Lucas was walking on the old forest path to gather raspberries. His mum had sent him, and although he would have liked to play with his friends better, the promise of sweet jam made the sacrifice easier. Besides, it was a nice summer day. Bees were trundling through the air in search of flowers, and the sunlight dappled the ground, shining through the green treetops. He hummed a tune from a song his dad had taught him and was glad he didn’t have to clean the chicken coop instead. He picked up a stick and pretended it was a sword and held his basket to his side like it was a shield. He marched like the king’s soldiers who had come through their village a while ago, his face grim. He’d been a little afraid of the big men (though he would never admit this to anyone), but they had been kind despite their rough demeanor. He’d proclaimed to his parents that he would be a soldier too when he was grown up, and his father had laughed and ruffled his hair, though his mum had given him a disapproving look.
He was trying to remember the many interesting words the soldier’s sergeant had shouted at them when they did something wrong, or did just about anything, when he saw the skeleton sitting on a big boulder. He knew what a skeleton was, of course, although the only human one he had ever seen was when a traveling merchant had been in the village and had one hanging from a hook. His best friend Jamie had said it was made of gypsum and not a real one at all. This one was sitting on a big moss-covered rock, with its skull resting on one hand, as if it was deeply in thought. Its bones were smooth and white and clean, not yucky like the ones his mum would get from the butcher for soup sometimes. It turned to him as he approached.
“Hello, little boy. Do I know you?” it said in a voice that was hollow and high. It had no lips or a tongue, of course, but its jaw moved as it spoke. Lucas stopped, puzzled by the question, though he kept his basket shield protectively in front of him and grasped his stick sword a little tighter.
“Uh, no, I don’t think so. I don’t know any skeletons.”
“Pity. You don’t happen to know someone who knows a skeleton?” Lucas thought for a moment before he answered.
“No, I don’t. Sorry, Mister, uh, Skeleton. Did you come all the way from the graveyard?” The village cemetery was on the other side of the village from here, quite a long walk. His grandpa was buried there; he’d been at the funeral. The skeleton looked down for a moment, as if lost in thought.
“No, I don’t think so. Unfortunately I can’t remember my name, or where I am from. I don’t believe I crawled from a grave at all. I think I’d be dirtier.” It looked down at itself. The bones looked shiny and very clean, not a speck of dirt on them. Lucas thought about his parents’ telling him not to speak to strangers, but hadn’t they also told him to help people in need? What was it he was supposed to do again? Ah yes, find an adult and ask them.
“Maybe you could talk to the priests at the temple and ask them to bury you properly,” he suggested. He imagined the skeleton walking up to the old and stuffy Father Barley and demanding to be buried, and had to laugh at the picture. “Sorry,” he said as he went a little red with embarrassment. The skeleton seemed to consider this.
“I have a feeling they wouldn’t be very happy to see me. But thank you for trying to help.” It looked away with its empty eye sockets and looked deep in thought again. Lucas’ brow furrowed as he wondered who else would know what to do with a skeleton that didn’t know where to go. He knew that a skeleton walking around wasn’t right, but it was also polite and clean and not spooky at all, particularly on this fine summer day with the sun shining. He still had a job to do.
“I’m sorry, but I need to pick raspberries for my mum now.” An idea struck him. The brambles were prickly and there were sometimes swarms of bugs around them that flew into your eyes and mouth. A skeleton wouldn’t mind those, would it? “Want to help? We could go to the village together afterward.” The skeleton considered this.
“I suppose I could. I don’t have any other plans right now.” It stood up. It wasn’t very tall, but still much taller than him, maybe around his mother’s height. He took a step backwards. It lifted a foot and looked at it. He saw now that it had leather boots on. Nothing really fancy. They looked like the ones people in the village wore sometimes, but the leather was fine and they looked well stitched.
“Yes, they really are. At least I won’t get my feet dirty. Wonder why I’m wearing these, but nothing else?” Lucas had no answer to that.
“It’s this way.” They set off, walking side by side on the dirt path. “My name is Lucas. What’s yours?” Lucas asked, and then remembered that the skeleton had forgotten who it was. “Oh. Sorry. But what do I call you?”
“Good question.” It seemed to think for a moment. “How about… Charlie? That’s a good name, I think.” Lucas considered this. A question occurred to him.
“Is Charlie a boy’s or a girl’s name?” The skeleton shrugged.
“It could be either. I don’t remember if I was a boy or a girl.” Lucas thought about this and came to the conclusion that it didn’t really make a difference right now.
“Alright, I’ll call you Charlie. Nice to meet you, Charlie.” Lucas stopped and stuck out his hand to shake. The skeleton turned to him and looked at his hand for a moment, then bent down and shook. It was like grasping a bunch of twigs, but not unpleasant. They walked on. After a while, Lucas said, “What’s it like, being a skeleton? Does it hurt? If you don’t mind me asking.” he added quickly. The skeleton seemed to think about this for a while before answering.
“It doesn’t hurt, no. In fact, it doesn’t feel like anything. Maybe that’s as it should be, since I don’t have anything to feel.” Charlie gave a quick side glance at Lucas. The skeleton was, in a manner of speaking, always grinning, but it seemed to him like it was grinning a little bit more for a moment.
“And you really don’t remember anything? Nothing at all from when you were, uh, alive?” Lucas had another bout of embarrassment. He wasn’t sure if that had been a rude thing to say.
“Am I not alive now?” Charlie gave him another quick grinning side glance. “No, I understand what you mean. I really don’t. “ Lucas thought hard, trying to figure out what else could have happened to the skeleton.
“Maybe you were always a skeleton, and you fell and hit your head, and you forgot your name and where you were from and everything. My friend Jamie said his uncle said he knew someone who got kicked in the head by a cow and he forgot everything, even his wife’s name and how to go to the toilet.” Lucas grinned at the last bit, but immediately felt embarrassed saying it to an adult, or at least an adult skeleton. He didn’t need to, since the skeleton laughed at this. A hollow sounding laugh, but clearly an amused one.
“It’s a good theory. But I think I would need a brain to concuss, and I don’t have one. See?” Charlie stuck a bony finger in one eye socket and wiggled it inside, in the space where a living person’s brain would be. Lucas saw the wiggling finger through the other eye socket and shuddered a little. He grinned again.
“The raspberries are that way,” Lucas said, pointing down the path, and went on his way with his new friend.
The small boy and the skeleton that now answered to the name Charlie walked along the forest path. Lucas had a lot of questions for his strange companion, barely giving them time to answer before a new one popped into his head.
“So, if you don’t need to breathe, could you walk into the sea and keep going until you get to the really deep bits where the whales and the giant squids live? Even the sharks would leave you alone because you’re just bones and no meat, they wouldn’t even care that you’re there. And you could walk right up to the sunken pirate ships and pick up all the treasure chests and then walk back home again, you’d be rich!” The skeleton listened with saint-like patience to all this, occasionally giving answers in the brief pauses of the boy’s avalanche of questions.
“I suppose I could. What would I do with all that gold though? I don’t really need anything,” Charlie said calmly with its pleasant but thin voice.
“There’s got to be something you want. Everyone wants something, right? Even animals. Like, squirrels are always looking for nuts, right? If it doesn’t want a nut, it can’t be a squirrel, practically. And,” Lucas paused for a moment, staring up into the blue sky with his mouth open, “and birds, they want worms, and worms want, uh, apples? So everything wants something! And people want stuff too, all the time, like my dad wants, um, tobacco, and mum is always looking at the silk dresses that the merchants show at the market sometimes but when I said, mum, why don’t you just buy one she got cross and said it’s too much money and who needs something that tears to shreds if you even look at it sharply anyway, but I could tell she wants one because she’s always feeling the fabric and looking at it like dad looks at the boxes of Welcher’s Finest at the pipe maker’s stall. So, there must be something you want. Like, um, bone polish? So your bones look nice and shiny!” Charlie laughed a thin laugh.
“It’s a nice thought, but I don’t feel too fussed about my bones looking a bit dull. But, what do you want, Lucas?”
“I, uh,” said Lucas, who wanted so many things so intensely that he was momentarily stunned trying to name all of them at once, “I want to be a soldier with a big sword and then I’d be a hero and get lots of medals and the king would make me a baron and then I’d buy a big house for mum and dad and they could have all the clothes and tobacco they want, and I’d get a big dog and a cat and a horse and I’d ride it and win the horse races, and, and,” he said and stopped, out of breath.
“It’s very kind of you to want to share your riches with your family,” Charlie said. Lucas shrugged.
“It wouldn’t be fun being a baron, if I couldn’t do something nice for mum and dad.”
“What about your friends? Would you give them presents too?”
“I’d give Jamie a big house because they live in a really small one, even smaller than ours, and he’s got three brothers and two sisters. And he can have a horse too so we can ride around together, but one that’s slower than mine because he always gets a big head when he does anything better than me,” Lucas replied, with a look of annoyance at the last part. The two continued on under the sunlit canopy of the forest, Lucas chatting eagerly about all the things he would buy with his pirate gold.
After a while the skeleton suddenly stopped. Lucas went on walking for a little bit, happily speculating about the advantages and disadvantages of existence as a skeleton before noticing and turning around.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. Charlie was standing still and looking off to one side of the path, into the forest, but turned to him on hearing the question.
“Oh, probably nothing. I got an odd feeling.” Lucas, somewhat untypically, said nothing, as if waiting for further explanations. “It’s hard to explain. Did you ever lose something and searched for it, but didn’t find it? And then much later you suddenly remember where it is?” The boy thought about this and nodded. “Like that. Only, I’m not sure what I lost. But it’s definitely over there.” It extended a bony arm and pointed into the forest.
“Then let’s go get it!” Lucas said at once, enthusiastically.
“Are you sure? I thought you wanted to gather raspberries,” it said.
“We’ll get them after we find out what you lost! What’s wrong, don’t you want to find out?” he asked, astounded. Charlie shrugged, indicating no particular hurry or inclination one way or the other. “Come on, maybe it’s the rest of your clothes! Which way is it?” Lucas said.
“If you insist,” the skeleton said, and walked into the forest. Lucas hesitated. His parents had warned him never to get too far off the beaten path in the forest, but he couldn’t leave his new friend alone. He dropped his basket by the side of the path and picked up a stick, making little marks where the ground was soft enough as he followed Charlie.
Charlie walked through the undergrowth, unfazed by the branches of bushes brushing against the exposed bones. Lucas was less lucky and had to duck and weave despite his small height. Their passage disturbed bugs that flew up in small clouds, further annoying Lucas; Charlie ignored them completely. Eventually they reached a small clearing where the ground was free of trees for several yards.
Something furry and very colorful lay in the middle of the clearing. It looked like a big, sleeping dog to Lucas, but its fur was a vibrant red color so intense that it almost seemed to glow. Slivers of light poked through the tree cover and where it hit the strange animal’s coat it looked almost like it was on fire. Foxes lived in the forest; they were small, red-coated animals that Lucas had glimpsed occasionally. This creature was different. Its color was the deep blood red of a piece of iron in a forge, with streaks of orange like fiercely glowing coals.
“Is that your dog?” Lucas asked, quietly. The animal hadn’t moved, but its size gave him pause. Some people in the village kept dogs, from small terriers that hunted rats to big guard dogs, but this one seemed larger than those even. To his horror, the dog’s pointy ears flicked up at the sound. Slowly it stood up, turning to them and opening eyes with pupils glinting like embers. This was no trick of the light: Lucas was certain those big orbs shone with a light of their own. The creature resembled a wolf more than a dog, but it was heavily built and shaggy like a big brown bear. Its shoulders came up to Charlie’s chest, and Lucas had to look up slightly to its head. The boy stepped behind the skeleton.
“Yes, it’s definitely mine. But I don’t think it’s really a dog,” Charlie answered. It didn’t sound scared or even concerned about the huge red animal that was now advancing towards them. Its paws were huge, with long black claws that dug into the ground. When it drew back its jowls it revealed long, startlingly white teeth. A deep rumbling growl emanated from its chest that reverberated in Lucas’s stomach.
“I don’t think it likes you,” Lucas said, pulling on the skeleton’s bony wrist. Charlie didn’t move.
“I’m sure it’s just play-”, Charlie started saying, but in the blink of an eye the shaggy thing had darted forward and slammed its forepaws into the skeleton’s chest. The two went down with the dog on top. Charlie brought up its arms protectively and the dog clamped its maw on the two bones of the left forearm, growling and tearing at them. Lucas screamed, stumbling backwards.
“Get off! Let him go!” he screamed, but the dog only rolled its mad eyes at him, giving him a murderous stare for a moment before going back to mauling Charlie. The skeleton was pinned down under the creature’s substantial weight; its thin legs scrabbled at the ground, but gained no purchase.
“Stop it. What do you want, anyway?” Charlie said in a conversational tone, as if it was talking to someone who was persistently tapping it on the shoulder rather than a monstrous beast attempting to tear its arm off. The thing’s teeth ground on the skeleton’s bones. Lucas was more scared than he could remember ever being, even more than in the moment when he’d balanced on the rim of the deep old well in the village and almost slipped. He crouched down and grabbed bits of twigs, little stones and anything loose he could find on the ground, and started throwing them at the beast. The tiny projectiles bounced off the red fur harmlessly and couldn’t possibly hurt the dog, but they successfully annoyed it. It let go of Charlie and squared up on Lucas. The maw opened wider than he could ever have believed, and it let out a deafening roar directly at the cowering boy. Lucas saw it tense its leg muscles and closed his eyes, too scared to look at the gleaming teeth that would surely cut him to shreds in the next moment.
“NO!” Charlie’s voice rang out suddenly. Lucas heard something scrabbling on the ground and opened his eyes, surprised. Charlie was still on the ground, but had grabbed one of the dog’s back legs with a skeletal hand. It didn’t seem strong enough to hold back the huge beast, but it did. The dog was struggling mightily, but Charlie seemed to hold it almost effortlessly, and it could not advance. The skeleton somehow pulled the dog toward itself and grabbed it first by the forelegs, then wrapped its hands across its neck as if to throttle it. “I know what you are. Go back to sleep, until I need you,” the skeleton said calmly, holding the great beast down firmly. Lucas watched open-mouthed as the dog’s fur turned from its vivid red to a deep blue, and its body transformed into a cloud of smoke that wafted up to Charlie’s bones and disappeared, as if absorbed into them. The boy and the skeleton sat on the ground for a while in silence, Lucas breathing hard from the stress.
“What was it?” Lucas finally said. Charlie seemed to think for a moment before answering.
“It’s the part of me that gets annoyed and angry, and lashes out at others. Somehow it ended up outside of me. But I got it back safely inside me now. Thanks to you,” Charlie said, looking at Lucas in that odd way that conveyed a smile, despite technically never not smiling. Lucas didn’t know how to reply; in truth, he wasn’t sure if he could take credit for doing anything much other than annoying the giant dog slightly. Charlie sensed the unspoken question. “It was too strong for either of us to take on in a battle of sheer brawn, but how it turned on you viciously for some throwing some harmless bits of dirt at it made me realize what it truly was. That allowed me to bring it under control. Still, you couldn’t know that it would be easy to subdue once I understood its nature. It was very brave of you to try. You really are a hero.” Lucas, who didn’t quite understand the skeleton’s explanation of what had happened, blushed a little. The nicest thing anyone had ever called him so far was something like “a nuisance, but he doesn’t know any better yet, bless him.” “I think we can continue on our way to get your raspberries, what do you think?” Charlie stood up and the pair made their way back to the path.
Lucas was glad he’d taken care to mark where they’d come; Charlie seemed to have no sense of orientation whatsoever and had no idea which way their path had been. After the excitement of their encounter with the red dog-thing was over, every direction had looked the same to them. Fortunately he found the last “X” he’d scratched into the ground with a stick and traced his way back from there to where they’d started.
“Look, there’s my basket! Told you this trick would work,” he said to Charlie, with more than a hint of pride in his voice.
“Well done. You really do have the makings of a hero,” the skeleton remarked; if there was even the mildest hint of sarcasm, Lucas missed it entirely. He puffed out his tiny chest with pride. The boy picked up his basket and they set off again towards the raspberry bushes.
“Are you hurt? That dog gave you a big bite,” Lucas asked after a while. Charlie’s bones were scratched in places from the beast’s teeth and claws.
“Just a scratch. It doesn’t hurt,” Charlie said. Lucas was quiet for a while and seemed deep in thought. The sounds of the forest surrounded them; distant birds calling, wings fluttering, small things like acorns falling from the treetops and hitting branches on the way down, the buzz of the occasional insect, and the ever-present quiet rustling of leaves in the soft wind. Eventually the boy spoke up again.
“So, um. How could someone take your anger out of you? And why was it a big, red dog? Was it magic?” he asked. After a moment he added, “I mean, it’s got to be magic, on account of you being a walking, talking skeleton. But, what kind? In the stories, there’s always a bad witch, or an evil wizard cursing people. Did you annoy a warlock and they cursed you to be a skeleton with its anger missing?” Charlie considered this.
“I honestly have no idea. All I could tell was that it was definitely mine. I don’t remember anything from before I met you. If it was an evil witch that did this to me, she also took away my memory of her. But you could be right I suppose. Maybe I am some sort of cursed princess from a faerie tale.”
“In the stories there’s always a handsome prince that has to kiss the princess and then she wakes up and they live happily ever after,” Lucas said thoughtfully.
“Are you offering to kiss me?” Charlie asked?
“No, yuk!” Lucas exclaimed, sounding half angry, half horrified.
“Why not? Am I too ugly for you?” Charlie asked in a mock hurt tone.
“No! I mean, I don’t know!” Charlie didn’t say anything, but had the air of someone silently amused by something. Lucas had blushed a little but recovered quickly.
“What happens now that you got your anger back? Do you feel any angrier? I mean, right now?” Lucas asked.
“No, not at all. But I can tell it’s there, somewhere inside,” Charlie said, patting its ribcage, which made a clack-clack noise. “I could get angry though if I wanted to. Well, or when someone makes me angry. Before I got it back I was a complete wet blanket. You could have shoved corn cobs into my ear holes and I wouldn’t even have found it wrong.” Lucas grinned and looked at the skeleton’s head mischievously. “Don’t even think about it,” Charlie said with a soft growl and took a playful swipe with a skeletal hand at the boy, who dodged out of reach, tittering.
“But could it come out again for real? I mean, as the dog?” Lucas asked, with a hint of alarm. Charlie thought about this.
“I don’t think so. At least, not if I don’t want it to. In any case, we wrestled it down once, we can do it again,” Charlie said, with a hint of pride.
“Hm, okay,” Lucas said, feeling maybe not entirely assured. They walked on in silence for a while before Charlie suddenly stopped again. Lucas looked at the skeleton with a look of worry on his small, suddenly earnest face. “What is it?” he asked. Charlie looked off into the distance, towards somewhere in the forest to the right of the path.
The trees were particularly tall in this part of the forest; a stand of huge firs reached into the sky. Their tops were invisible through the mass of thick branches. Charlie was looking up at something high in the canopy.
“What’s there?” Lucas whispered.
“It’s something that was mine. But I’m not sure what it is,” Charlie answered. The skeleton walked forward, still looking up, and suddenly stopped as if it had run into an invisible wall. It tried to back away, but was held in place by unseen means. “I seem to be stuck. How odd,” it said. Charlie’s feet were scraping the ground. Lucas was a few feet away, squinting at the skeleton, who struggled fruitlessly against invisible forces that held it immobile.
“What’s wrong? Why can’t you move?” Something very thin flashed suddenly in the air around Charlie, and was gone again. Lucas moved his head a little and there it was again: a thin white line that spanned the air, like a piece of very thin thread. It had stuck to Charlie somehow, and was so strong the skeleton couldn’t budge it. Now that he knew what to look for he could see more of them. A number of them were strung across the clearing between the trees, nearly invisible.
“There’s these strings all over,” he called to Charlie. The skeleton stopped moving and looked at its arms and down its body.
“Ah, yes. I see them.” Up in the trees, a patch of darkness moved; something long and black extended from its center, reaching out like long fingers, followed by another, and then another, making Lucas think of a huge disembodied hand. He realized with dread what he was looking at: a huge black spider had spun a gargantuan web across this clearing. The giant arachnid climbed down the nearly invisible but apparently very strong threads of its web towards them. Charlie stared up at the bulging body that was the size of a horse and covered in fine black hair; the soft winds seemed to create waving patterns as it blew over it. Or was it moving of its own accord?
“It’s coming! Charlie, move!” Lucas yelled. The skeleton struggled against the sticky threads but only got further entangled. Lucas saw a stick on a ground and picked it up, darting forward to smack the web with it. His stick hit the thin strands and became glued stuck immediately. He tried to pull free, but succeeded only in tensing the web like a bowstring. The stick was pulled from his hand and the web made a twanging noise as it snapped back. “Maybe I can cut it,” Lucas said, looking around for a sharp rock, but there was nothing nearby that seemed like it would serve as a makeshift knife. Charlie was getting entangled more and more in the webs made it look like it was shrouded in a ghostly veil.
“I’ll kick your behind, you eight-legged fuzzball!” the skeleton shouted angrily at the approaching spider. Lucas was taken aback when he heard his friend scream in rage. A red glow started to shine from the skeleton’s empty eye sockets. Charlie was still shouting challenges and insults at the spider that was almost upon it, when suddenly a cloud of red steam poured out of its bones and the huge red dog they had defeated earlier stood there, growling up at the spider. Lucas jumped back several steps with a gasp. The great red beast snarled loudly and bit and tore at the mass of webs with its huge paws. The red fur shone like a stoked fire and a blast of heat erupted that Lucas felt even from several feet away. Some of the strands charred and fell apart in little puffs of ash. The spider retreated a few feet up the web again.
“Fight me if you dare!” Charlie screamed at the spider again. An angry red glow shone out of its skull, and its thin voice rang across the clearing shrilly. As if in response, the spider reared on its long legs, bringing forward its bulbous, hairy abdomen. There was a disgusting noise, and a new mass of spiderwebs sprayed from the spider’s bottom across the skeleton and the red dog. Lucas, Charlie and even the hound cried, shrieked and howled as one. Lucas felt something light and slightly wet on his hand. He scrambled backwards but was held fast. He tried to remove the glob of sticky strands that had engulfed one wrist with his other hand, but succeeded only in getting both stuck.
The hound’s fur erupted with heat again, burning off some of the web, but the spider spewed another glob of webbing at it, almost burying it in the stuff completely. It struggled feebly, cocooned inside the mass of tangled strands. Charlie made muffled, angry noises in its own sticky prison. The huge spider advanced again. Lucas saw a tiny drop of clear liquid form on the tip of one of the huge, black pincers in its mouth.
“I’m sorry, Lucas,” Charlie said, sadly. “I never meant you to come to harm. Please forgive me.” Lucas pulled on his stuck hands, but could not move further away; the sticky web was springy like a rubber band, but strong as steel.
“It’s not your fault. You didn’t know,” Lucas replied, huffing with the exertion of pulling away. He didn’t get very far. “But I don’t think it can do much to you. Spiders can’t eat bones, can they?” he said. Charlie didn’t reply for a moment.
“That’s a very valid point. This stupid thing can really only inconvenience me. I don’t have any meat on me it could eat. You should just have run away and left me with it,” the skeleton said, more calmly.
“Can it do anything to the dog? I don’t think spiders can eat spirits or fire either,” Lucas said. Charlie chuckled. To Lucas’s surprise, the spider stopped its advance for moment.
“How silly. I was perfectly safe all this time. Now I’m going to be stuck in a spiderweb for the next hundred years,” it said. Charlie’s chuckle turned into a laugh, and the spider seemed to shrink a little. Lucas peered at it and realized it really was getting smaller. Charlie turned towards the spider, speaking to it calmly and quietly as if to a friend. “I know what you are. Hiding from the world in a cocoon isn’t going to do me any good. Go away now, until you are really needed.”
As Lucas watched, the spider shrank from the size of an ox to a mere pony size, and then even further. The strands of the spider web became thinner and weaker until Lucas could free his hands. Charlie’s fingerbones tore through the white shroud and ripped it away. When the skeleton walked past the cocoon that still held the dog it turned into a cloud of red steam that flowed back inside Charlie’s bones. The skeleton bent down and picked up the now tiny spider in one bony hand. The spider crawled along the arm, up the shoulder and neck, until it vanished into the skull.
“I have one more thing I lost back. Thank you again, Lucas.”
“Uh, for what? I didn’t do anything?”
“You had the valuable insight that spiders can’t eat skeletons.”
“Why would that make the spider tiny?” Lucas asked, puzzled. Charlie pointed at its eye socket. Lucas saw the spider appear there for a moment as if it was looking out of a large window, before it disappeared again.
“This critter is the part of me that gets afraid. I lost it somehow, like I lost my anger. It didn’t want to harm me, it was doing what it is meant to do, which is to keep me safe from harm. After all, if I’m not going anywhere, I can’t be harmed. When you thought about the situation with a level head, I realized what it was. A joking about it helped a little too.”
“Right. But now you have a spider in your head. Does it tickle?” he replied after a while.
“I can live with it, now that it’s small.” It looked down at its body where the webbing was stuck to the bones in sticky wads. Charlie sighed. “Now I’m literally a spooky skeleton covered in cobwebs. I hope we can find some water so I can get cleaned up a little.”
“There’s a little stream on the way to the raspberries,” Lucas said, chuckling. Charlie nodded, and the pair went on their way.
The boy and the skeleton walked side by side down the forest path. Lucas saw the little black spider sometimes appear in Charlie’s earhole or peering out of the hole in the bottom of the skull; it seemed to never quite settle down. The skeleton was absentmindedly picking at the remains of the webs the little arachnid had thrown at them earlier, when it had been gigantic.
“Is it sticky?” he asked.
“It jams up my joints a little. And it’s untidy looking,” Charlie answered.
“The stream isn’t too far from here, and we are coming up on the raspberries,” Lucas said, chuckling. In front of them the dirt path winding through the trees shone a bright golden yellow in the sunlight. Suddenly Lucas saw a figure wearing long black robes walking down the path towards them at a brisk pace.
“Look, someone’s there,” Lucas said, pointing.
“Ah, yes. Someone you know?” the skeleton asked. Lucas shook his head. The figure was an older man, walking fast and closing the distance quickly. It almost seemed like he was heading straight for them. When he was in shouting distance he raised an arm, pointing in their direction.
“You! Stop right there!” the robed man yelled. He looked older than Lucas’s father, with a scraggly, graying beard and bushy brows that were furrowed with anger.
“Hello there,” Charlie said amiably. The man did a double-take, as if he couldn’t believe what he had just heard. He glared at the skeleton.
“What? Shut up, golem! Why are you talking? Blasted ritual book, I knew there was something wrong with that spell!” he growled.
“My name is Charlie, not golem,” the skeleton said in a mildly reprimanding tone.
“I said shut up! You are most definitely not Charlie, or Tom, or Hank, or any other silly tomfool name. You are my golem, and I command you to be silent and come with me!”
“I don’t know who you are, but in these parts we don’t take kindly to that kind of talk,” Lucas replied, adding a muttered “sir” under his breath, not really meaning it. He did most certainly not like this man.
“I am the great sorcerer Morgan, and you will show me respect, you little toad!” the old man hissed, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth. Charlie stepped in front of Lucas protectively. “Stand aside, golem, so I may wring the squawking runt’s neck! I command you!” Morgan hissed, but the skeleton stood its ground.
“That is neither my name, nor do I care about your commands,” Charlie replied. The skeleton’s eye sockets started glowing with a dim red light that came from somewhere inside the skull. A red fog swirled from its bones and consolidated into the fiery bear-like dog. The dog squared up to the old man and breathed a powerful blast of flame and burning hot air at him with a deafening roar. Morgan cried out in pain and shouted something unintelligible; there was a sudden burst of rainbow-colored light that made stars appear in Lucas’s eyes. He had to turn away for a moment, but when his vision cleared again he was astounded to see not one, but several Morgan the sorcerers glowering at them, all in the same black robes.
The dog shot forward at the closest of the identical looking men, lunging at his throat, but the moment it touched him the apparition turned into a glob of steaming black sludge that blew apart with a wet boom, splashing the dog. All the other apparitions laughed maliciously as the poor dog clawed at its stained mouth, retching at the acrid smelling stuff.
“You’ll pay for that!” Charlie shouted. The skeleton’s eye sockets looked like there was a furnace inside the skull, giving it a truly spooky appearance. Charlie went after another of the identical Morgan figures, trying to grab it. Again, it exploded wetly into a tar-like substance that covered the skeleton, skull to toe-bones. The goopy mass clung wetly to the white bones and gummed up the joints. Charlie was still standing, but could move only sluggishly. The dog meanwhile fought another mirror image of the sorcerer, with the same result as before: black tar now fully covered its front half and most of its face, blinding it. It was out of control, snapping at everything nearby. Rolling around the ground it slammed into Charlie and started biting and clawing at the skeleton; they both went down wrestling. Morgan and his many apparitions laughed from many throats.
“You may be a failure, but I will enjoy studying your remains, golem. And as for you, little runt, I shall put you in a cage and feed you table scraps for my amusement, until I get bored of your antics,” the sorcerer’s hissing voice said from all around. Lucas wanted nothing more than to run away, but that would mean leaving Charlie to the vicious old man’s mercy. The skeleton and the red dog had stopped struggling and were lying still, as if the black stuff had sapped them of all their strength. Lucas wanted to scream at Charlie to get up and call the huge spider to their aid as well, but he was afraid Morgan had more terrible magic still that would defeat even that fearsome creature. He decided on a desperate plan, hoping they had the luck to pull it off. Kneeling by the unmoving skeleton’s side he spoke to Charlie in a grief-stricken voice.
“The sorcerer is too strong for us, Charlie. I think we have to give up and hope he doesn’t hurt us if we go quietly. I’m so afraid, but I can bear the fear because we are friends and at least we are afraid together. We’ve been through scary things before, haven’t we? Remember when we were both so afraid it was as if were stuck in a spider’s web?” Lucas said, hoping his skeleton friend got the hint and that Morgan didn’t get suspicious. Charlie nodded feebly, and Lucas stroked the stained skull comfortingly. The tiny spider crawled to one of the eye sockets and just in the moment Lucas’s hand brushed past it clung on to it. He stood up, concealing the tiny arachnid; Morgan didn’t seem to have noticed. The many identical apparitions came together and fused into a single person, who grinned evilly at his captives.
“Good, you finally realized the futility of resisting the power of my sorcery. Turn around and put your hands behind your back so I can bind them. I’ll not have any further trouble out of you, runt!” he growled. Lucas obediently did as instructed, gently nudging the spider to stay out of sight. It hung upside down from his forearms; the little legs on his skin tickled, but Lucas would not fidget. The old man’s shadow fell on him as he approached, and he felt calloused, rough hands starting to wrap a piece of tough string around his wrists. When the moment felt right he grabbed on as strongly as he could, shouting “Now!”, and felt the little legs scrabble forward and off his wrist.
Morgan’s hands shot out of his grip with such force it made him wince; for a moment Lucas wondered if the little spider would be able to hold or would be flung away, and their chance was lost. But Morgan’s angry shout turned into an ear-splitting shriek. The old man shook his arms wildly, slapping himself all over, but the spider was always elsewhere already. It sped from his hands over his shoulder like lightning. Lucas sensed an opportunity and ran at him full speed, attempting to knock him over. Despite the scrawny appearance of the sorcerer it felt like running headlong into a wall: the older man didn’t fall, but was unbalanced enough to give the spider another chance at a good bite.
Lucas moved out of the way of the wildly flailing sorcerer on all fours so he wouldn’t get trodden on. It didn’t take long before the potency of the spider’s attacks became evident. Where it had bitten, Morgan’s skin was deep blue and swollen, and the man was moving unsteadily, as if drunk or ill. The spider had magically grown to almost house cat size. As its sharp, black pincers pierced Morgan’s side the man shrieked loudly and fell down. Charlie had crawled towards the struggle and was starting to throttle Morgan with bony fingers, while the still growing spider crawled towards the sorcerer’s head, preparing for a final, deadly bite.
“No, stop!” Lucas shouted. Charlie and the spider both froze. Morgan’s breathing was labored, and his face had gone an odd green color.
“Please, spare me! I will make it worth your while, I promise,” the sorcerer stammered, grunting with pain. The bravado of only a moment before was gone: he sounded like a sick old man. Both Charlie and the spider made no move to attack, but neither did they let go of him; they seemed to wait for Lucas to speak.
“How can we trust you? You could just come back to attack us later!” Lucas retorted. He desperately wanted to get far away from the dangerous sorcerer, but couldn’t see how they could let him go safely.
“I won’t, you have to believe me! I will sign a magical contract that even I can’t break. And you can keep the golem!” Lucas looked skeptical.
“The poison, it’s going to kill me if I can’t get to my lair to heal it in time. I will even give you the book that I used to create the golem, er, Charlie! You can use it to make it stronger, better in every way!” Morgan’s voice had an unmistakable edge of desperation. Lucas felt a mix of shame and horror hearing the man’s pleas, despite Morgan trying to kill both of them only a moment ago; but he was deeply relieved that maybe neither he nor his friend would be forced to pay the sorcerer back in kind.
“I accept. Write the magical contract, and I get the book, and Charlie is free from you. But I warn you, one false move…”, Lucas said, trying to hide his relief. Morgan nodded eagerly. They let go of him with Lucas, Charlie and the spider watching his every move. The old man unslung a small satchel he’d been carrying and hastily emptied it on the ground. A black leather-bound book fell open, revealing pages full of tiny handwriting and strange drawings and diagrams. Morgan weakly threw it at Lucas’s feet. The sorcerer grabbed a piece of grubby parchment and scrawled feverishly on it with a quill, then picked up a knife that had also been in the satchel. Lucas tensed at this, fearing some subterfuge, but Morgan only used it to cut into his own finger and dropped a little bit of blood on the parchment while chanting strange words. The writing glowed a brilliant red briefly. Morgan held the parchment out to Lucas.
“Touch it, and the contract is sealed. You will understand what it says,” the sorcerer said, with a weak and wavering voice. He looked very pale and had gone a faint green color. Lucas put a hesitant finger on the parchment and the writing gleamed bright green for a moment. He could read, barely, but the scrawled script was undecipherable; yet, somehow he understood that the contract stated that Morgan the sorcerer was hereby bound by pain of instant death to never harm Lucas or those close to him as long as he lived. He stepped away from the old man, who was sweating profusely.
“Then you are free to go,” Lucas said, wondering how the old man would get back to his lair, wherever it was, and if he should offer help. Morgan hurriedly opened a small pouch that was hanging on his belt and took out a peculiar, black and red mottled egg. He broke it open and a tiny, furry creature fell out of it. It was small and weak and looked as vulnerable as a newborn bat. Lucas watched it warily, fearing some trick. The bat started growing, slowly at first. The thing writhed and shook and seemed to be in pain, but soon it was as large as a dog, then the size of a man, until finally it stood up, its huge wings unfolding from its back. Morgan spoke to it in an unknown language, getting out just a few sentences before he collapsed, unconscious. The bat creature picked up the old man as easily as if he was a child’s doll, spread its wings and flew away. Lucas watched them disappear into the summer sky, his mouth hanging open in wonder.
Lucas picked up the black book and brushed some crumbs of earth off it. The spider was tiny again and was crawling around inside the skeleton’s skull, which seemed to be its usual chipper self; the horrible magical tar from Morgan’s spell had evaporated completely. Leafing through the book Lucas wondered what to do with it. It was full of tiny handwriting in an alphabet he had never seen before. There were drawings too, but if anything these made even less sense; some were complicated geometric shapes, but there were also horrible pictures of strange animals, or maybe demons. The book made Lucas uneasy. He was both curious and wanted to know more, but also had a very strong feeling that knowing more was a terrible idea, for reasons he intuitively grasped but couldn’t quite describe.
“Should we go and get your raspberries now?” Charlie asked, amiably. Lucas looked up. He remembered why he was out here in the first place, but it was getting late. His mother might be worrying already, he thought.
“I don’t know. Do you want to? I mean, I don’t want to order you around, even if Morgan said I can, because you’re my golem, or something,” Lucas replied. Charlie shrugged.
“I really have nothing better to do.” Lucas contemplated the closed book quietly for a moment.
“I’m not sure if I should tell my parents or the temple about you. Or this.” Lucas was worried, despite not knowing what he had done wrong. If anything, freeing an innocent creature like Charlie from a miscreant like Morgan was the stuff heroes did, wasn’t it? Yet, he could sense it could get Charlie, and possibly himself, into trouble.
“Surely you can explain what happened?”
“I’m just a kid. They’ll think I made it all up, or you bewitched me, and then they’ll take the book away, and they might try and put you into a cage because you look spooky. And if you have to call the dog and the spider, someone might get hurt. I don’t want any of that,” Lucas said, suddenly sad and upset.
“I don’t know them as well as you, admittedly. I think we can pick those raspberries quicker if we do it together though. Maybe you will think of something while we do it? And at least you won’t come home empty-handed.” Lucas eventually nodded.
“Yeah. I’ll think of something; let’s go,” he said, and they walked off together.