Vayland Rd. [6] — The Needles

~ The Needles ~

I stood on the edge of Vayland, looking down into a ravine. Silver pain pulled at a single point in my body, dredging up memories.

When I was a kid in the first house my family ever lived in, my room was next to the living room and, thus, the television.  After bedtime, whenever I heard the television and no conversation, I would slowly open my door, crouch down next to the floor, and slide into the room on my stomach. My door was right next to the foot of the couch back then, and sat directly between the couch and the T.V., so if I was quiet, I could curl up on the floor and watch TV while my Dad lay not three feet away on the couch.

Some nights, I would fall asleep while watching. What happened next depended on who found me; regardless, I would always wake up in my bed the next morning, like magic, but if my mom had found me, I would get a lecture during breakfast about needing my sleep.

Dad never said anything. I suppose he thought that, between the floor and my bed, I’d gotten enough sleep.

He understood; that much was clear.

When I opened my eyes, we weren’t on the road anymore.


The cage really wasn’t all that difficult. There were no locks, only tie-downs, which weren’t a problem if you ignored the burning of the mud. He’d driven seven loads of winter wheat to town while running a temperature of a hundred four; if he really wanted to, he could get the damned cage open.

Eventually, he proved himself right, although the sweat in his eyes burned almost as badly as his skin.

He slipped past the smallest number of huts possible to get to the edge of the camp, not knowing where he was going except away.

Just past the last hut, it got difficult to walk.

Twenty paces later, the needles started to burn like over-extended muscles. It felt as though he was trying to pull a truck with chains attached directly to his body.

”Stevn,” came the phlegm voice. He was too focused to jump.

”Where are you going, Stevn?” The voice was right in his ear, it seemed.

”The hell… away…” Steven didn’t even know if that was an answer or a command.

”What if there’s no one waiting for you?”

The thought bored right to the base of his brain and waited for him to give. He wasn’t going to. He knew if he could just get a few more steps, he’d be free.

But what then?

What if…

When blunt fingers wrapped around his arms, he was already on his knees, looking up at the sky.


Brock was standing at my elbow. Somehow, the smell of him didn’t seem overpowering anymore.

It’s not. Here, it fits in. It doesn’t clash.

I shook my head, partly to clear it. “Sorry, what?”

He watched me for a few seconds. “How’s the pain?”

I started, suddenly sure I’d lost the needle, and felt for it just below my right collarbone. Still there. Still there? I frowned. “There isn’t any pain.” I looked at him. “Not that I mind, but you said the pain would pretty much stay constant.”

Brock looked at me, then glanced over his shoulder as Bhuto emerged from the gray-green scrub where he’d gone scouting. “I was wrong.”

I wanted to ask what else he might have be wrong about, but the look on his face made me think better of it.

We started moving. The way they’d explained it, we’d still have a long way to go even after we came through. Now that I was here I knew that was true; I knew exactly where we needed to go. I had no idea what lay between here and there, but I could point out the direction we needed to travel with my eyes closed.

I did, and we walked into the land of the fae.

Hours passed, during which the ache in my legs and feed subsided into a dull burn, giving me a chance to take in the sere landscape and starry sky. “Are there territories?” I asked of no one in particular.

Brock glanced around. “Here?”

I nodded.

“Aye,” he said, “we’re nowhere near a friendly place or one of those princess palaces they put in those ridiculous fairy books, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“You should read one of those books.” I let my expression convey what I thought of his guess. “I have, and I wouldn’t go near one of those palaces.” I rubbed sweat out of the corner of my eye. “Why aren’t there any friendly territories around here?”

He shrugged, looking around. “Dirt-eaters lose most of the fae wars. The losers get driven to the hinterlands, and these are they, no offense.  Even on your side of border, it’s nothing but violent winters, vicious heat in the summers; it’s the worst of all the worlds in one place. The things that survive here…” he broke off a branch from a bent tree that seemed to have grown up in the middle of a high wind. “They don’t have much choice.”

I frowned, feeling like I should be on the defensive. “At least they’re strong enough to take it.”

“Oh, aye.” Brock grunted. “That’s why the dirt-eaters want ’em.”

I didn’t understand what he meant, but Bhuto hissed a warning before I could say anything.


They let the thing that used to be Ted Schafer out of his cage that morning. The clouds weren’t a complete shroud over the camp, but it didn’t really improve the light; the sky was the wrong color to begin with.

There weren’t any helpers to clear away muck and detritus from Schafer’s body; it wasn’t necessary. The last batch of muck — Steven understood that that meant the third batch — was left on until it was absorbed almost completely, over the course of weeks. The camp then waited to see if the captive lived or died. In Steven’s opinion, Schafer had been unlucky.

There weren’t even any needles left to remove.

The tall creature stood before the Schafer creature in the center of the gathering and spoke in its gurgling hiss. “You have lived.”

The Schafer-thing wobbled its head.

”You are part of us now. We are part of you. I am Churkk. You are Zef.”

The thing paused, cocking its head as though listening to a distant sound, then nodded. “Zef.” It swayed slightly, and several of the creatures came forward to help it to a hut.

Churkk turned towards Steven’s cage. “It is the third day.” It gurgle-growled, and its smile returned.

This time, Steven fought.

Vayland Rd. [3] – The Cage

~ The Cage ~

Steven didn’t want to wake up; sometimes you know things aren’t going to be good when you open your eyes.

On the other hand, better to see the trouble coming than get hit by it. He shook his eyes into focus and looked around, then shook his head again and squinted.

The sky was the color of an old bruise — solid cloud-cover in dusty grays and purples from one end of the sky to the other — but that wasn’t really the problem; in fifty years you can see some pretty odd weather kick up.

The problem was, he was looking at the battered sky through the bars of a wooden cage. Worse, the cage was in the middle of some kind of camp. There was a fire burning a few feet away, cooking something that smelled like rotten corn silage in a pot almost as big as the cage he was in, and there were about a dozen little huts around him that looked like they were made out of sod.

The people walking around, including the two looking at him in the cage, were short little wiry bastards with dried mud caked all over their skin.

And they didn’t look like right at all.


He tried to get loose when they opened the cage doors, but they were strong and there were a lot of them. They pulled him to a stunted, leafless tree that stood in the middle of the camp, and tied him too it. The rope they used was never intended for this purpose; over an inch thick with harsh bristles jutting from the weave like thorns, it chafed his skin even when he didn’t move. They wrapped him in a coil from shoulders to knees, leaving him with his back pressed to the surface of the dead tree. The knots required by the thickness of the rope were twice the size of his fist.

Two of the… things, walked up to him after he was secured. Their noses were about three inches too long, same as the chins, and what skin he could see where mud had flaked away was the same color as the sky. Their eyes were the black of used forty-weight oil.

Not human. Sean would know what to call them, probably; he sure as hell didn’t. He’d hoped he was dreaming, but he knew himself well enough to know he’d never come up with something like this.

The taller one (a little more than four feet tall, and not quite as bowlegged) spoke, phlegm rattling in the back of his throat like the sound of a kid’s straw that’s hit the bottom of a chocolate malt. “You the man Steven. You ours now.” The second one sniggered, and Steve was sure he saw the first one twitch in annoyance.

“I’m not a damn thing to you. Let me go and I’ll be on my way.”

The rest of the crowd around him murmured when the first one nodded, acting as though he’d expected that answer.

“Good. Fight is good.” He gestured to the second one, who stepped forward and unfolded a cloth on which he laid out the first bright or clean things Steven had seen in this place.



They rearranged the ropes so they could get easy access.

That was necessary; the needles weren’t very long, just thick.

He’d tried keeping track of how many they’d driven into him, but he lost count when they moved past his arms and shoulders and into the area between his collarbone and neck. It had all been very quiet, though; the things seemed very intent on what they were doing and aside from sucking his breath in past his teeth, he wasn’t making any noise.

Damned if he’d make any noise.

Eventually the sky was dark and they were done with the needles, finishing with his face — pushing the last few into the muscles of his jaw had almost got him to make a sound, but he hadn’t.

He hadn’t. He was sure he hadn’t.

He looked up to see the taller thing standing in front of him. Its lips were pulled back to damn near its rear molars in a dead man’s grin.

“Good. Ver’ good.” It nodded approvingly. “Strong.” It turned away. “MUD!”

The hell?

He had time to puzzle it over. Several of the scrawnier creatures began wrestling the foul-smelling pot off the fire, dragging it through the dirt toward him.

When they began to pack the hot, stinking mess onto his body, using the pins as anchors to prevent it all from sliding off, Steven still didn’t make a sound.

But it was much harder this time.


It was starting to get dark.

It was starting to get dark and there was still nothing that made sense in any of this.

My family weren’t the sort of people who ended up interviewed about alien abductions in the Daily Sun; yet here I was, sitting on the back deck mulling over… what?

Muddy, barefoot footprints all around the back door — broad, flat things that made me think of Gollum. Smears on the windows that looked like finger marks with no prints. Drag marks heading toward the shelterbelt behind the house, before they vanished.

The kind of crap I used to think up.

Mom slid open the patio door and stepped into the gloom, her arms crossed as though she was cold. “You want anything to eat, bud?”

I shook my head. “Why’d you call me out here, Mom? I mean, I’m glad to be here and help you out, but what…” I let it go and shook my head again. It was quiet for several minutes, except for the sound of absent-minded bug swatting.

“I thought–” she started, then stopped. “I thought you might be… I thought you might know something.”

“About this?”

She sighed, and shrugged her shoulders in a way that seemed like an apology. “About… things that might help.”

I didn’t say anything to that. Eventually, she went back inside.

Vayland Rd. [2] – The Road

~ The Road ~

Churkk scowled.

“I like night, Churkk.  Dun like day.  Dun like heat or light or pantin’ or th’ way groud puffs up dust atcha when ya run.”

Churkk’s scowl deepened. He liked the night as well, but it irritated him to agree with the creature skulking alongside him.

“Night is cool.  Night is good.  Wraps us up and lets us come out of the cracks and up to see things.  What I think is the best is –”



“Shut it.”

Jek did, looking suitably cowed.  He still walked alongside, however, and Churkk swore even the runt’s feet slapped on the ground different than anyone else.  Everything about Jek was annoying.

The light from a house poked through the trees at them, but rather than turning to go around it, Churkk took them in closer without explaining.  Slowly, they crept up to the corner of the building, then along a wall to the lit window.

Jek started to whisper a question, but stopped short when Churkk smacked him in the middle of his forehead without even glancing back to aim.

Inside, Churkk could see a people-room with things to sit on.  The woman sat on one, but didn’t see his long, mud-caked face at the window or the light glinting off his beady eyes, because she was crying — great, shaking sobs that shook her bent shoulders and moved her whole chair.

Churkk watched this for some time.  It made him smile.


I lie to myself when I say nothing ever changes back at home — nothing ever seems to change in a place you lived for twenty years — but there were always fewer houses. Farming was a dying profession; every time I drove into familiar territory, the wide open plains seemed wider, flatter — less and less to do with people.

The road was mostly straight, rolling over gradual hills in what could often be an infuriating exchange of Passing and No Passing zones. It would start to wind soon. I knew this area; could still recite the mileage between every major and minor landmark for a hundred miles in any given direction, even landmarks that didn’t exist anymore, such as the old country school house that had apparently been torn down since my last visit and whose absence nearly made me miss my turn onto Vayland Road.

After a few miles, the curves began.

The farmland my family owned was on the high side of the county, raised above the lower, eastern half by a ridge of hills that Vayland Road crept along, curling around cuts in the earth that were somewhere between narrow valleys and broad ravines, filled with thickets and brush that by local wisdom wouldn’t even let a breeze through without a couple of good scratches. Gullys. That was the word.

I’d grown up riding in cars along this stretch of highway, then driving it myself, then driving away. The blacktop lead right past the farm’s driveway.

Mom was out on the front step before I got out of the car.

No one else was there.

Vayland Rd. [1] – The Call

[What follows is the first part of a short story I’m working on revising. The rest will follow over the next however-many-days-it-takes. I might put some editing notes in the posts’ comments. If you’re looking for such things, look for them there.]

Vayland Rd.

I remember, when I was a kid, riding in a car with green, leathery seats that got very hot in the sun. The car was green as well, although a different shade, and it seems to the me of my memories that most of the cars back then were that color. It was a popular trend, or maybe my child perception was skewed.

At any rate, the car was green, the seats were green, it was summer, the sun was hot, and the seats were hotter. We had the windows open to let the air in and my mom was driving to town on an errand.

The road was a winding black hardtop that looked down into sharp ravines between the hills; drops that seemed (to me) to go down and down farther than anything in the whole world. Every drive, I would look down and out from the tiny back windows of the two-door and think about what it would be like to go sailing off the road and into the ravines, tumbling over and over and finally exploding at the bottom, like on TV. A little morbid, but we lived a long way from any other kids my age — I had to make my own fun.

So, with the sun beating down and my boredom rising, when I saw a goblin shambling along the bottom of a ravine with an old, rusted sword balanced across his shoulders like the yoke of a wagon, I didn’t bother mentioning it to my mom. Even at that age, I assumed I’d imagined it.

I believed that for the next 23 years.


~ The Call ~

My cell phone rang while I stood in line for lunch, the screen showing OUT OF AREA instead of a number. I thumbed it open to stop it from ringing and muttered a terse “This is Sean” into the mouthpiece, which usually clears up wrong numbers in a —

“Hey bud, how’re you doing?” My mom was only person in the world that called me ‘bud’, a lukewarm leftover from my preteen years that she tended to drag back out when she was feeling down.

“Hey, I’m good. What’s up? Something wrong?”

“Oh, you know…” Her voice wavered a little bit. A bad sound. I stepped out of line and headed for the door. “Been a little crazy here the last couple days.”

“What’s going on?” I didn’t try to keep the frown out of my voice; it wouldn’t make her feel any better if I did.

“Well, we can’t seem to track down your dad.”

I stepped into the watery sunlight and pressed the phone against my ear to block the white noise from passing traffic. “I lost you for a second. You can’t track down Dad’s what?”

“No, we can’t find him.” I heard her set something metal down on something solid. She was wandering around her kitchen, fiddling with things. It was a Tuesday. She wasn’t at work. “It’s been two days.” She paused. “Or four, I guess. Three and a half.”

I scowled at the pavement. “I don’t understand what you’re telling me. Is he traveling?”

“No, he’s been home for a couple weeks.”

“Did… what happened? Did you get in a fight or something?” It sounded surreal even as I said it.

No, of course not.” She, the properly-raised Midwestern wife, sounded vaguely insulted by the idea. “I went to bed a few nights ago and your dad stayed up watching TV. When I got up he wasn’t there. I thought he’d gone out to get some work done before it got hot.” I heard her move something else across the counter. “But he wasn’t.” Her voice crumbled, and she took a breath that sounded like a series of tiny gasps – the kind you hear little kids make between knee-scrape sobs.

She sniffed into the phone. “You still there?”

“What? Yeah.” I shook my head. “Quit… quit moving things while you’re on the phone — you can never find them later.”

“Okay.” Her voice was small and sounded further away than it should.

I let my eyes move from the sidewalk to the sky. “I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon.”

“Are you sure?” She sniffed again. “I know it’s a long ways.”

“Yes.” I made sure not to hesitate, but let my answer stand for both of her statements.

“Okay. Where should we pick you up?”

I started down the street, heading for the back parking lot. “You won’t, I’m driving out.”

“Oh honey, you can’t.”

“It’s the only way I can,” I replied, unable to keep the tightness out of my voice.

“It’s such a long ways.”

I checked my watch. “I need to get moving if I’m going to make this happen today. Okay?”

“Okay.” She’d given up arguing, which told me more about how bad it was.

“Call me if you find anything out. Be careful,” I finished, and ended the conversation wondering why I’d said it.

Several hours later, filling overnight bag and leaving messages with various people about an unspecified family emergency, I still didn’t know.