Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Morning Courtyard - Short Story

This story was written while I was living in Norwich in 1991-2 but was heavily influenced things I had been reading 7-10 years earlier. In particular Stephen Donaldson's 'Daughter of Regals and Other Tales' (1984) a collection of his short stories (of which 'Daughter of Regals' was published separately that year too) which I had read soon after it came out had a big impact on me. I think there is a story in there about a man trying to help a woman whose brother is being possessed by a devil. I also liked the court setting that Donaldson created for the leading story of the anthology. I was also influenced by an old book of puzzles that I almost constantly borrowed from my school library. Each of the brain teasers had quite an involved background and I was very influenced by one set in a courtyard with hexagonal tiles. I cannot remember what the puzzle was, probably moving across it adding up to some number.

I loved brain teasers but was utterly useless at them (the same applies to chess). I enjoyed the settings and was always conjuring up my own with a particular fascination for sort of Ruritanian countries with odd underground train systems after I had read some puzzles based on moving round a city like that.

Looking at it now, there was probably (possibly sub-consciously or unconsciously) influence from the movie 'Highlander' (1986) too, with the character going from combat to combat with whatever evil it is facing. I think the landscape pictured was more shaped by what I read about medieval monasteries in Yorkshire rather than the Scottish highlands, especially as some monks kicked out local peasants to enable them to have a deserted area around them.

Anyway, in an age before 'slayers' of the modern kind, I am proud to say I was a little ahead of my time. I always envisaged this being the first of a number of adventures of this character, but when it went into an amateur publication in Norwich the editor confessed he did not understand it at all and had only used it as it filled the right amount of space, so I abandoned further attempts. I did use the title 'A Few Steps Over' for the name of anthology of my short stories which I distributed to friends (probably often against their will) in the early 1990s.

Morning Courtyard

It was a fine sunny morning. Few of the others seemed to be awake, and if they were they were probably buried well into their books, sustaining themselves on some stale fruit until breakfast was called. I had been walking out on the walls. I had looked across the landscape, back along that black stone covered road that I had come down that night from the West, and then down the valley, out towards the ribbon lake and the collection of houses of stone, the same colour as the road. I had wandered there one day when I tired of all the chatter, but it was dead, the houses just shells, something to fool me that there was other life outside these walls. I should have realised that when I had seen no crops and no flocks. I wondered whether the people here had done it deliberately, to create the wasteland deemed necessary. The best wasteland was not always as deserted as they wanted. It had been an unpleasant journey, not only had I destroyed the illusion of something besides this self-centred place, but gazing back on its walls from a distance had increased my loathing, and created a fear. Fear was why I was here. I corrected, I was the comfort. I had not strayed down there onto that heather and mossy grass since, but had been unable to create that reassurance I had had when I thought that people lived down there. Now even the calls of the moorland birds sounded like those of carrion snatchers.

I wandered across the courtyard. The sun flowed into one corner, an ever increasing patch of light as it rose through the boughs of the aged plane tree. I was just thankful that I had been sent here as Summer was coming, I think I would have succumbed in the gloomy Winter, even now I felt as if the place was snowbound. I stepped almost in a dance, setting my feet for amusement clearly with each step into one of the worn hexagonal stones set in pattern across the courtyard. I could feel that I was being watched from one of the slit windows around, but my delight in the sunshine and in the tranquillity of the dark archways that ran between the chambers dispelled my fear. Even so my fingers found the blade secreted beneath my robes. I was always supplied with something, something that blended. They always put me in context, always meticulously, no-one could find fault with me being here, they had never done anywhere. Often people were grateful for me coming, of someone from outside, a hope. The ones I sought liked these types of places, and it was in places like these that things were torn apart so quickly.

I always arrived after it had begun, it was only then that they exposed themselves and became apparent to us. I always prayed it was only one who died, but sometimes they moved fast. It depended on where they were, the dangers they faced, and the precise mind of that type. There had been two deaths here. The first was two days before I arrived. The man, a young scholar had fallen from the walls, and it could have been accidental. We are not always right, things are so vast I sometimes arrive on a false alarm, but the second death was clear. It was clearly a manifestation, it had hurried, hungry and careless. What had I been supplied with? Little more than a paper knife. I know it blended, but what could I expect to do with that. My quest through the dusty lower chambers had uncovered some more apt equipment. That claymore was just ideal. If this place had been the ruin and I had been out there, by the lake then that would have done more than adequate. Here I had to settle for something slim, little more than a long dagger, something that sat without discomfort under these robes and something I could draw without tangling myself up in all this linen. I should be grateful for the good food and soft beds. Many a time I have been in moorland like this, dug in in some corrie, trying to make the most of an old dry stone wall, or some lean-to I have made, more fearful of exposure than any opponent.

I passed through the small archway and out into the cloisters. At least in the centre of these was some green, away from the various black and dirtied grey stone that surrounded me. At first I had enjoyed its comforts and its quiet, even its resources, but the insularity was too much. The job was always around me. Adam. He was the one. Fortunately only one this time, not always the case. Loners and then pairs were most common, more and I worked with others. I could tell who it was here. He was neither aloof like some of the staff nor suspicious like others, he knew who I was without having to surmise. Usual sort of position, established but not at the top. They never held lowly positions, just something with influence not conspicuous. He was the assistant to the dean’s secretary. Both were aged, easy to manipulate and by-pass. He had avoided me since the first few days, and I made sure I was always the companion of those at risk. He, it, was too weak at the moment to do me much harm. I had arrived early enough to be safe, but it always looked for me to slip up, make the fatal flaw.

I stepped into the alcove near Adam’s door. I unsheathed my blade and slipped the scalpel I had borrowed from the physician into the pocket on the rear of my glove. I was always careful. Always had a back-up. I paused before the door. I could sense him near the fireplace where some embers glowed; it had been a clear night. I pushed the door open, and sprung in. I gave it little time to react, given time their corpses can be difficult to explain. He had barely turned before I had sliced through the robes, and only an inkling had appeared in his eyes as I stabbed the flesh. It slid to the floor. It writhed and convulsed slightly then fell dead. I cleaned the blade on his robes, and discarded both it and the scalpel on the floor. I walked briskly, and closed the door behind me. I knew the way out; there was nothing else to be done. Hanging around has meant the end of many like me. I was soon on that black stone road back to the West. There was little danger in being seen, and in any case what could they do. I knew I would not be allowed to reach the brow of the hill and see the next valley. I ran still the same with the urge to see something else than this moor view that I had scanned for days. Of course it was only a few steps and I was gone.

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