Posted in Short Stories

The Lone Hawthorn Tree

We do not shout at the hawthorn tree,
That which stands alone in the middle of the path.
The path came after the tree, they say; wise men made sure none cut it down,
Rather, they built the path around it, and left it due recompense for the imposition.
The hawthorn tree is the peace-keeper, the steady presence,
To lose it would be a bitter blow, for hot-heads need little reason and less excuse.
Do not stand long, by the hawthorn tree, do not bring notice upon yourself.
Do not sit beneath it, no matter how the rain pours, or the wind blows,
It is not for your shelter that it stands.

The warring clans of Fae meet there,
A sacred place where none may fight.
It is there where peace is brokered at last,
Paid for by the broken bodies of fallen fairies,
Shattered bodies of creatures from an Other World,
Bought with the wretched tears of the grieving,
For how much worse is loss to those who do not age?
At long last, a debt paid in blood, a lasting agreement which says,
‘Enough.’

But if the hawthorn were to no longer stand,
Where then shall peace be made at last?
Where shall the queens entreat their lords to call a halt,
And say that the times comes for something new?
Peace is not spoken of at wells,
Where echoes steal the words away and drown them.
Peace is not whispered upon the heath,
Where the wind may freeze the tongue,
And snatch the chance for change away from reach.

They say an oath sworn beneath to bows of the hawthorn tree
Cannot be broken, nor taken back.
They say to approach it upon the Death Day
Is to hear it groan with remembered pain.
When all fruit fails, welcome the haws,
The hope and healing springs forth for the faithful,
The careful keepers, the respectful bearers.
Do not fear the thorns, if your heart is pure,
Only grave-wights and wicked things are destroyed by its prick.

So the hawthorn tree must stand,
Stand for peace from forces greater than our own,
Stand and grow strong, strong as our own hopes for peace.
A lone body, with no voice,
But an ever-ready ear, waiting just to listen.
Ready to hear that first and final word,
‘Enough.’
Do not disturb the peace of the hawthorn,
Do not raise your voice.

Never tried free-form poetry before, but I got a flash of inspiration and I wanted to share! Always good to try out new things, no?


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Posted in Short Stories

Tread Carefully…

Tread carefully, when you walk upon Our Land, my boy. Stay your step and take that second thought. We will wait here in the air long after you cease to breathe it, and our roots are nourished by your blood and bone. You have so much of both, my boy, do you really wish to give it to us?

Tread carefully, when you approach the Stones. Your people think of stones with graves, and that is for good reason. You are filled up with resources, and we can use every inch of you for something. You bring nothing of value save yourself. Do you mean to offer it up to us?

Tread carefully, my boy, and close the Gate up fast. The Guardsmen are sleeping and many of us have but waited long for this moment. We do not sleep, we do not dream, we do not hope. We only wait and watch and when a weakness is found, we strike it. Others should not have to suffer for the foolishness which is all your own, do you not think? Close the gate behind you, if tread beyond it you must…

Tread carefully, your people say that grass is made of blades, and you should listen to your elders, boy. Our fruits are laced with poisons sweet, our branches spiked with thorns. Your feet will bleed and your tears will only replenish our thirst, and you cannot afford to make us stronger. You will only weaken as we grow, and for everything we feed you, we will take back a thousand-fold. How much can you lose?

Tread carefully, for see how the storm-clouds gather above? The Huntsman rides this night, and his hounds have gone too long without feasting. The wind carries with it the sound of his Horn, and the cheers of his Riders break the night. Maybe you shall be fast and clever, able to evade them long enough they will take you for their one of their own, but you are so slow, so ill-used to these games, my boy, it is far more likely still that you shall provide them their sport in other ways. How do you think you shall taste to them when they catch you?

Tread carefully, when you think to follow the Hidden Path. It was hidden for a reason and wiser folk than your foolish young spirit learned the lessons to avoid it. Its twists and turns are beyond your mind’s capacity to hold firm, and you will not enjoy losing your grip on the world’s truths… nor on your own self. It is such a pretty, pretty mind, my boy, but it will be prettier still when it shatters into so many brilliant fragments…

Tread carefully, when you think to enter the Wilds and seek your fortune therein. You are a Tamer at heart, and the Wilds have no interest in buying what you sell. Tame things live lesser lives, shorter ones, Wild lives race along a razor’s edge and are all the more certain for it. You think to explore, but you wish to take with you more than memories and pictures and all things come at a cost. We do not give you of ourselves without consuming all that we can from you first…

Tread carefully, when you feel the Watcher’s gaze. It is not your imagination, for you cannot think of anything so terrible as Them shall be when they catch you. No, you cannot outrun them, nor outwit them. They were tearing apart those such as you long before even the language you think in. They will have their rightful prey when it wanders so willing into their den…

Tread carefully, you were not invited here. You were not wanted, and you were not sought out. You brought yourself, and that is an offering to the hungry. You are softer than you think, and know less than you ought. You are a candle trying to match itself to a forest fire.

It is not a contest.

Won’t you turn back, my boy, before you tread further? Before you become Ours, for ill or for worse…


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Over the Hills and Far Away…

When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When the birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din—
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope—these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.

Fairy Music, by Rose Fyleman, 1919

You wanted something different. Something new. Anything was better than this world, you thought, embittered by your own small problems and nebulous so-called larger issues which now seem so small in hindsight. And you had wanted an adventure of your own, to see if magic truly existed in the world, after all.

You danced at the standing stones, strayed from the paths in the woods, accepted the deal at the crossroads.

You were so happy to find Them at last. You were so eager, so excited…

Besides, nothing which sang so sweetly, which laughed so merrily, could be so very bad. They were so kind to welcome you, so eager to talk to you, as eager as you were to talk to Them. With moonlight skin and silver eyes, They were so wonderful to look at, so compelling to watch as They danced and danced, and you were welcomed to dance with Them in your turn…

Salt and silver, bread and milk, do not give them your name, do not take their deals, do not listen to their songs, do not eat their food, do not listen to their pretty, pretty lies…

You had heard the warnings of your elders, and you remember still their words, although their names have long since faded. Or perhaps they were taken from you? So many things have been taken from you by now, and it is pointless to try to count and trace them all. Time is a thief in its own right, but at least the soft fading away of long-ago memories is painless and natural. Nothing else about your life has been natural is so very long…

Ah, but you were so foolish back then…

But you see… You had so wanted to see another world, wanted magic and legends and something more than the dull grind of a callous world. Different would be better, and nothing could be worse, you had thought.

You have long-since learned that you were wrong. The mouse learns that the cheese in the trap is no better than food outside of it too, much good as the lesson does you both, now that you have learned it.

They liked you at first, you were different to Them. New. Your tongue was one They were unused to and you sang Them songs They had not heard time beyond telling. You showed Them the dances from your own childhood, odd hopping movements, and complicated gestures in the air. They laughed, and you laughed with Them then. They asked and asked and asked for the things which you knew back then, and you gave it all up to Them freely, asking little and less in return from Them. It did not occur to you to bargain, to hold anything in return, to keep anything in reserve should you have need of it later.

You were so foolish back then… So very foolish…

Perhaps you would have enjoyed those days of wonder, of light and sparkle and laughter, but even back then you could see – pushed aside and into the shadows, forgotten for a while in the face of something new – the eyes of those who had come before you. Could see your own future staring back from the corners of the room and the shadows they daren’t creep out from.

Faded beings, empty eyes and grasping hands, mouths slack with hunger or tight with pain, once human and now… not. But still too human to remain unmauled, even once they had been stripped of their colour, their spark and life. What remains of them is uncanny and stilted, but far worse is the sense that they are now … missing pieces. You wonder how they might have come to bargain away anything which you can sense, human as you are, but you just as quickly cast the thought aside. Best not to think about it. They looked at you with envy, aye, but they looked at you with pity also. The new, bright, hopeful auditioner, a new favourite… for a short while. Never for long.

They are like children, you think sometimes, though the words hold only the last remaining dregs of their remembered meaning. You’re not sure, if you try to think about it, if you really know what children are, what they look like, if you yourself were ever such a thing. But still you keep saying such phrases to yourself, trying to remember thoughts from a time when you knew they were your own. Sometimes They play a game where they slot new thought after strange phrase into your mind to see how long it takes for you to realise. Sometimes They take things away until you reach for something and find it is no longer there. Once the game is up and the laughter has ended, sometimes They give you the missing pieces back.

Sometimes.

If They feel you’ve earned it.

They are like children, easily distracted, easily charmed and no object permanence at all. Quick to discard a toy once it ceases to entertain Them, and quicker to forget and move onto the next shiny new thing to wander across Their vision…

Except there they are nothing like children at all. They never truly forget about their toys, after all. If they did, perhaps you could hide. But you can’t. No matter how far you push yourself into the shadows, no matter how small you ty to make yourself appear, They come to find you quickly enough.

They took and took and took from you, everything you could think to give, poking and prodding to remind you that there was surely always something more to feed to Their endless curiosity, and you gave it all up with open hands, freely at first and then more and more fearful. You do not even wish to imagine what will happen should you disappoint them. Your fears whisper to you and you determinedly close you ears to them. Your hands tremble as you hold out yet another part of yourself – some small detail, some new thought or memory or secret you had held within yourself for so long – to be gobbled up, sucked dry and you feel some inner core of yourself start to shrivel with the constant plundering by greedy ears and mouths and nothing new to feed it with. You will think of something new tomorrow. You must.

Eventually, the inevitable. You search within yourself for yet more to feed to Their hunger and find that there is nothing left that is new. And you realise that your fearful thoughts are only the beginning. Now comes the true price of your foolishness…

Your voice begins to crack, to dry up, your mind begins to empty. They do not wish to hear the thoughts which They put there for you. They want more from inside you. You have nothing left to offer, and now the real test begins. Your songs become stale to The, the melodies faltering, the verses hesitating, the notes unsure. You have sung this song since Before, surely you cannot forget it now? When they wait to hear it? But no matter how you stretch your mind, it finds only half what is needed and even that you are unsure of.

Your stories dull and wandering; you do not remember the endings anymore, cannot always keep the threads straight in your mind. You think at first that the suggestions They call out to you – to the sea, he goes to the sea! No, to the hills, you said to the hills! Ah, but he has wings, so he must fly! – are to aid you, that They have taken some pity upon you at last, mocking though Their pity only ever is. But you begin to realise that you have told the beginning of the same story seven times over and gotten no further than the first of the hero’s tasks, cannot remember now what the task was, nor why they were attempting it, and the silver bells of laughter around you echo so loudly in your ears that you cannot hear yourself think long enough to find and pick up the shivering threads.

You look up, lost and beseeching, but the silver queen stares straight back at you from her frozen throne, her silver eyes which pierce you through like spear-tips, uncaring as you bleed beneath your wounds, and you wonder why you ever thought that she was kind.

“I will have my story, child. Begin again.”

And the air that you breathe cuts into your lungs with icicles but you gasp for it anyway. Speaking with no air in your chest hurts. You bow your head, find your tongue again and begin once more, as you were bidden. You cannot rest until you reach the ending, after all.

You think you may be taller now than you once were. Perhaps. Your hair is certainly longer, but maybe you are only remembering a different style to wear it in. You have become more and more like them and they have hundreds of their own. They do not need you, pale imitation of their own beauty that you are. You are no longer exotic, and far from perfect, and so you are simply… defective. A malformed creature in their eyes. You wonder if you look like your own people, from Before, but you have no way to know and you doubt it all the same.

You are no longer the focus of the evening’s attention, certainly. You think you sigh in relief, but perhaps it is regret also. You miss the chance to dance with Them, and you still pine for Them to smile upon you and laugh, for the days when Their hands were soft and welcoming to you, not tipped with claws and greedy to pluck ever more from your depths. You wish so much to escape from Them, but you also wish you could crawl up and curl at Their feet, sleep in peace again and be loved by Them.

Surely They loved you once? You were so sure that They did…

Ah… But you were so sure of so many things, and you were wrong… so very wrong…

Besides there is always something new out there to be found and collected, something different. There are new children come to Court, bright-eyed and giggling with excitement. They can’t believe that all of this is quite real yet, are sure that it is all some fantastic dream, which they do not ever want to wake up from. There is little enough chance that they can, so perhaps they will be happy for a while.

You pity them a little, but you hope too that they are full of interest for everyone. You are sure that they will have plenty of new songs and stories to share, perhaps even a new dance to teach Them. They like to learn something new, They always do. Things move on so fast, do they not? You have grown, no longer shining and innocent and new. There is nothing left to corrupt, nothing left to shock or bedazzle. You have seen Their tricks one too many times too.

You have not yet lost all use though. You are never sure whether to be glad of it or not. You think it cannot be worse, to be finally cast entirely aside, but you remember you used to think nothing could be worse than your life Before, and now you know better.

They find other ways to take their entertainment from you. Ways you were expecting and ways you weren’t. They change the colours in your hair, your eyes, your skin, changed the shape of your chin, the tilt and form of your ears, until you look into mirrors and even you don’t remember what you once looked like anymore. Your voice is different every day now, and sometimes it is no voice at all but the whine of a frightened beast or the shriek of a trapped bird. They like to rake you with pain and see if They can make you scream in the tongue of every creature They know, comparing the different tones and timbers of growl or whimper, pretending to pet you as They discuss which voice They should ‘gift’ you with next. You are not asked what you would wish for. You do not expect to be.

They took your eyes from you once, and you don’t know how long you spent stumbling without them, feeling your way around and trying to gauge distance from the sounds in your ears, until you remember that They can play with echoes just like anything else, and gave up all hope at last. You have eyes again, but you doubt that they are truly your own. Nothing else is, after all.

Your limbs may be longer than theirs now, but They find interest enough in them all the same. You flinch whenever they bring out the pipes, but you know there is nowhere to run to, and trying only makes things worse.

Come, dance for us! You love to dance! They call, and the pipes drone out their opening notes and you wish They had not taken your tears from you, but even if you still could cry, it would do you no good.

The notes lash themselves around your wrists and ankles and you jerk to your feet, stumbling and flailing a little. They laugh. You spin and turn, leap and bend, body moved by the music, over and over, faster and faster, never ending, never slowing, you are lost to it, until the music should see fit to realise you, and it never will. Another quick spin and you feel the skin on your feet begin to shred, blood beginning to seep out into the dry earth. It soaks the redness up without comment or thanks. You gasp for breath and find too little of it. The air is sharp and hard, you cannot breathe it properly. You need rest. You need to stop.

The music does not care, you begin the sequence again, spinning and leaping and bending. They laugh as they watch. You think desperately to scream for help, for mercy, but there is little help to be hoped for and certainly no mercy to be found. The soles of your feet are covered now in blood, you think it is probably your own, but there are plenty more just like you all around, jerking wildly and leaping and turning and you are all being pushed too far beyond your limits. You are all bleeding, chests tight as you fight for your next breath. And your next. The pipes play on, heedless, tugging you this way and that to the tune of Their fickle whims.

They laugh.

You wonder how you ever thought Their laughter an invitation.

It was a warning.

They did warn you. Back before everything.

You didn’t listen.


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Posted in Ivan's Adventures, Short Stories

A Cup of Dragon

Greetings all! I interrupt your week to show you this: Ivan has found himself a teacup to sleep in and it’s adorable!

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Who’s the cutest dragon? Yep, you are!

Behold the Cuteness!

Sorry, I probably should have warned you. Too much sweetness can be fatal, I hear.

Anyway, I was trying to find a tea-related dragon story to share with you all and have yet to be successful, which is a shame.

But all is not lost!

Indeed I do have a drink-related tale to tell, and I hope that you will find it to be a suitable substitute?

We are returning to Ireland, a place we haven’t visited since St Patrick’s day. Back then we remembered the fearsome Lig-na-Baste, but today’s story is a little funnier, despite the dragon being even bigger!

The Ollipeist’s Very Difficult Nap

The Ollipeist was a big dragon – no, not big, the Ollipeist was a huge dragon.

The clue is in his name: in Irish Gaelic ‘Oll’ means ‘great’ and ‘Peist’ means ‘fabulous beast’. I like to imagine him being all decked out in gems and shiny things, like Smaug but there’s no evidence that this was so. It would have been pretty fabulous though.

What we do know is that it took a whole lake for the Ollipeist to sleep in. Now most dragons used to sleep in the bends of rivers and little underground pools deep in the mountains, but that would not have fitted the Ollipeist. He was far too big to have fitted in such a tight spot.

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You’re very fabulous too, Ivan. I promise, no other dragon can out-fabulous you, stop looking like that!

Sidenote: Dragons like to sleep in water to help support their huge forms while they are unable to keep shifting their weight. Failure to solve such a problem can lead to a dragon effectively suffocating under its own body-weight, despite the strength of its ribs. Ivan’s a little too small for this to be a problem, but the tea cup seems to give him a better night’s sleep regardless.

Anyway.

The Ollipeist was a gentle giant, despite his huge size, he spent his time quietly swimming in his lake and talking to people who came to visit him. The Ollipeist liked people, and people liked him. On sunny afternoons he would come out of the lake and bask in the sunshine and the braver people might come close enough to tickle his belly and see if they could make him laugh.

Sadly, Saint Patrick had undertaken to drive all the dragons out of Ireland along with their snake and serpent cousins, and it is entirely understandable that the Ollipeist was upset when he heard this. A generally peaceful and benign dragon, rather than roaring and destroying whole villages, the Ollipeist instead went to go and sulk in his lake.

Dragons are very serious and dignified.

Sadly, just as the Ollipeist was about to fall into a grumpy nap, along the road comes a piper – a local lad called O’Rourke. O’Rourke had been celebrating a friend’s birthday, drinking after playing his pipes for the dancing, and as such was utterly sloshed.

Now, there are doubtless many people who can be completely drunk and still play beautifully, but O’Rourke was not such a man. He played with much enthusiasm, but with a skill completely unworthy of his more sober talents.

The Ollipeist grumbled to himself even more and tried to sink under the surface of the water to block out the noise.

It wasn’t working.

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Yes, Ivan, even you can be dignified sometimes. Sometimes.

He tried blowing bubbles at the piper, and making the ground shake to show that he was in no mood to be disturbed, but O’Rourke remained cheerfully oblivious.

Finally the Ollipeist had had enough. With a great wave of water, the dragon rose out of his lake, reached out with his long neck and swallowed O’Rourke in one gulp!

Swallowing him down, the Ollipeist sank back into his lake. Maybe he felt a little bit bad about eating the piper, but at least the noise had stopped.

Right?

Luckily for O’Rourke, Ollipeist was so big that he made it past the dragon’s teeth, down his throat and into his huge stomach entirely unharmed.

Not that it made much difference to him at the time, for he was still far too drunk to have realised his predicament. With the grace of the truly inebriated, he hadn’t even dropped his pipes in the excitement, and he continued to march up and down the, to him, strange squishy cave, playing away just as he had before.

The Ollipeist groaned to himself. Was there no end to his terrible day? And now the noise was coming from his own body, so there was no escaping the awful racket the piper was putting out.

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No Ivan, you don’t need to flee your tea cup, I promise no one’s coming to get you!

Some days it’s hard to be a dragon.

He tried to see if he could sleep through the noise, in case his mass had muffled the sound or the piper would stop soon?

No such luck. If anything the music was even louder now, and the piper’s marching back and forth was giving him a tummy ache.

Finally the Ollipeist could take it no longer and with a bit of wiggling and heaving all round, he was able to spit O’Rourke out again. He gave the man a bit of a push in the direction of the party he had left, and sank back below the water again.

Maybe the water would soothe the aches in his head and his stomach? Maybe when O’Rourke has staggered far enough away the Ollipeist could get some sleep and it would all be better in the morning?

Happily, in the end the Ollipeist was never killed.

Unfortunately Saint Patrick did eventually come after him, and the Ollipeist had to run away from him, fleeing to the ocean. As he fled, his tail carved the great Shannon Valley.

For more dragon stories, check out Ivan’s many adventures here.

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Just Checking In

No, you’re not imagining it, readers who have patiently waited for this new chapter for months on end! It’s finally here!

If you’re coming to the Ghosts&Gowns series for the first time, there’s a summery page for everything that’s come before it here. Enjoy!

Ch.8 - Just Checking In

If one works in an office in a college for long enough, one acquires The Admin Face.

It is entirely blank and devoid of all expression. It has no cracks in its defences, no chink in the armour.

It neither bends nor breaks, no matter the Force of Nature that assails it. The Admin Face must endure all.

It comes very much in handy when explaining to the most well-read persons that if they were to perhaps read the third line of their committee papers again, they might come to the conclusion that their meeting is – and has always been – in another location.

It is invaluable when suggesting to the greatest minds in generations that, like most doors, this one will open should one turn the handle and push (or failing this, pull.) That there is no Key of Legend necessary, merely hand-eye coordination.

It is the expression firmly affixed to Margaret’s face as she silently surveys the figure before her.

“I think you will understand if I do not offer you tea?”

Thank you but no, Margaret Cl- Pink-rimmed glasses do not soften the flash in grey eyes as they narrow dangerously. The figure stumbles of its words for a moment before rallying slightly. No thank you, Margaret.

Margaret waits in silence for a moment further. The figure remains motionless too, but it is a studied stillness, that of one trying not to fidget.

Ch.1 - Life is Compulsory - smallFinally Margaret lifts one unimpressed eyebrow. “Is there something I can help you with this evening?”

I should like to meet with Horace Richards, Margaret.

Margaret’s crossed arms do not budge, but the fingers of one hand begin to tap out an irregular rhythm. The figure twitches slightly as if wishing to make her stop, but stays in place.

“I’m afraid that you do not have an appointment. I am sorry to disappoint you.”

Death does not require an appointment.

Margaret’s lips quirk upwards on one side. Cats did the same thing before they bit you, in Death’s experience.

“My understanding was that everyone has an appointment with Death, do they not? But only one such appointment. Yours was two months ago; not today.”

Death gave the distinct impression of eyeing the office wall. No lock, bolt nor key can keep Death away after all. Death could simply walk past her, perhaps?

“I’m afraid I must repeat myself. You do not have an appointment with Professor Richards.”

The standoff settled properly for a moment before a head poked through the wall.

“Who don’t I have an appointment with, Margaret?”

Professor Horace Richards, Master of Devon College maintained that his timing was one of the best-honed in the Known World.

He took in the figure standing opposite his Personal Assistant, and beamed a cheery greeting.

“Oh, hello there! Dropping in to see everyone are you, or is it business?”

The figure slowly nodded a cautious greeting, although it appeared to be keeping a wary eye on Margaret still, perhaps in case of attack.

“I regret that this is not a social call, Horace Richards. I have business in this place.”

Margaret made a stifled noise which in another woman could have been almost a snarl. Richards froze for a moment, a thoroughly stricken look on his pale face.

“Oh dear, I mean to say – Margaret, this is awful! Surely not?”

“Professor?”

“Well, I mean really – it’s one thing when it’s oneself of course, but to see it happen to one’s friends! Awful is what I call it.” Horace fixed Death with a stern look. “You know I don’t like to tell a chap – or supernatural being in your case, I suppose – how to do their job, you know I don’t, but I really do think you ought to reconsider this a little.”

I should reconsider doing my job, you say?

Horace puffed himself up slightly before waving a finger in a reproving manner at the Grim Reaper.

Ch.5 - The Problem with Ghosts - small“Indeed, I do! I mean, I’m sure that Margaret would be a veritable asset to whatever plain of existence she took up residence on, but the College is rather indebted to her and all, you know? Quote irreplaceable, our Margaret. I cannot, as the Master of the College, in good conscience allow you to take her from us without protest, you understand.”

For a moment which, had Richards been paying attention, would have seemed surreal in the extreme, Death and Margaret seemed to share a bewildered look, untied from conflict in the face of Horace Richards in full-flow.

“Professor,” Margaret attempted to intercede, before Richards patted her kindly on the shoulder and boldly forged onwards without a pause.

“No, no Margaret, you need never fear! I shall be quite prepared to fight for you! Such long and devoted service shall not be in vain! Why, I have half a mind to call the Bursar in on the matter, indeed I do!”

Horace turned on Death once more, and shook his head in a fatherly manner.

“I know that you came prepared to do battle for Margaret’s life, and I have no doubt that you have a great deal of experience in Such Matters, but I promise you, my dear fellow, that you are most certainly not equipped to do battle with the Bursar! There are, I suspect, few if any who can out-match him for persistence and technicality-wrangling…”

Richards spun and bustled out through the wall for a moment, before returning to call, “And no sneaking off with Margaret’s immortal soul until we get back, you hear?”

The two former-opponents looked at each other for a beat of silence. Margaret broke it with a resigned sigh.

“Would you care for that cup of tea now?”

Death sighed deeply for a moment, its shoulders slumped a little in the wake of the tempest known to some as Professor Richards.

Some tea would be most… reviving at the moment. Thank you, Margaret.

Margaret poured and passed Death a cup. The saucer clinked as bone fingers clasped it. After another beat of silence, Death spoke again.

I feel that this interview has been far less of a success than the last one I undertook with Horace Richards.

Margaret smiled at the slumped figure in a motherly way.

“It’s quite alright, my dear; the Professor often gets like this. You could not have been expected to explain once he properly got himself going.”

He is… very determined.

Ch.7 - The Ghost in the Machine“In absolutely every matter he undertakes, I’m afraid. You may feel free to step out now if you feel it would be easier. I’m quite certain that there are many other things that you could be more profitably engaged in.”

Death considered it for a moment.

Thank you for the offer, but I feel that I must see the point through.

Whatever Margaret might have said in return was lost as the door flinging itself open and Richards bodily dragging the Bursar into the office, speaking all the while.

“-why you simply must explain to them that Death may well be inevitable but that’s no reason to take Margaret away.”

The Bursar did not look at all thrilled to be in the presence of his inevitable fate but – presumably emboldened by the prospect of having to replace a long-term staff member and the loss of experience along with them – took a deep breath, adjusted his glasses with firm and concise motions and fixed Death with a Level Look.

“Am I to understand that you are here on business, er, Death?” He paused to flick a glance at Margaret, before asking, “Death? Mort? Grim Reaper? Sir?”

“I understand those are more titles than names, Bursar.”

The Bursar nodded, now on firmer ground. “Indeed.”

He cleared his throat again.

“Am I to understand that you are here on a matter of business?”

I am.

“I don’t suppose that we might, on behalf of the College, be able to negotiate some form of exception?”

Has this College not already done such a thing?

There was an embarrassed pause, which the Bursar broke with Customary Tact.

Ch.9 - Duck and Cover“Oh, you mean Richards? Well there’s no accounting for the madness of Horace, after all! Many fine men and women have tried to their downfall you know!”

“Bursar!” Margaret’s tone would have etched glass.

Richards simply adopted an expression of Mild Confusion and Curiosity, an omen which promised far-greater suffering at a time of his choosing.

The Bursar may have winced a little. Just a little. It may have been a trick of the light. Then he Gathered Himself.

“My larger point in this discussion, regardless of other matters, is that Margaret-“

But I have not come with a view to collecting the lady’s soul, gentlemen.

Death’s tone was infused with just a touch of desperation as the conversation threatened to run away from it again. The Bursar’s involvement in a matter tended to have that effect.

“You haven’t?”

In a historic moment for the College and Oxford in general, the Head of the College and the Bursar were in Complete Agreement.

No! I merely wished to-

Richards clapped his hands in triumph. “Well that’s a relief then! Most gratifying, I should say, is it not, Bursar?”

He clapped the Bursar heartily on the shoulder and cheerfully continued as the poor man shivered in the cold sensation and Margaret passed him a Warming Beverage.

“Yes indeed, quite a weight off one’s mind and all that. Thank heaven and whatnot. I shudder to think what we should all do without Margaret’s Extensive Experience.”

Margaret gently cleared her throat, bringing Richard’s attention back to his visitor.

“Thank you for your concern, Professor, but the Grim Reaper wished to ascertain if you were still satisfied with your current position.”

Death shifted a little, as if uncomfortable. It started to speak and Margaret shot the figure a truly poisonous look, and it fell silent.

“Margaret,” Richards sounded as though he were trying for reprimanding but unable to follow through on the concept. “Kindly stop intimidating our guest, if you please.”

Margaret’s eyes widened into a picture of perfect innocence. The Bursar snorted and was elbowed into silence by the spectre at his side.

Ch.6 - The Hero of the Hour - Part 1 - small“The Grim Reaper wished to see you, Professor. I was simply explaining that you were about to Chair the Finance Committee at two.”

The Bursar started. “Oh my goodness, yes! We’ll be late starting at this rate! Come along, Master, there’s no time to waste!”

He waved imperiously at Richards and bustled out of the room.

“There’s still ten minutes until the meeting begins, Bursar, will you please settle down?” Muttered Richards after the man as he watched him depart.

No response came back, and he sighed.

“You shouldn’t excite him like that, Margaret.”

“Yes, Professor.” Perfect innocence.

“Quite.” Richards returned his attentions to Death. “So I gather that you are here for me once more, eh? Seems a bit redundant, doesn’t it?”

Death looked remarkably exhausted for an Eternal Force of nature.

I was concerned that leaving you here may have been… a mistake. I try not to leave, what is the term? Loose ends?

Richards’ expression as he regarded the personification of Death hovering in his secretary’s office was remarkably fond.

“Oh is that what was worrying you, old thing? Feeling like you’d left me behind or some such? Well worry no more! I’m perfectly content to keep bustling about the place, just as I expected. Aren’t I, Margaret?”

“You do seem to be quite satisfied by your situation, Professor. It appears to be presenting you with interesting opportunities and experiences.”

“Quite! No second thoughts to be found here, indeed no!”

Death appeared unconvinced.

It is untidy. Incompleteness is unsatisfactory. There may be consequences.

Richards did not appear to be swayed. “Nonsense, my dear chap! That’s life, after all! Or not, as the case may be. We must all resign ourselves to the decisions of others after all. Even the Bursar does, and he’s almost as inescapable as yourself!”

He is a man of considerable energy.

“Nicest thing anyone’s ever said about the man, isn’t it Margaret? Did you make a note of that?”

“I did, Professor.”

“Excellent! Anyway, you stop worrying yourself on my account, eh? Can’t be good for the health, even for you! I take full responsibly for the results of my own actions, you know?”

Death paused in the process of making another remonstration. You do?

Margaret’s head whipped around to stare at it, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. “I beg your pardon?”

Death ignored her. You will take responsibility for the consequences of this irregularity.

Richards held his head up high. “Indeed I do! I dare say between Margaret, the College and myself, we can manage any effects, whatever they may be.”

I see. Death gathered itself together. In that case, I shall leave you, Horace Richards and Margaret.

And with that the figure was gone.

The Master of Devon College exchanged a look with his secretary.

“Well then.”

“Indeed, Professor.”

“Odd sort of person, Death. Seems a bit of a natural worrier, if you ask me.” He shrugged. “Mind you, I suppose when one is essentially the embodiment of The Worst Thing That Could Happen, it may be inevitable.”

“Perhaps, Professor.”

Richards shook his head. “Ah well, not time to ponder such things now. Must be off to Chair that meeting before the Bursar goes Mad with Power.”

“That would be very unfortunate, Professor.”

“Indeed it would! Hold down the fort until I get back, won’t you, Margaret?”

“Very well, Professor.”

And that was, as they say, that.