Middle Grade Fiction

FICTION: The Head by Joseph Surtees

Amy was upset. She’d been told off for asking too many questions.

They were visiting the Tower of London and Amy wanted to know all about it. Eventually the teacher had told her to be quiet and she had run off, so nobody would see her crying.

She kicked a mound of earth in front of her.

“Ow!”

Amy checked. There wasn’t anybody nearby.

She kicked the mound again.

“Please,” came the voice, sounding muffled, “stop kicking me!”

Amy dropped to her knees and started to dig. She didn’t feel scared, because the voice was very high-pitched, like a mouse might sound.

She found hair (a lot of hair) pale skin, eyes… It was a head!

“Pull me out,” the head ordered.

Amy grabbed it.

“Not by my ears!” the head squeaked.

“Sorry,” said Amy.

She stared at the head. The head stared back. It was tiny, with a grey beard covering almost its whole face. Hair sprouted out of its little nose.

Amy smiled.

“What are you smiling about?” it snapped.

“Because you’re just a head!” said Amy.

“I’m not just a head,” said the head. “I’m a King, and a giant.”

Amy looked doubtful.

“I may have shrunk a little,” admitted the head. “But when I ruled this island they called me Mav the Mighty.”

“I’m not sure we’ve got to you in history yet,” said Amy.

“This was in the time of myths,” replied Mav, “When we faced a great evil. My head was buried here to awaken when the great evil threatened once more. So, where is it?”

“What?”

“The great evil!” said Mav.

“There isn’t one.”

“Of course there is,” growled Mav, “don’t be silly.”

Just then, Amy heard her teacher shouting her name and quickly stuffed Mav into her rucksack.

Mrs Craddock came around the corner.

“Amy,” she said, “where have you been?”

Amy opened her mouth.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Mrs Craddock continued, “come with me. Something strange is happening.”

The ground had started shaking.

“Stop jumping up and down,” mumbled Mav.

“I’m not,” said Amy, “there’s an earthquake!”

“That’s worrying,” said Mav, “we must be running out of time.”

“Time for what?” asked Amy, keeping her voice low.

“To stop him, of course,” replied Mav, as if she was an idiot. “So lose this old woman.”

“I can’t,” said Amy, “I’ll get into trouble.”

“You need to go into the tower,” hissed Mav.

Amy wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t want to get in more trouble but didn’t think it would be good to disappoint an ancient king.

Then smoke began to pour from the tower wall. It surrounded Amy and she lost sight of Mrs Craddock.

She heard Mav again, urging her to go into the tower.

“That’s where the smoke’s coming from…”.

“I need you to be brave for me,” said Mav, “please”.

Amy came to a decision.

“Where do I go?”

Even though the King was buried in her rucksack he guided her through the smoke to a small doorway in the stone walls. She ducked inside and as she did so, she heard a bellowing roar.

Mav led her through a series of rooms. They were all empty. In one, a display case full of weapons had broken open.

“Pick up a sword,” ordered Mav.

“I don’t want to.”

“You’ll need it,” Mav insisted.

Amy grabbed the smallest sword she could see. It still felt very heavy to her.

Eventually they reached a big room in the middle of the tower. It was bare, no people, no displays, nothing.

“See the wall in front of you?” said Mav.

It didn’t look different to the other three.

“Half-way up there’s a big stone a slightly different colour from the others,” continued Mav, “press it.”

Amy pressed the stone, then leapt away.

Nothing happened.

She heard a small voice, “maybe the one next to it?”

Amy gave this one a try and a previously hidden doorway opened in the wall. Beyond it a staircase led downwards.

I suppose I’ve come this far, Amy thought. She tightened her grip on her sword and went through.

Amy had expected it to be dark inside, but everything was lit by a strange blue light. At the bottom of the stairs there was a wooden door.

She opened it and came out into a room with a high wooden roof, like in a church. In the middle was a massive table, full of food.

“I wouldn’t eat any of that,” said Mav, “it’s not meant for the living.”

Then Amy heard a clicking sound, click, click, click.

“Hide!” ordered Mav.

Amy dived under the table, which was covered in a red tablecloth that almost reached the floor. Behind it, she was hidden. She held her breath. Somebody or something had come into the room and it stalked towards the table, click, click, click.

Whatever it was cast a long shadow that flickered in the candlelight. Amy tried to creep further back under the table, sensing eyes searching for her.

When whatever it was reached the table it stopped, right next to Amy. She didn’t know what to do. Did it know she was here?

What was it?

Amy peered under the tablecloth and almost gasped in shock. She could see a pair of skeletal feet. That must have been what was making the sound, shiny white bone clicking against the stone floor.

Something landed on the table with a thump and Amy jumped. It must be the skeleton’s hand, resting right above her. It must know she was here. She felt her muscles tense.

“Don’t run,” whispered Mav.

But her leg started to twitch. She steeled herself. She knew where the door was, just few metres away, maybe she could make it. Above her skeletal fingers drummed on the table top.

Then the feet in front of her turned away and headed out of the door. Amy sighed in relief.

“Told you,” said Mav.

Amy left the door in the opposite corner. The corridor on the other side was pitch black and she felt her way along it with one hand on a slimy wall. Her other hand held her sword tightly.

“He is close,” said Mav.

She was at the end of the corridor now. Finding a handle, she pushed a door open, only to find an armoured skeleton turning towards her, its grinning skull gleaming in the sudden light.

Amy swung her sword at the monster and was amazed when her blade took its arm clean off, sending it clattering to the floor. But this didn’t stop the skeleton. In its remaining hand it held an axe, which it slashed at Amy.

She ducked and the axe swished just over her head, burying itself in the still open door.

Amy ran into the room, looking for an escape. In the middle of the floor there was a hole with a ladder hanging down from it. But, before she could reach this, the creature was on her again. She lifted her sword to stop its axe blow and was shocked when their weapons made contact and her sword flew out of her hand, skittering into a far corner of the room.

She leapt backwards to avoid another axe stroke but still felt the axe slice across her shoulder. Gasping in pain, Amy looked down to see a splatter of her blood on the floor.

Then something grabbed her ankle! It was the skeleton’s arm. With a mind of its own, it had dragged itself across the floor and seized her. It began to crawl up her leg as its owner advanced again.

Amy reached down and ripped the arm from her leg. Swinging it like a bat she swiped desperately at her enemy and was amazed when she caught the skeleton across the skull with its own arm, making it stagger backwards, right over the open hole in the centre of the floor. For a moment the skeleton hung in the air, then it plunged downwards. A moment later Amy heard bones smashing and the arm in her hand went limp.

She breathed a sigh of relief. Taking off her rucksack, she pulled Mav’s head out.

“Well done,” he said, grudgingly.

“What was that?” she asked.

“A skeleton…”

“I know!” she said. “But how was it walking around? That’s not possible!”

“It’s his doing,” replied Mav. “He has the power to raise the dead.”

“Who is he?” asked Amy, dread creeping through her body.

“My greatest enemy, the one I battled so many years ago, the one I was left here to face again. We must stop him, or else the world is lost.”

Amy picked Mav up again and headed for the trapdoor.

“Be vigilant,” warned the King, “I do not know what form he will take.”

Soon she found herself in a vast hall, lit by torches, their flames danced in some unexpected breeze. But apart from them, the room seemed empty. Even the skeleton was gone. There were no doorways. Amy could see that the only way in or out was the ladder she had used.

“There’s nothing here,” she whispered, wondering whether this has all been some mistake.

Except, there was something. She could only just see it now, as her eyes grew used to the semi-darkness. A small wooden chest with dull bronze clasps.

Amy wasn’t sure why but suddenly she had an overwhelming desire to see what was inside the chest.

“Don’t open it,” hissed Mav.

Yet Amy knew she had to open the chest, she had no choice.

The clasps undid easily as Mav pleaded with her to stop.

She paused. Maybe he was right? Perhaps it was best to leave it closed.

And yet…

Amy flipped open the lid of the chest and stared at what was inside. She giggled.

It was a tiny pig, no longer than her forearm, completely white, like the porcelain figures on her grandmother’s bookshelves.

“That’s what you’re scared of?” she said. “A pig!”

Then the pig turned to look at her and its eyeballs glowed red. Then the pig opened its mouth and screamed, showing two rows of dagger-like teeth.

Amy fell backwards, scrambling away from whatever this thing was as it started to flow out of its chest and began to grow and change, its body twisting in the air.

Mav’s voice was calm.

“Place me on the floor,” he said. “You got me here and I thank you. It’s now my turn to be brave. ”

Then the King began to hum in a language Amy didn’t recognise. It sounded ancient.

She placed Mav’s head on the floor and looked up. The thing in the chest was huge now. It had become snake-like and there was the suggestion of wings.

The beast started to move towards them, still growing. Mav looked so small in comparison.

“What do we do?” she asked Mav. But he ignored her.

The creature’s jaws clashed together.

Mav’s humming stopped.

“I’d stand back if I was you,” he said.

Then everything seemed to freeze, and Mav’s head rose into the air. As it did so it became the size of a normal head, then much bigger. Amy could see a body forming below it, see-through except for a brilliant blue outline. In his hand, Mav now held a sword and began to stride towards his enemy. Each footstep made the ground rumble. He raised his sword and swung it down with unstoppable force.

Amy thought there was no way the hideous serpent could avoid the blow. But at the final moment it slithered to one side and the sword clanged against the ground. Quick as a flash, the monster threw itself at Mav, but the King’s free hand swept it away, sending it crashing into the wall. Amy looked up nervously as bits of ceiling crashed to the floor around her.

The serpent hissed and circled around. Mav slashed at it once more but again it dodged his blow, screaming in the King’s face. Then it struck, burying its silver jaws deep into the giant’s thigh. Mav gasped in pain, falling to one knee. As it slid away, the serpent looked as if it was gloating.

Amy couldn’t see how Mav could win this, the beast was so fast. She wanted to help, but what could she do? She looked around. All she could see was the box the thing had come from, so she edged her way towards it. In the middle of the room, Mav stood once more, blood running down his leg.

“We end this now,” bellowed the King.

The serpent roared something in return, something guttural and wrong. Amy continued towards the open box, perhaps there was something else in there, she thought, something that could help.

Mav tried to launch himself at the serpent but as he moved his leg gave way beneath him and he staggered and fell. The creature struck at Mav’s throat and for a moment Amy thought it would seize the King, but he managed to fling up one arm and the serpent’s fangs clamped onto it, drawing blood once more.

Mav smashed the serpent against the wall again and again, until the beast loosened its grip and moved away. With each blow the room trembled and more of the ceiling collapsed. Amy wasn’t sure how much more the hall could take. They were in danger of bringing everything down on top of them.

Amy was almost at the box. She looked to see if the serpent had noticed her, but it didn’t seem to have done. It was circling once more above Mav, looking to land a final blow. The King’s sword hung loose in his hand, as if he barely had the strength to hold it. Amy saw his eyes slide over to her. He didn’t say anything, but she could sense Mav was willing her on.

Again, the serpent attacked and again its blow landed. It sunk its jaws into the King’s shoulder and he staggered backwards, crashing against the back of the hall. Crack spread out across the room and the silvered snake raised its head in triumph, shooting a blast of flames into the air.

Amy was at the box. She looked inside but saw nothing. There couldn’t be nothing, thought Amy desperately.

Yet, wait… There was something, glinting white. What was it? She reached into the casket and pulled it out. A bone?

She heard a shriek. Turning Amy saw the serpent glaring at her, its teeth bared. Leaving Mav bloodied and broken, it started to flow through the air towards Amy. It would be on her in a second. She backed away, but there was nowhere to go. The serpent opened its jaws and Amy closed her eyes, images of her mother and father flashing across her brain.

When nothing happened, Amy opened her eyes cautiously and almost died of fright. The serpent was there, spitting fury in her face, but somehow Mav had leapt forward to grasp it by the tail.

Amy looked at the bone in her hand. What was she meant to do with it? Tightening her grip, she snapped the bone in half. The moment she did this, the serpent screeched, twisting itself in agony.

Then it started to shrink, flicking between dozens, hundreds, of shapes. Amy thought she saw the pig again but many animals she had never seen before, until finally there was just an old man, bent double, white haired, bearded. He reminded Amy of her great grandfather.

He looked at Amy, watery eyes blinking as if surprised at her presence, held out one hand towards her and opened his mouth, but didn’t have the chance to speak. Mav’s sword cut him down.

Amy screamed and ran over to where the little old man had stood, but there was nothing there, only a small pile of clothes lying empty on the ground.

“What did you do?” she shouted at Mav.

“What had to be done,” he replied.

“He was just a little old man!” said Amy.

“It’s not what he was,” replied Mav, “it’s what it might have been again.”

As he said this, Mav’s ghostly body started to disappear. Soon he was only a head once more, as small as when Amy found him. She picked him up.

“That was wrong,” Amy told Mav. Around her, the hall was falling down.

“Perhaps,” said the King, “but I did it, it was my choice to make. Now you must leave, there’s not much time.”

Amy turned towards the ladder.

“Leave me,” said Mav

“What do you mean?” said Amy.

“Leave me,” Mav repeated, “please.”

“But you’ll die.”

“I have watched for thousands of years,” the King replied. “It’s time for me to sleep forever.”

“But I’ll miss you,” said Amy.

“You will always remember this, child,” said the King. “And I will always be with you.”

A huge piece of masonry smashed to the ground right next to Amy.

“Go!” ordered Mav.

So Amy placed him on the floor and ran to the ladder, hauling her way upwards. Right at the top she looked back and saw Mav still down there, a tiny head looking up at her. To Amy, it seemed as if he was smiling.

Eventually she staggered back outside into the sunlight. On her way out of the castle she had found nothing, all the skeletons had disappeared, no trace of anything strange remained.

Amy found herself blinking in the sudden bright light as the world came into focus. She looked down and saw she was covered in grime. Then she realised she had something grasped in her hand.

Mrs Craddock rushed over.

“Amy!” she snapped, “where have you been?”

Amy opened her hand. In it was a small golden amulet, in the centre of which was a little head. The head turned towards her and winked.

She smiled.

“It’s a long story,” she said.

End

 

Joseph Surtees

Joe Surtees pic.jpg

Joseph Surtees lives in London. Previous short stories have appeared in publications including Fictive Dream and Unsung Stories. His favourite animals are seals.

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