Saturday, 13 September 2008


Finished the grammar/spelling/typos readthrough of the novel. I've moved onto going through and adjusting the paragraphs. This is a hold-over from my screenwriting where one of the general rules of thumb is to have no block of text that's more than four lines long.

I've noticed I have a habit when I'm originally drafting my novel of using long paragraphs. Actually I have a habit of using no paragraphs originally, as I'm writing longhand in a notebook and trying to cram as many words onto as few pages as I can - otherwise I'd be using dozens of notebooks rather than the two I managed to fit my novel into.

When I typed up my novel though, I do put in the paragraphs. Not as many as I should though, which is why the second run-through. One nice thing about this go through is that I don't have to dwell on every word, like my first edit/rewrite. Paragraph lengths is all about making the story easy to read - too long a block of text and the eye becomes lost in it. I also try to keep sentences short for similar reasons - that's taken care of by my reading-out-loud run-through.

So, if I scan the page and notice some of the paragraphs looking a bit bulky, I take a closer look to see what I can rearrange. Sometimes there's nothing that can be done - the paragraph is a series of consecutive thoughts that can't be broken up (except maybe be completely rewriting it - which I have done when it suits).

Most of the time though, there's a natural break. Sometimes it's when a character starts another action. Sometimes it's just about changing the emphasis slightly.

What I have noticed is that I'm fighting against this notion I have that paragraphs are supposed to be a sizable length - a certain number of sentences (for some reason four always springs to mind). What you notice if you look at a number of novels (modern novels - don't even think about trying to emulate the size of Dickens' paragraphs) is that a lot of paragraphs are no more than one or two sentences long.

Which is what I've been trying to do with this post.

It may seem like sweating over the details, but guiding the way the reader experiences the tale is the storyteller's key role. And the size of my paragraphs are one of the ways I try to do that.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Narrative Prose

I don't know what exactly is doing it, but my computer's becoming increasingly slow. It's probably something to do with my anti-virus software, or something in one of the Windows security patches, but my technical ability has been far outstripped by progress in computing (or is it regression as I'm sure all the new 'advances' are actually designed to make things worse than they were before).

Anyway, while I wait for my computer to do whatever it is that it's supposed to be doing, I tend to turn a book off one of the shelves behind me (I have three bookcases in the little room that I've turned into a writing room, nine shelves of which (and a bit of floor space) have been given over to my meager reference collection).

As I'm in the process of rewriting, I thought today that I'd pick up John Braine's Writing a Novel and flick through it in search of some words of wisdom. I used to read quite a few of the self-help writing books - less these days after I started realising that many of them were trying to teach me things that I know are wrong - or at least wrong for me.

The chapter I stopped at and grabbed a few sentences from has the same name as the title of this post - Narrative Prose. The first sentence reads:

My working-rule with narrative prose is the same as for dialogue: if it can't be read aloud, it's no good.

Since I've started working on the current draft of my novel (third if anyone cares to know), I've been proceeding by reading every line aloud. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it forces me to dwell on every single word, whereas if I read it silently (without moving my lips!), I'd probably be skipping over words and allowing my brain to fill in some of the gaps - which is absolutely pointless if you're trying to proofread.

Secondly, and in keeping with Braine's rule, it allows me to check the rhythm of the sentences. If I can't speak it out loud, then it's likely that I've twisted my prose into some torturous shape that will probably obfuscate the meaning - or at the very least cause readers to stumble while they try to make sense of what I've written.

For the record I don't check these posts after I've written them, so expect all sorts of gnarly word constructions.

I also believe that there's something pleasing in reading prose that falls into the patterns of speech. As Braine points out slightly further down the page, behind every story there's a person (he uses the term man, but I'm much more PC than him!) telling the story. A short story, novella or novel is the written analogue of the narrated story - certainly if we take it back to how written language developed. And sometimes it's good to get back to the roots of the situation and remind ourselves just why we do things a certain way.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Bad Dialogue

Here's a line I'm struggling with at the moment:

“I was. However I felt it would be a more efficient use of my time to turn it to our advantage in more than one way.”

Pretty awful, eh?

One of the problems with writing dialogue is that what works on the page doesn't necessarily work when read aloud. Not that I'm claiming the above example works well on the page either, but it's a problem with a lot of stuff that I've read. My first method of dealing with unwieldy dialogue is usually to reduce its word count - after all people don't follow the strict rules of grammar when talking and don't always use proper sentence structure, so paring back the dialogue can help make it sound more natural.

A particular issue I have with the above sentence is that the character speaking is non-human - a robot in fact - so there needs to be a degree of formality to the dialogue. However it doesn't read as formal - it reads as clunky. It's too long for a start - which is my next trick, cutting up the dialogue into several sentences.

Third solution I tend to fall back on quite a lot is cutting the sentence completely. Often when something reads wrong, I find it's superfluous to the story. However, if I ditch this one, I then have to rewrite, or excise, the following eight sentences, which seems like a bit much just because I'm struggling with finding a better way to rewrite that sentence.

Here's the quick and nasty rewrite version if I wasn't worrying about the formality of the sentence

“I was, but I thought I could could kill two birds with one stone.”

Not sure my robot is going to be using an idiom like that. So what I need is something that conveys the same concept with the same sort of brevity, but which uses plain English.

"I was, but I saw the opportunity to increase the benefit to us."

It's not going to win any prizes for great dialogue, but at least it reads faster, is a lot clearer and is not inconsistent with the voice of the character.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Editing Mood

Originally I'd intended this blog to be a place where I could stick a couple of short stories and point people at them, but as I haven't written anything new recently, I thought maybe I'd throw a few things down about what's going on with my writing. At least that way it might encourage me to work harder.

At present I'm just over halfway through rewriting a novel that I'm hoping to have published sometime in the next year. It has a potential home, although I'm not going into any details (or putting too much home in that) as there's every likelihood that something will go wrong - such as me not finishing my editing work!

I have to confess that I'm terrible at finishing anything - I have the desire to be a perfectionist, but not necessarily the drive. So I'll tinker with something for ages, but will often abandon it in an unfinished state because I don't feel up to the task of making it as good as I believe it can be. I'm bad enough when it comes to editing short stories; it's so much worse when I'm dealing with 100,000+ words.

What's made this even worse today is that the part of my novel that I've been revisiting is uncannily similar to something going on in my life at the moment. Which is particularly odd as I wrote that part of the story about six months ago. I'm not going into details as I've never believed in living my life for all on the Internet to read, but it makes it a bit harder to edit when I'm having to deal not only with making that section of the novel readable, but also with the emotions that it's stirring up.

The part of me that's always a writer says "Now if only I can get some of those feelings on the page."

The part of me that's not a writer wants to be able to walk away from it all and play Overlord on my Xbox.

At the moment, the call of the Xbox is winning.

Monday, 30 June 2008

High Concept Visuals

As Bill Martell keeps mentioning my idea for what I called high concept visuals, I thought it might be of some use to post a bit about them. This was written with an audience of me in mind, as I was trying to figure it out for my own use, so if it's a little rough around the edges, that's why.

High Concept Visuals

As in High Concept ideas (HCIs), the notion of the High Concept Visual (HCV) is a visual idea that can be easily described, which will suggest in the reader’s mind a movie that must be seen.

HCVs include Bullet Time in THE MATRIX, the moonlight skeletonisation of the pirates in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and the time travel effects of the recent adaptation of THE TIME MACHINE.

Alone an HCV does not guarantee a good film. What it should guarantee are cinematic sequences in that film that haven’t been seen before.

As with HCIs, the HCV can be an amalgamation of previous visual systems and perhaps may be created by combining two visual systems that the audience is familiar with into a different form. THE TIME MACHINE uses time lapse photography as a basis for its HCV, but also adds a reverse zoom effect, which is seen with the sequence that starts on Earth in the past and ends up on the moon colony in the future.

The reverse zoom effect is also used in Men In Black as the end, starting with the Earth, moving out into the galaxy and then ending up with galaxy as a marble in an alien child’s hand. Although a very interesting visual, it is not an HCV, as the point of view is straight forward and consistent, even if the end is unexpected.

HCVs are not about using special effects to create something more realistically than has been done before, such as the dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, they are about creating written scenes that dictate a visual style that is not reliant on an effects breakthrough to provide novelty. Judging from the script alone, the dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK could have conceivably been created using stop motion, animatronics, or animation had CGI effects not been used.

An HCV is not just about using a special effect in a different way either. The effect must be essential to the story and the characters or the environment. Trick photography (the bomb’s POV in PEARL HARBOR, the slow motion explosion in SWORDFISH) can make a shot more interesting, but if it is a staging decision rather than a story decision, it is not an HCV.

HCVs relate to several different concepts. Often an HCV includes several of these:

PERCEPTION provides a visual representation of the characters’ senses, or their thoughts.

In THE MATRIX the audience sees how Neo (Keanu Reeves) perceives the world of The Matrix, where the slow motion of bullet time isn’t just used for effect, but as Neo’s real-time perception of the world. The concept is expanded upon further when Neo’s abilities grow so that he can actually see the code of the Matrix when he’s inside.

In THE FISHER KING, the fantasy sequences show the audience what the world looks like through the eyes of Henry Sagan/Parry (Robin Williams) and provides insight into his delusions.

CSI provides a visual realisation of the character’s thoughts as they describe the possible results of their evidence, from reconstructions of how the crime might have happened, to illustrations of the physical effects of body trauma, such as a gunshot, from inside the body.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND uses a similar concept to the FISHER KING and CSI, where the thoughts of John Nash (Russell Crowe) are first shown to the audience as he works out various problems. This visualisation of his thought processes also throws out a subtle clue to his schizophrenic delusions, which are also shown on screen.

Other examples include GHOST and THE DEAD ZONE.

TRANSFORMATION can occur both to characters or to the environment. In some films, such as FREQUENCY, where transformations resulting from changes to the past create changes to both the characters and the environment, it happens to both.

Transformation itself is not enough to be considered an HCV, so there must be at least one other element at play. The Transformation in an action film, for example, usually has some effect on the outcome of the climax, often increasing the danger the protagonist is place in either from his own ill-timed transformations (VAN HELSING where Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) keeps reverting from werewolf to human in his fight with Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) whenever the full moon is obscured), or through the untimely transformations of the antagonist(s).

In some cases transformation will be tied into the defeat of the antagonist (the defeat of Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) in HOLLOW MAN once he has become partially visible).

Other examples include THE MASK and COOL WORLD.

Environmental transformation can be used to indicate a change caused by time or travel (THE TIME MACHINE), an unearthly environment (Heaven as a painting of an Earthly location in WHAT DREAMS MAY COME), or a manipulation of the environment (such as the water powers of the aliens in THE ABYSS).

JUXTAPOSITION creates unusual combinations of visual elements, either by directly linking them by placing them on the same screen (such as the black and white/colour mix of PLEASANTVILLE), or though intercutting between two different views of the same event, such as the inside-the-body, outside-the-body action sequences of INNERSPACE.

Sunday, 2 March 2008


This is a script for a proposed comic book called 'Bridgetown' that sadly never saw the light of day. Although I do have a very nice first page for it drawn by David "Barkmann" Cerqueira.


Panel 1

The lower part of a cart wheel takes up most of the panel as it travels along a rocky mountain road.

A rabbit peers over the bottom of the panel in the left hand corner..

THATCH (unseen but sitting at the rear of the cart): How much further is it?

Panel 2

Pull back from the previous panel’s view. Both of the cart wheels are now visible, along with the legs of the ox pulling it.

The rabbit in the foreground can now be seen in full. His back is covered with a tiny leather saddle, an armoured pixie, looking like a miniature St George, rides on top.

BULL (unseen but sitting at the front of the cart): Give it a rest, Thatch!

Panel 3

Side view of the cart (pulled back from previous picture). Sitting up on the front bench are BULL and GOOSE. They’re brothers, but there‘s no real family resemblance. Both look like the animals they’re named after. Bull has a thick neck, a punched-in face and looks as if he bench-presses cattle. Goose is thin with a long neck and a beaky nose.

The cart carries a load of turnips, mostly under cover, but one or two can be seen poking through.

On the backboard of the cart rides Bull and Goose’s younger brother, THATCH. A handsome lad with the healthy frame of a young man who’s grown up bailing hay, his blond unkempt hair makes his name appropriate.

Low on the ground the pixie-mounted rabbit faces off against a lizard.

In the background, fir trees.

GOOSE: You can’t blame him, Bull. His first time in Bridgetown after all.

Panel 4

Rear view of the cart. Thatch watches the pixie, now behind the cart, skewer the lizard with a miniature lance.

BULL: He doesn’t have to ask every mile.

GOOSE: How much further is it anyway?

Panel 5

Front view of the cart, looking over the ox’s back.

Thatch has turned his head to face front as he listens to his brothers.

BULL: Not much .

Panel 6

Same as previous, except this time Thatch’s eyes are open wide in wonder.

BULL: In fact, I think it‘s safe to say...


Full spread

The cart in the bottom right corner stands at the top of a steep hill that winds its way down the fir tree covered mountainside to two wide portcullis gates (both presently open), which in turn lead onto Bridgetown. Bridgetown runs from centre bottom to top left.

A giant bridge, it is covered in hundreds of buildings, including a castle in the centre. Nets, rope bridges and hand cranked elevators line the sides. There are even some houses fastened to the undersides of some of the bridge’s giant arches.

The architectural styles are predominantly European Middle Age on the nearest side, however there should also be influences of Oriental and Arabic architecture. The far side of the bridge has a stronger Oriental style to it - however, as the bridge is so long, it’s hard to make out.

A river runs out the left side of the bridge (the right is obscured as the bridge is so high), moving towards the upper right hand side of the picture.

BULL: ...we’re here.


Panel 1

The cart passes through the left-hand portcullis gate. A guardsman stands sentry duty.

Thatch has turned so that he can see where they’re going.

Panel 2

Side view of the cart passing a tavern - “The Bridge‘s End”.

Panel 3

Three dancing girls, dressed in translucent silks, stand with their backs to us in the foreground of the panel. The cart passes in the background. Thatch watches them with his mouth agape.

Panel 4

The cart passes underneath an arched bridge into the market area - colourful tented stalls line the route. It has the look of an Arabian market.


Panel 1

The brothers unload the turnips from their cart onto an empty stall.

Panel 2

The brothers stand behind the stall, looking bored. There’s no one else in sight.

THATCH: Does it get any busier than this?

Panel 3

A crowd surrounds the stall. Goose hands out a turnip over the heads of the people standing at the front of the stall.

GOOSE: Busy enough for you yet?

Panel 4

Just one customer now, holding the last of the turnips. The stall’s empty now.

Bull takes money from the customer.


Panel 1

Bull counts the money into piles.

BULL: Right, that’s the last of it.

Panel 2

Bull drops a few coins onto Goose’s outstretched palm.

BULL: Half for you, half for Thatch. Okay?

GOOSE: Time to hit the bridge.

Panel 3

Goose drops a couple of coins onto Thatch’s outstretched palm. Thatch watches, screwing his face up with disappointment.

THATCH: Is this it?

Panel 4

Bull and Goose. Bull looks serious, Goose has a grin plastered across his face.

BULL: We need something left to show for our trouble. Dad would skin us alive if we spent it all.

GOOSE: You’ve got enough for a skinful of wine and a cheap tart.


Panel 1

Bull and Goose stride off into the distance. Goose half turns his head to call behind him.

GOOSE: Come on little brother, keep up!

Panel 2

The milling Bridgetown crowds separate Thatch from his two brothers. He struggles to keep up, but there’s no way he’s going to find them in the crowd.

THATCH: Hey, wait for me.

Panel 3

Bull and Goose walk with the crowd at their backs, Bull checks over his shoulder.

GOOSE: We lost him yet?

BULL: Reckon so.

Panel 4

Goose slips Bull some coins.

GOOSE: Here’s your split of Thatch’s money then.

BULL: I couldn’t have kept a straight face.

GOOSE: You need practice to lie properly.

Panel 5

Bull and Goose walk off, arms around each other’s shoulders.

BULL: Now let’s go get pissed.


Panel 1

Thatch walks down a narrow stairway in-between two buildings, descending into the darker parts of the town.

Behind him, at the top of the stairs, KAT, an attractive young thief, dressed in makeshift leather armour, runs in his direction.

THATCH: Bull! Goose! (small text) Could have sworn I saw...

Panel 2

Kat shoves Thatch out of her way.

Behind them at the top of the stairs, two gang members, BREVIS and FLEX chase after her. Both of them have bald heads. Both of them have a black handprint tattooed into their scalps as a symbol of their gang membership.

KAT: Coming through.

Panel 3

Brevis and Flex run past Thatch on the steps.


Panel 1

In the street at the bottom of the stairs are another two bald, tattooed gang members, POL and NAIL. POL, steps out to intercept Kat.

The pair chasing her pass Thatch on the steps.

POL: Hold it, Kat. You owe us money!

Panel 2

Kat shrugs.

KAT: I don’t have it.

Panel 3

Pol pushes Kat onto the ground.

POL: Other ways we can get it out of you.

Panel 4

The four gang members surround Kat. Pol bends down to grab her arm.

POL: Lets see if there’s a girl under all that dirt.


Panel 1

Thatch rolls his sleeves up, ready to protect the girl.

THATCH: Get your hands off her.

Panel 2

Thatch wades into the gang members, throwing an uppercut to Flex’s jaw.

Panel 3

In the foreground, Kat picks herself up. Flex lies on the floor behind her.


Panel 1

Thatch punches Brevis in the nose. Nail raises up a cudgel.

Panel 2

Thatch grabs the cudgel in mid air.

Panel 3

Still holding the cudgel, Thatch pulls Nail closer and knees him in the stomach.


Panel 1

Pol comes up behind Thatch. He holds a knife close to his waist, intending to stab Thatch in the kidneys.

Panel 2

Holding her hands together, Kat smacks them into Pol’s back. Thatch half turns, looking surprised.

Panel 3

Thatch grabs a cudgel from another, while punching a third in the gut. Kat smacks both her fists into Hans’ back.

Panel 4

Thatch and Kat stand over the fallen bodies of the gang members. Kat kicks the prone Pol in the side.

THATCH: Not very tough, these city lads.

DIRK: (off panel) Not very bright, these farm boys.


Panel 1

A large panel - it should take up most of the page, leaving room for three fairly small panels along the bottom.

Thatch and Kat stand in between two clusters of gang members. Weapons are drawn - it looks nasty.

Dirk, the leader, stands with the group on the left. He has a dagger in his hand.

DIRK: Too stupid to know when they’ve fallen into a trap.

Panel 2

An arrow flying through the air

Panel 3

Dirk’s hand, the arrow through it. The knife drops from his grasp.

Panel 4

Dirk holds the hand with the arrow through of it in front of him. Still in shock, the pain hasn’t hit yet.


Panel 1

Thatch and Kat stand in the centre of the panel. Surrounding them are Dirk’s band. Surrounding those are a new gang - the thieves.

Archers crouch on the top of walls, their arrows aimed at Dirk’s gang.

Panel 2

Kat reaches for Thatch’s hand.

KAT: Don’t just stand there.

Panel 3

Close up on their hands clasping together.

KAT: Let’s get out of here!

Panel 4

Still holding hands, Kat and Thatch run. The two gangs clash in the background, the tattooed gang clearly losing to the thieves.


Panel 1

The fight no longer in view, Thatch and Kat stop for a moment. Thatch leans against a wall. Kat stands bent over, her hands resting on the top of her legs as she catches her breath.

THATCH: That was lucky.

KAT: Not so much. Spike was waiting for me there.

Panel 2

Close on Thatch’s face.

THATCH: It was a trap? Then you weren’t really in trouble?

Panel 3

Kat kisses Thatch’s cheek.

KAT: It was very gallant of you to come to my rescue.

Panel 3

Thatch scratches his head.

THATCH: Then I guess I...


Panel 1

Kat grabs Thatch’s hand with both hers, pulling at him

KAT: Come on.

Panel 2

Just holding on with one hand now, Kat leads a confused-looking Thatch.

THATCH: Where are we going now?

Panel 3

Kat smiles at Thatch. a mischievous look to her eye.

KAT: You did me a turn. Thought I should return the favour.


Panel 1

They pass underneath a stone arched bridge. On top of the bridge, a drunken Goose makes out with a painted tart who can’t be younger than fifty.

THATCH: How do you mean?

Panel 2

Midshot of Thatch and Kat, the bridge and Goose behind them.

KAT: Figure a country boy like you could do with the guided tour.


Panel 1

Kat and Thatch cross a rope bridge. In the street beneath it, Bull is being sick in the gutter, much to the amusement of a group of drunken revellers.

KAT: Unless you weren’t done taking on the gangs of Bridgetown single-handed.

THATCH: I think I’m done for the night.


Panel 1

Kat and Thatch approach the base of a tower. A primitive elevator, a cage attached to a chain winch, stands next to it. WINCH, a man with tree-trunk-thick limbs stands by the winch. He raises a hand in greeting to Kat.

KAT: Hey Winch!

WINCH: Still picking up strays Kat?

Panel 2

Winch peers forward to look at Thatch.

WINCH: At least this one doesn’t look like he’s got fleas.

Panel 3

Kat puts her arm around Thatch and squeezes close.

KAT: This is my very own knight in shining overalls.

Panel 4

Winch and Thatch shake hands.

WINCH: Going up?

Panel 5

Kat looks at Thatch, a hungry expression in her eyes.

KAT: I hope so.


Panel 1

Kat steps into the cage. She holds out her hand to a hesitant Thatch.

KAT: Come on.

Panel 2

Thatch looks wary.

THATCH: Is it safe?

Panel 3

Kat grins, her hand still outstretched.

KAT: Where would the fun be if it was?

Panel 4

Thatch takes Kat’s hand.


Full page

The cage halfway up the tower, Bridgetown laid out beneath it.


Panel 1

The cage elevator at the top of the tower. Kat helps Thatch onto the roof.

KAT: What do you think of my town?

Panel 2

Wide across the page, Kat and Thatch looking across the town from on high. Thatch turns his head towards Kat.

THATCH: It’s beautiful. Just like...

Panel 3

Same as previous panel, this time with Kat pulling Thatch’s head towards her.

KAT: Just shut up and kiss me.
Panel 4

Same as previous panel, this time Kat and Thatch are having their movie happy ending kiss.


Panel 1

Worse for wear, Bull and Goose stagger down the street, holding onto each other for support.

Bull stretches out his free arm to gesture, almost as if he’s telling a story about a fish that got away.

With his free hand, Goose cups his chest to indicate large breasts.

BULL: ...then after I’d drunken them all under the table...

GOOSE: ...should have seen the jugs on her, I’m telling you...

Panel 2

Thatch leans against the cart, waiting for them, a slightly dreamy look in his eyes.

THATCH: Hey guys.

Panel 3

Goose points at Thatch in drunken fashion.

GOOSE: Hey little brother. What you get up to?

Panel 4

Goose climbs up at the front of the cart. Bull climbs into the empty back, where all the turnips had been . Thatch sits at the back.

THATCH: Just a bit of sight-seeing.

BULL: You take it for the first bit. I’m going to lie down here for a while.

Panel 5

Side on view as the cart drives through the gate.

GOOSE: You can come up front with me for a bit, little bro.

THATCH: No, it’s okay, I’m good here for now.


Full Page

Rear view of the cart, which has passed through the gate. Thatch raises a hand to wave at Kat, who crouches on top of the wall above the gate, watching the cart leave.

Friday, 18 January 2008

For the Trees

This story should have been published in Mam Tor's Event Horizon No 3, but unfortunately EH folded before it could see print.

James was woken that morning by an insistent tapping on his window. The image of someone standing on the roof of his extension, drumming against the glass, came unbidden into his mind. Of course it couldn’t be, that was just his paranoid imagination talking. Birds, it had to be birds, he tried to convince himself. Yet, even with this rational explanation in mind, he still could not completely dispel the notion from his head.

There was only one way to persuade himself that this was not the prelude to his home being invaded by some demented psychopath. He eased himself from his bed, squeezing out from beneath the duvet and crept across to the window, careful not to alert whomever or whatever was tapping.

He flattened his cheek against the wall beside the window, trying to peer out without disturbing the curtain. Unfortunately, it lay flush against the wall, so he was forced to twitch it back, just a little. Hopefully the slight movement would be taken for the stirrings of a breeze within the room.

Peering out of the crack, he jumped as a gnarled finger hit against the glass. He steadied a hand across his chest, as if he could force his heart to return to a slower rhythm. The finger had been thin and brown. It was no bird. It wasn‘t a person either. The cause of the tapping was a the narrowest point of a branch, swaying against the window.

He should have been relieved. He might have been, had it not been for the simple fact that the only tree in his garden stood next to the back fence, well outside reaching distance of his bedroom window.

He jerked back the curtain, so hard that one of the plastic hooks snapped off the rail. Upon seeing the source of the questing branch, he was almost certain that he was still in a half-doze, improperly awoken. It had to be a remnant of his dream, his befuddled mind misinterpreting the play of shadow and light upon the glass.

Except the fast beating of his heart, the cold rush of adrenalin through his veins were assuring him that he was more awake now than ever. What he was seeing was real, no figment of his imagination.

There was a tree, spouting through the roof of his extension, bursting out like a fairy tale beanstalk.

The branches filled his view, making it impossible for him to see beyond the tree.

Was this some freak occurrence, a stray incident of nature gone insane? He would not put it past his bad luck to have such a thing happen only to him, to his house, but somehow he doubted that this unnatural occurrence would be restricted just to his home
James backed out of the room, quite unable to take his eyes away from the sight. He fumbled for the door behind him that led into the spare bedroom. Opening it, he backed into the room, only turning his gaze away from the tree when he was well inside.

He went over to the window, pulling back the curtains to look outside.

James lived in an end of terrace house in the centre of town. Outside lay Camberley Street, a fairly busy thoroughfare, lined by terraced houses, behind which lay yet more terraced houses. That was the view that greeted him every time he looked out of his window.

Not today.

Today, Camberley Street no longer existed. At least not in any form that James recognised.

The houses opposite were still there, although many had been overgrown with ivy and other green climbing plants. The road on the other hand had disappeared completely, replaced by trees, bushes, grass. An entire forest had grown up overnight, outside his front door.

After staring at the trees for long enough, he went downstairs and did what anyone would do when faced with a mysterious forest on their doorstep; he turned on the TV.


It was only a few moments later that the power went out.


James did not know his neighbours, except to acknowledge them with a nod whenever they passed going in or out of their respective houses. Some of them didn’t even merit that, just an embarrassed meeting of the eyes every once in a while. Still they said there was nothing like a crisis for bringing people together. James decided to put that axiom to the test and walked next door. When he opened his front door, he half expected the forest to have vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, but it was still there.

During the short walk to the house next door, he felt as if he was being watched, a sense of eyes fixed firmly upon the back of his head. He peered into the tree line, but could make out no presence there, human or otherwise. Yet the feeling persisted.

The front door to his next-door neighbour’s home was ajar. He resisted the temptation to barge straight in and rang the doorbell instead. As the seconds passed with no response, he grew increasingly uncomfortable under the imagined gaze of the watcher in the trees. Persuaded forward by this fear of what lay behind, he pushed the door open and called inside.

“Hello, is anyone there?”

A cry from inside provided the answer.

“I can‘t get up!”

It was not the most auspicious response, but it was something, a sign of life. James stepped cautiously inside, prepared to run at the slightest provocation. The call had come from the upstairs floor. He proceeded up the stairs, each step carefully taken, trying to make as little noise as possible, as if he might alert some terrible thing to his presence.

“I can’t get up!”

The second cry, as plaintive as the first, provided James further guidance once he had reached the top. Drawing a deep breath, he pushed down the handle of the door from behind which the cry had come. He threw it back, ready to fight or flee, depending on what he found there. The sight that met him caused him to freeze on the spot as conflicting signals to his brain denied him movement forward or back.

A tree grew in the centre of the room, having pushed its way through the lacquered floorboards. It had pierced the wooden slats of the bed, shredding the mattress, to continue its growth through the ceiling.

James’s neighbour had met with a similar fate to the bed‘s. He hung in mid-air, impaled upon the branches of the tree. The wood threaded through his arms and legs, twisting around them, bound so tight that where blood covered flesh and wood, it was impossible to spy where one began and the other ended.

A further three spikes of wood punctured his torso. Only a little blood leaked around the edges of the wounds, as the wood worked to plug the holes. A final spike had entered his left ear and exited through the top of his skull. For all that, he was still alive, although what sort of life was left was open to debate. Brain damage, madness brought on by his predicament, or a combination of the two had left him in a drooling, unfocused state.

“I can’t get up!” he cried again.

It was enough to snap James out of his frozen reverie. He stumbled from the room, promising to return with help. Little caring of the terrible state in which he left the man, he fled the house, all rational thought gone.

He stumbled, blind with fear, through the very forest that had brought this end to his neighbour. He tried not to dwell on the image of him hanging there, tried not to think of those four desperate words that were all that remained of the man’s vocabulary, yet he could not get them out of his head.

It was instinct that took him to the local railway station. The steps he took every weekday morning as he commuted to work were those that he now followed, his mind incapable of conscious thought while those memories continued to terrify him. The station was surrounded by trees, but the building itself appeared untouched.

The automatic doors to the station opened as he approached, the power outage having not affected them; presumably the station‘s electricity supply came from a different circuit. That there remained vestiges of civilisation might have consoled him, had he been in a state to be consoled.

The ticket hall was empty, the barriers open. Not following any particular plan, but instinctively seeking an exit, a means to escape this nightmare, James walked onto the platform. It too was deserted.

His senses returning, he thought to see if anyone else was present.

“Hello?” he called.

There came no response. If there were any people within hearing range, they were not ready to make themselves known.

Something squished underfoot. He jerked his foot back, faintly nauseated by the squelching sound that accompanied this withdrawal. He looked down at the glistening brown substance that had invaded the platform. Mushrooms!

There was something decidedly unhealthy about them. Moist, patulous in form, they appeared as a disease infesting the surface of the platform. As he backed away from them, James became aware that the shape they took was not entirely random. It almost appeared to be clustered in the form of a body, two arms, two legs and...

A face, part of a cheek, an eye and a nose, protruded from a clump of mushrooms. The eye stared blindly, the life gone from it.

It was not the only cluster of mushrooms to have infected the platform. All along its length, body-shaped groups littered the ground.

Even now the fungi were creeping towards him, intent on making him the anchor for their mycelium; the mushrooms he had pulled his foot from had closed the gap between him and them. James turned and ran for his life.

Reaching the ticket hall, he stopped to consider his options. He had left the mushrooms far enough behind to be safe for the moment. The way ahead, on the other hand, looked far from safe. Leaving aside the trees’ propensity to impale sleeping neighbours, there remained the question of what further horrors sheltered beneath their canopied boughs. James was certain he did not want to find out. Unfortunately, the way behind was closed to him, leaving only one other direction he could take.

He supposed that he could remain in the ticket hall and wait for help to arrive. How long it would take and whether there were any rescue services intent on scouring the forest for survivors would depend on how far the forest had spread. Which meant that he could be waiting anywhere between a couple of hours and forever. If the experience of other countries dealing with disaster relief was anything to go by, the last thing he should do was trust the authorities to provide a timely solution. He decided to brave the trees after all.

Presumably there must be others like him who had not woken up impaled on a tree and who had not succumb to carnivorous fungi. While some would still be holed up in their houses, some must have ventured out into the forest in search of food, assistance, safety. Strength in numbers, that was the key.

The question of where he might find these others was answered by a thick cloud of smoke drifting above the trees. It could have been a fire generated by no human intervention, but he chose to believe otherwise. It was the clearest suggestion of other living people he had yet seen. He had his direction, so he set out towards it.

Leaving the station, it was impossible to be unaware of how quiet the world had become. All the sounds of everyday life had vanished: no cars, no trains, no people. He almost wanted to cry out, just so he could be assured that he had not gone deaf. His instincts, however, told him to remain quiet. The last thing he wanted was to draw the attention of some predatory organism intent on stripping the flesh from his bones.

Among the trees, something stirred, rustling through the undergrowth. James took a step back, prepared to return to his shelter in the station. He caught glimpses, between the greenery, of dirty brown fur moving low to the ground. Rats!

James steadied himself, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves. Despite the feelings of fear and disgust that the thought of rats brought, he could not afford to become paralysed by the fear of a few over-sized rodents. Unlike the trees, there need not be anything unnatural about the presence of the rats. They were probably just survivors, emboldened by the presence of all this extra cover. Still, it unnerved him to think of them moving unseen through the forest.

He made good headway through the trees. At times the branches occluded the sky so he couldn’t see the smoke. He worried that he might become disorientated and wander off in the wrong direction. Certainly there was no use relying on the buildings as reference points; most of them were made unrecognisable by the vegetation that surrounded and engulfed them. He could have been walking past his own door, unable to recognise it.

Fortunately, the lack of recognisable landmarks did not prove a real threat to his navigational abilities. Each time the sky made its reappearance, he found he had not veered too far off course. At least his sense of direction was unaffected by the bizarre events of the day.

As he drew closer to the smoke, he discovered he no longer need to rely on keeping it within sight. Its smell conveyed its location just as effectively. He felt his heart quicken as he considered what he might find. There just had to be people, holding back the forest using one of mankind’s oldest tools. The thought that this might be an accidental fire was so bleak as to not warrant consideration.

The atmosphere thickened. Smoke particles, caught in rays of sunlight, crafted a ghostly atmosphere to the forest. James worried for a moment that the fire would provide an impassable barricade, that he would come so close to finding other people, only to be turned away at the last.

He need not have worried. Ahead he caught sight of a most welcome figure. Silhouetted against the smoke, a man stood, waiting. James felt the muscles in his chest unclench; it was as if he could breathe again.

“Hello!” he cried out.

The figure did not turn. For a horrible moment he though that like his neighbour, this ‘survivor’ was just another pin cushion for a tree, only one caught standing rather than sleeping.

“Hello?” he called again, more hesitant this time.

The man turned and waved. A tremendous weight passed from him. James hurried over, the forest a peripheral image in his rush to reconnect with humanity. He had almost reached the man when a hurtling form crashed into him, knocking him to the ground.

His head smacked hard against a tree root. The pain was intensive; it felt as if a spike had been driven through his temples. The world grew dim around the edges; unconsciousness beckoned.

He could still see the man who had waved to him. Two other figures had come upon the man, attacking him. Helpless, James watched through the fog of injury as the newcomers raised shovels and hacked into the man. The blades of their makeshift weapons lopped off his arms, split open his torso.

Then they decapitated him.

Even then they weren’t finished. They continued their attack on the separate pieces of the man’s fallen body.

Although he knew he had to be next, James found he could do nothing to halt his slide into darkness. Consciousness slipped from his grasp. His final thoughts as the light fled were of the irony of the situation. Threatened by the dangers this green Armageddon had thrown his way, it was his own species that would see him dead.


He wasn’t dead.

He had a splitting headache, but he most certainly wasn’t dead.

He cracked an eye open, by way of a test. Light flooded in, hammering all the way through to the back of his skull. He instantly screwed the eye shut again.

The next time, he pulled a hand up to shade his eyes before opening them. The pain was still there, only not so intense. A watchful face looked down upon him, made indistinct within the light.

“Sorry about that. I didn't know you'd go down so hard.”

Female. The voice was female. He had been shoved over by a girl?! Memories of his childhood escapades on the school playground came flooding back inappropriately .

He took a moment, before responding, to study the owner of the voice. His initial impressions, formed by her soft girlish tones were swiftly disproved. Her build was what might be termed solid. She was tall with muscles that would put most men to shame. Not that she could be called manly by any stretch of the imagination. He had heard the terms ‘statuesque’ and ‘Amazonian’ being applied to women in the past; this was one occasion where it was truly deserved.

It took James another couple of seconds to notice the two figures lurking behind her. His eyes widened in nervous recognition. There was no doubt in his mind that these were the two who had been hacking the man...

“It wasn’t a man.”

The woman’s statement interrupted his train of thought so neatly that he wondered if she was reading his mind.

“That was what you were thinking, wasn‘t it?” she asked. “That we’d killed him and then we’d start on you, yes?”

“It had crossed my mind,” James muttered, feebly.


The line of people - what used to be people, James corrected himself - stood at the edge of the trees, just beyond the reach of the flames. They made no menacing overtures, but they didn’t have to; their mere existence was menace enough.

“And they’re all dead?” James had to ask the question again. It was proving too much for him to accept, despite all he had already seen.

“All of them,” Ruth confirmed. “Just puppets.”

“Pinocchio‘s Revenge,” Tony added, unhelpfully.

Not satisfied with staking people to death, or letting them be consumed by mushrooms, the trees had sent roots into the dead bodies, reanimating them. The gusto with which Tony and his accomplice, Paul, had attacked the waving man had been necessary to ensure the corpse remained dead.

“We learned the hard way with the first one,” Paul explained. “Cut his head off and he still got back up, grabbed Allan and...”

He pointed to where one of the trees stood, a maw in its trunk wide-open, awaiting sustenance.

“You’ve either got to sever all the tendrils inside them,” he continued. “Or the main root. But that’s a lot thicker and by the time you’ve cut it, you're already fertiliser.”

They stood in the grounds of the local cathedral. Mercifully they were free from plant infestation. The trio of survivors had been working hard to keep it that way, hence the fires.

“There’s not enough soil for the trees to take root, what with all the crypts and passageways under the cathedral,” Ruth explained. “So they sent the bushes in.”

“You make it sound like a war,” James mentioned, watching Paul uproot a newly sprouted shrub.

“The war’s already over. We lost while we were sleeping. This is just survival.”

“Looks like we’ve got a lively one,” Tony announced.

James looked to see where he was pointing. One of the people-puppets had made it through a gap in the fires. A long, dark toot trailed after it, the string of its puppeteer. Tony picked up a spade and charged it.

“He’s very enthusiastic,” James commented.

“He told me he’d seen Dawn of the Dead seventeen times,” Ruth replied.

They watched in that awkward silence that near-strangers know best, as Tony dismantled the corpse.

“How long do you think it’ll take for them to rescue us?” James finally asked, by way of making conversation.

Ruth looked at him uneasily.

“What?” James asked.

She opened her mouth, as if to reply, but decided against it. She shook her head instead.

“It’s better you see this yourself.”

She led him into the cathedral and up a tightly spiralling staircase within one of the edifice’s two towers. They progressed in silence. James considered trying to elicit more information from her, but decided that it would be more productive to save his breath for the climb. Halfway up he developed a cramp in his leg and had to stop, leaning against the side of the stairwell.

“Is this really necessary?” he asked. “Couldn’t you just tell me?”

“You won’t accept it until you see it with your own eyes,” she said. “I didn’t.”

The cramp eased somewhat, so they continued. James had already figured out what Ruth was going to show him; he hoped that it wouldn’t be as bad as he feared.

It wasn’t.

It was worse.

They exited onto the flat roof of the tower. From their vantage point, they could see across the whole of the town and some way beyond. The villages that stood across the river estuary from them should have been visible from where they stood; they were gone, swallowed up in the green that covered practically everything within sight. Not even the water had survived the green taint; the river mouth was choked with vegetation.

“It’s everywhere!” James said, unnecessarily.

Ruth nodded.

“No one’s coming to rescue us, are they?”

“Probably not.”

James looked over the side of the parapet. It was a good distance to the ground. Idly, he wondered how long it would take a falling object to hit the paving slabs below.

“The cathedral has a well,” Ruth said. “The water’s still fresh. Some of the trees have fruit. The ones that aren’t trying to kill us.”

“You think we can survive here?”

“I think we could try. There’s really only one other option.”

She looked over the side of the tower.

It was a wrench for James to move away from the edge. The scale of the drop was hypnotic.


“Apples. At least. And I’m sure there’s more we can eat.”


As night approached, they took refuge inside the cathedral, staking out their space in one of the upper galleries. While they didn’t expect to see any trees growing out of the cathedral floors, they weren’t prepared to take any chances.

Sleep took its time coming and when it did, it was a fitful affair. At times it had the consistency of a fever dream, when James could not tell the difference between waking moments and nightmares. The rumbling of his stomach did not help either. Despite being famished, he could not bring himself to eat any of the apples that had been gathered. They were just too green.

When he first heard the noise, the wet bursting sound, he couldn’t be sure whether he was dreaming or not. At least not until the screaming shocked him fully awake. Which was when he realised that the screaming was coming from his own throat.

The trees had been unable to gain root within the cathedral grounds because of the paucity of the soil. They had found a way around that restriction by seeking root in a different type of soil. A miniature tree, about three foot in height, more red than green, had taken root in Tony’s stomach. The bursting sound had been its sudden and forced passage from his gut into the open air.

Tony’s body writhed about on the floor underneath the weight of the tree. It was impossible to tell if he was still alive, or just moving about as a result of misfiring nerve impulses in his cooling body. At least it was impossible to tell until he sat up.

His eyes were wide open, but vacant. Nobody was home, at least not in the conventional sense.

“It’s the tree!” Ruth said. “It’s doing this.”

Tony’s mouth flapped open noiselessly, as if he was attempting to talk by the mere effort of moving his lips.

“He’s trying to say something,” James said.

A rustling came from deep within Tony’s throat, shakily resolving itself into something not too dissimilar to words, although they made no sense and only approximated human speech in the most rudimentary of fashion.

“Asht... col...”

A spade, thrust into Tony’s chest, ended the attempt at communication. James scrambled back to avoid the spatter of blood and sap.

Paul pulled out the spade and chopped down again... and again... and again.

“What did you do that for?” James shouted. “He could have told us...”

“That we were going to die?” Paul screamed back. “We know!”

“They might have been willing to negotiate.”

It was a stupid thing to say, but even so James found he couldn’t stop himself voicing the thought. He wondered if this was the start of some bizarre form of Stockholm Syndrome. Was thinking he could reason with the trees the early signs of a downward spiral into madness, or was he exploring a real possibility?

Paul turned the blade of the shovel to point at James.

“They ripped him open!”

“Paul,” Ruth spoke calmly. “Put it down.”

Paul looked at the shovel in his hands, noticing his friend’s blood painted across the handle and blade as if for the first time. He dropped it as if it had scalded him, before collapsing to the floor. He wept.

“You,” Ruth turned on James. “Shut up! If you want to talk to the trees, go outside and do it.”

None of them returned to sleep after that. Keeping vigil until dawn, they watched each other for any sign of change. Even when daylight arrived, their worries still remained.

“Did he eat anything yesterday?” James asked.

He had been mulling over the sudden appearance of the tree. He was sure it hadn’t just miraculously sprouted from thin air.

“Apples,” Paul moaned. “Both of us. We were hungry.”

James looked across at Ruth. She shook her head; she hadn’t eaten them. He persisted with questioning Paul.

“Did you eat the cores? The pips?”.

Paul miserably shook his head.

“Did Tony?”

Paul nodded this time. Realisation dawned.

“You think I‘ll be all right?”

James didn’t want to raise false hope, but trees grew from the seeds, not from the flesh of the fruit. It seemed a fair conclusion to reach.

“If nothing‘s grown yet...”

Relief flooded Paul’s face.

“Well thank...”

He convulsed. Clutching at his stomach, a look of panic invaded his eyes...

...and he threw up the half-digested remains of the previous day’s meal. He groaned. Wiped his face.

“Thought I‘d had it there for a moment,” he muttered.

Which was when his head exploded in a mess of red and green.


James stood at the edge of the forest. After the tree had taken over Paul’s body it had tried to speak to them. As before the words had not been ones they could understand. It was clear that they formed part of a language of sorts though. Sentience lay behind the actions of the forest. Whether each plant acted as an independent agent, or as part of a collective mentality remained to be seen.

What James was about to attempt terrified him, yet he didn’t see that they had any alternatives. The idea that they might be able to reason with the trees had not left him, if anything it had grown stronger with seeing the Paul-puppet struggle to communicate. Ruth had tried to talk him out of this. Standing there, he was beginning to wish that she had succeeded. It was not too late to turn back, but it seemed now he had come this far, he might as well see the experiment through.

“I‘ve come to talk,” he whispered to the trees.

The rustling in their leaves carried echoes of his words deep into the forest. After a while, James felt a rising pressure, an awareness of an unseen presence, something huge beyond his understanding. He felt his bladder go, but he was beyond embarrassment; it was simple acknowledgement of the overpowering terror.

Yet somehow he managed to remain upright, his knees trembling, but not buckling.

The leaves in the trees rustled again, in unison this time, as if the whole forest was shivering. They seemed to be saying... yes.

One of the trees bent over, bowing down as if to examine James. In turn he looked up at it, waiting. It reached out a branch. James responded in kind by reaching out his hand, palm extended to show he meant no harm. He tried to not shake too much.

The branch touched James’s hand, almost gingerly as if afraid it would spook him. He watched with a sense of wonder, the terror dying down to a more manageable level. Here he was making contact with an alien intelligence, even though it was one of terrestrial origin. It was a moment that would, under any other circumstances, have gone down in history. As it was, it would be left forgotten, unless the trees themselves carried memory of times long past.

“I wanted to -- ”

A spike of wood shot through his hand, the contact changed from tentative to forceful. Reflexively, James tried to pull away, but couldn’t. Tendrils of wood wrapped around his wrist, trapping him there as the tree forced its way inside him.

The initial sharp pain was replaced by a creeping numbness as the tree seeped into his body, chloroplasts and corpuscles mixing in a union of sap and blood. James felt the anaesthetic infusion spread to his head and as sensation left him, so did the world.

Cut off from his senses, he felt his mind expanding, spiralling out into patterns strange and wonderful. He floated through a dreamscape of disconnected shapes and colours. The forest was present as a single entity, enveloping him, whispering to him in the voice of the leaves. He heard the words and couldn’t understand them, yet he knew the meaning laced between them, knew exactly what he was being told.

The forest burned. Not with the pitiful fires lit by the human survivors, but with the memory of all the burning of all the forests across the Earth. It had burned since man first set out to tame the world he infested. It burned with the destruction of the ancient European forests, reduced in size until they were little more than scruffy parkland. It burned with the razing of acres of woods, as corporations cleared grazing land for beef cattle. It burned with the forests poisoned by defoliants during war and toxic waste dumped during peacetime.

Trees died and with each one the forest died all over again.

James felt humbled, overwhelmed with the shame that he was part of this.

“But we’re not all like this,” he tried to tell it.

The forest understood.

It just didn't care.

"We can change."

Disbelief. James was not sure that he believed that either. There had to be hope though, didn’t there?

"Some of us can?"

Why should the wood offer mercy?

"We can be useful."

The forests survived long before man. What use to a tree is a walking piece of meat?

James had no answer to give. He was no diplomat, no wise negotiator. There might have been words to sway the trees, but if such words existed, they did not lie with him. What could he possibly offer the trees?

Then he realised, he had already offered it.

"Without us, who is there to worship you?"

The forest considered this.

Ruth ran to meet him halfway across the cathedral grounds. She stopped short of embracing him. He saw her reaction to the changes made to him. His skin was a darker hue, its texture rougher, harder. His hair had changed too, tinged with green, it had thickened, become more feathery.

"What happened to you?"

She could not hide the horror in her voice. He found that he couldn’t care less.

"The forest and I managed to come to an agreement."

"What do you mean?"

"We have to leave this place now."

"And go where?"

James pointed into the forest.

"There are other survivors."

"How far? Will we need supplies, food?"

"The forest will provide."

She was already jumpy. Something in the tone of his voice, his choice of words, must have alerted her to the danger. She ran, heading back to the safety of the cathedral.

James sighed. It would have been so much easier if she had just come with him. For a moment he considered not pursuing her. After all, she had saved his life. But it was only a moment he hesitated. Really he had no option. The trees had told him to do this; his agreement with them was conditional upon it. She had been party to the burning of trees; she could not be part of the bargain.
So he followed. Somewhere along his path he picked up a shovel. It wasn't necessary for what he had to do, but it would make an easier ending.

"I don't really have a choice," he told himself. “I have to do this.”

For the trees.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008


The ship held the future of Athens in its wooden embrace. Theseus, Prince of Athens, heir to the throne, rode in the prow. The salt-laden air stung his face with its furious lash, but he refused to turn his gaze away. There it lay, the island of Crete. A peaceful coast have the lie to its true nature, the doom of all Athenians. If events continued as they had the past twenty years, Athens would be sucked dry of its youth, all victims to the appetite of the beast that lay inside the palace labyrinth.

Theseus had barely become acquainted with his father before volunteering to join the cream of Athenian youth travelling to Crete. Born to a woman of ignoble birth, the result of one of his father’s legendary dalliances, Theseus had come forward to claim his birthright a scant matter of months before the departure. Having only female progeny by legitimate alliances, King Aegeus had welcomed Theseus with open arms. Medea, Aegeus’s paramour of the moment had been less than enthusiastic. After a poisoning attempt failed, she had fled with Medus, her wretch of a son, for parts unknown.

Ironically, her actions had cemented Theseus’s position at court. From usurper, he had swiftly moved to blameless victim. The forgiveness he had then offered Medea, when his father had given her life over to him, had seemed magnanimous in the extreme. It had therefore been all the more shocking to the court when Theseus had volunteered to be among the annual sacrifices Athens offered.

Aegeus had been distraught to say the least, suddenly gaining a son, only to lose him almost as fast. Theseus had persuaded his father that not only was the mission necessary, but that it was survivable, if among the youth that were sent to Crete were those trained in the art of war. He was not sure Aegeus had been convinced entirely, but he had been granted permission to travel to Crete.

Theseus had been unsure of what welcome would be awaiting them on the island’s shores. Whatever he might have guessed, the welcome they did receive was completely unexpected. From the moment the ship put in at the harbour, they were treated as honoured guests. Crowned with garlands of flowers, they were carried to the palace in litters. There, in the central palace courtyard, they presided at a great feast. Tables were filled to overflowing with fruits and meats and the bounty of the sea. When they were sated, they leaned back on cushions and watched as the entertainment began. Dancers and musicians filled the square with colour, movement and song.

After they were done, two handlers led a young bull into the centre of the square. Silence descended on the Athenian youths as they considered their own fate. An insult? Theseus wondered. Yet why the charade of exalting them above all others at the feast? It must instead be tradition, he decided. A symbol of the festival’s purpose.

The handlers left the bull in the centre of the courtyard, while they retreated to its peripheries. Four Cretian youths, two male, two female, devoid of all apparel, sprinted out to take up positions around the bull. A server leaned over to explain the purpose to Theseus.

“They will leap the bull to tire it out before carrying out the fatal blow. It requires great skill to avoid being trampled or gored to death.”

Theseus barely took in the man’s words. Instead he found his attention drawn to one of the bull-dancers. There was a poetry to the way she moved that he had never seen before, each step a sensuous exercise, delicate yet assured.

“Who is she?” he asked the server.

“Ariadne. King Minos’s daughter.”

The following moments were ones Theseus experienced in a haze approaching delirium, yet which he would recall in his dreams until his dying days. The male bull-dancers wrestled with the bull, while the two women took it in turns to leap over the beast, somersaulting across its back. The other woman was competent and certainly attractive enough, if the lewd remarks from the other Athenian men were anything to judge by, but Theseus paid no attention. The fearless lithe movements of Ariadne hypnotised him so that he was deaf and blind to the rest of the world.

His attention did not go unremarked. One of the male bull-dancers murmured something to Ariadne. She glanced Theseus’s way. Their eyes met and he felt himself falling into the depths of those vertiginous brown orbs. A smile, a flick of the hair and she danced off to throw herself across the back of the bull once more.

The Athenians were housed in one of the palace’s towers, ahead of their descent into Minos’s labyrinth the following day. As befit the son of a king, Theseus had a room to himself. The bed was so luxuriously soft, he found himself asleep almost as soon as he lay down.

He dreamed of Ariadne, which was why when he awoke he first thought he was still dreaming. She stood in a shaft of moonlight, just as naked as she had been when leaping across the bull. Wordlessly she slipped underneath the covers of Theseus’s bed.

“How did you get here?” he asked.

“The gods sent me.”

Theseus awoke just ahead of the dawn, the sun still below the horizon, but already lightening the darkened sky. There was a space in the bed where she had been, the impression a physical memory of their night.

A skittering noise from outside drew Theseus to the window. Looking below, he saw a monstrous shape climbing down the wall. The body was that of a monstrous spider, but where the head should be, instead there was a human torso, a twisted centaur-like form. Theseus’s breath caught in his throat, only a rattling hiss escaping. The creature reacted to the almost imperceptible sound, turning its head sharply.

It had Ariadne’s features.

Turning away from him, the Ariadne-spider scuttled into the shadows and out of sight.

Overcome with... with what? Shock? Horror? Revulsion? Theseus sat down on the floor and stared at the wall, which was where the guards found him when they came for him at dawn.

The slab of stone ground into its place at the top of the stairs, covering the entrance to the labyrinth. The sacrificial victims carried torches to light their way, but nothing else that could be considered a weapon. Theseus cast his eyes around the tomb-like structure in search of anything that could be used for defence, but there was nothing but solid stone walls and bare sand. The hopelessness of their situation did not prevent him from bending over and picking up a fistful of sand.

“What do we do now?”

The question came from Tellus, one of the young soldiers Theseus had included in his party. Theseus thought for a moment before answering.

“We track the creature to its lair. If we die, it won’t be because we stood by waiting for our end.”

Finding the creature’s lair was not as easy as Theseus might have hoped. He had thought to track it by its spoor, but the passages of the labyrinth all appeared identically undisturbed.

“Perhaps it erases its marks,” Lydia, one of the seven maidens, suggested.

“Or if it’s so intelligent, perhaps it wears cloths on its hooves so it doesn’t leave a mark,” one of the men sneered.

Theseus considered the man. Cleon was his name, he recalled. Not one of the trained men Theseus had selected; Cleon was one of the few members of the party chosen by the lottery. Volunteers had been scant among the army, so their party had been bolstered by those picked by the Fates. Theseus could easily discern why the Fates were content to see Cleon meet his end in Minos’s labyrinth.

Theseus nodded at Lydia, acknowledging her comment.

“It has to be a possibility. Or perhaps you have a better explanation, Cleon?”

“That there aren’t any marks because this man-bull doesn’t exist. They probably dump us down her and let us starve to death.”

“And then come down to erase our tracks?” This time Lydia was the one doing the sneering. “Why bother?”

Unseen by any of them, a shadow detached itself from the wall and grabbed the nearest of the men. His abrupt cry drew the attention of the others just in time for them to see him being yanked back into the darkness.

“What in Hades was that?” Cleon’s face had lost all of its colour.

They swung their torches at the darkness, forcing the shadows to retreat.

Nothing but bare walls.

A clattering of hooves behind them caused them collectively to turn around.

Again, nothing.

“Not very bull-like, hiding in the shadows,” Theseus taunted.

A low grunting came from one of the darker parts of the passage.

“I think you’re making it angry,” Lydia said.

The creature charged at them, full pelt. Its sights set on Theseus, it lowered its head to gore him with a set of wickedly sharp horns.

Theseus raised his sand-filled fist and released, neatly stepping aside as he did so. The creature charged past him, through the cloud of sand. It pulled to a halt, rubbing furiously at its eyes.

“Take him now,” Theseus ordered.

The four remaining soldiers, Cimon, Tellus, Erastus and Hippias stepped forward. Reversing their torches, they hit the creature. Almost as soon as they had started, they were joined by Lydia and Meri, one of the other women.

Blinded, the creature stumbled in one direction then another, trying to fight its assailants, but only able to grasp empty air. Eventually the battering took its toll. The creature collapsed to its knees. Theseus stepped up behind it, grabbed its horns and yanked. The snap of the neck echoed across the walls.

The danger passed, Cleon’s recovery of his wits was rapid. “That’s the mighty Minotaur? Doesn’t look like much to me.”

“Which is why you were cowering behind everyone,” Lydia said.

“There wasn’t room around the thing with all you hanged up on it. If I’d had the chance...

“Handy that you won’t have to prove it as we’ve killed the only...”

“This isn’t the Minotaur,” Cimon announced.

“Bull head, human body, what else is it?” Cleon asked.

“This is only a juvenile. I grew up on a farm, I know cattle.”

“I’ll bet you do.”

Cleon’s comment earned him a sharp look from Lydia.

“If this is a juvenile, then the Minotaur must be breeding,” Theseus reasoned.

In the quiet that followed Theseus’s statement another sound could be heard - breathing. It had the heavy snort typical to livestock.

“We’re not alone,” Lydia said.

“Spread out,” Theseus ordered. “Form a circle.”

They did as they were bade, holding back the darkness by flickering torchlight. Around them shadows danced on the walls. Some were merely the result of the play of torchlight, others were much more sinister of appearance and intent.

“How many are there?” someone, one of the women, Theseus didn’t know which, whispered.

“What I wouldn’t give for a sword,” Cimon announced.

As if waiting for that cue, a heavy bundle hit the ground in the ground in the centre of their ring. The sound of metal clattering metal was instantly recognisable. A cloaked figure dropped down next to the bundle, startling the Athenians. The figure pushed back the hood that covered its face, revealing the features of Ariadne.
"It's all right, she's a friend... I think," Theseus said.

"I thought you might need these." Ariadne bent down to unwrap the bundle.

One of the shadows took that moment to charge at them, not willing to wait for Ariadne to reveal her gift.

Ariadne reached into the pack, drawing out a sword. She threw it to Theseus, who caught it by its hilt before turning to ram the point of the sword into the creature's chest.

While Ariadne passed out the rest of the swords, Theseus pulled his own from the chest of the creature. He swung it around to lop off the beast's head.

The remaining bull-men charged as one. What followed was a battle Theseus best remembered in fragments of action: swords hacking, limbs flying, horns goring, death and dying all around. At one point he thought Ariadne had reassumed her spider form to dispatch one of the beasts, but it could have just been a trick of the flames.

The battle over, they counted up the casualties. Erastus and Hippias were both dead, as were two of the women whose names Theseus had failed to learn. Lydia provided the answer to him.

"Paenoia and Salamia."

Theseus nodded his thanks; it was important to mark such things.

There were injured among them too. Most of the injuries were superficial. Tellus proved more of a problem. He had been gored through the chest. The injury had not proven instantly fatal, but judging from the ever widening pool of blood beneath him, he would not survive the day. The question of what to do with him hung on everyone’s lips, but all were unwilling to entertain the options they had open. In the end, Ariadne took it upon herself to provide the solution, but she would not carry out her self-appointed task with the others looking on. Theseus ordered them to turn away, but he kept his eyes on her.

Ariadne's legs thickened, transforming into the body of the giant spider. Her robe spread out so that the join between human and arachnid could not be seen. She opened her mouth, revealing a set of fangs that showed the changes were not limited to her lower body. With those teeth, she gently punctured the skin of Tellus's neck to inject what Theseus assumed was a swift acting venom. Certainly Tellus's relief from pain came immediately, the release into death following only a short while longer. Ariadne assumed human form and nothing was spoken of Tellus's end.

The journey into the labyrinth was smoothed by Ariadne's knowledge of its twists and turns.

"The labyrinth is much like a web," she told them. "And I have an affinity for webs."

As they proceeded, she told the tale of the Minotaur. She told of how her Pasiphae, her father’s first wife, had been cursed by Aphrodite with an insatiable lust for the White Bull of the Sea. She told of how the queen had ordered Daedelus, the inventor who would also design the labyrinth, to fashion a simulacrum of a cow, into which she climbed. She told of how a year later (the gestation time for god-bulls being different to humans), her baby had torn itself free of her womb with its prenatal horns.

"And what of your mother?" Theseus asked.

"It is said my father was seduced by Clotho, spinner of Fate's tapestry. Nine months after the seduction she returned and presented him with a child."


Ariadne nodded.

"The spider?"

"An aspect of the spinner."

By this time they had come to the centre of the labyrinth. Theseus determined that he should go on alone.

"If I should die, then you must take whatever steps necessary to defend yourselves," he told them. "But I have it in mind that I should face this Minotaur alone. He did not ask for this fate, this life underground, but suffers it because of the capriciousness of the gods. I will face him as a man and as a man I shall see him end."

He did not add that the wounds the others carried would only prove a hindrance. Nor did they confess they fully understood the reasons he had not spoken. The rest was welcome and none of them desired to meet the creature who had spawned the demons they had fought.

Only Ariadne continued on with him, telling him that she would not interfere with his plans.

"But there are others who would need my ministrations and I would not have that task fall upon you."

Unlike the rest of the labyrinth, the centre of the maze where the Minotaur dwelt was well furnished and full of light. Openings, placed in the ceiling high above, allowed the passage of the sun, creating shafts of light that punctuated the strangely opulent chamber.

Sitting in kingly fashion on a throne constructed from olive wood, red velvet and human skulls, the Minotaur regarded his visitors. Behind his throne, chained to the wall, sat seven women, all naked, all in the final stages of pregnancy. They looked up at Theseus with desperate eyes. A desperation born out of fear for this man-beast, no doubt, Theseus thought.

“So this is the man who would make an end of me, man-to-man,” the Minotaur said by way of a greeting.

“And who would free your captives.”

Theseus indicated the women behind the throne. The Minotaur laughed.

“They’re not my captives. They’re the prisoners of Minos, just as I am, just as you are.”

“Minos didn’t put them in chains.”

“The chains aren’t to keep them trapped here; they’re to keep them hurting their babies when the moment comes.”

“What moment?”

The Minotaur lowered his voice to a guttural growl. “When my children tear their way free from their mothers’ bellies as I tore free from my own.”

And Theseus understood the meaning that lay behind the women’s desperation. Not fear of the Minotaur, fear of his unborn progeny.

“Monster!” he snarled at the Minotaur.

“For doing what comes natural to me?”

“For tormenting them with their fate.”

“Oh, that.”

Without a word of warning, Theseus charged the Minotaur. The Minotaur leapt from his throne of skulls to meet the attack. Bone and metal clashed as the Minotaur used his horns to parry Theseus’s blow. Metal won out, as the sword cleaved the Minotaur’s left horn in two.

Bellowing in primal agony, the Minotaur reached out and grabbed Theseus. His thick fingers dug into Theseus’s chest. Crying out in pain, in anger, Theseus shifted his still steady grip on his sword and plunged it into the Minotaur’s side.

The bull-man threw Theseus to the ground and pulled the sword free. With it still dripping his own gore, he swung it overhead, intent on plunging it through the top of the human’s head.

He stopped, a look of surprise came over his monstrous features. A bruising pain inflicted his abdomen; his strength appeared to be leaching out of him. He looked down to see the cause. The broken piece of his own horn jutted out of his stomach, where it had been thrust by the human, tearing across his abdomen. The light grew dim, darkness swam across his eyes, as his viscera spilled out of him, along with his life blood.

Theseus rolled out of the way as the Minotaur crashed to the ground. Standing up, he surveyed his fallen foe, before retrieving his sword. He turned to the women, intent on finding a way of easing their journey into the next life, but the job had already been done.

“I have spared them the agonies to come,” Ariadne told him.

Theseus bowed his head in mournful acknowledgment.

They left the maze the same way Ariadne had entered it. An entrance had been installed by Daedelus, as insurance against the possibility that Minos might have him imprisoned within. From there they hastened to a rocky inlet where the ship that had brought them waited, unseen by any Cretian patrols.

Underway, Theseus stood at the prow, his bull-dancing, spider-princess at his side. He was unsure of how he felt about her now. Much of her allure had disappeared when her secret had become known to him. Still, there was plenty of time to come to a decision before they reached the shores of home.

He glanced at the sails, billowing darkly against the night sky. Black they were, to hide the ship’s presence as it sailed through the hours of darkness. He remembered the promise he had made to his father before departing for Crete.

Black sails, he thought. Must remember to do something about that.