Rekindling Old Fears

Every self-published author knows the importance of editing.  But when publishing ebooks, there’s an additional element to take into account.  No matter how perfect your manuscript may be grammatically, no matter how precisely each word may be spelled, no matter how immaculately each page may be formatted, you may still be thwarted.

When a file is converted to Kindle format, it undergoes all manner of changes.  If you prepare the print version of your book first, preparing a print-ready PDF file, then choose CreateSpace’s default options to create an interior file suitable for Kindle, the resulting ebook will lose much of its formatting.  The simple fact is that although their use is encouraged, the Kindle conversion process does not treat PDFs kindly (pun intended).

My early ebooks were all produced from PDFs in my naive innocence, and I wondered why the page breaks were lost, with one chapter sometimes running into the next; formatting was lost; text justification was scrambled; the fonts I had employed to display runes etc. were stripped away…  despite the painstaking work I had put into my initial document.

With time – and many more books – comes knowledge and experience.  So here are a few tips for those of you who may be preparing your first ebooks:

  1.  Always use a .doc file, not PDF.  This way you will retain the majority of your formatting.
  2. Remember to remove any blank pages at the front or rear of your document, between chapters, etc.  Blank pages on Kindle just look like errors, so tighten up the document and eliminate the blank space.  Also if you are in the habit of starting chapters half way down a printed page, bear in mind that on a Kindle display, this may push the beginning over onto the next display page, so strip away any empty lines at the beginnings of chapters.  Get rid of drop capitals too, they display very weirdly on Kindle.
  3. Remove all headers and footers and page numbers, or there’ll be tears when they pop up right in the middle of random sentences.
  4. If you use specialist fonts, Kindle won’t display them, converting them to a default font instead.  The only way to get around this is to insert any special text in runes or whatever as a graphic, or if their use is extensive, see the paragraph below.

If your book contains many illustrations or a lot of fancy fonts, or if the retention of the precise layout is particularly important, there is now an alternative.  Amazon have now made available ‘Kindle Textbook Creator’ software, which will create a Kindle book which is the exact image of the print volume.  The downside is that the cost of the resultant ebook is increased and that these ebooks will not display on the original Kindle ereader:  they will only be readable on a Kindle Fire, iPad or other tablet, or a PC or Mac.  Nevertheless, for certain titles, this is a godsend.  I could not have produced an ebook edition of my Runes of Mann without this tool.

With all that I have learned of Kindle publishing, I have started revisiting my earlier ebooks and uploading fresh files for them, which will display much cleaner formatting, making them that bit easier to read.  Aegishjalmur has already been done and today I have updated For Fear of Little Men, my collection of dark Celtic folktales.  The other titles will follow suit.

If you have already purchased these ebooks, you will be able to freely download the updated version by going to the ‘My Account’ section on Amazon, choosing to manage your digital content, then instructing to download to the appropriate device.

To celebrate the reinvigorated Kindle edition of For Fear of Little Men, here’s a video of me reading a complete spooky story from the collection:  Moddey Doo

For_Fear_of_Little_M_Cover_for_Kindle

Keeping Yourself Covered

Back in ye olde days of indie publishing, it used to be the work of moments to tell an indie title apart from a conventionally published one simply by looking at the cover.  The indie books would be the ones with no cover art, amateurish cover art, a hilariously bad CG image, or a photograph which only had a vague relevance to the subject matter.  But it was the story that mattered, right?

But in a saturated market, that simply won’t wash any more.  You need to be noticed and it’s as simple as that.  Simply consider how you purchase books yourself if you’re browsing for something new at Amazon.  You might narrow your search down to a genre you’re interested in and then you scroll down, glancing at the titles and the thumbnail cover images.  So if a book doesn’t have a cover that leaps out and grabs you, you’re not going to buy it.  And what’s more, it’s not enough to have a good cover image; you also have to put some thought into how effective that image is going to be when it’s shrunk down as a thumbnail, because that’s how most people are going to be exposed to it.  If it’s too murky or too busy, it’ll not be effective, no matter how gorgeous it is at full size.

Fortunately, these days it’s easier and more cost effective than ever before to source a really good cover, something that wasn’t the case a few years ago.  I want to give a few samples here from cover artists I have used and the experiences I’ve had with them, giving them a shout out so you may consider your needs for your own next cover art.

Rampant Dames cover finish

Rampant Damsels was the first book I self-published back in 2009 and I knew I wanted something special for it.  I scoured the Net trying to find an artist / cartoonist with the right style for the comedy fantasy image I wanted, who was open for commissions.  I eventually found the portfolio of British cartoonist Ian Baker, who produced the above masterpiece for me, costing me some £220 at the time if I recall correctly.  But it’s a beautiful image that meant I actually sold a few books, encouraging me to continue on instead of shriveling up and dying.  The image is colourful, striking, bold, simply composed so it stands out as a thumbnail, but full of detail at full size, and leaves the viewer in no doubt that the title exudes a kind of raunchy humour.

The next three covers I want to show were all prepared for me by a great guy on Fiverr named Boris.  He is fast, sources a wide selection of images based upon your brief and offers nine or ten alternate covers for you to choose from, he’s VERY cheap and a really great guy to work with, coming up trumps every time.

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‘Vicars and Tarts’ cover by Decovski

The first job I put his way was for erotic comedy novel Vicars and Tarts.  I had a few suggestions for the cover:  if possible, I wanted the colour to be a warm orange tone to suit the holiday theme of the novel; I wanted it to feature a Bible to reference the titular vicar, and a pair of lacy panties for the tarts; I also wanted these latter to be draped over a glass of red wine, as a reference back to the previous book in the series, Water Into Whine.  The above cover contained every single element I had asked for.  There was also an alternative, which in some ways I preferred, it being a photograph of a pair of panties draped over a glass of red wine.  However, it lacked the Bible and the orange tone.  I probably would still have gone for that alternative if I was judging purely by personal preference, but here’s where you have to be canny when selecting a book cover.  The cover chosen above was a much trendier, more modern style of image, and WOW, does it ever stand out as a thumbnail!  And these were the decisive factors.  The book sold relatively well right from launch and continues to do so, so I obviously chose well.

The Waters Of Life

Boris’ next commission for me was a much more sombre one, for the horror novel The Waters of Life.  For this, I specified a stone sarcophagus in a vault, with a sinister hooded figure, and just look at the macabre black and white stock photo Boris discovered for me and adorned with suitable title fonts!  Again, he provided several alternatives, some of which were great and very tempting, but this one is just so full of eerie menace it was a no-brainer.  It also reduces down to a suitably sinister and effective thumbnail.  It did the trick, the book sold instantly and well.

EARTH MOTHER

By now, I was becoming painfully aware of the shortcomings of some of my earlier novels which had never performed well, all of them with half-arsed cover designs.  It was time to start putting my house in order and relaunching some of these old titles with properly designed covers.  I began with a horror novel titled Earth Mother, which had never sold well at all, but which attracted raving reviews from the few people who did read it, so I knew the problem wasn’t with the writing.  Boris produced the above image based upon my description of the book, using the dark green colour tones I requested together with a bright green font and matching eyes for the Elemental horror, which really stand out and make a striking thumbnail image.  The results?  This cover only cost me £15, but in the three weeks since the book was relaunched it has sold more copies than in the previous three years!  Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?  Spending just a few quid on a decent cover can make that much difference!

I had been continuing to write new titles in the Damsels series in the meantime, and a couple of the middle titles in the range definitely need new covers now too, a job I’ll be getting round to.  But when I came to write the most recent, Damsels and the Dark Arts, I decided that it really needed a decent cover, something which would do it justice.  So I decided to commission an artist once again.  Some books just need original artwork and can’t be served by stock images and that’s just the way it is.  Once again, I wanted to find an artist who could really capture the look and feel of the characters and the books’ humour.  I scoured hundreds of fantasy artists on Deviantart before commissioning Kelsey Bigelow to produce the cover, pictured below.  She used the original Rampant Damsels cover as reference for the two main characters, but updated their clothing at my request, she included other elements I requested, such as the important skeleton key, she used the Tarot card ‘The Devil’ as a template for the image as suggested and gave the whole image a range of beautiful blue tones as I had specified.  Sheer perfection, probably my very favourite book cover ever!  The cost?  About $200.  Artists (and good ones) can be got for less, of course, but I was very choosy about getting an artist with a specific style.

dames and the dark arts cover

Damsels and the Dark Arts, cover art by Kelsey Bigelow

Most recently, I had another old novel recovered, this time my contemporary Celtic fantasy, The Wave Sweeper.  This one was done for me by Rachel McGrath, herself an exceptionally talented author and illustrator, who really succeeded in producing the goods here, as pictured below.  This was the first time I have opted for a cover image which wraps around the whole cover, and it’s extremely effective.  The imagery, fonts and colour tones are all illustrative of the book’s blend of warm melancholy.

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These days, it’s not a struggle to find a highly capable cover artist and you don’t have to pay a fortune for it any more.  But it’s certainly not optional:  your book needs a decent cover if it’s to have any hope of selling.  My own experiences of the jump in sales after upgrading Earth Mother and The Wave Sweeper have proved just what a huge difference it makes.  Make sure it’s what you want, make sure it conveys the mood, and make sure it makes a good thumbnail!

Oo-er, Vicar!

I’ve decided to offer a naughty little promotion for my two sex comedy novels, Water Into Whine and Vicars and Tarts.  Today is the end of one financial year and the beginning of the next, and my finances could certainly benefit with a boost.  So I’m offering a little incentive if enough people purchase these two titles during the next month (ending 6 May).

The two books in question are a little on the smutty side, in fact they’re mind-bogglingly saucy and as explicit as it gets.  But it’s all in good fun, with loads of laughs along the way.  Ultimately, they’re feel-good stories.  In Water Into Whine, the Grace family move to a rural village, where the unorthodox ministry of the local vicar, James Redders, and his wife Miriam raises more than eyebrows as they’re plunged into a wild world of sex and debauchery, but always with the utmost gentility.

In Vicars and Tarts, the Graces visit James and Miriam at his new posting on a Scottish island.  Here they help him to win the favour of the reluctant locals, using their swinging antics to swing opinions as they tackle strict puritans, New Agers and a Satanist landowner.  The results are as hot as they are hilarious.

So … if I can sell just 50 copies of these two books (either title counts as one sale; it’s two sales if you get both), I will have a souvenir photograph of myself taken down beside the sea, masquerading as a naughty vicar, wearing only spectacles, vicar teeth (as in the image below), a clerical collar, a pair of clown shoes and a wholly inadequate posing pouch.  This photo will be posted on this blog for all to see and variously swoon over, drool over, vomit over or laugh at.  Think of the high value:  it should be good for blackmail purposes for years to come!

If I can sell 100 copies between these two titles, I will post half a dozen such photos on this blog in a whole range of most provocative poses.

If I can sell 150 copies you might be able to persuade me to keep my clothes on!

author photo

Just for the record, Kindle Unlimited borrows will count as a purchase, but in order to clock up the necessary number of pages read, the book(s) would need to be read between the qualifying dates (5 April – 6 May).

Also for the record, I don’t normally sell anywhere near 50 copies of my fiction titles in a single month, so if you want to see me all pouched up and pouting, you’ll really need to share the shit out of this post and scream and yell at all your friends to get their acts together and buy these two books so that you can get hot and bothered with my photo (or laugh till your jaw aches – your choice).  So shout it out near and far, on Facebook and elsewhere.  Twist arms and pinch fleshy appendages until your victims submit!

And here’s where you can get them:

Water Into Whine –

Amazon UK, Paperback & Kindle Editions 

Amazon USA, Paperback & Kindle Editions 

Lulu, Paperback Edition

Lulu, Hardback Edition

Vicars and Tarts –

Amazon UK, Paperback & Kindle Editions

Amazon USA, Paperback & Kindle Editions

Lulu, Paperback Edition

Lulu, Hardback Edition

So don’t delay, and in the meantime I’ll go and choose my posing pouch!

Stagnant Waters

I have just published my latest novel, a horror titled The Waters of Life.  I’ve certainly delved into horror before and will do again, but nevertheless this book is extraordinary even by my standards.  I thought a blog was in order to trace my thought processes in the writing of this book.

The Waters Of Life

The actual initial idea for the story was sparked by a comment from a fellow indie author and friend named May J. Panayi (be sure to check her books out too; ‘Malbed Mews‘ is a real stunner if you like your horrors).  In one of her travel blogs, when referencing a trip to Greece, she mentioned “drinking water from the tomb”.  This inspired a raft of grotesque thoughts and scenarios.

So my tale became woven around the tomb of a saintly abbot, from which a spring with alleged healing properties flowed.

From the outset, I decided I wanted to write a real horror, a story which would be utterly doom-laden, downbeat and oppressive, in which not a single character would have a happy ending.  At the end of every horror book or movie, there are generally one or two characters who limp away from the carnage at the end.  I was determined that this would not be the case with The Waters of Life.  There is no sigh of relief for the reader as the final page is turned.  I wanted this book to truly horrify, to be misery incarnate.

So, in order to accomplish this I had to decide upon the nature of the horror.  The only way to write such a bleak novel convincingly would be to write about those things which truly horrify me and which turn my stomach.

This, to me, meant body horror.  I have always felt that there can be nothing more horrible than when your own body turns against you and begins changing or killing you from within, an enemy that you cannot flee, which alters your very identity and sense of self.  A quick look back at the things which had genuinely frightened me as a child confirmed this feeling:  Doctor Who episodes such as ‘The Green Death‘ and ‘The Ark in Space‘, which both featured extreme body horror, and more recent horror writings such as Brian Lumley’s eerie and grotesque ‘Fruiting Bodies‘ and Guy N. Smith’s exquisitely revolting ‘The Festering‘.

The most terrifying and blood curdling examples of body horror, which have often been evoked in horror literature, are deadly, disfiguring diseases, which arouse both pity and revulsion and unreasoning terror in equal measures.  So a hideous contagion became the core threat of my novel, all tied in with themes of gangsters, brutality and torture; long-buried evil and sinister religious orders.

I think I succeeded in capturing what I set out to do.  The Waters of Life is not an easy read, it is uncomfortable, skin crawling (literally!), repellent and heart-rending.  Reading it will not make you feel good.  But it may manage to fulfill the original remit of tragedy:  to prove a catharsis, a purging of your darkest fears and emotions.  There is a human need to vent such emotions, which was why I chose to write such a book.

To make the unrelenting misery and horror easier to bear, the Kindle edition costs a mere 99p / 99c, or is free to read through the Kindle Unlimited service.

I will close with the back cover blurb from the book, and those who wish to sample more will find the entire prologue here at an earlier blog entry.

“Eric Turner, a journalist specialising in accounts of the paranormal, investigates a healing well associated with a saintly abbot in the rural village of Scratchbury. Here he finds evidence of astonishing, miraculous cures: a blind woman who can see; a hunchbacked schoolgirl whose spine has straightened.

“But why is everyone else in the village so deathly ill?

“Why is a gangster so obsessed with shooting a movie in the ruins of the old monastery?

“Who are the ruthless order of monks who will defend their secret at any cost, even murder?

“As Eric investigates. he discovers to his horror that an evil that has been entombed for a thousand years is breaking free at last, and it brings plague and suffering in its wake. A pestilence stalks the land, and all flesh is its plaything.”

So You’ve Just Self-Published Your First Book and it isn’t Selling?

Indie writers, eh?  We’ve all been there, we’ve put the finishing touches to our first novel, our veritable masterpiece, we’ve uploaded the files and ticked the boxes to complete the self-publishing process, we’ve converted the files for Kindle and now … now we sit back, checking our Amazon reports every 5 minutes, rubbing our hands together as we wait for the sales to start flooding in.  Which they don’t.

Don’t be disheartened.  This is how we all begin.  We’re one among millions and nobody knows who we are or why they should risk their hard-earned cash and time on us.  We have to learn how to make our book noticed, how to make people willing to take a chance on reading our work.  It takes time and effort.

I’m not pretending to have all the answers, because I simply don’t.  Seven years on from the publishing of Rampant Damsels, my first novel, I still wish I sold many more books than I do.  Having said that, I’ve progressed from being someone who sells 3 or 4 books per month to someone who sells about 300 books, with royalties of £600 – £700 per month.  So I guess I’m doing something right and that it may prove worthwhile for me to share a few observations from my experience here.

Forget the Mega-Bucks

Don’t be fooled by the stories of people publishing their first book on Kindle and selling hundreds of thousands of copies.  It it happens at all, it happens to one person in a million, by sheer fluke or by having huge industry connections in the first place.  Progress will be slow – very slow to start with – and as long as you realise that this is perfectly normal, you won’t become so downcast about it.  In time (and I’m talking years, not weeks) you may earn enough from your writing to cut the day job back to part time hours, as I have, with a view to becoming a full time writer just another couple of years down the line.  You’re unlikely to get wealthy, or even comfortably well off, but with persistence and determination you may eventually be able to make a modest living doing what you love:  writing.  Be realistic and you’ll keep going and be able to avoid disillusionment.

Effective Marketing

You’ll read all sorts of marketing tips and be exposed to all sorts of advice which once worked wonders.  But my experience is that most of this advice is hogwash.  It probably worked once, but has become over-saturated and doesn’t work any more.  Twitter is a case in point.  When Twitter was new and fresh, tweeting the details of your new book could bring in a flood of responses, I’ve no doubt.  These days it’s clogged solid; anyone who subscribes to one of these book-tweeting services is going to find their Twitter feed choked and – just like me – they’re going to scroll rapidly through without pausing to look at any of them.  Sad, but true.  So if you see those ads promising that for a small fee they’ll tweet your book details to a guaranteed 250,000 followers, nab a sales-related money back guarantee before you try it, because the results are likely to be zilch.

The same goes for Facebook groups which promote authors and their titles.  You’ll find that the only members of these groups are other authors, who are each only interested in plugging their own babies and won’t spare a second glance for anyone else’s.  You’ll find precious few readers there.  Maybe once, but not any more, it’s glutted, loud and ugly.  Be honest with yourself and assess how you’d use such a group and you can be sure that others will be using it exactly the same way.  You may dutifully browse a couple of other posts for the first day or two, but after that you’ll simply post your own then move on without a second glance.  You won’t have time to do anything else.

The truth is, there’s precious little that works except for paid advertising (and I’m not talking about Twitter, I mean proper ads on genre websites (not writing websites!) or in printed magazines) or the much better and more cost effective (i.e. free) method of connecting with your readers and encouraging them to stay in touch with you.  Sure, you’ll probably have an author’s page on Facebook, but encourage people to friend you on your personal page.  Let them get to know you as a person, and you can also share your writing progress and projects on your personal page.  Don’t ram it down anyone’s throats.  Don’t ceaselessly spam ads, just give updates every few days among your personal news and funnies, with maybe a direct book link when a new title is published, or promoting an old one once a week or so, sharing a particularly good review or some such.  Less can indeed be more.  Keep people engaged with you in a broad sense and they’re far more likely to pay attention when you post about your books.

Engaging with people in this way (which has formed the majority of my own marketing to date) will enormously enhance the next and crucial type of marketing:

Word of Mouth

Engaging with readers, having them like you and what you do, will result in them sharing the links that you do post, spreading the word far further than you could yourself.  They will enthusiastically talk about your writings to others.  Make sure you’re grateful and try to thank them for it when they do, because this is the type of marketing that money can’t buy.

Reviews

Book reviews are very important.  Every positive book review (4 or 5 star) on Amazon is worth its weight in gold.  Readers are far more likely to buy a book which has a few reviews under its belt instead of being an unknown quantity.  Here’s where I give a plug to the only Facebook writers’ group I bother with:  Writers Who Review.  They’re a fantastically friendly and helpful bunch and if you’re an indie writer, you should go take a look the very next time you log into Facebook and be sure to participate.  Be sure to read the group instructions first.  Take my word for it, you’ll love ’em!

Keep Writing

You’ve written a book, so you know you can do it.  Now write another!  And another!  And another!  Nothing gains momentum to your sales like an ever increasing number of titles.  Every time someone buys one of your books and likes it, they have others to try.  The more books you have out there, the better you will do, your sales increase exponentially.

Sequels are a special case.  Some of my novels are standalone, others (such as the Damsels series – currently 5 books) are linked.  With sequels, you’re playing a long game, one with short term bitter disappointment but long term rewards.  This is easily understood.  If you have only sold 50 copies so far of your first book, this effectively limits the potential market for the sequel to a mere 50 people, and only a small fraction of them will buy it (at least in the short term; some may add it to their list of ‘stuff to read’, but not get round to picking a copy up till two or three years from now).  So you spend all of that time writing a book that you know in advance that hardly anyone is going to buy (or at least not until the reader base of the original title has significantly increased).  But by the same token, if a sequel is planned or promised, you can’t hold it back for years till the first novel sells more, because those early readers will get mightily fed up and view you as ‘the person who doesn’t deliver’.  Your sequels are an investment for the future.  As word of mouth spreads and reviews come in and you start to attract more readers, if you have later volumes in the series already written and available, you’re going to make a lot of new readers very happy and very loyal, they’re likely to devour them all with relish.

It’s a simple equation and probably the biggest factor to take into account:  more books = more sales.

Try Non-Fiction

I learned very early on to intersperse my fiction titles with non-fiction.  Everybody knows a lot about something.  Write about the things you’re passionate about.  Consider a ‘How To’ manual.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be long.  I’m fascinated by runes, ogham and the occult arts and have written large series of books on these subjects alongside my fiction.

The truth is that non-fiction titles sell far, far better than fiction and at higher prices.  This is simply because the market is nowhere near so saturated.  You may, like me, adore writing your novels and wish to be best known for them, but you may nonetheless find that it’s your non-fiction that ends up financing your novel-writing, at least in the early years.  It’s something you really should bear in mind as a few good non-fiction titles can give you an enormous step-up.  I tend to alternate between fiction and non-fiction titles, the latter outselling the former by a ratio of at least 10:1.

Use the KDP Select Programme

You’re going to read differing opinions on this, but you should make the ebook editions of your titles exclusive to Amazon and enroll them in the KDP Select programme.  This means that people who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited or the Kindle Lending Library will be able to freely borrow your books as part of their subscription and you will be paid for every page that they read.  With full length novels, the KDP Select royalties are generally higher than the value of an actual sale, given the prices most ebooks have to be sold at to be competitive (.99 to 2.99).

The arguments you’ll hear against enrolling with KDP Select revolve around “not putting all your eggs in one basket”, or not wanting to alienate those readers who don’t use Amazon.  Come off it.  Amazon rules online book sales by a huge margin.  My ebooks used to feature in other stores and less than 1% of my sales ever came from non-Amazon sources.  The royalties I get from KDP Select make a huge difference to my monthly income and you’d be crazy to miss out on this revenue stream.  It also allows you to promote your books as ‘free to read’ for folks who subscribe to the service.  If someone can legitimately read your book without paying for it – and you still get paid! – that’s a powerful incentive.  “Come on!” you can say.  “Give my novel a go.  What have you got to lose?”

Book Covers

The cover art for your book is enormously important and I’ve learned the hard way how vital it is to create a professional, eye-catching image.  I’ve tried to ‘do it myself’ in the past and have suffered with lack-lustre sales in consequence.  A lot of people tell me that my horror novel Earth Mother is one of my very best novels.  But its sales have remained dismal and the only reason this should be so is that its cover is dull and uninteresting.  I’m having it redone in a couple of weeks’ time and will share the results here then.

Good covers can cost money, and sometimes (as with the recent Damsels and the Dark Arts title) I’ll pay full price to get a really good artist to produce a work precisely to my specifications.  But if the cover image has some room to manoeuvre, there are a great many artists offering their services on Fiverr, who will produce a very decent cover at a great price.  A good cover will pay for itself, and these days you don’t need to pay through the nose for one.

dames and the dark arts cover with titles

Ultimately, there appear to be no secrets to writing success (provided you can write to begin with, of course) beyond hard work, perseverance and productivity.  There’s no pot of gold to be found here as far as I can see, but I have managed to cut my day job back to a three day week (which is a good reward in itself) and face the very real prospect of becoming a full time writer in the not too distant future.  My sales keep slowly but steadily rising and I keep producing new books.

I hope that this may have helped with some of the things to avoid, some of the things to do, and finding the best way forward.

A Little Bit of Damsels

Ever fancied dipping into the weird, deviant and frankly disgusting world of the Damsels series, but not been sure if it’s quite for you?  Well, here’s a treat:  a whole chapter from the first novel in the series, Rampant Damsels.  This chapter contains a little, self-contained story which kicks off the main plotline of the novel.  So it can be read as a standalone, whilst also introducing you to the delights which are still to come.

I hope you enjoy this little mystery set in a monastery, entitled ‘The Shame of the Rose’.  And if you DO like it, all five current titles in the series (Rampant Damsels, Damsels in Arms, Damsels Go Down, Auld Bobby Bob’s Campfire Tales For Kiddywinks, and Damsels and the Dark Arts) are available in sumptuous print editions from Amazon.  If you prefer a Kindle version, that’s even easier, because they’re available for Kindle at a measly 99p / 99c each.  You don’t even need a Kindle to read them, as you can download free software from Amazon to read Kindle titles on your PC, Mac, Tablet or phone!  And if you subscribe to the Kindle Unlimited service, you’ve really got it made, because then you’ll be able to read them all for free as part of your subscription!

For now, please enjoy this delve into depravity.  WARNING:  contains very strong language and vulgarity!

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THE SHAME OF THE ROSE

Brother Bibble hitched his robes above his ankles as he trod cautiously through the deepest cellar that lay beneath the heart of Lurke’s temple complex. As one of the monks with responsibility for the clerics’ wines and ales, his was a vitally important role. He was a devotee of Ssseshh, the eternally urinating newt god, and his particular duty was to shuffle around the cellars in broad sandals, kicking the carpet of rich rat droppings into a fine dust. This would then settle and form a sediment in the open vats that were maturing in these dim vaults. The ultimate flavour of Lurkan communion wine was out of this world and Brother Bibble took great pride in his work.

Tonight, though, something was worrying him. The very deepest cellars were seldom visited, as they were reserved for those casks which would take generations to reach maturity. But Bibble, who knew every square inch of his territory, had spied a very strange set of prints in the dirt that should definitely not have been there. He had crawled around in the rodent droppings on his hands and knees, following a barely discernible trail that had obviously been left by a person or thing trying to be very cautious and sneaky indeed. The trail would never have been noticed by any observer less familiar with the disturbances in the fractal patterns of decades-old rat shit. His brow furrowed in worry, he followed the trail to its conclusion at a featureless wall of cold, dank stone, where it simply vanished. Bibble scratched his head in puzzlement; he would have to let the abbot know about this.

Abbot Snoo was giving his evening lecture to the novice monks in the Titchy Cloisters of Ssseshh when Bibble scurried in. He dusted the powdered crap off his sandals and sat at the back, awaiting his opportunity to speak with his master.

“And so you must understand,” Snoo droned in his haughty tones, “that the members of the Lurkan priesthoods take upon themselves the burden of the sins of the populace. Thus the priests pass their days in tireless performance of wicked deeds, attending endless tedious orgies in the commission of their duties. Thus, when you address a member of the priesthood, you shall call him Reviled Brother So-and-so, or Reviled Sister Such-and-such, as the case may be. In the case of the priests of Tuchtavay, the cross-dressing budgerigar god of finance, you shall address them as Reviled Deviant. Now, are there any questions?”

A scrawny lad with a dripping nose put his hand up. His robe was several sizes too large for him and the sleeve — glistening with snail trails caused by constant wiping of the aforementioned nose — slipped down to his shoulder.

“Yes, Horace, what is it?” asked Snoo.

“Excuse me, Mr Abbot, sir,” squeaked the mucousy youth, “but do we also call the Masters ‘Reviled Brother’?”

“Hmm, a good question,” said the abbot. He considered for a moment, then said, “Best not to speak with them at all if you can help it. Their minds are focused on such spiritual things and their bodies express themselves in the most utter depravity, that you would undoubtedly fail to comprehend their enlightened utterances, confusing them for vulgar debauched rants. However, should you find it absolutely necessary to speak with them, they may be addressed by the title of Most Foully Depraved Father, or Mother, as the case may be. Although, since the Masters take upon themselves the supreme spiritual burden of literally embodying the sins of the people, it has become customary to honour them with the simpler but more profound title of ‘Sin’, added as a suffix to their name. Thus the renowned sage Goronwy, who sits daily upon the temple steps and dispenses his wisdom to the masses, may be most briefly and respectfully addressed as Goronwy-Sin. Does this clarify matters for you?”

“Yes, ta,” snivelled Horace as he wiped his nose on his sleeve, leaving more slug trails.

“Yes, ta, what?” demanded Snoo.

“Yes, ta, Reviled Brother Snoo,” amended Horace.

“Very good, Horace,” approved Snoo. “Now, I believe Brother Bibble wishes to speak with me, so you may leave early.” There was an excited rumble as the novices vacated desks and began to stampede for the door. “Just a moment!” Snoo called, halting them in their tracks. “I would remind you that you are required to put in an hour’s self-flagellation as homework tonight. I shall be inspecting your weals in the morning and woe betide anyone who I find to have been shirking.”

Brother Bibble approached the abbot as the grumbling novices filed out. “A masterful lecture, Abbot,” he fawned.

“Thank you, Brother Bibble. How goes it with the cellars? Are the vats maturing nicely?”

“Oh, Abbot, there are some truly wondrous odours developing. The mould is thick and furry and the rat poo is like powdered cheese. We’ll have a fine strong wine this summer and the longer term fermentations will be unbelievable. However, something has occurred which worries me greatly.”

“What is it, Brother?” asked Snoo, his brow furrowing in concern. Bibble was a renowned dullard, a placid great ox, and if something had managed to penetrate the murky veils of his consciousness sufficiently to worry him, then Snoo wanted to know what it was.

“I think I’d better show you, Abbot,” said Bibble, scratching his tonsure. “It’s got me right baffled, I have to confess.”

Five minutes later, Abbot Snoo had become so engrossed in the mystery that he had even forgotten to preserve his dignity and was kneeling on the thick layer of rodent droppings while he examined the clues pointed out to him by Brother Bibble.

“So there you have it, Abbot,” said Bibble, spreading his hands wide in an expression of bewilderment. “The tracks are very slight, so someone’s been trying to be sneaky. I’d never have noticed if I didn’t know every crust of every turd down here like the back of my hand. At first I thought it must be one of the novices or the nuns sneaking down here for a quick swig, but the tracks don’t really look like footprints and the trail just ends here at this brick wall. I can’t fathom it for the life of me.”

“Oh dear,” muttered Snoo. “This is very serious indeed, Bibble. I’m afraid it may go much further than a little furtive slurping. This is a very worrying situation.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Abbot,” admitted the baffled Bibble.

“Need to know, Brother, need to know,” said Snoo, taping the side of his prodigious nose in a sign of secrecy. “I must go and consult with His Holy Pomposity, Grand Ranter Scoffer, at once. In the meantime, Bibble, I want you to remain here and keep a close eye on this cellar. Be vigilant, Brother, no dozing off.”

“Never fear, Abbot,” said Bibble fiercely. “You can rely on me.”

“Good man,” said Snoo. “I’ll return with assistance as soon as I can. This cellar needs to be kept under surveillance at all times until we discover what’s going on here.” He tried desperately to brush the worst of the droppings off his knees, then rushed off to seek an audience with the Grand Ranter.

Grand Ranter Scoffer the First, spiritual leader of the Free City of Lurke, was a large and very smelly orc. Normally a cheerful, happy-go-lucky fellow with a strong liking for practical jokes (especially the sort involving whoopee cushions and farty noises — the more subtle forms of orcish humour), he was now uncharacteristically subdued as he listened to Abbot Snoo’s report.

“Whoops,” he said at last, waving his feather of holy tickling in the air and putting the fright up a pair of attendant nuns. “This is a right balls-up and no mistake. Someone has obviously found out our little secret.”

“Yes,” agreed Snoo. “But what are they planning to do with the knowledge? That’s what worries me.”

Scoffer stood up, ignoring his throne as it raspberried loudly at his back. “Fetch my best clown shoes!” he called to one of his slaves. But his expression was serious as he caught Snoo’s eye. “We’d better go over to the cellars so I can inspect the locks and seals for myself,” he muttered.

Scoffer brought two slaves with him, so that they could carry him through the cellars in a chair. It wouldn’t do to get the holy feet grubby, after all, especially not when he was wearing his best clown shoes. The two sweating minions puffed and panted as they manoeuvred his warty bulk into the deepest vault, preceded by Abbot Snoo.

“Brother Bibble?” called Snoo. “Prostrate yourself, His Holy Pomposity is here in person…” His voice faded as he saw Bibble’s body stretched out on the floor of the cellar. The monk’s eyes were practically bulging out of their sockets and his tongue poked rigidly out of his mouth. “Bibble,” said Snoo nervously, “if you’re pissed…”

“Cut the cackle,” snapped Grand Ranter Scoffer. “He’s not pissed, he’s fucking croaked!”

Several hours later, after Scoffer had bullied Sven Wastus, the sun god, into rising over the Lurkan horizon at the onset of a new day, Abbot Snoo presented himself once again at the Grand Ranter’s office for a secret meeting. He knew it was a secret meeting as the door had a notice on it which read, ‘SECRET MEETING IN PROGRESS. DO NOT ENTER. BUGGER OFF.’ Snoo entered.

“Oh, it’s you, Abbot,” said Scoffer, lowering the crossbow he had leveled between Snoo’s eyes in case he was an eavesdropping intruder. “Come in and pull up a pew. Have a nun if you like, they’re rather nice. But do try not to brush up against anything, there’s a good fellow; you’ve still got rat shit on your robes.”

Snoo sat on a hard wooden seat opposite the Grand Ranter’s plush cushioned chair, which sported a special comfort ring for the ease of the holy haemhorroids. He looked around and saw that they were not alone. A small, nondescript figure, so average and unassuming in appearance as to be almost invisible, was sitting in another pew to his right, a nun upon his knee. Snoo noted with resentment that the stranger’s seat had a cushion on it.

Scoffer followed the direction of Snoo’s gaze and said, “Ah, Abbot, allow me to introduce Dr Wott.”

“Good morning, Reviled Brother Snoo,” said Wott in a voice which was as subdued as his appearance.

“Wott-Sin is a bishop from the chapel of Gonk the Suspicious, the god of violent sheep and amateur sleuths,” explained Scoffer. “He’s the nearest thing to an investigative brain we have in this joint, which isn’t saying much.”

“Ta, chief,” whispered Wott. Scoffer let the flippancy go; devotees of violent sheep are not known for using respectful terms of address.

“All right, Wott-Sin,” growled Scoffer, “we’re about to let you into a bloody big secret.” He bared his orcish tusks to show the investigator that he meant business and that the secret was to be guarded with his life. “As you might know, the city’s beloved ruler, Duke Blusterguff, is mighty fond of his tipple. Being a man of great taste and discernment, the Duke is particularly enamoured of the unique wines made here in the temple complex by the initiates of Ssseshh, of whom Abbot Snoo is the hierophant. To make things easier for the delivery of the wine, and also to keep the Duke’s boozing as discreet as possible, a tunnel was constructed from the temple’s wine cellars direct to the basements of the palace. Last night, one of the abbot’s acolytes found odd tracks leading up to the wall where the concealed entrance to the tunnel is located. That acolyte was left on watch while the abbot fetched me. By the time we returned he had been murdered.” Scoffer paused for a moment, then farted violently with a satisfied grunt. “Now what do you make of that?” he demanded.

“I think you’ve been eating eggs,” murmured Wott, wrinkling his nose and wafting his hand in front of his face.

“I meant what do you make of the crime, not my sacred gaseous emissions!” roared Scoffer, waving his great green fists in the air.

“Well,” began Wott. “Whoever has discovered the secret passage obviously ran into the abbot’s watchman and was desperate enough to kill the man to protect his own identity. This suggests that we are dealing with a culprit with some specific nefarious purpose rather than a case of simple nosiness. Do we know if the passage has actually been opened?”

“I checked that,” said the abbot. “All of the magical wards and seals are still in place. It seems that our murderer has an idea of where the passage is, but has not yet managed to discover the precise location of the concealed door or the mechanism to open it.”

“Then how do you explain the fact that the tracks end abruptly at the wall?” asked Wott, stroking his nondescript moustache, deep in thought.

“We can’t,” said Scoffer. “That’s what we want you to investigate. There’s a naughty mystery here and I want it solved. If someone is trying to gain sneaky entrance to the palace, there’s trouble brewing. I don’t want any more murders either. It’s a right pain in the arse having to spend hours petitioning at the gates of the afterlife when one of our clerics snuffs it: you know they don’t like to let religious types in. You’ll be working with Goronwy-Sin, he’s the cleverest sage in the temple. You’ll have to do all the leg work yourself, though, since he won’t get off that fat arse of his.”

“Righto, guv,” said Wott, rising to his feet and shuffling off in his grey robe.

“As for you, Snoo, double the guard on that cellar and obtain vows of silence from all acolytes involved. I don’t want any whispers getting back to the palace to suggest a breach of security here. Tell them that keeping their mouths shut forms part of their terms and conditions of employment and may be enforced by tongue removal where necessary… best not send any union members down there, they tend to get a bit tetchy when threatened with bodily mutilation.”

The abbot sighed, made his obeisance and left, mentally listing his most discreet (i.e. stupid) acolytes.

When Wott arrived at Goronwy-Sin’s little pavilion, the renowned sage was instructing one of his students. The rotund master was a mountain of jolly blubber, wearing only a grubby loincloth so that his flesh could wobble joyously for the delight of all. His student, on the other hand, was slender, wiry and extremely pretty, an effect slightly marred by her crest of dyed green hair and the chains she wore.

“Well, Polly,” the sage was saying. “I am pleased to inform you that you have now completed my preliminary training course, ‘Tantra For Beginners’. You are no longer a novice, you are now an apprentice temple prostitute and you will now only be required to donate half of your earnings to the coffers of the goddess Paipan instead of the nine tenths you have been paying to date. From now on, you will be trained in more advanced erotic techniques by Master Miggley. But before you go, how about a good hard shag as a final thank you to your old teacher?”

“Fuck off, fatty.”

When Goronwy-Sin had been briefed by Wott, he spent a few minutes rocking back and forth with a look of intense concentration on his face. He then fixed Wott with the full stare of his hypnotic gaze and said, “So you say that the unfortunate Brother Bibble was killed by strangulation?”

“I believe so,” replied Wott.

“Ah, but you have not seen the body?” asked Goronwy-Sin.

“Not as yet,” said Wott, “but I intend to do so.”

“That would be very wise,” said Goronwy-Sin. “We need to learn as much as possible about our intruder. We must search for clues, Wott-Sin. We need facts, not suppositions.”

“What a revolutionary notion,” breathed Wott in awe. “Deducing facts from clues? Truly you are the wisest sage of our generation.”

“That I am,” said Goronwy-Sin with a grim smile, “but alas, none of my wisdom avails to get me into Sister Polly’s pants. Now bugger off and collect the evidence while I sit here and sulk splendidly.”

“At once, Most Foully Depraved Father,” said Wott as he bowed low and hurried out the door. Wott’s mind was working furiously. He had never considered the possible role of actual physical evidence in the investigation of a crime before, having previously resorted to drawing lots to determine whodunnit. But although Wott-Sin could be a little slow on the uptake, once an idea finally lodged in his mind he was a total convert to it. He eagerly collected a magnifying glass from the temple libraries, then went to the compost heap where the body of Brother Bibble had been dumped after the funeral rites had been completed. It took him ten minutes to locate the corpse. He had in fact spotted it as soon as he had approached the smelly pile of rotting matter, but he had insisted upon making a full methodical search in any case so that he could be certain that he had in fact found the correct body and not a forgery, nor a strangely shaped vegetable. Facts, not suppositions, Goronwy-Sin had said, and Wott was going to make damn sure of it.

Wott studied Bibble through his magnifying glass, which gave him quite a shock when he glanced at the deceased’s private parts. Composing himself, he turned his attention back to the neck. The marks were clear indicators that the unfortunate monk had indeed been strangled, but they were certainly not consistent with strangulation by hand. The lines etched in the flesh were far too thin and there were strange lacerations where sharp objects had evidently torn the skin; not deeply enough to be fatal in and of themselves, but a very curious additional injury nonetheless. Wott wondered if the killer had perhaps used a garotte — perhaps even a garotte of barbed wire — which might explain the marks and torn skin.

Wott-Sin was on a roll now, so he made his way down to the wine cellars. He was just stepping through into the vault which contained the sealed door when a half brick in a sock swung out of the gloom and thudded into his cranium. Wott sighed in pain and irritation and decided that the best option open to him was to lose consciousness for a bit, which he promptly did.

When he recovered, he wished he hadn’t as it felt as though a troll was having sex with his sinuses. The agony gradually faded to a dull throbbing emanating from a sizeable lump on the top of his head. As his vision gradually refocused, he saw two worried round faces looking down at him. Both were robed in brown habits and had tonsured heads. Abbot Snoo’s watchmen, evidently. Wott groaned in annoyance.

“Sorry, Most Foully Depraved Father Wott,” said one of the monks, “but we were told that if any intruders came in we were to wallop them first and ask questions later.”

“Brother, I have been at the temple for the past forty years,” said Wott wearily. “What made you think I might be an intruder all of a sudden?”

“We just got a little over-excited,” explained the monk. “We’ve been down here for a few hours now and we’re getting a little bit jumpy. So when you walked in we panicked and hit you… Sorry.”

“That’s all right, Brothers, it’s good to be vigilant,” said Wott, reflecting that it was occasionally a disadvantage to be so undistinguished in appearance. If he had a large scar, or was an exotic orc like the Grand Ranter, then he would have been instantly recognisable. But no, he had no distinguishing features and may well have been a stranger walking through the door. By the time the Brothers had recognised him, he was already taking his enforced nap on the floor. He eased his aching body up, brushing off the rat droppings that had at least cushioned his fall. What a bloody state he was in now: a bump on his head and shit all down his back.

“Anyway,” said Brother Boffus, who was the more garrulous of the two homicidal cretins (his companion having been suitably frightened into silence by the hints of tongue extraction), “now that we’re all friends again, how can we be of service to you, Most Foully Depraved Father?”

“I am in charge of the murder investigation,” declared Wott with all due self-importance. He was determined to drill his authority into this pair’s thick skulls in case a return visit proved necessary; he didn’t fancy a second clout on the head. “I have come here to gather clues and I am going to examine the killer’s tracks as evidence.” He put great stress on the words ‘clues’ and ‘evidence’ to show off his newfound investigative techniques; Goronwy-Sin surely wouldn’t mind him taking the credit.

“Ooh, can we watch?” asked Boffus, clapping his hands together in glee. His companion still said nothing, he just gave Wott a miserable look. Wott was left in no doubt that it had indeed been the more hyperactive of the pair who had swung the sock containing the offending half-brick. “Can we be deputies?”

“Sure,” said Wott. “But first you need to be measured for boots.”

“Boots?” said Boffus. “Oh great! I didn’t realise we’d get boots. Are they free?”

“No charge at all,” said Wott drily. “Now turn around and touch your toes and I’ll measure you up.”

Boffus did as he was told, shuffling excitedly on the spot, his backside sticking out behind him. His quiet companion, a little quicker on the uptake, sniggered behind his hand. Wott took careful aim, then swung his foot solidly between Boffus’ buttocks, bruising his piles in a terrible fashion. Boffus pitched forward, his shriek cut off as he slammed face first into the dirt, getting a mouthful of rat shit.

“Yes,” said Wott. “That boot seemed to fit perfectly.”

Ignoring the writhing Boffus and his giggling mute companion, Wott stooped down to examine the tracks on the ground. According to Snoo’s report, they were very sparse and hard to spot. Wott discovered that this was not actually the case. Instead, the tracks were in a very wide swathe, a series of broad but very light dragging marks. The problem was that they bore very little, if any, resemblance to footprints. He could quite understand why Snoo and Bibble had struggled to recognise them; they probably hadn’t even realised that some of the scrapings were part of the trail.

Wott scratched his head in bafflement, realising as he did so that this was in danger of becoming a habitual action. This business of gathering evidence and making deductions was more confusing than it first appeared. What if the evidence didn’t lead to any deductions, but only further confusion? He was frankly stumped and suppoed that he really ought to consult with Goronwy-Sin once again.

The sage was in a disagreeable mood, however. He listened to Wott’s account, chuckled at the report of him getting clonked on the head, then screwed his face into a determined grimace. “I am fairly certain that we can decode this mystery, Wott-Sin,” he announced, “but I regret that I am feeling cantankerous at present. I am most dissatisfied that my wisdom has thus far failed to bring me the little perks that I desire. You must therefore buy my information by accomplishing a task for me. There is, you see, a price to pay.”

“What price?” demanded Wott incredulously.

“You must obtain a pair of Polly’s used unwashed panties for me,” declared Goronwy. “Thus I may satisfy my cravings in private with deep inhalations of her intimate odours even though she refuses my advances.”

“You must be joking!” shouted Wott. “This is outrageous! You are hindering my investigations for the sake of a pair of dirty knickers? What if I was to inform the Grand Ranter that you are refusing to cooperate?”

“Ah, but I am cooperating,” insisted Goronwy. “The gentleman you need to speak to about these tracks is Most Foully Depraved Father Miggley, who at this very moment is training Sister Polly in the techniques of advanced tantra. You should make your way to Sister Polly’s room in the Halls of the Holy Whores right away to fetch Miggley-Sin. While you are there, I would request as a personal favour that you indulge me by kindly pocketing a whiffy pair of the good Sister’s smalls.”

Wott sighed in resigned disbelief. “Very well,” he conceded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Splendid!” smiled Goronwy-Sin, rubbing his hands together in glee. “And if there’s a little streak of poo in them, so much the better.”

*

Wott wandered down the pink-carpeted corridor that housed the Order of Sisters of Holy Whoredom, the priestesses and novitiates of the wanton goddess Paipan. Each door had a red candle outside, which was lit if the priestess was available for ministering to the spiritual needs of worshippers. He soon found a door with a nameplate which read ‘Sister P. Panzerfaust’. The candle was unlit, but judging by the frantic squeaking and squealing coming from within, there was certainly somebody with her. Wott took a few moments to compose himself, straightening his holy medallion and smoothing out his thinning hair. Then he rapped sharply on the door.

There was a moment’s silence, then a mutter of “Who the fuck is that?”. It was a female voice, but more aggressive than any male. A deeper, more masculine voice urged, “Shh, be quiet and they might go away.”

Resigned to his fate, Wott raised his hand and knocked again, calling out, “Excuse me, miss, sir. It’s Wott-Sin, special investigator appointed by Grand Ranter Scoffer.”

The door swung violently open, revealing the very angry figure of Polly Panzerfaust. “Investigating what, Wott?”

Given her tone, Wott considered it imprudent to draw attention to her impolite neglect of his -Sin suffix. Instead, he mildly said, “I do beg your pardon, Sister Polly. I am investigating an incident of a highly confidential nature and I urgently need to speak with Miggley-Sin.”

“Be quiet, man!” snapped a voice from inside the room. “I am an undercover inquisitor and using my priestly title in public could blow my cover. Come inside quickly and close the door behind you!”

Wott entered the little red-lit room, trying to ignore Polly’s skimpy nightie as he squeezed past her. The girl was still smouldering at the intrusion and he smiled tightly as he walked by. It was no good. He could see in her eyes that the ice wasn’t for breaking.

“Pardon me for intruding, Miggley-Sin,” said Wott. “I didn’t realise that you were working undercover.”

“Well, technically, at the moment I’m not,” said Miggley, a short and extremely grubby man with a selection of dubious skin diseases and rotting teeth. The odour that filled the temple harlot’s boudoir suggested that he also had a less than amicable relationship with soap. “My day job is to work as a gardener in the grounds of the Wizards’ Guild,” he explained. “They believe me to be a harmless yokel, never suspecting my true identity as an inquisitor, spying on their ungodly magicks. But at present I am, so to speak, working under the covers rather than undercover, teaching this honoured Sister advanced techniques of meditation whilst shafting her sideways.” The tent he was forming in the bedclothes was testament to his diligence in his duties.

“I am afraid this is a matter of some urgency, Most Foully Depraved Father,” Wott whispered in a voice that he hoped would be low enough to prevent Polly from overhearing. “There has been a murder and Grand Ranter Scoffer requires immediate results in the investigation. Goronwy-Sin believes your interpretation of the evidence will be invaluable.”

“Drat!” exclaimed Miggley. “And I was really immersed in my work here too. Alas, Polly, my dear, I must leave you for a while. But keep yourself hot because I’ll be back as soon as I’ve helped this chappy out.”

Wott watched in some embarrassment as Miggley hauled his scabby, naked carcase out of bed and seized Polly in his arms, whereupon they spent a full couple of minutes swapping tongues and sucking each others’ faces with loud squelchy noises. But it occurred to him that he might now seize his chance to fulfil Goronwy-Sin’s request while they were both so engrossed with each others’ tonsils. Keeping a close eye on the snogging pair, Wott quickly scanned the floor, sidling across to where the detritus of their passion was strewn in wanton disarray. There at the foot of the bed lay a discarded pair of scarlet briefs, all rolled into a ball where they had been hurriedly peeled off and cast aside. Wott crept sneakily over to them, dipped and snatched, popping them quickly into his pocket all in a single movement. He felt a sordid thrill pass through him; they were still warm and tantalisingly moist to his touch.

Miggley eventually disentangled himself from Polly, who was snarling with desire, a passion that Wott found unfathomable as he surveyed the flaking specimen of humanity she had been embracing.

“I’ll be back soon, babe,” Miggley declared, “when I’ll teach you how to invoke the heavenly messengers whilst taking it up the jacksy.”

To Wott’s great relief, Miggley pulled his clothes on – a pair of rough sacking trousers and a smelly old coat with an incongruous silk cravat – and they left Polly’s room, heading for the cellars.

Miggley showed no aversion to crawling around on his hands and knees amid the unmentionable organic refuse on the floor of the vault. If anything, the accretions of rat droppings actually improved the general aspect and odour of his clothing. Wott supposed that the man’s grotty appearance was all part of his yokel disguise whilst spying on the wizards. In reality, he grudgingly had to admit that Miggley-Sin was proving to be cultured and erudite, not to mention utterly depraved if his training regimen was anything to judge by.

“Hmm,” said Miggley. “I can see why Goronwy-Sin sent you to fetch me. These marks are very familiar to me, very familiar indeed. In my capacity as a gardener, I often uproot old bushes…”

He was certainly rooting up Polly’s bush, thought Wott.

“… and shrubs and drag them to the furnaces beneath the Wizards’ Guild. I can say with absolute certainty that these marks were caused by a bush dragging along.” He reached down and carefully extracted something from a mouldering mound of rodent excrement, holding it aloft so that Wott could see it. Between his finger and thumb was a large thorn. “It seems we can be quite specific,” Miggley murmured in the soft tones that were such a contrast to his phlegm-wracked physique. “The marks were evidently made by a rose bush.”

Wott boggled his eyes in response. “A rose bush? What in the nine hundred and ninety nine hells was someone doing sneaking around down here with a rose bush? Were they hiding flowers destined to be a surprise for their wife, perhaps? Or maybe they were staging an illicit meeting with a mistress, which was witnessed by the unfortunate Brother Bibble, whose silence was ensured by his brutal murder, thus concealing the adulterous identities?”

“Sarcasm does not become you, Wott-Sin,” said Miggley in his quiet tones. “Besides, you ought to remember the lacerations on the neck of the departed Brother’s corpse. I think we can now presume that those were caused by rose thorns.”

“Oh, I see,” sneered Wott. “So the intruder brought a rose bush down here to use as a potential murder weapon? Less conspicuous than a dagger or an axe, I suppose. Oh yes, it all makes sense to me now.” Miggley was not rising to the bait, but merely stared at Wott with an expression of insufferable condescending patience. Wott sighed and shook his head in defeat. “All right, I give in! Tell me what the hell’s going on. I’m stuck.”

Miggley tutted softly in disapproval of Wott’s lack of insight. “Elemental, my dear Wott-Sin. I mean that quite literally. The intruder — and the killer — was an Elemental.”

“Enlighten me,” said Wott weakly.

“An Elemental is a nature spirit,” explained Miggley. “They are conjured up by wizards and manifest themselves in our world as animated pieces of foliage, earth or stone. This present one evidently took shape as a rose bush. Its tracks appear to vanish into thin air because that is precisely what it did. When it failed to find what it was looking for …” Miggley gave Wott a surreptitious wink to indicate that he was in on the secret of the hidden door, “… its master banished it back to its home plane.”

“I see,” breathed Wott. “So what do we do now?”

“I think we need to organise some very subtle surveillance,” said Miggley thoughtfully, “both here and at the Wizards’ Guild. We’d better organise a meeting with the Grand Ranter in the morning to discuss it. If they tried once, they’ll be sure to try again.”

They stood up to leave. As they stepped through into the adjacent vault, a shovel swung through the air with a swishing sound, concluding in a ghastly splat as it impacted with Miggley’s face. He dropped like a stone.

“Hello, lads,” said Wott. “Still at it, I see.”

“Hello, Most Foully Depraved Father,” beamed Boffus, putting down his shovel. “Yes, we’re still keeping watch. We didn’t twat you one this time, though, we just got the intruder.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, boys, but this is …” He tailed off as he recalled Miggley’s undercover status. “… Er, this is the smelly old gardener from the Wizards’ Guild, who I was just escorting off the premises. Chuck him out, would you?”

“Sure thing,” said Boffus genially. “Sorry we weren’t here to help you earlier, but I just nipped out to get a sandwich. Would you like a bite?” He offered a soggy egg sandwich, sprinkled with the omnipresent rat droppings.

“No thanks,” said Wott with a queasy smile. “Where was your friend when you went to get your sandwich? This cellar is supposed to be kept under continuous guard.”

The quieter monk looked shamefaced and tried to hide behind Boffus.

“Ah, well, poor Brother Sniffis was so alarmed at the thought of being left here on his own while I went for my sandwich that he shat himself and had to go and change his robes,” explained Boffus.

Wott decided not to press the matter.

“We’ll just chuck this geezer out, then,” said Boffus, grabbing Miggley’s feet while Sniffis took the shoulders.

“Yes, please do that,” said Wott. “Oh, and give him a good kick in the balls before you leave him,” he added as an afterthought. That’ll teach you, you smarmy bastard, he smirked to himself. Little Miss Panzerfaust will just have to amuse herself for the rest of the night.

Wott paid Goronwy-Sin a visit before turning in for the night. The sage listened intently to all that he was told, then said, “Well done, Wott-Sin. The investigation is proceeding very well. Let me know what is said at the meeting in the morning; I shall stay here and meditate.”

“Righto,” said Wott.

“Um, before you go, Most Foully Depraved Father, did you manage to accomplish that little favour I requested of you?”

“What? Oh, yes.” Wott had almost forgotten he had them, but he reached tentatively into his pocket and drew forth the pair of knickers he had liberated from Polly’s floor. He placed them in Goronwy’s outstretched sweaty palm.

“Well done, Brother,” sighed Goronwy-Sin gratefully. “Hurry along now, don’t let me detain you.” He was already flexing his fingers and loosening his loincloth before Wott had even left the room. Trembling in anticipation, Goronwy raised the panties to his nose and took a deep sniff. He promptly vomited.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed. “They’re Miggley’s.”

When Wott arrived at Scoffer’s penthouse the following morning, Abbot Snoo and Miggley were already there. The latter was sporting two black eyes and was rubbing an ice pack on his aching testicles, his groin bruised black and blue after Boffus and Sniffis had dutifully carried out Wott’s instructions and laid the boot into his family jewels. Wott assumed that the black eyes were a result of his encounter with the shovel, but he later discovered that he was mistaken; these had been inflicted by Polly when Miggley’s aching crotch had caused him to fail to live up to his earlier promise.

There was one other man in the room, a stranger to Wott. He was a small, officious looking individual with wiry grey hair and a neatly trimmed moustache, wearing a fine blue velvet outfit.

Grand Ranter Scoffer was in a very crabby mood. “I am in a very crabby mood,” he declared. “This news is not good. If an Elemental is involved, it means that a wizardy mage must be behind the whole thing. I knew we were right to distrust that bunch of blasphemous old buggers over at the Wizards’ Guild. What have you got to say for yourself, Miggley-Sin?”

“With respect, Pops, most of the wizards are too far up their own arses to concern themselves with something like this,” said Miggley in a rather high voice (Boffus and Sniffis having accomplished their duties with commendable enthusiasm). “We’re probably dealing with a single rogue mage. But I agree that in all likelihood he’ll be hiding out at the Guild. There’s so much magic in the air there that it’s difficult to trace a rogue operator.”

“I want this wizardy mage caught and castrated!” roared Scoffer, thumping the arm of his throne. “I will not have thieves and saboteurs poking their rose bushes into my wine cellars! So what do you propose to do about it? Eh?”

“The intruder must have a reason for trying to discover the whereabouts of the secret passage,” Miggley insisted. “He hasn’t found it so far, so it stands to reason that he’ll try again.”

“You keep saying ‘he’,” pointed out Scoffer. “It could be a woman, you know. They’re deceitful creatures, they have bottoms on their fronts.”

Miggley decided to ignore this outburst and pressed on: “We need to stage covert surveillance, something more subtle than that pair of shovel-wielding cretins. Abbot Snoo, you’ll need to recall your men. We need to spy on that cellar without being seen. If the intruder thinks the coast is clear and it’s no longer being watched, he may well strike again.”

“Hmph!” snorted Scoffer. “And how the buggeration do you plan to see without being seen, eh? I’m not using magical means to spy, oh no, that would be sinking as low as the wizardy mage.”

“Gentlemen, I have it all planned out,” said Miggley with a flourish (at least, he flourished as best he could with goolies the size of grapefruit). He indicated the strange little man in the blue velvet suit and said, “Allow me to introduce Mr Fibulus Hatchity of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Hatchity held up a finger in protest and declared in a whiny voice, “Thank you for your kind introduction, Miggley-Sin. But as a point of fact there is no such organisation as a Thieves’ Guild. What is more, if any such organisation should by chance happen to exist, I can confidently assure you that I would certainly not be a part of it. However, I can also assure you that I am fully authorised by the Guildmaster to speak and act on behalf of the aforesaid non-existent organisation, the Thieves’ Guild.”

Scoffer scratched his head. “So you’re here on behalf of an organisation that doesn’t exist, but if they did exist then you’d be the man to speak to,” he struggled.

“Nicely put, your holy sacrality,” smiled Hatchity benignly. “What a wonderfully literal mind you have. I must file that away for future reference.”

Miggley cleared his throat loudly (albeit somewhat squeakily). “What our esteemed visitor is trying to say is that although he quite naturally denies any links to any potential criminal brotherhoods which may or may not exist, he and his fellows do possess certain skills which may be of use to us in the present situation.”

“Such as?” prompted Scoffer, who found conversations with hidden subtexts and implications to be particularly hard going.

“Well, such as moving completely silently and sneakily, with a knack for sticking to the shadows and not being seen,” explained Miggley. “Mr Hatchity’s associates will be able to keep a close watch on the cellar without our intruder ever being aware of the fact.”

Scoffer looked shifty for a moment, but Hatchity eased his fears by saying smoothly, “Don’t you worry, your magnificence. We already know all about the passage to the palace. It’s our business to know about such things, so your secret’s safe with us. In fact, the lads have used it many times — without ever breaking any of your wards and seals — in their humble duty of redistributing the Duke’s wealth among the needy.”

“Oh, that’s all right, then,” breathed Scoffer in relief. “I’ve no objection to giving to the needy, it’s a very pious and humble thing to do.”

“Quite right,” enthused Hatchity, contriving to appear as needy as his velvet finery would allow.

“That’s settled then,” said Miggley with satisfaction. “The abbot will recall his bruisers, leaving the cellars apparently unguarded. But our light-fingered friends will keep a close watch, liaising with Wott-Sin. In the meantime, I’ll be scouring the Wizards’ Guild, trying to catch the culprit in the act.”

“And what are we supposed to do if this Elemental puts in another appearance?” demanded Wott.

“Try to keep it occupied long enough for me to trace its conjuror,” said Miggley. “Don’t let it find the passage, whatever you do. Remember that as a bush-based lifeform it will be vulnerable to fire. Also, bear in mind that it is linked to its conjuror whilst in our world; you can attack him through it, but he may also be able to fire spells at you via the Elemental.”

“That wicked wizardy mage!” hissed Scoffer, baring his tusks. “He must be caught! Caught, I say!”

The meeting drew to a close as a couple of nuns led Scoffer away to his holy boudoir, foaming at the mouth and raving. The others went their separate ways to prepare for the evening’s surveillance.

As Wott left the room, he found Miggley waiting for him. “You bastard!” the undercover operative said. “You left me behind after those morons hit me.”

“Just keeping up your cover,” chirped Wott with a smarmy grin. “I had to let them think you were a low-level intruder who should be expelled from the premises.”

“They kicked me in the bollocks!”

“Oh dear, how unfortunate,” tutted Wott.

“They said that you told them to do it.”

“Well, as I say, it was all a matter of maintaining your cover…”

“Just watch yourself, Wott. I work with wizards, remember, and most of them aren’t too choosy about how they earn a little extra cash. Do you know about the latest innovation in the farming world?”

“Of course not,” scoffed Wott. “I’m a busy man, Miggley-Sin, and I have no time to ponder the problems of pigs and cows, though I do dabble in suspicious sheep, of course. My concern is with souls.”

“Pigs and cattle should concern you greatly, Wott,” warned Miggley. “Because if my nuts are still this sore next time I happen to be chatting to an agricultural wizard, I just might remember to ask them to demonstrate their new instant gelding spell.”

Wott swallowed hard as Miggley limped from the room with a malicious smile.

That night, at the darkest hour, Wott found himself sitting in a cramped little cell adjoining the cellars. Two of Hatchity’s ‘business associates’ were with him: small, wiry men clad in black wrappings which left only their eyes visible, each with a worrying number of knives concealed about their persons. Two more were concealed in the cellar with the hidden door, practically invisible as they crouched stock still in the darkness. Two of these gentlemen were telepaths, allowing the two teams to keep in constant touch by concentrating their minds. All that Wott’s mind was concentrated upon, however, was the worrying question of the future integrity of his testicles and how best to make amends with Miggley.

“Hist!” hissed the telepath next to him. “I’m getting a message from the cellar. There’s something moving towards them, they can hear it scraping along the floor in the next vault. It’ll be with them any second now.”

The next few seconds passed with agonising slowness as Wott chewed his nails and watched the telepathic thief. Only the man’s eyes could be seen through his dark wrappings, but these were screwed tightly shut with the intensity of his concentration. A bead of sweat quivered on his taut eyebrow.

“Your pal was right,” he whispered. “It’s a bleedin’ rose bush, a big one, in full bloom. It’s making directly for the secret door.”

“They have to stop it!” snapped Wott. “Send a message to the guys with Miggley and tell that pair in the cellar to stop it!”

“Righto, boss,” said the thief. He concentrated for a moment, then said, “Okay, I’ve let the crew at the Wizards’ Guild know that it’s happening now, so they’re looking for the mage. The lads in the cellar are moving to intercept the Elemental.” A pause, then: “Oh shit, it’s lashing out with its thorns. One of the boys is down. They’re going to need our help.”

“Go! go! go!” shouted Wott, who had always wanted the opportunity to shout something like that. He opened the cell door and charged out, turning to see if the two professional gentlemen were following him. To his surprise, they were not there. In fact, they had already slipped swiftly past him like silent ghosts, nearly invisible in their dark garb as they hugged the walls but still moved with incredible speed.

When Wott tumbled into the cellar, panting for breath, (all of his go go go having gone gone gone), one of the four thieves was rolling on the floor, cursing. His tightly wound clothing had protected him from the worst of the lashing briars, but he was still bleeding profusely from a hundred deep scratches. The other three were whirling around a huge, mobile rose bush like wild cats, using their long knives to sever any whipping thorns that came too close. The scene was a blur of frenzied movement, but it was obvious that the three men were being slowly beaten back. One of them moved a fraction too late and was instantly lashed by a score of barbed tendrils, sending him to join his injured companion on the floor. One of the remaining pair of fighters cast a desperate glance at Wott and called, “Fire! Set it alight! It’s our only chance of stopping the bloody thing.”

“Righto! Fire!” yelled Wott. He sprinted back through the adjoining vaults into the little cell, where he grabbed one of the torches from the wall. He ran back to the frantic struggle and prepared himself to touch the tinder-dry body of the Elemental with the flames. But just at that moment there was an elasticky popping noise and Wott felt two spheres of gristle rolling down his legs to the accompaniment of a gut-wrenching aching sensation.

“Bollocks!” he screamed.

“Hurry up,” panted one of the thieves. “We’re just about done in here.”

“My poor bollocks,” moaned Wott in anguish. “Those are my fucking balls lying on the floor and all you callous bastards can think about is yourselves.” He started to sob and the burning torch dropped from his nerveless fingers to the floor below.

“Noooo!” yelled the thieves in unison. The two who were on the ground began crawling hastily for the exit. The pair who were still fighting suddenly broke away and were gone, vanished utterly as if they had never been there.

Wott and the Elemental looked at each other in confusion.

WHOOMPH!

The dry, dusty carpet of ancient rat droppings ignited in an explosive gust that removed Wott’s eyebrows and moustache, along with much of his exposed skin. The Elemental hissed and creaked, thrashing frantically about as its briars caught fire.

Wott was about to run from the inferno, now made worse by the concussive explosions of Scoffer’s store of brandy casks, but his hobbling totter reminded him of his recent loss. He turned on his heel and waddled desperately back into the savage heat, wailing, “My balls! Please, gods, don’t let my poor balls burn!”

The following morning, yet another meeting was convened in Scoffer’s office. Their contract fulfiled, Hatchity and his men were not in attendance. Scoffer and Snoo sat in smug splendour, trying not to snigger at the bacon-textured face of Wott, who had only narrowly managed to escape with his life after scooping a pair of tortuously toasted testicles off the floor. These had been reattached to his body by being sewn in place with wire in a most uncomfortable fashion and with any luck the healing invocations he had uttered at the altar of Drumcoolin the Paralytic might just restore them to normal function eventually. This reassuring thought did nothing to make Miggley’s sideways glances and wicked grins any more endurable.

Scoffer was in no mood for small talk. “So where’s the wizardy mage? Has he been interrogated?”

“Here he is,” said Miggley, emptying a few cinders out of his handkerchief. “We managed to track him down, but regrettably he was still linked to the Elemental he had conjured and he was incinerated just as it was. So that’s where the trail ends, I’m afraid.”

Scoffer poked at the cinders with his snout, then asked, “He’s not a relative of yours, is he, Wott-Sin? He seems to suffer from the same skin complaint.”

Wott tried to ignore the guffaws at his singed complexion and said with as much dignity as he could muster, “At least I managed to fulfil my part of the job. We kept the Elemental distracted and prevented it from finding the secret door. Moreover, all of this was accomplished whilst in a condition of extreme personal discomfort, I might add. What a pity that others failed to be as efficient and learned nothing from the opportunity we provided for them.”

“We have a name,” muttered Miggley defensively. “The mage responsible was registered on the Guild’s roster as Geronimo Gadzooks. Unfortunately, we have no clue as to where he came from. There are no further leads to follow up. It’s not my fault.”

“The name and the ashes may be enough,” growled Scoffer dangerously. “Now everyone except Snoo fuck off and leave me alone.”

There were only two participants in the dread ritual that night: Grand Ranter Scoffer and Abbot Snoo. They both swore solemn oaths that they would never speak to anyone of what transpired in that grim chamber. The ashes of Geronimo Gadzooks were placed in a solution of monkey blood and maple syrup, which was then spread thickly on pancakes which the pair consumed with gusto (Scoffer wolfing more than his fair share). Scoffer then belched a dreadful invocation to Gorrem, the god of dead things, compelling him to send the spirit of Geronimo Gadzooks back from the Hells for a brief time to answer the Grand Ranter’s interrogation.

Gorrem, to be perfectly honest, was more than a little pissed off at being spoken to in this tone of voice, but he grudgingly complied, since it is never a good idea for a god to get shirty with the man responsible for recruiting his worshippers. Thus it was that a shadowy figure gradually coalesced before the necromantic duo. It was an incredibly short and podgy man, with stubby fingers, large ears, a short-sighted squint, sparse hair and buck teeth. He looked rather like a large mouse.

“Oh bugger!” the apparition exclaimed. “It’s you pair of bastards. What do you want?”

“Aha!” exclaimed Scoffer. “We have you now, you wicked wizardy mage and you’re going to answer our questions!”

“Yes, I know all that,” protested the shade. “You’ve conjured my spirit out of the Pit, where I was busily being tortured between the bosoms of a pair of succubi and you’ve bound me inside this triangle of evocation, which compels me to answer your questions truthfully. So can we please get on with it so that I can get back to being tortured?”

“And that’s punishment, is it?” demanded an incredulous Snoo. “Getting pummelled by the ample chests of lady demons now qualifies as torment, does it?”

“Well, it can chafe a bit after a while,” said Geronimo Gadzooks defensively. “Anyway, it’s my afterlife and I can be tormented any way I choose. You go get your own.”

“Listen up, shorty,” growled Scoffer, flashing his tusks. “What’s your real name?”

“Geronimo Gadzooks,” said Geronimo Gadzooks.

“Nah, what’s your real name?” insisted Scoffer. “We checked the census forms and there’s no trace of a Geronimo Gadzooks. We don’t want your bleedin’ alias.”

“My alias — or codename, as I prefer to call it — is ‘The Rodent’,” said the spirit with a hint of injured pride, “on account of my unfortunate stature and facial appearance. Geronimo Gadzooks is my real name. Of course you won’t find it on your census forms, since I wasn’t born in Lurke or its environs. I was born in Durka.”

The hairs stood up on the back of Snoo’s neck. The back of Scoffer’s orcish bull-neck was so hairy that he looked like a porcupine when the fright took him. Durka was a city state beyond the mountains that bordered the northern edge of the Lurkan plains. It was a harsh land for harsh people, who were kept in a condition of perpetual paranoia and xenophobia by the Dark Elven Secret Police. The land was ruled by a tyrant named Falroch, whose hobbies included marshalling vast armies and disembowelling dissenters with a soup ladle.

“You say you were born in Durka?” prompted Snoo nervously, hoping he may have misheard.

“That’s right,” said Geronimo’s spirit cheerily. “Lovely place, lots of lava and bracing mountain air.”

“So why were you at the Wizards’ Guild?” demanded Scoffer. “What was all that palaver with the Elemental in aid of?”

“I was at the Wizards’ Guild because I am a wizard, or at least I was before I croaked,” said the spirit bluntly. “Now I’m just a piece of ectoplasm destined to be prodded by pendulous breasts for all eternity. Which, now I come to think of it, is rather better than being a wizard. As for the Elemental, we knew there must be a back door between the wine cellars and Duke Blusterguff’s palace. My job was to locate it.”

“Why?” demanded Scoffer.

“To bump that old fart off, of course,” said the spirit. “Sneak in through the cellars, strangle the Duke, then launch an invasion during the confusion.”

“‘We’?” asked Snoo, who was pretty sharp on the uptake. “You said ‘we’ knew there must be a back door. Who’s ‘we’?”

The spirit wagged its finger at Snoo admonishingly. “Abbot, I’m surprised at you,” it said. “Your stranglehold on the gods’ testicles means that they can compel me to tell you the truth about myself, but you have no jurisdiction over souls who are still alive and evolving. So I think the identities of my co-conspirators will remain my little secret.”

“Bollocks!” snapped Scoffer. “Piss off back to Hell then, you annoying little twat.”

“Eat cheese, suckers,” chuckled The Rodent with a very rude gesture as he faded from view.

“This could be very serious, your Holy Obscenity,” said Snoo in hushed tones. “The implications are terrifying. If we lost the Duke, the Durkan military could indeed march straight into the city in the confusion.”

“Shut it, Snoo,” growled Scoffer. “We keep this to ourselves. If news of this episode ever got out, we’d look very silly. Nobody else must know. Just seal up that bloody tunnel once and for all, then no harm can come of it. No one’ll be any the wiser and the Durkans’ plans will be scuppered and there’s the end of the matter.”

“Yes, Grand Ranter, whatever you say,” said Snoo unhappily, sounding less than convinced. There were dark days ahead, he was sure of it.

A Peek Into Horror

My latest novel is a horror.  I wanted to write a horror story so bleak, stomach churning and pitiless that it will redefine the meaning of the word.  And so, I would like to introduce you to The Waters of Life.

The Waters Of Life

Perhaps the best way to make this introduction is to allow you to actually read a little bit of it.  I must warn you that it’s definitely not for the squeamish.  So here you’ll find the book’s prologue.

This prologue is set in the Tenth Century, but the rest of the novel is in modern times.  There are a few little clues and pointers tucked away in the prologue which indicate the types of things which ultimately remanifest and cause terror over a thousand years later.  All is not always as it seems…

Please be aware that this is a work in progress and not yet thoroughly edited.

*********

PROLOGUE:

UNCLEAN LODGINGS

Unclean! Unclean!” The weak, throaty voice rasped its hoarse warning as its owner shuffled laboriously along the dirt track, ringing a mournful note on a bell to reinforce the warning.

Peter the leper had very little to be thankful for in his life. He felt grateful that the damage to his nerves meant that he could not feel the agonies of the rot that gnawed at his body, the flesh that sloughed from his bones. But that was about the only blessing he could count, until the day when his loathsome disease might finally extinguish his tormented existence.

Peter always kept moving. It didn’t do for a leper to remain in one place for too long, the local people gave beggars money and food so they would go away. Those who dared linger for more than a day or two would be driven off with sticks and stones, as people’s fear of the disease took hold. But here, at the monastery at Scratchbury, he had always been made to feel welcome for a few days, on the orders of Abbot Wulfred. The Abbot was a saintly man, who fed, clothed and sheltered the children of the local poor families, and who always had a warm fire and a comfortable bed for a passing leper to use. He had always left the monastery feeling stronger and well fed, with a sack full of food. But not this time.

It took Peter three months to do his regular circuit of the villages in the region. This time, when he arrived at the monastery and knocked upon its great doors, they had only been opened a fraction. The monk who peered out had crossed himself and regarded Peter with undisguised revulsion. He had been told that Abbot Wulfred had died and that the monastery no longer had anything to offer the unclean. If Peter did not move on immediately, he would be driven off with staves.

The night was cold and windy. A storm was brewing, Peter knew that the rain would soon start falling. What had happened to so harden the hearts of the monks after Wulfred’s death? Now Peter’s only real rest and comfort was lost to him. The other unfortunates who crawled from one town or village to the next in search of alms would be in the same sorry situation. Wulfred’s hospitality could literally be a life saver at this time of year. But now he was gone, and the spirit of charity had died with him. Perhaps now Peter would finally die too and his suffering would come to an end?

“Unclean! Unclean!” he called out his feeble warning again to inform any others foolish enough to be out walking on this stormy night that they should not draw too close. He rang his bell, which was tied to his wrist, for his remaining two fingers and thumb were too swollen and numb to grip it.

The wind blew harder and the rain came with it, lashing Peter’s rags and drenching him in seconds. He knew the cold would be better. He had no feeling at all in his extremities, the nerves completely dead, but his diseased flesh would suffer the predations of frostbite nonetheless, accelerating the creeping rot which had already claimed some of his fingers and most of his toes, twisting his limbs and reducing his face to a featureless slab of sick meat. If he lost any more toes, he would no longer be able to walk, and would have to crawl or drag himself along on a low cart like some of the other lepers did, or those who had lost their legs in the incessant wars. Please, he begged, please, just let there be an end to it.

The dirt track, which was now reduced to mud in the driving rain, was approaching the shore of the lake. Peter looked blearily ahead. His vision was blurred, he knew that he would become blind before long, and he struggled to discern what the large, square bulk was that loomed to the left of the path. He drew closer, squinting hard, then he recognised it. It was the vault where the monks buried their dead. Usually, it was concealed in the trees, but winter had stripped away the foliage, leaving it exposed to view. A thought struck Peter and he shuffled unsteadily closer.

He rounded the stone structure until he reached the door and he tried the latch. Yes, it was open! Abbot Wulfred must have been laid to rest here and the monks had not yet chained the door closed after the funeral. Sobbing with relief, Peter heaved the portal open and scrambled down the dank stone steps, pulling the door closed behind him. The sound of the howling wind and lashing rain was muted now.

Peter stumbled down the steps until he stood on the earthen floor below. The bones of most of the monks were placed in alcoves around the walls, but a stone sarcophagus had been placed in the centre of the floor. Perhaps this was where Abbot Wulfred now lay in his final sleep? Regardless, the good Abbot had unwittingly extended his hospitality to Peter one final time, giving him shelter from the storm that raged outside. Peter leaned back against the sarcophagus and curled himself up as best he could, until sleep took him and his mind was able to escape the prison of his wracked body for a few merciful hours.

Peter slept late and his dreams were peaceful. When he awoke, he could hear the faint sounds of bird song from outside. Sunlight shone around the edges of the door. The storm had evidently passed.

He struggled awkwardly onto his elbows and knees, then levered himself upright. Standing up was difficult without proper use of his ruined hands. The bottom of his rags slapped wetly against the sarcophagus and the filthy strips wrapped around his misshapen feet also squelched as he staggered forward. Perhaps the rain had got into the vault, making a puddle? He struggled up the steps, opening the door wide to let the light in, and looked back down into the vault’s interior.

He could see water on the floor, reflecting the sunlight, but it was not a puddle, it seemed to be moving, a shallow stream. He shambled back down the steps to investigate and saw that the water was pouring out of the sarcophagus. A small crack was in the stone base, from which the little stream flowed. The sarcophagus must have been placed over an underground stream, which had perhaps risen and flowed into it as the rains fell overnight. The stream crossed the floor and spilled through a second crack beneath the wall.

Peter examined the water. It continued to flow steadily and it seemed very clear and clean, sparkling in the light that shone down into the vault through the door. He was very thirsty, so he lowered his head and drank deeply. The water was very cold and seemed to seize his spirit and body in a chilly grip. He straightened up, droplets falling from the flat slab of his face, his eyelids fluttering. He could feel his heart palpitating, hear his sick blood pumping in his ears. Something strange was happening. He couldn’t …

When Peter awoke, the light was no longer angling down into the vault, though it was still daytime outside. That meant the sun must have moved a fair distance in its course. He must have slept for several hours and it was now afternoon. He placed his hand flat on the earth floor to lever himself upwards and then stopped and stared in absolute shock. His hand was whole and healthy, with its full complement of perfectly formed fingers! His right hand had been missing two of its fingers and the others were mere useless twigs, bags of skin filled with pus. But now his hand was whole again. He spread his fingers, feeling the rough, but yielding sensation of the soil beneath his hand. His nerves had regenerated too: he could feel again!

He scrambled to his feet, and found it easy to do so. He checked his other extremities, his mind awhirl. They were all whole and blooming with health, ruddy-complexioned and fair to behold. His twisted limbs were now straight and strong. He raised a hand to his face and felt features that had long since been gnawed away by his sickness: he had nose, lips, cheeks, all full and fair. His eyesight was clear and sharp.

“My God!” he exclaimed, his voice shaking but hearty, “I have been healed! Blessed Abbot! I am whole and clean again!” He threw himself to the ground and prostrated himself in prayer before Wulfred’s tomb, blessing the waters that flowed over the old saint’s remains, which had brought him such healing.

It was late afternoon when Peter ran into the village square at Scratchbury. He greeted the beggars, showing them his unblemished flesh. “My friends, I have been healed!” he cried. “See, my sores have gone, my body is renewed.”

They squinted at him and looked at each other in puzzlement. Could this really be Peter, the disease-ravaged leper who dragged himself from town to town?

Peter was making quite a commotion in the square and quite a few people were beginning to gather around, although they all kept a distance from him, wary. When he tried to enter the village inn, a sturdy fellow with a staff blocked his way.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the man demanded.

“Forgive me, friend,” blurted Peter, grinning happily and spreading his hands to show his perfect body. “There is no reason to fear. See, my leprosy has left me. I drank of the water that flows from Abbot Wulfred’s tomb and the good saint has washed away my sickness. I am whole once more!”

“You still can’t come in here,” the man insisted, shaking his grizzled head. “The leper’s bell still hangs from your wrist and the taint of the sickness must linger on those rags you wear.”

“Does he claim a miracle, then?” asked another man, a travelling apothecary. “Hold out your arms, man, and uncover your face.”

Peter did as he was bade. The apothecary edged closer, examining him and sniffing deeply. “His flesh seems sound and I cannot smell the rot,” he said. “This man was a leper, you say?”

“He was,” said a woman in the crowd. “He would arrive here begging every season, we would give him food and money to send him on his way. He was thick with it, the flesh hanging from his putrid bones, a terror to our children.”

“Aye, and we let him and his kind linger here too long,” shouted another woman. “We showed them charity when we should have driven them hence, for so many of our little ones have fallen sick these last few months.”

“Then it would appear that a miracle has indeed come to pass,” said the apothecary, “for this man has no leprosy upon him now. You may be right about his garments, though, they are filthy and the disease may cling to them. These he must burn. Fetch him some other raiment and let him remain here while one of you fetches the priest.”

Peter was tossed a smock and hose by the innkeeper’s wife and was forced to change there and then, in front of all. He then gathered up his old rags and bundled them onto a fire.

By this time, the village priest had arrived and stood at a distance, regarding Peter through anxious eyes, uncertain of what to do. “You claim to have been miraculously healed, my son,” he stammered. “Tell me, how did this happen?”

“I sheltered from the storm in the vault by the lake last night, where the monks lay their dead,” explained Peter. “When I woke this morning, I saw a stream of water trickling from a crack in Abbot Wulfred’s tomb. I drank from it and fell into a swoon. When I recovered, I was completely healed, just as you see me now.” He spread his arms, letting the priest see that his body was clean and whole.

“Do you claim that the Abbot is a Saint, then?” demanded the priest.

“I do not know,” said Peter. “I say only what I have experienced. But why should the Abbot not be a Saint? He was a kind and charitable man in life, perhaps God has blessed his remains in death?”

The priest shook his head. “This is too hard a matter for me to decide. I must ask the Bishop for his judgement, and he will no doubt require the advice of the monks. You, fellow, must be held in the church until they have decided this difficult matter.”

This was good enough for the villagers. who prodded Peter into the church with their staves. The priest locked him in a storeroom and gave him food and water, but they would not release him nor speak to him further.

On the fifth day of his confinement, Peter heard the key turning in the storeroom lock and a solemn, brown-robed man with a shaven head entered the room. He appeared to be one of the monks from Wulfred’s monastery.

“Tell me your story, fellow,” said the monk in soft tones.

Peter told his story once again, leaving out no detail. The monk nodded solemnly throughout.

When Peter had finished speaking, the monk sighed deeply and raised his eyes as if in prayer. He stood motionless for a few moments, then fixed Peter with a penetrating gaze and said, “I believe you. That water has indeed healed you of your leprosy, for I recall you visiting the monastery when afflicted. Such deformities cannot be disguised, therefore your cure is undeniable. However, we cannot allow others to seek a cure for their sicknesses in that stream. Such would be a terrible thing. We must decide what is to be done. God be with you.” He then left the room, locking a confused Peter inside again.

The next day, the storeroom was opened and two villagers entered. They shackled Peter’s wrists and ankles, touching him with scarcely concealed revulsion, then they led him to the village hall.

The interior of the hall had been set out like a court room, with the village headman and priest sitting on the right of the Bishop. To his left sat two monks, their hoods drawn low to conceal their features. Peter was placed standing before them, then the villagers holding him retreated.

The Bishop looked at Peter with sharp eyes that held a slight suggestion of regret. “We have considered the case of this man and the manner of the departure of his affliction,” the Bishop said. “Upon the advice of the monks who knew Abbot Wulfred, and through the guidance of God upon my soul, I declare that Wulfred is not a Saint and that this healing does not come from God. If not from God, from where? I say, from the Devil. This man has sought the aid of foul sorcery. And since the Devil’s works are illusory, his appearance of health is but a phantasm. He is still afflicted with his disease, which he has brought among us all, the Devil’s purpose being to afflict us all in our turn. By the grace of God, we are alert to the enemy’s wiles. He must be taken from this place and burnt.”

The Bishop turned to the head man, passing the execution of judgement into the hands of secular authority. “Take him to the stake!” ordered the head man.

The two villagers who had brought Peter into the hall now dragged him out into the market square. To his horror, he saw that a wooden stake had been raised in the centre, with straw, kindling and larger logs piled under it. He was hauled to the top of the pile and his shackles were fastened around it.

The priest was standing to one side, reading verses from the Bible, but Peter was too panic stricken to even register what he was saying. The villagers were all gathering around to watch. As he struggled and pissed himself in fear, someone daubed his smock with flammable oil.

The priest finished reading and there were a few moments’ silence, during which Peter could only hear the blood pounding in his own temples and his whimpering panting. Then one of the monks stepped forward and thrust a lit torch into the kindling.

As the flames caught and began to sear Peter’s feet and legs, he wished that he had never been healed, that his dead nerves had not been regenerated only for him to feel this agony through them. Then he could think no more, he only had wit enough left to scream.