Ch 6 The Ghosts of My Life

Valery was dressed, not as Clarice had known her, in the sober if opulent garments of an affluent trader, but in a fashionably, flamboyant low-cut dress. The kind of modish, ravishing yet respectable clothing that a well-to-do married woman would wear to impress other members of high society. Her figure was a little fuller than Clarice recalled, and her make-up heavier.

"Excuse me, do I know you?" Valery stared at her astonished.

"This is my cousin, Clarice, darling," Celeste intervened quickly. "And I've told her all about you, of course."

"Oh, oh I see." Valery gave Clarice an uncertain smile. "It's just when you spoke to me ... it sounded as if we'd met before. Which I'm sure we haven't." She gave her head a slight shake as though to clear it. "Celeste never told me she had a cousin. This is all so unexpected, but ..." she performed her familiar, elegant bow "you are most welcome to our house."

Knowing Valery as well as she did, Clarice could tell that she was still uneasy in the presence of her unexpected visitor. She tried to mask her own stunned reaction. If Valery was married to Celeste in this universe, what did that imply about her own? Could it explain her guilty feeling that there was something different about her relationship with the jeweller? Was it possible that they could become … physically intimate?

She forced herself to concentrate on the immediate problem of calming the suspicions of this Valery. It wasn't hard to guess at what was worrying Celeste's spouse. She fears we may be 'kissing cousins'.

Clarice decided to follow her lead and fall back on formality. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Valery," she said.

Valery offered her a tentative hand to shake. "Likewise."

Clarice continued, "I can understand your surprise. Although Celeste and I know each other well from childhood, we've been separated for a long time."

"That's right," Celeste confirmed. "The last time we were together was before either of us got married."

"Oh, you're married as well!" Valery exclaimed. "How delightful! May I ask how long for?"

"Six years."

"A good, long time. Celeste and I have only been married for a little over two years. But then ... you're somewhat older than her, aren't you?"

Clarice's smile faded a little. She was still sensitive about the apparent ageing caused by her avatar body. "I may look it, but we're closer in age than most people guess."

"Is that so?" Valery looked pleased that her jibe seemed to have riled Clarice. "I imagine by now you've begun a family?"

"We have a beautiful little girl. She's five now."

"Lovely!" Valery rolled up her eyes as though calculating. "And just in time too. No need for a blunderbuss wedding, ha, ha!"

She was always somewhat outspoken, thought Clarice. Marriage seems to have made her even sharper-tongued. She asked, "And what about your own family?"

Valery looked taken aback. "Didn't Celeste tell you? We haven't been able to have any children yet. You see ... the circumstances are difficult. Celeste has been occupied with her business affairs, and quests, of course. So she couldn't afford to become pregnant. Then well you know, although I'd love to give birth, there's the question of the bloodline. And ..." she gave a laugh that seemed a little forced, "Celeste would be so jealous, naturally!"

Clarice glanced sharply at Celeste. You know very well that whatever the difficulties, the bloodline comes first. Celeste had certainly caught the implication of her look, because she flushed and averted her eyes. Valery seemed oblivious to the byplay. "Well you must be hungry, but maybe you'd like to wash off the dust of travel first?"

"No, thank you!" Clarice was uncomfortably aware that no such dust existed. "I freshened up at the Cow, and I've just bought new clothes."

Valery passed a critical eye over her outfit. "Quite 'a la mode' and very much Celeste's style. Let me guess she bought it for you."

Clarice reddened at this sign of her reliance on Celeste, before reflecting that Valery was dependent on her spouse in much the same way. "I hadn't a change of clothes and I'm not acquainted with the local fashions."

"Understandable I suppose." Valery gave the faintest of sniffs. "Anyway I'll begin preparing a meal straight away."

"Clarice is something of a vegetarian, dear," put in Celeste.

"No problem, it'll make a change to leave out the dead animals." Valery went across to the cupboard next to the stove, adding over her shoulder, "You can tell me about your childhood together over dinner."

While her back was turned, Clarice muttered under her breath, "We need to talk."

"Agreed, but later. Now's just not convenient."

"But ..."

"I said later."

"By Avo's Toe," Valery declared, pushing away the remains of her dish of tofu and lentils, "You two might have been twins separated at birth. Or rather not separated. You talk about your childhood almost as though you were the same person." Looking compassionately at Clarice: "Celeste has spoken to me about Rose. I can tell you feel her loss like a sister. She must have been a very special person."

"She was." Clarice couldn't manage to say more. Revisiting her childhood, and especially that part of it, had been difficult enough. Especially when she'd had to stretch the events experienced by one person to that of two. Fortunately Celeste had taken the lead, giving clues as to what Valery already knew about her past. As far as Clarice could tell, their life paths had remained identical for most of the time they'd spent amongst the gypsies. So our universes must have split sometime near the end of adolescence or afterwards.

Valery continued to look sympathetic. "Some of these memories are difficult, I know. Let's talk of happier times. Why don't you tell me about ... the first time you were in love!"

Not that ... of all things. There's only one alternative.

"I'll tell you how I met my husband. It's quite a story ..."

The rain swept in off the coast to drive into Sparrow's face; she blinked away the drops running into her eyes and stared into the gathering gloom. In the last gleaming of light, two or three shapes were silhouetted against the distant horizon line.

Bandits, almost certainly. Rex's alarmed bark confirmed the evidence of her eyes.

"Quiet, boy!" Her almost psychic link with the dog restrained him from bounding forward. They haven't spotted me yet.

She'd defeated them before, of course, including a chieftain called Thag, but the battle had been difficult, and Rex had been wounded. These bandits on the road to Oakfield seemed tougher and more numerous. At least she'd been able to trade her make-shift melee weapons for a decent iron sword, but at range she was still reliant on a poor-quality crossbow.

What had Therese said? Magic is the greatest source of power a hero can wield. The more you use it, the greater will become your mastery. She possessed only two low level spells; perhaps now was the time to start using them in earnest.

A bolt from her crossbow struck the only bandit with a gun but, as she'd feared, did no more than disable his weapon arm. Three men were rushing at her through the downpour, sending up splashes of water and mud from the puddles on the trail.

"Stay close to me," she instructed Rex. Water was an excellent conductor. As the foremost of the bandits came within sword reach, Sparrow unleashed her Shock spell, halting her opponents in a shower of sparks and dancing lightning. She instantly ran through the nearest rogue, but the others were already recovering from the stun effect.

Invoking Time Control, Sparrow phased into the fourth dimension, passing through the body of largest bandit in a blur. Re-materialising behind him, she quickly stabbed him in the back, much to his astonishment and that of his sole remaining companion.

"Miserable trickster! You'd better not try that one on me!"

"All right." Sparrow shrugged and pointed a finger. Her entire force of Will focused into the bolt arcing towards the unfortunate survivor, leaving him capering like a madman on a carpet of electricity.

"Had enough?" She briefly allowed him release.

"No more, please!"

"As you wish." Sparrow raised her crossbow and shot him through the heart. She felt her hero powers increase as they fed off his fading life force.

Rex whined and snuffled sorrowfully at the corpse. He'll never be much of a fighter. He didn't like the casual way I took a life. Because he knows I didn't either.

"Come on, boy. We've got to reach that inn soon."

"Its so exciting how you tell the story," Valery breathed. "You really make me feel the danger of being an inexperienced young hero."

"Travelling the Rookridge road without a decent ranged weapon, I'd call that foolhardy," Celeste commented dryly. "No wonder you had to rely on magic. So tell us how you found the statue."

"Shush, no spoilers," Valery warned.

With the coming of darkness, the sea wind had an added bite, from which the statue provided a partial shelter. Pressing her cheek against the wet stone, Sparrow traced the carved letters with her finger:

'Beware of the Ghost'.

The omen was unnecessary in her case. To those with eyes to see, the semi-transparent shape of the woman was perfectly apparent. Outlined in the bluish hue of a bloated corpse, she hovered above a precipitous drop to the foaming waters of the ocean beneath.

Trying to lure me to my death? Rex was growling fiercely, all the hairs on his back standing on end. Sparrow could sense it was an expression of fear rather than anger. Most people would think he was growling at nothing.

The rain blew through her, but diamond-like drops coursed down the ghost woman's cheeks. Her face was sad and lovely, and Sparrow thought to hear the faint rustle of silk.

"Why do you cry?" The words were almost muttered to herself, but the woman's pale blue lips parted.

"I've waited so long for someone like you. You must help me."

"What binds you to this place after your death?"

"Sorrow and shame. In life I loved a man, who I believed both handsome and kind. Only one proved true. On my wedding day, I wore flowers in my hair, and a beautiful dress. But no groom came to claim me from my father. Heartbroken and ashamed, I threw myself from these cliffs."

Putting a comforting hand on her fretful dog's head, Sparrow asked, "What can I do to help you?"

"I want justice. He must suffer as I have done."


"Make him fall in love with you, then betray him. Ease my soul, I beg of you."

Sparrow paused to consider. "Tell me his name, and where he lives."

"Bowerstone. His name is Alex."

Sparrow nodded. "For now I fare to Oakfield. If I live to return to Bowerstone, I will attempt your quest."

"That is all I ask."

Sparrow turned to leave, hesitated and met the spectre's livid gaze. "What's your name?"

The reply came as barely a whisper on the wind. "Clarice."

"Have you guessed how the story ends yet? Celeste was listening with an insouciant air.

"No!" Valery exclaimed irritably. "Please, Clarice, do go on. I'm dying to hear what happened next."

"Life," Alex pronounced with deliberation, "is like a bowl of cherries which someone's tipped all over the bloody floor. And death …" he frowned, took a large swallow of Bowerstone Brown Ale, "death's what's left behind."

"That's … very profound," Sparrow said.

Alex brushed a greasy lock from his eyes, and squinted drunkenly at her. "What … what did you say your name was?"


"That's what I thought. Its a pretty name, for a very beautiful young lady."

Sparrow touched her hair, and smiled, but offered no reply.

"Had a girl called that once." The lines on Alex's haggard, unshaven visage seemed to deepen. "She was very beautiful too. But she died." A spasm passed across his face. "No … she didn't just die. I … I killed her!" He took another pull on the tankard, repeated hoarsely, "I killed her."

"How did you do that?" Sparrow leaned forward, with an intent, almost hungry expression. "And why?"

"Because I was a coward," Alex blinked tears from bloodshot eyes and slumped miserably on his barstool. "She wanted to get married, and her family pushed for it. I felt … like I didn't have any control. We were too young really, barely past your age. A man ought to have time to find his way in the world before settling down." His face contorted into a grimace of self-contempt. "Well, anyway I panicked. I stood her up at the altar. But I never …" he gave Sparrow a haunted, wild-eyed look. "I never thought she'd do what she did. I never suspected that ..." His voice trailed off.

"She … killed herself?"

"Yeah. Threw herself off the cliffs in Rookridge."

There was a long pause, before Sparrow ventured to say, "Maybe … maybe it wasn't your fault."

"Oh, it was my fault all right." Alex banged down the empty flagon. "Why do you think I'm here every day, until I've spent all my gold, or they kick me out? And even if I was so hard-hearted as to not feel a smidgen of guilt ... without her, what is there left in life for me?"

"Perhaps ..." Sparrow hesitated, then cautiously put a hand on his arm. "Perhaps there may be more than you think."

He regarded her again from under straggling locks, and it seemed as though a faint gleam of hope illuminated his features.

"I don't know … it's been so long … so long since ..."

Sparrow increased the pressure of her touch, looked deeply into his eyes, and smiled. "So do you think I'm too young to marry?"

"That's so sweet!" Valery mopped her eyes with her napkin. "So you fell in love and got married. I adore stories where everyone lives happily ever after."

"Except for the ghost," Celeste pointed out. "Without having her revenge, how could she rest in peace?"

"Oh, pooh, who cares about some old spook!" Valery pouted. "Worrying about the living is enough. I'm glad you foiled her evil schemes, Clarice." She paused. "But tell me one last thing. What was your name before you changed it?"

"Spar … er, Thrush," Clarice corrected quickly.

"Thrush!" giggled Valery. "Pardon me, but I'm surprised you waited that long before getting a new one!" She glanced at Celeste. "I guess being named after birds runs in the family."

"Clarice must be tired now, honey," Celeste murmured.

"How thoughtless of me! We shouldn't keep you up all night story-telling. I hope you won't mind if I make you up a bed on the couch downstairs. You see its such a small place, we can't fit in a guest room with a regular bed." She gave another chaffing look at her spouse. "I keep telling Celeste we ought to move somewhere bigger, but she always says that the spirit of this house is right for us. Apparently it once belonged to a great athlete." With a sniff: "Personally I can't see how that helps."

The spirit of this house. Clarice could sense it once Valery had drawn her attention. Swiftness. It seeped from the walls, exuded from the fittings, radiated from the hearth. She could understand now why Celeste had chosen to dwell in such a home, despite its restrictive size. Of all the abilities bestowed upon a hero by the place of their abode, speed could be the most decisive. Microseconds of reaction time were often the difference between life and death.

While Valery went upstairs looking for bedding, Celeste spoke quickly. "Before we visit Therese, and start our adventuring, I've business to settle in Rookridge and Oakfield." She smiled as though at a private joke. "Business and pleasure actually. I'd advise wearing your best attire. We'll travel by express carriage tomorrow. Inside the coach, we can talk in privacy to our hearts content."

"And the bandits?"

"Will not be a problem to us." Celeste gave a snicker. "That I can practically guarantee."

Clarice kicked off her soft boots, and reclined on the couch, testing its firmness. It was more comfortable than most of the beds she'd slept on. She relaxed her head on a silken cushion, and listened. The acoustics of the house almost perfectly conveyed the sounds of conversation from the floor above.

"It seems you've been away so long, my love." Valery's amorous tone sent a tremor through Clarice. "And I've missed you every day, every hour."

"Come here, and show me how much." Celeste's voice was infused with the seductiveness that made a hero's attentions so hard for ordinary mortals to resist.

There was a pause, during which Clarice imagined them kissing passionately, perhaps even …

"Are you still sure you aren't stirred by the athletic spirit?" That was Celeste again, and Valery gave an audible giggle in response. "Why don't we try some exercise, right now?"

There was more giggling, followed by some bumping sounds, a squeaking of mattress springs, and then a pregnant silence. The latter did more than anything to feed Clarice's imagination, and despite pulling the blanket Valery had provided over her head, she continued to strain her ears for any detectable sound.

After some time, they caught the faintest of moans, an outcry that was repeated at intervals with ever greater volume and intensity. Whether it was Celeste or Valery, or perhaps both together, made little difference to Clarice. She had already formed a picture in her mind of their naked bodies entwined, sliding passionately, caressing one another. Of the touching of lips, breasts and thighs. Of whispered sweet endearments. She could imagine herself alternately the one making love, the one made love to.

It was too much for her to resist. Almost without realising it, she had slid first one hand then the other into her under garments. As the cries from upstairs grew louder and more ecstatic, she struggled to suppress her own gasps and moans, as she came closer and closer to climax. When the overwhelmingly delicious release finally came, the relief was so intense that she was scarcely able to prevent herself screaming out loud. Fortunately any sounds she made were masked by those from above.

Afterwards she felt terribly ashamed, as if she'd committed some unpardonable impropriety against her hosts.

The wind swept like a wave through the grasses, the tops swaying but making no sound. The dancing seed heads were alternately above and below the man's knees, as he pumped them high in a preparatory burst of running on the spot. She couldn't hear his panting breaths, but the ends of his large walrus moustache blew in and out. The black and orange horizontal stripes of his tight leotard gave him the semblance of a large bumblebee, hovering amidst the yellowing grasses.

Suddenly he turned and began to run away from her across the empty field, still maintaining his high-kicking gait. His pace was that of an endurance runner, not trying to leave her, but actually inviting her on with occasional backward glances.

Clarice ran after him. She still couldn't hear the wind, or the brush of the grass, but she was aware of her fast respiration, her heart beat thudding in time with her feet on the springy turf. The land rose upwards towards a small wood. When he reached the sloping tree line, the runner gradually increased his pace, as though challenging her, following the course of a path winding amidst the conifers. She was only able to keep up by pushing herself to the limit.

All at once she was aware of someone else following close behind her. Glancing back, she saw Celeste, running almost on her shoulder, and clad only in her undergarments. Her face showed effort, but she matched Clarice stride for stride.

They had crossed the brow of the hill, and their course lay steeply downwards through trackless woods. Tree trunks, stumps and hummocks loomed suddenly up at them, and had to be darted between or hurdled over at the last second. Reflexes of lightning and feet with eyes were needed to follow the striped figure's zigzag path downhill. And behind her Celeste mimicked every dodge, every side-step, every leap.

There was briefly rock beneath their feet. Ahead the man made a final sprint, took off from the cliff edge with arms raised, legs still pumping to gain the maximum distance. A splash followed.

Clarice reached the rocky edge and came to an abrupt halt, as she realised that it was only a few feet above the surface of a broad forest pool. Concentric rings emanated from its centre, but of the man there was no sign.

Beside her Celeste was bent over and panting. She seemed to be trying to speak, but the words were inaudible, like those in a dream. As the ripples stilled, the water took on the smooth, clear sheen of a mirror. Clarice could see her reflection, her own familiar features given back by its bright surface.

But beside her, instead of the twin image she expected, was something so hideous …

Clarice woke abruptly, with a half-cry, her heart pounding, her clothing soaked with sweat. Although in her mind a vision of terror remained, its significance had been lost. As her pulse and respiration returned to normal, she listened.

Overhead the sound of running feet faded into the silence of the house.

The title comes from the song, Ghosts by eighties band Japan. The lyrics are Just when I think I'm winning, when I've broken every door, the ghosts of my life, blow wilder than before.

A relevant comment, not just on this chapter, but the writing of it. There really is no good explanation for the delay, other than perhaps an inexplicable loss of confidence. While there aren't nearly as many people reading this as my other story, that's no excuse for disappointing them. Sorry to all. Its probably no consolation that, while the majority of it was written months ago, the most interesting part (in my opinion) only came into my head recently.

We're back in Rookridge (again) next chapter, but with the unexpected appearance of an unusual character. Well kinda. If I can't get him in the story, then maybe this is the next best thing. Here's a clue to the title:

The devil take your stereo and your record collection! The way you look you'll qualify for next year's old age pension!