Iron Trappings

As tempestuous as the seas and equally unpredictable, Wrath sweeps through the skies, her shouts of hatred falling like shards of ice on those far below. Riding the storms and accompanied by a flurry of shrieking Sins, her Court watches with hawk-like eyes those passing beneath them. Sparkling spear in one hand, her other a clenched fist, Wrath leads her troupe in dizzying descents. They hurl insults, abuse, and hateful jibes even as they beset those unfortunate enough to be caught abroad, tearing them apart limb from limb in a bloody shower of malignant spite. Her goal is to ascend to the rank of Queen of all Sin, when she can rule with iron fist and steely gaze, and she is not afraid to destroy any who prevent her from achieving this.

From The Book of Sin

Screams of undiluted hatred did sing over the cliff tops.

22. Curses as ancient as the world itself were spoken, and they did corrupt the fair blue sky with their poisonous presence. Bound and chained in iron trappings, like some beast of the earth, a figure did scream. Her horrific voice did scold the air with its violence.
23. And like a plague of locusts the mortals did surround her, jeering and jabbing with gleaming swords and sharpened spears.
24. Cold iron clasps did restrain the captive, searing her skin and burning her to her very bones, and WRATH did writhe in vain.
25. The men did cry to stab the beast, and burn it, and behead it, such was their vehement hate at the creature bound in their midst.
26. The calls for vengeance rose viciously over the crowd; the assembled men shouting out for the death of the monster amongst them. For too long it had plagued their cities, dealt devastation to their caravans, wrought death as though it was a blacksmith at an anvil, and murder was its trade.
27. Now they did rejoice, for they had it at their mercy, but there was sorrow in their hearts too, and their eyes were alight with righteous vengeance.
28. The SIN gazed through slits of fury at those who did dare to approach too near, and her awe was such that all fell back before her.
29. Lean arms strained at their shackles as this goddess of death did strive to break free from the ensorcelled iron that imprisoned her. The chorus of cries only served to infuriate her further. They screamed for the beast to be doused in fire and showered with flames. They begged that its wings be torn from its back and the monster thus disgraced.
30. They raged that it should be cast, flightless, from the towering cliff, a final, fatal fall from grace.
31. Then the SIN did speak, and her voice was as a scythe through the cries of the crowd, and she did say I will flay your flesh from your hide and your pain will be so great that never before has one experienced such agony, and such was her fury that those who had been edging closer leapt suddenly back, their eyes wide, their skin pale.
32. Still she did scream, her tongue a flurry of fierce words and threats, and such was her undeniable temper that the maddened mob did believe every word she spoke, and they were mortally afraid at what they heard.
33. And the air was rank with their fear.
34. And into the madness atop the cliff a figure did stumble. Her dress was befouled with dirt and earth and sweat, but the daughter of Eve seemed not to care.
35. A single thought did flicker in her eyes, like a furnace, waiting to be unleashed.
36. Words ripped from her throat, hoarse though it was from her unyielding cries. She screamed bloody murder, crying SIN did slay my husband, It did murder his brothers and ruin their farmstead and now It shall pay the price for Its crimes.
37. Accusations flew fast from her lips, even as some relative, or piteous bystander, did try to restrain her. She flung him aside.
38. Grief did envelop the woman completely, as though she were in a valley and it lay a shadow across her.
39. Unashamed tears did stream down her fair cheek, and spying a sharp rock on the ground, she grasped hold of it. Before another word was spoken, she did hurl the heavy lump of hatred at the SIN.
40. With divine retribution it did fly where she cast it.
41. The rock struck hard the cheek of WRATH, and the wound did sting her, and it was the sting of shame.
42. The furnace of her heart now a conflagration, the woman did parade herself before the crowd. The SIN did see the fires burning in her eyes. She did recognise the pain that did gnaw at the woman’s insides. She did feel the hatred as it spilled out of the inconsolable woman.
43. The presence of so much anger did fill WRATH with vigour. It inspired her limbs. It flooded her veins, and it did nurture her own fury a thousand-fold.
44. An angel of unadulterated anger, the SIN’s own hellish hatred did cause her iron trappings to scream.
45. They did scream and scream and scream and with a clap like thunder break from around her limbs.
46. And silence did envelop the cliff top.
47. The men did run. The crowd parted like the sea before WRATH’s vengeance, but lo it was too late for those who had gathered to bear witness to the SIN’s demise.
48. With godly grace the SIN did swoop amongst the men and women and children. Her spear was lost, but she was not hindered by this, and her claws did exact a rich and bloody toll on the lives of those around her.
49. And she did wrench the still warm souls of those who had dared to trespass against her, and then discard them, and in doing so left lifeless husks to cover the earth.
50. And her anger was so absolute that none could flee her. Heads did roll, blood spilled like wine, and the air was alive with the chorus of screams.
51. And all the while WRATH did laugh at the slaughter she dealt, for she was above these lowly mortals, she was all-powerful and she was free.
52. And then her thoughts, though clouded by fury and fueled by ferocity, did turn to one thing and she did utter it aloud so that all did hear her, Who had gifted the men of the earth with such ensorcelled iron that could bind her?
55. She did scream to be told, but even as she did so, she knew already, for she also knew it beyond the craft of mortals to make such artifacts of power.
56. Even before the whispers of SIN did evaporate like water from the lake of death below, she knew that one of her siblings had betrayed her in this act and passed the iron over to the mortals. Another SIN had provided the means of her imprisonment. One of her own treacherous siblings.
57. And she knew wrath like never before.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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The Faceless Brides

Aislinn crawls under her covers, which feel cold against her skin, like her mother’s lips on wintry mornings when she kisses her goodbye for school. Goosebumps prickle her arms but she is not uncomfortable; she is in bed, the place of dreams and sleep and snug familiarity, and there is no discomfort in these things. Besides, the bed will grow warm quickly. It does so every night. At least, it has done every night beforehand.

Small fingers in the darkness find her bedcovers. Dragging the cotton sheets up her body to beneath her chin, she glances one last time across her room. This is her bedroom. Her private place, where she can host tea parties, entertain her dolls and read eagerly from glossy teen magazines, secreted beneath her mattress, without fear of being judged or, worse, disarmed.

The curtains flutter. Her rocking-horse creaks. From across the room, her Gameboy console flickers briefly into life. For one moment its blue light illuminates her shelf of smiling dolls – she sees Molly, Blossom, Lady Honeypaw, clutching tight the jar of her namesake – then it cuts out again. The room falls still.

She is half-asleep now. Her eyes are closing and she is drifting off. Her legs slip either side of her bedcovers, relishing the feel of them, the coolness against her skin, and in this half-sleep state she wishes for a bedtime story. Her thumb finds her mouth, as it always does when she is in bed and it is dark. Her thumb precludes dreams and sleep and a snug familiarity.

She wishes for a bedtime story. She wishes so very hard.

Her mother hasn’t read to her this evening. She can hear her some nights, through the floor, laughing with her father; the sounds of glasses clinking, of shrieks and the murmur of the television. Her mother reads less and less of late. Aislinn isn’t sure why. She sucks harder on her thumb, coats the digit in a glistening layer of saliva, and wishes her mother would read to her again, like she used to, like before.

The flutter of the curtains. The creak of the rocking horse. And another sound, like a crying dog, from somewhere nearby. She leans forward, peers over her crumpled covers, searching for its source. Her eyes scan her bedroom: the wardrobe, the night stand, the shelf where her dolls sit, glassy eyed, their lips stitched into beatific smiles. She knows those smiles. They are ‘supposed-to’ smiles. She wears them often enough.

And then she sees them. Three figures, no taller than Aislinn herself, standing quite still next to her mirror, beside the chest of drawers. She isn’t sure how long they have been standing there, hidden in plain sight by the dark. She doesn’t suppose it matters. Clutching her covers, her heart begins to race inside her chest.

Stepping through the darkness, they approach her silently. Perhaps they have come from the mirror, she thinks, or birthed from the shadows, or the fluffy insides of the dolls. The shadows cling to them like veils. Shrouded in blackness, they seem inscrutable, except for their whimpers, like Toby when he would trap his tail in the kitchen door. They smell like Toby too; wet fur, hot breath, rotten scents ill-fitting with their spirited movements.

They all three sweep towards her, limping across the bedroom floor, and she shrinks hurriedly into her covers, warmer now, infused with that sleepy smell. She takes a deep breath and, for one moment, the figures are forgotten for that smell.

Then they are around her bed.

They lean over the sheets, their chipped nails dragging delicately across the covers. Swathes of lace – or it might be lank hair – hang from their pencil-thin arms, and it is only when the first leans down, into Aislinn’s face, that she notices they wear veils, like those princesses from the animated films she loves to watch on Saturday mornings. Except they are like no princesses she has ever seen, and certainly no prince would ever march to save them, or slay a writhing serpent in their honour. She is a tight ball of trembling limbs beneath the covers.

Something thick and bulbous presses against the veil of the first; a tongue, long and swollen like a pale leech, and she wonders if these three are not the serpents themselves, in wicked disguise, come to claim her with their scaly claws. Her mouth opens, to shout, to cry, except no sound escapes her lips –

The curtains flutter, the rocking horse creaks and the three crones shudder to a stop. For a moment they seem to stare at each other through the murkiness of their veils. Then they spin slowly on their heels.

Something is happening to the rocking horse. It sways forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards, steadily at first but with increasing pace, just like it does when she mounts it. The dolls are twitching too, their legs swinging, button eyes blinking. Then, with deliberate slowness, the horse’s broad, white neck curves round. It whinnies, snorts a steamy breath, and its pearly black eyes fix themselves onto the Harridans.

They all three whine in unison. A long, twisting horn winds its way from out of the rocking-horse’s forehead, and then it is no longer a rocking-horse but a proud stallion, thickly-muscled and fierce. His solitary horn shines silvery and hard in the moonlight and even from across the room she can count the age-rings, smooth and marbled, on its surface.

He paws her bedroom carpet, strikes the fabric with his hooves, and snorts steamily again until he has the crones’ attention. He is her defender, she realises, wiping away the tears from her eyes. Even though she has not ridden him for a long time now, he remembers her hands on his neck. He remembers her weight on his back, her legs pressed tight to his sides, and he will fight for her.

The crones stagger with horrid purpose towards him. Shadows bleed from beneath their arms and the long strips of lace that hang there, and with every step closer to the horse their lamenting wails intensify.

Aislinn shrinks further beneath her covers as, with a dreadful lurch, the first crone reaches the stallion. He whinnies and rears up as she draws near, shining hooves pedalling beside the toy-box. The crone cowers on the floor before him and for a moment it looks as though the stallion might triumph, his eyes two glistening marbles in the dark.

Then the other two reach his sides. Their lamenting cries made all the more horrible for what they are about to do, they claw him, their fingers shearing long, thin rashers from his flanks. Cackling and weeping they bury their fingers deeper into his pale coat, drawing blackness from within, only this blackness is wet and drips from their hands to stain the carpet below. He throws back his head, his eyes rolling. Giddy sounds erupt from his throat.

One by one her dolls drop from the shelf. The room fills with soft sounds as they hit the carpet, then the patter of their boots as they rush across the floor. Reaching up they tug at the crones, grasping the strands of lace and hair, pulling them back from the horse with Lilliputian might. She sees Molly and Blossom, their stitched lips pursed tight, and feels hope again.

With a voiceless heave, they bring one crone to the ground. She screams as she topples into the sea of smiling faces, her grey dress floating around her. They grab the dress and pin her down, Lady Honeypaw climbing triumphant onto her chest. She upends her pot of honey over the veiled face.

The last crone scatters her assailants. She snatches them up, tears them in two and tosses them away. Stuffing spills from their broken bodies, buttons plink across the room, then she returns her hands to the steed.

He stumbles. Aislinn feels him fall and she trembles. Screams judder from his throat and he sinks down to his knees, the toy-box shattering beneath his bulk. Its contents scatter across the carpet. Sheared flesh covers the broken dolls, blood splashes their button eyes and then the stallion’s mane darkens, until it might have been one of the scouring pads her mother uses to scratch out dirt from the sink. The stallion lies still amid her toys.

The crones regroup and turn, together, to her bed. She trembles harder beneath her sheets. Her eyes brim with tears again, although she is otherwise motionless, frozen by a mixture of fear and something else, something strange, a feeling of familiarity. Downstairs, all is silent. Her mother and father must have gone to bed. She has no brothers or sisters. Toby is long gone now, ‘to be with the angels in the sky,’ though she knows he really occupies a shallow hole in the back garden, behind the roses. She remembers dank soil, his short fur and cold flesh.

As she drags her covers over her, so that only her eyes are visible, she realises she knows these crones. They are her long-dead dog, her slain steed, every bedtime without stories; fears made half-physical in the dark and the night. She sees something of herself in the crones’ withered forms; and her mother and her grandmother, and realises they are not just crones but brides, manifestations of age and motherhood, come to claim her at last, as they must claim all growing girls –

The three rise up once more around her bed. They lean in close, and even through her covers, their salty breaths catching in her throat. It seems like everything warm, everything nice, everything she knows is good and right, is swallowed up by the black void of their veils. Their fingers rise to their veils, clasping them even as their other hands brush Aislinn’s covers. For a moment their hands hover there. Then, with one quick motion, they tear the delicate net cloth from their faces.

A scream fills Aislinn’s mouth. It fills her bedroom too, piercing even the blackest shadows as she looks upon the faces of the brides. Then the brides are gone and she is sitting up in the darkness, her mother rushing to her side, concern and sleep in equal measures in her eyes.

Slowly Aislinn calms down. Her mother switches on lights and reads to her. After a while, her breathing steadies. Her eyes regain a languid glaze. Guided by her mother’s words, she sinks back into her bed; that place of dreams and sleep and snug familiarity, except not so familiar any more.

Unable to place what has changed, in a room that has not, she drifts uncertainly back to sleep and dreams of riding down the aisle atop a snorting stallion, delicate lace trailing after her, a thin net veil before her face.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved