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Strange Matters

Strange Matters

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Strange Matters

501 pages
7 heures
May 23, 2015


Strange Matters is a collection of tales of fantasy, myth and magic.

Some are funny, some are dark, some are both. Some are set in our world, with the skin peeled back to reveal the magical mechanisms beneath. Some are set in fantasy worlds, where instead it’s the reflections of reality which are hidden.

All contain matters best described as ‘strange’, because to me, strange matters.

This book includes twenty pieces of poetry and fiction (some with mature themes), including:

Kate’s night is interrupted by meeting a mute, half-naked Ethiopian boy, which would be fine if he wasn’t being hunted through the streets of London by hyenas.

When a group of bikers get lost in a forest, they find that they are not alone.

The Firebird
Ekaterina wants to be taken seriously by the men of her village, so she sets out to hunt the greatest prey of all... the legendary Firebird.

A nameless criminal explores his capacity for magic- and empathy- when he’s forced to make unusual acquaintances to escape justice.

It Wants To Eat Me
The diary entries of a teenage girl who finds an unusual and unwelcome intruder in her dreams.

British Gods
Two strange figures watch the violence of the London riots unfold and do what they can to help, as only forgotten gods can.

Having just died, Andy’s not pleased to find himself in the ancient Egyptian afterlife, where the goddess Bastet wants a word with him.

Strange Matters is a journey through many facets of fantasy, all united by a fresh, modern eye for incisive storytelling and magical realism.

May 23, 2015

À propos de l'auteur

What is there to say? I'm Bret Allen and I'm a writer! I have a blog site at www.bretallen.info where I keep my creative writing, copy writing and musings. I'm a journalism graduate and enjoy writing articles and copy as a freelancer, especially when humour can be used, but my forte is creative writing. My favourite genres are fantasy, scifi and supernatural. There's something fascinating about the comparisons drawn between real life and the fantastic; in a contrary fashion, they can be more profound than those drawn by real-life stories. Most of all, I try to put a new spin on those genres, which in many cases have become stiff, old shambling corpses. Stitch on a smart new head, put a little truth in the heart, run a 500 megawatt current of strangeness through them and suddenly... they live again! I've lived most of my life in Shropshire and Staffordshire. I have a few great friends, a myriad of mates, a large and wonderful family, a fur baby and a long suffering partner. I draw most of my inspiration from Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, Tad Williams, Kim Newman, Terry Pratchett, daydreams, nightmares and the magic of the everyday.

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Strange Matters - Bret Allen

Strange Matters

Tales of Fantasy, Myth and Magic

By Bret Allen



Cover art by Charli Vince


Belligerent Madness font by P.D. Magnus



Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2015 Bret Allen

My special thanks to:

Mum, for all your support and everything else.

Becki, for helping and listening and being patient.

My other family and friends and those somewhere in between, for encouraging me and making life interesting.

Basil Reginald Jones, for all the things that I never thanked you for enough. Rest in peace.

These things are sent to try us.

Table of Contents

Strange Matters/Introduction

If Dreams Could Cast Shadows



They Found Him Weeping




The Firebird



The Other Bedroom

Saturday’s Child

It Wants To Eat Me

The Birthday Cake

British Gods



The Saga of Sweetangel



Strange Matters

Monsters are men that beasts cannot be,

Wild are the matters that matter to me.

Myths are mirrors that teach us to see,

True are the matters that matter to me.

Dreams are doorways that just need a key,

Mad are the matters that matter to me.

Stories are spells that set the soul free,

Strange are the matters that matter to me.


I wrote the following stories over several years, though some of the ideas have existed in my head since I was young. Many were written just for my amusement or to share with friends, until I realised that I had several short stories and poems that could be doing much more than just languishing on my hard drive. So, I’ve rewritten them and polished them and disciplined them thoroughly.

Now they stand collected as a portfolio of sorts, varied in tone, subject and style. Some are funny, some are dark, some are both. Some are set in our world, with the skin peeled back to reveal the magical mechanisms beneath. Others are set in fantasy worlds, where instead it’s the reflections of reality which are hidden. Some contain myth, or magic, or monsters.

All contain matters best described as ‘strange’, because to me, strange matters.

If Dreams Could Cast Shadows

A short poem about, in a roundabout way, writing.


Kate’s night is interrupted by meeting a mute, half-naked Ethiopian boy, which would be fine if he wasn’t being hunted through the streets of London by hyenas.

This tale is loosely inspired by elements of the culture and mythology of the Jewish people, notably the Beta Israel. I’ve borrowed from these sources, with considerable artistic licence, because I sorely wanted to tell a story about the buda. ‘Wordsmith’ is not the true face of the culture as a whole; please take a minute to look into the fascinating reality of this community and African folklore in general.


When a group of bikers get lost in a forest, they find that they are not alone.

A story about passing the torch (or should that be ‘torc’). Thanks go to certain biker friends who answered questions about their subculture for me, even when I didn’t ask. The Uragh Stone Circle is real, by the way.

They Found Him Weeping

Ali is probably going to wish he’d taken the bus.

A short and nasty one this, written to a tight word count for a challenge. Partly inspired by a certain brand of rum.


Owyn is plunged into an adventure when his unique city is attacked by dragons that rise from beneath the sea.

I wanted to construct a new fantasy setting that felt like an old fantasy setting. I suspect that some ‘Earthsea’ slipped in. True to classic fantasy, this tale features a city that cannot exist in the mundane world. And dragons trying to eat it.


Fortuna is charged with saving her people from destruction as savage brown rats threaten to drive the black rats from Londinium.

This is my tribute to Watership Down, one of my favourite books, the film of which terrified me as a child. I had the idea of roman rats floating around in my head for years. ‘Rattus’ has a slightly different feel to Watership, but it has similarities too. Talking animals, for instance.


A poem about my favourite animal, the humble hedgehog, seen through my eyes.

The Firebird

Ekaterina wants to be taken seriously by the men of her village, so she sets out to hunt the greatest prey of all… the legendary Firebird.

My attempt at a faery-tale. This draws heavily on characters from Russian/Slavic mythology (which I adore). I immensely enjoyed writing this in a traditional storybook tone of voice, with the help of my partner Becki.


A nameless criminal explores his capacity for magic- and empathy- when he’s forced to make unusual acquaintances to escape justice.

This is actually a prequel to a fantasy novel I started back in my teenage years, which hopefully will escape from my brain one day. Until then, this story portrays a defining moment for the villain of the piece. I’m very fond of this setting.


A short poem that speaks for itself. This went through several variations until the Viking theme fell into place and the words came to life.

The Other Bedroom

A little girl enters a purgatorial dream world when she sleeps, where she has a not-so-imaginary friend.

The short story that started off this whole collection. This is the first of three stories in this book which take place in a setting called ‘Sleepwalkers’, which I initially created as a roleplaying game.

Saturday’s Child

Henri discovers that his afterlife is going to be even more dangerous than his first life, when he meets a predatory and beautiful stranger.

The second story set in the world of ‘Sleepwalkers’. This time we briefly follow the plight of a newly deceased spirit. There’s a cat, too.

It Wants To Eat Me

The diary entries of a teenage girl who finds an unusual and unwelcome intruder in her dreams.

The third story based around ‘Sleepwalkers’, focusing on the principal threat of the setting. I wanted to write something in the form of a diary, so I did.

The Birthday Cake

Lucas’ thirteenth birthday cake is made with plenty of love and more than a hint of magic.

The name of this little piece was inspired by the Neil Gaiman story ‘Babycakes’. The content is decidedly different.

British Gods

Two strange figures watch the violence of the London riots unfold and do what they can to help, as only forgotten gods can.

A humble nod to my favourite author, Neil Gaiman. These ageing culture figures deserve a moment in the spotlight, even if it is in their modern-day, half-forgotten forms. The story was inspired by the 2011 London riots and by a strong love of history and mythology. I used some poetic license with the identities and histories of these figures, but I feel that they remain true.


An ode to a forgotten goddess, or perhaps to an underappreciated condiment.


Having just died, Andy’s not pleased to find himself in the ancient Egyptian afterlife, where the goddess Bastet wants a word with him.

This story was written for my girlfriend as a Christmas present, because she loves cats even more than I do. It was meant to be short and nice, but the other things happened instead.

The Saga of Sweetangel

Detectives Longthorn and Poulter take the case of a missing street urchin, knowing that they must face the reality of the mysterious Sweetangel.

I don’t really have any explanation for this, but I wrote a kind of Victorian-esque fantasy fable in the form of a poem, whilst disregarding most poetic conventions. It uses syllabic verse and some creative rhyming.


A brief poem about sleeping, which is a curious endeavour at best.

If Dreams Could Cast Shadows

If dreams could cast shadows,

What would we see?

Strange silhouettes of things that can't be.

If dreams could tell stories,

What would they say?

Rogue reveries that won’t go away.

If dreams could sing sonnets,

What would we hear?

Fragile figments of all we hold dear.

If dreams could have secrets,

What would they hide?

Terrible truths that rend us inside.


Kate cursed under her breath as the bus she was pursuing pulled away, the driver quite ignorant of her embarrassed half-jog. Yet again, she’d missed the last bus home and would have to trudge through the dark streets of London to the nearest tube station. Pulling her hoody tight, she ignored the bite of the autumn breeze and started walking down the narrow, deserted street. Somewhere in the distance, Big Ben rang out eleven times.

Thoughts of work drifted through her mind. Earlier that day, a colleague had asked her out on a date. She’d politely declined, or tried to. Now she was worried that she might’ve insulted the man or appeared awkward and strange. She had that kind of worry a lot, despite knowing that it was irrational. She’d always struggled with social interaction and anxiety, but found the new world of work particularly daunting. The problem was exacerbated by being a twenty-year-old female programmer younger than most of the men in her department.

To her right was a chain-link fence that brushed against her shoulder as she walked in a daydream of worried self-reflection. Glancing up, she saw that beyond the fence was a little overgrown wasteland, a supermarket trolley graveyard. She wouldn’t have looked twice at the place if not for the sudden groan of sadness.

Kate froze. She knew better than to investigate a strange noise from a shadowy yard, but the voice sounded pained and desperate. She hesitated for a minute. Perhaps someone else would come by. Perhaps she should look for a police officer. Perhaps it was nothing.

Peering through the fence, she spotted a pair of wide eyes in the shadows. After her own eyes had adjusted, she could just make out a black youth with a shaven head, crouched behind a mouldy sofa. He stared at her and she stared back. Kate tried speaking to him, though her voice emerged mousey and timorous.

Um. Are you okay?

She repeated the question after a few seconds of silence, but heard no response. She edged closer to the fence and the youth did the same, creeping out of the shadows.

Look, if you’re okay, I’m going… she tried.

There was no reply. She turned to leave, but the youth’s next shuffling step brought him towards the streetlight. He was crouched and submissive, moving hesitantly, his eyes fearful and round. He was very dark of skin. Despite the cold, he only wore a grey vest and ill-fitting jogging bottoms. His feet were bare.

The true size of the youth became apparent as he came closer. Curling his fingers through the fence, he stood to his full height. She took a step back, realising that he was around six feet tall and had a thick frame. He was clutching at his chest as if it pained him.

Kate was far from comfortable herself. Her hands started to shake so she put them in her pockets. She considered walking away again, but couldn’t do it.

Just answer me. Do you need help?

The youth (she gauged his age at about sixteen, despite his size) nodded vigorously but said nothing, merely opening and closing his mouth dumbly. She noticed that he had a false tooth, a metal incisor that looked large and uncomfortable.

Do you speak English? Can you… talk? she asked, realising that he might be mute.

He slowly choked out a quiet utterance that sounded like ‘I’m Obie’.

Obie? Is that your name?

He frowned and eventually shrugged.

Obie, there’s a gate here. If you come out, I’ll take you to a policeman, said Kate in a reassuring tone (which felt somewhat absurd, given his size).

Obie shook his head and beckoned her to come inside the yard instead. She sighed; that was not going to happen. He beckoned her again, more urgently, pointing at something behind her and rattling the fence.

Kate hesitated, afraid to turn her back on him. Then she heard a staccato clicking, like the sound that dog’s claws make on a hard floor. She turned.

Standing on the other side of the street was a hyena. She blinked, telling herself that it was probably just a big dog, until a second hyena emerged from the shadows. They had sandy-coloured fur with black spots scattered throughout. Coarse, wiry tufts adorned their stocky shoulders, while their heads were topped with large, rounded ears. Their eyes reflected the streetlight, becoming baleful, glowing circles. There was something vicious and mocking in their gaze.

They growled, then charged.

Kate bolted for the gate and fortunately found it unlocked. She pushed through and turned to slam it behind her, but a dark muzzle suddenly wedged into the opening. The burly hyena snapped at her as she tried to push the gate shut, while the other threw itself at the gate with an excited yapping sound. They were surprisingly strong. Kate let out a cry of alarm and turned to Obie.

Help me!

He immediately stepped in. He pushed the intruding hyena away with his foot, then slammed the gate shut quickly. He plucked a short copper pipe from the ground and wedged it into the chain links to keep it closed.

The hyenas prowled the length of the fence, quickly finding a section that stood on softer earth. They began to dig their way under.

What’s going on here?! asked Kate, but Obie could not answer.

He took her hand and began to run, crossing to the shadowy rear of the yard before squeezing into a warren of tight alleyways. She was frightened by his strength, but more so by the yipping and barking behind her.

The pair flew down shadowy alleys that had no names, Kate grazing her hands on rough brickwork as she felt her way in the near-darkness. Soon she and Obie were in a tight tunnel formed by two low walls.

Kate heard a low growl. From the darkness ahead a new hyena slunk into view, blocking the alley. This one had paler fur and longer teeth, perhaps older than the others. She turned to go back, but the two hyenas pursuing them arrived and cut off their retreat.

She and Obie were trapped. He turned to her with sad eyes and took hold of her by the waist. Before she could argue he lifted her, very easily, up onto the wall. She noticed that he had an exotic scent, of spices or herbs; but this was hardly the time to appreciate his smell.

The hyenas attacked as soon as his back was turned, ferociously snatching at his legs. They made the high-pitched yapping sound that people often compared to laughter. Kate understood the comparison; there was something gleeful and derisive about their noises. Obie fought them, swinging his great fists.

Yet another hyena arrived, this one bigger, with a bearlike frame and a thicker mane along its back. It threw itself against Obie, knocking him down. He kicked out with enough power to break a rib (she heard it snap) but hit one of the smaller hyenas; the big one was already too close. Obie seemed to panic, unsure of what to do, powerful but clumsy. She knew that he could free himself if he used his strength properly. He protested meekly as teeth and claws tore at this skin. The spotted predators seemed to be enjoying the sport, not going for a kill.

One of the four braying animals, a particularly handsome specimen, tried to reach Kate on her perch. It scrabbled against the wall, nipping at her feet, howling at her cries of alarm. Something glinted in its ear, some kind of ring.

Kate’s heart pounded and she broke out in a sweat. She considered dropping down the other side of the wall and running for help, but couldn’t face the thought of leaving the selfless youth below her to a savage fate. Instead she climbed up to a higher perch on the corrugated roof of a shed, out of reach of her attacker. It kept harassing her anyway, trying to climb the wall. Hoping that she could calm him down, she called to Obie over the sound of bestial laughter.

Obie, listen to me! Don’t panic. You’re strong, get your hands up and protect yourself. Blind the damn thing!

She wasn’t sure that he’d heard her at first, but then he slid his hands between himself and the hyena and began to push it away. The animal let out a disgruntled bark. Obie started hitting it on the side of its head.

The hyena surprised Kate with its tenacity, refusing to flee, taking the blows on its thick skull. It tried to rake him with its claws, but Obie paid it back in kind, his fingernails scoring across its eye with devastating effect. With a furious growl, the big hyena leapt off the youth.

Obie gave a strangled cry of victory, his voice still somewhat muted.

That’s it! shouted Kate.

Her happiness was short-lived. The other hyenas moved to help the big one. They began pulling at Obie’s legs in a worryingly organised fashion. They locked their jaws on his ankles, keeping him flat on his back. The big one attacked anew.

Get your arm up! she shrieked.

When the hyena sank its teeth into Obie’s forearm she gasped in sympathy, though he hardly seemed to feel it. Better his arm than his throat, she reasoned. The two hyenas worrying his ankles began to back up, dragging him with them for some horrific purpose.

Obie, don’t let them hold you! Break free!

Obie complied, thrusting his free hand at the hyena’s snout and pushing its head back until his arm was free of its jaws. It lunged for him again but he caught it by the throat. With both hands free he was able to lift the hyena, displaying amazing strength. He threw it at the brick wall, where it collided with a yelp and a thud.

Obie then started punching at the animals that had his feet. The hyena that was trying to reach Kate left her to seize him from behind. Fear kept her frozen to her safe perch; she wanted to help him but simply couldn’t move. Fortunately, Obie heard her gasp and turned in time to swat the creature away before it could attack his unprotected back. He soon freed his legs and was able to kick out at the others.

The hyenas seemed to decide that this was not their fight. They backed away, surrounding the big one whose eye was a bloody pit. When a car horn sounded somewhere nearby, they bolted. Kate watched them go, especially the big one. She expected it to challenge them again, but it didn’t. Instead it was one of the smaller hyenas that lingered, the one who appeared older.

The old male looked directly at her for a moment, the streetlight gleaming in its evil eyes, creating pale yellow orbs like bad moons. A shiver ran through her and her throat went dry. There was something in that look that was simply not natural for an animal. Malice.

Feeling suddenly ill, which she attributed to adrenaline and shock, she shakily climbed down from the shed. Obie helped her, though his hands, face and arms were covered with scratches and bites. Kate noticed then that he had a wound in his chest, too; a straight, vertical furrow with tight stitching that started at his collarbone and disappeared under his vest.

Obie looked at her with childlike sadness, gingerly touching his cuts, seeking her guidance. She took a step back, wondering exactly what she was dealing with. She noticed that he wasn’t bleeding as much as she expected. He should’ve been covered in blood, but instead the dark liquid ran in thick, slow droplets.

Now that her adrenaline was ebbing away, the strangeness of the situation was hitting home. Her hands were shaking again from a cocktail of fears.

Look, I don’t know what happened here, but I can’t help you, said Kate. That was horrible. What are hyenas doing in London?!

Obie tried to answer her, but nothing came out; she suspected that he was physically unable to speak, even though he understood her language well enough. Pity and guilt rushed back into her heart and she sighed as the giant youth leant against the wall, utterly miserable. She knew that if he hadn’t put her safety first, it would be her covered in bloody gashes (and not taking it half as well).

All I can do is take you to a doctor, she offered.

Obie shook his head.

Okay… well, is there somewhere you’d be safe? she tried.

Obie frowned, then nodded.

Do you know how to get there?

The youth paused for a moment before nodding again.

Then you lead the way, Obie. Once we’re safe indoors I’ll make some calls for you, try to figure something out...

Obie held out his hand. Kate hesitantly took it. His grip was gentle despite his hand being twice the size of hers. She resigned herself to his guidance, trying to make sense of the bizarre attack and longing to be back in her warm apartment.


Kate and Obie avoided the streets for a while, in case a passer-by inquired about Obie’s condition and she couldn’t give a satisfactory answer. Eventually they emerged at a crossroad. Kate had no idea where she was, except that she was far from both her home and office. She saw a lot of tightly clustered flats and run-down shops, some of which had signage in a curving, exotic script that meant nothing to her.

Obie became more confident as he reached what seemed to be familiar ground. The streets were quiet, only the occasional car passing. If anyone thought that the sight of a barely-dressed black youth and a petite white woman was strange, they did nothing about it.

Kate realised that this area was populated by immigrants. There were many such communities dotted around London, of varying cultures and races, from Chinese to Middle Eastern. Families lived near to each other, attracting people with similar customs and faiths. Whatever kind of people had settled here, it seemed that Obie counted himself among them.

Guessing that she was in a Muslim neighbourhood, Kate was surprised when they rounded a corner and stopped at a building with a great Star of David on the wall. This building was cleaner and better maintained than its neighbours, though it appeared to be little more than a renovated office.

Obie led her to the door and knocked quietly. She waited nervously, wondering why he’d come to a synagogue.

The door opened to reveal a small, dark-skinned man, perhaps in his forties. He was round-faced and had short hair and a short beard, both of which were thick, curly and black. He wore a simple white robe juxtaposed with cheap urban sneakers. He also wore a kind of white turban, wound thickly in a neat cylinder, with a flat top.

What is the matter? It is almost midnight, said the priest.

His mode of speech was clearly African, but living in London had dulled his accent somewhat. Kate’s breath began to catch; she hated talking to people, especially strangers. The absurdity of the situation made it all the more embarrassing. She didn’t know where to begin.

I… I’m sorry, she tried.

Speak up girl, I cannot hear you.

She swallowed nervously and bit back her frustration.

My friend needs help. He seemed to think that he should come here.

The priest peered at Kate and Obie down his nose, frowning.

I see. Does the big fellow not speak for himself?

Obie shook his head sadly and simply muttered something like ‘I Obie’ again, which gave both Kate and the priest pause.

Hmm… come inside, quickly now, said the priest reluctantly.

Kate hesitantly followed behind Obie, wary of the situation and getting tired. She was cold and hungry from a long day at work and the fight with the hyenas was taking its toll on her energy.

The synagogue was clean, well-lit and perfumed with some kind of incense that she didn’t recognise. The furniture was in slight disarray and gave the appearance that the priest was tidying up after a busy service or preparing for another. Placed throughout were the usual Jewish trappings that she expected to see, like the nine-branched candle holders.

There were also more unusual artefacts of an African nature and posters written in the curving script she’d seen outside. A large and ornate spiral horn was displayed prominently, though she couldn't guess whether that was usual or not. The far end of the room was dominated by a grand wooden cabinet covered by a thick cloth, which she guessed contained the temple’s valuables.

I am the kahen, Tegegne Tesfa, said their host. When he saw Kate’s blank expression, he added: This means ‘priest’. You may call me simply ‘Tegegne’.

Um. Right, well, I’m Kate, she replied awkwardly. He’s called Obie. I think.

Tegegne raised an eyebrow and looked closely at Obie, who shrugged and shook his head again.

No? Is that not your name? What has happened… you have been beaten up, cut? he asked.

The man began to fuss over Obie, inspecting his many scrapes and cuts. He peered at the stitches, but didn’t try to lift his vest to inspect further. He even took a look at Obie’s metal tooth. Thanks to the light, Kate could now see that it was engraved with something, so she guessed that he had a fairly well-off family somewhere.

The kahen muttered supplications to God as he went, as if warding off some evil spirit. He tried to help Obie into a chair and almost fell over as he took the youth’s weight.

My, but you are heavy! And your injuries are strange. They bleed little, but have not scabbed properly. Are you ill? Perhaps diabetic?

I... began Obie, before dumbly shaking his head.

I don’t think he can talk properly, said Kate. I only just met him earlier. We were attacked… by… dogs.

That is very unusual, replied Tegegne with a suspicious tone. Well, first things first; what is your name, young man?

Obie looked at them both with his round, sad eyes and said simply:

I obey.

He repeated the phrase again before Kate fully understood; those were the only two words he could speak! He’d never told her his name at all. She’s just misheard him.

There was something frightfully tragic about the revelation. She’d heard horror stories about immigrants being kept as domestic slaves, even in modern cities like London; this was starting to look like such a case. She laid her hand on his shoulder. He seemed vulnerable and childlike despite his broad chest and pronounced physique.

I’m so sorry, I didn’t understand earlier. I thought that was your name. But can’t you tell us your real name?

The youth shook his head. The kahen shared a concerned glance with Kate and sighed.

You do not have to tell us, though if you are in trouble with the police, I can only help if you let me. Do you live locally? Are you Ethiopian? If you cannot speak English, maybe you speak Amharic?

The youth nodded, hesitated and then shook his head. He thought for a moment, then pointed to his mouth and wagged his finger, indicating ‘no speech’. Then, he mimed writing on his hand.

You can write Amharic? I thought you must. I noticed the word ‘Amlak’ inscribed on your false tooth. Very fashionable, I have no doubt, though you should know that it is bad to use the name of God frivolously.

The youth simply frowned and closed his mouth tightly. Tegegne directed Kate to a side room where she found a pen and paper. The kahen filled a bowl with water and began cleaning the young man’s cuts. Kate politely refused his help regarding her own.

Forgive the state of my synagogue, he said as he worked. I closed the doors but a short while ago, after the opening services of Astasreyo. Yom Kippur, I should say.

I didn’t know, sorry. I just wanted to help him.

Not at all, I shall do my best to help you both. Services do not start again until morning. Did you say that this was a dog attack?

Kate merely nodded, doubting that the kahen would believe her. Her companion also remained silent but busily drew on his paper, though it seemed to be a big effort. His brow was creased and his hands were clumsy.

Tegegne leaned over the youth- who was still ‘Obie’ in Kate’s mind- and read what he was writing. The letters were in that same bold, curving script that she kept seeing.

Yes, this is the Amharic language. It is used by my community, the Beta Israel, who you might call ‘Ethiopian Jews’.

I didn’t know there were Ethiopian Jews, admitted Kate. You don’t normally…

See us on television or in your movies? No. All Ethiopians are Haile Selassie. All Jews are Woody Allen. Oy vey, he replied with a sardonic smile that warmed her to him immediately.

What’s he writing?

Ah… it is written strangely, but this is ‘djibb’. It means ‘wolf’, or ‘hyena’. My friend, did you mean ‘dog’?

Kate shuffled nervously and bit her lip. She was feeling tired again. Despite the comfort of the synagogue, she still felt cold and unrested. Her stomach rumbled, though she was a little nauseous. On top of it all, she had a headache. She took a deep breath and-

A knock at the door caught everyone’s attention. The kahen excused himself and went to answer it.

While Tegegne spoke to his visitors, Kate took the opportunity to pull her chair closer to Obie. She found that she felt comfortable talking to him, perhaps because he didn’t talk back. It was a pleasant change for her and a distraction from the gnawing headache.

Are you sure you’re happy to stay here?

He nodded with a smile, though his eyes betrayed his unhappiness. She could only guess what had happened to him, or what had been done to him.

Um. Would it be really weird if I still called you Obie? she asked, letting out a little nervous laugh.

He frowned and made a slightly strangled attempt at speech… which spontaneously turned into a chuckle. The reaction made Kate laugh harder and soon they were laughing together, Obie with a deep African timbre. He nodded his consent and casually placed a hand on her knee. She didn’t move it, but reflexively drew herself away when she heard approaching footsteps.

Tegegne returned with two men, both dark-skinned and wearing the same white robes. One was older, perhaps in his sixties, wearing a curious necklace of beads and bones. He had short, curly white hair and a white beard. His face was heavily lined and though his back was stooped, his poise was imposing. The other newcomer was in his thirties, a lean man with a handsome face and playful eyes. He sported a row of hoop earrings. He stared at Kate as they approached, but it was the older man who spoke first.

Tazäzä! Come here now and be calm. What trouble have you caused, Shai?! Leave these kind people alone and behave yourself!

Father, there’s no need to be angry, interrupted the younger man. Shai, don’t be afraid. You had us all very worried.

Kate glanced at Obie, or Shai, who initially appeared scared by the new arrivals, then looked into her eyes with an expression she could never hope to name. He gripped her arm for a moment, then his hand fell away. Dejectedly he moved to his father’s side, his eyes staring downwards.

The old man quickly appraised Obie before casting a glance at Kate, his eyes surprisingly steely and unmoved. Tegegne made a worried sound and interrupted the moment.

Debtera Tewolde…

Ah, Kahen Tesfa. Please, let us be informal. You may call me Biruk. This is my son, Zalelew.

Indeed, pleased to meet you. I must apologise; I did not realise that the boy… Shai… was one of your sons, replied the kahen.

Kate began to detect an uncomfortable relationship between the old man Biruk and the priest Tegegne. However, she was distracted by Zalelew’s persistent gaze. He seemed more interested in her than the safety of his brother.

Yes, Father, said Zalelew. When will you stop having so many sons and gift us with a beautiful sister, like Shai’s friend here? asked the handsome man with a sharp laugh at his own wit. Thank you for looking after him…?

Kate, she replied quietly. Is he okay? He wouldn’t speak…

Alas, interrupted Biruk, my boy is stricken by dumbness. Forgive the trouble he has caused. He is a sensitive boy and given to troubles of the mind. Still, we must overcome whatever trials God sends to us.

I am sorry to hear that, said Tegegne. I looked for your family at the Astasreyo Eve service…

We prefer a quiet ceremony at home, thank you for your concern. Speaking of which, I should get Shai home, to rest before the Day of Atonement. I thank you both for your help.

Biruk and Zalelew began steering Obie out of the synagogue. Kate was struggling to follow the conversation, but she had a bad feeling. She wondered if Obie had run away from these people. She hesitated, not knowing what to say or how to assert herself. She began to get flustered at her own inaction but that only made it worse; she felt like everyone was noticing her awkwardness and judging it. The headache made arranging her thoughts even more difficult. Her hands began to shake.

I am happy to help, said Tegegne. Though, I think that your boy needs to go to hospital. He has a lot of cuts. They were attacked by dogs, it seems.

Zalelew spontaneously laughed at the comment, quite loudly, stifling himself with his hand. Biruk chided him, though a chuckle escaped his lips too.

Perhaps he wandered into someone’s yard. We protect our garage with guard dogs… many places do the same. All is well that ends well. Do not worry, Tegegne Tesfa.

But what- began Kate.

You have done enough, snapped Biruk.

He fixed his gaze on her and immediately all of her nausea and discomfort worsened. The pain in her head became more acute. His eyes were more than steely; they shone with an inner fire, as if his mind was a hot forge that branded his will onto the world.

Do not concern yourself, he commanded with words like iron, hard and permanent. You can come and visit us one day. A sister for my boys to play with.

With that, Biruk led the compliant Obie from the temple. Kate barely had a chance to say goodbye and the boy didn’t return her wave, but merely nodded. Zalelew followed close behind them, after leering at her again and laughing in his sharp, high-pitched way.

Kate knew that something was wrong and wanted to challenge them, to follow them, but she was rooted to the spot. There was an incontrovertible authority to the old man; she felt no more able to disobey him than she could her mother after a scolding. She just stared dumbly, feeling entirely out of sorts.

Well, lucky for us that his family came for him. All is well that ends well, said Tegegne.

He seemed satisfied with the situation, but his tone suggested that he was trying to convince himself. Kate nodded agreement. It was late and she was cold and unhappy and wanted to go home. She was working again tomorrow. Obie, or Shai, was safe. Her earlier concern slipped from her mind.

Obviously, some big dogs had gotten loose from someone’s yard, but nobody had been seriously hurt. She’d done a good deed, so it was time to go home and forget about all this. With a yawn, she turned to check if she’d left anything behind. Tegegne was tidying away the bowl of water and muttering to himself.

Sitting on a chair was the paper that Obie had been writing on. Kate picked it up and found that he’d written more words in Amharic.

Tegegne, what does this say? she asked half-heartedly.

Hmm? Let me see, he replied before inspecting the paper for a while. This is strange...


This is written in the holy script of my faith… the Beta Israel branch of Judaism. Earlier, I noticed there was something odd about his spelling of the word ‘djibb’. This, too… at first glance it looks like Amharic, as they are closely related. It is not. It is Ge’ez.

Is that bad?

Just surprising. Ge’ez is not widely taught. It is an old language used in ceremonies, or studies of the Orit texts. It is… unexpected… for that boy to know it. It would be like you knowing Latin.

Okay… I don’t like this at all, said Kate.

Neither do I. Something is wrong, muttered Tegegne.

The two shared a look of concern. Kate felt a fog lifting from her mind, like she was emerging from hypnosis. She quickly became angry, mostly at herself for allowing Obie to be taken away when something was clearly amiss.

Something is very wrong! What was with the ‘I obey’ thing? I don’t know if he has a mental illness or they’ve got him brainwashed, but I should never have-

Calm down, please. I do not know what is wrong with him, but I agree that he is troubled, admitted the kahen with a sigh. Listen to what he wrote: ‘Wolves come to take me to atonement’.

Kate shivered and shook her head.

Not wolves. Hyenas.


Kate found herself walking quickly through the dark streets of London once more, bitten by the cold air of the early hours. This time she was joined by the strange but affable priest Tegegne. Yesterday she hadn’t even known that Ethiopian Jews or ‘Beta Israel’ existed, nor that any lived in London. She’d certainly never dreamed that she’d be hoping to rescue one from some kind of slavery or abuse.

Convincing the kahen to help her had taken a little time, but he’d finally agreed to go with her. She couldn’t help but feel a sense of urgency. Tegegne seemed to feel it too, increasingly so as time went on. He stared ahead, deep in thought about something.

Kate had told Tegegne about her strange headache, nausea and confusion. After some deliberation he had given her a trinket; a silver hamsa charm on a necklace. It looked like a symmetrical open hand, with an eye in the palm. She’d refused it at first (it

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