As I approached the clearing I had my first glance of the creature. My breath caught in my throat. How could anyone call such a magnificent beast a monster? It had killed a deer, a great white stag. It gripped the carcass with its talons, ripping out chunks of flesh with its powerful beak. Its hind paws braced it, claws digging into the dirt, tail twitching from side to side, like a cat’s.
I stepped from the treeline. A branch snapped under my foot. I froze, but it simply continued feeding; it had nothing to fear, not the King of all creatures. I could sense my brothers in the trees around me. They weren’t there to help me should the beast attack but to see whether the prophecy would be fulfilled. I waited. Continue reading
You are staring at the blank page on the screen, fingers hovering on the home keys. You type a sentence, two, three. You read them. You read them again. You roll your eyes. No one’s ever going to want to read that. Two clicks and your words are wiped off the page.
You notice the pointer slowly move down the page towards the Chrome icon in the task bar. No! You do not need to look at pictures of funny cats right now. No, no videos either. And you’ve blocked Facebook, remember? Your wife’s not giving you the password until you finish this chapter. You have some way to go. You’ve been sitting here an hour and have nothing to show for it.
You reach for the hand-crafted quill pen you father brought you from Venice. You stroke the feather over your lips, delighting in the soft touch of the barbs on the sensitive skin. Hang on, you’re writing fantasy, not a 50 Shades rip-off. You snap out of it and put the pen away.
You reach for your replica longsword instead. You grip the hilt firmly and pull the blade from the scabbard. Your heart gives an excited flutter. Sure, the pen is mightier than the sword, but damn, these things are awesome. You close your eyes and you’re standing on a battlefield. Your ears ring with the clash of sword on shield and the drumbeat of hooves. You hear a scream to your left and turn to see a man’s skull split in two by an axe. Your nostrils are thick with the smell of mud and blood.
You see a rider approaching. You know he’s looking for you. He spots you and charges. You stand and wait for him, gripping your sword with both hands. He swings his blade in a wide arc, trying to cut you down, but you’re expecting that. At the last moment you roll across in front of his horse, gaining your feet and cutting at his leg as he passes. You feel the blade hit home and he cries out in pain. He swings his mount around for another charge. You raise your sword, ready.
You are jolted back to reality as the phone rings. You glance at the caller ID and press the mute button. You’re somewhat surprised at the sword in your hands. How’d that get there? You put it down and look at the still-blank screen. Maybe a walk will help.
As everywhere else on earth, Christmastime had also come to the watering hole, not that any of the animals knew this. However, Elephant always felt as if things were a little different this time of the year. The Prickly Pear Boys were quiet, the Pride hadn’t been seen in days and even Brick and Brack seemed to be getting along. There was a general feeling of good will around the watering hole and even if he didn’t understand what had brought it all about, Elephant was glad for a respite from the usual problem solving.
It was the longest day of the year and it was incredibly hot. The whole croc-squad was passed out on a sand bank, so most of the animals stood in the cool water while drinking. Elephant was playing with Brenda’s kids, spraying the little meerkats with water from his trunk, making them squeal and giggle with delight, while Otto and his boys put on a superb display of synchronised swimming to entertain those who were still conscious.
Perry the field mouse came hopping through the grass. Elephant sighed. Of course peace like this could never last. Continue reading
Shhh! We don’t use that word here. They can hear if you say their name, even if you whisper. Careless whispers, my ma used to say. Careless whispers make you dead, she said.
People don’t know the truth ‘bout them. People think they’re just stories. They think they’re good, and nice, and beautiful. But they’re not, I tell you. They’re dark, and cruel, and evil. They’d kill you as soon as look at you. They kill for sport. You ever seen a cat that caught a mouse? Cat don’t kill him straight off. Plays with him first; acts like it’s not int’rested, mouse thinks he’s got away, just so’s kitty cat can grab him by the tail. Poor mouse dies of fright ‘fore the cat can eat him.
Don’t look at me like I’m crazy. I’ve seen ‘em, I have. When I was little. Saw ‘em dancing in the full moon, out in the field. Next morning pa’s hounds were dead and the cows were dry. They drink the milk, straight from the teat, pa said. The dogs were strangled.
Nothing scares them. Iron hurts them, but sacred iron, iron that’s been blessed at the forge and worn by a livin’ thing. That’s why they’re comin’ back. No-one forges iron anymore these days. There’s nothin’ can hurt them anymore. An’ people keep calling them, telling stories to their children, drawing pictures of them. People have forgot. I don’t hold with picture books in my house. And no children, either.
Stop lookin’ at me like that. I told you, I ain’t crazy. And watch your mouth while you’re here. Careless whispers make you dead.
You are running. Branches lash at your face and arms. Thorns tear at your clothes. Your muscles are burning. You can’t breathe. You hear them behind you, laughing. They’re catching up, and when they do you are dead. You can’t run any more You search the ground for anything that can be used as a weapon. You find a thick, heavy fallen branch. That’ll have to do. You hide behind a tree and wait.
The first one breaks through the brush. As it passes, you swing with all your strength. For a moment you see its face turn from glee to surprise before the blow connects. The shock travels up your arms, numbing them, before it crumples to the ground. That should hold them for a while.
A few moments later, you hear them screeching. They have found the body. The laughter turns into snarls. They’re angry now. Water. They can’t stand water. If only you can get to the lake. The air is knocked out of you as one of them tackles you from behind. It flips you onto your back, straddling you, reaching for your throat. It smiles as its cruel little eyes watch you fighting for your life. As your vision starts to blur, your hand feels something hard. You slam the rock into the side of its head and it falls next to you. You gasp for air. It groans; you only stunned it. You force yourself back to your feet and run.
You can hear them all around you. They have figured out your plan and want to cut you off. With a final burst of speed you break from the tree line. They emerge seconds later. You make it to the water just ahead of them and rush right in. They stop at the water’s edge, screaming with rage. They pace up and down, searching for a way to reach you. Then they settle down to wait you out. You feel the cold of the water seeping into your bones: they won’t have to wait long.
The entire village had gathered inside the church. Families and neighbours huddled together, talking in whispers. The Fair Ones were abroad, dancing under the harvest moon, and it was not safe for men.
Pietro started awake as the padre grabbed his shoulder. ‘Nessum dorma,’ the old man whispered urgently. ‘Sogni chiamano a loro!’ No one sleeps. Dreams call to them. They fed on dreams, invading your mind and driving you insane. That’s why everyone was in the church tonight: to keep each other awake; to keep them out.
Shadows flitted across the moonlight in the stained-glass windows. Children’s voices laughed outside. Mothers pulled their children closer to them. Pietro felt the little hairs in the back of his neck standing up. They were here. There were muffled cries inside the church as someone knocked at the door. ‘Please, can we come in?’ Their voices sounded like singing. ‘It’s cold out here, and we’re hungry. Please, can we come in?’ The padre crossed himself and started praying the Our Father, most of the other villagers following his example.
Pietro felt the world around him blurring, the sounds around him fading away until there was nothing but the heavenly voices, calling to him, luring him, seducing him. He knew what he had to do. He walked to the door as if in a dream. He was aware of other voices calling him, warning him, but they sounded crass and ugly and he ignored them. He pulled back the heavy bolts and swung the doors open. They were standing outside, beautiful, radiant, smiling at him. He raised his hands in a gesture of welcome, inviting them in.
A terrified scream from inside the church broke the spell. For a moment he saw the Fair Ones as they truly were, their cruel little black eyes staring from faces like death masks, before the first one to pass him snapped his neck with a twist of its fingers. The screams inside the church quickly stopped, and all that remained was the sound of children’s voices, laughing.
(I think I might have overdone it with this one…)
Grandma got run over by a reindeer. This was strange for several reasons. First-off, you don’t really get reindeer in South Africa. Secondly it was nowhere near Christmas. To this day I have not been able to find out why they had built a giant reindeer in the food court in the middle of July. Why they built it on wheels is anybody’s guess.
So, there we were, enjoying a quiet family lunch at KFC, when everyone started yelling and screaming. We looked up to see Rudolph looming over us like an aircraft carrier would loom over a surf-ski. (At this point I should probably note that, through a combination of tender fraud, bribery of building inspectors and corner-cutting contractors, there wasn’t a perpendicular wall or a level surface in the mall. There’s a book running in town on when it’s going to collapse.) It was every man for himself. People were jumping over tables, cashiers and waitrons abandoned their posts. One rent-a-cop bravely stood his ground, pulled his stun-gun and sent ten thousand volts charging through that reindeer. They put up a statue for him afterwards.
In the confusion we all forgot that Grandma had recently had a hip replacement. When we noticed she was not with us it was already too late – the beast was upon her. The flimsy food court chairs and tables crumpled at its approach and we watched helplessly as Grandma disappeared between its massive legs. The behemoth’s momentum carried it past where we had sat and it finally came to rest against a wall. Grandma did not reappear. Ever.
Books have been written about that day. Conspiracy theorists have speculated, scientists have taken measurements, priests have done exorcisms, psychics have taken readings, but Grandma was gone. I like to think she’s in a better place, where she can run barefoot through the grass without fear of killer caribou. And besides, the mall has given us free-meals-for-life-coupons (or at least until the place collapses, which might be the same day, come to think of it), so we reckon that day was a win-win.
After a few minutes he spotted Perry hopping back towards him. ‘Sorted,’ said the field mouse. ‘Just flap your ears when Otto’s ready. Brick and Brack will take care of the rest.’
‘Thanks, Perry. Now if only we could make sure Pink-Butt and the Boys don’t try to pull something like this again.’
‘Thought of that as well, big guy. Brenda’s kids are taking care of it as we speak. Look.’
Elephant peered at the watering hole and noticed the animals were slowly repositioning themselves. ‘Great idea, Perry. This is going to be good.’
A lone hadeda took to the sky on the other side, calling loudly three times and flew away. ‘There’s the signal,’ said Elephant and flapped his ears. ‘Let’s get closer to the action.’
When they reached the water’s edge the commotion was already starting. Brick and Brack were two huge buffalo bulls. They were also twins and notorious for never agreeing about anything. How Perry had got them to agree to do this was anyone’s guess. ‘Who you callin’ fat?’ rumbled Brick.
‘I din’t say you’re fat. I said you’re thick, you pig-headed moron,’ said Brack.
‘So now you callin’ me a pig? I dare ya to say that to my face, skunk-breath.’
‘At least my breath smells better than your butt!’
The nearby baboons were taking notice already – they loved a good brawl. Pink-Butt barked loudly and the others came round to his side of the watering hole. Some of the younger baboons were even taking bets on who was going to win this time. No one besides Elephant and Perry noticed the five sleek shapes slipping into the water on the far side and the crocodiles quietly submerging as they were freed.
Brick and Brack had locked horns a few times and now stepped back, pawing the ground, making ready to charge. The baboons were jumping up and down by now, loudly barking, egging the twins on. The buffaloes charged…and stopped dead centimetres apart. They slowly turned and faced the baboons.
Now, baboons have an innate sense for danger. It’s to be expected that you’d develop that sense if you spent every waking moment of each day ticking people off. When Brick and Brack did not collide with the spectacular crack of solid bone the apes were expecting, they started looking around them and noticed that the other animals had circled around behind them, right to the water’s edge. Their only option was to swim for it. They were halfway into the water when the croc-squad rose out of the water, menacing grins on their faces. As if that wasn’t enough, each one had an otter perched on his head, covered in algae. ‘I told them to do that, boss,’ said a voice by Elephant’s knee. He really had to talk to Otto of the dangers inherent in surprising an elephant, thought Elephant.
There was only one place for the baboons to go: the other buffaloes and wildebeest had formed a narrow corridor leading up the rise. The baboons looked at the crocodiles coming ever closer and looked at their leader. He swore loudly and started running the gauntlet, the rest of the troop in tow. The wildebeest and buffaloes swung their horns in the path of the baboons, tripping them up and knocking them over. Elephant was standing at the exit and gave each one a slap on the behind with his trunk as they passed him. The rest of the animals roared with laughter at the humiliation.
Just before he disappeared over the rise Pink-Butt turned around and threw Elephant a foul look. Elephant chuckled and saluted him with his trunk. The animals cheered and turned to the watering hole. For once Brick and Brack were not arguing, but they gloried in all the attention they were getting from the others, especially the admiration on the young meerkats’ faces. The croc-squad had retired into the reeds, but that day no one was afraid of being eaten.
‘Great job, gang,’ said Elephant as he, Perry and Otto watched everything return to normal around the watering hole.
Elephant could not believe his eyes. The croc-squad was the meanest bunch of lizards this side of the Congo. How on earth did the Prickly Pear Boys get them tied up like that? One thing was certain: there would be big trouble when those four crocs got loose. He realised everyone was looking at him. He hated this. Just because he was the biggest that did not automatically mean it was his job to solve all their problems. He turned around and started back up the rise, Perry still on his trunk.
‘What’re you planning, big guy?’ asked the mouse.
‘Who says I’m planning anything?’
‘I says, cause I know you. Thick skin or not, you’re a big softie and won’t let the others go without a drink, so what’s the plan?’
Elephant stopped at the top of the hill and turned back to the watering hole. The baboons were camped out all around it. The other animals were staying just outside of flinging-distance – mud was unpleasant, but baboons flung other stuff too if provoked. Besides, Pink-Butt and his enforcers had some wicked teeth and no one wanted to risk their lives for a drink; net yet, anyway. But the sun was setting. The Pride would be about soon and the animals were getting anxious. ‘Where’s Otto?’
‘Right here, boss,’ a voice answered by his knee. ‘Thought you’d be looking for me. What’s the plan?’
Elephant waited for his heartbeat to return to normal. He wasn’t afraid of otters, but you never saw Otto until you almost stepped on him. Elephant did not like the idea of stepping on friends. ‘Hello, Otto. Think your boys can get the croc-squad loose?’
‘Sure thing, boss. We’ll chew through those vines in a jiff. The trick’s going to be getting past those stupid monkeys.’
‘We need some kind of distraction, get all of them on this side of the water. Any ideas?’
‘I’ll take care of that,’ squeaked Perry. He hopped off Elephant’s trunk and made a beeline for the herd of buffaloes standing at the water’s edge.
‘Okay, Otto. Get your boys ready on the other side. We’re taking back our watering hole.’
‘Yessir, boss. The usual signal?’
Elephant watched Otto slink off through the tall grass and disappear. He always wondered how the otter managed to do that. Must have some weasel in his ancestry.