Print

CHAPTER ONE:  AUTUMN DUTSON R.I.P.

 

  Autumn Dutson wasn’t dead: to begin with.

  She stepped outside and yawned, stretching her arms skywards.  It was going to be a wonderful day.  

  The rising sun glinted off the small pentacle that never left her neck.  She smiled as the warmth cut through a chill April dawn and shone upon her face. 

  She turned to her aging Ford Escort, and to her amazement the largest rainbow she’d ever seen passed slowly by to the north, almost within touching distance.  She smiled again; despite the fact that the rainbow was obviously a harbinger of the rain that would surely follow in its wake. 

  She heard a bird sing; and wondered for a moment if it would land on her still outstretched hand.  She looked around anxiously, hoping to catch sight of it, but it had obviously taken shelter from the coming storm.

  No matter.  One day a bird would land on her hand and sing; it was only a matter of time.  The thought kept her cheerful as she struggled to get the engine started.

  She hoped that today would be the start of her new life.  Having waved goodbye to the squalid, grubby world of capitalism, partly thanks to a small legacy from her recently deceased father, she now had the chance to work for the Cat’s Protection League as a volunteer.  She didn’t care about the lack of remuneration; she was free.  This was her chance to give something back to the animals she loved.

  A brief pang of guilt struck her as the car pulled out of the small country lane; she would far prefer to have taken a train to the interview, as she knew with a heart-stopping surety that every mile her worn tyres covered hastened the demise of all life on the planet; but public transport from the little village of Hewaswater to, well, anywhere was pretty much non-existent. 

  Not only did Autumn not like cars, she didn’t really understand them either.  She believed that by now, they should really have invented a car that didn’t rust, and whose tyres and brakes didn’t need changing from time to time.  The car, naturally, had other ideas about this, and didn’t take kindly to purple haired hippies telling it how it should behave; which might explain why Autumn had somehow created more roadkill than the average long distance trucker.

  She drove slowly towards Plymouth, a city that she had no love for, as she considered it to be nothing more than several million tons of concrete spoiling a perfectly good coastline.  And the roads to it from Cornwall were torturous, designed to be more akin to a rollercoaster than something that was actually supposed to transport people safely.   They were not something that her, or her brakes, liked at all.

  Having passed the flattish, narrow winding bit that bypassed Liskeard, she now had to contend with the vertigo-inducing winding bit between there and Saltash… the last point of sanity, she thought, before England began. 

 

  The storm had caught up with her, and the first drops of rain spattered on her windscreen.   Her creaking wipers only managed to smear dirt across the glass rather than actually clean it.

  As she neared the bottom of a particular torturous corkscrew bend, she saw through the wiper-induced haze a small, dark shape scurry across the road, having already navigated its way across the oncoming lane.  What was it?  Her mind slowed down, and focussed on the tiny bundle of fur in her path.  A mouse? No.  A shrew? No.  A vole?   Yes, that was it!   A VOLE!!!! Oh, how cute…  and then reason cut in, and she realised that if she didn’t do something quickly, it would merely amount to yet another of her unfortunate statistics.

She turned the wheel to the left, aiming for the bicycle lane, hoping that such an action would give the vole those precious few milliseconds more to cross the A38. 

 

The buzzard had been watching the scurrying snack for some minutes, fancying it as a tender morsel for breakfast.   He knew that there was a rabbit around here somewhere as well, but it was always evading him; so for the meantime, the vole would do very nicely, thank you.

Buzzards have a tendency to overcompensate, by taking risks that no sane bird would ever consider.  Endless derisory comparisons to eagles have taken their toll, making the species edgy, reckless and rather more sensitive than you’d expect in a bird of prey.

So in an effort to prove his worth as a predator without peer, the buzzard knew full well what was happening before him.  He had calculated the trajectories of the vole and of the car; and had aimed his strike with military precision.  Feather, bone and muscle flexed in a dive that would shame any of those girly eagles.  He became a living missile; at one with the air, rejoicing in the very thrill of being.

So, how was he to know that the driver would actually swerve to avoid the vole?

All too late, he saw the change in the car’s path.  In desperation he spread his wings wide, hoping to gain some lift and halt his descent; but it was too late.  He struck the windscreen of the car with his chest, his wings nearly spanning the window.  Fortunately, he had managed to alter the attitude of his flight enough so that the blow was not fatal; but it still bloody hurt, nonetheless.  He glared through the screen at his assailant.

 

Autumn was horrified for three reasons:

Firstly, she was just so fed up of doing this to innocent animals.  She thought it was about time that they banned cars, and put everyone on trains; but she was at least glad that the eagle was still alive… well, it looked like an eagle…

   The second reason was those eyes glaring at her; so cold and alien, and yet so full of intelligence… and, yes, accusation.  The bird knew she had done this, and was furious with her.  She felt such pity for it; pity… and guilt.  She knew she’d have to do something for it, to make it… and herself… feel better.  Once she’d stopped the car, the first thing she’d do was phone a vet to make sure the poor thing was okay. 

It was at the thought of ‘stopped the car’ that the third reason hit her, and she screamed it aloud.  Having one’s vision encumbered by a spread-eagled buzzard is never conducive to good driving. 

‘I can’t bloody see… noooooooooo…’

And then Autumn remembered just how bad her brakes were.   She slammed them on, praying that they would work.    They tried their best; but the road surface was too wet and the slope too steep.  A sickening squeal came from them as they tried to slow Autumn, car and buzzard.

In desperation, she tried to use her wipers to knock the bird off; but that only succeeded in pinning the poor creature to the screen, as he managed to get his claws stuck in them.  Then she tried her screenwash; pressing it repeatedly, sending jets of soapy water onto the buzzard’s back.  His gaze was even more malevolent now; he’d just made up his mind that the moment they stopped, he was going straight for the purple-haired freak’s eyes.

All the while the car slid down the hill; and traffic in the oncoming lane slowed, other drivers entranced and perplexed by the drama heading towards them.  Autumn, screaming all the while, slammed on her brakes one last time, and for good measure pulled the handbrake up as well.  She didn’t know too much about cars at all, really, so could probably be excused for thinking that this was a good idea.

With a sickening lurch, the Escort swung to the left, and ploughed off the road.  There was a tiny squelching sound as something small, furry and vole-shaped went under a wheel.

 

Time slowed.

 

Autumn became aware of the sky darkening for a moment.  She saw, just past the buzzard’s head, the trunk of a massive oak tree. 

The bird, meanwhile, had caught sight of something in the shadow of the tree. There it was, all the bloody time… the rabbit he’d been after.  If only he’d persisted in his hunt, he wouldn’t be in this mess now…

The rabbit looked up, horror in her eyes, and just managed to jump out of the way of the car.  ‘Oh my goodness!’ she exclaimed in alarm, ‘That was close!’ as it hurtled past her, and collided with the trunk.

 

Time slowed even more.

You could hear nature ticking.

 

And then the explosion came.  There was no warning; one moment there was a static piece of red metal, a tree embedded halfway into its bonnet; the next, a terrifying fireball.   The traffic had completely stopped now; commuters who for one moment had been about to try and help were now forced back, shading their eyes against the expanding flame and instinctively throwing themselves to the ground.

The car was ripped apart, in a maelstrom of smoke, fire and metal.  Flames licked up to the branches of the tree, stripping their leaves and destroying several bird nests in the process.

 

Time wound itself back to its usual, relentless speed.   As the sound and heat of the blast died away, there was a sudden hubbub of activity as more people pulled over to the side to offer assistance. One brave, well thinking passer-by had brought along a fire extinguisher, and was first at the scene; but by that point it was all too late.  He could see nothing left apart from blackened metal and the charred skeleton of Autumn Dutson.

In a flurry of blue lights and white noise, the police arrived.  ‘Is that an eagle skeleton?’ asked a constable, gazing at the wreckage with disinterest.  He’d seen all too many accidents on this road.  If he’d been just a little more alert, he might have noticed a white rabbit desperately hopping around nearby, trying to put out her still smouldering tail.  

 

In her dream, Autumn saw a bright, retina-scorching light.  She felt intense heat.  She heard a loud, wailing noise getting ever closer… sirens, perhaps?  The assault on her dream-senses nearly woke her; then the light, heat and sound all gradually faded away.

She yawned, and settled back to a comfortable sleep, glad that the nightmare had passed.  She needed a good nights rest, after all; tomorrow was going to be a wonderful day.  Just a shame that she had that long drive in front of her…

She stirred for an instant, as a strange, dislocated feeling overwhelmed her; as though her soul was being wrenched violently from her body.  But the sensation swiftly passed, and didn’t really seem to matter much.   She fell into a long, deep sleep.

 

Time passed.

 

Autumn yawned again, and began to wake up.  It was a painfully slow process; her head was killing her.  She wondered what on earth she’d been doing the night before… she couldn’t remember drinking that much… but she must have, she surmised; because what else could explain the monstrous hangover she had?

Slowly the dream came back to her; at least, she guessed it to be a dream, as it had been simply terrible; but she was still here, still alive (hangover notwithstanding), so a dream it must have been.  But what day was it?  What time was it?  

‘Damn… the bloody interview…’ she mumbled, and opened her eyes.

And then she gasped.  This wasn’t her bedroom, for goodness’ sake.  Where were Evangeline and Severina, her cats?  Where was her computer?   Then she realised that she was sitting down.  She looked around in desperation, and found herself to be in what appeared to be a hospital waiting room.  It tried to appear to be gleaming white; and indeed would have been, if it were not for the faded, scuffed edges of the chairs, and the damp walls.  There was also a sterile, disenfectanty type of smell too. 

What was going on?   She stood up.  There was a counter in front of her.  She couldn’t see anybody behind it; and she couldn’t see a bell, or anything similar, with which to attract someone’s attention.  The one thing she did see was a small monitor screen, placed facing towards her.  She walked towards it, becoming curious.

The screen lit up in large red letters. 

PLEASE WAIT

Was all it said.  Autumn walked away again, and the screen faded.  She found it oddly disturbing.  She looked behind her, wondering if there was anyone else in the large room.  She couldn’t see anyone… except… was that someone else back there?  If so, they were behaving very, very strangely.  Were they hiding from her?

Autumn walked down the central aisle between the rows of worn chairs, and came face to face with the elusive creature that she shared the room with. 

She stood, open mouthed, and voiced a silent scream.

‘You stupid, stupid bitch,’ croaked the buzzard, looking up at her and shuffling from one leg to the other on the seat of the chair.

‘Oh, piddle off,’ came a squeak from further down the room.  A pointy, furry nose and twitching whiskers appeared shortly after.  ‘She was only trying to avoid me.’

The buzzard looked down at the vole.  ‘Don’t bloody know why.  Three lanes of traffic, just when that roady thing is at its busiest, and you decide to cross it?  You bloody idiot.  Asking for it, mate; asking for it…’

The vole, its whiskers twitching in rage now, sneered up at the buzzard.  ‘Look, I didn’t ask them to put the roady there.   It is – was – mating time after all, and I’ve got my needs.   So stop ruffling your manky feathers, and shut the flibbedyfeck up.’

Autumn’s scream had subsided, to be replaced by open mouthed wonder.  The appearance of both was very similar; so none of the assembled creatures really noticed the difference.  They were too busy glaring at each other anyway; and at that moment, another party joined the argument.

‘Now, look here,’ trilled a sweet, light voice.  A blue tit, seemingly appearing from nowhere, fluttered down to join the buzzard and the vole.  The buzzard groaned silently, knowing what was coming.

‘It’s completely beyond me as to why you’re in such high dudgeon,’ she twittered, her voice exactly like the sound of sunlight reflecting on raindrops. 

‘You see, you both chose your destiny by your actions: you…’ she nodded her head in the direction of the vole, ‘ you needn’t have crossed that roady, and you…’ she gestured with her wing towards the buzzard, ‘if you’d shown some more restraint, and a little more intelligence, would not be in this predicament now.’ 

The tit fluttered over to Autumn, hovering in front of her face.  ‘As for you, words fail me.  They really do.  What have you done to us?  There I was, in my nest, just innocently doing nothing, unlike the rest of you fools; waiting for my husband… he’d only gone for a few moments, and now…’ she wiped a wing over a moistening eye… ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again…’ she whimpered, her voice now wracked by sobs.  ‘Fire, burning…burning…’

She recovered herself a little, and shot Autumn a stern look.  ‘What have you done to us, I say again? And what I ask, is this awful, awful place?’

Autumn was dumbfounded.  All three animals were now staring at her, accusation in their eyes.  ‘I… I…’ she spluttered, and burst into tears.

The vole held up a paw, and waved it dismissively.  ‘Look, get over it.  Poop happens, I ent blaming you.’

‘I am,’ the buzzard interjected gruffly.  ‘She hit me, she smeared me over the glassy bit of her broom-broom, then she had the audacity to soak me as well.  I mean, that’s just vindictive, isn’t it?  And as if that’s not enough, I get ripped apart in a fireball…’

‘You’re not, you know,’ said the vole.

‘I bloody was.  I remember it well, seeing as it only happened a few minutes ago.’

‘So then, how do you account for your present state of non-ripped-apart-ness?’ the vole replied with equal sarcasm.

The buzzard pondered this for a moment, flexing his wings, examining his feathers, making sure everything was in the right place.  ‘Hmmmm… a fair point, I’m prepared to concede.  I would guess I would explain it, in much the same way that you can account for your current unsquashed state.’

‘Unsquashed?’ the vole asked nervously.  ‘Whaddya mean?’

‘She squished you with her broom-broom,’ the blue tit answered.  ‘I saw it, with my own eyes; though that was one of the last things I remember seeing before I came to this awful, dreadful place…. oh come my beloved, save me…’

‘Shut the flibbedyfeck up,’ the vole snapped. ‘I don’t remember being squished?’

‘It’s probably that post-traumatic stress wotsit…’ said the buzzard.  ‘I’ve heard that vets get it.’

‘Vets?  Why should they get it?’ the vole asked.

‘Dunno.  Probably cos they’re stressed operating on us animals.  I’ve seen them up the roady...’ he gestured with his wing, and then realised to his horror that of course the road was no longer there. ‘Erm… I saw them up the old roady anyway, tending to poorly moos and wotnot… must be stressful…’

‘What, in the name of Lovely Softears, are you on about?’ squealed the vole. ‘If we can get back to the point at hand, I still don’t remember being squished.  And I’d like to know why, and if I actually was.  This place scares the buggery out of me; and I’d sooner get on with what I was doing, thank you very much; there are ladies out there that need my attention.’

‘Not that they’d get much satisfaction out of it, I’m sure,’ the buzzard sneered.

‘Whaddya say?’  The vole reared up on his hind legs, shouting with unrestrained fury.   ‘You bloody eagles, you think you’re so effing fantastic.  That’s it, you’re for it...’  But he was interrupted by a high, keening screech of rage.

The buzzard lifted itself off the chair, wings beating in wrath.   ‘EAGLE?  EAGLE??  You little runt, you’re meat.’

Autumn screamed.  ‘SHUT UP! SHUT UP! STOP IT!’  Her high, crystalline voice cut through the air and flowed out, only to be buried in the damp, drab walls of the room.

The buzzard alighted on the back of the chair, and cocked his head to one side, looking at her.

‘Ah, the stupid bitch speaks at last.  Wondered if you might be mute or something like that.   I wonder, stupid bitch, if you have anything of worth to add to this conversation?  If not, I suggest you revert to your previous dignified silence.’

‘My name…’ Autumn hissed, ‘is NOT stupid bitch.  It’s Autumn.  And yes, mister mousey-voley thing, I did run you over… I think…’ 

‘Well, thanks a flibbedyfecking bunch,’ sighed the vole.  ‘Oh well, you tried your best I guess.’

‘Absolute rubbish…’ interrupted the buzzard.

‘For once I agree with you, young man,’ whistled the blue tit.  ‘I’ve never seen such misuse of a broom-broom.  You… Autumn, you said you were called, yes?  I suggest in future that you, perhaps, would be so kind as to take into account the feelings of others before you behave so recklessly…’

‘Oh for goodness’ sake,’ Autumn sighed.  She was still dreaming; she had to be; but she thought it best to humour these dream-creatures.  ‘That’s virtually all I do.  Do you know where I was going?  To a job interview.  Well, a volunteer interview actually, but that’s beside the point.  It was with…’ she thought for a second, realising that what she was about to say might not be the best idea considering the present company; but it was too late.  Her mouth beat her brain to it.  ‘…the Cats Protection League.’

‘Oh, that’s very nice that is,’ the vole retorted.  He nodded to the buzzard and the blue tit.  ‘I take back what I said.  I’m with you guys.’ 

‘And,’ she continued, desperately trying to regain lost ground, ‘I’m a member of the RSPB.’

‘RSPB?’ asked the blue tit, suspiciously.  ‘Is that, perchance, some other organisation that encourages the vicious predation of such innocent victims as, for example, myself?’

‘No,’ she smiled, playing her trump card, or so she hoped.  ‘It’s short for the Royal Society for the PROTECTION of BIRDS.’

The buzzard nodded.  ‘I’ve heard of them.  Pretty good sort of humans, really.  Just a shame they aren’t a bit stricter with who they let become members…’

Autumn shot the buzzard a terse look, but decided to ignore the remark.  ‘The point is,’ she snapped, ‘that I care a great deal about animals, however predatory, cruel or just plain rude they happen to be…’ she was about to continue, when the buzzard interrupted her.

‘Why?’ he asked nonchalantly.  ‘I ask the question merely out of curiosity, despite the fact that all the evidence seems to point to an otherwise different conclusion….’

Autumn hissed silently through her teeth.  Even though this was obviously a dream, it seemed best not to let out her true feelings regarding her present company.

‘Well…’ she managed.  ‘Ummmm… because you’re beautiful.  All of you.’

‘Oooh, thanks very much,’ said the vole, preening himself in a fashion Autumn thought was somewhat over-exaggerated.  ‘But tell me something I don’t know.  Like where the flibbedyfeck we are, and what the flibbedyfeck do we do about it, once we’ve found out where the flibbedyfeck we are?’

‘You’re in my dream, silly,’ she laughed.  It seemed like the only suitable reply.

‘Oh no, that surely cannot be right.  This is my dream,’ the blue tit sang.  ‘Don’t try to sully it with your turgid little fantasies; I know it’s not the best dream I’ve ever had, by far… but if you really must be so blinkered as to suggest that this is your dream, then I can only suggest you take it elsewhere, and leave me out of it; so that I can get on with mine.’

The buzzard and vole, without knowing it, exchanged a long and knowing glance.  Their frustration with the blue tit went without saying; but they were both also struck by the thought that this had been their dream, and the look that passed between them left an almost tangible impression of the words ‘oh, hang on a moment…’ in the air.

Autumn caught the looks, and sat on one of the seats.  It was hardly comfortable; but it helped her to think.  ‘So then…’ she said thoughtfully after a moment, ‘we all think that this is our own dream?’

‘Yup, kinda looks that way,’ the vole retorted.  ‘You’re quite the observant one, aren’t you?’

‘Oh do be quiet, you silly little rodent,’ sneered the blue tit.  ‘Just because she killed us all, doesn’t mean she that doesn’t have a point here…’ 

Killed???!!’ Autumn, the buzzard and the vole shrieked in surprise, interrupting her.

‘In the dream, of course,’ the blue tit sighed in exasperation, and continued.  ‘Obviously this is some kind of collective nightmare; we’ve all been through a traumatic experience, and I expect that our dreams have somehow… linked as a result of it.  As that predatory brute said,’ she flicked a wing at the buzzard, ‘it’s probably that thing vets get.  We are all victims of some kind of mass dream hysteria; and I think that we should get to the bottom of it.’

They all nodded.  The word ‘killed’ had scared them momentarily, but the blue tit’s explanation had calmed them a little.

‘Okay,’ Autumn said, trying to sound wise and authoritative, but sounding more like a nursery teacher.  ‘So let’s assume that we’re all dreaming, yes?  Is that right?’ she looked at the blue tit, who nodded her agreement.  ‘So what do we do?  Do we just sit around and wait until we wake up, or do we go and see what else we can find to happen in our dream?’

‘Bugger that!’ the vole scoffed.  ‘Isn’t this bad enough for you already?  At least it’s not pissing down, no-one’s in danger of being eaten…’ he eyed the buzzard warily, who chose that moment to nonchalantly examine his wing feathers by way of demonstrating his innocence.  ‘And and no one’s in danger of being hit by a broom-broom, are they?’  He sat down, indicating that he’d had his say and wanted no further part in this nonsense.

‘Well, at least we can see what else is in this room, can’t we?’ asked Autumn, unable to restrain her inner nursery teacher.  ‘I mean, there must be all sorts of things in here…  let’s see what’s behind that desk.’

‘On your own head be it,’ the vole sighed.

‘Ooooh, come on, I want to see too,’ said the blue tit.  ‘Isn’t this exciting?  At last, we’re making progress as a group.’

The buzzard muttered something unintelligible, then grunted.  ‘Very well.  Not much can happen, can it?’ he asked hopefully.

‘It’s a dream, remember?’ Autumn said, almost offending herself with her mock cheeriness.  ‘But before we do it, we need to know who we are, yes?  I mean, you know my name,’ she pointed to herself determinedly, ‘but I don’t know who you are.  Do you even have names?  I mean, I know what you are; for example, you’re an eagle...’

‘Piss off,’ came the stern, croaking reply.  ‘Don’t be so bloody patronising.  I’m a BUZZARD.  How many bloody eagles do you know that live in Cornwall?  None, I’ll bet.   Why?  Cos they’re all bloody cowards.  And if you call me that just one more time, I’ll rip your scrawny throat open, watch your overactive tongue flop out, and then… eat it.’

Autumn saw the look in his eyes, and for the first time since she entered the room, she really was scared.  No, more than that; petrified.  She knew that he had meant every word; the cold, steely determination in those eyes was testament to an unrelenting, single-minded predator who would, and more importantly could, back his words up with actions.

She walked towards him, and bent down so that her head was level with his.  It was one of the bravest things she had ever done.

‘I’m sorry.  I’m not good with ornithology.  We’re taught in school that eagles are the greatest of birds.  I’ve never seen a bird in the wild as great as you; so I assumed that you must be an eagle.  That was my mistake, and I can only apologise.’  All hints of the nursery teacher had vanished now; this was the real Autumn coming through, and she hoped it would be enough.  She noticed the claws, the beak, the eyes….

The buzzard sniffed gently, smelling the air.  ‘Fair enough.  I know I’m fairly majestic as things go, so we’ll let that pass, shall we?’  He cocked his head to one side, and Autumn could have sworn that she saw the merest hint of a smile on his beak, if that were at all possible; she wasn’t lying when she said that she wasn’t good with ornithology.

‘Anyway,’ he continued.  ‘I know what you were asking.  I can’t speak for these two… ahem… morsels over here…’ he gestured at the bristling blue tit and vole, ‘but my name is Lord Mureth.   I suppose, even under the circumstances and all, that I’m pleased to meet you.’

‘And I you,’ she answered.  ‘Do they have titles in the bird kingdom then?  It seems a rather… human name.  A human held in high honour, at that,’ she added hastily.

‘Dunno.  Mum and Dad just liked it.’

The vole made a choking sound, and Autumn looked down to see that he had placed two digits of his right paw into his mouth. 

‘Pass the chuckbucket…’ he sneered quietly, looking up.  ‘My name’s Pretty Flufftail.  Don’t laugh.  I ent going to give you my life story either…’ he said, rolling his eyes at the buzzard, ‘apart from, suffice to say, that my parents were bastards.  Pretty Flufftail? Bollocks.’

‘Well, I think it’s a very nice name,’ Autumn said, ‘and it suits you.’

She thought she heard a whispered ‘Patronising witch...’ come from the dusty floor, but decided to ignore it.  She turned to the blue tit, who was currently holding on to the back of one of the chairs, shaking with uncontrollable laughter.

‘He said not to laugh,’ Autumn chided her.  ‘What are you called then?’

‘My name…’ the blue tit began, ‘is Lady Fatball, daughter of Queen Suettreat.  I am simply delighted to meet you.’  She performed her best blue tit curtsey.

‘And I’m Autumn.  Autumn Dutson,’ she said, bowing to Lady Fatball.   ‘So then, now we know who we are, let’s find out where we are!

‘Wait,’ snapped Pretty Flufftail.  ‘You seem, I note, to have appointed yourself leader of this group; with no say-so from us.   Shouldn’t we have some kind of democratic process going on here, instead of having your fascism imposed on us?’

Autumn tried to reply, but was momentarily too shocked to speak.  She loved all animals, she was the most laid back person she knew, she was devoutly a socialist creature… and so to be accused of being a fascist almost brought tears to her eyes.  But before she could speak, she heard a croak from the back of the chair.

‘Democracy is for only for the weak,’ grunted Lord Mureth.  ‘She’s taken power, and proved her strength.  I respect that.  So should you…’ he said the last three words with relish, flexing his claws. ‘Besides, you’ve not got the faintest idea what fascism is, have you?

‘Nope, fawt it sounded well hard though,’ he squeaked proudly.

The buzzard gave a quick, sneering laugh and hopped over to stand beside Autumn.

 arselicker,’ whispered Pretty Flufftail.  ‘Oh, bugger it.  Guess you’re the boss then.’  He looked up at Autumn.  ‘Well come on then, let’s look at this desky thing.’

Autumn set off for the counter, her entourage fluttering and shuffling behind her.  She looked down and behind at Pretty Flufftail, and was about to say something, when she thought better of it, and broached a different subject. 

‘Can’t help noticing that you’ve a good command of English for a vole,’ she smiled.

English?’ he replied, and his beady eyes gazed at her full of genuine puzzlement.  ‘Is that what you speak normally?  It’s funny, cos I was thinking that you’re pretty fluent at Voleish.’

‘What?’ Autumn stopped in her tracks.  ‘I’ve not spoken a word of it… have I?’ she asked nervously.  She wasn’t sure precisely why she was nervous, but she felt a sense of dread creep over her.

‘Course you have, dumb arse,’ laughed the vole.  ‘All the time you’ve been here.  You’re doing it now.’

‘I’m not!!!’ she exclaimed shrilly. 

‘Are so too,’ he replied.

Autumn drummed her fingers on the side of her hips, and then looked at Lord Mureth and Lady Fatball.  ‘Tell me,’ she asked sternly, ‘what language am I speaking?’

‘Buzzardian,’ Lord Mureth replied instantly.  ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Utter nonsense!’ squeaked Lady Fatball.  ‘She’s been speaking Bluetitish, and you know it.  Don’t submit us to your inane raptorial propaganda, you foul brute.’

Autumn held her head in her hands for a moment, and then looked back at her companions.  ‘So,’ she said quietly, ‘you all think that I am speaking in your own tongue; and I think you’re speaking in mine.’

‘I think you’re just talking crap…’ murmured Pretty Flufftail.

‘Oh do be quiet, you impudent little rodent,’ Lady Fatball snapped.  ‘Can’t you see what she means?’

Lord Mureth nodded.  ‘She means,’ he growled, ‘that we all hear… or at least, think we hear, our own language; and yet each of us is convinced that we are also speaking in our own language.  I’m pretty certain I’m talking in my own now…’ he said, looking down at his beak as he spoke, as if he could see the sound that emanated from it in order to verify this statement.

‘And I’m pretty sure I hear English,’ said Autumn.  She brushed her long hair away from her face, and walked a little way back to the buzzard.  She bent down so that her eyes were level with his.

‘Say something Buzzardian, Lord Mureth,’ she asked.  ‘Pretend you’re hunting, and you’ve seen a…’ she glanced across at Pretty Flufftail, who was annoying her intensely, but thought better of what she was almost about to say, ‘…um, a rabbit.  What would you say then?  Try it now.’

He shuffled back and forth, feeling uncomfortable.  ‘I say, I’m not used to being put on the spot like this.   It’s very hard to conjure up such primal instincts, you know.’

‘Twat,’ muttered Pretty Flufftail.

Without warning, Autumn darted across the room and grabbed Pretty Flufftail in both hands, oblivious to the frenzy of claws and teeth that tore at her skin, and returned to the buzzard.

‘Say then that it wasn’t a rabbit, Lord Mureth.  Say, for example, that it was a vole,’ she shouted in his face.  ‘It’s the only food you’ve seen for weeks, it’s before you, weak and ready for the taking.  What do you say?’

She held Pretty Flufftail inches from the beak.  Lord Mureth could smell the fear of the vole; he could see every quivering hair on its body, he could hear every minute anguished squeak that passed the vole’s lips, and could even hear its panicked, racing heartbeat.  He had not eaten at all today, and now finally his quarry was presented to him.  In a high, wailing voice that echoed around the room, he uttered his predatory battle cry.

‘Breakfast! Breakfast! I want my breakfast!!!’

Autumn dropped Pretty Flufftail immediately.  He scurried away, leaving a string of expletives in the air behind him, and found refuge under one of the chairs.

‘That was not at all Buzzardian,’ she sighed, wiping the blood from her hands on her tie-dyed dress.  She was shaking; she didn’t like confrontation, and hated any form of cruelty to animals… but that bloody vole …

‘It was, you know,’ he replied.  ‘That’s what I say every morning.  And, if I may say so, you were very resourceful there.  Well done.  But, nonetheless, I spoke in my own tongue.’

Lady Fatball fluttered over, and landed on Autumn’s shoulder.  ‘It’s the dream, don’t she see that?’ she said quietly.  ‘Otherwise none of this makes sense…’

Pretty Flufftail emerged again, a look of absolute fury in his beady eyes as he glared at Autumn.  ‘If you ever do that to me again, if you ever touch me again, I’ll rip your fricking head off.  And as for you,’ he turned to Lord Mureth, ‘if you even think of me in a meal-capacity again, I’ll pull your feathers out one by one, and use them to wipe my arse with.  Point made?’

Autumn and Lord Mureth nodded in agreement.  ‘I’m sorry, Pretty Flufftail.  But I had to know,’ she said.  ‘I had to prove to myself that this wasn’t all an act.   Now I know it’s not… I guess Lady Fatball’s right, we just have to assume that anything odd here is just part of the dream.  Now then, we were going to look at the desk, weren’t we?’

‘If I may be so bold,’ said Lord Mureth, ‘what about the woody hole?’

‘Eh?’ asked Autumn.

He gestured towards a door, to the left of the counter. 

‘Oh, the door?’ Autumn said in surprise.  ‘I hadn’t noticed it before…’

She walked up to it, and tried to see if it would open.   It was a very plain door, which seemed to merge into the wall; no light or sound came through any gap, and she could see no visible means of opening it.  There were no handles, or even hinges; it appeared to be just a panel in the wall.

‘Strange…’ she said.  ‘Maybe whoever works behind the counter can open it?’


     Vincent Treslothan groaned in pain.  His body ached; his head felt as though someone had dropped a lead weight upon it.  He had no idea where he was, and barely had any idea who he was.

He noted to his surprise that he was lying face down in cold, wet grass. There was a hint of the smell of bitumen… and of something else… something like… wet dog?  That surprised him.  He sat up, carefully, his head throbbing all the more.  He remembered the alcohol, and cursed himself for drinking so much. 

He opened his eyes slowly, and saw moonlight reflecting off what appeared to be a newly laid tarmac pathway.  His eyes drifted up to the full moon itself.

‘How appropriate…’ he mumbled to himself, without any clear idea why.

He then noticed the glint of light bouncing off metal bars in the distance… just past the grassy verge.  It looked very, very familiar.  It looked like his zoo.

This is a dream… he closed his eyes, giving up on his effort to look around. 

A noise stirred him from his hangover; a soft, metallic grating.  It was only on the edge of his hearing; a whisper of steel on the wind.  But behind the whisper came a darker, more focussed sound.  The sound of muscle, of sinew and bone, pushing against a cage door.