Midwinter Alchemy

by London Lampy

Part 3

The fire was burning brightly now because of the pile of paper that had been added to it and Dawn watched as every single one of her precious letters from Sam turned to ashes. Her face was wet with tears but she made no move to wipe them away, in fact she didn't move at all. She'd been rendered still and silent by her husband burning the letters, and the knowledge that this was only the start of him punishing her for her deception.

Mack had shouted, he had slapped her face until she tasted blood then demanded she hand over every single one of Sam's letters so that he could destroy them. It felt like a repeat of that horrific day when her husband had caught Sam with the dairy hand and had beaten him with the buckle end of his belt until the boy's back was raw and blooded. She had thought she'd lost her son for good when he ran away after the beating, then a month or so later a tall stranger appeared in the village and offered her a tiny seed of hope, a short letter from Sam telling her he was alive and well. This time she knew there'd be no stranger and no hope. The letters were gone and Mack would do everything in his power to stop her from ever receiving another one. In fact she very much doubted that her husband would even let her out of the house alone again for a long time to come, he had already told her that he planned on locking her in when he went out to the farm in the morning.

The clock chimed midnight, it was now the day before Midwinter's eve. In years past she had spent this day cooking, preparing dishes to bring to the village hall where on Midwinter's day all the villagers gathered to celebrate the shortest day of the year. There would be none of that this year, by the morning her face would be covered in tell tale bruises and even if Mack had confined his blows to her body she would have found it impossible to be part of the cheery celebrations. Her children were gone and she was left alone with an angry, violent controlling man. Dawn felt utterly desolate, it was as if everything she loved had been taken and she might as well be the letter's ashes in the fire, blackening and crumbling away to nothing.

In The Empress' candlelit auditorium a lot of things suddenly happened at once. Fudge screamed an eardrum bustlingly loud scream and threw herself at Earnest, causing the pair of them to slide down the steep steps then come to a halt in a tangled heap at the bottom. Sam and Ed both leapt to their feet simultaneously and begun to run through the rows of seats away from the looming shape, Ed swearing loudly as he caught his leg on a seat arm in the darkness. Lady Zerelda let go of Fran's hand and raised both of her arms to protect her head from whatever it was that was bearing down on them from the back wall, and strangest of all Mulligan began to laugh very hard.

Fran couldn't decide whether to run like the boys, attempt to find out if his niece and her boyfriend had been hurt in their skid down the steps or ask Mulligan just what the hell was funny, but he didn't get a chance to make a decision. The dark shape swooped over his head low enough for him to feel a rush of air, then landed nimbly on the seats behind him and he realised why the magician was so amused. Fran looked at the shape, the shape looked back at him, then it spoke. "Hello dirty sinner," it said.

"Bob!" Fran exclaimed, feeling hysterical laughter bubbling up inside him. "Fucking hell, it's Bob!"

"Hello," Bob replied, living up to his name by repeatedly bobbing his head, then he hopped down onto the floor between the seats and started pecking at a peanut that had been dropped there.

"Frannie," Mulligan said, barely able to stop himself from laughing. "You don't have ghost in your theatre, you have a parrot."

The others, now realising that that terrifying screeching shape was nothing more than Bob the parrot returned to where Fran was, all of them looking a little sheepish although Fran was pleased to note that Fudge and Earnest appeared unhurt. Lady Zerelda seemed to have snapped out of her trance and was staring in open mouthed astonishment at the large scarlet bird foraging around on the floor.

"What the bloody hell is Bob doing in here?" Ed voiced what everyone was thinking.

"I think I can answer that, up to a point," Mulligan replied, picking up one of the lanterns and taking to the back wall where Bob had emerged from. At the top of the wall, just before it joined the celling was a rectangular opening big enough for a parrot to get through and Mulligan held the lantern up and pointed to it. "He came through the air duct, most probably to look for peanuts. His claws on the metal duct were the source of the scratching sounds. I'd bet good money that he's been wandering around inside the ventilation system for a few weeks now, coming and going through the theatre as he pleases, chatting to himself and stealing peanuts."

"Gods!" Fran shook his head. "We took most of the grills off years ago because when the air system is running it makes them rattle. I never thought that the grills really did anything anyway, but obviously I was wrong, they keep parrots out." He started to giggle, feeling rather giddy and light headed.

"All right, that's what was making the noise, and how it got in here, but why is Bob in here?" Sam asked, watching the parrot waddle off among the seats. "Doesn't he live with Teddy?"

"I think I can answer that one too," Mulligan sounded very smug. "Can you still smell pipe smoke?"

Sam sniffed the air. "Yes, I can."

"And does Teddy smoke a pipe?"

"Sometimes, yes," Fran replied, suddenly seeing where Mulligan was going.

"And where does all the duct work ultimately lead to?"

"Up there," Fran pointed to the highest point of the auditorium's celling that was all but invisible in the candlelight. "There's a kind of loft above that bit where ventilation system starts."

"I very much suspect if we make a quick trip into that loft every part of our ghostly mystery will be solved," Mulligan said.

"I'll still need paying, you've taken up several hours of my time," Lady Zerelda's voice wasn't quite as strident as it had been at the start of the night.

Fran heard Mulligan draw breath to speak so before the magician could say anything to insult her he quickly pulled his wallet out of his pocket, removed a couple of notes and thrust them at her. "That should cover everything," he said, watching as she inspected the money. It was actually slightly more than he owed her but he wanted her out of the building quickly now the ghost had been revealed to be nothing more than Bob.

Fudge and Earnest showed the woman out and once the lights were back on Fran took Mulligan up to the small doorway that led to the loft space, leaving Bob in the auditorium pecking about happily as neither of them had fancied attempting to catch the parrot. As they climbed the wooden ladder into the roof the smell of pipe smoke grew even stronger. Once they reached the top of the ladder all they had to do was follow a set of fresh tracks that led through the dust on the roughly boarded floor until they found a small alcove that had been set up with a cot bed and a few basic necessities, including Bob's cage. Sitting on the bed with a smouldering pipe in his hand was Teddy, the aging fly man, regarding the pair of them with a guilty expression on his face.

"Fran, I can explain," he said as they approached him.

"Are you living up here?" Fran frowned.

"It's only temporary until I find a new place, you see I got kicked out of my old one for not paying my rent."

"Surely I pay you enough to live on?" Fran hastily ran through the wage bill in his head, he was certain that Teddy was one of his best paid employees.

"Yeah, you do, more than enough normally," Teddy ran a hand over his bald head. He had a deep crater in one side of it that had apparently been caused by a sail's spar being dropped on it from a great height back in his pirate days. "It's just my girl, she lives over on the East Island with the grandkids and her husband run out on her, that bastard was never good enough for her. He had debts and the bailiffs came in and took everything, left them without a pot to piss in. She wrote to me to ask for help so I sent her all I could, but that left me a bit short you see," he shrugged helplessly. "I've nearly saved enough for a deposit on a new place now, I should be out of here in a week of so's time."

"For the god's sake Teddy!" Fran exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me? I could have given you an advance on your wages or something."

"Don't want charity," the man mumbled.

"It wouldn't be charity," Fran sighed. "Well, you can't stay here, and neither can Bob, he's caused enough chaos. You shouldn't have let him wander about in the air ducts, he's been getting all over the place and scaring the ushers, they thought he was a ghost."

"I know, but he likes it down there," Teddy said defensively, "and it gives him a good bit of exercise too and I always get him back in his cage before the show."

"Get him back in his cage now, he's in the upper circle, and then the pair of you are coming home with us and staying until you've found somewhere proper to live."

"But…" Teddy started.

"No arguments, you're coming with us or I'll fire you. It's late and I'm tired and I want to go home."

Getting Bob back into his cage was easier said than done, especially when the floor of the auditorium was covered in tasty treats. Fran found himself wondering if Teddy had been entirely truthful about getting the parrot into his cage before the nightly shows.

Having sent all the others home ahead of them Fran waited with Mulligan on the steps where only a short time earlier Lady Zerelda had been trying to make contact with Meggie when Bob had put in his unexpected appearance. There were still small piles of salt on the floor, the gods only knew what the cleaners would make of those in the morning.

"See, that woman was nothing but a fraud," Mulligan said, putting his hands into his coat pockets to find his gloves. "All that crap about knowing there was a spirit in here, just lies to part you from your money."

"I never though any differently, you know that, the whole thing was only ever for show," Fran said, pulling up his coat collar and shivering. "Is it me or is it getting really cold in here?"

"The heating's been off for a few hours now and it's snowing outside, of course it's cold," Mulligan replied as Fran searched in vain for his own gloves then had to resort to rubbing his hands together briskly when he didn't find them.

Fran watched as Teddy lunged for Bob, who was now perched on a seat back, only to have the parrot nimbly flap away from him and land on another seat back a few yards further down.

"I know, but it's really cold, look," Fran breathed out, showing Mulligan that his breath was now condensing in the air. "I'm sure it shouldn't be this cold in here."

"It's winter," Mulligan shrugged.

"I guess." The scent of pipe smoke had been hanging in the air since they'd all first smelt it, but to Fran it seemed to be growing stronger once more. He looked at Teddy, the man hadn't lit up again he was much too busy stalking Bob, but it was so thick now Fran almost wanted to cough. "Can you smell that?" he asked.

"Yes, pipe smoke, probably still coming out of the ducts."

"It seems closer than that, and it's not Teddy," Fran frowned, looking around to try to see the source of the smoke.

"Smells linger," the magician tightened his scarf.

Although Fran couldn't say what it was, something suddenly drew his eye to a certain spot amongst the seats. The air there somehow looked different, it reminded him of the kind shimmering heat haze that sometimes rose off the roads in high summer, but it was a very long way from hot in The Empress' auditorium, in fact Fran wasn't sure he'd ever felt quite so cold indoors before. He tried to speak, to ask Mulligan if he could see it too, but he found he couldn't, it was as if he'd been struck dumb and all he could do was watch as the shimmering air seemed to thicken and fold in on itself until it formed the contours of a person. As it folded colours appeared too, until Fran was no longer looking at an empty seat but an elderly woman with a face like a wrinkled apple. She had a funny little knitted black cap placed on the top of her white hair, was wrapped in a voluminous dark blue overcoat with silver buttons that had seen better days and was holding a smoke blackened briar pipe by the bowl in one hand. It was Meggie, looking exactly as she had done on the day she'd died. She turned her head, regarded Fran with bright eyes, gave him a small nod of the head as if acknowledging his presence, then suddenly she wasn't there any longer.

The whole thing only took a few seconds but by the time she'd vanished Fran's heart was beating as if he'd been running for his life. "Did…did you see that?" he asked breathlessly, finally able to speak again.

"I saw absolutely nothing," Mulligan said flatly, staring straight ahead. Fran might have believed him if his normally olive skin hadn't turned the colour of ash. "Teddy," the magician called out loudly, striding toward where the man was still trying to catch the errant bird. "Come on man, we need to get out of here, I'll help you with Bob."

Snow had been falling all night and unusually for Parnell had settled, making the city look almost pretty. Sam hadn't been up early enough to see the city's streets before the traffic and people's feet had reduced the fall to mucky slush underfoot. However he had helped Fudge to build a snowman in the yard, crowning its head with an overly fancy bright pink hat that Ava had bought for her daughter on one of her infrequent visits.

The addition of Teddy to the household had caused the morning bathroom queue to be even longer and Sam had opted for sharing a shower with Ed. Not that there was any hardship in doing this but they'd both had to confine themselves to a bit of light petting as they wanted to save all their energies for their visit to Victor. Now it was time to set out for the walk to the painter's home and Sam and Ed were in the hallway pulling on their coats when the letterbox rattled and the second post of the day dropped onto the mat. Sam picked up the letters and rifled through them eagerly, but the one he was hoping to find wasn't there and he placed them on the side table with a sigh.

"There'll be another delivery tomorrow, and it might have got held up in the snow," Ed said, wrapping an arm around Sam's shoulder.

"I know," Sam agreed, but he couldn't help feeling a pang of disappointment. At this time of year he missed his mother more than ever, and he'd been hoping to get a letter from her wishing him a happy Midwinter.

The citizens of Parnell, being unused to snow, were all uniformly grumbling to one another about the sheer inconvenience of the situation out on the streets. They seemed to Sam to be almost personally offended by the weather. "Gods, you'd think there were ten foot drifts the way everyone's carry on," Sam muttered to Ed after seeing a female visk, swaddled up in layers of woollen robes against the cold, put her foot into a heap of greying slush them scream loudly when the icy substance sloshed over the top of her boots. "Back in Dovedale this would have been nothing."

"Surely you've lived here long enough to know that grumbling about things, especially the weather, is a Parnellians favourite pastime?" Ed said as he hopped over a pile of frozen horse dung.

Sam laughed, Ed was right. Whatever time of year it was he always heard someone complaining that it was too dry or too windy or too hot or too wet. Considering the fact that most people in Parnell had pretty easy lives compared to country dwellers, with fresh water piped into their houses and electricity to heat and light them, they really did like to grumble about their lot.

When the pair of them entered Victor's combined studio and flat they found the place pleasantly warm. It seemed that the painter had ripped down the board that covered his fireplace and had managed to get a blaze going in the grate.

"Isn't that illegal?" Ed asked, pointing at the fire as he removed his snow sodden boots.

"Very much so," Victor grinned, throwing what looked to Sam like a chair leg onto the blaze. "It contravenes the clean air act to have an open fire, but I couldn't have the two of you come over and the place be freezing cold, that wouldn't be conducive to you taking your clothes off." He looked Sam up and down, making Sam's cheeks pink a little.

"Aren't your radiators working?" Sam asked, going over to one and touching it, it was stone cold.

"Oh, they work fine, but the boiler eats electricity, and electricity eats money, and that I don't have to spare at the moment," Victor replied cheerfully. "Mostly when it gets really cold I just wear extra clothes and think warm thoughts, but that wouldn't do for today so I decided to try to build a fire, and I think it's worked rather well." Victor picked up another piece of wood from an odd looking pile of kindling on the floor and threw it onto the fire.

"What are you burning?" Sam asked, peering at the pile. It looked nothing like the split logs they'd used as fuel in the cold months back on the farm, it more resembled a heap of splintered furniture.

"Ah, well, downstairs from me used to be the offices of a small firm dedicated to importing unusual delicacies from Kipp al Reah. Unfortunately they very much overestimated the good folks of this city's desire for hot spice and unusual meats and they went bankrupt a few months back. They disappeared overnight, but fortunately for us they left all their office furniture behind." Victor indicated the pile with a flourish.

"So you stole their furniture to use for firewood?" Ed laughed, going to stand beside Victor who put an arm around his waist and a hand on his behind.

Sam didn't think this was funny though, it was almost Midwinter and Victor was alone in a cold building that he couldn't afford to heat without resorting to law breaking. "What are you doing for Midwinter?" Sam asked as casually as he could.

"Trying to get that finished," Victor pointed to a half finished canvas depicting a naked dark skinned young man reclining on a white sheet.

"You're not going to see your family?"

"Are you fucking joking?" Victor kissed Ed's ear. "Spend the day listing to them tell me how I can still keep painting my "little pictures" in my spare time if I come back to the family firm, no thank you."

"But you can't spend it here, alone in the cold," Sam protested. "Why don't you come to Fran's for the day? I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"He might, he doesn't really approve of me, or of me spending time with the two of you." Victor kissed Ed on the mouth as if to emphasise his point.

"No, he's sort of got over that," Sam shook his head. He wasn't entirely sure Fran had, but it'd been a long time since Fran had last told Sam that in his opinion Victor was taking advantage of him, and that was close enough.

"Do you really think he wouldn't mind?" Victor asked, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"No, I really don't think he would," Sam asserted, hoping that he was right.

It had been a long time since Sam had last properly kissed Victor and he was enjoying the sensation of the painter's tongue in his mouth very much. The fact that both of them were naked and on Victor's bed together didn't hurt either. Ed, having just removed the last of his clothes, came to join them and he lay behind Sam, pressing his body against the length of Sam's while kissing his shoulders and neck. Sam could feel Ed's arousal hard against his ass and he moved his hips to rub against both him and Victor at the same time. Ed responded in kind and Victor stretched his arm around Sam to stroke Ed's side.

"Do you think we should be really nice Sam?" Victor stopped kissing him to ask Ed.

"I don't know, does he deserve it?" Ed teased.

"Yes, and what?" Sam questioned. He wasn't sure what they were talking about be he was always up for trying something new with the two of them, especially if it was something Victor thought he'd really enjoy.

"Do you feel like being a sandwich filling?" Victor quizzed against his mouth.

"Gods yes." Sam certainly didn't need to be asked that twice.

"I thought you were going to say you'd spank him," Ed said, starting to push a finger into Sam's entrance. "He's been going on and on about how he wants you to do that to him again, he says it's not the same when I do it, that I don't have the right technique."

"Is that so?"

"Kind of, yeah," Sam admitted. It wasn't that Ed was bad, he just wasn't Victor and that was really the problem. Ed simply didn't enjoy spanking Sam as much as Victor did, he was constantly worried about hurting him, whereas Victor loved doing it and seemed to instinctively know how far to go without it tipping over into just being unpleasantly painful.

Sam quickly found himself lying across Victor's lap as Victor gave Ed an instructional tuition on how to spank him. "He really does like a bit of pain," Victor said, bringing his hand down on Sam's bare behind with a crack. "Do it like that."

Ed repeated Victor's motion and Sam squirmed as his body was filled with an exquisite mixture of pleasure and pain.

"Was that right?" Ed asked Victor.

"Ask him."

"Sam, was that right?"

"Do it again to make sure," Sam replied.

"Sam!" Victor swatted him on his behind, "Behave, tell Ed if that was right or not."

"Mmm, it was right." But it still wasn't as good as Victor doing it, just because he was Victor, not that he was going to tell Ed that.

"How about one if you puts their fingers inside me and the other one spanks me?" Sam suggested, enjoying all the attention his body was getting from the pair of them.

"Bad little sluts don't get to be in charge," Victor said, emphasising each word with a slap and sounding very amused. "But as that's actually quite a good idea, maybe just this once."

After a few moments Sam felt slippery fingers pushing inside him and he looked back over his shoulder to see Ed fingering him. Victor commenced spanking him again and Sam was pretty much lost to pleasure between the two sensations. "Oh gods," he groaned as Ed rubbed him internally while Victor brought his hand down again

"Am I in danger of getting a wet lap?" Victor asked. "Do I need to put a strap on you?"

"No," Sam said quickly, although he wasn't quite sure that he wasn't about to come all over Victor's legs.

"Even so, I think it's time we moved this on," Victor gave Sam's stinging ass a squeeze.

"Oh," Sam muttered in disappointment.

"Have you forgotten that we're going to turn you into a sandwich filling?" the painter asked.

"Yeah, kind of," Sam perked up at this, "I don't suppose there's any way I can be a sandwich filling and get spanked at the same time is there?"

"Not easily, not unless we got another person involved," Victor laughed, "but perhaps we can find something to help you indulge your love of pain at the same time."

The nipple clamps were almost as good as being spanked, Sam had to concede. He'd always enjoyed it when Victor used them on him, and today was no exception. Victor arranged Ed on his front on the bed, propping pillows up underneath him to raise his hips and make him comfortable. Sam looked down at Ed spread out for him, he looked absolutely gorgeous. His body was taut and athletic from all the cycling he did and Sam really liked the strong looking muscles in his legs. Ed's shoulders and arms were freckled and the freckles gradually faded away as they headed toward his lower back, Sam loved Ed's freckles and he loved the way they made a contrast between Ed's skin and his own. Ed's legs were open, Victor had already worked a good amount of lube inside both Ed and Sam and Ed was playing with himself with his fingers, moving them slowly in and out of his ass.

"Looks good, doesn't he?" Victor asked, standing behind Sam and slipping his own fingers into him.

"Yeah," Sam agreed, Ed did look good. He turned his head and kissed Victor briefly, then moved away from him and onto the bed.

"Are you ready?" Sam asked Ed, kneeling between his legs.

"Yes," came the breathed reply, so Sam carefully entered him. He was already so turned on that it was a struggle not to move as he waited for Victor to complete their sandwich. Sam looked over his shoulder at the painter, who seemed to be standing back admiring the two of them. Victor was built very differently to Ed, but he was just as appealing. His body was long and lean and he was taller than either of them by several inches. Victor's skin was paper white to the extent that Sam could see blue veins running beneath it and where he had hair on his body it was almost black, not reddish brown like Ed's. Sam's eye was drawn to Victor's erect cock and the small seam of moisture that was making its way down the head. He ran his tongue over his lips without even realising that he was doing it.

"You want this," Victor asked, putting his hand around it. It wasn't a question.

Sam just nodded in reply, knowing it wasn't even want now but need. Victor entered him quicker than he himself had done with Ed and Sam felt wonderfully filled. All he could do was groan, his nipples, his cock, his ass, they were all now sources of buzzing pleasure and he knew it wouldn't be long before it all became too much and he came deep in Ed.

"I'm not going to last long," Sam said, making the other two laugh.

"I wasn't expecting you to," Victor replied. "Just enjoy yourself, don't worry about holding back." So Sam didn't, he thrust into Ed while Victor thrust into him and very soon he found himself caught up in a rushing orgasm that seemed to happen throughout his whole body, from his toes to the roots of his hair. While he was coming he paid no attention whatsoever to what Ed and Victor were doing, but when he was done he realised that neither of them had finished with him.

"Sorry," he muttered against Ed's back, not really feeling sorry at all.

"It's nothing to be sorry about," Victor said. "Why don't you move and I'll carry on with Ed? I rather like the idea of fucking him while he's full of your spunk."

So Sam did just that, wriggling out from between them to let them finish together. He watched as Victor wrapped a hand around Ed's erection, something he'd completely forgotten to do in the heat of the moment, then the painter proceeded to give him a good, hard fuck.

Victor and Ed came almost simultaneously while Sam thoroughly enjoyed the sight of them lost in one another. He really like seeing the way Victor's body tensed until he could see his muscles standing out beneath his skin as he ejaculated into Ed with a loud groan of his name. Ed for his part looked semi conscious as Victor rolled off him. Sam asked him if he was all right as he kissed him on the mouth and ruffled his now sweat darkened rust coloured hair.

"Mmm, fine," Ed mumbled, kissing him back.

"Good one?" Sam quizzed.

"Yeah," Ed grinned.

"I aim to please," Victor laughed, putting his arm around Ed and kissing him on the temple.

"Why don't I ask Fran if you can stay over for Midwinter?" Sam suggested to Victor, he couldn't think of any better Midwinter treat than having the painter in his and Ed's bed for a couple of nights.

"I really can't see him agreeing to that," Victor replied.

"He might, if he lets Earnest sleep in Fudge's room he should let you sleep in our room," Ed muttered drowsily.

"It's not the quite the same thing," Victor laughed, taking Sam's hand in his across Ed and lacing his fingers between Sam's.

"No, we're not related to him or going to get pregnant," Sam said, "I think he will if I approach him when he's in the right mood."

"You mean after he's had several glasses of his punch at the Midwinter's eve party?" Victor suggested.

"Maybe," Sam conceded, "but there's no harm in asking."

It was daybreak on Midwinter's eve and Dawn tried not to stare at her husband as he ate the breakfast that she had prepared for him. The large bowl of porridge was sweetened with dried apples and flavoured with cinnamon, all washed down with a mug of tea. She'd added a little more cinnamon than she normally would in order to mask the taste of her other, extra ingredient.

Her back was hurting badly this morning, yesterday he'd done to her what he did to Sam before he ran away and the buckle of Mack's belt had cut deeply into her flesh. After that she'd known her marriage was over, any last shreds of love that she felt for the father of her children had died with the beating. It was as if the pain had cleared her mind, had pushed everything other than what was really necessary away and as she'd lain last night in Marni's old bed, locked in to the room by Mack, she'd formed a plan.

To stop herself from watching his every mouthful Dawn walked over to the well worn work surface and rested her palms on it, staring out of the window. The sun wasn't yet up and the snow outside looked grey where it reflected the lamp light from her window. She silently thanked the gods that the snow wasn't as thick this year as it sometimes was and that the villagers had managed to keep the road out of Dovedale clear. Soon she was going to need to traverse that road on foot. Dawn was suddenly distracted from her thoughts by the sound of her husband's chair scraping over the kitchen flagstones as he stood. She turned in astonishment to look at him, by rights he should be slumped over the table falling into unconsciousness by now, but he was on his feet instead.

Last year after Sam had run away Dawn had struggled to sleep at nights, spending hour after hour staring at the ceiling in the darkness, her mind conjuring up every possible terrible thing that could have befallen her son. In the end out of sheer desperation she visited the hedge doctor in the next village who made her a sleeping draught. The dose had been two drops in a glass full of water and Dawn had found that the draught was so powerful she needed to take it in bed or she risked falling asleep on the spot. Today she had found that there was a quarter of an inch of liquid left in the bottom of the bottle and she had poured this into Mack's breakfast porridge, assuming that it would be enough to knock him out quickly.

Mack was quite tall and broad across the chest and shoulders from a lifetime of working on the farm, in general he was very much larger than she was. With a spike of fear Dawn suddenly wondered if she'd grossly misjudged how much of the draught it would take to render him unconscious. He looked back at her, running a hand across his weather beaten face and blinking, his body swaying a little as if he'd drunk too much apple brandy.

"Are you feeling unwell?" Dawn asked breathlessly as he took a faltering step toward her.

"Don't fuss woman, I'm…fine," he managed to get out before his eyes rolled back in his head and his body crumpled.

Dawn managed to break the worst of his fall but not without painfully jarring her already badly injured back. She lowered him to the floor as carefully as she could, not wanting him to hit his head on the flags and hurt himself, or worse. Once he was down she stood back and looked at her husband's prone body, almost unable to believe what she'd done to the man she'd promised in front of a priest to love until the day one of them died. She had loved him back them, and there were happy times, but they and her love for him had been worn away by his temper over the years into nothing.

Crouching down beside Mack Dawn searched his pockets until she found a ring with the keys to the farmhouse on it. She then hurried upstairs to pack her case, being careful to include her precious gold, diamond and pearl brooch that Sam had taken from her then returned, and as much money as she could find in the house. Before she left Dawn did one final thing, she brought a pillow and a warm blanket down from her bed and made Mack as comfortable as she could on the cold kitchen floor. She wasn't really sure why, not after what he'd done to her, but she simply couldn't leave him the way he was. Then she bundled herself up against the cold for her long journey, went out into the snow, locked the door behind her and posted the keys back through the letter box. Dawn took one last long look at the house that had been her home for nearly twenty years then turned her back on it, setting off along the snowy track.

"No," Sam said sadly to Ed as he re-entered the living room.

Ed was standing on the foot stool polishing the mirror over the mantle in preparation for that night's party and Sam could see Ed's face in the reflection take on a sympathetic expression. "I'm sorry," Ed said. "I bet it'll arrive in the next few days, I'm sure that it's just got stuck somewhere in the snow."

"Who's stuck in the snow?" Fudge asked, coming into the room carrying the box of cakes and pastries that Sam had ordered for Fran.

"Um…" Sam wasn't a very good liar, but he knew that the subject of mothers could be a tricky one around Fudge.

"Well, who?" Fudge demanded, placing the box onto the large table at the other end of the room. It was technically a dining table but they hardly ever used it because no one could ever be bothered to bring food up from the basement kitchen when there was a perfectly good table in there.

"Not a who, a what," Ed put in, "a letter from his mother wishing him a happy Midwinter."

"Oh," Fudge pressed a key on the piano, causing it to make a high plinking sound. The instrument had been tuned that morning in anticipation of it getting played during the party. "I haven't heard from my mama either."

"Me neither," Ed said, stepping off the footstool and looking up at his handy work.

Sam couldn't really say that the reason for this was because their respective mothers were at best neglectful and at worst down right unpleasant, but it was true. However that wasn't the case with his mother and he supposed that he really should count himself lucky, however he was still disappointed at not hearing from her before Midwinter.

As it had still been dark when Dawn left the village she had managed to get out of Dovedale unseen. If she had been unfortunate enough to encounter anyone from the village she wasn't sure what she would have told them, and she thanked the gods that it hadn't become an issue.

On a pleasant summer's day it would be a long, exhausting walk to the nearest town, but in the depths of winter with snow underfoot and an increasingly heavy suitcase in hand it was an almost impossible task. After several hours of trudging Dawn was seriously starting to wonder if she was even going to be able to make it before night fell and she faced the very real possibility of freezing to death without any shelter or warmth. Several carts and carriages passed her as she walked and every time one did she prayed that the driver would be kind enough to stop and offer her a lift however it wasn't until late afternoon when the sun had almost set again that one finally did. She found herself in a rickety carriage that was overfilled with a single, large family all of whom were going to town to spend Midwinter with the wife's parents. The carriage bumped and jolted along the track uncomfortably it suspension seeming to have given up, the children squabbled with one another and the families' horse was so old that it appeared more suited to the knacker's yard than pulling all of them. Dawn didn't care about any of these things though and after a couple more hours travel she finally arrived at her destination.

The small town's streets were lit by glowing oil lamps and Dawn was grateful for this as it made finding the railway station very much easier. When the woman behind the counter asked her if she wanted a single or a return ticket to Parnell the enormity or what she was doing hit Dawn and she stammered over the word "single". The train was the final passenger one to Parnell for the night and it was packed with people headed to the city for Midwinter. Dawn found a seat between two other passengers and after a man had kindly helped her with putting her case onto the luggage rack she settled back and closed her eyes. She was utterly exhausted, cold, hungry and thirsty and her back flared with pain, but she felt oddly triumphant, she had done it.

As the train pulled out of the station Dawn couldn't help thinking about when her son had made this same journey last year. He'd told her a little of his flight to Parnell and she knew that he'd stowed away in one of the freight carriages at the back of the train because he couldn't afford a ticket. He'd said that he'd met a friendly old man in the freight carriage who'd helped him out and that when he'd finally arrived in the city he'd seen an advert for a job in The Empress theatre and that was how he'd met his combined landlord and boss, Fran. Her son had never been a good liar and Dawn knew that he wasn't telling her the truth, or at least the whole of it anyway, but she also knew that he was doing this to spare her so she hadn't pushed him. She couldn't begin to imagine how terrified he must have really felt on that journey, Sam had never been further than the town before that day and he made his way to Parnell entirely unaided. The thought of her boy all alone and afraid in a strange place still made her eyes fill even now and she discreetly wiped her tears away with a handkerchief.

The house was packed with people, every corner was filled with laughing, chatting, drinking guests and the sing song around the piano was in full swing. To escape the crush and noise a little Sam and Ed had come out in the hallway and had found themselves a seat halfway up the stairs. Not that the hall wasn't busy too, although it was probably a little less full than last year at the point when Fudge had vomited copiously down the stairs. Poor Fudge hadn't really been allowed to forget that incident and she had grumbled to Sam a short while ago that she was heartily fed up of people making jokes to her about not drinking too much tonight. Sam had indulged in three glasses of Fran's punch which was probably at least one glass too many, but he was enjoying himself and he was at least sensible enough to have now moved onto soft drinks.

"Happy Midwinter," Ed suddenly said, kissing him on the mouth.

"Huh?" Sam replied, kissing him back.

"It's just gone midnight," Ed pointed to the clock over the hall table, "it's Midwinter now."

"Ah," Sam grinned a sloppy grin, "happy Midwinter." He then kissed Ed again, this time with a liberal dose of tongue.

Sam was slightly annoyed when someone reached through the bannisters and tapped him on the shoulder, distracting him from what he was doing with Ed. "Are you Sam?" a strange man asked.

"Yeah," he said cautiously, "why?"

"Everyone's looking for you, apparently you've got a visitor or something."

"Who?" he frowned, feeling slightly muddle headed.

"I don't know, I don't even know who you are," the man shrugged.

Sam picked his way down the stairs with Ed following behind. A strange visitor didn't really sound like a good thing, he wasn't expecting anyone and for some reason the odious pimp Mother's face had popped into his mind.

"You'll never guess who's here!" Fudge said excitedly, grabbing his arm as he pushed his way into the overfull living room.

"No, I won't, who is it?"

"I'm not going to tell you, come on, come with me and you'll see."

Fudge led him downstairs to the kitchen. The kitchen was much less busy than the rest of the house, in fact there were currently only two people in it, both of them seated at the table drinking steaming mugs of tea. One of them was Fran, but Sam barely noticed him because of who the other one was.

"What…how…?" he asked, his face breaking into a puzzled grin.

"Happy Midwinter my darling," his mother said, getting to her feet and pulling him into a tight embrace.

With so many people to feed Fran had been hugely grateful for Dawn's help in preparing their Midwinter dinner. She'd more of less taken over the kitchen, then apologised for treading on his toes. He'd assured that as a mediocre cook at best she could tread on his kitchen toes all she liked and the food had turned out far far better than it would if he'd cooked it alone. The empty plates and serving dishes now littering the dining table were a testament to that. Somehow they'd succeeded in squashing nine people around the table, and Teddy, not wanting Bob to be left out, had insisted on placing his cage on the top of the piano so that he could be part of the festivities too. Nice though it was to have company Fran felt that nine people and a parrot was maybe slightly too much for the size of the house.

After Dawn's unexpected appearance last night Teddy had offered to give up the spare room to her, saying that he couldn't possibly let a lady sleep on the couch while he was in a bed and although Dawn had said she'd be fine on the couch Teddy had insisted. Beyond old fashioned chivalry this did make sound sense as Teddy would be leaving soon and Dawn would be staying for at least the foreseeable future. She had said very firmly that she wanted to pay her way so Fran had offered her a job as an usher in the theatre. They still hadn't managed to fill all the posts made vacant by the spate of ghost related resignations so this really wasn't an act of charity on his part. Meanwhile Victor was sleeping downstairs in the boy's room with them. Fran felt that the less speculated about what they were all getting up to down there the better, and there was absolutely no way he was going to let Victor stay beyond tonight, probably.

He looked around at all the familiar faces, his loved ones, his friends, his family. Two yeas ago it had only been Fudge and him eating Midwinter dinner in here, and while a small part of him missed those quiet days, especially in the mornings when he couldn't get into his own bathroom, he wouldn't want it any other way. He refilled his glass with wine then stood, tapping the blade of his knife on his glass to gain attention. As head of the household, more or less, it was his job to make the Midwinter toast. The traditional toast was one to ask the gods to bless everyone and keep them safe for the year ahead. He started to recite it but when he reached the part toward the end where he asked the others to join in the toast he was interrupted by an all too familiar voice.

"Hello dirty sinner," Bob said happily, obviously wanting to join in in his own, avian way. The traditional response to the toast was for the other diners to raise their glasses and say "may the gods bless us, everyone", but instead as one they all raised their glasses and said "hello dirty sinner" back to Bob, then began to laugh. Fran considered starting again to get it right, but then he came to the conclusion that there was nothing traditional about his family, so why shouldn't their toast be the same? It didn't matter if the words they said were a traditional blessing or the ramblings of a parrot, what mattered was that they were together, that they were happy and that they loved one another, and that was good enough for him.

The end

A/N- Happy Christmas, Hanukah, Festivus, Diwali, Midwinter, Ramadan, Kwanzaa or anything else you happen to celebrate at this time of year (even if it's already been and gone!). I hope you enjoyed my shortish story, perhaps as a Christmas prezzie you could tell me what you thought?

Have a good New Year, and I'll be back next year with something new. Keep an eye on my writer's bio, which I try to keep updated, for more info.

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