Despite the wine, I slept fitfully that night. My straw-filled mattress was placed far enough away from the kitchen fire to evade the occasional stray spark. With much on my mind regarding the future, I had been turning like a pig on a spit and twice as hot. Thankful the fire had now fallen to embers, a slight change in temperature caused me to shiver as I listened to the night. The hooting of owls and the yelps of foraging foxes became commonplace to me but when they were replaced by a new sound, I spun round in my bed to face the door. It was clear from the shadows cast beneath it by the full moon that someone was standing outside. Hairs rose on the back of my neck as the intruder began to speak in a low voice. Had the assassin returned? If not, who else could it be? My ears strained to make sense of what was being spoken. It seemed to be some sort of incantation in the old language. Magic! My body froze and I don’t mean metaphorically. I couldn’t even move an eyelid. It was an enchantment and it had been aimed at me. Trapped, unable to move from my bed, I watched as the shadow of my assailant dropped to its knees behind the door. The chanting increased in volume; clearly my enemy was confident I was going nowhere. Terrified at my own incapacity, I mentally implored Jenny to wake up. As if to emphasise my vulnerability the low drone of her snores emanating from her chamber increased in volume.
Something landed on the floor a few yards in front of me. The soft glow of the fire lit up the indeterminate shape of a muslin bag shifting its weight on the floorboards. I watched, transfixed, as the shape of the bag began to change, not through impetus but of its own accord. Pulsing with life of some kind, my fear was contained in that bag. Every nightmare of inertia, that inability to remove yourself from your fears, was writhing within it.
I watched as the bag was tugged away from its contents by an unseen string. The muslin danced out of my vision and presumably back through the high window from which it came. The bag’s contents readjusted themselves onto the floor. I peered at the mess anxious to identify the possible threat it would pose. The rank smell of fresh horse manure, blood and other bodily fluids filled the room as I recognised the distinctive shape of a mandrake root before me. Something, a large spider perhaps, stirred amongst the primordial mess. Incongruously, a small, but exquisitely formed knife gleamed red in the glow of the dying fire.
A brilliant flash of light illuminated the room for a second and, unprotected by my frozen eyelids, I could only wait and wonder what might happen before I could make use of my eyes again.
Minutes passed and my worst fears came to fruition as my sight returned enough for me to see a fully-formed homunculus stepping out of the chaos from which it was created. The tiny replica of a human, only about a foot in height, bent down and retrieved the small knife from the floor. It had received its orders in the chanting prior to its conception and its featureless face did its best to show grim determination. Fixed upon its target, it swayed on its newborn legs, each step more accomplished than the last one. Tiny pin-hole eyes gave little away as it bore down on my constrained body.
Step by tiny step it drew near until a scream, the like of which I had never heard before, rendered me insensible…
“Darling! Darling! Are you all right?” That was Jenny…my second thought was I really do need to get myself a new name. Then I remembered the homunculus.
“What happened?” My mouth was as dry as a glass-blower’s spittoon. I was still in my bed but at least I was able to move now. “Where is it? The homunculus?” Jenny pointed across the room to what looked like the remains of a north country breakfast.
“How did you…?”
“It was the scream that woke me up. I shot into here with my base-ball bat and the little sod had spiked himself on one of the nails from the upturned floorboards. He was busy trying to extricate himself when I gave him my best shot. I was the captain of the Glasswell Lady Sprites base-ball team back in the day.”
“You must have hit it hard.”
“Well…” Jenny looked a little embarrassed now, “I guess I got a bit carried away…but you can’t take chances with homunculi, you know? They’re stubborn little buggers. What I can’t understand is how it got here. It had a knife you know!”
“I think it was probably sent to kill me.” I glanced over at the residual mess smeared against the cave wall if only to reassure myself that it wasn’t coming back. “I think you’d better sit down.”