men, short fiction, writing

Cycle

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1.

The call went up, snaking through the branches of the forest, a robust echoing which was shrill with alarm.

 

Men ran. Some of them sprinted with the deft grace of youth, others lumbered like ancient boulders pushed down a hill. There were further shouts of confusion and clarification, and the teeming heat of the afternoon made them all red-faced and irritable.

 

They found them in the clearing, one hunched over the body of the other. There were fresh tears and old blood, enough to make the soles of their boots stick to the grass.

 

2.

LOCAL AUTHOR MAKES GOOD

 

By Temperance Rubin.

 

You’ve seen him promoting his latest book, Rituals of Evening, but Joseph Peters has never forgotten his roots so he’s appearing at Great Hills Library on Wednesday afternoon for a special reading followed by a Q and A.

 

Come, say hello to a hometown alumnus, and see if any of you aspiring types can pick up a few hints!

 

The event starts at 6pm sharp.

 

3.

 

A tan suited him, Edward thought. Joseph stepped out of the car with the same pained, studious expression he had worn since adolescence. Edward remembered playing catch with him in the yard and the memory made something shift in his chest. He corrected his posture, straightening his back and pushing his shoulders back. Joseph’s grey eyes swam with memories as he looked at his father but he blinked twice and smiled as he reached out and shook his father’s hand.

 

Edward gripped with a little too much force, but Joseph had written his pages for the day and he dropped his hand away to flex the discomfort from his fingers.

 

‘Long drive?’ Edward said.

 

Joseph shook his head and adjusted the strap on his backpack without meeting his father’s gaze.

 

‘I got in last night and took a room at the place by the airport.’ he said.

 

Edward swallowed the rejection and gave a small nod.

 

‘Smart move. You hungry?’ he said.

 

Joseph smiled and nodded.

 

‘As soon as I smelled the barbecue.’ he said.

 

The ruins of limp salad leaves, bones chewed white and small puddles of barbecue sat on plates between them. Edward poured out the bottle into a glass, whilst Joseph sipped his vanilla coke. His father’s recollection of his adolescent tastes was impressive, even down to the racks of ribs and venison steaks which they’d demolished between them.

 

Edward apologised as he unbuckled his belt to ease the pressure of his full stomach and sat back in the chair with a sigh of relief. Joseph sat up, straight and took small, frequent sips from the frosted glass of coke.

 

‘How’s the tour going?’ Edward said.

 

Joseph set his glass down and reached into his jacket for his cigarettes. He wanted a hit off his vape pen, but he had imagined his father’s reaction so it stayed there, offering relief from the gnawing anxiety which capered around his insides.

 

‘Good, thank you. I’ve done some TV too, even Kimmel.’ he said.

 

Edward snorted with derision and picked up his glass.

 

‘Late night television is trash. Hope it helps you.’ he said.

 

Joseph picked up his glass again and looked around the deck.

 

‘Did you redecorate?’ he said.

 

Edward didn’t look up as he drank but he gave a thumbs up and nodded around a mouthful of ale. He wiped his mouth and considered his son.

 

‘Yes, Char gets it into her head to redecorate the house and there goes a week of my life.’ he said.

 

Joseph’s jaw tightened as he swallowed and looked away.

 

Edward finished the last of the beer and got up, holding his belt buckle as he shuffled into the house. Joseph stared down the length of the garden and squeezed the glass until his fingers turned white.

 

There was a woman’s voice from inside the house. Joseph’s hand dove to his stomach as an emetic spasm clawed at his intestines. He hoped the carbonation settled his stomach before she came through and said hello.

 

4.

 

Edward sat up in bed, a pillow placed to support him as he turned the pages of his son’s book. Charlene came in from the bathroom and glanced over her shoulder.

 

‘Is he okay?’ she said.

 

Her voice was breathy and girlish, and after all these years, it never failed to stir him. She had packed on some weight around her hips and had the beginnings of a tummy beneath the silk ivory night gown. Edward’s eyes coveted but Charlene grimaced with concern. He smiled as he removed his reading spectacles and closed the book, then tapped the cover.

 

‘Judging by this, I should have burned his library card.’ he said.

 

His voice was genial as she climbed into bed. She glanced down at the book on his lap with the expression she did when Titbits brought a dead mouse into the kitchen.

 

‘I can’t read those sorts of books.’ she said.

 

Edward grunted and shook his head.

 

‘They’re just made-up words.’ he said.

 

Charlene did not relax until he put the book on the bedside table and rested his spectacles on top. He slipped an arm around the back of his wife’s neck and pulled her close.

 

‘He was a difficult young man, and it was a lot to ask a woman, but we’ve done the best we can.’ he said.

 

Charlene suppressed a shiver and clung to Edward’s solid, greying chest. The light went out with a dull click and she listened to her husband’s breathing deepen into sleep. Joseph had kept his distance since she came back, and the acrid tang of memories stained her lips and tongue. She had brushed her teeth twice and used mouthwash but the tang stayed with every swallow. Appalling goblin thoughts stirred and pressed against the amniotic sac of time and repression but she clung to him until she felt the medication kick in and dropped away into sleep.  

 

5.

 

He sat with his knees apart, holding his book to his eyes as he read aloud. Charlene watched his lips moving, how his eyes widened as he spoke with a confidence she had not seen before. Edward was rigid with concentration but his hand rested over hers as they sat there, watching his son read from his latest book.

 

She knew this section off by heart. Edward favoured hardbacks but Charlene, thanks to her younger sister, had an electronic reader and so had downloaded Joseph’s book on the day of release and read it straight away.

 

‘She came as I sat by the lake, toes pruning in the water as I sat there.

 

Trying to hide the erection she inspired whenever she drew close.

 

‘Your pa says supper’s ready.’ she said.

 

Her voice was a honeyed drawl which crept beneath my skin. The prohibition lent a terrible, insatiable clarity to my perception of her and she grinned as she knelt down in front of me.

 

‘I’ll be right there.’ I said.

 

I tried to make my voice as low as possible, promote whatever shoots of tender manhood were poking through the mud of adolescence. She was a strong burst of sunlight, a nurturing shower and yet all of it forbidden on every level.

 

It did not stop me wanting.’

 

Charlene’s heart pounded in her chest but she held herself still. Her mind was racing, knowing there were another twelve pages before anything happened.

 

The applause drowned her out as she emitted a small, careful whimper of anguish. Edward shook his head and applauded, but his eyes were soft with confusion.  

 

6.

 

Joseph accepted the safety lecture with a detached grace and wore the orange vest without comment. Edward, dressed in the worn, clean camouflage which had been his woodland uniform forever handed his son the rifle. Joseph took it and held it close to his chest.

 

It was a beautiful morning when they walked into the forest. Edward was on point, and Joseph had availed himself of the vape enough to put him into a state of herbal equanimity.

 

‘What did you think of the book?’ Joseph said.

 

Edward put a finger to his lips and narrowed his eyes before he pointed through to the trees where a young buck stood, nose to the ground as it chewed at a clump of grass. He gestured for his son to raise his rifle. Joseph blinked and aimed down the sight. His finger rested on the trigger guard.

 

The buck raised its head and ran. Edward lowered his rifle and shot an accusing look at his son. Joseph shrugged his shoulders as he took his eye from the scope.

 

‘Come on, I didn’t say a word.’ he said.

 

Edward snorted and walked into the woods. Joseph matched his pace, so they were abreast of one another.

 

‘I acknowledge your talent with words, son, I’ll say that. You know I don’t truck with monster books, but I’m glad you’re doing well with it.’

 

Joseph sighed against the hot lump of upset which dropped into his stomach from above.

 

‘I’ve had enough reviews to know when someone’s not read it, Dad, you don’t have to bullshit me.’ he said.

 

Edward stopped and stared at his son.

 

‘I don’t read those sorts of books.’ he said.

 

His voice whistled like a stove top kettle and it hurt Joseph’s ears. Joseph stepped back, discomforted and struggling with the urge to articulate something massive.

 

‘You mean mine?’ Joseph said.

 

Edward’s eyes widened as he sweated beneath his camouflage.

 

‘Why are you so sensitive about this?’ he said.

 

Joseph’s eyes flooded with tears as he cradled the rifle. He was a boy again, a skinned soul lifted for his father’s acknowledgement.

 

‘Because I thought you would be smart enough to get it, Dad.’ he said.

Edward slung his rifle over his shoulder and adjusted the brim of his cap as he looked down at his boots.

 

‘I’ve never gotten you, Joe. Christ knows I tried and so did Char.’ he said.

 

Joseph’s face was taut and bloodless as he stared at Edward. His grip on the rifle was loose and he staggered backwards, shaking his head.

 

‘You didn’t know, did you?’ Joseph said.

 

Edward’s face crumpled with confusion.

 

‘About the book?’ he said.

 

Joseph watched his father struggle with the conversation. A decent man dumbfounded by something which his son couldn’t explain. Edward reached his hand out and touched his son on the shoulder.

 

‘I may not understand you, but you’re my son, and if I’ve hurt you then you need to know I never meant to.’ he said.

 

It was a speech for Edward, and he was red in the face when he finished but Joseph, a man too acquainted with lies not to see them in others, believed his father. Joseph shouldered the rifle and lowered his chin to his chest and sobbed. Between the sobs, he forced out seven words.

 

‘Not you, Dad, you didn’t hurt me.’ he said.

 

7.

 

Charlene was so relieved Joseph had gone, it was an easy thing for Edward to persuade her to accompany him on a hunt.

 

It was easier to let her wander ahead, between the trees. As his finger closed over the trigger, he thought of his boy and asked his forgiveness again.

 

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Standard
men, poetry

astronaut

He floats

Apart

Sealed in twice over

Reality will kill him

And the suit he wears

Keeps him alive

But the stars call

And he wants to bask

In their light

Without a barrier

Alone

In space

In time

Sometimes he wants

Someone to tell him

He’s good at what he does

But he fears it might

Expose him

An aside, a withdrawal

Like a stray meteorite

Punching through with

Silent velocity

Space is lonely

For the astronaut

But he remains as long

As there’s air to breathe

Standard
men, poetry

the devil has no fur

The devil has no fur

Nor horns

It is gnawed and emasculated,

Glistening stitches

Tucking everything away

He is a breath held to the

Point of agony

He speaks of the micro

Small, bitter worms falling

From his thin lips

Sexless, cold and wet,

He keeps the receipts

And denies the refund

People ask for

Without explanation,

All the pieces you gave,

Kept away and the phantom

Pain stays with you,

The devil is not a man

Or a woman,

Which, as he stands there,

Smiling with exquisite agonies,

Makes him

So

Much

Worse

Standard
men, poetry

Walking Through Shadows

Eaten in pieces

Mouthfuls of time

Anxious feast

A melancholic assassin

Waiting for the target

To leave

Just once

Wanting

To be worth

Someone’s attention

Without feeling

disposable

You can be elevated

Elected

Mocked and still have

No idea if anything

Good will come of it

But the strength is there

And you’ve borne anguished

Wounds before and amongst

The ones you gave

There were lessons

Which stitched together

And although the scars pull

With each step,

Hold her hand.

Walking

Wherever you are going

Without knowing how far

They’ll walk with you.

Standard
men, politics, Uncategorized, writing

Incel

I don’t write this from an elevated perspective nor in judgement. My relationships speak to the good and bad we

I don’t write this from an elevated perspective nor in judgement. My relationships speak to the good and bad we all face, and I’m informed by my failures as much as my successes. I’ve rejected and been rejected, it’s the latter which informs this train of thought.

Most people weren’t aware of incels until today if they are at all. It is short for involuntary celibate, a designation made by men who haven’t been able to form romantic or sexual attachments at all. They congregate online, Reddit and there’s a lot of resentment expressed there. Hatred, in a lot of cases, and it leads to expressions and calls for violence. That’s a surface level interpretation of a subculture so infused with irony and sarcasm but there’s one of them who’s made it happen. I won’t write his name down because he’s a symbol now, an apogee for a situation where everyone has been throwing opinions around. There’s been a consistent narrative of mockery and emasculation to push and it comes from left wing/liberals (which I’ve considered myself to be albeit with some concerns) Is it any wonder they developed into an ideology which leads to murder?

Rejection is not an excuse for acts which impinge on the lives of others. Rejection hurts but it teaches by it being a painful experience. When lobsters lose mating competition battles with other lobsters, they shrink in size and experience depression (they have similar nervous systems as human beings) and slip down the hierarchy until they win again.

What if they never win? I wonder if it is something there, but it denies their humanity, and these days it is easy to forget we’re talking and commenting on the words and actions of other human beings. I feel disappointment because anger won’t solve this, and neither will love. There are winners and losers in everything, and perhaps they brought into the illusion of equity our culture espouses in terms of love.

Is it entitlement? If some cultural expectations and tenets of love are an illusion, then the idea might seek to plant roots in the soil of young minds and create an expectation of sex, or love by the virtue of approaching with it in mind.

There are illusions which kill people.

These are boys grown older, but not up. No one starts them into manhood, so they try to figure it out on their own and on the nights when it difficult to breathe when you’re nursing the bitter sting of loss, these ideas, these other people come to you like a fairy tale and they lure you in.

I wrote about this because things like this happen and you see blame but not understanding, and it given under the auspices of grief but its politicized and used to berate men. People die and we use it to hurt one another.

Rejection hurts but love hurts too. They are beautiful and painful kinds of hurt, and to use them as a means to make other people suffer betrays what happened.

Ten people won’t get to feel love or rejected again.

Fourteen are suffering more than most of us will ever know.

There’s lots to go around but at least we should be kind to one another.
face, and I’m informed by my failures as much as my successes. I’ve rejected and been rejected, it’s the latter which informs this train of thought.

Most people weren’t aware of incels until today if they are at all. It is short for involuntary celibate, a designation made by men who haven’t been able to form romantic or sexual attachments at all. They congregate online, mostly Reddit and there’s a lot of resentment expressed there. Hatred, in a lot of cases, and it leads to expressions and calls for violence. That’s a surface level interpretation of a subculture so infused with irony and sarcasm but there’s one of them who’s  made it happen. I won’t write his name down because he’s a symbol now, an apogee for a situation where everyone has been throwing opinions around. There’s been a consistent narrative of mockery and emasculation to push and it comes from left wing/liberals(which I’ve considered myself to be albeit with some concerns) Is it any wonder they developed into an ideology which leads to murder?

Rejection is not an excuse for acts which impinge on the lives of others. Rejection hurts but it teaches by it being a painful experience. When lobsters lose mating competition battles with other lobsters, they shrink in size and experience depression (they have similar nervous systems as human beings) and slip down the hierarchy until they win again.

What if they never win? I wonder if it is something there, but it denies their humanity, and these days it is easy to forget we’re talking and commenting on the words and actions of other human beings. I feel disappointment because anger won’t solve this, and neither will love. There are winners and losers in everything, and perhaps they brought into the illusion of equity our culture espouses in terms of love.

Is it entitlement? If some of the cultural expectations and tenets of love are an illusion then the idea might seek to plant roots in the soil of young minds and create an expectation of sex, or love simply by the virtue of approaching with it in mind.

There are illusions which kill people.

These are boys grown older, but not up. No one initiates them into manhood, so they try to figure it out on their own and on the nights when its difficult to breathe when you’re nursing the bitter sting of loss, these ideas, these other people come to you like a fairy tale and they lure you in.

I wrote about this because things like this happen and you see blame but not understanding, and its given under the auspices of grief but its politicised and used to berate men. People die and we use it to hurt one another.

Rejection hurts but love hurts too. They are beautiful and painful kinds of hurt, and to use them as means to make other people suffer betrays what happened.

Ten people won’t get to feel love or rejected again.

Fourteen are suffering more than most of us will ever know.

There’s lots of it to go around but at least we should be kind to one another.

 

 

 

Standard
men, music, women

Prince

The 7″ Sign O’The Times single was the first record I brought. When I heard his music, it was a radio signal from a better world than this.

I tune into it from different artists who bear his influences, directly or otherwise. He remains pivotal to me for a few reasons, and not because he could dance in heels either.

(I can’t dance unless twerking counts)

He made it ok to be weird. There was always a sense he made his own world and the music was the radio signals, sent from a world where the parties were great, people didn’t hurt each other unless they were into it and there was no difference between sex and spirit. He was a library of music, a gateway drug to jazz, blues and funk as well as a proponent of fluidity of genre and a professional discipline which meant his backing band and collaborators were honed and rehearsed to precision.

Prince made it look effortless but never hid the work involved in making it look that way. His music was a soundtrack to my life, still is and I hear his influences everywhere. People used to try and insult me by claiming he was gay but I’ve seen the audiences at his shows and there were women in throes of delight at the smallest gesture he gave. Even if he had have been, he gave out all the masculine virtues and then some.

When my grandfather died, I grieved by walking my dog Milo and listening to Sometimes It Snows In April as I wept. There was a poem here about it, but yes I found a path through the grief through his music.

My daughter broke the news to me and I cried again. The circumstances of his death were sad but they don’t tarnish the power of his presence and diminish the absence. There’s a vault of unreleased material I hope to binge on someday.

He’s never disappointed me as a musician or a human being. He never will. It’s been two years now and I want a world with him still around, but there you go.

Standard
love, men, mother, short fiction, women

A Mother Has All The Weapons She Needs

His father gave a rattling, final breath. Magnus reached out and drew down his father’s eyelids with a precise brush of his fingertips. He turned and looked at his younger brother, Peter who came over and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Magnus hid the flinch which came to him and ran his tongue over his lips.

 

‘I do not want the crown, Peter.’ he said.

 

Peter sighed and clasped his brother in his arms and wept with joy. Magnus accepted the gesture, looking past him to where his brother’s wife stood, false tears brimming in the corners of her narrow eyes. The kingdom would survive her, he thought and Peter was well-intended if effete. A harmless king was better than a cruel one, he decided. A cold wind blew the curtains, and Magnus held back the shudder which ran through him.

 

Magnus left the castle after watching his brother take the throne, with letters to prove his identity with enough gold to buy lands and cattle. He sought to live out his days in peace/

 

His brother had other ideas.

 

2.

 

Peter gnawed on a turkey leg as he looked across his council of advisors. Katharine sat to his left, looked to her father and smiled at him, which was his cue to speak. Robert cleared his throat and looked at Peter.

 

‘Your highness, we should discuss the matter of your brother.’ he said.

 

Robert was a good father, and he listened to his daughter. He spoke her words with practiced care as Peter looked at him with a cautious glint in his eyes.

 

‘Magnus lives in the forest somewhere reading philosophy to pigs. He’s no threat.’ he said.

 

Katharine raised an eyebrow and Robert continued.

 

‘Aye, your highness, but even in his exile, he has his champions.’ he said.

 

Peter picked up a goblet and washed the meat down with a mouthful of sour wine as he shrugged his shoulders.

 

‘He’s no interest in the throne. He swore a vow before my father was cold.’ he said.

 

Robert looked to his daughter for guidance. She slipped her hand on his forearm and leaned into his space, gave a smile like a knife being dragged across a windpipe.

 

‘My father has your interests at heart, your highness. The people speak of Magnus with fondness.’ she said.

 

Peter turned his head and grimaced at his wife.

 

‘He doesn’t have to breathe their shit in as I do.’ he said.

 

Katharine smiled and kissed her husband on the cheek.

 

‘No, and his legend grows with each year which passes. Some say you forced him from the throne.’

 

He guffawed and a spray of saliva, flecked with shreds of meat flew from his mouth as Robert sat back in his chair.

 

‘He begged me to take it. Magnus knew what awaited him, and he gave it instead. Clever bastard.’ he said.

 

Katharine glanced at her husband with a quiet, pinched frustration which he ignored with a turn of his head. Robert cleared his throat.

 

‘Your highness, perhaps you could ask his intentions. I have men at your disposal.’ he said.

 

Katharine put her hand on her husband’s forearm.

 

‘You will not rest until you know, my king.’ she said.

 

Her voice was a gentle command as she leaned forwards and pressed against his upper arm. She caught his scent and grimaced.

 

‘See to his health.’ he said.

 

Robert had sent out his men before sunset. A map had been drawn for them, and were acting upon the orders of her queen herself who had addressed them in the stables, wrapped in a black coat with a goblet of wine in her hands.

 

‘Your highness.’ Robert said.

 

3.

 

Magnus walked in from the dark with an armful of logs. Ibb stirred the pot with a wooden spoon as she blew a lock of hair out of her eyes. He smiled and set them down by the fire, before he came and put his arms around her, splayed his fingers over the round curve of her stomach.

 

‘You can’t keep your hands off my belly, Magnus. Should I be jealous?’ she said.

 

Her smile was impish and wild. Magnus rubbed his bearded cheek against her face and chuckled. She turned and kissed him on the cheek before she pushed him away and continued to stir the stew she was cooking. He sat down and poured himself a cup of beer as he watched her prepare their meal.

 

Magnus could afford servants but Ibb refused his money, but had asked for his attention and strength. A simple trade of services and goods which grew into something deeper. It had taken him by surprise, how she had shown no deference to him until beyond his understanding, she had taken him into her bed, and then, by her own admission, her heart.  She questioned why this did not shock him and instead, he pulled her close and pressed his face into her neck and inhaled her skin.

 

It was his answer, a good one, she told herself.

 

Magnus heard the clatter of hooves and got to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as Ibb turned around. Her left hand went to her stomach and Magnus smiled at her.

 

‘Finish the cooking, I’ll see who this is.’ he said.

 

.She thought about Magnus and a warm burst of feeling overwhelmed her as she stirred the stew, thinking about feeding her man.

 

4.

 

Magnus looked at the four men on horseback and narrowed his eyes. He saw one man reach for something on his hip and he darted backwards, opened his mouth to warn Ibb. The stone, plucked from the quarry outside Garden’s Hill, slammed into Magnus’s forehead and cracked his skull. He fell away with a shudder, eyes rolled back in his head as blood gushed from his nostrils as he collapsed inside the doorway.

 

The last thing he heard was Ibb calling his name.

 

5.

 

One man drew his sword, a short, pitted piece of pig iron with years of use scarred into its surface as he looked at Ibb and sneered. Ibb stood there, legs apart as she glared at the soldier with cold, hard eyes before picking up the hatchet which sat by the fireplace. He laughed, a short mocking bark which betrayed a measure of caution as he called to the others.

 

She stepped forwards, flung the hatchet overhand and it thumped into his forehead with a dull, damp slap. Ibb took the sword from his hands and shoved him aside. She did not look at Magnus on the way past. She gripped the sword and turned it over in her hands as she charged out of the door. Her stomach ached, but she felt detached from herself as she stabbed the first man in the throat, tugging the blade to the right and bringing his windpipe with it in a moist knot of cartilage and blood. She stabbed upwards on the second blow, punching the sword through the other man’s jaw and then kicking him in the crotch as he fell down with the sword embedded in his jaw.

 

Ibb wrapped one arm around her stomach as she squatted to one side and rested her hand on the hilt of the sword.

 

‘If I pull the blade, you’ll bleed out. Tap once for yes, twice for no. Understand?’ she said.

 

His eyes bulged in their sockets and Ibb tapped the hilt with her index finger, which made him whimper. He tapped once and she sighed as she got to her feet. Ibb knew she was close to having this baby, and she considered how Magnus was not there to share it with her. Her eyes misted over with tears.

 

‘Did you come here on purpose?’

 

He tapped once.

 

She learned what he knew. When she was done, she twisted the blade and pulled it free as the soldier bled to death at her feet. Night had fallen and she looked at the surrounding bodies, including Magnus slumped in the doorway. A shadow had fallen across his broken face, which she took to be a small mercy from the gods as she staggered back into the house.

 

Ibb needed to keep her strength up.

 

6.

 

She sold the cattle for a good price, took the money and disappeared. Magnus had fallen ill, she told people, too quick to be saved. Ibb told people it was something which ran in his family. She was going north, back to her people to have the baby there. People wished her well, but exchanged relieved looks when she was gone. She was a good woman, but something about her frightened them and her departure was cause for relief in the village.

 

7.

 

Robert wiped his forehead with a handkerchief as he watched the hounds leap through the grass. He took up a horn and gestured to a servant who walked up and poured wine into it before stepping backwards with a bow. He took a long draught and wiped his lips with his fingers before he looked through the trees.

 

Robert wanted to kill something beautiful. He imagined it was his daughter, which was something he kept to himself, but as she grew more demanding, his imagination warped and grew fat on his resentment. He picked up the reins and ushered his horse forwards.

 

Something stabbed into his neck and he winced. He brought his hand up as he struggled to swallow. Robert gasped as he stared into the woods, saw someone detach themselves from a copse of bushes as his limbs spasmed out of control. Robert’s tongue swelled up and slipped to the back of his throat as he fell out of the saddle. He died on his back, looking up at the sky and wondering what had happened.

 

8.

Katharine wept as they carried her father’s coffin into the depths of the family tomb. She had needed his counsel, not for herself but for Peter. He had become insensible with drink and even ignored her complete refusal to allow him to return to the marital bed since Ethelred had been born. She still needed a poultice between her thighs each night and his distaste for the realities of women had him fleeing to his whores. Her blessing followed him.

 

They had been so close to victory. She had replaced the commanders and the courtiers with those loyal to her plans. An expansion of territory which would see the kingdom grow into a new era of prosperity. Peter had been useful but soon his madness would outweigh his use as an excuse for her authority. She wept with frustration, not grief but few would ask what brought a woman to tears, let alone a queen.

 

She returned to her chambers, Peter had gone to his whores and she stood before Ethelred’s basket, watched him and summoned the feeling of love she was supposed to experience. He was so wizened and soft, like a plucked chicken or a piglet and she wondered what it would be like to slip a knife into his stomach. It had cost her to bear him, and for what?

 

A son was a legacy, she told herself. His utility to her was affection, so she decided not to harm him. Instead, she reached out and pinched the inside of his thigh between her nails before she picked him up and soothed his febrile, hot cries of alarm and pain. Katharine wished her husband was so easy to control.

 

9.

 

He laid on the cushions as she crawled across the bed towards him. He gestured for her to take off her veil but she shook her head.

 

‘I am not worthy to be looked upon, your highness.’ she said.

Peter narrowed his eyes. It was not Petal serving him tonight, and he was sure it was her turn to provide him with his small measure of comfort. Funerals made him drink, and drinking made him want to fuck someone. He knew his erection was inconstant and unreliable so he ushered her over with a sigh.

 

He felt the blade slide between his ribs and gasped with surprise. Her breath was warm and sweet against his cheek.

 

‘He was your brother.’ she said.

 

Peter turned his head and saw she had kept the veil in place.

 

‘Was?’ he said.

 

She drew back and twisted the blade, opening the wound further as she tugged it free and stuck the blade into the side of his throat underneath the windpipe.

 

‘As girls, they told us the best time to best a man was when his sword was sheathed but his dagger was out.’ she said.

 

Peter clutched at his throat, blood spurting through his fingers as his mouth hung open, tongue protruding as he gave rattling, sodden cries through his ruined throat.

 

She stood up and opened the window, tossed out the length of knotted rope she had left in the chamber and tied one end to the bed which Peter bled onto. Ibb turned and looked at him.

 

‘He never told me about you. I found out, was ready to walk away for the lie but he told me you had honoured his wishes and he was just a man again.’ she said.

 

Ibb tore the veil from her face and glared at the pallid corpse on the bed.

 

‘Now, your highness, you will honour mine.’ she said.

 

She climbed out, quiet as a whisper and was on her way to the palace before the guards came in and the whorehouse erupted into a vicious tornado of panic.

 

10.

 

Katharine awoke to a small hand clamped over her mouth.

 

‘Don’t raise your voice.’

 

Katharine swivelled her eyes in the darkness. She feared for her son, but the voice, low and female, chuckled.

 

‘I’ve no desire to hurt the child. It’s your job, isn’t it?’ she said.

 

Katharine pushed against the hand but she took a hard blow to the temple which made her collapse back against the furs. She thought about biting her but a blade came to rest against the side of her throat. She froze in place, wondering if she could fight her way free.

 

‘I see you’ve got poultices on. Hard birth, was it?’ she said.

 

Katharine nodded as much as the blade would allow. The woman sighed.

 

‘My boy came out like shelling peas. He was a pleasure I would’ve shared with Magnus.’ she said.

 

‘He was supposed to be there with me. The first man I’d wanted a child with, and you had him taken from me.’ she said.

 

Katharine swallowed and waited for her to continue.

 

‘My son didn’t last a night. You took them from me, your highness. You‘re going to tell me why.’ she said.

 

Katharine exhaled as the woman’s hand came away.

 

‘Your brother was a threat to the king’ she said.

 

Katharine could not make out the details of the woman’s face, but she caught the shape of a grimace as she shook her head.

 

‘No, he was a threat to you. Magnus was a good man, he took care of me, and he had no interest in ruling over anyone but himself.’ she said.

 

Her fingers bit into Katharine’s jaw and the pain compelled her into stillness.

 

‘Your man was weak, so you played at being the man you needed. A weak, broken version of one, like your father was. Did you try to win my Magnus?’ she said.

 

Katharine’s heart raced in her chest as her stomach cramped with discomfort. She twisted away but the woman’s fingers squeezed her into holding still.

 

‘You sorry, empty coward.’ she said.

 

Katharine stared at the woman, her eyes adjusted to the gloom. There were soldiers outside, but they were too far to reach her.

 

‘I did what I thought was right.’ she said.

 

Katharine’s last thought was to deny the woman her suffering. She had learned how to deal with pain when she carried her son and with Peter dead, she would be a figurehead, nothing more. The woman stood back, sheathed her knife and raised her hands.

 

‘And where has it gotten you?’ she said.

 

Katharine tried to sit up but the woman’s hands were quick, and two sharp punches sent her into a pitching, total blackness studded with flashes of acute agony.

 

11

 

The last command she gave was to find her son. Diplomatic efforts were made to her neighbours but without her husband, and beset by rumours of her plans to wage war on them, made them unsympathetic to her grief. Kings died like flies. Mirabelle had sent a note of condolence but said a determined mother had all the weapons she needed to achieve her aims which Katherine took as a covert rejection and a mocking note.

 

She moved to the North Tower, attended to by a few servants as she sat each day, blank and mute, as the council of advisors took over the kingdom in her name. Ethelred would have been nine years old, and she walked over to the balcony and looked down at the courtyard. Its distance looked inviting and when she stood on the ledge, the wind buffeted her and she let it take her over.

 

There was a moment’s relief before the earth broke her in two. Her mind had been taken from her nine years ago and it was returned to her as her bones shattered and organs burst inside her.

 

12.

 

Ibb walked over to the bank of the river. She watched him bait the hook with a lump of raw beef, his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth as he stared at it, fingers moving with a glacial care. She watched him in an appreciative silence.

 

He lowered the rod and smiled at her.

 

‘I will catch us a Heaper, you’ll see.’ he said.

 

Ibb grinned and walked over, ruffled his dark hair and kissed him on the crown of his head.

;You will, my son, you will.’ she said.

 

He stood up, cast the hook into the water and watched it with a grim determination. Nine years old, and he could hunt and dress a deer, wield a knife and walk in silence. Ibb was a good teacher, but she missed having a man to guide him into manhood. She feared becoming like his mother, seeing him for what he could do for her over guiding him into maturity. Such fears made her eyes water, but they passed and as the afternoon sun hung high overhead, Ibb watched her son provide for them both with so much love in her heart she thought it might burst.

 

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