Bustling right along into the next part of Fickle, wherein I wrote 1,000 words more than I expected to today, which at least puts me back on track for hitting the goal at the end of this month.
‘Fickle’ Part 4
I woke up that morning to screaming, of several varieties.
The first was the local ravens, yelling at the people disrupting their morning caw. A morning chorus of corvids is bad enough, but angry corvids are even more shrill.
Under that, there were a variety of screams attached to a series of unfortunate events – one was someone drowning in the Blood River courtesy of my giant catfish, another had found the killer beehives, someone else seemed to have fallen climbing the lower slope of the mountain, and either the sharp rocks had done their job, or he’d simply broken some bones.
Under that, a chorus of about six someones were chanting prayers (while building another bloody shrine, naturally), and the final cacophony was coming from a man and a woman yelling at each other.
In two different languages.
Patently unable to understand each other.
Honestly, it was that last part that made me bother to get up and use the telescope to see what was going on, rather than put earplugs in and go back to sleep. After clocking the collection of idiots messing up what amounted to my lawn, and noticing all of them were wearing the same symbol rather than all being from different cults for once, I finally spotted the arguing pair, on an open section of the beach far below.
Give the Saxons their credit, they managed to avoid the pitfalls down there, and two alligator snapping turtles lay dead waiting to be cooked next to a fire, but I was a little more concerned with and incensed by, the frame erected in the open space.
There was a strawberry blonde woman tied to it, in a rather grubby smock, torn over her middle. She had green eyes, currently laser-focused on a burly man with a bushy brown beard whom she seemed to be trying to kill with a combination of a death glare and sonic blast while she screamed at him in English.
For his part, the bearded man was screaming back in defiance of her stare, in thickly accented German.
It took me about three seconds to realize neither could comprehend the other, but that wasn’t getting in the way of a blazing row.
Perhaps it was one of the better tactics used against me. The volume and annoyance, which normally I could ignore so well, niggled at me a thousand times worse for the nature in which it was represented. No one tied up a fussy woman on my beach, on my watch. Or fussy men, for that matter.
Clearly, these people weren’t going away until they all got themselves killed or I went down there and seeing as they had food and water to hand, it might take a while to get them all killed off. For the sake of my sanity and serenity… I made the decision to descend.
Now, I mentioned earlier that I am surprised to even be the same height day to day. Ever since people started with the worship and belief, I have become somewhat subconsciously malleable to expectations. After I did my triple loop of the world and turned up, I’ve been able to look however I choose, human or not. A little concentration and I can still do that without any real effort, but I have come to have a sort of ‘default’ look, somewhat in line with the old stories of demons. Like I said before, hooves and scales are practical for where I live, and wings make shrine-smashing quicker than walking to each one.
But when I’m not concentrating, little bits of human expectation start creeping in. Horns, for one, feathers on another notable occasion, and some days I’m definitely taller than normal. In this case, seeing as the Chemnitz Saxons expected a dragon god, I found myself to have too many limbs, a snout, and a tail.
Still, they wanted a dragon, and after disturbing my sleep so egregiously, I was happy to give it to them.
Human hair smells disgusting when it burns, in case you didn’t know already.
It could be said that charring a shrine with enough heat to turn even the stone to puddles is a good attention-getter, but even that wasn’t enough to stop the argument on the beach. Mercifully, though, six vaporized cultists meant no more niggling prayers, and fewer people to deal with.
That didn’t make matters easy though.
You know how some people when they’re really enraged can go from shouting at one person to fluidly cursing out someone else, mid-rant, and then get back right on track? Gemma is one of them.
“…take me home this instant, I swear I will kick you in the balls so hard you taste them! You can sod off too, scaly face, I have had it to my back teeth with men stomping around like they own the place and doing as they please, and you can stop acting like you have no idea what I’m talking about, you pork-swill drinking German git!”
“…I do own the place.”
Remember I said I’m affected by human expectation? In this case, it gave my voice that deep gravelly tone you used to get in movies, though I didn’t have the accent of a big name actor to go with it. Still, I appreciate a nice deep bass reverb when it finally gets annoyingly loud people to shut up for a second.
“What?” The word was spoken to me from two voices, in two languages, but both understood the same way in my head. Just as everything I said was innately understood by both members of my audience, despite their language difference. It meant I only had to make my point once.
“This is my island. You’re disturbing me. Go away.”
Both of them gave me the same open-mouthed look of confusion, but of course, the woman recovered first. Despite not being able to make sarcastic gestures thanks to her predicament, she managed to perform an impressive array of vocal gymnastics instead.
“I would love to, perhaps you can explain that to this ignorant moron.”
“He can’t understand you,” I sighed, then glanced at the bearded cult leader. “And she can’t understand you either, Herr. Though, to be fair, I think she’s made it universally apparent she doesn’t appreciate… whatever this is.” I jerked a clawed thumb at the wooden frame they’d tied her to.
“We bring you a maiden as a gift,” he began, “mighty Lindworm, in exchange for your…”
“Let me stop you there. I didn’t ask for a screechy harpy. Go away.” Anger warred with just general annoyance and disgust as I cut the cultist off, but of course, the woman could understand what I just said too.
“Harpy?!” she snarled. I ignored her.
“But the stories…” the German began, his tone and face belying a genuine confusion that the tied up lady was something I didn’t want. The mental shenanigans the apocalypse caused have a lot to answer for, and I found myself again having to explain to an uncaring world that I wasn’t whatever they thought I was.
“Those tales are really old, and not about me. Get off my island before I ruin the beach even more with your corpses.”
“Fuck you!” spat my new lady ‘friend’, and for a second, with two people using two different languages, my brain picked the wrong meaning of her words.
“I thought you weren’t on board with being a gift? How would we even…”
“Wrong kind of fuck you!” she yelled. And then she started to cry. At least, her eyes suddenly got wet at the edges and she refused to look at either myself, of the cult leader. “I want to go home, I am not being barbecued because of these idiots.”
I wondered, as I often have, whether her responses were normal. Was she as crazy as everyone else I had encountered, or maybe too sane considering she was the first person to end up on my island without wanting to be there? Were these reasonable reactions to the situation, or had the reality-breaking chaos of the apocalypse left her as adrift as the crazed German man currently bowing and scraping in the sand by my talons, making runic symbols with his fingers?
“I will not leave without your help, Herr Grillig,” he said.
Just the use of that bloody name irked me out of my introspection, and into the certain knowledge I was not going to be left alone or get any peace until I sorted both of these people out, and the entourage of surviving cultists the Chemnitzian had with him.
“Oh for crying out… look, fine. One wish each, but she gets to go first.” I jabbed a claw in the direction of the girl, then just cut her down and addressed her directly after she fell onto the sand. “That way, when you wish for me to murder this lot and send you home, I won’t have to grant theirs as well, alright?”
She sat ruefully rubbing her wrists and adjusting what meager clothing she had, and I fully expected her to spit fire and brimstone in her haste to get revenge on the people who had treated her so badly, and dragged her to my abode. Part of my was guiltily enjoying debating just how I would turn the men on the beach into salsa, while they cowered in horror, staring at their erstwhile victim like she had just turned into their worst nightmares.
“Well, actually…” she murmured.
“There’s been enough death and if you killed everyone who is stupid, rude and wrong, there would only be about ten people left alive.” She looked up and me and swallowed hard, then sighed. “I just want to go home.”
Well, that at least was an easy enough wish, right?
“Fine, where’s home?” I asked. She described it to me, including a village name I didn’t know at all. Slow, horrible realization crept into my head when she told me some of the landmarks, and how to get there.
“…that was in what I know as Doggerland. It’s… not there anymore.”
Generally, I don’t regret any of my decisions. I don’t owe anyone a thing, and people are an inherently daft species. It’s why I try to keep out of their affairs, for fear of being tarred with the same ‘stupid’ brush. But as what I said sank in, and the lady’s face fell, I may have felt just a tiny pang of guilt.
“Look, someone wished for the fighting between the British and French to stop, and I… well, I flooded the place.” I also pride myself on not telling lies. Lies are stupid and pointless.
“You monster!” Rarely have I heard someone fit so much disgust, horror, and pain into a mere two words.
“What?” I snapped back. It was demanded of me! Besides, no one died. The water rose slowly enough you could walk away from it! Melting glaciers takes time, even with my fire.” I still don’t know why I felt compelled to explain myself on this issue, it wasn’t like I purposefully went out to murder someone’s family just to make them sad, but Gemma has always had the ability to make me feel like I’m in the wrong. About everything.
“Look, it stopped the fighting. I’m sorry I washed away your mud hut. Is… is there anything else I can get for you?”
“I… I need to think about this…”
She wandered away in a daze and sat down on a washed up log on the shore. One of the giant catfish in the water briefly made a try to surge up and drag her down, but she hit it on the head in the most offhanded manner I have ever seen, until it swam away.
That left me with the cult.
“Well? What do you want?” I demanded.
Maybe it was something in my tone that made the bearded guy just answer plainly, or maybe he was as uncomfortable as I was with the lady in the group sitting dazed on the shore staring at us, but at least he cut to the chase.
“The resources of Bremen. They close their walls to us and fortify their gates. A siege would be pointless. But if their resources were ours, they would beg at our door instead.”
“Resources?” I asked, surprised it wasn’t a request for a massacre. “Food and water?”
“Nein. Steel and copper. Wire and metal.”
“…that’s what you’re so concerned about?” I sighed, able to connect the dots. “Concerned enough to drag a woman you must have kidnapped a couple of years ago onto my beach and wake me up?”
“She was traded,” sniffed the Saxon, clearly offended at my insinuation they took her by force. “We offer you the loveliest of our goods.” Clearly, he did not see the issue in his words. Nor the anger in my face. But I was already fed up to the hilt with this nonsense, so my voice was just tired when I finally gave in.
“….alright, fine. You want their metal. You got it. I’ll be back.”
I stalked across the beach to the girl, told her what I was doing and to wait there until I got back.
“You aren’t seriously going to…?” she started to ask.
“Give them exactly what they want?” I asked, raising a scaly eyebrow. “Sure. Why not? I won’t be long.”
I wasn’t. The mists around Krakatau are a convenient transport system, so long as people believe in it, and that can be used both ways. A little sea fog coming off the coast at Bremen and I was there within a matter of minutes. Flying the old tankers full of metal and the like all the way down to Chemnitz took longer, especially as I needed to make a couple of trips. There was some resistance when I came back for more, but guns don’t do much more than annoy me if I’m honest. The cannon would have, had it been fast enough to hit me.
Still, none of what was happening was their fault, so I didn’t kill any of Bremen’s people, not even the ones yelling insults. I doubt the people knew there were two tankers sitting on the bed of what had once been a relatively clean and well-kept dock, but I hauled those up too, stinking and foul as they were, and went about my business. All the spare steel and copper not already in use, carried by wing to Chemnitz. And deposited from a height on their chariot factories. Job done.
It was evening by the time I got back to my island, what with time zones messing with everything. Part of me was surprised to see the cultists had stuck around for my return, but I was still more surprised to find no one trying to manhandle the woman anymore.
“Well?” she demanded, the second I landed.
“The copper and steel of Bremen now lie within Chemnitz territory,” I said, wishing I had stopped to get a drink from the mountain before dealing with people again.
“Glory be to thee, mighty…” started the bearded guy, dropping to his knees. It took all my self-control not to kick him.
“Yeah, yeah. Now get off my island. I’ll be back in an hour to fry anyone still here.” I flexed my wings for emphasis.
“And the girl?” the cultist asked.
I looked at her, and the fury etched onto her features. She had a unique kind of terrifying to her, but behind the enraged scowl and clenched fists, I could tell how underfed and exhausted she was. I found a degree of kinship is just how fed up she was with everything. It was a feeling I could relate to.
“She stays with me,” I decided. “Clear off.”
“We knew you would approve, Lord. May you reign eternally.”
Somehow, I bit back sarcastic and rude replies long enough for them to get their little group together and march away into the mists.
“How could you!”
“What?” I turned back around just in time to receive a hefty slap to the snout. Emaciated as she was, what sinew and muscle was on the woman was all corded without any waste, to the point my eyes watered from the single blow.
“How could you so casually agree to help those bastards carry on hurting people!”
“What are you talking about?!”
“Without you, Bremen would never have fallen!” she yelled, poking me in the chest with a finger sharp as a dagger. “And they’d have to stop making those damn wagons of theirs and pillaging the countryside!”
“I don’t tell people what to do with their lives, woman, and I’m not responsible for it either,” I snapped back, brushing her off with a wing tip. “If people choose to be murderous bastards, that’s their own lookout, not mine. I never asked to be so rudely woken up and disturbed this morning.”
“You have a moral obligation to the consequences of your own behavior!”
“All I did was move some stuff around. There was metal in the water, now there’s metal on the land. If the Saxons choose to try and dig out their factories from under it all and make war machines again, that’s their problem.” I said, laying it out as matter-of-factly as possible.
“You arrogant, rude, evil… wait… what?” I had my back to her, so she didn’t see my grin as her brain caught up to her mouth.
“What?” I asked, innocently enough.
“Where did you say you put the metal?”
“It was a lot to move and heavy, so I just dropped it when I got to Chemnitz,” I shrugged. “My shoulders were aching. It’s no concern of mine if it crushed a few buildings and factories. Who cares?” All of which was true. Shifting entire container ships of metal is not easy on the old joints.
The silence for the next few seconds while she pictured the mess I had left Chemnitz in, with its pile of resources causing more problems than they would ever solve, was absolute bliss. And then she ruined it.
“Well, maybe ‘Fickle’ is the right name for you.”
“Don’t you dare start, woman,” I snarled. “It’s John.”
“No, John,” I sighed, correcting her again.
“Not you, you moron. Me. My name is Gemma.”
“Yes, really. You have a problem with it?”
“No, I’m just surprised any tribe was stupid enough to offer up an unwilling concubine whose name wasn’t Alura or something.” Or Barbarella.
“You… don’t get out much, do you?” she said, throwing me a quizzical, and infuriatingly pitying, look. “Look, it’s Gemma whether you like it or not, and if you start shortening it, I will do to you everything I threatened the Jerry’s with.”
“Hells, I can see why they were keen to get rid of you. Come on. If nothing else, I have tea and a change of clothes you can have at my place, so long as you don’t ask for bloody sheepskin boots. Hate the damn things. And I’m allergic to the color beige.”
“I’m not going to eat you, but trust me when I say you won’t want to climb up to my place. Not with those rocks. I’ll keep the dragon look until we fly up there, alright? Then change into something more… human. Perfectly safe.”
“Not that… why are you inviting me into your home?” She sounded both suspicious and touched by my gesture. I refuse to believe I was being anything more than practical though.
“Look, I said I’d grant you a wish, and you said you needed time to think. I’ve lost all of today to human idiocy, so I just want to go home and have some dinner. You can either come with me and think until morning, or you can starve down here for the night with the turtles until the big cats decide to prowl the beach. Your choice.”
I held out a clawed hand towards her and waited. She took a fearful look at the tree line along the beach, then back at me.
I wish I knew just what she was thinking right then, as she got this odd look humans sometimes do before they do something either really brave and inspired… or truly stupid. I don’t know to this day which she thought she was doing when she put her tiny, warm hand in mine, but that was how she ended up a fixture in my lair, for better or for worse. And how I ended up no longer alone.