#FlashFiction: On the stroke of Midnight

The mouse’s nose twitched as it lurked in the very entrance of it’s lair in the wainscoting.  The scent of cheese was a tantalising strand in a web of such odours that richly filled the small, cramped workshop, and it drew the mouse out into the candlelit night.  A clock on a shelf struck the first note of midnight.

The cheese and it’s accompanying bread belonged to the figure hunched over the workbench, and had been long forgotten.  Bahrd, Edgesmith, in exile from his people and his guild, picked up another delicate piece of mechanism and fitted it into it’s assigned place in the clock he was building.  It’s twin sat to one side of the bench, already complete.  There were two curious features about clocks, one of which the clockmakers of this benighted land knew, and one which they did not.  They knew, though not why, that even two such identical clocks could not keep perfectly in time, one with the other.  What they did not know was that, to some extent, this deficit could be overcome by attaching both clocks to a single spar.  Bahrd could have explained the physics that kept the pendulums in sympathy with each other, but this was a Guild secret, and, too, it was doubtful that anyone here would understand.  Still, Lionel the Venturer was paying well for these clocks and he must finish them before daybreak.

Bahrd reached for another tiny cogwheel that needed to be placed just so, picked it up delicately with a pair of tweezers and just as he was putting it in its appointed two place, two other things happened at the same time.  His ear caught the clock starting to strike midnight but the mouse twitching its nose again went unremarked.

If it had been capable of making such distinctions, the mouse might have felt that the note struck was rather sonorous for such a small clock.  But the mouse was incapable for two important reasons.  Firstly, it was a mouse; secondly, it had been frozen in time.

It was only when the piece was in place and he was thinking about the next that Bahrd realised that he had only heard the bon- and no accompanying -ong.  He looked around and saw the mouse.

(-ooonnnn-)

The mouse did not move in ten heartbearts, and neither did the clock on the shelf.  Bahrd sighed and pinched the bridge of his sharp, pointed nose.

(-ooonnnn-)

He lined up his delicate watch making tools.  Thus soothed, somewhat, he glanced around the room.  The fire in the grate had long since burned down to the merest sullen embers; the candle had burned down too, but the flame was still bravely dancing above the last half-inch of wax.  Or it had been until it too had been frozen in place, bent mid-flciker.  Bahrd sighed again.

(-ooonnnn-)

Barhd thought for a moment and then took a delicate glass goblet down from the shelf and filled it with water from a carafe.  A pattern of ripples formed immediately.  Bahrd dipped a stubby finger into the water and then made the goblet sing by delicately wetting the rim and running his finger around it.

There was a modulation in the note that rang out, but it was very faint, and Bahrd could not discern meaning, although he was sure that it was there.  He quickly improvised a hearing trumpet, such as an elderly person might use to stop younger people from shouting at them.

Bahrd help me!

“If you can reach out this far and stop time, what need you of me?  I cannot match that power.”

In this I am powerless.  I need an agent, one who knows our ways.  My daughter is trapped.

“And there is no other?”

No other.  Please come.

Bahrd grumbled under his breath, but more for the sake of form than from any real belligerence.  He pulled on boots, a many pocketed waistcoat with various tools tucked away, just in case.  An Edgesmith may not always have the perfect tool for any situation, but where there is a will, there is a way…  Hard grey eyes interrogated the room.  Was there anything else that he needed?  On slightly more than a whim he grabbed the carafe and without waiting further touched his fingers lightly to the water.  A moment later, only the still frozen mouse kept vigil in the workshop.

*****

At this point in the long hot summer, the mighty river Socatoa was a whisper of its winter-self.  Still, there was enough power here for the river-god to have transported Bahrd over a thousand miles from his workshop.  The light of dawn washed across the river, causing points of brilliance to dance redly even on this green-brown silty surface.  A bubble formed within the torpid water and rose to the surface, disgorging the Edgesmith onto the bank.  Bahrd drew himself up to his full five feet and looked around.  He was on the shore formed where a tributary joined the river.  The stream had dwindled under the heat of the sun until the barest trickle meandered between the rocks on the bed to join its parent.  As if to underline the obvious, a finger of water pointed up the tributary, attempting to make jabbing gestures as it rolled with the flowing water.

Bahrd carefully put the carafe on the bank and hoisted himself up beside it.  In some ways, the easiest path might be to follow the course of the river, but who knew what might be found further up.  Picking up the receptacle, he noted landmarks and set off.

He did not find the spot where he needed to be until early in the afternoon.  By now he was in amongst some low hills and the passing of ages had cut the normally fast flowing stream deep into the earth.  He’d come out a little higher up the valley then he needed to be and so started to find a way to scramble down.  The gorge was surprisingly green; the sides were thick with trees of many different types and ages.  Several had fallen, perhaps loosened from precarious perches as the ground dried out around their roots.

Despite his careful steps, there was a nasty moment when he slipped and the carafe leapt from his hands, seemingly determined to dash itself to pieces.  He reached a hand to it just in time, kept it from the ground and juggled it back under control again.  His reckless downhill progress brought him to the bank of where the stream should have been, and he saw what had happened.  The water, much restricted, moved only through certain channels at the bottom of the river.  The Naiad had become stuck in a pool left orphaned by the low water.  Whether by design or misfortune, the pool was rimmed with rocks of magnetite, and even Socatoa could not reach through this barrier.

“Hail!  Your father has sent me to aid you.”

A limp hand appeared, from the surface of the water.  Bahrd approached and saw that the stones were polished and rounded.  They did not appear to have been simply tumbled into place, but had been positioned with purpose.  He suspected that the naiad had wanted a place where she could be private and not in constant commune with all her kind.  Things had nearly gone very wrong.  He placed the carafe in the pool and quickly rearranged some of the stones.  They should still provide the privacy required in the future, but now there would be a way to escape too.  A face flitted across the pool and appeared to nod in approval.

Bahrd picked up the carafe and worked his way back to the bank and then followed the water course further upstream.  He didn’t have too far to go until he found a waterfall and a deep pool of water beneath it.

“Here?”

A bell-like note rang from the glass carafe; he knelt and gently emptied it into the roiling water.  A shape he couldn’t quite make out leapt and dived and leapt again from the water, joyfully exuberant.  Suddenly a hand reached from the water, much more animated than the first time he had seen it, and ran gently up his arm, coming to rest on his shoulder.  He didn’t even have time to curse as, unexpectedly, the hand took a tight grip and pulled him into the water.

*****

-ooonnng.

He stood once more in his workshop, bone dry, the stroke of midnight complete.  Barhd broke off a piece of the cheese and placed it in front of the mouse.  Sitting back down on his stool, he picked up the tweezers, and with them the next piece of mechanism.  There was still a clock to complete, after all.

© David Jesson, 2020

 

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