Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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For the Want of a Mouse

by T I M James



The small wooden hut rested in the heart of a large wood, a cosy cottage that could be reached by various paths, protected under a canopy of leaves. In the summer months, shafts of sunlight would cut through the green, dappling the home in an iridescent display of light and warmth; while in the winter the vast trunks seemed to move closer providing a natural warmth and protection from the elements.

But today there was neither sunlight nor softly falling snow.

Rain lashed down in heavy grey streaks, pounding the forest floor in a savage attempt to wash it all away, from grass to top soil and through the ground to the bedrock below. Puddles filled even the deepest of depressions, the water almost seeming to bubble with the speed the falling torrents hit, overflowing, merging with their neighbours to make even bigger puddles, growing into small ponds, as though the water sought to lay claim to the land.

Wind howled like a loosed banshee, slicing through the spaces of the trees, bending branches and boughs, threatening and succeeding at snapping, breaking wood like dry bone, uprooting those not deeply anchored, sending vast trunks crashing to the ground in death and destruction.

In the skies above thunder roared like the wrath of a thousand gods, locked in a battle that no one could win, each earth rendering boom, rattling the world below as though the sound alone could shake the planet apart.

Finally there was the lightning, if it could be so called: forked fingers that prodded from the black clouds, crackling with an unearthly energy. They fell from above, only a few scant seconds apart and such colours that defied the very nature of a storm. Amid the common whites, yellows and orange, there were blues, purples, reds and greens; cracking whips of multi-hued violence that shattered the biggest oaks, blew craters into the forest floor, almost as if the sky above had declared war on the ground below.

Yet, in that small house of wood and stone, despite the unquenchable storm that raged beyond its thin walls, there was a strange peace, where simple sounds seemed to hold off the ferocity of the tempest.

There was a calmness inside the building, something that belied the raging weather outside, almost as if a small amount of stillness was held in the very fabric of the building, enforcing a subdued state within.

It was little more than a single room, a room that should not have been very big and yet somehow it seemed large enough. There were shelves on all the walls filled with jars and bottles, mismatched by shape and sizes, different colours of glass, stoppered or capped. These things were themselves filled with various pastes and fluids, strange pebbles and seeds, lumps of moss and insects. In fact, all manner of unusual items were kept there in chaotic array, waiting to be used. And as the raging winds buffeted the small shack the shelves seemed to vibrate so that the jars jingled slightly, misshaped bells ringing softly.

Just as the jars seemed to chime then the walls of the room seemed to creak and groan, but gently, easily resisting the maelstrom without, just shifting in unison with the weather, almost as though it were part of the storm, a component of the forces that buffeted the woods around it.

A small bed was almost hidden in a corner of the room, home-woven blankets and sheets neatly covering it. Directly opposite this was a black stove and fireplace, leaded and dark, with an orange glow burning deep inside like a hot heart.

A saucepan sat on one side of the oven, half covered with a dark lid, a bubbling noise of something within; next to this was an old kettle, gently boiling as though it was always ready, waiting to be used. Hanging from the walls on wooden pegs and iron nails were an array of other pans, skillets and trays, all in a state of waiting.

There were other sounds in the room, all slight noises that could even have been considered an enhancement of silence, blending together to make something that was almost akin to music, it should have been discordant. But it was not.

Creaking at regular intervals was a rocking chair moving backwards and forwards, a steady gentle rhythm, holding the small form of an aging woman. She sat with hooded eyes appearing half asleep as she rocked back and forth, a small tin plate resting on the cat on her lap. Beside her, on a rickety three-legged stool that now served as a table, was chipped china cup from which steam rose, and in the cup a dark, dark tea moved slowly, concentric circles birthing with each incessant boom of thunder.

The cat itself was a large black creature with grey stripes, or it might have been grey with black stripes. It was curled contentedly as only cats can, purring softly, blissfully ignorant of the plate resting there, an ear twitching, an eye opening slightly with each crash.

Not only did the cat seem to be undisturbed by the storm outside, at the same time it was unconcerned by the three mice that sat on the back of the chair, slowly being fed little titbits from the old wrinkled hands of the woman who sat there.

Despite the fact that it was certainly not a night for anyone to be out the old lady did not seem surprised when a new sound entered her perceptions, the heavy desperate pounding of someone at the door. With no particular hurry she carefully placed the plate next to her tea, lifted the cat, despite its gentle protests, and put it on the floor. She paused for a moment as all three mice leapt, one after another to balance on her shoulders as though they belonged there.

She was more sprightly than one might have imagined, moving easily with no creaks or cracks of old tired bones as she made her feet and walked quickly to the door, drawing back the single iron bolt, hearing it grate in its housing, then pulling the door open, ignoring the slight resistance of the hinges, the creak that was customary.

Rain sheeted down, rivers of it crashing onto the small wooden walkway, pooling and washing away at the same time, as though it were falling to fast to drain quickly. The light of the rough little house seemed to be barely enough to banish the gloom that tried to encroach upon the living space, but it valiantly illuminated the figure standing on the stoop.

Wrapped tightly in a heavy cloak the slightly hunched figure was almost consumed by dark and shadow, but one elderly hand could clearly be seen pulling the cloak tight around the throat and two grey eyes glinted from the shadows beneath the hood.

The old woman stood at the door for a moment then slowly shook her head, "I knew it had to be you. No one else would be out in weather like this. You'd better come in." She did not say so, but her tone implied that her visitor was an idiot for being abroad.

Her guest did not seem to notice the implied insult as she dripped her way into the hut. She stood in a rapidly growing puddle as the old woman closed the door.

The visitor dropped her sodden cloak to the floor, revealing a second old woman, almost of an age withthe first. Despite the heavy material of the cloak, the fine clothes beneath were more than just damp and with a frustrated sigh the woman stomped over to the stove, wringing her liver-spotted hands over the heat.

"And why would I not be out, sister?" she snapped. "Surely you cannot be oblivious to what is going on out there!"

The homeowner shrugged. "It's raining," she said simply.

Her guest turned to look at her, features twisted into an unpleasant snarl, the lines of her wrinkled face deepening, "Don't come smart with me, Ethele!" she snapped, "I don't need any of your sanctimonious crap!"

One of the mice on Ethele's shoulders squeaked slightly, earning it a glare from the wet visitor, but the wilting gaze just seemed to slide off Ethele as though it was water. She smiled gently. "If you say so, Francelly. So to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, sister?"

The scowl only deepened on her sister's face. "You actually need to ask?" One withered hand gestured toward the window, the crashing storm beyond the glass. "It's the end of the world, you simple-minded fool, what else would bring me here?"

Ethele walked across the clean wooden floor, a slight hunch to her back, but she did not push her sister out of the way as she reached the stove, carefully putting the kettle back on the stove lid, allowing it to return to the boil. At the same time she looked up at her sister, a slight hint of exasperation on her aged face. "Oh come now, don't be so melodramatic. It is hardly the end of the world!"

"And how would you know?" Francelly snapped.

Ethele shook her head sadly. "I know, this is a storm of change, perhaps the biggest change we have ever seen, but it is hardly the end of the world. It is the last of the old magic passing from this realm, nothing more. Nothing less."

Her sister spat, literally spat the words so that her spittle hissed and danced on the stove, "That's so easy for you to say, the magic is not your life!"

"And it is yours?"

"How could it not be?" Francelly howled, "It is everything, it is all that I am! It is me!"

Ethele closed her eyes, half turning away from her sibling and almost breathed the words, "It does not have to be."

It did not matter whether the words were meant to be heard or not, it did not even matter that the wind, the thunder and the rain worked at obliterating all other sounds, Francelly heard them, and the face that turned towards her sister was a contortion, a brutal mix of age, hatred and rage.

"What? What are you suggesting? That I make do with the sympathetic crap that you deal with day in and day out?" She contemptuously indicated the jars that filled the walls of the rooms. "That I live like some beggar in a tumbledown shack providing potions and medicines for dim witted locals? Delivering babies, terminating pregnancies, helping dumbass bitches conceive! Sticking my bloody arm up a sheep's snatch just to get an underdeveloped lamb out!

"Really?"

Ethele sighed again, using a cloth to lift the kettle from the stove, not even flinching at the blast of abuse that came at her like a lightning bolt. With hands steadier than her age implied, she poured some steaming water into a second, cracked china cup. She kept her silence as reached up and drew a small jar off a shelf, popped the top and sprinkled a few dry leaves into the boiling fluid. "The world turns as the world wills," she told her sister. She proffered the steaming cup. "Here."

Francelly shook her head, her face still contorted by her anger, then batted the old cup out of her sibling's hand. The delicate receptacle spun through the air, leaving a trail of fluid behind it, before shattering against the wall in a detonation of white shards. The three mice darted for cover, and the cat almost jumped out of the chair.

"I don't want none of your bloody tea," she snapped. "Do you really think that is going to make things better? You always were a stupid bint. I mean there's barely an hour between the two of us, and look how you live!" She turned in place, one quivering finger sweeping around the room. "In a tumble down old shed surrounded by flea riddled animals and their shit! Do you think that's how I want to end up? How I deserve to end up?"

Ethele said nothing. She pulled a stained and ragged bit of cloth from a drawer, and shuffled across the room to wipe up the spilled tea and gather the shards of the broken cup.

Francelly continued her rant, sneering at her sister's humble circumstances. "I live in a mansion with servants! Kings call on me, treat me with respect. I can kill with a word, shatter walls with a gesture of my hand! A single look can freeze a knight in his tracks and make him drop dead with fright! People, hell people leave me the greatest of gifts out of their fear for me!

"Me, I deserve the title of witch, not like some backwater animal doctor, who can do next to nothing with what paltry skills -- not magics -- that she has.

"Hell I could raise storms with a single word, and stop them with another!"

Ethele looked back across the room as she picked up the last sliver of broken china and sadly shook her head, "I'm happy enough with my lot. I chose it, I suppose, and as I have told you before there is power enough for me.

"And for all your claims, sister, I do not see you trying to stop this particular storm."

If anything Francelly's temper grew even hotter, burning within like the fires beneath the earth. "Don't be so stupid!" she spat.

Ethele raised an eyebrow. "Change comes and we just have to do the best we can. It is time for the great magic to pass, so there it is. Not much we can do about it. We make the best that we can of things and carry on."

"So that's your country-born wisdom, is it?" Sarcasm mixed with the anger to make an acidic glare.

The younger twin sighed. "I don't know what else I can say. Now there's obviously a reason you are here feeding your anger until it's a fury. What is it?"

Through clenched teeth, Francelly spoke, the heat of her rage draining into a cold wrath, something that could have frozen and burned with the emotion alone. The words though, their delivery could have cut. Deep.

"You, you with your pathetic, unimportant life, your smug air of superiority as if you were so much more than me, even though you had nothing and I had everything.

"I was the first born. I was the one who achieved so much, wealth and power. And yet somehow you were always the favourite. Our parents... pah, they all but disowned me while you they treated like some mud spawned princess.

"And here we stand, my powers gone, and you acting as though it does not matter because your little, wasted life will carry on as if nothing changes!

"I'm telling you, everything is gone, there will be nothing left! Everything that is of any use or importance to me will go, and you live here in this shit-hole smug in the fact, that for you, it is all just the same!"

Ethele closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "That is not the way of things, and you know it. Perhaps your magic is gone, perhaps there will be a little left, but you will still have your fancy home and your wealth."

Francelly laughed a wretched chuckle. "Oh, and how long will that last? Once words gets out that all my power is gone, who will come and give me more? How long until some 'hero' will come and try their luck at offing the great Witch of Westmeer, and this time I will be nothing but a little old lady!"

"Well, it was you that made that particular bed," Ethele told her.

In a blur of motion the older sister darted across the room, striking like a snake, her wizened hand whipped out and gripped the ruff of the cat's neck and hauled the startled creature into the air. The animal gave a startled yowl of surprise, but before it could even register fear the woman seized its head with her free hand, twisted hard and threw the hapless animal through the air. It hit the wall in time with a crack of thunder, making it seem as though the impact made the home shake, then it slid down, dislodging bottles from the shelf below it. As it lay in a furry heap, glass and clay shattered and broke around it, but it did not move at all.

Ethele spun, looking at the dead cat. For the first time the calm of her face was displaced by a look of shock, hurt and the first signs of anger.

Behind her though the rage soaked form of her sister reached across the side and plucked something that hung from the wall.

"What in the name of..." the younger twin cried, but got no further.

Francelly cut her off. "Oh, I know how pathetic your powers are, sister." She said the word with pure venom. "But I know very well just what you can achieve with your familiar, and by removing that I can do..."

An old but strong hand clamped down on an old shoulder and half pulled Ethele around, "...this!" the older sister hissed, plunging the iron blade up, between the ribs, the bright tip of the knife piercing the beating heart within.

Ethele's eyes opened wide in surprise, a single breath escaping her lips.

"I've lost everything!" Francelly screeched, "Everything! And if you think I am going to let you lose nothing my hateful little sister, then you know as little as I think you know. If I have to lose all my power, then I only think it is fair that I take the same from you as well!" With a piercing intent look in her eyes, she gave a sharp twist to the blade. A hideous smile twisted her face as the once powerful witch hissed, "And a little more as well."

Ethele reached up, her aged hand trembling, clasping her sister's shoulder, looking deep into the other's identical eyes. Her mouth opened wordlessly, closed then opened again. The slight grip she had failed and she dropped to her knees. For a moment, her head rested against her sister's belly, and then she toppled backwards, falling onto the wooden floor, her legs twisted beneath her. For a single heartbeat her eyes widened, the pupils enlarging as though she could see something that no one else could, then the tenseness left her body and she went limp.

Anger still gripped Francelly's form, shaking with an unquenched rage. She glared at the body with distaste, feeling a long simmering hatred boil itself dry within her, then with a final glob of spittle aimed at the dead witch she stalked from the room, grabbing her cloak and pulling it about her. With a strength born of anger she jerked the door open, and stalked out into the storm, oblivious to the pounding rain and rolling thunder.

She did not bother to close the door behind her, the dark cloak being consumed by the blackness, the grim act of sororicide behind her.

####

The body of Ethele lay unmoving on the floor, a slight flow of blood running from beneath it, through the gaps in the floorboards to whatever was below. The door slammed open and shut, driven by the howling wind, while the rain invaded the suddenly empty house, forming pools around the entrance, trickles of it following the crimson fluid beneath the house.

Something moved. Certainly not the witch, nor the cat, but from under the table, by the chair there was a timid squeak. A nose twitched and slowly a mouse scurried forward. It was one of the three that had been sat on the back of the chair, its fur brown with the faintest hint of black, healthy pink ears and a nose sniffed nervously at the air.

It skittered across the floor, it claws clicking almost inaudibly across the wooden planking. For a moment, it paused, its jet black eyes studying the still form of the cat, then it continued its journey, scurrying over to the unmoving form of the witch.

For a moment, the mouse stared at the corpse and if it could be said that a mouse could appear sorrowful this one achieved it. It turned tail and darted back, over the floor, to where the other two mice were. The three of them stood for a moment, and then, as if some invisible signal had been given they darted away from one another, running in three different directions, each one disappearing into the woodwork and were gone.

####

Perhaps it might have been a sad farewell, the mice leaving the home they had shared with the old woman, but as the storm broke hours later, that lie was revealed.

In front of the house a single mouse appeared. Soon it was joined by another. Then another and another and another. But it was not just a single type of mouse. As the numbers grew so did the breeds of rodent. Male mice, female mice, young mice, old mice, black mice, white mice, brown mice, mottled mice, house mice, barn mice, field mice, dormice and so many more, tens then hundreds of them gathering together in the area in front of the home.

As the last few drops of rain dripped from the saturated branches, the wind became a gentle breeze and the thunder rumbled away into the distance. The mice stood on the sodden ground, and suddenly as one they began to move, darting across land through the woods, passing around the trunks of trees and beyond. And as they moved, almost as though they were calling more and more of their own joined them.

Perhaps it could have been possible to call it an army or mice, but it was so much more than that, for as they moved their number increased and increased again, not just hundreds, but thousands and thousands of rodents scurrying, darting, running, more than any army, more like a wave of small furry bodies crashing together as one, rising, swelling cresting like waves as they passed over, around and through obstacles.

Unrelenting, unstopping and all the time gathering more and more mice as they swept across the countryside, relentless as a tsunami. They burst over a hedge and into a field, thousands and thousands of tiny feet flattening the corn and maize, overturning stones and trampling wet mud into hard packed clay.

They washed up and over a dry stone wall, a monument that had been there for centuries, the undulating mass rocked stone and tore moss from the surface until the very stones that had been raised by the hands of man, collapsed and fell and still the mice rushed on.

Through meadows of grass, around ponds and lakes, scampering over the roofs of houses, through cobbled streets and country lanes, under bridges, between the cracks in homes and barns. And all the while the undulating blanket of fur grew, more and more mice all heading in the same direction, and there in the front of the wave was one mouse, a small rodent that had sat on the back of a chair as an old woman fed it crumbs.

####

Francelly stepped through the door of her mansion, across the well kept lawn and looked up at the clear blue sky. To many, it would have been another beautiful day, with a cloudless sky that depth of azure that was as close to perfect as the sky could become.

The very light reached down and deepened the colours of everything below, the richness of the verdant grass, the beautiful array of colours that the flowers, both domestic and wild. The birds that flew through the air seemed to be more vibrant than they had been, their song more musical than it ever had been before.

But not to the witch standing there alone. To her the world was cold and dark, made up of deep shadows, and the feeling of bereavement that washed through her like a cheap wine dominated. The loss though, had nothing to do with her sister; it was the loss of magic that had not just gone from the world, but from her: and she knew that it would be something that she would never get back.

Just like her sister.

Somehow that did not bother her at all. The memory of the look on Ethele's face as her cat was dashed against the wall was sweet; even sweeter the feel in her hand as the knife met resistance before sinking through Ethele's flesh, the very look in her eyes as she realised what had been done to her -- well, that was one of the few comforts left to her in a dark, unrelenting world.

As she stood there looking out over the land before her, the rolling hills, the trees and bushes, the mountains in the far distance, she wondered just how long it would be before someone came to destroy it.

The trouble with building up a reputation was that someone was always ready to try and make their name on the back of that name. Most of the time if you had earned that name you could actually back it up, and she had on countless occasions, but now, sooner rather than later, someone was going to come and there would be nothing she could do.

All the magic had gone.

She tried to take a deep breath and in that moment something caught the corner of her eye. She turned to her left staring out over the meadow wondering just what it was that had drawn her to it.

It took her a few seconds to realise that the field was the wrong colour, not green but a shifting fluid mass or grey and brown. She squinted trying to work out just what it was, and in that moment a mouse burst through the hedge, just one but within moments it was followed by another and another and another.

Thousands of rodents swarmed toward her, all staring so that she could see her own reflection in the perfect black eyes. She barely had the time to take a breath before they were upon her, swarming over her just as they had everything else in their path.

Within moments, there was a near unending carpet of mice spread out across the land, but right in the centre was a shape, a roughly humanoid shape made up of hundreds of small shifting bodies.

Francelly did not even scream. There was a slight, indrawn breath and then nothing.

####

Just like any storm there was clearing up that needed to be done after, only after one of the ferocity that the last had brought, there were quite a few more jobs to be found, not all of them pleasant.

The old lady dressed in her threadbare but serviceable clothes, looked at the shape in the grave she had dug, roughly human, wrapped in old sacking and sadly shook her head. She picked up another smaller bundle and laid it in the grave next to first shape and then took a deep breath.

The death of her cat was regrettable, but it had served its purpose. The ideal talent of any witch, misdirection. She was always seen with the cat, it went everywhere with her, she always talked to it. Anyone would have believed it was her familiar.

Even her sister.

The mice, well, they were just an eccentricity. Why would anyone want a mouse as a familiar? But then no one realised that one mouse gave access to others. Thousands of others. It took some doing to drop one's mind into a creature as small as a mouse, but a sudden death made even the most impossible of things possible.

Splitting the mind, spreading it through thousands of other smaller minds, now that was a lot trickier, but then she never said there was no power in what she did. It was just quieter than the greater magics, that was all. A lot more subtle too, especially when it came to taking up residence in a new body; say one that had lost its mind through fear, perhaps even the fear of a mouse. Or mice.

Ethele sighed sadly and regretfully began to fill the grave in. Of course there was very little she could have done with the wounds she received. A dead body was still a corpse.

Just as well she was a twin. There were very few people that would be able to tell the difference between them. She sadly tossed more soil onto her own body, feeling a slight ache in her sister's hands. The right herbs would take care of that touch of arthritis.

Behind her, sitting on a small crooked gatepost, a small mouse watched as its companion worked. It gnawed happily on a piece of fruit, and in its own way said goodbye to the cat.

The End


© 2011 T I M James

Bio: Stories by Mr. James have appeared at SFFWorld.com (Until the End of His Days), Science Fiction Museum (The Patient), and in the now-defunct webzine Demensions. One of his stories has been accepted for a future print anthology from XEI Publishing.

E-mail: T I M James

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