This one has been available in Kindle format for a while but it took a bit longer to get the paperback ready.
I’m hoping it is an oddity you will enjoy. The brief from Phoebe, the publisher, was a creature-themed fairy tale punking. With me so far? Well, I decided to take things a bit further by making mine a mash-up of two traditional Sumatran tales.
The source material was from this wonderful book:
My original idea was to atompunk The Magic Crocodile and I might still write that one day. But the concept was not really coming together so I moved on to the story of An Honest Man – a good solid core to build on but it lacked an emotional punch. The Green Princess had that in abundance. From there, well you’ll have to read it to find out.
Let me know if you’ve ever read another punked Indonesian folk tale, I’m hoping mine is the first but definitely not the last.
Looking ahead, the lovely people at Flame Tree have agreed to reprint my story An Absolute Amount of Sadness in their immigrant sci-fi anthology. You can check out the author list on their blog. Regulars may recognise the title, it first appeared in Fitting In by Mad Scientist Journal (sadly no longer with us). They also published “The Girl Who Gives Me Sunsets” in Utter Fabrication, which remains my favourite title from one of my stories. Look out for that and a new novella in 2023
I haven’t shared one of my own stories here for a while. In the light of what is going on in Afghanistan at the moment, and our fears for the rights of women and minorities, I thought I’d share something set in Kabul. It is a bit of action / adventure I wrote for a competition and it tries to look beyond the tropes of terror and insurgency to a more hopeful future. That hope is in pretty short supply right now.
The story got me into the next round of the competition. I hope you enjoy it.
The Healer of Kabul
Hana took a deep breath and steadied her nerves. From across the room Ester gave her a thumbs up.
“This is my signature piece,” Hana said, lifting a creamy bowl decorated with vivid poppies in bloom. She remembered the instruction to smile. “Anti-tank mines have a porcelain liner to make them harder to detect.” She put the bowl down and lifted another, dull beige with a hole in the base to show the original state. “Each liner is hand-painted, with a resin insert to make it watertight.” She gestured to the side. Ester panned the tiny GoPro around to show the display. “You can use them as planters, or for decoration, maybe to serve your favorite sweets. My country has seen so much violence. The reminders of it are everywhere. I hope to take these objects and show my people we can grow beyond war to lives of peace and beauty.”
Ester tapped the GoPro to stop recording. Hana took the opportunity to shrug off her abaya. It was stifling in the tiny shop.
“Perfect,” Ester said, “I’ll splice it together with our other segments. We’ll have your first promotional video ready in no time.” She clipped the little camera around her neck and glanced at her phone. “This is going to be a real success Hana, I can feel it.”
“A success for us both, Ester. We should be partners.”
Ester laughed and reached out to touch Hana’s cheek. “That’s not allowed, my dear. Anyway, no one works for a charity to get rich.”
The door to the tiny room opened, letting the clamor of Kabul’s traffic flood into the room. Ashar popped his head in.
“Finished?” he asked. Hana nodded, trying not to smile as she watched her brother’s eyes swing to Ester, softening in adoration. He was smitten by the tall German woman, even though she was technically old enough to be their mother.
Without shifting his gaze he waved a satchel by its strap. The flap was thrown open. The shop lights glinted off the grenades stuffed inside. “Delivery,” he said. Ashar didn’t have many words in any language, but he was smart enough to use them effectively.
Ester’s eyebrows shot up. “Are those…?”
“Hand grenades,” Hana said. She snapped her fingers to get Ashar’s attention and gestured for him to keep hold of them. He swung back into his seat under the awning in front of the shop.
“Are they safe?”
“This is Kabul,” Hana said, a little surprised that Ester was rattled. The flare of her nostrils gave Hana away, Ester shook her head and laughed. The German worked for a non-profit organization that promoted local artists in some of the world’s most troubled countries. She had an office in the highly protected Green Zone, and while she had arrived in a rickshaw, her armed guards had followed in a dented Pajero and now watched from the tea shop across the road.
Ashar’s shout from outside stalled the conversation. Hana bumped her hip hard on a table corner as she hurried to see, Ester hot on her heels.
A skinny man with a scraggly beard pulled at the strap of the satchel. Ashar tried to keep hold of it. With a yank the thief snatched the satchel, still loaded with its contents, from the boy’s grasp and leapt away onto the back of a waiting motorbike.
“Hey!” Ester yelled. She grabbed Hana’s arm and ran out into the street. A rickshaw idled by the side of the road, the driver squatting beside it, dragging on a cigarette and watching with disinterest. Ester leapt in. Without thinking Hana got in beside her.
The driver shrugged and looked away.
Cursing in German, Ester hopped into the driver’s seat thumbing on the GoPro. She stabbed the throttle and the rickshaw lurched away. Hana yelped as she over-balanced, shoulders slamming into the rickshaw’s metal frame. For a few paces the barking driver kept up with them. He reached in and grabbed a handful of Ester’s light headscarf. It fluttered away as they sped off down the little side street.
The motorbike was an aged, sputtering Honda. It hadn’t got far ahead. Ester twisted the handlebars to swing the rickshaw into the stuttering traffic on the main street. Horns blared as the rickshaw tipped on two of its three wheels. Hana threw herself the other way to counterbalance it.
“Hundesohn!” Ester swore at the slow-moving traffic and hawkers with wheeled carts. She pumped her palm on the horn.
A gout of diesel smoke from a brightly-colored bus hid the motorbike for a moment. The air cleared. Two men pushing a heavy wooden cart laden with cages blocked the road, stalling the motorbike. The thief and his getaway driver twisted and backed up.
“Hold on,” Ester called over her shoulder.
They careened towards the motorbike. A crash was inevitable. The world slowed. Hana looked into the dark eyes of the thief. Cold, calculating. There was a menace there. Was it a crime of opportunity, or were they targeting her? A woman running her own business in this fiercely patriarchal country. A woman bringing a message of peace with the relics from fifty years of near-constant war.
In those agonizingly slow seconds, she realized this wasn’t about theft, it was about her.
The motorbike leapt away. Ester slammed on the brakes, hurling Hana forward. Hana’s face planted between Ester’s shoulder blades. Ahead of them chickens pecked and shuffled in their cages, entirely unconcerned.
“Sheisse.” Ester hauled on the handlebars, manoeuvring around the cart and back into the chase. The road cleared for a few meters. The thief looked back from his pillion seat, held out the satchel and dropped it in the road.
“Stop.” Hana grabbed Ester’s shoulder and jumped from the slowing rickshaw. Her sandal twisted away from her foot. She hopped, jumped and landed on the satchel, smothering it with her body. She counted the seconds, dimly aware of horns blaring, shouts. From somewhere a long way away – Ester’s voice.
The grenades were all meant to be safe. Dismantled, fuses and explosive material removed, then reassembled. But the thief had known her and had dropped the satchel for her to pick up. He could have added a real grenade. She couldn’t allow innocent bystanders to be harmed for a vendetta against her.
Three breaths. Four. Plus the time it took to get to the satchel. If it was an old grenade the chemical fuse could have degraded. Five, six.
“It’s OK. I think we’re safe.” Ester’s shadow fell on Hana. It was brave of her, Hana thought, to come so close. She gripped Ester’s outstretched hand and got to her feet. Hana’s hijab was awry and a crowd of onlookers had gathered, unaware of the potential for mortal peril. She glanced around. They were more interested in the tall blonde woman in jeans and boots who had been driving a rickshaw. There was a beep as Ester switched off the GoPro that still hung around her neck.
Hana slung the satchel over her shoulder. “We’d better take that rickshaw back.”
Business boomed for a while. The promotional material Ester filmed in the shop may have won Hana some international sales, but it was the jerky video of an expletive-laden chase through the streets in a rickshaw that won Hana brief renown. The “Healer of Kabul” – a slightly built, modestly dressed, hijab-wearing young woman became a social media star. Those dignitaries that ventured outside the Green Zone looking for a photo opportunity or a souvenir from the real Afghanistan asked for her by name. Hana smiled and sold them her hand grenade candles and bullet kohl bottles.
Hana’s fame was waning by the time Ester managed to arrange an exhibition of Hana’s painted porcelain in Berlin. “It seems a terrible risk,” Hana said, as they sipped tea in her small apartment. “You can’t seriously mean to buy all those pieces yourself.”
“The gallery is threatening to pull out and the sponsors are losing interest.” Ester shook her head. “There’s a Rohingya kid in Burma who makes kites that everyone’s gushing over now. That’s just the way of the world. But I believe in what you are doing here, Hana. I want the world to see it properly. I’ll buy the inventory and underwrite the exhibition. Are the crates ready to go?”
“Ashar has been packing everything carefully.” She smiled across at her brother. He’d grown more accustomed to Ester but was still clearly besotted.
For a moment Ester stared into her tea. Lipstick marred the edge of the glass. “I have an appointment with the customs people,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Ashar, see Ester to her car please, then buy us some bread for dinner.”
Hana tidied while she waited for his return, humming to herself. The fading of her fame did not bother her the way it seemed to bother Ester. Her items still sold enough to make a decent living and Hana felt happy to be independent, able to support herself and look after her brother. For a long time that had been a distant dream. In a way her independence was a greater symbol of Afghanistan’s healing than the art she made.
Ashar was late getting back. He’d probably stopped to watch the local boys play soccer. By the time he wandered home the bread would be stiff and cold. With a sigh Hana readied herself to go and find him, tying on her hijab with practiced efficiency and shrugging into her loose abaya, and checking the deep pockets for all her necessities. She opened the front door and stopped. Ashar stood in the doorway, his pose still and unnatural. There was a sharp stink. He’d wet himself. Tears stood in his eyes
“Ashar!” she started, angry and upset. He hadn’t done this for years. Then she saw the muzzle of the gun pointed at his ribs.
“Take the boy inside, tie him up and leave him. Someone will find him eventually. It’s the woman we want.” The gunman spoke in heavy, hill tribe Pashtu. She knew those eyes. The grenade thief. Fear rooted her to the spot as a bag went over her head and rough hands tied her wrists together. She stifled her scream into a sob. They had her brother.
Hana gasped as her shins caught on something hard. Someone pushed her into a van. They didn’t travel far, she guessed no more than fifteen minutes of bumping on the uneven roads and stuttering through traffic.
The bag came off in a large spartan room. There were two men. The thief and his getaway driver. Hana’s mind whirled. Why them? Why now?
The room was well lit. Her blood went cold. One wall was adorned with an ISIS flag. She turned around. On a heavy wooden table a GoPro pointed at the flag. The thief untied her hands and gave her a shove.
“On your knees.”
She slumped down. Tears dripped on the black cloth of the abaya. The thief wound a cover over his face, leaving only those cold eyes showing. He ranted a speech to the camera. Hana vaguely registered something about the erosion of values, the disease of liberalism. She couldn’t focus, she knew what was coming. Everyone knew someone who had been lost to war or insurgency. Not third or fourth hand but direct relations, close friends.
She’d made herself a target, the symbol of a different life, the different country Afghanistan could be. She could accept her fate, but who would look after Ashar?
She blinked away tears and stared into the camera. The camera. She knew that GoPro. She’d rehearsed in front of it, the scratches on the casing were etched into her memory.
“Ester,” she said, her voice hoarse.
The ranting thief stopped.
“Ester,” she said again. Clearly this time. Her voice pitched to carry. A shadow crossed the doorway.
“We’ll have to edit that out of course.” Ester stepped into the room. She nodded to the thief who took a couple of steps away from Hana towards the door and stopped, his hand resting on his gun.
“Is this some kind of game? A publicity stunt for the exhibition?” Hana asked, her voice rising as panic gave way to incredulity. She started to get to her feet but the jerk of the muzzle sat her back down again.
“Publicity, yes. But not a game.”
“You can’t be serious. Who are these men? Are they actors?”
Ester dropped to her haunches, eyes almost level with Hana. “Deadly serious, my dear. We had a good run, you and I. But I’m cashing out now. Can you see the headlines? The Healer of Kabul, a martyr for peace. If it’s any consolation your exhibition is guaranteed to be a success.”
“You said no one ever joined a charity to get rich.”
“I won’t be. Just comfortable, without worry.” Ester reached out to touch Hana’s cheek. “I’d need several more like you to be rich.”
Hana jerked away, slipping her hands into her abaya as she did so.
“Kill her,” Ester said to the thief, stepping back.
“Wait.” Hana pulled her hands out of the abaya. In her right hand she held a grenade. In her left, she held the pin. Ester laughed. “Really? I know all about your grenades.”
“Do you? I want to heal my country Ester. I may dream of a better, peaceful Kabul. But I live in the real one. Do you really think I go about without protection?” The thief was backing away, the driver had his back to the wall and was sidling to the door. “Your henchmen don’t seem too confident.” Hana taunted, rising slowly.
“It’s a bluff. Kill her.”
Hana gave the thief a chill smile and tossed the grenade towards the door. One breath. There was a plink as the lever released and fell away, a pop as the fuse lit. The grenade skittered across the floor stopping just outside the door. Two breaths. Hana was already diving for the table, tipping it as she fell, the GoPro sliding off beside her. Three breaths. Hana’s shoulder hit the floor as she curled and covered her ears. She heard heavy footsteps pounding.
The explosion rocked the room, ripping plaster from the walls and ceiling, filling the air with dust. The house groaned, a crash reverberated over the echoes of the blast. A billow of new dust wafted over the edge of the table.
She crawled out into a monochrome world of plaster dust. Ester’s booted foot poked out of the rubble, motionless. A messy pile of spattered blood and shredded cloth was all that was left of the thief. Hana stumbled out of the room. The explosion had torn through the wall of the hallway leaving a gaping hole to the courtyard below.
The driver had made it some way down the hall. The blast had taken him in the back. His handgun lay a little distance away. She picked it up and slipped it into the pocket of her abaya, opposite from Ester’s GoPro.
Kabul was not yet the city she dreamed it could be, and it would take her a while to walk home to her brother.
Funny how certain themes pervade my writing from time to time. A little while back I wrote a short piece (not sold at the time of writing) on religious extremism / militarism being grounded in an blind faith and an unwillingness to ask questions.
Exhaustion has also been on my mind, and how it can be a catalyst for reflection. If you took a chance to listen to me reading from Robert Nichols (head over to Instagram if you haven’t yet) you might recall this line:
Only sometimes will exhaustion allow
Us peace to observe the image of love’s ghost
from Sonnets to Aurelia by Robert Nichols
It has been on my mind that only when adrenalin has been drained, or passion spent, that we can look back on what drove us. Think of it as the seconds needed to overcome an amygdala hijack, and allow the rational mind to take over, writ large.
From that was born What We Learned from the Fire, a reflective piece looking at the horrors of war in the aftermath of a battle, seen from the fatigued perspective of those who execute orders rather than those who give them.
The stories I have sold so far have been, by and large, refined and honed over years. Edited, rejected, re-worked and re-sent over and over. This was a stark contrast. It emerged fully formed, was scraped and cleaned and landed the first time I sent it out.
Thanks for that to Doug Irvin, who saw something in it that fit the theme of this anthology. Read his thoughts on how the anthology came together here. He observed on accepting the story that it put him in mind of Wellington. The comment was a little inscrutable, but I guess he meant this:
Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
It is a melancholy piece, that’s for sure. Don’t worry, the other contributions aren’t.
This was a really fun project. For the reading I had to try my hand at different voices. I also experimented with Audacity to get just the right meditation drone noise for the interstitial music.
It was surprising exhausting to do the reading. Paying attention to every word, switching voices, concentrating on keeping a measured pace but adding urgency when required, all took its toll. I enjoyed it, and if the chance comes along I would like to do it again. Next time I’ll be better informed about what it takes.
Go have a listen then pop back and tell me what you think. If you really liked it here are a few other readings:
Ambrien is a warrior serving the God-Queen. With her city besieged by a relentless foe, Ambrien’s unique abilities take her away from the battle to challenge everything she believes in order to bring an end to the war.
Of course, there is a bit more to it. If you’re interested…
Getting it right
I wrote the first draft of Return of the Queen in a bit of a rush around March 2018. The deadline for a submission call loomed and I had left things a little late. One form rejection and one personal rejection (“it’s a bit slow to develop”) later and I decided to let my beloved beta locusts loose on it. I don’t do that with all my stories; their time is precious but this one seemed worth the candle.
It came back littered with comments. Structure, pacing and grammar were all thoroughly examined and thoughtful suggestions given on what to improve, what to cut, what to keep. We had a debate about whether the sacred knives in the story (kindjal, from khanjar) should be an invariant noun, I decided the plural should be kindjali to help the reader while accepting the technical point on invariance. And then the fighting details – style, weaponry, armour – getting these physically plausible and to a point of consistency with the setting.
My beta locusts are awesome. They did all that for the pleasure of doing it and I love them. Of course, I’m still seeing things in this story that I am itching to edit.
The next rejection showed the benefits of all that hard work: “terrific epic fantasy feel, with terrific magic and worldbuilding” just not quite right for that anthology.
Finding the right home
It gathered dust for almost a year, I tinkered every now and then, but the right opportunity didn’t come up, until I came across Crimson Streets. You can see the outcome of that and the interpretation of the brilliant artist Chlo’e Camonayan on their site.
The bigger themes
For me, Return of the Queen is more than a bit of fantasy escapism (nothing wrong with that!). We were deep into #metoo in 2018, I was curious to know if I had a legitimate voice to add, and what my contribution might be. That culminated in “Me and Me Too. Even You” late in the year. Return of the Queen precedes the poem but is part of the same thought process. The setting is a matriarchal society, a female deity, and no backhanded Steve Trevor’s to save the day. In this case I had two questions: is it power or masculinity that corrupts? and is there a path to redemption?
Guilt, forgiveness and redemption are themes I orbit around, and occasionally crash into, so this will come as no surprise to regular readers.
Now you know what I was trying to do go and add a comment on Crimson Streets and let me know if I got close to it (or here, talk to me people). If that dimension of the story doesn’t float your boat, I hope you appreciate the design of the battle skirt, the use of short spears instead of swords, the work that went into the detail, and Chlo’e’s awesome picture.
Hilt detail from the “Splendours of the Subcontinent” exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in Aug 2018
My story “Lifting the Weight” is included in this anthology from Death’s Head Press. A bit earthier and more violent than my usual fare, so be warned!
The narrator is a demon with a lust for wealth. Bad luck leaves him cursed by a necromancer, carrying a Weight that he can only relieve by righting wrongs. Following a tip off on a criminal gang he finds himself with a choice between his lust and his freedom.
A little late with this one – I was travelling. I’m delighted to have my story Finding Galatea published alongside fabulous contributions in this lush (and large) anthology.
In Finding Galatea we meet Cyrus, a man with exceptional senses. He escapes the sensory overload of London to take refuge in Seville, where he meets Beatriz. She is perfect, a woman of peculiar beauty who has no scent. Their lives and love flourish.
When Beatriz’s sister Joanna goes missing Cyrus must return to London and the sordid underworld he left behind. But in searching for Joanna he risks losing the woman from beyond his imagination.
You can listen to me reading a bit from my story here
And there is an excerpt on Transmundane Press’s site here
Fans of English renaissance tragedies will be pleased to know there is also a character called Rowley.
Here’s the blurb for the anthology:
A parallel dimension exists below the surface of reality.
Its doors swing open every time we sleep, allowing us passage into the land of DREAMS, a plane rich with exotic fantasy and limitless bliss. Within this wonder world, however, lurk dark corridors and terrible creatures—some unfortunate travelers never escape the NIGHTMARES waiting in the shadows.
Many have tried bridging our worlds. Seekers and wise men have meditated for VISIONS and ingested intoxicants for HALLUCINATIONS in hopes that the veil between our realms will thin, allowing access to all the thrills, joys, and horrors beyond our senses.
TRANSCENDENT is an open gate, a gangway linking our realm to the shimmering sphere where nothing is certain and anything is possible.
A Nunicorn – not a horse with a horn, a donkey with a hook!
(a story for children of all ages)
The myth about fairies and unicorns, Nobby thought to himself, was that they weren’t all nice and noble. He plodded his way along the dirt track, his heavy hooves leaving deep imprints in the mud. Earlier a pair of unicorns had galloped by, seeming to float over the ground and looking magnificent of course. They didn’t notice the thick clods they threw up into Nobby’s face. Nobby was a nunicorn and no one cared what he thought.
The cart creaked and swayed behind him. At least that did not weigh much. He was meant to have a load of bright red apples from the orchard, but instead he had a barrel of seashells. Pippin the apple fairy had promised to transform them for him on the outskirts of the fairy village.
Everyone thought fairies only drank nectar straight from flowers, and unicorns munched grass in unspoilt forest glades, but they all loved apples and someone had to haul them in. Pippin remembered what it was like to be an outcast and quietly helped Nobby in his thankless duty. They had to keep it a secret though because the magic people were still a bit scared of Pippin’s ability to turn anything she touched into an apple. Fortunately, while the fairies and unicorns were graceful and lovely they weren’t very bright, and so far Nobby had never been caught.
It was a long trudge from the seashore and Nobby was covered in sweat by the time he reached the meeting point with Pippin. She was nowhere to the seen. With a sigh, Nobby dipped his head and let the thick rope attached to the cart slip off the hook that protruded from his forehead.
“Ho Nobmeister!” A unicorn appeared in a sudden cloud of road dust, rearing up magnificently on his hind legs. It was Fidelio. The unicorn nosed his way to the cart, trying to nudge aside the canvas covering the barrel.
“Give us an apple,” he said. Most people who love unicorns don’t know they can speak, which is just as well because they are not very well spoken.
“Can’t,” Nobby replied, truthfully. It was impossible to lie to a unicorn.
“Why the flippin’ ‘eck not?” Fidelio snorted and pranced back a few steps.
Nobby desperately thought of an excuse. Where was Pippin, she had promised to be here?
“They’re not quite ready yet,” he said. It wasn’t precisely a lie, and Fidelio did not seem to notice.
“Want one.” Fidelio nosed towards the barrel again.
“It’s your choice of course,” Nobby said with a shrug, “but if you eat those I think you’ll get a terribly upset tummy.” He looked meaningfully at Fidelio’s bushy silver tail. “I’m not sure you could lift that high enough to keep it clean.”
Unicorns are also terribly vain. Fidelio backed away and Nobby breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oh Nobby, you’re exaggerating.” Nobby jumped at the new voice.
Pippin was leaning on the cart and held out an apple to Fidelio in one gloved hand. Her other hand was hidden behind her back.
“Yeah, Nobbo. Exaggerating.” If Fidelio wanted to complain more his words were lost in a sudden mouthful of apple. He pranced off with a shake of his magnificent mane.
“That was close.” Nobby twisted to give Pippin a nuzzle and she offered him an apple. As always it was juicy and crunchy and sweet.
“Sorry Nobby, there was a terrible storm last night and it has made travel really difficult.” Pippin flapped water from her wings and lifted a muddy shoe.
“Tell me about it, I’ve been slogging through this sticky muck all morning.”
“Oh Nobby,” Pippin said, scratching the base of his hook, “things will get better for you one day, I’m sure.”
Nobby dropped his head, Pippin was one of the few fairies that was kind to him. The others had no time for someone who looked as odd as he did. If something wasn’t lovely and pretty and nice the fairies had trouble accepting it. They assumed that anything outside their narrow view of what was beautiful must be either evil or pitied. The unicorns were just mean. A nunicorn, they said, wasn’t even a thing, it was a mistake. Everyone knew there were mundane horses and donkeys, and stupendous horses with a magic horn called unicorns. There were even legends of an exceptional horse with two magic horns called a bicorn, but no one had seen one of those. Then they looked at Nobby. Whoever heard of a donkey with a hook? they said. That is exactly what Nobby was.
“I’ve got an idea!” Pippin said, grabbing Nobby’s gristly mane in excitement. “If you could do something really brave, or really spectacular everyone would have to change the way they think about you.”
Nobby shook his head and took a couple of steps backwards. Pippin could get over excited and if she touched him with an ungloved hand she would turn him into an apple.
“I don’t know, maybe you could save someone in danger, or find something no one else could.”
“Like the bicorn?” Nobby snorted, “no that can’t be right. Why should I have to do something special to be treated with basic respect. What you’re saying is that because I am different I have to work harder than everyone else. Why is that fair?”
Pippin sighed. “I think you’re expecting the world to be fair, and it isn’t.”
Nobby regretted his outburst. The fairies had been unkind to Pippin and were still not welcoming. But he still felt angry. He and Pippin were as they were and fairies and unicorns should just accept it. He dipped his head and picked up the strap for the cart, resting it against his forehead.
“Come on Pippin. You hop into the cart and transform those shells, and I’ll get us underway. Everyone will be wondering where their apples have got to.”
They hadn’t gone far when they heard shouting from the road ahead. They rounded a corner and found the two unicorns that had gone galloping ahead stuck in muddy bog caused by a dip in the road. Fidelio was prancing around the edge of the bog and not doing anything useful.
“Help,” the unicorns cried. “We’re stuck in this sticky stuff and getting stucker. It’s all over our shiny coats and getting stuck in our silky manes.” They both whinnied and shook their heads, spraying mud all over. Fidelio gave a yelp and backed away, unwilling to get dirty.
“Now’s your chance Nobby.” Pippin jumped down from the cart and hurried to the edge of the mud.
“I’m not doing this for your silly plan Pip. I’m doing this because it is the right thing to do,” Nobby grumbled. He dropped the strap attached to the cart and with a twist of his hook unhitched it from the cart as well.
Pippin bent down to pick it up.
“Wait!” Nobby shouted.
Pippin had been about to touch the strap with an ungloved hand. It would have turned into an apple and there would be no way to save the unicorns.
“That was lucky.” Pippin picked up the strap in her gloved hand and threw one end to the trapped unicorns. They started fighting over it.
“Give it here.”
“Leggo, give it me.”
“Stop it,” Nobby shouted at them. To his surprise they did. “One at a time or neither of you is getting out.”
Sheepishly one of the unicorns dipped its head into the strap.
“Out the way Nobmeister, this is a job for unicorn power.” Fidelio hitched the other end of the strap on his horn and began to pull. The stuck unicorn edged forward and fell back as the strap slipped off Fidelio’s horn.
“Just getting’ the hang of it,” Fidelio said. He took up the strap again. This time it slipped straight off. “Fiddlesticks,” Fidelio said. He turned to the two unicorns. “Sorry folks looks like you’re stuck forever.”
Nobby and Pippin shared an amused look. Pippin took the strap and dropped it over Nobby’s hook.
Nobby began to pull. The unicorn was heavy, and it was well stuck. Nobby pulled harder. His hooves began to slip on the wet ground. He braced himself and pulled with all his might. The edges of his vision went red, stars danced in front of his eyes. He felt his horn grow suddenly very hot. In the distance a horsey shape emerged from the trees. It shone like a black diamond and swam in Nobby’s vision. It seemed to have two horns.
Nobby gasped just as the first unicorn came out of the muck with a loud sucking schlopping pop.
“Did you see that?” he gasped.
“You were amazing Nobby,” said Pippin.
“Did you… oh nevermind.” The other unicorn was straining for the strap. When he was ready Nobby pulled again. This time his hook grew hot the first time, and just before the unicorn popped out of the mud Nobby saw the strange figure in the trees again.
Both unicorns were standing with their heads bowed, covered in mud. Fidelio pranced back and trotted around them.
“Look at the state of you. It’ll take weeks to clean that off and I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of the smell.” He stopped and looked down at Nobby. “Good job Nobbo. Seems like you’re a decent sort after all. I’ll be sure to tell the others.” With that he was off, somehow avoiding the mud pool himself.
“Well?” Pippin asked.
“You’re a hero now. You should go and make the most of it.”
Nobby shook his head. He couldn’t shake the image of the strange horse with two horns.
“I’m going to go away for a while Pip. I’m off to find the bicorn. Not for them, but for me.”
Pippin’s eyes went wide. She reached out to stroke his mane and stopped. She had been reaching with an ungloved hand. “You’ll not find much if I turn you into an apple. Speaking of apples, what about those?” She pointed to the cart.
“I think the fairies and unicorns can haul their own apples for a while.”
For those who have read my adult fiction, a biographical note. These children’s stories are where I started. I was enraged by a fairy story franchise that played on the acquisitiveness of children, churning out books with regurgitated storylines I can’t describe as “plots”, and merely changing the colour or gemstone of the fairy involved. So I started making up my own for the kids, rather than buy them more of this trash (because they had to have X the Xish fairy to complete the set…)
My kids preferred my stories and so the saga began. Recently my younger daughter asked me to rehash this one for her as she has a textiles project to do at school, based on her favourite story. Since I was writing it down I thought I would share it will my beloved blog followers.
Somewhere I have about 20k words of the story of Pippin Apple, which was intended to be a novel, but life intervened.