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The Shadow Racer,
By C. N. Lesley
The Shadow Racer,
By C. N. Lesley
Carreas Regent inhaled the sweet scent of the carrot Dave, offered him, only the dark essence hovering around his jockey oozed a putrid chill.
The same shadow swelled out of Milford Lad during training, and then he went down, never to get up. Carreas missed his stable mate, but the darkness meant a going away, as he had seen in older humans, yet Dave wasn’t old. His mane shone brown with chestnut flecks in sunlight.
In his racing silks, Dave stumbled, clutching his head. He straightened, not complaining for the last race of the season. One swift boost by a stable lad and Dave was on board. They headed for the starting grid. The gate went up—they were off.
Two furlongs in and Dave was in trouble—no reactions; no guidance. This was going to be Dave’s last race—the shadow spread into Carreas’ line of sight. Dave, who never used the whip, who yelled encouragement as they raced, was silent. Carreas put his head down, stretched his pace and ran as he had never run before, trying to outrun the shadow, to win this race for Dave. He looked for his own openings in the pack, careful to make no sudden change in direction.
The final turn of the track with the winner post came into sight with a big bay leading by a furlong. One spurt and one heart pounding struggle … he won by a short nose. One last caress then Dave went limp. Carreas skidded to a halt screaming his grief and rage.
By C.N. Lesley
The ring, meant as a promise of their life together, now bore mute witness to her solitude. Alys wore his last gift on a chain around her neck rather than endure glances of pity from her friends. A poor man’s gift, they said, with no diamond, but Alys liked the way sunlight caressed the smooth surface of the black pearl at the center. A ring like no other with tiny of mother of pearl inserts around the glistening black orb, a family piece, Kier told her, to be given to his bride.
His bride. Tears filled her eyes. The restless waves of the ocean blurred. Waves crashed on the shingle, scraping pebbles ever smaller, eating away at them as grief ate at her heart. Keir lay beneath the waves; his body never found, just the shattered remains of his old boat, his livelihood. She pictured him now at the helm, the sails cracking in the wind. They said it was a miracle the boat hadn’t gone down before. ‘They’ said a lot of things about his diving to the wrecks, how he didn’t have the proper equipment or a partner on deck when he went down.
Aunt Mary thought her mad to take up with a loner like Keir and said so, over and over. Now she claimed everything happened for the best. A hard, empty place filled her heart when she thought of Aunt Mary and Uncle David. They raised her without love, except for the money they got from the government for fostering a foundling. She knew the story well enough, one they told to all their friends at every excuse—found above the high tide mark, a tiny naked baby they took in out of the kindness of their hearts. Seventeen years of kindness left Alys cold.
Kindness had taken Alys out of school to work in their grocery store while their own son went on to university. Kindness didn’t pay her a wage, only her board and lodging after the government money stopped. Her friends from school sometimes took her with them in the evenings. She saw pity in their eyes for an outsider, the one who didn’t look like them, a goldfinch in the midst of blackbirds, with their dark hair and eyes.
Strange to think her blonde hair attracted Keir’s attention with all the girls preening around the treasure diver. They liked his long golden hair and his clear green eyes with a touch of the devil glinting out. That changed when he would only look in her direction. How they scorned his boat with the crusting of barnacles high above the water mark. They joked that he must have fished the old tub from the sea bed along with his other hauls.
Alys didn’t care that he had no house. The sea was his life and would have been hers, but it stole him away the night of the storm. The worst storm in thirty years, all agreed.
Aunt Mary said she couldn’t go to the inquest today as she needed to run errands; Uncle David had gone out with the other fishermen, so Alys must mind the shop. What was the point of going, she asked? No one knew him, since none of his papers had come ashore with the other wreckage. There wouldn’t be a funeral without the body, either. Best Alys put the inquest out of her mind and get back to work.
A faint drone of engines cut through the noise of the restless waves. The fishing fleet
headed out to sea into the light of the rising sun. Gulls flew, screeching overhead, eager for pickings from the boats. Aunt Mary must wonder where she was, but Alys didn’t care. She started to walk along the strand, past the docks and past the houses.
Sand slipped into her shoes from the dunes peppered with marram grass. The echo of Keir’s merry laugh spurred her on. Over the mournful cry of gull, she almost heard him calling her. As day lengthened, his call grew stronger. The land changed, with the dunes giving way to rising cliffs. Now she walked near the waves, the cruel waves pounding the beach. She wasn’t going back. With clothes on her back and a box of matches in her pocket, she owned more than when she came into the world. She wouldn’t starve with a profusion of crabs in the kelp unlike the fine crabs in the stores, but she had tasted worse when Aunt Mary sent her away from the table for some imagined sin.
Now she climbed around boulders with the surf sending up a mist around her. One more turn around the cliffs for the place where she had been found as a baby.
Her heart sank; someone had a driftwood fire blazing, but she couldn’t see who sheltered behind the boulders.
She froze, rooted to the spot. Her mind must be playing tricks—Keir’s voice.
“Alys, don’t be afraid. Come closer.”
He was dead, his boat smashed to pieces. But they hadn’t found a body. No one could have survived the storm that night, not without a boat.
“Alys, you have my ring. I know when it comes near me. I know where you are.”
Hope, impossible hope, flared. She wanted to believe. Her need propelled her nearer the shadow of the rocks. She cried out her when a shaft of sunlight pierced through the shadows, lighting the impossible. She couldn’t, wouldn’t understand.
He was Keir, and yet, not. She gazed upon a part-naked, drowned man with bands of kelp wound around his waist to cover his sex. His skin shone with a silver sheen, outlining the faint overlay of fish scales. A coral necklace rested upon his broad and now hairless chest. His golden hair ruffled in an onshore breeze.
The ring grew hot against the skin between her breasts, a pulsing hot that she couldn’t bear, yanking it out from the opening of her dress; the black pearl glowed luminous green. Waves crashed against the rocks. Gulls screamed overhead. The sun shone bright at high noon and she had gone quite mad.
“I am what I am. This is my true form.” He reached out a hand towards her.
jerked out of her hands, stretching to him from its chain prison.A cold sweat beaded her brow. Her heart hammered like a trapped bird in her chest. This was not happening.
“I came back for you. After the boat smashed I couldn’t keep up the pretence. No one would have believed me.” He made a hooking gesture.
The ring dragged her closer.
“This isn’t real.” Her voice came out in a squeak.
“You belong with me. Alys, look at your skin.”
She did. The madness showed her the same scaling on her hands as covered Keir.
“I knew what you where when I first laid eyes on you, Alys.” He lowered his hand and the light in the pearl died. “You can come with me, or you can give back my ring and live out your life as one of the land folk. You might find happiness, if one of them is so closed he can’t sense the strangeness in you. Most of them will.”
“What are you?” She shook her head, trying to stop this waking nightmare. She wanted Keir so much, but this wasn’t him.
“I am one of the mer folk. Human legend gives us fish tails none of us possess. We can live on land if we are near the ocean. Come with me, my love. Let me take you to our domain.” He reached out to her again, but this time the pearl did not light up. She was not compelled to go to him.
Faint in the distance and coming closer came the urgent wail of sirens; two sorts of noise increased, to invade the peace, police and ambulance sirens, both insistent that they should have the right of way. Only one dead end road led to the cliff top, a scenic place, so popular with the tourists. Aunt Mary must have told them Alys was acting strange. Aunt Mary wouldn’t like the neighbours talking if anything happened to her.
Keir glanced up at the sounds, a frown drawing his fine blond brows together. “They are coming for you. Is there a path down from the cliffs?” The gentleness had gone out of his voice to be replaced by urgency and a tone of command.
Her legs gave way under her. Alys sat down hard on a boulder. Hard surface, hard choices. Did she go with the dream, the mad dream, or did she let the men in uniforms take her away, take her back to the life she didn’t want?
“Give back my ring if you are going with them. Your skin will become like theirs without it.” He stood up, towering over her, the light glistening off his fine scales. “I can’t stay, Alys. They can’t find me with you.” He held out his hand again, palm upward.
Alys slipped the loop of the chain off her neck. The ring lay in her hand, free, a smooth black eye surrounded by mother of pearl.
“Does drowning hurt?” The smell of the sea whispered around her, trapped in the fine mist from the breakers of an incoming tide. The life she wanted with Keir, the life on his boat, all that was gone. Sunlight glistened off the scales on her own hands. What was real?
“A child of the sea can’t drown. There is a change, a tingling, and then freedom.” He gazed deep into her eyes, waiting.
The sirens blared from above now. Men shouted, equipment rumbled. Seagulls screamed their anger at the intrusion. Alys slipped the ring on her marriage finger. The black pearl pulsed with an inner green light that didn’t burn, not now. This was welcoming warmth.
Words of the marriage service came to her. ‘I plight thee my troth,’ until her last breath, she wanted to be with Keir if that meant in death, or in life. Alys shivered once when he took her hand in his, a warm hand, not the cold hand of a drowned man. She didn’t look back when the cries from above yelled at her to stop. The water wasn’t as cold as she expected when they waded out. This seemed natural, as if she had waited all her life for these moments as Keir gently pulled her under.
The Perfect Murder
by C.N. Lesley
Subject: You’re Dead.
You can come out from under your desk and continue scrolling down. I don’t have a sniper bead trained on you. See? No red dot. But you are dead as of this moment. Oh and before you rush into the bathroom to puck up your coffee, I haven’t poisoned you.
As I have spent a lot of time planning the perfect murder, I would like my victim to appreciate my genius. Not only will you die, there isn’t a court in the land that will convict me of your death. And no, I haven’t paid someone else to take you out.
We used to be friends and partners, Dean. Why did you set me up? I didn’t deserve ten years in jail although I’ve put my time to good use. I picked up all sorts of interesting skills, especially after I told my fellow inmates how I intended to use them.
Let’s start with Maria shall we? Despite your trophy wife, you took my love. We were happy together until you came along. I found out about your affair when I was on remand, when I knew I was going to get time inside.
I know she knew too much, but did you have to get her hooked on heroin? Yes, I know she has graduated from coke because I know the dude supplying her on your behalf. I guess the hike is to make her permanently quiet. She doesn’t know you’ve dumped her yet, does she?
Say, have you had any fevers lately? I can see from your medical records you have just gotten blood work done for some strange symptoms. I’ll save you the wait. You have AIDS, Dean. I arranged for Maria to have a supply of contaminated needles about six months back. She tested positive three weeks ago, but she hasn’t had the bottle to tell you. That is the thing about shacking up with older women, Dean. They get their tubes tied, and then you don’t use condoms. I’ll bet you’re regretting this.
Oh, and I know Aaron isn’t mine, despite his arrival three months after my arrest because I caught mumps on my eighteenth birthday. Do you remember that, Dean? You stayed away because you were frightened of catching it. Well the rumours are true, I am sterile. Your child—your responsibility.
Now, on to your business. Remember giving the bribe to the congressman so you could get all your permits, despite the zoning being all wrong? Guess who has pictures of that wonderful Kodak moment in their chubby fists? On the other hand, I don’t imaging the people buying into that high-rise in Detroit are all that happy with the results of the deep core sample of their lot. Built it on an old landfill, didn’t you? Dumping loads of rubble on the top and compacting that down doesn’t make for a stable structure. After the letter they each got today they will know why they have cracks in their walls. I did remember to put the names of all the best lawyers in this field at the bottom, just to make things easier for them.
Having a bad day, Dean? Thinking of going home to that swanky, million dollar pad? Remember the gardener quitting last week? He finished his job for me. You will find multiple termite nests in your property and carpenter ants, just for good measure. They‘ve had plenty of time to get well-established with the careful help from my friend. Of course, you could try fixing it to sell—at least you could’ve done before I had him contaminate your yard with anthrax. A report is about to arrive at city hall, so they will be making your pad a no-go area.
Now I sail into the wide blue yonder with all of your money from your personal account, and from that holding account you didn’t want the tax man to know about, except that he does now since I sent him all the statements from the last ten years.
Yes, this is a free confession. I have destroyed your business, your home, your social life and infected you with Aids. You are not just dead, you are destroyed. Everything you care about is ruined, including your computer. I embedded a nice new virus in this email—currently busy wrecking your registry.
You might also want to start running now. The automatic transfer of money from your personal account to the holding account of your drug dealer didn’t go through. I hope you appreciate how careful I was with my timing, Dean. I don’t know what they will do to you when they find out you are broke. Oh and don’t think about the trophy wife’s diamond bling, it’s all fake. She has a little gambling habit that is way out of control. In fact, she will have to ask you to square her debts at the casino, only you can’t, Dean, being broke. I wonder which mob will get you first?
So Dean, what do you think of the perfect murder? Enjoy.
Look at him. He was an earl’s fourth son, not a prince. He thought she was beautiful and rich. Now he is a shadow of a man, lamed with his once handsome face scarred beyond recognition, but he is kind, and he cares for me.
I nursed him back to health over winter, a hard time for both of us after I dragged him on a sled over the snow into the forest. I knew you would come for him and for me, the false lover and the black-hearted witch. Both our lives have been destroyed by her, but listen to my story. Hear me out before you judge us.
I had seen fourteen summers when my mother died, leaving me the cottage and a livelihood as a healer. Young men would come to my door pretending to be sick so they could pay court. I was pretty then, with long golden hair flowing below my hips. I knew they didn’t intend marriage. I played the witch to keep them in place. I hoped there would be one who could like me for myself and not the pretty shell. Instead, I got her, Rapunzel. I named her after finding her amongst those herbs in my garden, a tiny baby with midnight black hair and an angry, red face. I know I should have taken her to the priest, but I was lonely and thought we could be sisters. My first mistake as now they all thought I raised a bastard.
She wasn’t a nice child. I had to give up keeping pets after I found my cat flayed and blood over Rapunzel’s dress. She claimed it was a gamekeeper, but I found the knife she had used, one of mine. She was always watching me make healing potions. I tried to teach her, thinking her interested until I found one of the village girls miscarried as a result of Rapunzel’s brews. True, what the girl wanted, but not what I would have done. I respect life, all of it. I don’t know how many other brews she tried on t wayward girls. I have my suspicions, as around then she started to dally with the boys.
Nasty rumors spread about me, how cruel I was to her; I stole her from rich parents to be my servant. I wanted her gone by then. She was a sour companion when she was home, which wasn’t many a night. You know what the rumors were. I was the ugly, wicked witch keeping a beautiful girl in a tower because I was jealous of her looks and her suitors. I know I am not in the first flush of youth, but do I look ugly?
Rapunzel lived her evil story when she found the remains of an abandoned watchtower in the forest. She made a long rope out of horse hair to let down out of the top window, despite a perfectly good stairway at the bottom, but she always locked once she was inside. And no, I never had the key.
Rumor grew horns and a tail, as it will when spread from mouth to mouth. They thought her an enchanted fairy maiden who could make their wildest dreams come true. Suitors came in droves, but she wouldn’t let down the hair rope until she thought she had a rich catch.
I had none coming to my door for healing by this time. People cursed me for the witch, so I wandered in the forest until I found an abandoned shack. I knew what was going to happen if I didn’t disappear from sight. Winter fast approached, so I started moving my herbs and other possessions a few at a time, and then he arrived.
I will never forget my first sight of him, striding strong and proud down the forest path, his fair hair ruffled in the wind and his bow slung over his shoulder. I think I fell in love with him at that moment, but he didn’t want the older woman, the evil witch, he wanted the magical Rapunzel. He told her he was the son on a king when he stood at the bottom of her tower. I know, because I followed him after I told him the way. I had to, because lies get returned fourfold. My heart broke when she let down that rope of horsehair. I knew what would happen in her tower, in her goose-feather bed.
After that, I moved out of the cottage, my home from birth, to go deep into my forest retreat, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Something didn’t seem right. A king’s son would carry a sword, ride to a damsel’s rescue, not come marching in on his own long shanks. I began to fear for him, so I crept back to the tower day after day. I figure it didn’t take Rapunzel long to guess the truth, for she stopped letting down the hair rope. The arrival of a real prince, your son on his white charger, clinched it. After that, my love became a shadow of the woods, like me. He would watch when the rope was lowered, but once the new lovers forgot to haul it back into the tower. I don’t know what possessed him to climb. He must have known what they were about.
Well, you know the rest. Rapunzel heard him and cut the rope. He fell into a thorn bush, face first. I think they meant to finish him when they had done with their bedroom games, but I was too quick for them. I stole the prince’s horse to bring my love part way into the woods, and then I raced back to my shack for a sled I used to collect firewood. I let the animal go free, so it was only borrowed and not stolen, not really.
His leg was badly broken, and now he will always walk with a limp, never run again. We both thought he would be blind at first, but he has recovered sight in one eye. As for his handsome face, even his mother wouldn’t recognize him now. We moved on to this cave in spring when he could travel. We knew she would need to cover her traces, so we knew there would be hunters coming for us, and we needed to protect the baby, one I never thought to have after caring for her, yet one quickens under my heart.
Please Sire, we have done no wrong. No, I do not expect you to believe me. All I ask is a small mercy. Kill us both here in the forest we love and kill us quickly, by the sword. We do not deserve a burning death. And if you can find it in your heart, can you put up a marker to Ursula and Michael, to mark that we once lived here?
No, I didn’t know your queen was dead. How could I, in this wild place? Yes, I took all my herbs and potions with me. See, they are over there on the stands he made for me and growing outside in the forest. I couldn’t leave them for her, not after how she used them. No, I don’t have potions to poison people. You can find this truth for yourself after you dispatch us. Try them out on animals, they will be safe enough and cause no ill.
Your eldest son is also dead? The same way your queen died? And Rapunzel is with child? You fear for your second son and your daughter? Also fear for yourself. I know the herbs she favored, and I can make enough potions for all of you to counter this, if you will allow me the time. It will be done before the sun reaches midday. The best safeguard would be to have your food prepared before your eyes, but that might not work for your son. Take three teaspoons of the potion during the first day after symptoms arise, and then two thereafter until the sickness passes.
A royal pardon, for a poison? I can’t take a life. Whatever evil Rapunzel has done to me, I can’t end her days. There is a backlash to magic, do you see? Evil begets evil and good begets good. If I were to use evil to ensure good it would twist my soul until I became the evil witch I am judged. Search instead in Rapunzel’s own herb and potion hoard for what you need. She will have said the words over what she made. Look for the half empty bottle.
No, we don’t need gold. If we are to live, we would like to be left alone. We would move on, far away where none know of us. If you don’t stop Rapunzel, she will come for us. We don’t care what people say about us. All that we ask is to disappear.
The prayer of an atheist.
If I should die before I wake.
Would it be a bad thing? Really? Old, worn-out, depressed and near the end anyway, would it be a bad way to go? The closing in of the velvet blinds that shroud wings of sleep and not far behind, those other wings, deeper, darker, permanent.
Now is the time for the new generation, with all their hopes and wishes intact and their eyes shining. They have it all ahead of them, those golden lads and lasses.
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
But I don’t. What is a soul? That essence responsible for animating the body? Why should it continue to have a personality that is distinct after the fleshy envelope has failed? Perhaps that is what ghosts are; failed deaths where the essence just couldn’t let go. And I don’t pray, not to any so-called divine being. Why should I when so much badness is happening. Innocent children have their heads cut off. Women are raped, set on fire, or disfigured by acid attacks. This is not just one or two; it is en-mass. Why should I want to go to the so-called heaven/paradise, presumably peopled by those who had the seats in the front in church because they paid more? No, I will not grasp at the crutch offered in my last moments because I am afraid of non-existence since I am not. It is just what it says; the state of not being and that means nothing. There can be no fear because the mechanism to feel fear is dead. There can be nothing. Gone to earth.
Now I lay me down to sleep.