Squirrel

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“Do you have to do that?”

He’d been scraping dirt from under his nails with the point of his penknife; black woodland earth, and blood he thought, bound to be, mixed in. Beth was washing potatoes in the colander. She tilted it to show them to him; baby ones from the garden.

He’d have changed his clothes except he was so tired. He needed tea and to sit.

He looked into the squirrel’s eyes and the coal black beads seemed to look back at him. It lay there on the table, on its side, it’s little mouth open, jaws stiff and oversize teeth bared. The table was cluttered; normal kitchen table mess: unpaid bills; keys; the empty fruit bowl, and a dead squirrel.

His stomach knotted and turned with hunger. He reached out and put down the knife; left his hand on the table and watched it shake, just a little tremor.

“How’s Gemma?” His voice trembled like his hand.

“Poorly,” Beth said. Her look told him more. She came over and poked the squirrel.

“It’s dead,” he said. Once upon a time he might have smiled. His trousers were damp and his feet were wet. He’d have to wring out his socks.

“What shall I do with it?”

“Roast it,” he said. “I don’t know. Is there still gas in the bottle?”

She nodded and took the animal by its tail; finger and thumb as if it was a rat. It hadn’t come to that yet though. He didn’t say anything, and he didn’t let his dull annoyance turn to anger, he just put some money on the table, wet edged notes from his rain-soaked pocket.

“Andrew’s still taking them then?”

“For now.”

Hanging from her hand, the squirrel, curled up just a little, went to the sink. Wide-eyed, it spared him a last unblinking look as it went under the knife.

He thought about going to see Gemma in the other room, but he couldn’t. Not yet. He bent down to peel off his socks; wiped a tear from his eye.

 

 

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Just Another Roof

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On thousands of mornings just like this one he had climbed longer ladders on to more imposing roofs without even noticing that he was high above the ground. These were the places he lived and worked; the view from the rooftops was his view.

This time though, the instant he moved to leave the top of the main ladder he had known that something was different: his feet tingled in his boots and the palms of his hands felt hollow and cold; his fingers began to sweat.

‘Fuck!’ A curse and a deep breath didn’t shift the lightness he felt in his limbs; involuntarily his hand went back towards the ladder and worse than that he glanced down, all the way down towards the van. ‘Fuck!’

‘You’re okay’ he muttered to himself, ‘must have had too much coffee this morning that’s all.’ But the fear was rising in his chest. He turned away from the roof edge, steeled himself as best he could and made for the ridge.

Every unsteady step strengthened his conviction that he was going to fall; the open air around him pulled at his senses; he felt that the slightest breeze might lift him from the roof entirely. He wanted desperately to lie flat against the tiles, to lie still and close his eyes. Somehow at last at the ridge, the urge to cling on was too powerful to resist.

Rapid breath followed rapid breath. How ridiculous he felt hanging on there where normally he would have stood straight. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t even move, and yet, despite the paralysing vertigo and the terror of the fall, perversely another worry forced itself to the forefront of his mind. He hoped to God that Matt would not look up and see him like this.

Staying still and trying to reason with himself didn’t work. If this was the new reality he didn’t like it, not at all. He had moved all too swiftly from not understanding a fear of heights to not knowing how he had passed more than thirty years of his life slating, tiling and walking roofs. He couldn’t do it now that much was for certain.

Momentarily he noticed the warmth of the Sun on the back of his neck; he remembered that it was a lovely day. The birds were singing in the treetops, and far below in a back garden a greenhouse door opened noisily and a hose was turned on. But that world, the world down there, felt so far away, and the thought of a solitary white cloud in the vast blue sky overhead made him reel and shake at the knees.

‘I can’t stay here with my arse in the air’ he whispered into the tiles against his face. It felt like he had been there an age, but it couldn’t have been that long because there was still no sign of Matt. He raised his head just a little, experimentally at first, and resolved to turn over, so that at least he could sit down.

First his left boot slipped, sliding sickeningly down three rows of tiles that clattered as the roofer’s weight passed across them, and then the other boot went and then a knee. Somehow, he didn’t know how, in the panic he managed to turn over and land on his backside, each hand behind him a row of white knuckles stuck fast to the ridge.

‘Fuck!’ His heart pounded and his breath came in jagged fits and starts out of his control. He looked down between his knees and fought for calm.

Taking his right hand from the roof wasn’t easy; making the effort to reach inside his chest pocket and pull out his mobile was even harder. He thought about calling Matt, it would be easier than shouting down. He didn’t want to hear his voice raised weakly across the rooftops, something about that thought brought another vertiginous wave crashing down; he swallowed hard and redoubled his grip on both roof and phone.

He didn’t call Matt. He scrolled down through the numbers and came to rest on his Mum and Dad’s.

‘Hello.’
‘Hello Dad? Dad, it’s me.’
‘Well I didn’t think it was your sister. Hold on, I’ll call your Mum.’
‘No Dad, it’s you I want to talk to.’
‘Blimey, what have I done to deserve this then?’
‘What?’
‘A call in the middle of the morning and it’s not even my birthday.’
‘Dad, I’m stuck on a roof.’
‘Don’t be a silly sod Colin. What do you mean? Are you having me on?’
‘No seriously Dad, I’m stuck.’
‘What do you mean stuck? Caught up? Where’s Matt? You’re not hurt are you?’
‘No, no I’m not hurt Dad. Dad, Dad, I’m scared. I’m up here and I’m bloody terrified.’

He was near to tears now and the phone was suddenly silent. He pulled it from his ear and checked the signal and before he spoke again.

‘Dad? Are you still there Dad?’
‘I’m here mate.’

His Dad’s voice had changed, softened; there was a tone there that Colin had almost forgotten.

‘Listen mate, there’s nothing to be scared of. You’ve been going up on roofs since you were a teenager. You’ve done it nearly all your life boy. Now, tell me, how far are you from the ladder down?’
‘Three or four yards Dad.’
‘It’s not a steep roof is it?’
‘No Dad, not really.’
‘All right mate. How do you feel now? A little calmer?’
‘A little bit, yes, a little bit.’
‘Okay then, you think about how many times you’ve walked along roofs and swung down onto ladders. You’ve got nothing to be scared of.’
‘No, all right Dad, I know, I know. But I’ve been sat here shaking. What’s the matter with me?’
‘Bad day at the office mate, just a bad day at the office. Now, you’re going to go down to the ladder on your backside, all right?’
‘All right.’
‘But you’ll have to put the phone down mate. Put the phone away and then get yourself to the ladder. You call me back in a minute or two or I swear I’ll tell your Mum what’s happening and she’ll have the Fire Brigade over there in five minutes. You don’t want to come down that ladder over a fireman’s shoulder do you?’
‘No Dad. All right, I’m putting the phone away now. Talk in a minute.’

Being alone again was hard, but as he moved towards the ladder, inch-by-inch without rising at all from his sitting position, he wasn’t thinking about falling, or about this inexplicable terror; he was thinking about his Dad. Colin was fifty and his Dad was nearly eighty, but for a few moments there on the phone the years had rolled back.

Before he knew it he was on the ladder and on his way down to the ground. Standing there on the path looking up the few metres to the roof his legs were unsteady; he wiped a hot tear from his cheek. ‘Thanks Dad’ he muttered, and made for the van.

‘Dad’
‘Are you down mate?’
‘Yes Dad, I’m in the van.’
‘Well done, boy. Well done.’
‘I’ll come by and see you later, okay?’
‘You do that mate, you do that.’

Colin lit a cigarette that he had rolled earlier and reached out for his flask to pour himself a coffee, decided against it and just smoked instead. He watched the cars go by on the road and enjoyed the warmth of the Sun on his face.

‘Are you okay Dad?’
‘Matt. Where the fuck have you been?’
‘I just went down to the shop. I told you I was going. Are you all right? You look as white as sheet.’

He got out of the car and stood next to his son and looked up again at the ladder and the roof. ‘I had a bit of funny turn Matt, that’s all. I expect I’ll be okay in a bit.’

 

* * * * * *

 

The old man was sitting looking out of his front window, he felt queasy and scared in a way he hadn’t for a very long time.

‘Are you all right, love? Who was that on the phone?’

He hadn’t heard Pat come into the room, now he turned and smiled rather wanly at her. ‘I’m all right, love, yes. It was Colin on the phone.’
‘Really? I brought you a coffee and a biscuit. So what did Colin have to say? Didn’t he want to talk to me?’
‘He’ll be around later, love.’
‘Oh that’ll be nice.’

She passed him his coffee and put the biscuit tin down on the table next to his chair.

‘Do you know what, love? He said in place of his customary thank you, ‘I used to hate climbing roofs. Really, I hated it.’
Pat looked at her husband surprised in equal measure perhaps by what he was saying and by how suddenly he had decided to say it.
‘I used to get really scared, love. I never told anyone. When life was hard doing that job was the most difficult thing in the World. Some days, lots of days, I never knew whether I was going to be able to climb the ladder, or how I’d come down again if I did.’

 

 

Index Fossils

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Apfazd was painfully aware that he stood out. He tried not to look around, took another step,felt another twinge. Three steps feeling as if one leg was too short, and then the next, always the fourth, sent a spiral wrench of agony up his left side. He leant on a street corner, sucked in air, lop-sided.

 

He so wanted to go home. Not to the little apartment under the town wall, that wasn’t home. He would have cried, but he’d sobbed himself dry years before.

 

Halfway to the temple he shifted his carapace with a shrug. That gave no relief. Millstone hard, it felt like it wasn’t his, it was punishing him for its having been broken, although he hadn’t broken it. He’d cried out, screamed as it was pierced and pried.

 

The desert had entered into him, its grit was inside, creeping against his soft flesh. Sometimes he pushed open the small round window that looked out over the shimmering dunes, he wanted to feel moving air, even if it was the baking air of the wastes. In came the dust and sand and found its way under his cracked carapace, scouring him as it might a naked shell-less thing. Something from aeons past.

 

“Dirty heretic.”

 

He turned at the whisper. For once no-one was looking at him. Pain was his only companion. Even intact he didn’t look like the locals, but he’d stayed too long to be a visitor; carried the look of an exile about him. He was visited by the kind of strangers who came outside of office hours; who came in pairs.

 

He limped.No-one ever helped him. If he fell to his knees, no hand went out to lift him. Only Oblotz had ever approached him in the street, and he didn’t want to see him again. No, Apfazd was friendless and untouchable.

 

Untouchable since the last time he’d been broken, picked up, limp and begging, full of regret and sworn to penitence, to abandon the delusions he’d once said were the truth.

 

The only contact now was at the temple door.

 

“Apfazd, you are welcome. Blessings of this place upon you.”

 

“Thank you, Wise Guardian,” he replied, and bowed to the briefest of touches on hand and head. Breathing in deeply, he smelled the priest and lingered, tried to draw strength from the touch, but the benediction was over.

 

Another few struggled paces and Apfazd was inside the calming cool of the temple. There were the usual rapid embarrassed glances as he clambered noisily into place. The bench was always empty but for him.

 

He prayed for faith. He always prayed for faith, for some sign that he was being heard. He didn’t need anything dramatic, nothing external. Just some feeling or answering voice in his head, even the subtlest reassurance. He longed for faith to fill the gaping void.

 

Maybe the others here had access to something that he didn’t; maybe they’d paid attention to something that he’d missed or were more virtuous than he had ever been. He felt exposed at the back, as if the priest was always looking over the others and directly at him. He shuffled rigidly to one side, towards the fluted column that ran up to the roof.

 

He prayed to be able to go home. Really home.

 

“Look inside yourselves,” the priest clicked. Apfazd did, into a shattered landscape that made no sense. He blamed himself and wanted to believe. Somewhere out of reach, before the pain, it had all gone wrong. He mustn’t have been paying attention. It was his fault. He had dreamed of ages long gone by, and in his dreams very different beings walked the Earth. “Find the inner light,” but inside Apfazd Apfazd found only a battlefield on which every corpse had his face, and where every torn and broken limb had once been part of his wrecked body.

 

His eyes snapped open although he hadn’t noticed that he’d closed them. Every face in the row in front was turned towards him. He was leaning against the column.

 

“Quiet,” one of them said as if Apfazd had been talking or moaning to himself.

 

“I’m sorry,” Apfazd mumbled scratchily, but they’d all turned away.

 

At the end he waited. If he went first he’d hold everyone up; the whispers would all be behind him, pushing at his senses. So he sat and waited. He let the cold stone column numb his whole left side, and he stared at the dusty floor beneath the bench in front.

 

“Thank you, Wise Guardian,” he said on his slow way through the door.

 

“Patience and fortitude, Apfazd,” the priest said, and he touched him again in reluctant benediction. Apfazd stopped under his hands.

 

“I try,” he said, “I try, but…”

 

“That is all that we can ask,” the priest said hastily, casting his eyes left and right; withdrawing his hands. A moment later he’d gone back inside and the door was shut.

 

Apfazd took ragged deep breaths and began his walk to the small apartment in the street by the town wall. He counted the inflamed places where the desert had entered his body, and he watched the pain move. At times he could distance himself, as if none of this was real, as if he was watching someone else.

 

They talked as he passed. They watched him and they talked. He walked through the pain, a street at a time, reacquainting himself with each corner as he leant to rest. His legs cracked and his carapace grated. He thought about which parts of him felt all right. His right arm was pain free, it felt empty, and his right eye was clear. If only he could be all there, if only he could take away the rest of him.

 

“Dirty stranger,” hissed at him. “Dirty heretic.”

 

He turned the corner into the shady street that followed the town wall, a gust of shell-husk dry air picked up sand and threw it in his face.

 

His neighbour was watching him, a female so ancient that her face was scoured to the colour of the desert. Her antennae moved slowly, suspiciously. She looked towards Apfazd’s door. It was open. “You have visitors, Broodless,” she said.

 

Apfazd wanted to tell her that he did have a family. Had had a family. Just not here, a long way away. He wanted to tell her how much he wanted to go to them, how little he wanted to stay in the street by the town wall. Instead he stared at the open door. His leg twinged painfully.

 

“The usual ones, Cripple,” the ancient added. Apfazd looked at her. She was hard, wore her years like armour.

 

“Thank you,” he said to her, and as if shocked by their sudden unaccustomed neighbourliness, she scuttled away into the deep gloom of her own abode.

 

He didn’t like the front door. It was heavy and it creaked. When it shut it always slammed and made him wince. He always wondered whether it would open the next time he tried it.

 

A sunlit shaft of golden dust fell into the middle of the apartment floor. The two agents from The Embrace stood with their backs towards him. They were far too close to the two floorboards that could be lifted. At the scrape of his feet they turned, one emotionless, the other a studied mockery of sympathy and kindness. Apfazd had seen the look before, he associated with a cracking noise, with the shattering of his leg. Pain jabbed at him.

 

“Apfazd,” the kindly torturer said, “getting around, I see.” Apfazd nodded stiffly. He felt sick. “Don’t look so worried, Apfazd, you’ll make us feel unwelcome. Apfazd looked down directly at the floorboards that could be moved, realised what he was doing and so looked all around, quickly, as if he were quite mad. He rubbed his face and pulled nervously at an antenna.

 

“We’re just here to make sure that you’re well,” said the one, as the other, who never spoke, walked around behind him. “Just to make sure that none of the unfortunate ideas have returned; the thoughts we helped you to get over when you stayed with us.” He paused and inspected Apfazd. “You are well aren’t you, Apfazd?”

 

Apfazd nodded or twitched, and then nodded again. “I’d like to go home,” he said. His voice sounded small and his leg was shaking. The one behind him had reached out and put his hand on Apfazd’s back, it moved towards the long jagged crack and the hole.

 

“Of course you would. We just need to be sure that your disturbing delusions have stopped worrying you, and that they won’t threaten The Collective. You remember them don’t you, Apfazd?”

 

Apfazd closed his eyes and shook his head.

 

“Dreams of the ancient past? Dreams of other beings?”

 

“No. I don’t remember.” He kept his eyes closed in case he looked down at the floorboards again.

 

“Who do you talk to Apfazd?”

 

“No-one.” Apfazd convulsed and took half a step forwards. The hand probed into his broken carapace. “No-one, I see no-one. I don’t even recall my, my illness. I just want to go home.”

 

A raised hand from the talker and the hand withdrew. “The Embrace will consider your request, Apfazd.” The talker looked around not hiding his distaste. “You have such a nice home here though,” he said. “We must be going, Apfazd. Until the next time.”

 

Apfazd’s thorax expanded and contracted rapidly, his head spun and pain rolled in waves down his body. By the time he’d recovered enough to collapse into his chair, the agents of The Embrace were long gone.

 

The shaft of light moved across his body, kissing him with gentle warmth even as the evening chilled. At last he stood and went to the floorboards that could be lifted. Anxiously he listened. He was alone. He pulled up the boards shakily and lifted an old case from the darkness below. It had been here empty when he’d first arrived, that and the scratched ramblings of tiny graffiti the only signs of previous occupation.

 

It hurt his hands to click the case open. Inside, laid out neatly and packed in cloth, were rows of fossils, at least that’s what he’d believed them to be when he’d collected them. That much he could remember.

 

He didn’t know how Oblotz had found him. “Apfazd, I’ve found you,” he’d said.

 

“No,” Apfazd had replied, “I don’t know you. You don’t know me, leave me alone.” But Oblotz had insisted, dragged him into a side alley, and made him take him to the apartment. “I’ve brought you some of your finds,” he’d said. “You can keep up your work.”

 

“What work?” Apfazd had raged. “There is no work. You must go before it’s too late.” He’d pushed Oblotz around and out of the door, finding strength he didn’t know he had. He’d been left though, with the specimens, the last remnants of whatever madness had destroyed his old life and taken him away from his home.

 

There’d been another civilisation, a long time ago, that’s what he’d once said, written, taught. The creatures still walked in his dreams; they demanded that he believe in them. They were fleshy bipedal nightmares from an imagined ancient history. Why did they visit him? And what were these stony shards that he couldn’t bring himself to throw away?

 

Apfazd picked up a specimen and turned it over in his one good right hand. These secret things haunted him, proved nothing and only brought fragments of memories tumbling into his mind. “If they let me go home,” he said aloud, “all of this stays here, under the floorboards. All of this madness.”

 

I have no Uncle Jack

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Reaching out one night with blunt fingers

Uncle Jack explored the creases

A packet of Fisherman’s Friends so old

That he’d forgotten they were there

He walked his hand to the tall glass

Slurped warm water

Went for a lozenge

Softened, gone granular

They’d stuck together

Abandoned the shape they’d long known

Little did Jack know

As he rammed the damp powder into his gums

Hoping only for a little clarity and cool sinuses in the tightness of the night

He too would soon lose the form in which habit held him

When the darkness began to melt

As purple snot ribbons ran down the walls

Magnolia in the light of day he was sure

He had the idea that all was not well

He was wide-eyed, bulging, face stretching

Three gurned days it went on

His transformation

Long twisting nights

Stretched and enveloping

Short days too fast for Jack to reach the curtains

To tear them open to the sky

He was a changed man after that

My Uncle Jack.

Long Tired Night

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4.22

Reaching out liminally

Atomic light

The same time as last night

Presage of the hour of my death

One day, some year

 

Children know

Don’t reach out into darkness

Tidal and deep

Other things live there

 

Edging to the kitchen door

Through sleep and through the sleeping house

No darker within than without

Just deeper

My own scream wakes me

 

I used to sleep with my head under my pillow

Safe and tucked in

Except the thick darkness embraces, you see?

Nightmares reach in

It takes the pale dawn to thin it

And the singing of the birds.

The Farm on the Fjord – Part Twelve & The End – Snorri

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Snorri

When I awake my father is standing in the doorway looking out on to a bright new day. The Sun is shining down from a clear blue sky on deep snow all around. I go to him and look too on the changed world; the fjord is perfectly still, a mirrored silver ribbon running away into the crystal distance.

‘The dwarf has gone,’ my father says, ‘he left a purse of gold hanging over the hearth. No tracks in the snow. None at all.’

‘Do you think we’ll see him again, Father?’ I ask, but he doesn’t answer. Pétr and Gorm come past us, taking Father’s hand in turn and shaking it. They embrace one another and leave, going their separate ways, their tracks cutting down into the snow, throwing glistening powder into the cold air.

The warriors too are ready to leave. Floki leaves first saying only a simple ‘Thank you.’ When Egil comes to depart he is carrying the sword that the other man arrived with. ‘I cannot be certain that he murdered Guthrum,’ he says. ‘He wanted to me to have my brother’s sword.’

Then all that is left are the tracks in the snow and Bjorni and his family who will stay the whole winter with us because they have no house to which they can return. ‘In a few summers your boy Snorri will need a wife,’ Bjorni says, ‘and my eldest girl will need a husband.’

‘That would seem a good arrangement,’ Father agrees, ‘she is a pretty girl. And all of us living together this winter will give them time to become friends.’

‘Always a good start,’ Bjorni nods. I will not mention that Evja and I kissed as children kiss last summer in the meadows. I have almost forgotten about last night already.

The Farm on the Fjord – Part Eleven- Bjorni

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Bjorni

I’m scared for myself of course, I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I’m more frightened still for the little ones and for my wife, Thyre. My family is freezing to death even as we stumble to the door. ‘Thorkell,’ I try to shout, but my throat has dried and tightened and the howling wind steals away all that remains of my voice. I hammer on the door then and do not stop until my hands hurt and at last it is pulled open. Thorkell lowers his shield and all five of us stagger past him and inside.

‘Bjorni,’ Thorkell says, ‘have you lost your senses?’ It is then that I realise that Thorkell and Aase already have a house full of guests. I look at all the strangers, dumbstruck as Aase comes and hurries the little ones and Thyre over into the warm.

‘It’s cold out there, Thorkell,’ I say.

‘The winter has come, Bjorni. Did you not notice until you were outside here?’

‘Colder than it should be I mean.’ Thorkell looks at me, confused. ‘We have been driven from our home this night, Thorkell,’ I go on as he shepherds me in my turn, shaking hard now, towards the hearth-side. ‘They fell upon Filip’s house and destroyed it. I saw him in the distance, killed, broken like a birch twig.’

‘You saw your neighbour killed and you ran away?’ a warrior who is there says. I’m not going to argue with him; he wasn’t there, he didn’t see them.

‘Who were they?’ Thorkell asks urgently. ‘Who were they, Bjorni?’

‘I cannot tell you, Thorkell, because I do not know.’ The tall warrior who spoke and another one who looks at him like they are enemies stand up now, tightening their belts and readying their helmets and shields. ‘They will come here next, Thorkell, we should…….’ And there I stop because I know that my young ones cannot venture outside again; even if they could, where would we go? There is nowhere else on this side of the fells.

‘Giants then,’ the tall warrior says dismissively, ‘or trolls. I will fight them; kill them if they come.’

‘They will not turn their backs on you,’ the other one says quietly and for a moment I think they’ll just attack each other and forget the terror that comes on the storm and with the night. It is then that the fear comes, just as it came to us earlier, just as I felt it, trembled with it without warning, before I stepped outside in the gloom of dusk and saw swift death fall on Filip’s house. I look around and see pale faces, they all feel it too. They all hear the deep mournful voices carried on the winter wind, buffeting the walls, as if it is the sound alone which makes the timbers of the house creak and moan. The fire gutters and a log spits; the light from the hearth dims and the children begin to cry. We all want to hide now, or to run; I am ready to run alone, to leave my loved ones behind this time, until that is, my eye comes to rest on the dwarf.

The dwarf is an island of calm in our rising tide of fear. Somehow I almost laugh, although I have never before found mirth in the midst of blinding horror, when he takes a drink from his mug and sets it down gently next to him. He’s saving ale for later, as if we will have a later.

‘We must hide,’ he says, the first words he has spoken since we arrived. His voice is the gentle summer wind on the high pastures.

‘How?’ Aase demands.

‘Do not fear,’ the dwarf says. I watch fascinated as he takes some little symbol in his fingers, I cannot tell what, it may be gold. He begins to move his hands and chant, his voice low and the words as mysterious and ancient as the high places of the world. We are all watching now. It seems to me that he is weaving, and although I cannot see the fabric, I feel it grow around us, the company, the animals growing silent in their pen, and the house itself right up to the bats roosting in the rafters above the hay loft.

‘Are we hidden?’ Thorkell asks, childlike in wonder.

‘Well,’ the dwarf replies, ‘more like temporarily absent.’ None of us understand, but the wind has gone and the dread voices are no longer to be heard outside. ‘It would not be a good idea to open the door,’ the dwarf adds. To our amazement he laughs and returns his attention to his beer.