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Martha Kingdon-Ward Diaries

As some will know and many will be unaware, I am the grandson of the explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward (also known as Francis Kingdon Ward, and Capt F.K. Ward) author, explorer, and plant collector.

I am also the nephew of a very talented musician, my Aunt Martha, who sadly died last year at the age of 93. She was a clarinettist of considerable renown who formed a number of musical groups best know of which was/is Sweet Harmony.

She was a devoted fan of Mozart and did a huge amount of reaserch into his works.

I just got back from a celebration of her life with many of her muscial friends. I must confess, for complicated reasons that I don’t want to bore you, or embarrass myself, with I only ever met her once. Nevertheless, I have been entrusted with her diaries which, although they do not cover the entirety of her life, are nevertheless extensive consisting of 40+ books, each one filled with fairly close-packed writing. They date from the 1970s until fairly recently. There is also one from 1946 which I am working through now.

I will share bits from these dairies for all, although I anticipate the main interest will be exclusively among her immediate friends and family, it will be worth the effort for them alone.

 

Short Story – The Cross (for want of a better title)

I started writing this as an exercise to see if I could write something that would be good for my short story competition (for details see here) Obviously I would not be able to enter my own competition, but I figured I could still put my own effort into the anthology.

As I sailed past the 2,500 word maximum for the competition, I realised how very difficult it is to write short stories to a specific length. To anyone entering this competition, I take my hat off to you.

Meanwhile, please let me know what you think of my 6,000 word effort.

As ever, this is unedited, other than my own lacklustre efforts, so please forgive all the errors and inconsistencies.


The warm flickering amber glow of a real log fire dominated the ambience in The Plough this evening, as it had done on countless evenings since the place had first been built over three hundred years ago. The scent of wax cotton jackets mingled with the woodsmoke and flowing Exmoor Gold, while the ebb and flow of conversation and laughter filled the ears. Bill, Harry, and John sat around the dark wooden circular table, with its heavy cast iron base, their ruddy beer glasses glinting and pulsing in the firelight like they were magical. And, somehow, it was magic, just sitting there, first pint already downed, letting the muscles relax after a hard day spreading slurry. In some ways little had changed in all those centuries. True, they now had a John Deere the size of a small cottage with the power of a couple of hundred shire horses, and even Harry, the eldest of the three, had a slim shiny black smartphone in his pocket, even if he did only use it to let the wife know he was on his way home for tea.

The door opened letting a cold draft whip round the bar until it shut again with a clatter and the wind, losing momentum, settled down to sleep somewhere in the middle of the floor. The newcomers were youngsters, three of them, late teens or early twenties, woolly hats and fleece jackets, wearing trainers, not wellies. They were chatting animatedly on arrival, continuing a conversation that had started outside.

“I dunno, Lunnen, or Brizzle, I guess. Nothin’ ever ’appens here, thass for sure!”

“You wouldn’t last five minutes in London, Dave, they’d eat you for breakfast.”

There was laughter as the lads got to the bar and ordered. The lass serving them, Sal by name, smiled warmly at Dave, who failed to notice. They sat at an empty table near the fire and acknowledged the three older men.

“Alright dad?” Dave said to Bill.

“Alright son? You’m still on about movin’ then?”

“Well … ” he hesitated.

“You thought about work? Not much call for a farm hand wi’ a BTEC in animal care round Chelsea way, so I’ear.”

There was a ripple of laughter among the older group.

“Dave’s right though,” said one of the youngsters, coming to his friend’s defence, “Nothing ever happens round ’ere.”

“Oh, I dunno, bay,” piped up John, “I ’eared tell of a ewe az juss give birth to a two headed lamb.”

“Oh aye, wherezat to then?” Harry asked.

“High Tree Farm, so uz tole.”

“Never!”

“Tiz true!”

“So what’re we doin’ sittin’ roun’ suppin’ ale. Drink up lez get o’er there an’ see un.”

Dave remained unconvinced and unimpressed. “There ain’t no way no two-’eaded lamb’s been born roun’ yere. T’would’ve bin all over the internet by now.”

“More’s the point,” cut in another of the youths, “Oi juss bin up at High Tree earlier an’ nobody said a word.”

“They’z keepin’ it under they hats innum?” said John, tapping his rosy nose, a cheeky twinkle playing around his grey eyes.”

“Garn, geddaway! You’m pulling uz plonkers, y’old devil!”

There were laughs all around as it became clear that John had indeed been pulling everyone’s plonkers, but it gave them all an excuse to sup some more Exmoor or Carling as their tastes dictated.

The door opened again, the sleeping breeze awoke and went for a mad race around the pub while it had the chance. The newcomer was alone and the whole pub went quiet as they entered. It wasn’t the fact that they were black that was remarkable. True, most folk round these parts were white, or at least rubicund, but there were definitely some non-whites in the village. There was a black graphic designer and his family, who had bought the old post office building, an Indian doctor who worked at North Devon District Hospital. Heck even Sal behind the bar was of mixed heritage. No; what made this person look unusual was that he, or possibly she, it wasn’t obvious, wore a floor length black leather cloak topped off with a tricorn hat sporting a jaunty blue feather.

Undaunted by the obvious chill in the atmosphere, they walked to the bar, each step accompanied by a clink-clink sound that was uncomfortably loud in the unnatural silence. They ordered a bloody Mary in a velvet voice that could have been a high tenor or a deep contralto. Sal told the stranger how much it was, and they drew back the cloak to reveal a powder-blue leather coin pouch tied to a gold waistband. From this, deft fingers in cream gloved hands withdrew a coin.

Over by the fireplace, Harry muttered to the younger lads, “Nothin’ ever ’appens ’ere bays.”

Sal looked at the glint of gold with a suspicious eye. She turned to call Tom, the landlord, but he was already on her shoulder. By no means an expert numismatist, Tom looked at the coin held in Sal’s hand. It glinted gold but that didn’t mean squat these days. A Quality Street toffee penny was shinier, and he had half a tin of them left over from Christmas. He picked it up and bit it. The stranger looked at him as though he were a complete idiot. Tom eyed the stranger and there followed an internal ‘full and frank’ discussion between ‘Tom who wanted to throw the stranger out immediately’, and ‘Tom who often bought a scratch-card with his change, on the off-chance that this could be the big one’.

The latter Tom won, “I can’t change this,” he said.

“Keep it,” the stranger replied, adding, “I need rooms in this town. Is this an inn or just a tavern?”

Tom’s mind tried to fit the village of Shepherdfordsworth, (pronounced Shepeth) inside the word town and found, despite its length, that it rattled around too much. As to the question of his pub’s status, he did a passable impression of a drowning fish as he tried to work out the correct answer.

“You’d be payin’ wi’ them little coins there would ee?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Gimme five minutes.”

Tom went back into the private area and picked up the telephone.

“Hello? … Nicki, do you still collect coins an’ that? … That’s more or less what I mean, yeah … Yeah? Proper job! I don’t s’pose you’re about and can get over to the Plough roight now can ee? … Yeah roight now, quick as possible. … Oi got summat I want you to ’ave a look at see?”

He replaced the receiver. Nicki was a bit of an amateur archaeologist who had been a full-time librarian, now retired. Since she could walk to the pub in five minutes but would more likely cycle, Tom waited by the side door to keep an eye out for her. Once inside with decent light she examined the coin briefly.

“Did you bite this?”

“Well, thass how you test if eez gold, innum?”

“Pillock! There’s tooth marks on it now. Still worth a bloody fortune, where d’you find it?”

“I nev…” he stopped as he thought about the ma …. woma … person in the leather cloak with a whole bag of coins, each potentially worth a fortune, that they were planning on spending on a room, and perhaps more drinks. The thought took a split second. He continued, “… ver did go through them old boxes in the back cellar, ’till today, and that coin wuz in one of ’em. Thanks Nicki, you’ve been a tremendous help.”

“Dunno what were so urgent you had to drag me over here at a moment’s notice, though.” She huffed as she remounted her bike and cycled the couple of minutes back home.

Back in the bar, Tom did his best hotelier routine, “Would sir be after the deluxe suite or an economy room?”

Sal mouthed, ‘what deluxe suite’, at him from a position out of the stranger’s line of sight. Then she had a further thought of ‘what bloody economy room?’.

He waved her away.

“I’ll take the deluxe, and it’s madam if you don’t mind! Aspen Delcroix.” She proffered a hand.

“Charmed, Oi’m sure.” Tom replied, tentatively squeezing a couple of fingers. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to kiss the hand, but thankfully she withdrew it before he came to any conclusions.

There were three bedrooms in the Plough, his own ensuite, which he had rashly offered as the ‘deluxe’, Sal’s room, because the job had to be live-in when you didn’t finish kicking folks out until long gone three in the morning some nights, and a spare room which contained a lot of  boxes and other unwanted junk.

After a rapid sotto voce argument with Sal, it was agreed that he, Tom, would have to sleep in the junk room, although she agreed to help clear the boxes out of the way. Between frantic removals backstage, and serving in the bar, the pair managed to arrange things so that Ms Delcroix could be made comfortable in Tom’s room.

In the warm amber glow of the bar, Aspen Delcroix assessed the locals. Some still eyed her suspiciously, others had returned attention to their own conversations and drinks. Her eyes lighted on Dave and his friends. She walked over to their table.

“I’m looking for a man.”

Dave managed not to spit out his drink.

There was a raucous shout from Harry at the next table, “Best come over ’ere maid, them’s nobbut bays.”

She glanced at the older group. “I need one who doesn’t creak when he stands up.”

The younger group all reacted with comments like “Shade!”, “Oooooh!”, and “Burn!”.

The lads took an immediate liking to the woman which was not dulled by her striking if rather masculine looks.

“I might be available for some manly duties,” Dave admitted, attempting nonchalance.

“Yes, you’ll do. Come with me,” Ms Delcroix strode from the pub.

Dave, hesitating at first, quickly decided he had better catch up or lose his job, whatever it was. Outside, he saw Ms Delcroix standing beside an oversized wooden trunk and a heavy leather travelling bag. There was no sign of a cab or other vehicle, but Dave assumed it had just left.

“You take the trunk upstairs to my room, I can manage the bag.”

She picked up the bag and headed inside. Dave attempted to lift the trunk and collapsed on top of it. He steeled himself for another attempt and, forewarned, he lifted it with some difficulty and followed his employer. He hadn’t even asked if he was getting paid. There were ironic cheers for Dave manful efforts as he lumbered the chest awkwardly past the bar and into the back areas of the pub. He didn’t dare rest it or let on how much he was struggling while his mates, and his dad’s mates could see, but once out of sight he stopped for a breather at the foot of the stairs. After lugging the trunk into the room at dumping it at the foot of the bed, he did his best to get his breath back without looking like the effort had almost killed him.

“You’re strong, I like that. I may need you again for something rather more challenging.” She handed him a copper coin. Dave didn’t look at it.

“More challenging like, a bigger case? Or more challenging like …” Dave didn’t have any ideas that he thought would be appropriate.

Aspen Delcroix looked at Dave and seemed to make a quick character judgement. She stepped past him and a waft of orange blossom enveloping him briefly. She glanced outside and then closed the door. Dave swallowed hard and tried to suppress his most optimistic thoughts.

“What do you know about demons?”

Dave thought ‘Well, that was … unexpected.’.

After a pause he said, “Kinda fiery things that live in Hell?”

“Not always fiery. You could call it Hell if you want. It’s a bit more complex than that, but sure, yes, demons. What do you know about them?”

Dave began, “That they don’t …” and then his brain caught up with his mouth and asked for a brief discussion in private.

It said, ‘If you’re about to say they don’t exist, could we consider the possibility that this … let’s call her handsome … woman, who smells nice, and who is alone with you in her bedroom, might think they do, and the possibility exists that if you say the wrong thing, she might ask you to leave? And, by the way, I am not the only one here who is thinking along these lines.’

Dave adjusted his thoughts and started again. “Well, Demons are … evil, and very, very … bad.”

As speeches go, Dave realised he was not up there with Martin Luther King, or Ricky Gervaise at an awards ceremony. He decided to shut up until he had something intelligent to say.

Aspen Delcroix, despite his poor start, began to explain. “Demons are evil entities that exist for no discernible purpose. They are manifestation of utter chaos and evil. They destroy life and order wherever they find it. For the most part, they are kept in a plane of existence called the Abyss, but sometimes, the boundaries between the material world and the Abyss become thin and there is a rift between worlds. My job is to travel to the place and time of the rift, destroy any demons that pass through, and to close the rift afterwards.”

Dave stuck with his decision to keep quiet unless he had something sensible to say. His silence was rewarded with more information.

“I need someone from the local time and region to help me. You know the area, I know demons, got it?”

“Got it, yeah. So these demons?”

“I think you only have a small incursion here. Nothing worse than Vzzghrt.”

It sounded like she was choking. “Do you want a glass of water?”

“I’m fine, it’s a small demon, it flies. Think of a big blowfly but with a sting.”

“We’ve got a zapper at home, mum uses it in the kitchen.”

“No need. We’ve got what we need in here.” She opened the trunk revealing a variety of strange apparatus. The colours were a mixture of brass, silver, black, and glowing electric blue. “You have to keep this to yourself. The fewer locals that know, the better.”

Dave nodded. No bugger would believe him anyway.

Aspen Delcroix glanced at a small device on her belt. It went ‘ping’ rather in the manner of an old-fashioned striking clock announcing one o’clock. “Come on then.” She lifted two larger devices from the trunk and handed one to Dave. It was some sort of handle, like a large sword hilt with no blade. It hummed gently in his hand.

“What, right now?” Dave asked.

“The rift is not far from here. The image I have is of an old-looking barn with a tiled roof. In front is a tall, straight tree with no branches,  and a very small building, bright red, with lots of glass windows all round.”

Dave tried to interpret the description. He couldn’t think of any small red buildings.

“How small is this red building?”

Aspen Delcroix indicated a width by holding her hands about three feet apart, and jumped, pointing with her hand to indicate a height of about eight feet. “Actually a little taller than that, like the height of this ceiling.”

Dave wracked his brains. He tried a different tack. “This tree, really straight, no branches?” He recalled there was an old pine growing out on the Barum road that had been trimmed over many years and was pretty straight.

“Yes, it is a strange tree. There are some small branches.”

Dave thought, ‘yes, little straggly bits that grow each year.’

“They are a different colour. Black, and regular shaped. Evenly spaced on either side of the tree.”

Dave slumped. This didn’t sound like any tree he’d ever seen.

“You sure you’re in the right place?”

“Certain. The red building, it has something inside it, you can see through the glass. A yellow box on one wall. Oh, and there’s a word written on the side of the building, I don’t know the word.”

Light dawned for Dave, “Defibrillator?”

“Yes!”

“Come on, I know where we’re going?” He headed for the door.

“Not that way!” She headed for the window. She opened it, looked down, climbed out and dropped onto the ground fifteen feet below, landing like a wobbly gymnast.

Dave looked down without enthusiasm. But he didn’t want to look weak. He climbed out and then, grabbing hold of the window frame, lowered himself until he was dangling from the ledge. It was still a fair drop, and he would scrape on the wall the whole way down. He prepared himself and pushed away from the wall a bit as he dropped. The barest hint of disdain crossed Aspen Delcroix’s face as she helped him get up from the ground.

“Which way?”

Dave led off down a narrow lane lined with hedgerows. “It’s not far. Less than a mile.”

Bright headlights approached and the two moved out of the way, Aspen making sure the devices they were carrying were not visible to the driver as they passed.

They reached the old telephone box which, rather pointlessly considering its location, had now been fitted with a defibrillator. Next to it was a telegraph pole. Behind that was the old barn. The small device on Aspen Delcroix’s belt was pinging now like a clock striking midnight. Dave could see that something was definitely not right. From the barn came a worrying crimson glow, the light spilling out through cracks in roof tiles and in the old cob walls. He could hear a fizzing, crackling sound, and there was a burning metallic smell in the air, like the morning after fireworks night.

“Come on.” Aspen moved towards the large double doors where spears of reddish light were stabbing through gaps in the frames. “Get behind me and take out any that get past.”

She hauled open the big door and swung the device at the first of the creatures that flew towards her. When she had said, ‘like a big blowfly’, Dave had not imagined this. It was larger than a tennis ball and resembled a glowing ember with wings and a viscous looking barbed proboscis. He hesitated, transfixed. Aspen slashed left and right, whips of electric blue and white light emerged from the handle of the weapon, taking down several demons in a few swipes. When hit, the glowing buzzing demons burst with radiant white light and vapourised. One got past Aspen and headed for Dave.

“Don’t let it get away! And don’t let it sting you either!” she yelled.

Animated by her shout, Dave launched his weapon at the creature. Nothing happened.

“Squeeze the handle as you swing!” Aspen added, flicking several more demons to oblivion. “There are too many of them! I’m going to close the doors until we can think of another plan.”

Slashing all about her, she tried to get the door closed. But in doing so let several more get past her. Dave wasn’t going to screw this up again. He was not going to let a bunch of demons, with a name that sounded like a cat bringing up a furball, run amok in his village. Besides, Ms Delcroix smelled of orange blossom and she was the best-looking woman that Dave had ever noticed paying him any attention. He was not the most observant when it came to subtle social signals.

Gripping his unfamiliar weapon like his life depended on it, which it almost certainly did, he began to lay about him as he had seen his boss do. While Ms Delcroix forced the doors shut, Dave slashed and dashed taking down half a dozen of these fiendish Vzzghrt things. Only one remained, the first escapee, it danced tantalisingly out of his reach, zipping and buzzing this way and that, moving away from him over the hedgerow. He had to stop it, he leapt and swung, clambering up the thorny hazel wall, stabbed by thick brambles. He tried to ignore the pain, focussed on keeping this evil thing from reaching his friends and family. He managed to reach the top of the hedge, despite his hands bleeding, and the rips in his jeans, and lashed at the buzzing ball of hatred taunting him. He missed and fell down along the hedge-top, the weapon flung from his grip. The Vzzghrt saw its chance and swooped down, buzzing with fiendish delight.

In his remaining seconds Dave found enough time to think, ‘Well that’s the end of my demon hunting career,’ the barbed proboscis grew rapidly larger as it bore down on him, the body behind it glowing evilly. Then just as he steeled himself for the anticipated agonising pain there was a flash of blue light, and the demon was blasted away. He could smell a metallic tang, mingled with what he had to assume was the smell of his own eyebrows burning, he could live with that. He looked at Aspen Delcroix who was far too far away to have used the same weapon he was wielding. Sure enough, there was something in her hand that was still sparking electric blue.

“Thanks.” He said, unable to load the word with as much sincere gratitude as he currently felt.

“No problem.” She pulled a similar weapon from her belt and handed it to him. “Plane-shift blaster, use sparingly, it doesn’t hold much charge. Oh, and don’t miss!”

“What does it do?”

“It sends anyone or anything you hit back to the Abyss.”

“Anyone?”

“Anyone!”

Dave eyed the weapon with a deep, and fully justified, mistrust.

“Right, are you ready?” she said, looking at the broiling doors.

“Ready? I thought we were going to come up with another plan?”

“I just did. We’re going in there and closing the doors. If we win, we walk out of there alive; if we lose …”

Dave looked aghast, “If we lose?”

“Oh, if we lose you won’t be dead, you’ll be one of them!” With a look of grim determination, she turned to open the doors.

“Wait! If we lose, we turn into demons?”

“A succinct summary yes.”

She turned her attention to the door handle again and paused as Dave said, “So …”

“So we had better not lose, right?” She opened the door and stepped in, her electric blue whip flashing about her, followed by Dave aping her movements. He closed the door behind him.

The full-beam headlights and unnecessary fog-lamps of a passing car swept across the phone box, the defibrillator glowed yellow in the beams. The driver did not notice the flashes of blue and red emanating from the derelict barn behind. After a matter of scarcely two minutes that felt to the human occupants of the barn like hours the doors burst open and Aspen Delcroix emerged on all fours gasping for breath. She was followed by Dave, only slightly less traumatised by the experience.

As he got back his breath he gave a brief snort of relieved laughter, “That was fun,” he lied.

Aspen collapsed and rolled onto her back.

“Are you alright?” Dave began but knew before he had finished that she was not. There was an amoeboid patch of darkness spreading across the deep blue of her shirt.

“I’ve been hit. Listen; get back to the trunk. There’s a brass cylinder about this long and this wide,” she indicated the size with her hands. Fetch it. I should have brought it with me, I’m such a fool!” She flinched with the pain.

“Shouldn’t I call an ambulance?” Dave asked.

“What in all the hells would an ambulance do for a demon sting?” Aspen groaned. “Hurry!” she hissed through gritted teeth.

Dave stood up and ran along the lane back to the pub, his thoughts racing. It would take him maybe five or six minutes to run the mile back to the pub, and more like ten to make the return journey. He didn’t know how long it would take to find and retrieve the cylinder, but Aspen would be writhing in agony for a quarter of an hour at best. As he approached the pub he began to think about how he would get in and out without raising suspicion. He looked at himself. He had looked worse, but only after a particularly bad day on one of the muckier jobs on the farm. And he was still carrying a brass and silver electric blue whip and a plane-shift blaster. He investigated the window where they had climbed out earlier. There was a massive red Massey Fergusson parked right beneath it. Dave offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the owner for ignoring the request not to park here and he clambered up the great beast and onto the roof which brought him level with the window. Within a few moments he was climbing back down and leaping from the footplate and off down the lane again, the cylinder clutched tightly in his fist.

Breathless and nursing a painful stitch, he reached Aspen’s side. She had managed to bandage the wound while he’d been gone. She had stopped the flow of blood but was still clinging to life by a thread. She held out her hand for the cylinder. Dave handed it to her and then took it back when he saw she was unable to unscrew the lid.

“Take out one of the rods,” she grunted. “Careful, don’t press the ends. It’s a poison antidote.”

Dave removed one of a number of thin golden rods from the cylinder and handed it to Aspen. She grasped it. With closed eyes, she felt along its length and then placed one end against the skin on her forearm pushing against the other end with her thumb. The rod shortened visibly, and a tiny pearl of blood appeared on her skin at the point of contact. She smiled and fell back with a satisfied sigh. Dave took off his jacket, rolled it up, and placed it under her head.

“Give me a minute, then can you help me get back to the inn?” she said.

Dave indicated that he would. Once again, his words and gestures inadequate to convey how fervently he wanted to help.

It took half an hour to walk the mile back to the pub. As they approached, Dave hoped that the red Fergie was still there, and if it was, that Aspen would be strong enough to climb up it. It was there and Aspen drew on inner strength that Dave could only dream of to get back through the window. She threw off her leather cloak and collapsed on the bed, an exhausted dishevelled wreck. Dave wasn’t much better, but now he started to laugh uncontrollably sinking down with is back to the wall. Despite the pain, this started Aspen laughing as well. They had been, figuratively although not literally, through hell and somehow you either had to laugh or cry, so they laughed until they cried.

There was a knock on the door followed by Sal coming in to check everything was ok.

“Are you alright, you’ve been absolutely ages with that trunk,” she was saying. Her eyes took in the partly undressed woman on the bed, Dave in an almost foetal position on the floor, both of them looking dishevelled in the extreme.

“What happened? Did the trunk fight back?” She looked now at the trunk which Dave had left open. The strange tools and weapons glinted back at her.

“It’s not what it looks like.” Dave said. Internally, an incredulous voice said ‘It’s not what it looks like? What is this, some dreadful farce?’ he went on, “I mean, there’s nothing weird going on here …” he looked around the room and tried to think of anything, anything at all, that could possibly be any more weird than this. Perhaps if they were dressed as clowns? Or if the trunk was filled with shark infested custard?

Sal turned to leave. “I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t think I want to know. What two consenting adults get up to in private is their own business.” She looked pretty hurt though.

Aspen laughed loudly and said, “Wait young lady. Whatever you think this is, it is definitely nothing between this young man and me.”

Sal put her hand on her hips and stared at Aspen her face radiating suspicion.

Aspen sat up, wincing as she did so. “This young man has been helping me to deal with an incursion of … uninvited guests.”

Sal’s mistrustful expression remained unmoved.

“There’s no romance whatsoever between us, I assure you.”

Dave made an involuntary sound that betrayed a teeny bit of disappointment.

“Really, David?” Aspen laughed briefly. “I am well over three hundred years old.”

It was Sal’s turn to snort derisively. “What’s your secret, Oil of Olay?”

Dave who had seen the Vzzghrt and wielded the weapons in the chest was more open to new ideas, but even he baulked at this. “Three hundred? You don’t look a day over thirty,” he said, thinking she could easily be forty.

“Well, looks can be deceiving,” Aspen said. “Look, the game is definitely up for me with Sal, here. She knows something’s not right and if we don’t tell her the truth then whatever we do tell her will be worse. Besides, if you’re going to be my eyes and ears on the ground here to guard against future incursions then your girlfriend had better be clued into what’s going on.”

“Wait, She’s not my girlfriend,” Dave protested.

“She isn’t? Well then all I can say is, you’re nowhere near as smart as I thought you were. She certainly has eyes for you!”

Sal wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or to laugh. Dave looked at her and she smiled back. It was painfully awkward but at the same time, it was obvious that Aspen’s instinct was spot on. It could wait, however.

Dave turned to Aspen, “What do you mean eyes and ears on the ground?”

“I can’t stay here. The incursion has been sealed off, for now. But if the fabric between planes is thin then there will be more. I need you to keep an eye out. I said I wanted to keep this between as few people as possible, but two pairs of eyes and ears are better than one, and if you two are going to be an item there’s no way you, David, can keep this secret from Sal. So, what do you say? Are you willing to help?”

Sal looked at Dave and indicated with a nod that she would go along with his decision. She hadn’t seen what they might be up against, but it sounded like they would be on the right side.

“Well, yeah, I guess,” Dave said. “Where are you going then?”

“I told you, I have to go all over the world and all points in time to deal with incursions.”

“What, like the whole world and all time? How do you cope?”

“Well, it’s not just me, there’s a whole team of us. And it’s mostly only human history. If demons come through before that well, I don’t know. We don’t go there. Too many variables.”

“Do I get one of those plane-shift blasters?”

“No you do not, David! But you do get these.”

“What are these then?”

“This one is a demon detector.” She handed him a brass and silver device a little smaller than a mobile phone. Dave had seen one in action earlier. “It does exactly what the name suggests. If any rift begins to form within about a ten-mile radius it will ping. This other one is a communications device.” It was about the size of a ballpoint pen.  If you see anything suspicious, you press this button, and someone will come to your aid when they’re free. If you see a definite incursion, you press it again and the response will be immediate. Don’t abuse it.”

“I won’t. Umm,” Dave had one more question. “Is this a paid position?”

“Well, I can give you something to cover expenses, but you’ll be more effective if you maintain a fairly normal life; a regular job and lifestyle.” She handed over half a dozen gold coins. “They’re dukats. I think these are worth around five hundred pounds each in your time. Don’t go splashing this about!” she added on seeing Dave’s face break into a grin. “You’ll need a nest egg to cover your tracks if people get suspicious. Only sell one at a time.”

“Don’t worry,” Sal said. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“I believe you will.”

After that, Sal and Dave left Aspen to get some well-earned sleep. In the morning, she was gone, leaving Dave and Sal as the sole guardians against a demonic incursion in the village of Shepherdfordsworth and, they presumed, surrounding parishes.

Dave had some explaining to do when his family saw the state of his eyebrows, but all that was forgotten when he told them that he definitely wasn’t moving to a big city because he had found plenty worth staying in Sheppeth for. Later, when he asked if Sal could come for dinner, they all assumed he was referring to her, and to be fair to them, they were only half wrong.

Short Story Competition – Rules

I hate rules but we have to have a few just so everyone knows what’s what.

Addenda: (this will soon become a separate FAQ)

  1. Since I have been asked at least once now, this competition if for adults, i.e. 18 yrs and over, only. If it goes well, I will look into running a competition for younger writers.
  2. I’ve been asked to definte or elaborate rule 3.  What I am looking for is the essence of the county within the story. You can make up a fictional Devon village if you wish. I would sooner have a story that reeks of wax cotton jackets, and sheep, but never once mentioned the word Devon, than have an off the peg story with the words “in Devon” thrown in to make it fit the rules.
  3. Re. rule 9. I realise that many authors do not know how to remove metadata. Don’t worry, I will be double-check all entries for this issue. (About 90% so far have needed amending!)

 

      1. Cost to enter – £5 for a single entry or £10 for three stories. You may enter up to three stories.  Failure to comply with the rules may mean your entry is disqualified and your entry fee forfiet. 
      2. Deadline – Entries, and all accompanying payments must be received by March 31st 2022
        Entry implies that you are happy to receive relevant emails from Blue Poppy regarding the competition.
      3. Devon  – The story must be set in Devon, or Devon must feature strongly in the story.
        Entries must be from writers living in Devon. This may be waived in certain specific circumstances to be decided on by Blue Poppy Publishing on a case by case basis. Please get in touch if in any doubt.
      4. Genres – Although entries should be written for adults (not children) they should not contain explicit adult content, e.g. graphic violence, gratuitous swearing, or strong sexual content. If the story were a film it should get a 15 or PG certificate.
        Entries may be in any genre except erotica or horror.
        Yes SF-F is welcome but remember “Devon”.
      5. Original Work – Each entry must be your own original unpublished piece of writing for which you retain the rights. Unpublished means that it has not been published in print, or accepted for publication, or appeared on any website other than one wholly controlled and owned by you.
      6. Exclusivity – You should not submit your entry to other competitions if they include a clause requiring your work to be included in an anthology. See [7 & 12] below.
      7. YOU KEEP YOUR RIGHTS – Entering this competition does not mean that you give up your rights to the work. You retain your rights at all times up to and including if you win a prize. This is not a scheme to get your work for free – see [12] below. 
      8. Withdrawing your entry – You may withdraw your entry at any time but your fee cannot be refunded unless the entry is refused by Blue Poppy Publishing.
      9. Specifications:
        Entries must be predominantly written in English. Limited use of other langauges for literary reasons, e.g. dialogue, is of course acceptable.
        Maximum word count 2,500 words. Minimum 1,000 words.
        Entries must be submitted in .doc .docx .odt .txt (not .pages or .pdf)
        Use a serif font 12pt double spaced.
        Your story needs to remain anonymous so please do not include your name at the top or in the headers or meta-data or anywhere in the story. Each entry will be given a number which will be associated with the entrant in a separate file, so the judges can’t be biased if they happen to know the writer.
      10. Prizes – The prize fund consists of £500 The writer of the winning story will recieve £250 and there will be runner up prizes totalling the remaining £250 this may be a simple 2nd and 3rd prize of £150 and £100 or it may consist of up to five runner up prizes. This will be decided based on the number and quality of the entries during the judging process.
      11. Judging – The judging will be done by a diverse panel of anonymous readers who will be paid for their time. Their collective judgements will decide the winner and that decision will be final. No correspondence will be entered into. The winning entries and (if appropriate) any shortlists, will be posted on this website.
      12. OPTION to be included in an anthology – Writers of the best entries may be offered the opportunity for their work to appear in an athology to be published by Blue Poppy Publishing.
        There is no obligation to allow your work to appear.
        You will be offered a small payment (to be advised and depending on length and quality) for time-limited, exclusive rights to publish your work.
        You will not be required to buy copies of the finished book.
        You will receive one FREE author copy of the finished book.
        You will also be offered the opportunity to buy copies at a generous author discount if you wish to sell them or give them away.

How to enter.

If you are reading this, you must have read the rules. Please tell me you read the rules. It’s not like they are in complex legalese. If you haven’t read the rules, just scroll to the top and read them, OK?

The competition is open from the beginning of January 2022 until March 31st.

When you are ready to submit your entry, you should make a payment of £5 for a single entry HERE

Or £10 for three entries HERE

You will then be sent an email requesting your manuscript/s.

Then you don’t really have to do anything except check your inbox for further info.

Good luck.

Short Story Competition

I have been considering doing this for ages and a number of the important pieces have begun to fall into place recently, so what better time to kick things off than a new year.

Blue Poppy Publishing – Devon Short Story Competition 2022

OK, there will be some detailed rules, here, but here’s the gist of the plan.

  1. This is going to be a Devon focussed contest. I’ve nothing against the rest of Britain, or the world, but experience has proved one thing above all; it is much easier for me to sell books that are set in Devon. So the stories must be set in Devon or about Devon in some way. I am also going to limit entries to writers who live in Devon or at least have family who live in Devon.
  2. Unlike some short story competitions, your entry will not automatically be part of an anthology. You will fully retain your copyright as a result of entering this contest. I am really precious about my rights and you are entitled to be as well. The winning entries, as well as a selection of the best non-winning entires will be offered the option to be included in an anthology and you will be paid a small fee for the right to publish your work for a limited period. (like a proper publishing deal).
  3. As a contributing author, you might expect there will be a catch, like you have to buy a number of copies of the book. In fact, you will get one free author copy, and you are not obliged to buy any further copies. If you do decide you want more copies, you will get a special contributors discount which will mean you can sell them yourself if you want to and make a decent profit.
  4. Money – There will be a £5 entry fee or £10 for 3 entries – Word count from 1,000 – 2,500 words. This is to cover the cost of administration and judging the entries. I hope to make back my investment from selling copies of the book.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, then send an email to me at shortstorycontest AT website URL or just comment in the comments section below.

Also, you might want to check out the Parracombe Prize as well entries must be submitted before 31st January 2022 https://prize.parracombe.org.uk/

You may also be interested in the Exeter Short Story competition – closing date 28th Feb 2022
https://www.exeterwriters.org.uk/p/short-story-competition-2021.html

The Legend of Falcon – a Dungeons and Dragons Story

A D&D Story

The following is a first-draft, unedited short story set in my homebrew world of Talamon. It tells the back-story of one of the many memorable player characters who have been adventurers in that world.  Falcon is a warforged druid. In the first campaign I had asked people to come up with a character who was one of the tight core races – human, elf, dwarf, half-elf, halfling (known as goodfolk in Talamon) – or at least be able to pass for one of them. Almost half the players went out of their way to create characters who were NOT of those races but disguised themselves in some way. Falcon was one of these.

The Legend of Falcon

How an Aeonian Mechanican Scout Came to Have a Soul.

Characters

  • Zanna – a gnome artificer
  • Nickel – a kobold artificer
  • Φ*-47824 a.k.a. Falcon – a mechanican (* the Greek letter Phi)
  • Firion Blackdrake – an Aeonian soldier and political candidate from one of the founding families.
  • Falor – a human fighter (pronounced  valour)
  • Gusti – a dwarf barbarian
  • Aeschalos – an elf ranger
  • Damos – a human druid
  • Bract – a goodfolk druid acolyte
  • Ygarwn – a human druid acolyte (pronounced ee-gar-un)
  • Galrean – a human priest to the goddess Gallobana

Concepts and places

  • Aeona – The eternal city, a city of a million souls of which the majority are slaves from all races. Their masters, almost exclusively humans, have conquered the lands surrounding their city region by region.
  • Aeonia – The wider empire controlled by the city of Aeona. Surrounding the central sea it consists of the Aeonian peninsula, Saltford province to the north, Gloomwood to the north-west, Caburgh to the south west, and Khoffey to the south-east.
  • Mechanican – a magically created creature blending organic with mechanical parts. Treated as a slightly superior slave they are designed to serve in the army as auxiliaries doing the worst or most difficult jobs, such as taking on the front line at the start of battle and reconnaissance behind enemy lines. They are fewer in number than human soldiers but considered more expendable. No other races serve in the Aeonian army.
  • Tira Fawr – (Pronounced Ti-ra vow-r) a wild land which remains independent from Aeonia and would like to stay that way. The people are a broad mix of humans, dwarfs, and elves, with the ubiquitous goodfolk and a few other races for good measure.
  • Oliriond – the largest town in the Kwrann Isles. Situated on the island of Ig Mawr.
  • Gallobana – triple headed deity of the city of Oliriond and the island of Ig Mawr

 

Birth of a Legend

Zanna carefully inserted a probe into the lifeless body before her. This body: partly mechanical partly organic, the two elements fused using powerful magical rituals forming a more complex whole, belonged to a warrior in the Aeonian army. A mechanican, forged by artificers to wage war. Specifically it was a Phi unit, with the number Φ-47824 engraved on a chest plate. It was a scout, built for stealth, able to survive for long periods in the wilderness, requiring no sleep, making use of natural cover in order to carry out detailed reconnaissance on enemy positions.

The procedure now being carried out by the gnome artificer was a delicate one, requiring the precise location of a series of tiny crystals, each to be placed in the correct location, while the correct incantations were spoken. A single mistake could be catastrophic. It was, therefore, inconvenient in the extreme that, just as Zanna inserted the last crystal, an excitable and overeager kobold bounded in carrying a tray of drinks, knocked Zanna’s hand, and spilled a quantity of hot tisane into Φ-47824’s main control panel.

“Nickel!” Zanna hissed.

It was unfortunate that at that very moment the Aeonian overseer happened to be coming in that direction on his rounds. Humans, even the nice ones, saw gnomes as scarcely better than rats, and kobolds ranked lower still. Zanna swiftly closed the cover on the chest cavity and made a noise implying that she was satisfied with her work. Nickel, the blundering silver kobold mopped up the spilled drink.

“Is that Phi unit ready yet?” the supervisor barked. “We need every mechanican in the field, especially scouts.”

“I, just need to make some more checks,” mumbled Zanna looking desperately at the floor to avoid meeting her master’s gaze. She was a competent artificer, heck even Nickel was better at this kind of work than most heavy-handed humans. But humans didn’t need to get their hands dirty when there were slaves to do everything.

“If you needed more checks, why were you closing up?”

“Errm.”

“Get it up and operational. And stop wasting time!”

“Yes, master.” Zanna kept her eyes averted. Looking directly at her human master was not a career move that an intelligent gnome would wish to pursue. Beside her, Nickel also said nothing. She knew that you don’t speak unless you are told to or have been asked a direct question.

Reluctantly Zanna moved her hands in a complex motion muttering “Ballutu Nepesu Abru.”

The mechanican’s eyes glowed, fingers twitched, the head moved, and it raised itself from the workbench. It looked at Zanna and then took in the huge artificers’ laboratory.

“Come on you. Got a mission for you.”

Φ-47824 followed the human who was wearing a red and silver striped tunic. A simple garment that told a complex story. Firion Blackdrake wore the red stripe which showed he was entitled to respect purely by reason of his family name. The Blackdrakes were one of the founding families of Aeona and were entitled to wear this stripe. He added to this by his achievements. Silver denoted success as a military commander. The only greater honour was success in the world of politics. Firion was standing for election to the senate. If successful he would wear the gold stripe and be permitted to advise the emperor.

Firion led the mechanican to the barracks where he produced crudely drawn maps and explained the situation. He failed to notice anything unusual in the behaviour of Φ-47824. It was natural to assume that it was paying full attention to the briefing. They were built purely to obey orders; tireless and naturally armoured, they were the perfect soldiers. However, the mechanican paid scant attention. Instead his eye was drawn to something that had never interested him before. Something he had never noticed before because it had no significance to his purpose. A spider was working away building a web. The intricate mathematical precision began to fascinate the machine. For the first time it noticed the sun as something more than a source of light. It noticed how it glinted and sparkled on the silvery strands of silk; how it focussed and crystalised through a tiny dew drop at the corner. And then the mechanican’s eyes adjusted their focus again as a new phenomenon entered its field of view. A dark shape flashed in front of the sun; the antithesis of the bright yellow immutable circle, a dark angular shape shifting strangely, like a shadow moving across a rough surface. As it moved across the sky, framed against the bronze-blue, it resolved into a falcon. Φ-47824 had seen falcons, of course. Clerics would watch the flights of birds, especially raptors, before battles. A favourable flight might mean certain victory, an unfavourable one would see the generals decide to change their tactics or postpone battle entirely. Φ-47824 gave just enough attention to the briefing to understand that it was a mission to reconnoitre the lands to the west which had, so far, held out against the Aeonian empire.

Φ-47824 walked out, into the Aeonian sun and looked at the horizon with new eyes.

 

Flight of the Falcon

Tira Fawr is a substantial peninsula of land jutting out into the western ocean. A rocky landscape with ridges of high steep hills which never quite reach the status of mountains, its people matching its statuesque rugged grandeur: tall humans, broad shouldered, competitive, proud: stocky dwarfs, stolid, beetle browed, with flowing beards, and calm resolve: graceful elves, lithe, beautiful, with memories of a time when they ruled the world. Beyond the border and the final ridge of the highest hills it slopes down to the coastal plains of Caburgh province, to the south, Newport, to the north-east, Caburgh city.

The vast human-dominated empire of Aeonia had spent its resources heavily in the north-east, shoring up defences against a possible incursion from the dark realm of Krizshuma. The Pompeian wall had taken ten years and thousands of people in its construction. Named for the emperor who built it, Pompus Aenus, although he had barely set foot anywhere near the site of construction except to lay the first stone, and to declare the edifice completed. Slaves carried out much of the physical labour, but the engineering expertise was the preserve of the human army and the founding families, including the Aeni. The army was needed, also, to protect the builders. Still, many disappeared. Nobody was quite certain, but there were stories. No mechanicans ever disappeared. If they were attacked and destroyed the bodies were left where they had died. Humans were the most likely to disappear, their bodies never recovered. Other races fared better by varying degrees. Reptilians like kobolds and dragonborn being almost as likely to be found dead as mechanicans. Not that being found helped the corpse much; it allowed, at least, for a proper ritual to help them into the next world. The few survivors gave descriptions as best they could. But there were very few survivors.

Φ-47824 moved surprisingly quietly for a creature with a metallic exoskeleton. It was a testament to the craftsmanship of the slave artificers. They were among the only users of magic permitted to practice their arts in Aeona. The others being paladins and clerics, whose magic was a gift from the gods. Wizards and druids, if they existed in the eternal city at all, did so secretly and in constant fear. Warlocks were even more hated by the empire, their powers coming from forbidden demonic sources. The even rarer sorcerers were lumped in with warlocks and were anathema.

There was a small encampment about a mile ahead. A few circular huts with reed roofs, the walls made from woven sticks and compressed dried animal dung. A large campfire smouldered in the middle of the group of huts. The smell of roasting meat wafted over. Φ-47824 had no need for food but the smell interested him. This was not a full permanent settlement. It would be occupied at certain times of the year as a base for hunting parties. In the depths of winter, the hunters would retreat to larger fortified towns and scattered farming villages.

A falcon flew right to left across the sky. A good omen. Φ-47824 stood up, exposing itself above the skyline. It walked forward, following the bird’s arial trajectory from its lowly position on the ground. Φ-47824 began to run, flapping its arms, and skipping every few steps, as if attempting to take flight. He ran, and ran, tirelessly, surefooted on the rough terrain.

A small band of hunters from the encampment watched as the mechanican cavorted like a child, the sun glinting off polished steel and bronze, his eyes glowing brighter than they had ever glowed. And a sound came from the mechanican that had never come from one of his kind before. It was a strange stuttering sound, somewhat musical yet strangely metallic. Like someone blowing a series of short blasts through a trumpet. As if a trumpet player were attempting to make a sound like, like human laughter.

“Falcon! Falcon, come to me! I am you and you are me!” another trumpet laugh emerged.

“I am Falcon,” the mechanican cried to the gods as he stopped and turned around on the spot, his arms stretched wide in a great big metallic T.

“I … AM … Falcon!”

And then a hand axe, expertly thrown by the hunter, hit Falcon on the back of the head causing him to tumble over, falling thirty feet down the rocky slope.

 

Broken Spear

Falcon awoke at night. Or at least that was his first assumption. It was dark in the hut, but tiny slivers of daylight showed through the walls and filtered through the heavy leather skin hanging in front of what he presumed to be the door.

“It’s activated.”

Falcon turned his head towards the voice. A shaggy-bearded creature was watching him through black eyes. He was partially covered with animal furs, crudely trimmed, and stitched into a jerkin that left the arms bare. Dark tattoos snaked down both arms disappearing beneath plaited leather bracers. Falcon identified the creature as a dwarf. Two more humanoids, one human and one elf, pushed the heavy hanging leather door aside and the hut flooded with light leaving Falcon momentarily blinded. The smell of sweat mingled with the woodsmoke from the small fire inside the hut. Falcon was used to incense burners, and the heated floors of Aeonian houses, although he had a better tolerance for temperature changes than any human, and smells were simply an input, so it didn’t matter. It was just a new sensation to add to his database of knowledge. The humanoids were talking.

“If they’ve sent a scout, that means they are planning an attack.” The human began.

“Correction,” interjected the elf, “it means they are gathering knowledge to decide if they should plan an attack. Any attack plans would require substantial troop movements. Gatherings of legions on our borders. We’ve seen no evidence of that.”

“And we’ve captured their scout so it can’t report back. So we’re safe, right?” the dwarf added.

“Of course we’re not safe.” The human retorted. “We’re never safe. If you listened to the histories, instead of drinking too much and falling asleep, you would know that Aeona exists to conquer. One land at a time. Their leading families literally rise to power and wealth through conquest. They have left Tira Fawr alone while they marched into Saltford. The elves fled to the deepest forests or to places like here,” he glanced at the elf. “or to Rude Island, or Ourland, places that were still independent. They captured Khoffey and the whole Dusk River valley and only stopped at the mountains because it was easier to trade with the dwarfs than conquer them. They only built a wall along the Scarwood River because even the Aeonians aren’t crazy enough to fight Krizshuma. Logically Tira Fawr is the next land they want to take over and they won’t stop with us. They will carry on until they have taken the Kwrann Isles as well. After that, I suppose they will roll up Ourland and Rude Island before turning back to the south and bringing the mountains and the rainforest into their empire.”

“You give the human empire too much credit, Falor. The dwarfs won’t roll over so easily in the mountains. I’ve been to those citadels. You humans would get lost before you even met a dwarf soldier, and you would regret it when you did.”

“Don’t lump me in with Aeonia, Gusti, not all humans, OK?” the human identified as Falor said.

“Yeah, yeah. Not all humans. Right.” The dwarf, now identified as Gusti, replied.

“So what do we do with this mechanican scout?” the elf focussed on the immediate problem.

“Destroy it. They’re no use to us unless we can control them. We can’t let it report back.” Falor said.

“Please?” Falcon muttered, in a voice that sounded almost human.

“See, it’s begging to be smashed up. There’s something not right about a machine with organic bits inside. Something fiendish. I’d sooner turn my back on a goblin horde than trust one of these things.”

“I am not a thing. I am Falcon, and I want to fly with the birds.” Falcon sounded almost ethereal.

“Can a machine go crazy?” Gusti wondered aloud.

The elf looked quizzical. “Before today, I would have said no. But …”

“I’m not crazy. I am … Falcon.”

“Well, Falcon also known as …” Falor read off the number on Falcon’s chest plate, “circle with a line through it-47824, you will shortly be the dismantled and defunct Falcon-symbol-47824 and we can get on with getting the harvest in.”

“After I am dismantled, will your artificers rebuild me? I don’t want to be reset.”

“Artificers? I shouldn’t think so. But your arms might make me a better pair of bracers, and I daresay I could beat your head out a bit bigger to make a serviceable helmet. So, in a sense, yes, we’ll rebuild you.”

“But then I would no longer be me.”

Again the elf looked thoughtful. “But there’s no ‘you’ to be. You’re just a machine.”

“I have a soul. I feel it.”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Gusti grunted. “Isn’t there some sort of off switch?”

“No, wait. Allow an old elf a little curiosity. It’s only a scout so it can’t do any real harm unless it escapes and gets back to report.”

“What are you suggesting, Aeschalos?”

“Leave the scout with me. I promise not to let it escape. I want to find out more about this mechanican. And who knows, perhaps I may find out something of use to our people as well.”

“I don’t know,” Gusti began.

Falor interrupted. “Aeschalos is a ranger. Even if the scout escapes, he can place a mark on it, so he would be able to track it even if it leaves no trail. And maybe if this … Falcon … really has a soul, then perhaps it has a conscience as well?”

“Maybe,” Gusti agreed. “Perhaps Aeschalos you can get the bird to sing? Or screech at least!” and he laughed a laugh out of all proportion to the quality of his joke.

 

Moving in Circles

A year had passed since Falcon had declared his desire to fly with the birds. He had not done so but he had spent hours every day learning everything the elf knew and telling the elf everything he knew. Alas, for the elf, nothing remained in his memory of past missions. Falcon could recall nothing at all regarding his activities as an Aeonian mechanican scout. Nor could he explain why. All his other data seemed intact, and he had been adding to it under the tutelage of Aeschalos. He could now identify any tree that he had been seen, regardless of the season. Aeschalos reached up and pulled a branch down. It bore lobed leaves and small yellowish-brown nuts held in tiny cups. He looked at Falcon.

“Easy one for you.”

“The Western oak, or Tiran oak.” Falcon began, “It has a large trunk with a tight straight grain, useful for making planks and beams for building large structures like houses and ships. Also good for making handles for tools and weapons. Too many uses to make a complete list. Off-cuts and dead wood burn slowly and can produce hot embers, ideal for cooking. The sunlight filters through its crown on hot summers days in the manner of light glittering off a precious jewel. The oak is a home to an unknown number of tiny creatures as well as woodland fairies. Mosses and many different mushrooms grow on its trunks and branches, mistletoe grows high in the crown and ivy climbs its trunk. Its leaves, acorns, and bark, as well as the mosses, mistletoe, and mushrooms, provide food for a huge range of animals from the smallest birds or mice, right up to boar and even giant elk. In autumn, the leaves turn to shades of amber and brown, as the life drains from them and back into the tree. When they fall, they carpet the ground and provide shelter for more creatures, they store up moisture when it rains, and they scrunch pleasingly underfoot when you walk through the forest on a cold winter’s day. It is the king of trees and its god Duru is the king of the tree gods. The oldest oaks can provide a doorway to other worlds if you know the secret magic to find it.”

“You are the master of the full and complete answer to a question, Falcon. It is remarkable.”

“I sense that it was once better. At some time before now.”

“I think you covered everything there. How could you have done better?”

“I think Aeschalos, that if you had asked me to identify this tree a year ago, I would not have spoken of the glittering of tiny jewels, but I would have named at least the most important small creatures living on the tree. I might not have spoken of the crunch of leaves in winter and would, instead, have been able to name many of the most common mosses and mushrooms. I fear my answers are becoming more … poetic … if I may use that word? and less precise.”

“It is that poetry that has led me to bring you here. Precision is all very well, but there are few elves and even fewer humans if you want my opinion, who have as much natural affinity for the forest as I have seen in you. Let me introduce you to some friends.”

Falcon, usually a highly perceptive creature, had completely failed to notice they were approaching a group of humanoids, he noted a mix of elf and human, one dwarf, a goodfolk, and a gnome. They wore voluminous robes of undyed wool trimmed with greens and browns. Each carried a large staff, taller than a man. Well, apart from the dwarf, whose staff was as tall as a man, and the goodfolk and the gnome who carried rather smaller staffs befitting their stature.

The group stared at the interlopers and Falcon, for his part, tried to stand still while his feet took two more steps, resulting in him leaning back at a bizarre angle. He had never actually seen druids, but this group of beings appeared to fit the descriptions he had heard. Other things he had heard included that they dabbled in a dark and mysterious magic, that they could grow the roots of trees into your brain to steal your thoughts, that they could make the skies fall down and the earth open and the seas rise up. It was said too, that when either of the twin the moons were full, they would transform into beasts, bloodthirsty boars, ravenous wolves, terrifying bears, and worse. Falcon was not the only one who did not relish this meeting.

A sinewy human stepped forward, thinning grey hair showed beneath a pale hood. “What have you brought here, Aeschalos?” Fearful eyes, a watery blue, watched Falcon with deep suspicion. “A mechanican? From the empire? Here in the grove? Have you turned against us Aeschalos?”

“No, no, of course not, Damos. Far from it. I have brought you a new recruit.”

Damos looked at the elf with stunned incomprehension. Eventually he recovered a little composure. He looked past Falcon and said, “Where is the child?”

“Here.” Aeschalos indicated Falcon.

“You can not be serious!” Damos turned away but Aeschalos grabbed his arm.

“Give him a chance.”

“Him? It’s a machine, not a person. And a machine that will see our way of life destroyed!”

Damos tried to pull away, but Aeschalos held firm and spun him back to face Falcon.

He …  is as much a person as you or me. Falcon, tell Damos here about these trees.”

Falcon looked up at the canopy where sunlight danced through onto the leafy ground below. “We are standing in a grove of oaks, the oldest of these was an acorn long before you, Aeschalos were born. It will have witnessed the rise of the empire from a humble city on the banks of the Tanus River. It was a stout sapling before the Colossus was built in Rude Island. It lived during the time when priest kings ruled Khoffey on the Dusk River. In their lifetime, these trees have drawn up enough water to fill the great central sea to the brim. They have grown and dropped enough leaves to cover the desert in three feet of mulch. They have provided homes and shelter for thousands of plants and mushrooms, and for a thousand times a thousand animals. Duru is the king of the forest gods, but within just one of his trees there are hundreds of demigods and spirit guardians. Or did you want more specific facts and figures?”

Damos could not hide that he was impressed.

“But … he is made of metal. No druid wears or uses metal.”

“You know Damos, I am but a humble ranger, but I have always thought it was more of a guideline that an actual rule.” The druids had simple huts, like the ones in the hunters’ encampment. Circular constructions of wattle and daub, with thatched conical roofs. Aeschalos moved nonchalantly over towards them.

Damos followed, protesting vehemently, “It’s a hard and fast rule. We druids don’t use metals. Leather armour is allowable, a wooden staff, you see?” He waved the staff as if to demonstrate. Aeschalos moved closer to the hut and approached the fire pit where a big iron pot simmered and bubbled emitting a delicious aroma or stewing meat and vegetables.

“No metal?” He tipped the pot up with his foot, beginning to pour some of the stew onto the fire which smoked unpleasantly.

“Stop, stop, stop! Look, be reasonable, even a druid needs a cooking pot.”

Aeschalos stepped inside the hut. “Nice sickle! Oak is it?”

“You know it’s gold!”

“Knowing you it’s gold plate on steel.” He looked closely at the blade, “Gallobana’s heads it is! You cheapskate Damos!”

“Well, you can’t keep an edge worth a damn on solid gold. I always regild it before cutting anything.” Damos saw the elf’s expression. “Look, have you ever tried cutting mistletoe while you’re fifty feet up a bloody tree with half a dozen acolytes waiting below with a bull’s hide?”

“Hmm … I can’t say I have. I’m sure I would remember. Oh look, is this a scimitar? Now that is definitely steel. You can’t keep an edge worth a damn on beech or ash, or so I am led to believe.”

Damos tried without success, to take the sword away from the elf. Falcon watched from outside the hut.

“The handle is yew. It’s the handle that matters, not the blade. Druids can’t come into contact with metal.”

“So how do you clean the blade?”

“Prestidigitation of course.”

“Look, all I am asking is you give Falcon a try. If he doesn’t take to it, you’ve lost nothing. He certainly won’t dob you in to the empire. He’s glad to be away from them. Something’s gone a-cock with is works and he’s … well … he’s almost human, poor sod.”

Damos looked as though he was giving it serious consideration.

“I’ve taught him everything I know.” Aeschalos added.

“Oh thanks, so he’s coming to us stupider than when he met you then?” Damos said with barely any trace of a smile.

“I knew you wouldn’t let me down.” Aeschalos said. “Falcon! You’re to join this band of tree huggers and do everything they tell you, got that?”

“I didn’t say yes, yet.”

“Yet? I’ll take that to mean that you will. It’s a deal then”

“Will they teach me to fly like a falcon?”

“You have a bit to learn before you can fly,” Aeschalos told him, “but … yes … eventually, you could learn to fly, if you choose the right path.”

Falcon’s eyes glowed brighter.

“Oh Noxos,” the druid muttered, resigned to his fate.

“Oh, I should pay you for your trouble, Damos.” Aeschalos pulled a pouch from his waistband. “Here’s a bag of gold … on no, wait! Gold’s metal.” He tossed it in his hand a couple of times, and then threw it to the old druid. “I guess you will find a way to use it without touching it!” and he laughed as he turned away and disappeared into the forest.

 

Traitor

Falcon had lived with the druids for another year. They went back to basics, teaching him the most fundamental aspects of druidic lore. He learned their language and secret rituals. He even  learned a few very simple spells, cantrips really, nothing too demanding or exhausting to cast. From there, gradually moving on to learn some slightly more powerful magic giving him the power to charm the beasts of the field, to heal the sick, or control the elements.  Falcon felt something that no mechanican  had ever felt before. Falcon was happy.

The other acolytes were mostly adolescent humans, the youngest still children. There were two dwarfs, and an elf who did not seem much older. Falcon had scarcely any memories of events from before he had been worked on by the gnome artificer, but he had his core knowledge base intact. He knew, for example that elves and dwarfs lived longer than humans. He knew that, in theory at least, a mechanican like him could live at least as long as elves. He had no idea how old he was. In a sense, he had been reborn, so he was a little over two years old. Internally he chuckled. If he were a human or elf, he would be walking uncertainly and saying a few words. As a dwarf he would barely be crawling.

The other druids and acolytes treated him with varying degrees of acceptance. Some passed food and drink to him until they realised that he needed none and could not eat it even to be polite. A few found ways to keep away from him but without being openly hostile. It was perhaps odd that the only acolyte who seemed openly hostile was Bract, a young goodfolk lad who was small even for goodfolk. Bract would keep as far from Falcon as he could, and every time Falcon happened to glance in his direction it seemed that he had a special scowl reserved just for the mechanican. The friendliest of the acolytes was a human youth name Ysgarwn. A willowy youth with downy tufts of hair growing unevenly on a soft rounded face. Ysgarwn took Falcon under his wing in the early weeks, helping him to fit in and defending him from criticism from those acolytes less willing to accept a mechanican among their ranks.

It was the month of Zimen, snow dusted the forest floor, sprinkled where it had fallen between the branches, and clumped where it had gathered on branches and fallen off in lumps. The end of the old year approached and the three-day Hivernacht festival beckoned. Falcon stood with a group of acolytes holding a large circular white cloth stretched out beneath a tall oak tree. High up in the branches the sounds of grunting and what might have been muttered swearing drifted down, along with bits of bark and debris as a druid who was, frankly, too old for this shit, attempted to get into a position where he could cut some mistletoe down. Eventually, satisfied, he raised the golden bladed sickle and swept it against the epiphyte’s stem. A good clump fell towards the waiting acolytes who caught it soundly in the sheet. Another druid gathered the cuttings together while the arborist above continued hacking away. Eventually enough mistletoe had been gathered to satisfy the druids and the party gathered everything together to head back to the camp.

“I wonder how Bract is getting on?” one of the acolytes said aloud.

“He’ll ace it. It’s not like he does anything else but study.”

Bract was away taking one of the exacting tests that the druids would make the acolytes undergo to prove they had absorbed all their lessons. These tests involved reciting lengthy histories, lists of deities, properties of trees and plants, and all sorts of druidic lore. This was made al the harder as the whole had to be conducted in druidic, although at least it was written in poetry which made it easier to remember. Bract had earned a reputation for being studious, distant, and aloof.

“Does anyone know why he hates me so much?” Falcon asked.

This elicited a brief discussion.

“I think he hates everyone.”

“I know what Falcon means though. When he looks at any of us he just looks bored, but there’s real malice in his eyes when he looks at Falcon.”

“I dunno. I saw him smile at Falcon the other day.”

“More likely got something trapped in his teeth. Are you sure it wasn’t a grimace?”

“Well, I dunno for sure. He’s a devious little bugger.”

“Maybe he was smiling because he’s got some evil plan.” This was Ysgarwn.

“Going to poison Falcon’s food?”

Everyone laughed, even Falcon made the sound that everyone now accepted as his laugh. It was strange to hear a mechanican laugh, even for people who did not spend much time around the mechanical soldiers.

The laughter was shattered as a flurry of arrows flew out from the surrounding trees. Two acolytes were struck down in the first volley. Aeonian soldiers emerged from the undergrowth reloading for a second shot. Mechanicans accompanied them.

“Bract!” one of the acolytes cried, and everyone else had mentally thought the same thing. Bract had done something awful. They knew that Falcon was really a scout from the Aeonian army, that the empire was probably keen to recover him and, presumably reset him. Nobody wanted that. Ysgarwn had discussed Falcon’s history at length. He had assured Falcon that he would keep him safe from the empire. How could Bract have turned traitor on the entire circle?

From high in the oak tree a streak of icy energy shot into one of the attackers. They ceased moving as a chill enervated their body, arcing from them to the nearest fighters who were lacerated by shards of super-chilled ice. The soldiers were approaching up the slope from the east. The druids were hopelessly outnumbered and out-armed.

Another druid fired off a spell which withered and died as it was cast. He looked towards the approaching soldiers and knew immediately why. The mechanicans were carrying anti-magic field generators. These were artificer designed devices that could cut off any spell within their field of effect. He grabbed the nearest acolytes and dragged them with him, screaming to the rest to run for their lives. Another volley of arrows screamed through the frigid air and acolytes went down on all sides as Falcon ran. From the oak tree another ice-knife ripped the air, carefully placed behind the anti-magic field generators it struck its target taking them down and seriously injuring two more soldiers.

“Keep running, I’ll slow them down.” The druid turned and threw down a handful of sharpened twigs to the ground.

“Sparn alwian!” he muttered as he drew shapes in the air causing the twigs to grow into viciously sharp thorns that covered the ground between them and the soldiers. Then he turned to follow the acolytes. Falcon looked back as he saw the soldiers reach the wicked barbs. The first of them screamed in pain as they could not avoid running into the thorns. Then the mechanicans caught up and their anti-magic fields dissolved the spikes to nothing.

Archers aimed high into the oak tree taking down the druid who had been so effective up until now. More arrows took out the other druid, as well as more acolytes until there was only Falcon left. He glanced back again seeking his friend Ysgarwn. Was he dead already? If not, could he be saved? Dozens of soldiers were moving across the landscape. Falcon knew that he had no option but to run and not stop until he was far away from this place. But then he realised he had to try and warn the rest of the circle. He could run at least as fast as any soldier, especially as they were stopping to shoot arrows at him. Luckily for him the cover of the trees, and his superior knowledge of the terrain meant he was able to get a clear lead.

Arriving at the main druid camp brought worse news. Roundhouses were ablaze, druids lay dead in the melting snow all around. The traitor Bract was among them. Damos lay a few feet away. None had been spared. As he darted from body to body he realised, to his horror that the elf ranger Aeschalos was also among the dead. He must have been visiting Damos. Falcon felt another sensation he had not felt before sadness. Falcon had nothing, no friends, no reason to continue his existence, only the few utilitarian, functional possessions that he had with him. He plucked a feather from one of Aeschalos’ arrows and put it in a small storage cavity in his chest. He found a backpack with some supplies including food he didn’t even need. He had his staff which acted as a druidic focus, and the druid robes he wore although he didn’t really need them either. He knew that the soldiers would still be tracking him. He had to get well away from here. West was the obvious direction. The soldiers had attacked from the east. But then, he reasoned, they would be drawn to the main town. There would be enough warriors to fight them off, but at what cost. He headed south.

Falcon had one advantage that gave him a real sense of hope. He knew all their tactics and techniques, but they knew none of his. He was built for stealth, it was wired into his very being. And yet, now, having become as one with these forests, he was more adept at hiding than any creature he knew about. He had lichen growing on parts of his scoured abraded exoskeleton. He wore a cloak made from fabric that was dyed using the actual plants surrounding him. Nettle green, soft and mottled. He also knew every nook and cranny of the forests. He knew hidden pathways that were used by deer and boar, where he could pass unfettered through the densest undergrowth silently and unhindered. Providing he could keep going for at least an hour without detection he would almost certainly be safe.

After what seemed like several hours, he decided to find somewhere to hide and take some rest. He climbed a gnarled old beech tree that had been coppiced many times before being left to itself. High in the branches, Falcon moved into a position where he was quite invisible from the ground. He had been extremely careful not to damage the bark of the tree or disturb any climbing plants. Not just because he wanted to preserve nature but also because such things were like a painted sign to a good tracker. As he lay invisible to anyone on the ground he watched as, to his horror, he saw Ysgarwn leading a party of Aeonian soldiers in search of him. Falcon almost cried out in anger and frustration. They had all suspected Bract, the surly young goodfolk. Yet all this time, the person he had thought was his best friend was the real traitor. Falcon had a reason to live. He swore that he would become the most powerful druid ever and one day he would find Ysgarwn and destroy him. For now, he had to keep quiet and escape.

Some months later, having escaped from the Aeonians, and travelling largely in disguise, Falcon made his way to the small town of Oliriond and the Kwrann Isles. He didn’t dare reveal his true identity but, by keeping his hood up, and not saying any more than he had to, he was able to pass for human. Somehow, he needed to find another druid circle that would take him in. For the time being, he would seek out adventuring work and try to keep out of trouble.

 

Soul

In the town square of Oliriond stands a large statue to the town’s patron goddess Gallobana, her three heads, represent her wisdom and her perceptiveness. She stands there to protect the town and the temple built in her honour. Behind her, the temple itself has a series of steps leading up to a row of columns in front of the great oaken doors. To the left on the square is the meeting hall and behind it the town hall where Maior Costi, a dwarf, attempts to run a town with at least two-thirds human population, a few dwarfs, and even fewer elves and goodfolk. Other races are either unknown or unwelcome here.

Opposite the temple is a row of shops including Cethi’s apothecary shop and a coffee shop owned by Maior Costi. To the right of the temple is the rather elegant but expensive Harlequin and Cask Inn, next to Vica’s bookshop. Overlooking the town is the keep which is at the highest point. The river estuary lies to the south of the town and flows west into the sea. Oliriond is the very last vestige of civilisation, if you can call it that, before you sail west into a seemingly endless ocean. It was, as far from Aeona as it is possible to be, both in geographical terms and also, arguably, in a socio-economic sense.

Falcon felt empty. He looked at the statue of the goddess and at the temple behind her. He had no right to pray to a deity. Deities were for organic sentient creatures, not machines, no matter how magically created. Yet he had nothing. He had not felt happiness or sadness either since his time in Tira Fawr. He wondered if the emotions still existed within him. At one time, he had been convinced that he had a soul. Now, he felt more uncertain than ever before.

Some unseen unsensed force drew him to walk up the steps. His druidic robes sweeping the worn and weathered stone, his hood hiding his true nature. He walked quietly towards the great marble altar at the front of the large open room. He had seen humans in Aeona supplicate themselves to deities in temples. Not often, but often enough. He knelt down and bowed his head. He tried to think of what words to say. ‘Oh mighty Gallobana, please help a poor machine to find purpose in life?’ it all seemed a bit stupid. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened, and Falcon wondered if he could just stay here kneeling before the goddess until he rusted and fell to pieces. It would be simpler for everyone.

“You seem troubled, child.”

Falcon turned. He knew the priest was named Galrean but nothing more. He kept his head deep in his hood. “I … don’t think there’s anything you or the goddess can do for me,” he admitted.

“Gallobana can help anyone who seeks her aid with an honest and pure soul.” Galrean assured him.

“I think I fall down on at least one of those prerequisites.”

“Are you dishonest?”

Falcon thought. He had heard that clerics were supposed to keep secrets about devotees to their gods. Perhaps if he were open and honest, then the lack of an actual soul might not be such a barrier. “I have to admit that while I have not lied, I have not been entirely open.” He glanced around to ensure that nobody else was in the temple and then pulled back his hood revealing his lichen covered metallic head.

If Galrean was surprised he hid it well. “You are perhaps the  most unusual devotee to come before the goddess.”

“I don’t think I have a soul to be honest and pure with.”

“Well, I have a little test. Come with me.”

The cleric led Falcon to one side at the back of the temple. Here there was a carved relief of a face. It looked fierce, almost demonic. The mouth was carved out deeply, so that you could not see the back of it, just a black gaping hole.

“Anyone who places their hand in the mouth of the beast must possess an honest and pure soul.”

“What happens if they do not?” Falcon asked.

“The beast will bite the hand off.”

Falcon looked at the face. It reminded him vaguely of the commander of his unit back in Aeona. He wondered how much it would hurt to have his hand bitten off. He knew that he could feel pain. It was a built-in defence mechanism. Any creature which could not feel pain would not withdraw from it and could therefore be killed before they knew they were under attack. He clenched his jaw and thrust his hand into the hole. He held it there, eyes half closed in anticipation. Nothing happened. Time seemed to stretch out. After what seemed like an hour, Galrean said, “Gallobana has judged you to be in possession of an honest and pure soul.”

Falcon relaxed and his eyes glowed brightly. He felt happiness again for the first time since he was in the woods.

“Where are you staying?” Galrean asked.

“I’ve been sleeping in the woods outside the town.”

“It’s not the safest of places. Why don’t you stay here at the temple until you have got yourself established?”

“I …”

“You have proved yourself worthy. Whatever you were in the past, in the here and now you are a creature of honest and pure soul, beloved of the goddess.”

“But, what if the people do not accept me?”

“Your secret is safe with me. Come, I will show you where you can stay.”

Falcon had a soul. That much was beyond question. He was safe, at least for now, from the Aeonian empire. But  he still had a long way to go before he could avenge the druids and the elf ranger Aeschalos.

 

 

 

 

Dungeons & Dragons and My Local Games Cafe

At the risk of looking like I am just jumping on a bandwagon, I want to do a blog post about D&D 5e and maybe touch on other TTRPGs while I am at it. But in particular, I want to big up my local games cafe here in sunny Ilfracombe, because it’s where I play D&D as a DM and player.

D&D – TTRPG – Games Cafe – Ilfracombe – North Devon – Dice and a Slice

There, that’s chucked in the most important keywords on an H2 tag, now let’s talk about DnD.

A  Vague, Personal, History of D&D

Dungeons and Dragons has a very long history of which I am largely ignorant and I am not going to do any research to check my facts here so PLEASE don’t cite this article in an argument. I believe it started in the 70s. When I went to school there was a D&D club but I wasn’t allowed to join because … well, the reason given was that, I didn’t have a mini figure to play with, or any dice, etc. I was poor and couldn’t afford £5* for a mini in the local model shop. The real reason was probably because, even among nerds, I was an annoying twat and nobody liked me.

إشارة الجنيه - ويكيبيديا، الموسوعة الحرة

*£5 was still enough for a large round in the pub back then – not that I was going to pubs in the 1970s

Wizards of the Coast

[Dungeons & Dragons: Players Handbook (Hardcover) (Product Image)]

D&D is now owned and run by Wizards of the Coast and much has changed about the game. As far as I can ascertain, it has gone through several major rules overhauls through the years and some of those have been less popular than others. The most recent version is 5e (5th edition) and this is the first and only version of the game I have learned to play. (Thanks to my local games cafe)

D&D is Cool Now

D&D 5e has enjoyed an enormous surge in popularity worlwide and this is not even because of the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic made playing the game a lot more difficult since it is very much more fun when played face-to-face around a large table with plenty of snacks and drinks. In fact, that’s how I was introduced to the game by a brand new games cafe opening up in my home town of Ilfracombe. Once seen as the preserve of nerds and geeks it has now become the cool game to play, although perhaps this merely reflects the new-found popularity of nerds and geeks. Having a few billionaires can do that to a demographic.

Games Cafes

As high streets struggle to keep up with the enormous popularity of online shopping (thanks to those nerds and geeks) traditional retail establishments are closing down and being replace by businesses offering things that cannot be mailed out. That’s why there are more hairdressers, nail salons, and tanning parlours.

No photo description available.It is also why there are more places offering experiences.

Among these are games cafes. A games cafe is like a regular cafe, in as far as, they offer tea, coffee soft drinks and a selection of cakes and snacks. But they also have a huge array of board games from the ubiquitous (although dreadful) Monopoly, to less well-known and vastly superior games like Catan, Azul, Peruke, and Ticket-To-Ride. Customers can just have coffe and cake, or they can pay a small fee to play a board game. You can also buy monthly membership for reduced prices. Worth it if you are a regular visitor like me.

What about D&D?

I was coming to that.  As well as board games, you can play a range of TTRPGs including the most famous, D&D, and others such as Call of Cthulu, or Pathfinder, and related games like Magic the Gathering.

Call of Cthulhu - Online Play

Dice and a Slice in Ilfracombe High Street is one such games cafe. At the moment, our games are conducted at a specially built table with booths separated by perspex screens. Temperatures are taken on entry, masks worn when moving about the cafe but not when seated, and there are wipes and hand gels at every table.

As the danger recedes, we will be able to take the perspex screens down and then we will, once again, have a huge table on which to place battle maps and minis (Ha! I still can’t afford them but D&D has got a lot more inclusive lately)

Inclusivity in D&D

This part is so important to me. The game as a whole has been developing in recent years to be more inclusive. There are still players who are old-fashioned, but Wizards of the Coast has been tireless in making D&D a welcoming place for people of colour, for women, for people with disabilities, and for all genders and sexualities.

Dice and a Slice have also matched that effort to ensure that nobody is excluded or made to feel unwelcome (except perhaps bigots). We have had several people with diagnosed and undiagnosed disabilities in sessions and one of our regular players came out at the start of a game as transgender. We had all seen it coming and I had even prepared a session in which they met a young transgender giant who was being bullied by the other giants. They rescued the young giant and made a long-lasting and useful friendship.

Dice and a Slice

May be an image of dessertIf you are planning a holiday in North Devon this summer, or at any time really, and you fancy playing some D&D, or you just want a good old-fashioned game of Cluedo or Snakes-and-Ladders, then you will need to include Dice and a Slice on your itinerary. Even if you don’t want to play games, they make a dang fine cup of coffee and some seriously scrummy cakes. Tea drinkers will not be disappointed either. Oh, and the hot chocloate is a tour-de-force. If you are the sort of person who hates getting anything in the saucer you will have to ask them to ease up on the extras because the marshmallows, and the squirty cream, and the various chocolates they chuck in, can make it look a bit bonkers.

https://diceandasliceilfracombe.co.uk/

Immersive D&D Weekend Breaks

This is a budding business idea for now but one which I expect will become very popular. During the off-season, particularly during school term-time, why not make a weekend visit to stay at the luxurious Carlton Hotel in Ilfracombe with full board and a whole weekend of intense D&D playing a once-shot campaign specifically tailored to be wrapped up in a weekend.

Because this is a brand new venture the organisers, who also run Dice and a Slice, are firstly asking people to register their interest in this offer. Assuming there is a large enough take-up then dates and exact prices will be finalised and bookings taken from November onwards.

You can attend as a complete party, or in ones and twos and we will ensure there is always a game for everyone who wants one.

If players have partners who don’t want to join in there is a reduced rate for them, and there is still plenty to do in Ilfracombe and North Devon, even in winter.

For full details check out this info page here.

 

 

 

Second Suns Chapter 3

Chapter 3

If you haven’t read from the start you can go back HERE

Travelling Man

“You got that address, George?”

“Yeah mum. Don’t fuss. ‘Hidden Studios’ it’s in the middle of nowhere. He’s sent me the GPS co-ordinates and a load of directions. But apparently it’s well signposted.”

He headed for the door leaving himself plenty of time for the journey.

“Good luck!”

“Yeah right.”

The journey was alright to begin with but then he had to take a turning off the A-road onto a minor one. The directions mentioned a tight left. This turned out not to be an exaggeration and George had to reverse twice before he could get the back end of the van to follow the nose without dragging a hundred-year-old hawthorn with it. The scraping on the battered old red paintwork sounded like the screaming of a thousand boiling kittens. The previous road had benefitted from such luxuries as a dotted white line down the middle, and tarmac across its entire width. This road, that George was now on, was scarcely wider than the van. It was what George thought of as a ‘dual cabbage-way’ – two narrow strips of tarmac with a luxuriant growth of greenery down the broken-up centre. George decided he would be better off using satellite navigation. At least he would have a better idea of how long the remainder of the journey would take. After a few minutes of swearing and screaming, he accepted that he had about as much chance of getting a signal here as he did of meeting Marylin Monroe in the local minimart. He resorted to reading the written directions again.

Past the green gate, about half a mile, left onto track. Obscured by trees.

“Obscured by trees? How am I supposed to see the bloody thing if it’s obscured by bloody trees?” he shouted at the piece of paper in an exercise in complete futility.

“Ah!” George said to himself in triumph as he spotted the turning. OK, he had missed it, but now he did at least know where it was and, astonishingly, it was indeed well signposted. Yes, it’s true that the beautifully hand painted sign saying ‘HIDDEN STUDIOS’ with a large arrow pointing down the dirt track was also obscured by trees and was only really visible properly once you had turned into the track itself, but hey-ho! All he had to do was find somewhere to turn around and he would be home and dry. George gunned the engine and sped off down the dual cabbage-way at a breakneck thirty miles-per-hour, pondering as he did so the amusing fact that the national speed limit applied here which meant that, in theory at least, he could legally reach sixty. He tried to imagine doing sixty, and wondered how long it would take emergency services to find his body and cut it from the wreckage. He passed a layby and dismissed the idea of trying to turn here.

Mimicking his old driving instructor he said, “Now Mr Pearce, I want you to make a turn in the road, using forward and reverse gears, without touching the kerb.”

“That last bit shouldn’t be a problem then,” he replied out loud to himself, “There’s no kerb within several miles of this bit of roa…” he slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt as a BMW came around the blind corner and did likewise.

“Bollocks!” George slammed the old wreck into reverse and, with careful consideration of the wing mirrors, went backwards at almost the same speed as he went forwards, sliding his van neatly into the layby he had just passed.

As the BMW drove through the enormous gap he had left it, going slower than a laden donkey under a burning Mexican sky, the driver wound down his window just enough to shout, “Why don’t you bloody well look where you’re going?”

George, for his part, did the only thing he could do and shout “Fuck you; wanker!” at the retreating arse of the immaculate 5 series. Personalised number plate too. ‘MU51CAL, what a fucking knob-end’ George thought to himself as he resumed his search for a turning place.

Eventually, he came to a crossroads and after a simple, ‘Now Mr Pearce, I’d like you to reverse around that corner safely with due consideration for other road users’, he was heading in the right direction at last. Even without the luxury of sat-nav he realised he was going to be late. The clue was that he was still driving, and the clock showed it was already after the time he was meant to be there. ‘Ten minutes late isn’t really late’, he told himself; ‘It’s well within the acceptable window, unless you’re trying to catch a train, or something.’ That didn’t mean that George wasn’t stressed and angry though.

The music studio was a farm with a series of barns and other outbuildings that had been converted into studios. George wondered if perhaps the farmer was a closet rocker, or whether it was purely a practical decision driven by foot-and-mouth or whatever.

“You alroight boy?” George presumed this was the owner.

“This isn’t the easiest place to find!”

“It’s well signposted.” The farmer pointed out calmly.

“Only after you turn off the road, and you can already see it!

“Oi can’t very well put signs on other people’s land now can Oi?”

“Well at least one on the actual road would be helpful. Or cut back the trees maybe?”

“Nobody else ‘as any bother findin’ uz.”

“How would you know? There could be lost adventurers, gone feral on the moors still seeking the elusive treasures of the Hidden Studio, living in a house built from straw bales and snatching sheep in the night.”

“They’d get in trouble for that.” He was still speaking in the same infuriatingly calm monotone as though ordering groceries.

George stared at the farmer. George’s emotions were a roller coaster. He could be incandescent with rage one minute, and laughing until it hurt, the next. If George was on a roller coaster, this farmer was on a boating lake for under-fives with the oars shipped and swans drifting past.

“Everyone who comes here ‘as found it alright.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t include all the people who haven’t come here does it?

“You found it.”

“After nearly dying in the attempt.”

“Which studio d’you want anyway?

George was momentarily phased by being asked an actually useful question. “Five, it says here.”

“Over there, on the right. Park up next to that five series.”

Self Publishing Book Covers

A few thoughts on designing a book cover

I won’t pretend to be an expert on this but I have been involved in the process of designing book covers for quite a lot of books now, and I think it’s a subject that I am qualified to discuss and one which is worth discussing since the cover is the single most important part of your book.

You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover

YES YOU CAN! In fact, if you can’t judge a book by its cover, then you need a new cover design. As a metaphor for assessing human beings this phrase is quite correct, but when it comes to books you really should be able to work out what genre the book is at the first glance.

What are the rules for Book Cover Design?

Aah, now we hit a stumbling block. There are not so much rules, as guidelines, and even these are fluid and mutable. Every rule can be broken if there is a good enough design reason to break it. But here are a few rules that you would be advised to consider when working on your cover art.

  • Do not use copyright images unless you own the rights
    • I’ve put this first because it’s often the last thing people think about and it is the one that could cost you the most money. There are a number of ways you can avoid copyright infringeent. The first is to draw or photograph something yourself. Or you can pay someone to use their copyright work. And lastly you can use an image that is free for commercial use. (This last route has hidden risks but it will take a whole article to address them).
  • Title and Author name should be legible including when viewed in thumbnail
    • Making the text legible means thinking very carefully about your choice of typeface. Especially when using cursive and decorative fonts it is easy to end up with words that can be misread at first glance, sometimes in hilarious or embarrassing ways. It may also mean you need to add a drop shadow, or an outer glow, or blur the background or any number of other tricks, to get it to stand out.
  • Keep cover text to a minimum.
    • Title & author name are essential. Anything else needs to work hard to justify inclusion. If your book has just been made into a blockbuster movie, then fine. If you have a quote from the New York Times, or the Guardian, by all means. If there is a sub-title, fair enough. Other than that; I suggest you don’t. “A Novel” is frankly, pathetic. If the potential reader can’t work out that this is a novel, I suggest you get a new cover design.
  • The text should not obscure important features of the cover art
    • Ideally, if you can get cover art that includes a lot of sky, or grass, or sea, or just a blank wall… any area of fairly nondescript space where the text can go is ideal. If you are comissioning an artist you can tell them exactly what size you want and where to include blank features, but from past experience that does not guarantee anything.
  • Cover art should be eyecatching
    • Not much to add here. It should be fairly obvious if the overall look is dull or it leaps out at you.
  • Cover art should be genre appropriate
    • The usual advice here is to look at as many other books as possibel in your genre and get a feel for the common features. Try to focus on current big name authors, and not Agatha Christie, or your friend who self-published their book last month. Neither of these is going to be representative. You could publish a classic book in a white cover with black Comic Sans and people would buy it. And your friend, much as you love them, is no more qualified than you are
  • Important elements should not be closer than 5mm to the edge of the book
    • Or 10mm is sometimes the advice. Suffice to say, do not place the title right on the edge. (unless this is a brilliant avant guarde design trick and you can pull it off. Printers do cut surprisingly accurately, but nevertheless, a mm off either way could totally ruin your clever and cunning placement.
  • Design elements should be centred on the page
    • This is simple common sense, but when laying out your cover (if you are doing it yourself) you need to remember that the bleed (that bit that will be cut off) is not part of your cover.
  • The spine text should read from top to bottom (horizontal when the book is face up)
    • Yeah, I did this wrong the first time, but caught it before I went to print. I’ve seen it done plenty of times since and corrected it because of my onw mistake. unless your book is really thick, the spine text will be vertical. As you are laying it out, it should read down the page, not up. Centred on the spine with 2-5mm to spare either side. (don’t put text on any spine less than about 8mm)
  • The blurb on the back should be easily legible and not too long
    • Blurb is a topic in its own right, but when designing a cover warp for a physical book you need to be able to fit in on the page, with enough room for logos, and barcodes. The font should be large enough to read comfortably and not confused with the background image (if using one). There are several ways to make the writign clearer on the back but they also require another article.
    • Another mistake I made was to repeat the title on the back. I never thought about it before, but nobody actually does that.

O.K. if yo know me, you will know I am a bit haphazard about things like this, so I’ve probably missed off some important stuff.

Comment if you want me to add anything.

More articles on this to come.

Second Suns – Chapter 2

Continued from Second Suns – Novel

In Limbo

George slammed the door of the van shut, stomped into the house, slammed the front door, then stomped up the stairs towards his room.  

“You’re back early.”

George stopped and stared angrily at his mum. 

“Coffee?”

He grunted unintelligibly but stopped stomping up the stairs.

“Coffee with a drop of something in it?”

George exhaled like a stabbed bagpipe.

His mum disappeared and came back waving a nearly full bottle of whiskey. “Or you could forget about the coffee and just have the drop of something?”

She poured out two generous shots and handed one to her grown-up son. He downed it in one, and emitted a frustrated sound like a cross between a groan and a roar.

“I take it the gig didn’t go as well as you might have hoped?” She poured another large shot.

“They kicked me out of the band.” He took a more leisurely sip.

“Oh. Well… You’re still in Cthulu though?” She was one of those supportive mums that people who don’t have supportive mums would wade through burning napalm, and throw puppies into a shredder, to have. But when you’ve grown up with constant positivity and encouragement it can get astonishingly annoying.  

“Cthulu haven’t played a gig in months. Not having a drummer will do that to a band.” He paused to savour the single malt, briefly. “That bitch Sandra!”

“George, I would prefer you moderate your language at home please?”

“Sorry mum. But she is. She’s got her feet under the table and Mike wrapped around her little finger. She said, ‘If you love Surrogate Suns so much why don’t you start a tribute to them?’ ”

“Well, why don’t you?”

“I don’t love them that much. Anyway, I’ve had it with bands. Too much grief.”

“Last time you said that you spent six months getting more and more depressed until you joined three bands in one week. I’d sooner you focussed on your job, made some money, and bought a place of your own. How many twenty-year-olds still live with their mum?”

“Price of houses these days, I’d say nearly all of them.”

“Well whenever you’re not in a band, you turn into the most insufferable moron. Would it kill you at least to put an ad on that band-maker website?

“Oh blooming heck mum. Don’t go on… Alright, I’ll stick an ad on, for all the good it will do me.”

* * * * *

“Any joy with the website?” his mum asked a few days later.

“Had some loony call me saying he’s been planning on putting together a tribute just to play the ‘Ra’ album in its entirety.”

George’s mum looked both shocked and sad at once. ‘Ra’ was almost universally acclaimed as Surrogate Suns worst album, although there were a small minority of fans who believed it was the greatest work of recorded art ever produced.

She said, “Care in the community has got a lot to answer for. My dad had that album, but I only ever listened to it once. He played it to us as a warning about what would happen if we ever started using drugs. Scared the willies out of me and your uncle. I think it ended up being melted down in the oven to make a plant pot holder.”

“Mum! An original vinyl of that is worth a fortune now!”

“Not to me it isn’t. Now, anyone touches my copy of ‘Sol Invictus’ they had better like hospital food.” She opened her laptop. “What did you put in the ad anyway?”

“Can’t remember.” He flipped open his laptop and sipped his whisky while waiting for the site to open. “Here it is. I wrote ‘Anyone up for putting together a Surrogate Suns tribute? Singer with own PA and van seeks band.’ ”

“Well, no wonder you just got one loony. Who’s going to jump at that awful effort? You got to make it enticing. Like this one. ‘Singer wanted for Surrogate Suns tribute. Must have own van and P.A. Paid gigs waiting. Only serious applicants. Professional attitude required.’ ”

“Yeah right, that’s on the band builder site right now is it?”

She turned her screen around. “See for yourself.”

“Oh.”

“So? You gonna apply then?”

“I dunno. What if I don’t get it?”

“Oh for pity’s sake! Show me a man who’s never been turned down and I’ll show you a man who’s never gone for anything.”

George uttered a non-committal grunt. Having a helpful mum was a right pain in the bum.

“George! At least give it a go. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

“It says professional, paid gigs waiting. They’ll have a queue of blokes round the block with the right hair and top-quality gear and a van that isn’t falling to bits.

George’s mum stood up. All five feet of her. “Now you listen here. I’ve put up with you and your bloody music because I believe in supporting my kids in achieving their dreams. But there’s only so much a mum can do and if you won’t at least call the bloody number on here then I’ll wash my hands of you, I really will.” And with that, she handed George the phone.

“Arrgh!” Cornered, George dialled the number.

Hello?

“I’m phoning about the ad for the Surrogate Suns tribute band on Band-Maker?”

“Yeah man, great stuff, you a big fan of the Suns?”

“Yeah love ‘em. Apart from maybe Ra? Not the greatest album. But Sol Invicta, and Seventh Son?”

“By far the best album is Supernova in my opinion. Massively underrated. That and Second Sun are the best two.”

“Really? I haven’t listened to them that much but yeah. I mean ‘Wild About Love’ I do that in my current band.”

“Cool well what are you up to next weekend? I can book the rehearsal studios and we can get together and play some stuff. Email me on that address on the advert, and I’ll email you over the details and a list of songs to have ready.”

“OK.” George ended the call and smiled weakly at his mum.

“There that wasn’t so difficult was it?” She topped up both glasses and lifted hers ready for a toast.

“To Surrogate Suns!”

George added, “Tribute.” And the glasses clinked.

CHAPTER THREE

Second Suns – Novel

I’ve started writing a new novel. It is the completely true story about a fictional tribute to a fictional band.

I’ve decided to post chapters here and ask for feedback. Maybe if enough people comment, they may talk me out of it.

I will start with a brief history of the band “Surrogate Suns” (this is incidentally the real name of a band that I formed but which never got to do a gig, but in my story it is the name of a famous 70s rock band)

A Brief History of Surrogate Suns

The ‘Suns’ as their devoted fans call them were first formed in 1969 after the break-up of experimental underground band ‘Fruit Loop Explosion’. This had been a bizarre mixture of psychedlic rock and cabaret act. The singer performed with a live python down his trousers, while the guitarist wore nothing but skin-tight patent leather lederhosen and performed an ascapology routine during a keyboard solo. At one gig, the python attacked the singer, and the guitarist electrocuted himself. They were both unable to resume their roles and the remaining musicians quit leaving the drummer, Derreck Pilton, to fulfil a string of contracted gigs.

Pilton’s first recruit was the guitarist from sixties one-hit-wonders The Sugartones, Jerome ‘Jerry’ Morcock, who was wasted in that band. Nervous at joining the Fruit Loops, Pilton assured him he wanted to take a more serious direction. Morcock then suggested a singer, Andy Shyner, who was currently performing with a pub rock band called ‘Secret Salami’. Pilton and Morcock went to a gig in Bournemouth and both agreed that the band were terrible but the singer had a certain something that grabbed your attention as soon as you saw him. He also had a decent voice. Andy was keen to join the Fruit Loops but insisted on bringing his bass player with him. Michael “Ratty” Ratcliff turned out to be a solid rhythm man with a touch of flair when it was needed.

They completed a tour as a four piece. Although dedicated Loop fans were disappointed with the lack of stage antics and some people complained they were too loud there was definite promise. At a gig at The Gazebo Club in London they were watched by a shady man, in a sharp suit, sitting in a corner booth. At the end of the gig, he had the venue management bring the band over and he made them a proposition they couldn’t refuse. He signed them to his new record label, ironically named Cut-Throat Records. Their new manager had said in an interview, “The music business is a cut-throat business, so we decided to name the record company accordingly.” Few journalists wanted to ask many more questions after he looked them squarely in the eye.

The band began to organise a new tour approaching previous venues that had played host to Fruit Loop Explosion, but not getting a warm reception. A change of name seemed to be needed, although how the name Surrogate Suns came about nobody really remembers clearly. All that is known is that the manager locked them in a room with large amounts of alcohol and the name came from that meeting.

Surrogate Suns first gig was in Liverpool on 5th Jan 1970 and the band were paid £3-7s-6d They then criss-crossed the UK playing 3 – 4 gigs per week for the first three months of the year before continuing without a break to play a series of small theatres and concert halls in Europe.

Surrogate Suns debut album “Supernova” exploded onto a barely prepared public in 1970. Despite some misgivings it soon became a popular classic among the rock and prog cognoscenti.

Initially they played a mix of blues and rock and roll covers, plus one or two of Fruit Loop Explosion’s songs but rocked up to the max. At first audiences didn’t know what to make of them but there was a chemistry and the time was right for a really loud band. Led Zeppelin had led the way and Surrogate Suns followed closely in their footsteps. The first album “Supernova” (1970) was recorded in six weeks at a studio in London and was already selling in America ahead of their tour.

It was a raw collection of the regular stuff from the live set but it just blasted away the cobwebs and became a favourite with bikers and rockers in general.

The American tour began in September and they played a staggering 46 gigs in two months. Back in the UK the album had sold steadily but not spectacularly. It was enough to get them a headline gig in Bristol with a local support act. The support band were a strange fusion of jazz and prog and they didn’t really enthuse the audience, but the keyboard player was a bit special. He made sounds come out of the Hammond organ that nobody had ever heard before. He played with his back to the instrument, he climbed on top of it and even took his shoes and socks off and played with his toes. Backstage it was clear that this other band was falling apart arguing and bickering about everything. So Surrogate Suns felt no pang of guilt when they lured the keyboard player away.

His input was the making of the second album which bore the name “Second Sun” (1971) and contained one of their best known songs. “Wild About Love” was a crazy musical roller coaster ride featuring a lengthy solo with all sorts of strange noises made by using and abusing the instruments in bizarre ways.

“Sol Three” (1971) came next with a descent into uncharted waters of jazz/prog and Indian music influenced by the Beatles experiments with Ravi Shankar a few years earlier. Also included two acoustic tracks featuring an obscure blues guitarist from Scotland, Blind Willy MacTavish.

“Centaur Eye” (1972) took the prog ideas still further with the title track at nearly 15 minutes; and yet this was still hard rock too; much heavier than anything produced by Pink Floyd up to that time.

The first four albums appeared at six month intervals and, the whole time, the band were touring relentlessly, playing over four hundred gigs in the first three years. Eventually the heavy schedule caught up with them. They were selling out large venues and their albums were selling by the shed load. The money they were making was being spent on drugs and loose women, and soon it all came crashing to a halt as Andy Shyner was taken seriously ill and admitted to hospital. It looked like the end of the road for the Suns. However, by the end of 1972 the singer was pronounced fit to be sent home, although he immediately flew out to California and spent six months convalescing. The guitarist and keyboard player flew out as well and they spent the time relaxing round a pool and writing songs.

When the fifth album “Ra” finally came out in 1974 it was either the greatest work ever or an unholy mess, depending on which critics you read. They had spent almost a year in the studio and it was by far the most expensive album they ever made, but there wasn’t a single track on it that grabbed you at first hearing. One or two were quite jazzy but not in a good way. It was overproduced and inaccessible and yet it sold by the bucket-load to fans who played it once and then put it away for ever.

The tour was not well attended, and newspapers talked of the amusing sight of ticket touts offering tickets for the price of a bus fare home.

1975 saw the band take a hiatus while two of them went to an Indian retreat. Here they gradually got off an addiction to cocaine although they did experiment with a variety of other drugs.

On their return the band spent the first part of 1976 in a Scottish castle cut off from the rest of the world and honed what was to become, arguably, their best album ever.

The aptly titled “Sol Invictus” (the unconquered Sun) was released on Midsummer night at midnight. Loyal fans queued at record shops which were persuaded to remain open and the first run sold out before sunrise. The album was received warmly by critics many of whom had panned “Ra” Even as Punk was set to storm the British music scene, these old has-been rockers could pull something special out of the bag.

It contained eleven tracks ranging from the short and punchy opener “I’m Back” with wailing vocal over a fast and furious guitar riff that was a match for any punk song, to the amazingly ethereal progressive title track.  The Suns were indeed back and their next tour was the biggest ever; playing stadium venues in Europe, the USA, Australia, Japan, and South America.

Then at the end of 1977 Jerry Morcock died in mysterious circumstances. They were on top of the world musically and planning their eighth studio album when he died peacefully in his sleep.

The rest of the band refused to consider continuing under the name Surrogate Suns and they disbanded forthwith.

Seventh Son of a Seventh Sun was released posthumously

Discography

  • Supernova
  • Second Sun
  • Sol Three
  • Centaur Eye
  • Ra
  • Sol Invictus
  • Seventh Son of a Seventh Sun

Fast forward to the 21st century.

Tributes to Surrogate Suns (incomplete list)
  • Wild About Suns
  • The Surrogate Suns Experience
  • Surrogate Sons
  • Son of Suns
  • Surrogate Daughters (an all-female tribute)
  • Sol Invictus
  • Surrogate Surrogates
  • Surrogate Supernova
  • Surrogate Stars
  • Substitut Soleils (A French tribute)
  • Balls to Plasma (a bizarre punk tribute)
  • Ra Ra Superstar (an even more bizarre disco tribute!)
  • Second Suns

Second Suns – a Tribute to Surrogate Suns

  • Singer – George Pearce
  • Drums – John Briggs
  • Guitar – Steve Rowe
  • Bass – Barry Hodges
  • Keys – Carl Smith

Chapter 1 – Busted Clocks

Music was playing loudly, some sort of prog rock. A phone rang. George looked around for a flat surface on which to place his beer, failing to find anywhere, he scrabbled around one handed among the various items of clothing, books, papers, and empty packaging on his bed, searching for the cordless house phone.

“Hello?”

Where are you?” it was John, the guitarist from Busted Clocks, his band.

“Eh?”

Gig tonight? Are you still at home?

George looked at the landline through which he was speaking to the guitarist and pulled a face indicative of the ridiculousness of the question; the gesture, of course, was lost on John. He glanced at the clock. “Shit!” he muttered to himself, then to the phone he said, “I’ll be there is half an hour!”

For fuck’s sake!

George flung the phone down glanced at himself in the mirror, and headed out the door, beer still in hand. Back inside a few seconds later.

“Mum? Have you seen my gig back?”

A dislocated voice called back, “On the floor under the stairs where you dumped it last week!”

George looked down and realised he was practically standing on the handle.

“Thanks mum!”

He downed the last of the beer and dumped the can on the sideboard on his way out.

* * * * *

George pulled up outside the venue. Dave, Mike, and Sandra berated him over his timekeeping.

“You cock!” Dave began.

“Sorry guys, I lost track of time.”

“Pathetic!” Sandra added.

“I said I’m sorry!”

“You’re always saying you’re sorry George.” Mike retorted.

“Well I am sorry, alright? Where’s John?

“Getting a kebab.” Mike told him.

“He’ll turn into a kebab one of these days.”

“You mean he isn’t already?” Mike joked.

“Can we cut the chat and get this van unloaded?” Dave complained. “There’s people already here. We’ll have to sound check with ’em watching now.”

George grabbed a big speaker and lugged it inside followed by Dave, carrying a mic stand, Mike, who took a bag of leads, and Sandra, who brought her smile.

“You lazy buggers!” George said. “You could’ve brought the other speaker!”

“I’ve already brought my bass rig in.” Dave pointed out. “John’s brought his cab and head in.”

“Yeah,” Mike added, “you think these drums set themselves up do you? It’s about time you pulled your weight and stopped dicking us around.”

“Frankly, George,” Sandra smiled nastily, “we’ve been talking about stuff while we’ve been… waiting for you.”

“Oh really? And what have you been … saying then?” George mimicked her emphasis.

“Leave it Saan, let’s get set up and do the gig eh?”

“No! Shut up, Mike. Come on, Saan. Out with it.”

“Guys come on,” Dave tried. “We’re mates right? Been together with this line-up for, what is it? Six months now? Starting to come together; gigs lined up; people already here; be full up by nine o’clock.”

“Well he has to know some time,” Sandra sneered. “You’re not wanted in the band any more. This is the last gig with you.”

“Oh. So that’s how it is, is it? Dave? It’s Mike and Sandra’s band now is it? They make all the decisions? As I recall, you and John put this band together and it was all going fine until Mike brought Sandra in.”

Dave looked only a little apologetic. “Mate, it would help if you turned up on time occasionally.”

“Oh right, so now arriving on time is the criteria for a rock singer is it? Axl bloody Rose sometimes didn’t arrive until AFTER the audience had all gone home!”

“You’re NOT Axl Bloody Rose though are you?” cut in Sandra. “You’re George useless-moron Pearce. Pub singer and all-round prat. You’ld be late for your own bloody funeral and, by the way, nobody in the band likes Surrogate Suns, and nor do the audiences.

“What the fuck’s that got to do with anything?”

“You constantly going on about doing Surrogate Suns covers,” Mike cut in. “We already do ‘Wild About Love’, fair enough. That’s a classic, everybody knows it and can sing along. But what’s that shit you played at rehearsal last week?”

“’Sol Invictus. Its bloody genius is what it is. Not that you lot would ever be able to play it. Takes a drummer who can handle something other than four/four the whole night.”

“From the bloke who has to stop playing tambourine if he starts singing.”

“I don’t have to be a musician to know you’re a shit drummer!”

Mike threw a drumstick at George which bounced off his head. This amused Mike, at least.

“Ow! Twat!”

Dave attempted to calm the situation. “Chill, guys. Come on there’s people looking at us. Anyway, whoever said a drummer was a musician, right?” he laughed weakly. “Let’s get set up and do this gig eh?” This speech was about as much use as a kazoo solo at the Albert Hall.

“No. Fuck that. If you’re so keen to dump me, then let’s get on with it. Why wait until after the gig? I’ll fuck off now and leave Sandra in charge. I’m sure she’s more than capable of taking over all the songs I do.”

“Damn right I am. I’ll do a damn sight better as well.”

George hadn’t expected her to be so keen. “Yeah right! You got your lyrics written out then? You can’t even remember your own songs, you slag.”

“Oy you…” Mike began.

“Ignore him Mike,” Sandra said, turning her back on George. “It’s all sorted. some people come prepared. I knew you would flake out on us one day and I’d have to cover for you.”

Dave made another attempt to defuse the situation. “George man, come on, we’re mates, we don’t need all this aggro. Let’s get set up have a few beers smash the gig and talk about this at the next rehearsal eh?”

But George was already shoving his heavy speaker back into the van and coming back for the mic stand and cables.

“Bollocks Dave,” Sandra said. “He’s a dick and the sooner he’s out of our hair the better. What’s the deal for this gig? Hundred quid tonight? You can’t even divide that by five can you? Anyway, whatever it is, split four ways we get more each.”

Dave and George exchanged a look of despair at Sandra’s lack of basic arithmetic, and even Mike was a bit non-plussed as to how anyone could think you can’t split a hundred pounds five ways.

“Sorry Dave. This isn’t your fault, but I’m not hanging around if I’m not wanted. Good luck with this mental bitch and her boyfriend!” George glared at Mike as he loaded the remaining bits into his van and slammed the door.

Sandra couldn’t resist a parting shot. “If you love Surrogate Suns so much, why don’t you start up a tribute band to them? You could call it ‘Test Tube Babies’.”

George was in the driving seat by now, but he paused, almost lost for words. “What are you on about? That sounds more like a tribute to ‘Peter and the Test Tube Babies’.”

“The Who?” Sandra replied.  

Dave couldn’t resist. “Nah, not The Who; Peter and the Test Tube Babies.”

Sandra’s blank stare was a revelation She was younger than the others, but still…  

“Punk band,” Dave tried by way of explanation. “Zombie Creeping Flesh?”

Sandra continued to look blank.

“Rotting in the Fart Sack”?

Still nothing. George started his van and drove off, with a spin of rubber on tarmac. No mean feat in a twelve-year-old LDV convoy.

“You’re not familiar with their work then, I take it?” Dave continued.

It was at this moment that the guitarist, John, returned and said, “Alright Dave? Was that George?”

“Yeah.”

“Why’s he driven off?”

“He’s quit.”

“What? Why?”

Sandra interrupted, “Because he’s a dick. Don’t worry, I know all his songs, and got the lyrics written out… Some of us can manage to come prepared.” She flashed a brief, smug, grin and headed into the venue.

“Brilliant,” John said. “Well that’s all sorted then.” And then, because Sandra was moving away he raised his voice to add, “…and you’ve got a P.A. as well?”

Dave, Mike and Sandra all looked at each other as realisation dawned.

“Oh, fuuuuuuck!”

Want to read more? Second Suns – Chapter 2 Please leve a comment if you want more as I feed off the energy of people who don’t hate me.