi had swung her feet to the floor, stood and was reduced to cinders. Camilla scanned the room for a sign, something to suggest an alternate fate. Nothing suggested a pleasant answer.

Camilla heard another scream.

No. This was something else. Different. Other voices joined in. The sounds of children outside.

She glanced down the hall at the living room window. It was raised to the fire escape, the playground noise rolling in from beyond. Camilla didn't recall leaving a window open, especially where someone could simply climb inside. Had Abi figured a way out and escaped?

She crossed Abi's room and broke through the common wall with the living room for her final push. She stepped through the hole she made and onto the table against the wall, crossed the short gap to the sofa, climbed over a furniture bridge until she was perched on the side table in front of the open window.

She climbed into the fresh morning air, giddy. The steel was cold on the soles of her feet. She glanced five stories down at the children. They filled the playground, the sidewalks, running and shouting, some of the parents with them.

Except Camilla realized as she watched the parents weren't with the children. Instead, the adults seemed bent on escaping them. Camilla called to Mr. Higgins, one the building's single dads, but he was focused on avoiding the grip of the kids at his heels. A girl in front of him dove across his path and tagged him on the shoulder.

Mister Higgins' skin turned an icy white and he jerked to a stop. As quickly as he stilled, another child came from a different direction and swung an aluminum baseball bat at the man's midsection. Mister Higgins broke in half, collapsed into a pile of crushed, rusty ice.

Camilla noticed similar piles melting in the sun. She opened her mouth to scream but found none. She scanned for a way down.

A shout from across the courtyard interrupted her. “No! No, Jesus, please no!”

Two boys were closing in on Miss Janey, a woman who lived in the other tower, one floor lower. She'd found similar refuge on her own fire escape. But now she was trapped, one boy coming from above, the other from below. She kicked a slippered foot at the boy ascending, a fourteen-year-old Camilla knew on sight if not by name. She struck two glancing blows before the boy from above leaped upon her. She struggled, outmatched by them, and Camilla was powerless as they shoved the woman back through her window. She vanished with a flash on her own lava floor.

Camilla stared. Shouted. “What are you doing!?”

The boys turned wild eyes on her, glanced at the ground. She did as well. The fire escape ended on the first-floor patio, which was also now lava. There was no direct route from them to her. They seemed frustrated by this, paced like they'd been caged, staring at her with a weird hunger, grinning.

If the other children heard Camilla's shout, they paid no heed, continuing to chase adults, flocking to the tree in the center of the courtyard playground. Kids swung from the branches of the beautiful climber, worked their way deep inside its summer foliage.

Camilla cupped her hands, screamed towards the playground. “Abi! Where are you?”

A dozen children turned, none of them Abi.

“Abigail Tommette Carter, if you're out here, you show your face this instant!”

For a moment, the playground in the center of the courtyard was graveyard still. A small girl lowered herself from one of the branches of the climbing tree to another, then swung to the ground. Abi glanced up at the landing. Relief washed Camilla like a wave, tempered by the girl's expression. She seemed embarrassed. “You made it. Great.”

“You watch your tone, young lady.”

“Or what?” Even more sass than the night before. “What are you gonna do from up there? Even if you got down here, there's fifty of us. One, maybe two of you left.”

“What is this? What are you kids doing?”

“We're doing things our way, Mrs. Carter.” Monica Dolan called from the other side of the tree. “We all decided. Last night.”

“Decided? What does that mean?”

“No more homework, or curfews, or being grounded for nonsense reasons!” Abi shouted. “No more making me go hungry because you get your fat ass bent out of joint!”

“We've rewritten the world by our rules.” Monica was a calm that Camilla didn't like. Confident. Even smug. “Words and faith are powerful magic. A few of us figured out what to say. Old rhymes made new. The rest of us came up with the games.”

The floor as lava. Literal freeze tag. Camilla could only wonder what else they'd concocted. She found she didn't care. Instinct guided her hand to her pocket, but the cell phone was back on her nightstand, lost behind the cloud of worry for her daughter, forgotten on her trek from the apartment.

“I don't give a wet towel about any of all y'all,” she shouted down. “But I'm going to have words with my daughter.”

Abi gave Monica an uncertain glance. Camilla saw an opportunity. Her daughter was angry, yes, but maybe not fully onboard with wholesale slaughter. Maybe Abi could still be reasoned with. Won back.

Monica and Abi exchanged whispers. Both seemed satisfied when they parted. “You're welcome to come down and talk to her,” Monica called up. “None of us will interfere.”

Camilla watched the two boys across the way studying her, waiting to see what she might do. She scanned for routes down. There was a long, narrow ledge along the third-floor windows, outside the building's rec room, accessible from the fire escape. The patio at ground level also sported a lava floor, but Camilla could get to the drainpipe at the end of the building, work its brackets like a ladder to the grass. She noted the shovel propped against the wall near the spot she'd land. Firm ground and a weapon. Mama Carter hadn't raised a fool.

“All right. You stay right there.”

She descended to the third floor, crossed the fire escape, and climbed over the rail onto the narrow ledge.

As she shuffled with care, her back to the building, she watched the other children form a semi-circle behind Abi. They followed her as she walked, Monica leading them. Camilla wondered if Monica's bell was the right one to ring to end whatever was happening. That's the game you played with snakes, wasn't it? Chop off the head?

Abi followed her mother with her eyes as she approached the building. She crossed from the grass to the sidewalk. Camilla was half-way between the fire escape and pipe, the patio a lava pool below her when Abi lifted her foot over the crack.

She offered her mother a devilish grin and stepped.


The Dutchman’s Farm

By Harold R. Thompson



Lieutenant Colin MacIntyre met Lieutenant Poole on the parade ground just outside the door to the Orderly Room. The two subalterns had dressed alike in drill order, tartan trews, scarlet jackets, and Glengarry bonnets, but Poole was studying Colin’s attire with open disdain, his trim mustache twitching.

Where’s your sword?” he said.

Colin blanched. “I… didn’t think I’d need it.”

Always wear your sword on duty,” Poole said, shaking his head. “How long have you been with the regiment?”

Eight months, sir!”

Poole tugged his chin. “Long enough. Well, it can’t be helped. We’re late as it is.”

He made a sharp turn and went through the Orderly Room door. Colin hesitated, plucking at his wool trews. Sweat tickled as it ran down his legs under the cloth. Canada, his mother back in Edinburgh had assured him, would be cold, so be sure to dress warmly at all times. He had not expected it to be so hot, not even in summer. Nor had he expected, during his time here, to make so many mistakes.

With a sigh, he followed Poole inside.

The Orderly Room of the Citadel, the largest and chief fortification in the old garrison town of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was at least cool, a relief from the powerful sun. Like so many of the casemated rooms in the fort, its white-washed brick walls and arched ceiling were covered in a layer of damp, which was not so pleasant in winter.

Captain Mackenzie sat at the orderly officer’s desk under the massive cases that held the company and battalion order books.

Ah,” the captain said, looking up and setting his pen in its wooden stand. “There you are, Lieutenant Poole. Special orders from the colonel.”

The captain passed a sheet of paper, the ink still fresh, across the desk. Poole took it and read it with narrowed eyes. Colin stood at his side, at attention.

I’m to take a detachment of troops to the Dutch Village?” Poole said. “To… I’m sorry, sir, but can you clarify?”

Mackenzie turned sideways in his chair, folded his legs and drummed his fingers on the desktop.

The situation is not entirely certain,” he said. “Do you know the Dutch Village?”

Yes, sir. Farm country, just west of the city. Settled by Lutherans, I believe, in the last century.”

Germans, what the people here refer to as ‘Dutch.’ They have made a complaint to the provincial authorities, who have called upon the garrison to do something. A rather cryptic report of horses galloping in the night, of people, run down. Several people have been killed, an entire family, including two children, under mysterious circumstances. The people there speak some German dialect, so I suspect something has been lost in the translation.”

I’ll see what the trouble is,” Poole said, nodding. “However, I don’t need MacIntyre here tagging along. He’ll be more of a nuisance than a help.”

Colin’s heart sank. He darted a glance at the captain, who met his eye before again looking at Poole.

I’d like him to go with you,” Mackenzie said. “He’s the youngest lieutenant in the regiment and the experience will do him good.”

Right,” Poole said, his tone not entirely subordinate, but he had a reputation for being difficult. Not that Colin cared at the moment. He was going.


* * *


Outside on the dusty parade ground, Poole paused to pull a cigar case from his jacket’s inner pocket. Taking out a cheroot, he lit it with a Lucifer match he struck against the stone wall.

Don’t harbor any hopes of encountering anything remotely interesting on this little jaunt,” he said. “The empire is at peace, the great wars over. And to think that I am the youngest son of a man who fought at Waterloo!”

Colin knew his history, and asked, “Was he in the squares when the French cavalry attacked, sir?”

Of course! Attacked again and again and failed. And here I stand on a square of a different sort, with not an enemy horseman in sight.”

He sounded bitter, and Colin knew that Poole had a reputation for bitterness. But Colin shared the older lieutenant’s disappointment to some degree. He had yearned for the soldier’s life since boyhood, had learned everything he knew from books. His father, an Edinburgh shopkeeper who had prospered, had secured for him a commission in one of the famed old kilted regiments, secured by purchase at great expense. It had been a great gift. Colin wished to make the most of it.

Well, since you’re coming,” Poole added, “you can make yourself useful. Assemble twenty-five available men. Take Sergeant Oldfield. Full marching order, one hour, outside the guard room.”

Colin gazed at the searing blue sky. “Might I suggest full drill order instead, sir? Jackets and Glengarries, because of the heat?”

Poole looked annoyed. “Full drill order? We will need to march through the entire town, in public! Full marching order. Full knapsacks. Full canteens, and one day’s rations. Oh, and have each man draw ten rounds of ball ammunition.”

Should we not take full pouches, sir?” Colin said. Ten rounds did not seem enough.

Poole threw down his cheroot half smoked.

That’s two suggestions in as many minutes! Do as I say, damn it.” He held up his right index finger. “One hour, lieutenant!”

Turning on his heel, he strode away toward the junior officer’s quarters.


* * *


A good officer,” Colin had read in one of his books of military advice, “utilizes the talents of his non-commissioned officers.” Thus, in the course of carrying out his orders from Lieutenant Poole, Colin simply relayed them to Sergeant Oldfield.

At the appointed time, the detachment was ready, formed in two ranks at close order in front of the guard room. Every man was garbed in formal attire, ostrich feather bonnets, red Highland doublets, whitened crossbelts, tartan kilts, horsehair and brass sporrans, Argyle hose and whitened spats.

Detachment assembled and ready, sir,” Colin said, grinning as he saluted. “Full knapsacks, rations, ammunition.”

Poole returned the salute with a lazy flick of his right hand. “Good. Off we go, then. Ser’nt Oldfield?”

A moment later, the squad was moving, wheeling into the arched tunnel that pierced the fort’s massive walls and tramping across the short timber drawbridge. From there they followed one of the many footpaths that circled Citadel Hill, heading north, toward the Windsor Road and the Dutch Village.

The two officers marched alongside the men. They did not speak. Colin felt the heat like an invisible hand, pressing on him. He too wore his formal attire, scarlet doublet, silk sash, whitened sword belt, the great Highland broadsword in its metal scabbard slapping at his bare left knee. He was proud of his Scottish heritage and loved his regimentals, but sometimes they were impractical. In India, he had been told, the men had gone about in cotton shirts and covered sun helmets, though he supposed that would not do for Canada.

The Windsor Road wound through the western section of the city, between residential streets of wooden houses, many very fine, all shaded by large trees, maples, and oaks. But after about four miles, the houses began to thin, the surrounding yards becoming larger, and now there were open meadows and woodlots of dark black spruce.

The Dutch Village soon came into sight, a small township of shingled houses, barns and split rail fences.

Poole called a halt and allowed the men to break ranks and seek the shade of a pair of spreading elms.

Awfully quiet, isn’t it?” Colin remarked. He looked at the nearest houses. Despite the heat, every door and window was shut tight. There were no people about in the fields and gardens, the only human figure present a scarecrow, the only thing moving a few sparrows flitting in the trees overhead.

Poole wrinkled his nose. “Yes. Something is odd, I’ll grant you that.”

There are some tracks here, sir,” Sergeant Oldfield said. “Look.”

Colin knelt to examine the ground. The tracks were clear, circular and about eight inches in diameter, like large hoof prints, larger than that of a heavy horse, but cloven in the middle.

Moose?” he said. He was familiar with various Scottish deer species, though not so much the American. “Caribou?”

For a moment no one spoke. Colin stared at the massive hoof print, trying to imagine the size of the animal that could have made it. It would have had to be close to the size of a large bull.

Well, whatever they are,” Poole added, “if they’re the cause of this alarm, we should be able to find them. Ser’nt Oldfield, form a skirmish line, six pace intervals, either side of this road. We’ll sweep west.”

Oldfield saluted and brought the detachment to attention, then wheeled them into line before placing them in extended order.

Poole told Colin to place himself on the left flank. “Stay close to Ser’nt Oldfield and do not stray. Keep the line straight. I’ll be on the right.”

Load rifles, sir?” Oldfield asked.

No. Not yet. Let’s get moving, Ser’nt.”

Colin skirted the edge of a rail fence and entered the fields on the left. The men waited with rifles at the trail, but soon Oldfield got them advancing. Colin walked a few paces ahead of their line, drawing his sword and sloping it on his shoulder. He did not think he would use it, but it felt good to have it in his hand.

Ahead was another road, perpendicular to the first, then a meadow and a belt of trees, almost a hedgerow, although scrubby and nothing like the ancient hedgerows in Scotland or England. The sun was getting higher and hotter, the air still, the only sound that of the men’s feet swishing through the grass.

He made for the hedgerow, taking long strides, and when he reached it, he stopped. Something stirred ahead with the sound of snapping branches.

Lieutenant MacIntyre!” Poole called from what sounded like a great distance. Colin turned and was startled to see how far ahead he had come.

Bloody hell,” Poole said as he approached, his face red. “I told you to stay with Oldfield, to keep with the line!”

Colin gaped at the senior lieutenant. Dismay mixed with anger at both himself for making another mistake, and at the senior lieutenant for berating him in front of the men.

I didn’t realize,” he began, but Oldfield interrupted, saying, “There’s something in there, sir!”

There was another rustle in the hedgerow, more snapping branches. The skirmish line had halted, and the nearest pair of men, Private Hamilton and Lance-Corporal Campbell, dropped to their knees, as they had been trained. Each pulled a round from his pouch, a .577 Minié ball fixed to a rolled brass cartridge, and slid it into the Snider breach of his rifle.

Let’s get in there and see,” Poole said.

As he spoke, a large animal burst from the hedgerow, spraying spruce needles and bits of bark. Poole shouted in surprise, and Colin jumped back, bringing up his sword. The animal resembled a massive ostrich, thick through the body, its legs and taloned feet that of some monstrous lizard, its feathers dark brown, its neck long and thin and ending at a wedge-shaped head and a beak like two clacking swords.

Hamilton and Campbell fired, smoke billowing, but their shots went wide. The monster dove for them and its sharp beak tore into Hamilton’s arm. He bellowed in pain as the creature reared up to strike again.

Colin leaped forward, swinging his sword. The wide blade bit into the monster’s neck and cut clean through, and the awful head fell in the grass. Blood spurting from the neck, the thing took two steps and dropped.

Sergeant Oldfield went to the wounded man, but Colin and Poole gathered around the strange beast.

I think it’s a bloody great chicken!” Poole said. “Look at its head. It has a comb. It’s some kind of enormous hen.”

Chicken in the officer’s mess tonight?” Colin tried.

Poole glared at him. “I don’t find that the least bit funny, MacIntyre.”


* * *


Private Hamilton insisted that his wound was not severe and that he could carry on. The others seemed more amused by the incident than awed by it. A giant chicken rampaging through a German settlement was simply too ridiculous. It made the men laugh.

Colin appreciated their lack of fear, for it helped him mask his own. His knees were shaking. To his knowledge, there were no such animals in America, no native species of bird this large. Though he supposed he would have to revise that belief, for he had seen such an animal, had killed it in fact.

More tracks,” Oldfield said as the skirmish line, compressed to four-pace intervals now, moved forward, having forced its way through the hedgerow. Beyond was a low-lying patch of mud, then a meadow. There were more tracks, leading through the grass, uphill to a wide field of green wheat.

Milling about near the far edge of the field were five more of the enormous chickens.

Poole held up his arm, and the line halted, the men dropping to their knees. They had loaded their rifles and were ready.

Colin stood behind the left of the skirmish line, staring at the creatures, his heart pounding. They were about fifty yards distant.

One round independent,” Poole shouted, “commence firing!”

The chicken things heard his voice, and all five looked up, glaring across the field toward the Highlanders, but by then the first shots were booming, the Minié balls striking home. Feathers and blood sprayed, and within a minute every creature lay dead.


* * *


On the other side of the wheat field, beyond the dead chickens, stretched a rail fence bordering a sunken lane. Beyond the lane was a farm with two barns, one larger than the other, several smaller buildings, and a house. The house was the largest Colin had yet seen in the Dutch Village region, with two stories and a wide veranda. It was painted white, the intricate scrolling around its upper gables a Prussian blue.

Oldfield knelt in the sunken lane.

More chicken scratches, sir,” he said, “and look at these.”

Poole followed the sergeant’s outstretched finger. “More moose tracks.”

The “moose” tracks were almost two inches deep and led off the road, through the farmyard, and toward the large barn.

Colin stared at the barn. His palms were sweating.

Ser’nt, reform the men in close order,” Poole said. “I’m going to the house to get to the bottom of this.”

He crossed the yard, mounted the veranda steps and pounded on the door with a fist. Colin trailed behind him.

Open up, whoever is inside!” Poole bellowed.

When there was again no response, the lieutenant turned to Oldfield.

Ser’nt, break down this door!”

Oldfield beckoned two stout men forward, Corporal M’donald and Private Harrison. They took turns striking the wrought iron door latch with their rifle butts, and within a minute it had shattered.

The door swung inward, and Colin recoiled, covering his nose and mouth with one hand. A terrible stench of rotting meat billowed out. Private Harrison retched.

What is that bloody stink?” Poole said, taking a careful step into the house.

Colin and Oldfield followed. They were in an entrance hall, well furnished with heavy wooden furniture, the walls papered. To the left was the foot of a staircase and the doorway to a parlor. At the far end of the hall was an oak-paneled door, standing ajar.

Who is das?” a voice called from beyond the door.

The Highlanders crept forward. Behind the door was a kitchen. Sitting on a stool at a large pine table was a fair-haired man dressed in a dark frock coat in a style no longer fashionable. On the table was a bundle covered in a gray wool blanket. Hanging from under one side of the blanket was a fat human hand, the skin like old wax.

Are you the owner of this farm?” Poole asked, not bothering to introduce himself.

The man nodded. “Yes, I am Karl Heinz. This is my farm. You are from the army?”

Colin noticed that the man’s eyes were red as if he had been weeping.

Who is this on the table?” he asked.

Heinz’s face was bleak as he looked at the blanket. “My wife, Gerthe. She was attacked by our own livestock, killed in the beet field…”

He closed his eyes and his narrow shoulders were convulsed by silent sobs.

Look, man,” Poole said, “it’s a shame about your wife, but you must tell us: are those bloody chickens yours?”

Heinz sniffled and wiped his nose.

Yes, the chickens,” he said. “My special chickens. They escaped as well, did they?”

Poole leaned in close to the distraught Dutchman. “See here. Your chickens wounded one of my men, and apparently have killed people hereabouts. I’m afraid we’ve had to shoot them. Now, if it’s not too much trouble, explain to us what it is you’ve been doing to produce such abominations.”

Heinz held up his hands. “Abominations? Nein, nein, they are wonderful, beautiful! You know the theories of Mister Darwin, of your Englishman, Mister Darwin?”

Poole rolled his eyes. “Yes, that damned fellow. What of him?”

That animals have many traits,” Heinz went on, and Colin saw something in his eyes, just a glint of madness, like a spectral light, “and some of these are more advantageous than others, so they are passed on to the offspring. Well, I realized that this is true, this is so, for man does this himself! We have created domestic animals, have we not? Dogs and cattle and horses, by breeding those with traits we favor. And so, I think, how far may we go with this? I am a farmer. Might I not create larger animals that yield more meat, more intelligent animals that need less care? The answer is yes!”

So you bred massive bloody chickens that then ran amuck?”

They have become harder to control,” Heinz said, rocking on his stool like a nervous child. “They no longer heed my commands. I believe I may have bred them too intelligent, much too intelligent. They do not wish to be eaten!”

Poole looked at Colin, then back to the mad Dutchman.

Colin pulled out his watch. Just after noon.

A rifle shot sounded outside, sudden and sharp. A second later, the remaining Highlanders came in through the door, the last slamming it shut and shooting the bolt.

What’s this?” Colin asked, alarmed.

Go to the windows, sir,” Oldfield said. “Lieutenant Poole, go to the windows on the south side of the house.”

The two officers went into the parlor and Poole drew back the curtains on its single south-facing window. Heinz shuffled in behind them.

You have seen my pigs,” the farmer said. “You should not anger them with your shooting!”

What?” said Colin, peering through the glass.

Three monsters had come into the yard. They were pigs of a sort, though they stood as high as large horses and had tusks about two feet long. The hair along the ridges of their backs looked like black spines. Three more were trailing behind them, coming from around the corner of the large barn and jogging toward the house. One had already gained the veranda, the massive hooves sounding like hammer blows on the wooden planks. Colin heard it snorting, and then its gray flank filled the window in front of him.

Don’t anger them further!” Heinz said, backing away.

Steady, lads,” Poole said to the soldiers in the room.

More hooves thundered on the veranda, and the side of the house shuddered as if from a great blow. Glass and China rattled.

Colin slid his sword from its scabbard, chancing a look to his left, to the double windows at the front of the house. A pig was looking in the window, looking right at him. Its mouth opened, and a horrible squeal, like the sound of a train braking, emerged, just before the creature rushed the window. Glass and bits of wood blew inward, the pig’s jaws snapping. A rifle barked, and Colin saw the ball ricochet from the pig’s head and strike the ceiling.

Aim for the heart,” Oldfield shouted, “behind the foreleg!”

More rifles fired, and the pig jerked backward, screaming and falling, but two more windows burst in, and Colin saw massive jaws clamp shut on Private MacGregor’s arm, snapping it clean. The Highlander fell, blood spurting. Men were firing rapidly, sending round after round through the windows, but as one pig fell back, another took its place.

Conserve your ammunition, damn it!” Poole thundered.

The front door burst in, and a pig filled the doorway.

Out,” Colin said, grabbing at Oldfield’s sleeve. “Back to the kitchen!”

The pig in the doorway was stuck in the frame, squealing in rage. Colin ducked and ran past, throwing himself against the far wall. He pointed with his sword as the Highlanders filed past, pushing and cursing. Poole was the last out, dragging Heinz by the sleeve. As the two men emerged from the parlor, the pig in the doorway, at last, broke free in a spray of torn splinters, sweeping its tusks right to left. Heinz dropped to the carpet, his innards spilling from a great gash in his lower belly. Poole parried another sweep of the tusks with his sword, but then the pig snapped its jaws shut on the officer’s head, taking in bonnet and all. Poole’s body fell, blood spurting from the stump of his neck.

With a cry, Colin ran for the kitchen. Oldfield and Corporal Maclean were facing him, kneeling and aiming their Sniders.

Duck, sir!” Oldfield shouted, and then he and Maclean fired at the same time. Colin heard the pig behind him squeal, heard its body crash to the plank floor.

Poole is dead,” Colin gasped as he squeezed past the sergeant, pulling the kitchen door shut.

The entire squad seemed to have assembled in the kitchen. Several men had dumped the body of the farmer’s wife to the floor and were shoving the heavy table up against the windows, where pigs were squealing and jostling each other to get through the openings where the glass had been shattered.

Kill them,” Colin said, wishing he had a revolver. He dashed for the window on the right, thrusting his sword point at a pig’s eye. The blade bit deep and struck bone, and Colin managed to hold onto it as the monster jerked back in pain and rage.

On our flank,” a man cried. The kitchen door buckled and blew inward, more pigs having entered the front hall. Another man screamed as a tusk tore into his belly. Colin looked about in desperation, saw the back door to the kitchen hanging open. He ran to it and saw a stretch of open yard and a woodlot.

Out through here!” he shouted. “Get out and make for the trees.”

A few men fought a sort of rearguard, rifles blasting in the confined space, the powder smoke filling the air, as the rest ran for safety. Colin waited until the last living man had made it, then ran after them. His final glimpse of the pigs was of two of them, just outside the entrance to the kitchen, squabbling over the body of one of the Highlanders, which they had torn to bloody shreds.


* * *


Colin lay in a small gully at the edge of the trees. He could see the house, see the pigs milling about, fighting over their spoils. Oldfield was next to him, and the rest of the troops were in a rough line on either side. Sixteen out of twenty-four men.

This is a right bollocks, sir,” Sergeant Oldfield said.

Colin pushed back his bonnet, which he had somehow managed to retain, and wiped the sweat from his brow with a shaking hand.

Orders, sir?” Oldfield added.

Colin looked at the man but was too stunned and horrified to reply. Of course, Poole was dead, and Colin was now in command, his first command. He wondered if he should order a withdrawal. Their losses had been significant, and he should not risk anymore, but what would happen to him if he failed to do his duty? Eliminating the monstrosities Farmer Heinz had created was, in fact, what he and Poole had been sent here to do.

He studied the faces of the men but saw nothing but determination. These were soldiers. Highlanders. The uncanny was just another enemy.

How are we for ammunition?” he said. “I can’t imagine we have much left, given we only drew ten rounds a man.”

Oldfield looked a little sheepish. “About that, sir. Corporal Maclean and I may have accidentally drawn enough for full pouches, sir.”

Colin stifled a near hysterical laugh. Well, that was something.

That gives us close to a hundred extra rounds. Redistribute what you have so every man has at least six rounds.”

They would have to make them count.

He thought of Poole. What would he do? He had been an angry and arrogant man, but he had been a competent officer, the son of a Waterloo veteran.

Waterloo.

Sergeant Oldfield, remember the charge of the French cavalry at Waterloo?”

Oldfield nodded. “Aye, you know I’m keen on history, sir.”

Then do you think these pigs are like horses?”

Oldfield nodded. “No doubt similar. Aye, sir. And I think I know what you’re thinking. That I do.”


* * *


Colin told the men to fix their bayonets. The Highlanders then left the woods and advanced in a single rank. The farmhouse and pigs were about seventy yards distant. Colin called a halt, and according to plan, Oldfield loaded his sergeant’s carbine and fired one shot into the nearest pig.

The pig reared up, squealing in pain, but still alive. It started running toward this new threat.

As Colin had predicted, the rest of the pigs joined it.

Form square!” he commanded.

The men scrambled to their designated positions in a hollow rallying square around Colin and Oldfield. The square was small, just four men per side.

Prepare for cavalry!” Colin shouted, and every man turned, dropped to his right knee, and held his rifle with the butt braced on the ground, the bayonet angled high.

The pigs charged.

Steady lads,” Colin said, though he did not feel steady. He wanted to run. The pigs neared the bristling square of bayonets. Colin gritted his teeth and crouched, ready to flee if he needed to. He saw the wild fierce anger in the pigs’ eyes, the thick hairs in their huge ears. Either they would charge through his men, trampling them even as the bayonets pierced their hides, or they would behave as horses did, see the danger and refuse to impale themselves.

At the last second, the pigs swerved aside, breaking left and right to encircle the square.

Colin looked to his left, to the south side of the square, and said, “This rank, pre-sent! Fire!”

The four Highlanders aimed and fired, a blast of white smoke and stabbing flame, into the flanks of the circling pigs. One dropped dead, while another screamed and ran off, limping and streaming blood from fresh wounds.

Oldfield had taken charge of the west side of the square, shouting, “Pre-sent! Fire!”

Another volley cracked, and another pig dropped.

Colin and Oldfield dashed from rank to rank, directing controlled volley after controlled volley. Spent shells clinked as they dropped in the grass. A ring of dead pigs made a small mountain range of flesh around the square until at last, only three living pigs remained, and these retreated toward the farmhouse, where they stopped and turned to gaze, with intelligent malevolence, back toward the kilted humans.

We can finish them,” Colin said, his excitement spilling over. “How many rounds do we have left?”

Oldfield did a quick count. “Just one left per man, sir. A few are out.”

A volley and charge, then. Reform a single rank!”

The men quickly formed a line. The pigs watched, ears twitching, the black spines on their backs standing up.

At twenty yards, ready,” Colin shouted, and every man cocked his rifle. “Pre-sent!” The Highlanders aimed. “Fire!”

The volley blasted out, and before the troops could eject the spent shell, Colin raised his sword and cried, “Charge!”

He realized, as he ran, that this was foolish, that the pigs could simply flee, but they did not. The two remaining beasts stood fast and swung their tusks to and fro until the line struck home, and each pig fell with half a dozen bayonets in its face and neck and flank. They convulsed as they died, and several men were thrown to the ground, but at last the great beasts subsided and were still, their blood soaking the farmyard.

The Highlanders who had fallen regained their feet. The farm was quiet. Colin sloped his sword on his shoulder and did not feel like cheering, even when Oldfield grinned at him and said, “Well done, sir.”

Colin’s shoulders and arms begin to tremble, exhaustion and the horror of the day at last beginning to settle.

Sergeant,” he said, “please detail half of the men to see about collecting our dead and take the other half to search the farm for any more surprises.”

Oldfield shouldered his rifle and slapped the whitened sling. “Yes, sir.”

Colin took off his feather bonnet, let the afternoon breeze ruffle his hair. The heat seemed to have abated somewhat.

Was this war? Had he fought his first battle? The pigs had seemed to know what they were doing, had been a dangerous and crafty foe, and Colin had succeeded against them, despite his earlier blunders, where Poole had failed.

He had reason to be satisfied, though he doubted that any Victoria Crosses would be awarded for this day.

At least,” he murmured, “there will be fresh pork in the officer’s mess tonight.”



Pulmenti, Gloriosum Pulmenti

By Daniel Stride


Michael's forefinger tapped the cassette player, cutting off Bat Out of Hell mid-sentence.

If you wanted to work on your thesis chapter, you should've stayed in Dublin.”

Brian snapped the exercise book shut. I can spend my holiday as I like.”

It's our fortnight away. Enjoy it.”

Enjoy it? I've eaten nothing since breakfast, and I'm trapped in your Mum's clapped-out Volvo listening to Meat Loaf.”

Michael ran a hand through his hair. “Look at the bloody scenery.”

With a grunt, Brian stuffed book and ballpoint into his knapsack and burrowed his head back into the sheepskin rug.

It was pretty scenery. Wild grass and moss-covered rocks stretched to the Atlantic shore. Scattered trees soaked up what was left of the sun. The coast curved around to the north-west, and Brian glimpsed the cliffs of County Mayo, rugged and unspoiled in the twilight gloom.

Rugged, unspoiled, and haunted. A hundred and fifty years ago, this part of Ireland crawled with skeletons. Living, breathing skeletons, who hungered only for crumbs and a crust, or a bowl of watery broth. A cup of soup, for which the price could be your Faith. Or as the old folk would say, your soul.

No thesis work. Brian pulled a face at the car window. His thesis was on Reverend Edward Nangle and Souperism. A well-meaning fanatic utterly convinced An Gorta Mór was God's displeasure at Catholics, Nangle preyed upon the starving of Achill Island, offering food in return for religious conversion. Now I'm speeding through a landscape mere miles from there. Some holiday.


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