Chapter 1

Millicent dreamed of a boy called Jake with hair the colour of cornflakes, who came to her door carrying golden-rod and poppies tied tight in ribbon and tissue. But the two white doorsteps opened like teeth and bit Jake off at the knees, and then swallowed him whole, leaving just three red petals on the whitewash where he’d stood.

Millicent woke with a start. Shadows rippled over her blankets as the floodlight of the Municipal Garages filtered through midnight trees. Groping for her bedside pencil she scribbled the dream sleepily into her exercise book.

Usually she forgot her dreams. But lately they’d been crowding into her head as if jostling to be remembered, as if remembering helped them escape from somewhere else. Mz Marchbanks’s exercise book was her memory. The green pencil stub wobbled a sleepy line, stumbled over its words, lay down on the page and rested.

In the morning, she woke late. She always did. Time wouldn’t wait for her. Every morning it raced past, waving sarcastic fingers as she struggled to light the stove, thumbing its nose at her as the gas went out, laughing up its sleeve as she dropped spoonfuls of sugar into Grandma’s warm milk, rushing off to school before she’d even cracked the runny, gloopy eggs into their dish.

She knew she hadn’t time to think about her dream. So what? Breakfast tray in hand, she heaved open the front door and peered out. There, down by her feet the door wafted three red petals, dancing on the doorstep. Three petals. Were they poppies? Shivering under the December sky, just as it washed from zombie grey to a blue nearly as clear as Millicent’s eyes, she stooped to the whitewashed stones, to scoop the bright petals into her palm.

At the foot of the dark stairs, Millicent took Othello from her schoolbag, and slipped the petals into Act 2. Four flights of steep and creaky steps brought her to Grandma’s bedroom. Every curtain on the fourth floor was shut. Tight. Some were even nailed to the window-frames. In the darkness that smell of ancient papers, scattered in their bundles across the landing, scuffled at her nose like a tramp’s unwashed fingers. Raw egg smells and old carrier bag smells. Smells that could make you faint.

But she mustn’t faint again. If she spilled breakfast, Grandma would make her pay. Grandma had had many years to invent long and clever punishments. Sometimes it seemed to Millicent she invented the reasons, too.

It was Millicent’s duty to care for Grandma. It was a duty that Millicent felt she’d been doing for ever. Or hundreds of years, at least. Her whole life, anyway. So long that there wasn’t even the faintest glimmer of anyone else in her memory. No mother. No father. Just Grandma. Just warm, sweet milk, runny eggs, and a house the size of a palace stacked, stashed, stuffed, sprawling and scattered with reams and boxes and bags and piles and bundles and heaps of rotting paper.

In Grandma’s room, the air was heavy and thick. Millicent longed to throw open the green velvet curtains, yanking down their ancient bronze tassels. Grandma wouldn’t have it. She wouldn’t have electricity either. So thick candles were set around the room, patching the ceiling with smoky grease. Here the smell of damp paper mingled with scorched wax and the fug of unwashed sheets. Dizzily Millicent laid her tray upon the counterpane. She turned to the curtains.

“Leave them shut, girl,” the old woman snapped. “You know the light hurts me.”

“But, Grandma, it’s months since there was sunlight in the room. It might be a beautiful day.”

“Do as you’re told, child. Do you want to blind me?” The old lady’s spindly arms drew the tray towards her. “Where’s your Grandma’s good morning kiss?”

Guilt washed over Millicent. She hated this morning ritual. Kissing Grandma’s cheek was like scrubbing your lips on an unwashed pineapple. But she daren’t refuse. As she leant forward to give the kiss, the old lady wound her fingers in Millicent’s creamy hair, pulling her close, murmuring. It was like being caught in a thicket of thorns. Grandma’s strong hand pulled hard, knotting Millicent’s pale tresses.

Stepping back from the bed, Millicent stumbled over a carrier bag that had spilled from underneath.

“Watch what you’re doing, stupid girl!”

“I’m sorry, Grandma. I’m a bit faint, running up all those stairs. I don’t feel right.”

As Millicent bent to pick up the spilled papers, she felt Grandma’s claw-like fingers grip the back of her leg. Perhaps Grandma was trying to help, but Millicent felt unpleasantly like a chicken must feel, as it’s about to be plucked and strung up.

“What are you doing, you incompetent little slattern? Leave my things alone. Get up, get up at once and clear yourself away.”

“Sorry, sorry – I’m feeling rather……” But Millicent knew excuses were pointless. “Sorry, Grandma.”

“Leave them. Get your hands off my things. I’ll do it myself…” Grandma’s squinting up at Millicent, her eyes narrowing,  as she crumbled eggshell between her fingers.

“Grandma,” said Millicent, backing towards the door. “I had a dream again.”

“Don’t bother me with your nonsense.”

“I dreamed someone came to the door. A boy.”

The old lady sat up sharply in her bed, slopping egg onto the blanket.

“What? At our door? Here? Now?”

Yellow spittle sprayed across the bedsheet.

“No, Grandma. Please don’t excite yourself. He was in my dream.”

The old lady sank back onto her pillows, murmuring: “Lies and snares, lies and snares. I’ve told you.”

“But in my dream he dropped something. And it was there, on the doorstep, this morning.”

“You found it? Don’t talk nonsense.”

“He came to the doorstep and was carrying flowers….”

“What flowers, child?” the old lady moved so quickly that her pillow fell to the floor. She grabbed Millicent’s long hair, pulling her down to the bedspread. “Precisely.”

“Poppies,” Millicent replied, trying to pull free. “Poppies and goldenrod.”

“Red and gold? You wouldn’t lie to an old lady, would you, Millicent? Even old ladies have enemies, you know. Red and gold, is that it?”

“Yes, Grandma, poppies and goldenrod.”

“Then what happened? Tell me.”

“It was horrible. He was eaten by the doorstep.”

“Of course he was. Blatant. What else did he expect?”

“It was awful.”

“Good, good. But he left something? You found something?”

“Three petals from the poppies.”

“That was all? No message? No box?” At last the clamp of the old woman’s hand released Millicent. “I hope you threw those petals away.”

“I,” Millicent hesitated. “No. No message, Grandma, just the petals. I threw them in the bin.”

“You’ve had too much imagination, girl. Always trouble, thinking too much. You need to work harder. Scrub the kitchen floor. That’ll do the trick.”

Millicent was silent.

“Hah! Now, bring me the Powke.”

“I haven’t time, Grandma. I’ve school.”

“You’ll do as you’re told.”

Grandma’s eyes glinted. Her brows darkened.

“But I’ll be late again…”

“The Powke, child, the Powke! I won’t ask you again. That wretched school takes too much of your time. I should never have let you go. Do what I tell you, now.”

The old woman rapped her cane against the bedside.

 “No, Grandma, I can’t. It’s the last day of school today. Holidays start tomorrow. I promise I’ll catch up on all the chores later.”

Grandma scowled. For a moment Millicent thought she might hurl her cane at her. But she just spat a sliver of eggshell onto her plate, and waved the black cane like an unsteady cutlass. Millicent ran for the Powke, taking it from its secret place behind a faded picture of a She folded the ancient leather wallet, in two barely noticing its familiar smell of something long dead. Millicent had less than five minutes before school. No time for breakfast, either.

“You will deliver it the moment you’re back from school. You know how precious the Powke is. To the family. Straight home from school, then straight to the Grobbellars with it. You understand me, girl?”

Millicent nodded, biting her lip. The old lady hand grabbed the folded wallet greedily. Her little finger caught awkwardly beneath it, and she squealed. Her scream thrilled through the musty house like the sound of a tortured frog in an echo chamber.

“Oh! Sorry, sorry!” Millicent cried. Her grandmother hissed in a spray of pale spittle.

Soothing the twisted finger, Millicent saw something she’d never noticed before. Outlined in green ink between the little finger and ring finger on Grandma’s left hand, was a tattoo, an ornamental number three.

* * * * *

Sir Willard Stripeneath knocked the clamouring dogs away from his legs with his riding crop.

“Fadge!” he called. “Where are you, Fadge?”

Mobius was trying to kill the heel of Sir Willard’s left boot. He kicked out at the animal.

“Away, Mobius. Down, you wretched thing. The boot’s already dead, boy. Fadge, where are you, man?”

“In here sir,” came a cry from the stables.

“Then get out here at once.”

With a clank of a bucket and a mumbled curse, Fadge hobbled from the stables, a half-eaten pear in one hand. A knobbly man of at least eighty years, but perhaps a hundred and eighty, he was all knees and elbows, and wore that sort of sleeveless pullover only knitted at Christmas by aunts with terminal colour-blindess.

“You’re never in the right place at the right time, are you Fadge?”

“No sir.”

“To what do you attribute that failing, Fadge?”

“Maybe it’s having too much to do, sir.”

“What d’you say, Fadge?”

“I said, I’m only here to serve you, sir.”

“That’s right, Fadge, you are. And a pretty mediocre job you do of it.”

“Thankyou, sir.”

“The sky looks bad, Fadge.”

Both men cast their eyes heavenwards, as the ice-blue sky gave way to clouds, clustering for a December storm.

“Only one thing can have caused that, man. We’re down to eight, that’s what it is. Someone’s got the chop. Good a sign as we might get. But I need to be sure.”

“You’re not going to make them dogs talk again, are you, m’lord? Them voices rip at you like you’re inside a cheese-grater.”

“You’re not paid to have feelings, Fadge. Leave them at home. Down, Vertex, you cur. Down, I say. You feed these dogs too well, Fadge. Starve ‘em a bit, that’s what they need. Teach ‘em a bit of discipline, damn their evil little eyes.”

“I expect you’ll want the gloves, sir.”

“I’ll tell you what I want, when I want it. You’re worse than the dogs: all curs together. Yes, I want the gloves. Obviously I want the gloves. Why would I call you if I didn’t need the gloves? So? Where are they, where are they?”

Kicking at a crescent of mud fallen from a hoof, Fadge scurried into the great house beyond the stable, muttering under his breath.

Flicking around the dogs with his crop Sir Willard teased out Bisector. Lame in his rear right leg, he should by rights have been put down months ago. But he was the best talker in the pack and Sir Willard felt something close to affection for the old dog, gamely trying to keep up with the rest of the pack, though his role in the hunt these days seemed little more than to annoy the other dogs.

“So,” he mused, watching the sky as slow hanks of cloud knotted over the glassy blue. “The rules are going to be forgotten, are they? About time. About time. But there’s some of us remember the old ways better than others, don’t we, Bisector, old man?”

“Here’s the gloves, sir.”

Fadge presented them on a tray of ruby glass. Slick leather gloves, blackened with age and made from a skin which looked uncomfortably human. Reflected in the tray, the changing sky flowed like red wine from their fingertips.

“Give them here, then, you curmudgeon. I don’t expect to live forever, you know.”

Careful not to touch the gloves, Fadge held up the tray. Sir Willard took a deep breath, briefly closing his eyes, before grabbing the gloves. For a moment, they struggled against him, not wanting to be worn, but he fought them over his fingers, flexed his fists within them like a boxer, fighting the urge to scream.

The pack scattered.

“Stop those curs, then, man. Don’t just stand there like a gatepost, get them back here.”

The old manservant flung himself feebly at the retreating dogs, succeeding only in scattering them further. Some retreated into the stables. Others cowered against the crumbling wall.

“I don’t know why I keep you on, Fadge. You’re worse than incompetent. Get out of the way.”

Sir Willard stretched to his full six feet four. His gloved hands reached out, twitching and trembling almost with a life of their own. Holding the riding crop in both hands, he drew a slow triangle in the air, followed by a second, and then a third. As if the air thickened, each shape left a mark, so three overlapping triangles hung before him in a shimmering window. In the centre of the yard, the dogs drew together yipping, snapping and whining, tails between their legs.

The sky grew the colour of slate. A first fat drop of rain fell.

“Perfect,” scowled Sir Willard.

He moved his gloved hands in three more complex shapes. Above him the clouds slowly circled into a rumbling grey triangle, whilst the twenty seven dogs in the pack nipped and nudged themselves into a similar shape, with Sir Willard Stripeneath at one corner, and Bisector at another. At the third corner the dog called Skew skulked miserably.

Sir Willard pointed at Bisector and wound a complex pattern of shapes, a tessellation around him. Slowly, as rain fell upon them in thick drops, the dog rose onto its hind legs. Fear bulged in its eyes. Small tears of blood welled at the corners. Fadge descended into his pullover, hunkering down against the rain.

“Absolutely perfect,” said Sir Willard. “Now, Bisector, you limping wreck, tell me truly: are we still nine? Or have we again lost one of our number?”

The dog howled, his throat vibrating like a drumskin. One by one the other dogs took up his howl until the whole pack keened like one maddened animal. Out of the howl came words:

“House Gules is now eight. Your warranted vessel is meat,” Bisector whined, reluctantly. “I beg you. Make me no more an unnatural thing. Put me back on the soil.”

“Not yet,” said Sir Willard. “So, they will kill to protect it, will they? I knew this day would come/. I told them it would. That pretty much confirms what House Vert is up to, wouldn’t you say, Fadge? Lies and snares.”

Beneath his pullover, Fadge nodded, trembling.

“I should’ve had the courage to act ten years ago.  Time now, do you think? Time enough. Bisector, you cur, now tell me, is Wolden truly the place we’re looking for. Or must I look further still?”

The dog yowled again. The pack whimpered in key. Bisector listened. Distantly some creature answered, perhaps another dog. Its howl was faint but distinct against the splash of raindrops and the pack’s mournful sound.

“The answer is ‘yes’,” said the dog, and it seemed to snarl with satisfaction that it could give an unhelpful reply.

“Damn!” murmured Stripeneath. “I always forget how tricksy these hounds can be.”

Rain was dripping from his nose as he spoke again, carefully: “So now tell me: is the tooth at Wolden?”

The dog sneered, writhing in the air as if it trying not to answer. The Lord Stripeneath gripped the rain with his gloves. Words crawled from the growling throat like a granite monument dragged through gravel.

“Yes. At Wolden. Now release me.”

“Don’t presume to tell me my business, cur. Do you think I don’t know the Lore? Get down and grovel, as you should,” Sir Willard snarled. With a sudden jerk, he dropped his arms.

Yelping the dog fell to the ground. It lay whimpering, paws over its nose. The silent triangle of hounds collapsed around it, a melee wrangling to get out of the rain.

“Quick now!” yelled Sir Willard, “get these things off me.”

He struggled against the gloves. Tightening on his hands, their skin seemed to merge into his, veins of age protruding around his knuckles. For a moment Fadge didn’t move to help, but Sir Willard kicked out at him, and the old servant gripped the fingers, wrestling with the glove as his master tried to rip it from his hand.

Heavy rain exploded upon them.

* * * * *

Millicent raced down Wolden High Street, glancing at the men on ladders stringing bright lights across the street. The sky was the colour of smoked glass. As she dodged fat rain drops, she felt relief, suddenly light, as if the rain were washing her clean. Unbidden, her dream came back to mind. If it was only a dream, why was Grandma so angry? In her schoolbag the petals in Othello weighed like stolen coins

Wolden was a little more than the village it used to be but not yet quite the town it wanted to be. Brookside School was on the opposite side of town. She ran past Harbinger’s Toy Shop and Decorators, which rubbed elbows with a brand new concrete Woolworths, then past the stationer’s kiosk of the Wolden Advertiser, where Marjorie Alwright studiously ignored her customers. Past the duck pond, around the Market Square, which was really a triangle, barely glanced at Redknapp and Gravelly’s Antique Shop, with no time for the distracting smell of fresh breadcakes from Caldecott’s and up Church Street to the Oxford Road. As she crossed the bridge to the new School, the ominous sounds of Second Bell rang beyond the playing fields. She picked up the pace.

Halfway across the bridge two hulking Year Nine boys stepped from beneath the willow that shrouded its wall to block her path. The clamour of the school-bell echoed across the fields.

“Excuse me,” she said, skidding to a halt.

“Why?” said the fatter of the two boys, “What’ve you done?”

The other one, picking his teeth with a pair of compasses, laughed.

“I need to get past. I’m late for class.”

“Tut tut,” said the fatter boy. “Tut tut tut.”

“That’s right,” said the first boy, “Very tut tut, if you ask me.”

“Can’t I just get past?”

“It rather looks as if you can’t, doesn’t it?”

The bell was becoming insistent.

“Y’see,” said the boy with the compasses, now cleaning his nails. “Walnut here would move away if he could. But he’s feeling weak at the moment. Very weak. On the point of collapse, isn’t he? Due to the pangs of hunger.”

“That’s right,” said Walnut. “We’s just on our way to Nurse to get me sorted. But I’ve come over quite a peculiarity, and, well, I don’t think I’ll be able to move now till I’ve had something to eat. To build up my strength.”

“To build up his strength,” agreed Compass-boy. “He’s such a weakling, he is.”

Walnut laughed. “Why, you could knock me over with a feather.”

“With the thought of a feather, even.”

“You want my lunch, is that it?” Millicent asked.

“That’s very kind of you to offer,” said Compass-boy, grabbing Millicent’s bag from her shoulder and beginning to root around in it.

“Hey! I don’t have any lunch,” Millicent said, “I…”

“Now, that’s unfriendly, that is.”

Millicent felt spray from the boy’s lips showering her face.

“Offering poor Walnut lunch,” he continued, “when you’ve nothing to offer. That’s wicked, that is. That’s deceitful.”

With one hand, he waved the compasses in Millicent’s face. With the other he swung her bag. Her books and pencils tumbled out, one at a time rolling back down the bridge to the street. The bag looped beyond the parapet, pages fluttering down to the stream. Othello flew open and three poppy petals fell out. Walnut watched them fall onto the bridge, then stood on them. Millicent felt tears swelling.

The bell stopped ringing, its last round sound stifled by the misty air.

2 Responses to “Mordred’s Tooth: Draft 2”

  1. Judy Says:

    Write more, I want to know what happens. Finish the book, I’ll definitely buy it, it’s whetted my interest.

  2. noelwilliams Says:

    Hi Judy

    I’m glad you’re keen. A few people have said similar things, although you’re the only one to comment on-line to date. In fact, there is a complete manuscript, and I plan a second to follow it, but I think it currently has some weaknesses, (e.g. very little happens in the next chapter, so there’s a bit of a hiatus) so it needs further work. However, your enthusiasm encourages me to continue.



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