At first the Kelite woman glanced over the top of her book when Elwin entered. Then she resumed reading her book without further acknowledgement of his presence. Elwin crept towards a rusty chair, but his thorned knee buckled slightly again and he skidded onto the chair scraping it on the concrete loudly. The woman scowled him silently before resuming her reading. Elwin waited patiently as she completed the page she was on and continued to read the next. While she was distracted with the book he surreptitiously ran his eyes over her. She had dark brown eyes and her hair was an immaculately tidy mass of tangles and curls. Her top half was covered in a thick turtle neck jumper while a knee length brown skirt protruded from underneath it. The fabric of the skirt was of a much finer quality than anything a Delphorian woman might have worn. Elwin tried to imagine what it would be like to wear clothing so soft, as everything he had worn in his life had been coarse or threadbare.
Elwin’s eyes were drawn to her legs. What was peculiar about them was that they were tanned. No Delphorian ever had a tan, at least not on their legs. On their arms and head from working out in the sun if their duties required it. However, to have tanned legs only happened occasionally to a Delphorian should they win the monthly prize for most efficient worker; the prize being a weekend at the Gladsdale Beach resort. Elwin was so distracted with her legs that he hadn’t noticed that the woman had finally folded her book and placed it down on the table. A mischievous smile lingered below her intense gaze. A gaze Elwin was too afraid to meet.
“Elwin, what would your wife do to you if I told her you were looking at my legs like that?” Elwin was barely affected by these words, he sat in the old chair like a mannequin. Dissatisfied with this response from Elwin she tried again, “Oh I forgot, you hate your wife. All Delphorian men hate their wives. It’s just in your nature. That’s why we can’t let you stay married to one for more than two years. So what if instead,” she allowed her voice to trail off momentarily, “instead I told Edith that you couldn’t stop thinking about my legs?”
Elwin squirmed gripping both knees with his hands spasmodically, “Lady Rebekah, please don’t tell Edith that, I beg of you.”
This was the response she had hoped for. Her lips were painted blood red; they caressed against each other as though she were somehow able to savour Elwin’s fear, “O Elwin, please, as though I would do any such thing. You haven’t disappointed me enough yet.”
Elwin could not bring himself to make eye contact with her so he looked at her arm just above her elbow, “thank you, Lady Rebekah,” he murmured quietly.
“Well, after I have come all this way to meet you, I hope you have something for me?” She adjusted herself in her chair. Although she was shorter than Elwin; he none-the-less felt smaller than her.
Elwin opened up his shirt and pulled out a few sheets of folded paper from a concealed pouch. He offered them to Rebekah who snatched them. She unfolded them while complaining about how dirty the pages were. Elwin murmured an apology. She sat there reading what he had written quietly to herself. While her gaze was directed to the page he felt courageous enough glance up her face. A smile oozed across her cheeks and Elwin looked away trying to hide his excitement.
“Good work Elwin, good work, I am always amazed with the ideas you come up with,” she murmured without looking at him, “you know maybe I should go and talk to Edith about you. Tell her that you’re a very impressive man.”
Elwin’s heart started racing and a momentary glow of euphoria came over him. The scene around him evaporated as his awareness retreated inward. Before him appeared the visage of a young blonde woman sitting at one of the tables in an atrium from his condominium. She was pouring over a mess of papers and documents spread out before her. She had a pen in her hand frantically scribbling changes to the papers in front of her. He imagined that he was standing there at the other end of the condominium when she looked up to see him. He looked into her sky blue eyes and she looked back into his. He watched as a warm welcoming smile slowly spread out across her face.
Then the thorn under his ear started to prick into his nerves. With his imagination he saw himself start trembling at first, then shaking, and finally he started screaming and howling at Edith. He extended a furious finger and thrust it at the blonde. The smile runaway her face and black lines started growing out from underneath her hairline descending down her face. The blue of her eyes winked out into empty black sores. Her tongue grew long and serpentine as she started hissing at him. Elwin found a heavy block of wood at his feet, he picked it up and started advancing furiously towards the serpentine blonde and just as he was about to strike it in the face he flinched.
“Elwin!” snapped Rebekah, “you’re hallucinating again!”
Elwin cowered back into his chair, “sorry, so sorry, Lady Rebekah,” he stammered.
She stared coldly at him, “What did you see?” she asked with curiosity but no warmth.
“Nothing, Lady Rebekah.”
She became stern, “Elwin, tell me. Now.”
“I was seeing Edith.”
Rebekah laughed, “Oh of course you were, what happened to her this time? Did her face explode? Did wings come out of her ears? Did she turn into a cactus again?”
Elwin shivered under the mocking, and Rebekah had to repeat her demands for a description of what he had seen before he told her, “She… she was turning into a snake.”
“And Elwin, tell me, what were you doing?”
Elwin reluctantly answered, “I was carrying a thick plank of heavy wood.”
Rebekah’s hands shot excitedly to her mouth, “Oh my! You were going to smash her face open weren’t you?”
Elwin’s eyes welled up with tears, as he silently nodded. Rebekah threw her head back cackling ecstatically.
She eventually recovered herself and went on, “You Delphorians are so vicious at heart. It’s a good thing you have all those thorns in you. Imagine what you would do without them? Why you might actually do something so wicked as dash out a woman’s brains. You know, I don’t think I will tell her about how clever you are because I wouldn’t want her to be hurt by you. I think it’s for the best. Don’t you?”
With tear channels running down both of his cheeks, the humiliated Elwin nodded his pathetic agreement.
“It is a shame that you are so messed up because these ideas of yours,” she held up the pieces of paper he had given to her earlier, “they’re just out of this world. Last week those jokes you wrote for me were all kickers. Seriously, you should hear the things people say about my routines and stories at the academy. They say that I am extraordinarily creatively gifted. Top of my class. If they knew it was the mad ramblings of a Delphorian helping me to succeed!
“Here, this idea of yours about a pot plant that sings songs to people. That’s hilarious. While this idea here about secret passages hidden in the walls that take people to a palace at the centre of the moon where an ice king lives? How do you think of these ideas?”
She pulled out a briefcase and rested in on the table. From it she produced a pile of blank sheets of paper, a cheap used pen, and a small book. She looked at the book again, picked it up, considered it thoughtfully before putting it back into the briefcase.
“You have delivered, and here is my end of the bargain: some more paper, a new pen, and well, I was going to bring you a new book to read. You’ve read all the dictionaries and grammar books I could find for you. So this book is particularly special though. It is a history book. Just a small one, back from when we used to teach history to the Delphorians. I am willing to lend it to you, but I will need something particularly special in return for it.”
Elwin gasped at the words “history book” and looked ravenously at the briefcase.
“Lady Rebekah! I will come up with ten brand new story ideas for you next week for it I promise!”
Rebekah slowly shook her head, “no, I will need more than that for this book. I will be taking a huge risk by letting you borrow it. Do you have something else you could give me?”
Elwin stared furtively at the ground his eyes twitching with desperation.
“Actually, this book it probably too good for you,” she sighed.
Elwin clenched his fists and all three thorns in his flesh started to sear with pain. This book, this history book, was too important to miss out on, he thought. Rebekah started to make ready to leave.
“Wait!” he called out, “lady Rebekah! I am working on something of my own.”
Rebekah’s right eyebrow arched upwards, surprised at the passion in his voice.
“I am writing about my experiences growing up. My life in the nursery, and learning how to be a good citizen and worker at school. It is a story of my life. An autobiography. It is an actual story in itself, not just some ideas to inspire you with.”
Rebekah stared into space for a few moments, then gasped as an idea struck her, “Yes! I could use that to write a story about life from a Delphorian point of view. It would be radical. I might actually win a prize for this. Yes. Elwin, yes.”
She reopened her brief case and handed him a couple more sheets, “keep working on it and show me next week. I want to see it. If I am impressed by it, then you may borrow this history book.”
“Thank you Lady Rebekah,” said Elwin.
Rebekah turned to leave the shelter under the bridge but stopped herself, turning back to look at Elwin quizzically.
“Elwin, you haven’t been reading any other books besides the ones that I have given you, have you?”
Elwin shook his head and denied it.
“It is just that last idea on your list today, about a violent Delphorian uprising lead by a man wearing a crown of thorns. It sounded just a bit strange… familiar even.”
“My ideas are always strange, so you say lady Rebekah.”
She looked at him until she was satisfied he was being honest with her, “yes, your ideas are always strange. Until next week. Do not be late next time.”
She walked out leaving Elwin alone scrambling to fold the papers she had left into the pouch in his jacket. Spare paper was after all a rare commodity. After he had finished safely stowing the paper away inside his jacket, he moved to follow Rebekah’s path from the shelter. Peering out into the afternoon sun he could see her climbing up a staircase onto the bridge above. He took care to remain in deep in the shadows so he could observe her without her knowledge. Yet he feared it did not matter, that she, like most Kelites, appeared to have some kind of omniscience sense. He watched the movement of her legs climbing the stairs. Each step was confident and robust. He admired how well built the Kelites were. Delphorians were, it seemed to Elwin, smaller and feebler than Kelites. It was no wonder that these people were immune to the plague while the Delphorians depended on the thorns embedded in their weaker flesh to keep them alive.
The afternoon sun was almost growing darker and it would soon be evening. Elwin hurried out of the shelter and started making his way back along the canal. He had not gotten far when he caught sight of a stray dog down in the water splashing about. Seeing the danger, he slipped behind a bramble of thistles and watched the dog quietly, intending to wait until it left before continuing on this way back.
The dog was scrawny and missing most of his fur. The skin was stretched tightly over the rib cage. What made this poor dog appear most pathetic was that he had obviously stepped on a thorn from the same kind of plant that Elwin’s, and all the Delphorians, thorns had come from. All the way up the dog’s hind leg the familiar black veins had crept. The dog was struggling to get out of the water because of the pain in that leg forcing him to limp. Elwin considered moving on, thinking the dog was too badly injured to be a threat to him. When the dog growled and bit his own hind leg in frustration from the pain it was obviously dealing him.
At first Elwin thought the dog had gone crazy, but after a spell of frantic splashing the dog’s head arose up triumphantly and cast away the offending thorn. The dog started shivering and splashing even more in the puddle. Elwin thought that he was now watching, and waiting, for the dog to die. It was always a death sentence to remove a thorn. Sometimes Delphorians tried to escape paying their debt to society by pulling a thorn out. The result was a painful, but swift death thrashing about like this dog was. The water around the dog was turning inky black as the dark puss from the thorn wound poured out into the water. Soon the dog will die, thought Elwin.
However, the dog did not die. It stopped thrashing and even stopped shivering. As he watched the dog appeared to be gaining in strength before Elwin’s incredulous eyes. The dog leaped out of the water onto the embankment easily this time as it had both hind legs in use again. The dark lines that had previously covered the entire leg were fading quickly. The dog was going to live.
The dog was going to live.
As he thought about this he noticed his own thorns were itching. A fleeting thought of pulling one of them out crossed his mind. He put it aside; fearful of the suicidal nature of this thought. He waited until the dog was out of sight then hurried back to the gap in the brush, over the train tracks, and under the fence behind his condominium. As he stepped back into the building again, closing the door with the lock behind him, all he could think about was the history book he had been so close to and the dog that had pulled out a thorn and lived.