A Little Gift

In Time For Christmas

The next morning arrived. Grey clouds sat stubbornly overhead. Only a few of the castle’s defenders had slept, the rest had endured an uneasy journey from the previous day. Without much talk, people breakfasted and went to their positions. It would happen on this day, they were sure. 

By mid afternoon, an uneasy hush had swept across the castle and its grounds. A faint humming rolled towards them. Those on watch, girded themselves for whatever new plague would emerge. It was growing in volume, rolling like drums from beyond the grounds.

At exactly two fifty-seven, and Chris would remember this moment for the rest of his life, the drums stopped. Seconds later, a stag stepped out of cover and nervously sniffed the air. It picked up the smell of humans coming from the stones to its left, but chose to move towards them. Taking two tentative steps onto the  melting snow, it waited again, then broke into a gallop. 

From behind it came the gathering storm of hooves, each now in full flow. Wave upon wave raced across the lawns and then down the precipice and with practiced ease, raced down paths that no human could have followed. Then they were gone, a swathe of trodden slush the only sign that they had been there at all. Nature was in full flight before the Piper’s creatures. 

At seven minutes past three, the giant showed itself.

“So that’s it then?” Lucy asked.

“Yes, that’s our man,” answered Chris. 

A small group of them had gathered in the muniment tower to watch the gathering of the Leathers.

“He doesn’t look human,” she added.

“Technically he’s not, Lucy,” Mr. Dale took the opportunity of speaking, his rational tones playing against any panic that may have surfaced. “It’s like a mummy. From the look of what he is wearing,” they could see from there that he was dressed in an old cloth draped over his torso, “he was a member of a monastic order, probably a penitent. I would say that he ceased being human a number of centuries ago.”

“Whatever it is, it is certainly scary,” murmured Judith.

“That would be The Piper’s intention. Battles can be won before they are fought. It is fear that destroys armies and makes them run. Remember that the Piper is the heir of Pan and Pan caused panic in his victims before he struck.”

The news of the giant monk spread quickly. Panic had been intended and its seeds were sown. 

Amongst the audience was one Craig Dawkins, a young man who was well aware of what the monk was. Unlike the others, he felt a surge of enthusiasm. At last, he had the means to escape and get some very valuable cargo back to Flowers. He sat on the end of his bed and wondered just what would be given to him if he were to help capture the Andrews’ clan. His first step was make his escape, a thing easier thought than done in this place of heightened tension.

Since the events in the forest, his head had cleared. Dawkins was a rationalist. Whatever happened there had died there. He could not help them and wouldn’t wish to. One for one and one for onemeant putting yourself first. He had always been a survivor. As such, he recognised no bonds of loyalty, friendship or love, he was an island that only traded with others. On his own, he had to think and act quickly. The first problem that he had to solve was how to get out of his locked room.

Now he watched the leathers from his window, their dark forms filling him with certainty. Soon, he would be free. He listened to the confusion around him, the nervous voices, hurried feet, and the unmistakable hiss of panic. His secret smile was there again, the last time he had worn it was when his marksmanship had brought down the boy who had failed him. His contentment was twofold, first there were the Leathers who had been sent to save him and then there was his own deception, a masterstroke. They had fallen for it, had carried him childlike from the car, had tucked him up and cared for him. Now they would rue their kindness and he would ensure that. Outside the room came footsteps.

In all the confusion, they had almost forgotten about Dawkins. They had kept his room locked ‘just in case’, but visited him regularly with food and water. His normal carer was Mrs. Sanderson, the woman who had done so much to care for the children when they first fled the city. Now, the present crisis had taken her off with the other children again and nobody had spared a thought for their guest apart from Lucy.

She was sweeping the corridors and rooms making sure that nobody was left behind. Many of the small children read the signs immediately and the memories of the past came back. Mr. Dale and Mrs. Sanderson had collected them together and calmed them. After moving to the muniment room, a headcount revealed that at least one child was missing. Lucy volunteered to check the rooms. 

Whilst Dawkins listened with his ear to the oak door, Lucy’s voice was entering rooms and enquiring if there was anybody there. Her progress brought her closer and Dawkins clasped the metal fork he had been fed with. As her steps moved towards him, he folded back against the stone wall just as the handle began to turn. 

Lucy was a little puzzled. This door was locked. She searched for the answer before noticing the key that rested on the top of a small cabinet. She picked it up, inserted it into the heavy mechanism and turned it. When she pushed open the door, she found an empty room awaited her. 

“Why lock it?” she asked herself.

Two steps in and she had the answer.

When Dawkins saw that it was a girl who had entered his trap, he was both surprised and delighted. She would be easy to take down. He watched her careful steps, allowing her the access that a spider would give to a fly. His instinct was to strike, to bring pain and blood, to watch with amused interest, but he knew that she would be more useful as a hostage. His silent steps, unfettered by shoes gave him the advantage he required. With her back to him, she presented an easy prey.

As the mechanisms of Lucy’s mind were falling into place, Lucy simultaneously felt the cold touch of metal upon her exposed throat and heard the chilling words,

“If you move or scream or do anything that I don’t like, I’ll ram this fork as far into your throat as I can. It will hurt like hell. Do you understand?”

Beginning to tremble slightly, Lucy nodded her understanding.

“Now you are going to show me how to get out of here without anybody seeing us. Move.” 

The Edge Of Reason

Avenging Angel

Chris knew that Michael was not the same. Physically, he was bigger. He was obviously stronger. That run along the passageway and up the stairs was not something his older brother could have done before. And he did it without breaking sweat or having to catch breath.

Lucy had not said anything as yet, but she had spent her time considering his brother. On the surface, she had been friendly, but beneath, she was unsure. In the short time he had known her, he had begun to measure her reactions to people and situations. His mother also appeared nervous around her son.

“It is a concern,” the voice coming from the stairwell said. “I noticed something from the first moment I set eyes upon you,” said Mr. Dale. “I have seen this before and have since persuaded myself that I did not.”

Chris was confused yet Michael looked on resignedly. 

“In my previous role as a man of the cloth, I worked in India. India is suffused with the spiritual and their holy men are granted a status very rarely enjoyed by other mortals.

In that country, especially away from the main towns and cities, people’s lives are governed by a profound belief in the worlds that exist alongside our own. Spirits are to be found in everything from a beetle to a bull.

One day, I had the wife of a local farmer come to me for help. They were members of my church, attended every Sunday, but were also believers in Krishna. I was never absolute in my demands upon the church’s flock. I had this belief that most roads eventually led to God or, in some cases to his nemesis. Her husband had been bitten by a snake and was struggling for his life when a strange happening befell their youngest son. The child started to speak in an old language that nobody in the village understood, we found out later that it was Sanskrit, and the child lay with his father doing battle with the demon within for three days. When I was called, the father had made a miraculous recovery but the child was dreadfully unwell. It was as if he had sucked all the poison out of his father and was now suffering the consequences.

The thing that I noticed above everything else was the vague blue light, an ethereal aura, that encased the child. I saw that with you, Michael.”

“What happened to the boy?” asked Chris.

“I’m afraid he died. I tried everything to save him. Just before he went I read him the last rites, my belief was still stout back then, and he opened his eyes, looked straight into my soul and spoke in English. That was the first time I had heard that. He said that the Piper was awake and then he passed away.”

“What’s that got to do with us?”

“You know what it has to do with us. You’ve seen your brother in that other form. You saw what I saw. 

We are living in the time of judgement. I denied it to myself for so long, but now it is inevitable. These are the revelations that are in the Bible and there will be battles. You two are as much our weapons as anything we have found in the armoury.”

Outside a blast of winter rain peppered the windows and roof. In the hills to the north, the rain was falling with more vigour, melting snow and ice and swelling the streams that fed the rivers that flowed out of them.

The following morning, a member of one of the scouting parties saw the first line of leathers on the horizon and the alarm went up.

The Sword Of Christmas

“As you can see,” Graham said with pride, “Zack and his group have been doing an awful lot of groundwork. Indeed, they discovered these,” he continued and produced three swords from the armoury. “We have quite a selection of these and after out talk earlier, I think that swords may be one of our best forms of defence. Without their appropriate limbs, the leathers will struggle to do much harm.”

For once, his gentle humour failed to reach an audience so he continued.

“The next thing that I wish to ask is difficult,” he cleared his throat slightly. “You see, we need to get an early warning of their arrival so we would be best served by deploying a scouting unit that can cover the immediate areas around the castle. It will be a dangerous task so I only want volunteers. One thing to bear in mind is that you may have to move pretty quickly to get back to HQ if and when you do spot them.”

Keith Rains shot up a hand and this was followed by several others, all men in their late twenties or early thirties, all of them having lost family members. Then, Michael stepped forward and he was holding the sword he had picked out for himself. It was a shorter version of a long sword yet had a blade that was not straight. The blade had been fashioned into a facsimile of a series of flames, each one glinting with shiny menace. Graham had told him that the sword was favoured by German soldiers protecting the most important personnel. 

“It would have been used in a sweeping movement to ensure greater coverage and to keep the unwanted attentions away from those who were being protected,” Graham touched the blade and drew a little of his own blood in doing so.

“As sharp today as it was when it was first forged. They called this a Flammanschwert, the flame sword, and these edges meant that any strike would be intensified by the additional surface area. It was meant to maim.”

Chris had noticed that his brother’s presence brought immediate attention from the rest. It was not born of the charisma of Graham, the wisdom of Mr. Dale of the admiration of Judith. No, when Michael was in the room, people just stopped doing those things that they would have been doing; chat and movement were stilled as if awaiting the arrival of some natural disaster.

If Chris had not known his brother so well, had not understood his truly sensitive nature, had not seen his head stuck, night after night, into some grand book or other, he would have felt the same as the others.

“I volunteer,” Michael announced. This was followed by his brother who was now standing shoulder to shoulder with him.

The rise in optimism was matched by a hike in temperature. The signs of a thaw were there for all to see and, whilst usually the disappearance of snow brought about a twinge of sadness, everybody welcomed its short, if powerful life span.

Within little time, the organisation for the defence of the castle was completed to a satisfactory level. The rat runs were trodden and re-trodden to familiarise all with the evasive measures that would probably be required. Graham, his knowledge of history becoming their guide to survival, set up three murder holes, confined areas were attackers could neither move backwards or forwards once they had entered and where his quickest and strongest males could strike with relative impunity.

Because of the confined spaces, only short swords and spears could be used. However, Keith Rains had equipped himself with a ‘morning star’, a brutish looking club that was studded with vicious spikes. “I used to play cricket a bit so I should still have a good swing,” was his explanation for choosing such a weapon.

Towards twilight, the first of the refugees began to emerge from the countryside. First there came two young men, all smiles and greetings not disguising their discomfort at being within such a large group of strangers. Then, very soon afterwards, came more and more. On questioning, it would seem that the empty landscape through which Graham’s band had travelled was not so empty after all. The group’s reluctance to venture into buildings meant that they had missed numbers of others who were just hiding and surviving. For all they knew, Graham may have been in charge of a mopping up exercise run by The Piper so they did not show themselves.

“So why now?” Mr. Dale wondered aloud.

The dreams. They had all experienced dreams about the leathers and these dreams had been so disquieting, so very different to the replays of the previous terrors, that many of them took them to be warnings of things to come. Then they had dreamt about the man who was yet a boy, the one with a sword of flames, the one who had the brightest light at his back but not upon him, and they headed towards the castle in which he resided believing that he could halt the flood of their hunters.

“That’s him,” a voice cried out in amazement, its owner pointing towards Michael who had just entered the room with his brother. “That’s him from my dream.”

A tide of rising whispers seeped into the library with faces turning towards the one who had been identified. In return, Michael walked quickly from the place intent on becoming as invisible as he could.

“Michael wait for me,” Chris was after him. “What is it? Why were they pointing at you?”

Michael had broken into a run by this point and his brother had to do likewise to keep up. The pace increased to a sprint as they raced along the ground floor and then the eldest darted to his left and through a large opening that took them into another tower. Taking the stairway two steps at a time, they were soon at its summit. Chris was breathing heavily, the short activity having taken a surprising amount of energy from him. His brother, who was standing by the towers widow looking out to the east, was apparently in no discomfort at all.

“What was all that about? Why did you run away?”

Michael hesitated for a long time before answering, “They think that I can save them. They believe that I have been sent here to stop the leathers.”

“That’s stupid. How do you know that?”

“Have you not seen it in their faces? Every time somebody looks at me, there’s something in their eyes. Have you not noticed how only a few of them actually talk to me. The young ones, they talk, they’re not the same, but the older ones…sometimes some of them can’t even meet my eyes. They look at their hands or their feet. Others just rush away as soon as they can.”

“Perhaps it’s just your imagination.”

Again Michael looked towards the gathering dusk.

“When I was with Mum, I had this dream, it was as if I couldn’t wake up. You were in a wood somewhere and you were with Lucy. There was a man who was pointing a gun at you. You were in danger. I saw the man. No the physical one, but the one inside him and it was The Piper. He’d coiled himself up inside this bloke. Inside him was this snakelike creature that controlled all of his actions and the creature was commanding it to kill you. Payment. That’s what it was after. Payment.”

“That happened. Just last week. We had stopped by this big private school and Will, a bloke who came in with Judith, made me go up the woods where he was going to kill me. He had a gun. Said that it was for The Piper and he talked about the debt. It’s a good job that he couldn’t shoot straight.”

“I distracted him. At the very last moment, he saw me and I saw him. You were thinking about the window you had seen in the church.”

“How do you know?”

“You thought that the figure in the window was me.”

The younger brother listened without interrupting.

“The Man in the window had something like this hadn’t he?”

Michael was holding up his sword and, in an instant, Chris noticed the flames, the real fire that danced along its edge. “Chris, I don’t know who I am any longer. I have blackouts. Look at me. Am I the same brother you had less than two months ago?”

To Read Or Not To Read

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This Is The Question

My early schooling was spoilt by the fact that I found it almost impossible to learn to read. My friends were running through the programme as if it was a ride in the park. They were fast readers, accomplished learners who never had to endure the torture of actually learning something from scratch. Me? I was just a dumbo whose brain had not evolved to the level required to decode the books that were placed before me.

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These two little ‘lovely’ children made my life hell, on a daily basis.

It was common practice to let children read aloud. It was a way of getting everyone to participate in the story. It ought to have been good, but I found it excruciating.  

I grew to hate these two.

I also grew to dread that long path that led towards my desk and the moment when one of the easy reading community passed on the bemusing baton for me to latch on to. I would stumble over the easiest of words, struggle with compounds and blends, and collapse over consonants and vowels. I absolutely hated reading aloud.

READING SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED!

Apart from my dad, nobody else took much notice of my lack of literacy. It was funny for many of my pals when I stumble and fell off each and every sentence that was placed before me. I discovered that the laughter was a screen that I could hide behind. I had a talent that could make my life a little easier. My talent was not reading, but it was the ability to prompt amused responses from those around me. I couldn’t read so I decided to try to make people laugh instead.

I have come across this in students that I have taught throughout the twenty-five years I have had in teaching. The class-clowns, often razor sharp, frustratingly ahead of the game (if the game is to avoid learning), practiced in numerous techniques and strategies to avoid going anywhere near their Achilles Heels in the course of any given school day. They have mastered diversionary tactics that mask their deeply-rooted anxiety about the one thing that trips them up. They build around the problem, develop new skills, nurture talents that may not have been cultivated if it hadn’t been for their issue. Often, they succeed in avoiding the literacy thing all together; that is until it comes back to bite them when they cannot hide any longer. I had the chance to become one of these kids, but something stopped me. I loved learning. Even the class-clown that I was, loved learning.

My literacy problems did not go away overnight. I still have them. When I first became a teacher, I would fret about my poor spelling. I would fret about writing on the boards. Back then, it was the old blackboards that took some rubbing clean. Any mistakes that I made would stubbornly remain, ghostlike behind my intention. Smart kids would offer up alerting hands to point out words that I had incorrectly placed before them. I would joke and point out that that was why I kept a dictionary close at hand, so that I could check before I wrote. Even now, many years an English teacher and practiced writer, I still check my words. I have mild dyslexia. A gift from God.

It was Shakespeare who first helped me.

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I loved Shakespeare because the language seemed as impenetrable as the ordinary stuff that was served up at school. Everybody struggled with Old Bill and that made me happy. All those self-satisfied smug looks fell away in one reading. All at once it was me who was finding the going amusing. I took a copy of Romeo and Juliet home and set about reading it aloud. Nobody at home worried about this because it was me doing it and I did funny things anyway. And you know what? When I read Shakespeare, I read it in role. I became a Shakespearean character reading Shakespearean English. I was not myself. I was not the lad who could not read. I could read and I was brilliant at reading Shakespeare! It wasn’t until later that I found that I had to become someone else in order to overcome the many challenges that were to stand in my way.

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Sally Gardner From The Guardian newspaper November 2014.

(No! That’s not me dressing up. This lovely person is a writer who’s embraced her dyslexic gift.)

When I was at school nobody really knew what dyslexia was. They called it word blind. I always think not being able to spell is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a bit like seeing the iceberg and saying there is dyslexia – but it’s what’s underneath it that interests me a lot more than the boringness of spelling and reading and writing. Because before the first dictionary was written by Mr Samuel Johnson, we spelt rather imaginatively. Nobody was dyslexic, there wasn’t such a word. Some really famous writers from the past such as Chauncer and Shakespeare would have been in a special reading scheme as they hardly spelt the same word the same twice. A lot of Shakespeare’s work was written down for him.

I was sent to a school for maladjusted (which means behaviour problems) children which I eventually left. Then I was 14 went to a posh girls school, but the girls were absolutely horrid to me. I eventually learnt to read at 14 and my mother told me if I got five O levels (old fashioned version of GCSEs), I could go to art school. I just memorised everything. And did manage to get the five, even English literature. When I took that particular exam my English teacher told me write very quietly and not make any noise. She told me: “There are children here going to university and you’re not. So don’t disturbe them please.” So you can see she wasn’t a very supportive teacher.

Sally Gardner

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It has taken me my life to come to terms with the pain of not ever having been a natural reader. I think that I have passed my gift on to my daughters. And the good thing with that is that they are thriving because of it.

The Last Hope

A Gift Before Christmas

Read After Burnout

Safe and Sound

The castle was built for both attack and defence. Its commanding view of the surrounding countryside gave it a great advantage for seeing the enemy whilst providing a platform from which counterattacks could be launched.

Facing to the south and east, lay the moat and to the north and west the castle was perched upon the most imposing of rock precipices that few would dare to climb. Below the rocky outcrop, separating the fortress from the town, was a river which snaked into the grounds from the west and curved round the northern walls before swinging east and then north back towards the source of its flow. Again, nature had been thoughtful enough to provide another line of defence. In other times, the castle could be said to be a complete fortress.

It had been the curiosity of the young ones that had discovered the armoury and…

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The Last Hope

Safe and Sound

The castle was built for both attack and defence. Its commanding view of the surrounding countryside gave it a great advantage for seeing the enemy whilst providing a platform from which counterattacks could be launched.

Facing to the south and east, lay the moat and to the north and west the castle was perched upon the most imposing of rock precipices that few would dare to climb. Below the rocky outcrop, separating the fortress from the town, was a river which snaked into the grounds from the west and curved round the northern walls before swinging east and then north back towards the source of its flow. Again, nature had been thoughtful enough to provide another line of defence. In other times, the castle could be said to be a complete fortress.

It had been the curiosity of the young ones that had discovered the armoury and it was also their adventurous nature which provided the group with a working knowledge of its internal layout. The various tourist maps of the castle had given them a basic compass, but it was the energy and need to explore that made their knowledge so impressive. While the adults had been busy with the celebrations on the first night, the kids had been off, working in groups, opening doors, venturing down stairwells and hallways; even descending into the lower places that used to be the dungeons. In the space of twenty four hours, they had a complex understanding of the place. And, they had found the armoury.

Since escaping the school they had grown. They were, to all intents, twenty first century children who had had the twenty first century stripped away from them. In essence, they had been picked up by the scruff of their necks and thrown back almost three centuries to a pre-industrial age. They were not only children but integral members of a self-sufficient community and they were contented creatures of this new age.

Zack, although not the eldest, was a leader of sorts. He was tough and brave in a way that allowed him to enjoy an occasional spurt of recklessness. His foray into the deep halls of the castle was the adventure that resulted in the discovery of the golden fleece. He was also a bright lad. All in all, there were now thirty three youngsters, a number having deserted the group during the days whilst leaving the city. Nobody ever mentioned these, dreading to think about the fate that they had decided upon.

“It’s in here, Mr. Hunter,” Zack had not had sufficient contact with the old man to use his first name.

Double doors surmounted by a silver plaque proclaiming the word, ‘Armoury’ opened up to his touch. Graham, a child once more, walked into the room, struggling with the possibility that he would be allowed to handle such weapons. Moving along the glass cases and cabinets, he saw sabres, cutlasses, claymores and even a scimitar (brought back from a crusade). His eyes were wide with glee and expectation. Zack watched with an imperceptible shake of his head, adults were often as childish as children.

“Its okay, they’re open, Sir.”

Carefully placing his hand on the unlocked casing, Graham eased it open and reached inside to place his hand on the hilt of the scimitar. Fingers forming a soft glove, he lifted it from its restraints.

“A scimitar, Zack. I can’t believe that I am holding one. It’s fabulous. When I was a boy, I dreamt of owning one of these things. Don’t you think it’s beautiful?”

Zack did indeed think that it was a thing of considerable beauty.

“Yes. I think it is wonderful.”

“It was the sword of the Moors. You can still see it on the flags of Arab countries.”

“I know, Sir. We did that in History with you in Year 7.”

“Yes, Zach. I had forgotten that you were in my class back then. And here we are now.” He paused for a while to consider what had gone. “We have work to do, don’t we?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Zack, you know the castle as well as anybody.”

“Better.”

“Good, then I want you to show me all that you know. I want shortcuts, hidden passages, I want to see places where we can run to if it gets bad, I want a way out if it gets really bad. Do you understand?”

“Of course. It’s like Lord of the Rings isn’t it?”

“You’ve got it Zack, but I think that Orks have a nicer disposition.”

They were sharing the joke when Chris spoke. He and his brother had made their way to the armoury using one of the other boys, Lewis, as a guide.

“Is it alright if we join you?”

“The more the merrier,” chuckled Graham through heightened spirits.   

Christmas Memories

Memories again

Read After Burnout

Lovely, dark and deep.

Lucy’s Diary 22ndDecember 

Will everyday be like these? I sometimes wonder if we are meant to be living through or just suffering them.

Last night would have constituted one of the best of my life. ‘David’ who still likes to be known as Chris. I can’t help calling him David and it’s becoming a bit embarrassing. Anyway, last night was one of the first normal nights that the world has possibly seen since The Purge and Graham led a celebration for our deliverance. More importantly, Chris kissed me for the first time.

I know that it has been coming, right from the start the signs were evident, but it would have been magnificent if he had not seen ‘The Giant’, as he is now commonly known, snooping around in the grounds. That put a stop to the kissing and started that look again, the…

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