Hard Lessons by Vanessa Knipe cover

Hard Lessons

More Tales from

The Theological College


St. Van Helsing

(Excerpt only)

Vanessa Knipe


December 2009

Ashes of Memory

It was a punch in the gut seeing Simeon Carr pacing down the hillock into Carford Dingle. The shock broke Philip's stride and he stubbed his toe, nearly sprawling through the heather. He caught his balance at the last second and his running shoes pounded onto the stone path of the old trod, which ran through the moors here.

Following the slowest first year into the gully, Philip saw four other sixth formers waiting, standing by the school boundary stone.

Philip frowned. He'd read the literature, dug up by the new Headteacher, but this didn't look at all like the ritual described there. And Simeon's presence suggested this ceremony was based on the sort of thing that had got Philip's mother killed.

He wanted to stop, to turn back, to ignore this whole thing, but as a prefect at Carford House, he was forced to keep an eye out for the firsties on this cross-country run, making sure none of them got lost up on the moors.

Simeon was actively hiding his presence. Philip could tell when his gaze slid away. Like a bulldog, he shook his mind clear from the external influence. He'd seen that before the day his mother died.

Why hadn't they stopped her? Why had she been so stupid?

Then there was the traitor's voice that whispered, because she didn't care.

It didn't help Philip to know that the Church only pulled Simeon out of retirement for cases it thought were nothing. The man had been on that other hillside five years ago. Granted, Simeon had tried to stop the events--Philip hoped he was in better practice this time.

A grouse erupted from a stand of bracken, startled by Simeon's passage, and flew into the darkening sky.

That was all Philip needed--wet and complaining first years. At least the moors needed the rain, it had been weeks since even drizzle had fallen, let alone this promised drenching.

The first year stood laughing at the four sixth formers led by Head Boy, Alec. According to the pamphlet, each first year was to run the boundaries of the school and give a good wallop on a drum set at the boundary markers. Tradition said that Beating the Bounds would drive off evil spirits.

So what was with the pine branch Alec held? What was with the three drummers?

Alec laughing in the library--a place he rarely entered--gathered with his friends over old ledgers.

Philip's unease at seeing Simeon turned to terror.

Alec lifted his pine branch high, while the other three beat their drums.

'No!' He yelled his certainty into the wind that suddenly clawed down the gully. 'You mustn't do that! You need to stop!'

The wind pushed his words back into his mouth and tried to thrust him out of the gully. He fought back.

Alec saw his struggle, and laughed--a high gloating note carried on the wind, which combed fingers through the summer--dry grass and whistled through the upraised pine branch. It was last year's drop; Philip ducked the brown needles flying like darts towards his eyes.

He expected Alec to use the branch to give the first year a good thrashing. Listening to his half-brother cramming for the exams to follow Simeon into that branch of the Church, Philip had reluctantly absorbed old traditions. One of the original forms of Beating the Bounds had walked boys around their village boundaries and hitting them on the head at each marker stone. He knew of darker forms.

Instead, Alec held the branch high.

'No!' Philip shouted, but the wind caught the words and whisked them away once more. Deep inside him, Philip knew that Alec was wrong, though he couldn't say how he knew. He tried to take another step into the gully. Defeated, he cupped his hands to his mouth. 'Alec! That's the wrong way! Stop!'

Alec flung his head back, staring in ecstasy at the louring sky. Even over the wind beating at his ears, Philip heard Alec's words.

'Let there be blood on the boundary stone!'

The first year stopped laughing. Incredulously, he started to turn away from Alec who towered over him with the branch.

'Aaa-lec!' shouted Philip. 'Sim-e-on! Stop them!'

Slowly, Simeon turned to look up the hill.

Philip saw the lightning spike start to the sky to meet the fork darting down.

'No!' he shrieked. If only he knew how to push the lightning away! No! He would never learn that!

Oh-so-slowly, Simeon raised his hiking stick--his mouth moving at stop-motion speed.

The wind pressed against Philip's downward momentum, driving him back up the hill. Step by step he fought the wind with all his physical strength--and that wasn't enough.

Inch by inch the spike advanced.

Weighted down with millstones, Philip lifted his arms, trying to cover his head, trying to turn away. Down in the gully, Simeon leaned into a slow-motion sprint towards the boys. For the first time Alec saw the older man. He lowered the branch--as if he were using a wand to cast a spell.

And the spike touched the sky.

Lightning arcing down to strike his mother as the spell lurched out of her control. Her screams of pain, screams of terror from the other cult folk, filled Philip's ears.

Light exploded in the gully.

The wind stalled. Philip landed face first in the heather, buried under the sound of the thunderbolt. Heat ran over his back, scalding his neck.

He pushed his head up and squinted into the gully. The fire dried his eyes just looking. He thought he could see bodies lying on the ground. He'd heard of people stunned by lightning but surviving it. He had to get them out of there.

Scrambling to his feet, he tried to take a step forward but the heat from the fire pushed him back. He raised an arm to shield his face and tried again.

And Philip saw his mother reaching out burning arms to him, screaming in agony. Horrified, he turned away instead of trying to help her.

In the fire he saw a burning face; it looked like his mother. Horrified, he turned away. Screams sounded outside his head.

Hair blazing, Alec stalked out of the gully, carrying a now burning pine wand. His eyes burnt from within.

'There's Philip!' said Alec. 'Get him!' He lowered the burning pine until it pointed straight at Philip's chest.

Behind Alec, three burning figures stumbled out of the fire; their mouths open, screaming in pain.

Staring, Philip remembered his half-brother saying that the only way fire could control a human was to burn them, destroying them utterly. Where their feet planted, the bone-dry heather burst into flowers of flame. Burning arms raised and lowered, banging on the blazing drums.

Philip edged away, then turned and scrambled back up the last part of the hillock, using hands as well as feet. Screaming in pain, the burning drummers chased him.

Philip charged onto the open moor, heather lashed at his shins as his legs sprinted for the horizon. He cast a look over his shoulder while his feet kept pounding.

Behind him, three figures of fire spread out, carrying their deathly life with them. The widening fire began to play with thermals. It blew a wind straight towards Philip, driving the flames through the parched moorland.

'Philip!' shouted Alec. 'Come back here!'

Philip hoped the fire would be reported. Right now, however, he needed to run, hopeless though that seemed. The hot wind breathed on the back of his neck. He didn't think he could outrun this building wildfire.

They're following me aren't they?

Another glance back showed him the burning drummers herding the flames in his direction. Could he lead them round in a circle, so that the fire went onto already burned ground?

His legs fell into the regular stride he used for long distance running--a very different one from the panicked sprint. He took a slight turn, but not enough that the fire creatures could cut him off.

Overhead, the clouds darkened further as smoke from the fire lifted and merged with them. Why wasn't it raining? Lightning flashed over the sky, but the promised rain refused to drop.

A check told him the fire creatures still followed. The main fire spawned little dancing devils.

Ahead was a fence--and a gate. Beside it stood a collection of fire brooms, but Philip knew the fire was too big to beat out.

As he vaulted the fence, a siren howled through the smoke. Relief. Someone had reported the blaze.

Running burned in his leg muscles--he was fit, but the ground was uneven. Fear of twisting an ankle in a rabbit hole concealed by heather added to his terror. If that happened then he was a goner.

He didn't want to burn. His mother had burnt when she lost control of the ritual using Philip's half-brother.

She only had you to marry your Dad, said the traitor's voice. To know your half-brother was properly brought up.

Bringing him up to save the world, by magic.

All Philip wanted to save was his own skin. Another slight turn, another glance--the fire and the creatures still gave chase.

Then his feet pounded on the trod. It went in the direction he wanted; he hoped it was a continuation of the path he had tripped over earlier. Running on the stone surface was easier--the path was open, not covered by vegetation. He could watch for uneven slabs.

Behind him, the fire was gaining ground.

Suddenly Philip realized the limitation of his plan. He staggered to a stop. Behind him the fire raged, but not enough time had elapsed for the older fire to die away. All around the trod, little fire devils sparked.

The main fire bore down on him, singing its triumph. Not a hundred meters away, he could see unburned ground and a road wide enough to be a firebreak. All he had to do was run through the fire ahead of him.

His mother screamed in agony as she burnt.

He took a step forwards. The fire reached hot little fingers for the uncovered flesh of his face and hands. He turned his mouth and nose away.

The winds driving the fire had come full circle. A huge, flaming tornado was forming--and he was at the center.

He was going to burn.

The flames leapt and clawed at the only way through. Why wasn't it raining?

Then Alec walked down the trod, his hair and arms blazing. 'Someone has to die today, Philip. And the man in the shadows stole away our chosen sacrifice.'

Philip backed away. 'It won't be me.'

'Blood must fall on the boundary stones.'

'The fire engines are here. They'll get the fire under control.'

'You put all your trust in technology, but what of the old powers, Philip?' Alec stepped forward.

Philip took another pace back; as the fire advanced on him, he could feel the heat from the old burn. 'There are no old powers.' He coughed as smoke wafted his way.

The spell out of control, his mother screaming as she burnt.

It should be raining. Particles from the smoke should be accreting the water droplets.

Seeing Philip's upward glance Alec said, 'We can stop the rain. The heat from the fire vortex evaporates any falling water. Stand still, please Philip.'

Alec took another step forward.

Philip's running shoes were melting to the stone trod.

'Alec, stop this! Let the rain fall,' pleaded Philip. Please let it rain, so I don't have to burn.

'I will only live as long as there is fire, you know,' said Alec.

Philip swallowed but his throat was dry from the run and the heat. 'Yes, I know.'

'Philip!' Another voice shouted. 'Come through!'

Philip risked looking behind. Simeon stood at the other end of the fiery corridor. On either side of the trod the fires burned, with heat enough to boil water, baking the pathway.

The Church people hadn't saved his mother.

'Philip!' shouted Simeon, over the crackling flames. 'I'm holding them off as best I can. Run through!'

It was only 100 meters. He could do 100 meters in seconds.

His mother had screamed as she had burnt.

'Philip!' shouted Simeon. 'I can't hold it back much longer!' He stood with his hands lifted over his head, palms out--the image of Moses parting the Red Sea.

They might not have saved his mother, but they had saved his half-brother from the altar.

Alec surged forwards and grabbed for Philip. Philip dodged.

I'm not going to burn.

'Stop him! He has to die,' shouted Alec. 'We must keep the flames alive.'

Philip leapt through the fire, kicking off his melting running shoes.

His bare feet pounded on the overheated stone of the trod. Ahead, he could see fire fighters whacking at the burning embers, as others unreeled their hose from the flame-red fire engine. He fixed his eyes on the dark, tarmac road.

And Philip ran.

Alec had gone silent. Philip didn't dare look behind.

The heated path wanted to burn his feet. He had to ignore the pain.

Why wouldn't it rain?

And Philip ran.

He saw the flame devil spawn off. Twisting and swirling through the air, it was driven towards Simeon.

A fire fighter knocked him out of the way. Another rushed to beat at the dehydrated heather.

No longer bound, the sea of flame rushed back to engulf the clear path on which Philip ran.

He heard the screaming. And the beating of drums.

His foot caught on an upraised slab and he sprawled onto the overheated stone. His hands blistered and he could feel his tracksuit bottoms starting to smolder.

A burning drummer leaned towards him. Hands dropping charcoal drumsticks, held together only by force of habit.

'Philip!' Alec's voice was a scream now. 'You've got to die. Please, stop the pain.'

'Release the clouds!' Philip said.

Four pairs of burning arms reached for him. But something held them back. He saw another face in the fire.

'Mother!' he whispered.

'Call the rain, Philip!' The crackle of the fire added the remembered impatience to her voice.

Why wouldn't it rain? Despite Alec's boasts even this heat couldn't evaporate all that water, it should melt the ice crystals sooner. This was science not magic--if he'd had any saliva left he would have spat the word. No! Not magic, which meant that it should be raining.

Mother's hold on the burning boys was slipping. Philip looked up. The long hose was just sprouting water.

'It will be too late,' whispered Mother. 'Call the rain or you will burn.'

'But you'll die if I put out the fire!'

The fire tutted, just like Mother. 'I'm already dead.'

The smoke crawled into his lungs and he coughed. And coughed harder.

Simeon shouted, 'Philip! Run!'

Burning arms reached out to embrace him.

It should be raining!

'RAIN!' screamed Philip.

The air filled with sound: rocks slamming into rocks in an avalanche, the din of demolishing a tower block. It drowned out his impassioned plea.

And then it rained.

The sky dropped the full load of water that Alec had been holding off--all at once. A lake of water landed on their heads.

Alec screamed in agony. The burning drummers were silenced as the water washed away their remaining ash.

Philip turned his hands over to feel the cool water on his blistered palms. Threatened with drowning now, he pushed up against the heavy load on his head and shoulders. He managed to get his feet on the ground and staggered upright. Water hissed off the overheated pavement. All around, the burning heather swam as the parched ground failed to absorb the sudden deluge.

It wasn't magic--he didn't do that mystic stuff. He'd been hallucinating from dehydration. There. That was the scientific reason for seeing his mother in fire.

He stumbled onto the unburning ground.

Simeon reached him as the first impact of water eased. He swung Philip up and carried him to the waiting ambulance.

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