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The Short Story Project ~ A Story

First published: Thursday, October 29th, 2009
4,835 words ~ spooky scale: ••••• 14+

Where the razordogs roam...

Uncle Lucky whimpered over in the corner. He had gritted his teeth and tried to fight the pain but tears painted themselves in cascades down his cheeks.

“Hold the light higher!” barked Uncle Lupo. “And stop shaking.” Uncle Jakko shuffled closer but still averted his eyes from the bloody mess that had been Uncle Lucky’s legs.

Uncle Lupo bent over, his knife caught the sallow light from the evil-smelling lamp. He bunched up the tissue and cut into Uncle Lucky’s trousers at the thighs, then sliced through them, lifting the dirty, blood-clotted cloth away from his what had been his shins.

Even at this distance I could see white shards of bone sticking out from the blackness.

“The bastards,” murmured Uncle Lupo. “There’s no way we can set the mess straight here.” He sighed. Black lines painted themselves to a frown on his forehead and scribbled anger round his mouth. He turned to face the others present in the dark, dirty basement: Uncle Jakko, Uncle Pipo, and me.

“I’ll need something to tie up a splint and staunch the bleeding. You can rip up some clothes if there’s nothing else. And I’ll need wood. Small planks, beams. Pull the place apart if you need to,” he said.

Uncle Lucky’s sack was lying just inside the door. Uncle Pipo had left it there when he’d staggered in, carrying the other. Now, he turned to examine the contents, and bumped into Uncle Jakko, who had had the same idea. Uncle Jakko honked and then fell and bounced on the dusty floor.

“There’s a time and a place,” started Uncle Lupo through clenched teeth.

“Sorry Boss,” said Uncle Jakko, shrugging. He jumped up and brushed himself down with exaggerated gestures. Uncle Pipo picked up the sack.

Before he could do anything with it, there was a noise like a clap of thunder and the ramshackle door swung open. Fear glued me to the spot and stopped me from jumping backwards and falling on my bottom like Uncle Jakko and Uncle Pipo. Even Uncle Lupo had shifted away, and poor Uncle Lucky held his arms up high, shaking his hands and miming surprise.

The figure of a very large man oozed through the door frame. He was, in parts, wider than the door with a great head encircled with curly mutton chops that reached to below his sagging mouth, set in a face ravaged and pitted by a youthful bout of some pox. He wore a coat that fell to below his knees and appeared to have been patched together from the badly-tanned hides of a multitude of small furry creatures, some of which still seemed to possess here an eye, there a ear or a tooth.

He swung a large club round — obviously the instrument he had used to open the door — then brought it to a halt standing on the palm of a hand that in itself appeared larger than Uncle Lupo’s head. And he had the biggest head of us all. The man twitched and the club swung round, swooshing through the air until it hit the floor and the house above shook and trembled. Dust, cobwebs and the droppings of the various animals that crawled around in the dilapidated floorboards above showered down around us.

He slipped a hand into a trouser pocket, pulling back his coat to reveal a chest and belly as massive as a cartload of barrels. And as the dust settled, two razordogs — one on each side of him — poked their vicious dribbling heads from beneath the uneven hems of his coat and squinted at us with their mean little yellow eyes.

“Gentlemen,” said a voice like steam train colliding with an omnibus. “I have come to collect the rent.”

Uncle Jakko and Uncle Pipo didn’t miss a beat. They jumped up, bounced off each other’s stomach, fell down and Uncle Pipo rolled right over and collapsed into a pile of rubble in the corner.

“Ah!” said the stranger, a solitary eye cocked to follow their acrobatics before settling his gaze on Uncle Lupo. “Clowns! Don’t you just love ‘em.”

The knife in Uncle Lupo’s hand melted into the sahdows.

“What rent?” he snapped. “The place is abandoned.”

“I agree that the neighbourhood is not what it was.” he said, with a air of concern in his voice. “Hard times, for us all, Sir…” The dogs panted at his feet, snuffling the air, the light from behind glistening on their fins and spikes. “Consider it a contribution to the upkeep of law and order in the district.”

“What law and order?” Uncle Lupo shouted, trembling, his face now scarred with deep vertical lines against the white mask. “My own brother. They set on him. Like animals.” He pointed to Uncle Lucky laying on the sacking by the rough brick wall. Uncle Lucky lifted an imaginary hat and made an elaborate play of saluting with it before collapsing back on the makeshift bed, a grimace of pain painted on his features. “They smashed his legs! Is that your law and order? Don’t make me laugh.”

The stranger pulled himself up. The squalid little room shrank as he blocked out the pale light coming in from outside the door.

“Think yourself lucky they don’t tear him apart,” he said calmly, his voice a rumble. “Not much else to do with a Clown these days.”

“Is that a threat?” snorted Uncle Lupo, lifting his hands.

The stranger’s face split into a smile. Great mismatched pegs of teeth poked from behind his fat lips.

“Think of it as neighbourly advice.”

One of the razordogs barked, showing rows of untidy needle-sharp teeth.

Quiet Snapper!” called the stranger, and he pulled on a rope that had remained unseen until now, hidden in the depths of his free hand. The one now resting on the oversized bludgeon. “He’s getting impatient you see,” he added in an apparently friendly voice. “Likes his action does old Snapper.”

We are stared back.

Uncle Lupo’s hands were extended, each finger terminating in a different sharp object: knives, nails, scissors, a claw hammer. There was even a bright red rose on a thorny stem.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, let us stay calm,” said the giant. “Do you really think I’d damage the goods? If it comes to fisticuffs and I have to flatten you all, who’ll pay the rent then? Let’s be reasonable. It’s obvious, you’ve only just arrived. You’re still finding your feet, I imagine.” He coughed. “At the end of your legs. Yes, I know that one… Clowns like to have their little jokes don’t they…”

He flashed his sinister grin quickly, as if worried his teeth would burst out and and escape if he exposed them for longer.

Ta-da-da, boom boom!” came the sound as Uncle Pipo tapped out a drum roll on a packing case.

“Don’t push your luck,” said the stranger as he scowled at Uncle Pipo.

Uncle Lupo closed his hands. The weapons and the flower had disappeared again.

“If it’s all right by you, I have a wounded brother to care for.” He turned back to Uncle Lucky in the corner.

“Make yourselves at home,” said the stranger, nodding gravely. “There’s just one minor point to clear up.”

“What?” snapped Uncle Lupo.

“I’m taking him with me.” The massive hand steadying the massive club extended a finger. The finger pointed at me. “Just to be sure you don’t go forgetting me.”

Uncle Jakko and Uncle Pipo looked at Uncle Lucky, their faces creased in worry. Uncle Pipo’s knees started rattling and shaking. He reached down and stilled them, but the noise continued. Uncle Jakko pulled a metronome out of his pocket. Uncle Pipo reached up and smashed it to pieces. The noise stopped. They both turned and looked back at Uncle Lupo.

“One less mouth to feed…” suggested the stranger with his lopsided smile.

“Uncle Lupo looked at me, at Uncle Lucky laying on the mess by the wall, and back at me.

“Seems reasonable,” he said.

The stranger pulled his hand from his pocket and snapped his fingers. A tall weasel of a man squeezed out from behind him in the doorway, folded me up, and rolled me into a sack.

~

Light appeared at the mouth of the sack and I was rolled out onto a threadbare carpet where I lay and gazed up at the ceiling. It was black with dirt and dust and soot. And probably other things as well. Underneath it was crisscrossed with heavy rafters, some of which had a large, vicious-looking hook screwed into them, and with what must have once been sculpted busts holding the ends where they met with the high walls. The ceiling was dotted with gaping ragged holes, some large enough that someone could fall right through. Or perhaps they already had. Someone else, it seemed, had spent quite a bit of time taking potshots at the heads, further puncturing the ceiling in the process. But what was most worrying were the great claw marks scratched along the beams and disfiguring the faces. What creature could exist that might be both large and strong enough to gouge such marks, yet be tall enough to reach up, or nimble enough to climb up and hang there.

A large face, pocked like the moon but framed with a formidable pair of bristling ginger whiskers eclipsed my view. My host. My kidnapper.

“It’s still alive,” he said, crooked teeth interrupting a crooked smile. “That’s fortunate. I always wanted a Clown of my own.”

I sat up and twisted to see the giant standing over me. My eyes darted round the great room, anxiously looking for the razordogs but, luckily, they were nowhere to be seen. Small groups of sallow, haggard men stood warming themselves at braseros in the corners as cold seeped in through the broken windows.

The giant kicked at me, narrowly missing my back.

“I’m Gripmole, Mister Gripmole. My friends—” A hand as big as my head swung round designating the scattered groups hugging up to the fires. “—My friends call me Grip. You can call me Roger.”

“R-r-roger?” I stammered.

“No! Call me Gripmole…” Again the grin like a broken vase split his face. “Just my little joke. I’d have thought a Clown would’ve appreciated a joke, no?” He turned to his cronies. “What do you say? Shall we ask the Clown to make us laugh?”

He aimed another kick at my back. I ducked to the side.

There were murmurs and couple of cartarrhy laughs. I heard a voice mutter: “Break ‘is legs an’ get on with it”

I squirmed.

“I.. I don’t know how..” I managed to say in a whisper.

“What’s that?” roared the colossus.

“I don’t know any tricks, Sir. I’m too young for a Clown.”

“What?” he thundered, his arms taking in the room as he span around waving everyone closer. “I was done. I was robbed.” And then, leaning over me. “You mean, they fobbed me of with a puppy, not a real Clown?”

He stood up.

“Put him in a cage. We’ll see about him later.”

They dragged an ugly iron cage into the room folded me up, and pushed me inside. The two halves were folded up over me. There was no room to move. Folded as I was, my head and limbs all pressed up against the bars.

Then I discovered the purpose of the ropes in the ceiling.

They swung a rope around until it caught on a hook, attached the cage, sealing me inside, and pulled me up until I was suspended just under the grimy ceiling, staring at the deep slashes and wondering what sort of creature could possibly have made them. Had I been a fully grown up Clown, tears would have painted themselves across my face by now.

“What about something to eat?” I called. “You promised Uncle Lupo…”

Gripmole turned and looked up at the cage.

“You! You hold your tongue. Or it’s you the next meal.”

The cage swung gently on its hook, different parts digging into my back, my arms, and my knees as it changed position.

I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable to just happen.

We were freed from the Sparrowgrass farms although we had no merit in the matter. The Masters just upped and fled and the plants were all dead. Brittle, spindly and yellow, they were covered in the same growth that was stifling vegetation everywhere.

While it had lasted it had been good work. And above all, out of the way. Even there, Clowns weren’t much appreciated.

The five of us had crept into town through the tunnels and underground passageways. There had been guides offering to show the way, but if we had had enough to pay them, we wouldn’t have needed to go there in the first place. They had shrugged and left us alone. There were plenty of others wanting to get in. But they hadn’t left before telling us about the traps and dead-ends, about the razordogs roaming wild, about the rats as big as pigs who built nests in the sewers and span webs to catch the unwary traveller. Needless to say, we met none of these, just a few rats the size of cats, but a couple of them fed us quite nicely on more than one occasion. And while we did see curious shapes hanging in side tunnels, glowing with a curious blue-green light, demented cat’s cradles stretching from wall to wall, and slightly sticky to the touch, we never knew who or what made them. It could even have been a trick set up by the guides, we decided.

Once in town, things were worse than we had supposed, but also better. Yes, there was food. Cans and sacks and packs ransacked from the shelves and store-rooms of devastated stores. But we had no means to pay for it, and not only was there no work available, but no-one wanted to have anything to do with a Clown.

Clowns were secretive. They stayed among themselves. They hoarded. They got all the cushy jobs. Clowns just weren’t funny.

They shouted at us, spat at us, threw bricks and stones and rubble. They ran us out of every place we found. So we kept to the shadows, only going out at night, and being sure to get back before dawn.

And then we started to hear the rumours: Clowns have diamonds hidden in their legs…

“Psst!” said a voice in my ear.

“I don’t believe it. He’s fallen asleep,” whispered a voice by my other ear.

“Either that or he’s already dead,” said a voice in front of me.

I opened my eyes.

I was still hanging in the cage but the great room below was dark and cold and empty. Or as far as I could make out in the shadows.

I shifted, trying to see where the voices were coming from. But as I moved, not only did the cage dig into my aching limbs, but the slightest movement sent it rocking.

Pain shot up my back.

“Calm down,” said the first voice. “You’ll only make things worse.”

“He can’t hear you,” said the voice from in front. “He’s probably delirious by now.”

“Where are you?” I asked. “I can’t see you. And who are you?”

“Bollo,” said the first voice.

“Rollo,” said the second.

“And Lupin,” said the third, drearily. “We’re up here, but you probably can’t see us. Wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve gone blind.”

I looked up and saw a round face with a shock of hair on the chin. Except, as the face was upside down and poking through one of the holes in the ceiling, what I was seeing was the hair on the top of the head. Except, as I was looking at a Clown, he’d drawn a great slash of a mouth and a small button nose on his forehead, as if he had two faces. In a typical Clown touch, the painted lips moved as he spoke. I say ‘he’ as a matter of habit. It’s sometimes hard to tell with Clowns. Even harder if they’re hanging upside down from the ceiling.

“You’re Clowns,” I said.

“As I thought,” said the double face. “He’s been shocked into imbecility.”

“Stop wasting time,” said the first voice, the one who’d introduced himself as Bollo. “Give him something to drink.”

Water splashed into my face. I jerked back and regretted it as the cage set to swinging, and the pain washed over me.

Lupin!” said Bollo.

“He’s lost all muscle control,” protested the Clown “Probably hasn’t much time left…”

“Give. Him. The. Water. Lupin.”

A hand stretched down, bearing a cup with a straw in it. It approached the bars of the cage and the Clown manoeuvred the straw towards my mouth. For a moment I thought it was going to stay there, just out of reach, but it lunged forwards and I clamped down on it with my teeth.

Ouch!” said Lupin. “Be careful.”

I drank. I hadn’t realised how thirsty I was.

“That hurt,” said Lupin, speaking to the others. “He’s probably some sort of vicious sadist. Out to trap us. If he hasn’t got some disease or other…”

“Lupin!” said Bollo.

“Put a sock on it,” said Rollo.

Lupin sniffed and withdrew the cup. It changed back into his hand.

“Now he’ll probably want to pee…”

Effectively, now he mentioned it, I could feel the pressure in my bladder building up.

“Let him slip out then. Not too difficult for a real Clown,” proposed Lupin. “Which he probably isn’t…”

Had I been able to move, the bars were perhaps wide enough to slip an arm through, but it wasn’t possible to open the cage. The two sides folded together and were held firmly in place by the rope running through the two loop set at the top. The only way out for me, was to lower it to the floor below.

One of them — Bollo or Lollo, I don’t know which — climbed down onto the top of the cage. I was sure I could hear the hook creaking in the woodwork above. From there, he shimmied down the rope.

“The razordogs’ll probably get him,” said Lupin. “Just mark my words. He lets them roam free at nights…”

I looked down at the shadows, but it was hard to see anything. The cage shook and swayed as I was lowered to the floor. As the two halves folded away, I fell out, unable to move.

Lollo or Bollo kicked me.

“C’mon, we haven’t got all night, you know.”

Laying on the floor in the dark, I thought I was listening to Gripmole again.

“Can’t. Can’t move.”

There were rustling echoing round the great room and something was falling from the ceiling.

“Picked a right one this time. Probably not a real Clown even.”

That would be Lupin speaking. I looked up at the ceiling. In the gloom I saw Lupin, his hand extended into a great claw scratching at the ceiling and the rafters where the cage had been.

“What’s going on?” I wanted to know.

Ssh!” said Bollo or Lollo. “It distracts them. About how you got out of the cage.”

“And there aren’t any dogs?”

“Sure there are. But not here. What do you take us for?”

I unfolded an arm, then a leg. Then the others. I had pins and needles everywhere. My back hurt. And I needed a pee.

Next to me the cage clanged shut and shot into the air.

“What..?”

“Come along,” said Lollo or Bollo. “We haven’t finished.”

The rope holding the cage was tied to some spikes sticking out of the splintered panelling on the wall. One of the Clowns — now I could make them out in the half-light, I saw they were just stubbly, and not much bigger than me — caught hold of the rope and started pulling himself up.

“Now you,” said the remaining one, Bollo or Lollo.

I caught hold and pulled myself up, hand over hand over painful hand. As I neared the top, Lupin leaned over and slashed at the cage with his claws, cutting deep gashes into the metal and causing a sharp shriek to echo round the room below. His face had a twisted smile, stretching up to beyond his ears.

I pulled myself through the jagged hole in the rafters and floorboards, up into the room above.

The same grey half-light soaked into the place through broken windows. This room must be the same size as the one below but less ornate, and possessing a lower, less-imposing ceiling. Holes, big and small, pocked the floor.

“Stick your tongue back in or you’ll trip over it,” said Lupin, pulling himself out of one of the holes.

Hurry up!” chided the other one, Lollo or Bollo. He was picking his way round the holes towards the great double doors at the end of the room.

“Follow Lollo. Walk in her footsteps,” said the Clown emerging from the hole behind me. “Hurry. Someone could be along at any moment.”

“They’re probably already waiting for us in the corridor,” Lupin sighed.

They weren’t.

We quickly crept along ravished corridors and dilapidated staircases until we came to a small room containing cupboards from floor to ceiling, and occupied for the most part by a enormous bed.

Bollo locked the door behind us, but not before Lollo had lit a storm lantern that smoked and smelled and gave off a greasy yellow light.

“Food,” said Bollo, scrambling up the shelves of one of the cupboards. “We can talk easier on a full stomach.”

He threw tins down onto the bed. I saw beans and custard and stewed peas.

Lollo opened a hand with a tin-opener hanging off the palm, and set to hacking the tins open.

“We’ve already eaten,” said Bollo, joining us on the bed. “Help yourself.”

I scooped the contents into my mouth, dibbling custard and tomato sauce and brine. Ambrosia had never tasted as good. As I drained the last of the tomato sauce into my mouth, I burped in contentedness and satisfaction.

“Where are you from?” asked Bollo. “And how long have you been here?”

I waved my hands.

“Slowly, slowly.” I burped again. Perhaps this had been too much eat. And too rich on an empty stomach. “We worked on a Sparrowgrass farm at Morley Pitt. And we got here about three weeks ago. And you?”

“Later,” said Lollo. “How many are you? Just the five?”

“Ye— Hold on! How do you know how many we are? There was only that horrible man, Gripmole…”

Lollo bounced on the bed, then jumped to the floor where she grabbed Lupin.

“Come on, let’s how him,” she called.

Bollo climbed up on their shoulders.

And they were Gripmole.

Bollo was the head and the arms. Lollo and Lupin a leg each. Once they wore great baggy trousers and the long coat, it would be impossible to know they were really three Clowns.

“But..?” I started.

“Best place to hide,” said Bollo, with Gripmole’s voice.

“Out in the open,” said Lollo.

“Probably won’t last for much longer,” added Lupin.

I stared at the giant.

“But..?”

“Find the Clowns. Then get them away from here,” said Bollo.

“And because everyone’s scared of Mister Gripmole, we get our hands on hard-to-find things like money and food,” said Lollo.

“But the dogs..?”

“Tied up down below,” said Bollo.

“They’re lovely really. Amazing what a few accessories can do…” said Lollo.

“But there’s still one thing that both hard and easy to get…” said Gripmole’s voice. “Meat. Good proteins.”

I had difficulty keeping my eyes open.

Bollo jumped onto the bed while Lupin sidled up to me. Lollo stood still. Then Lupin flashed his hand at me. I half expected to see the claws from earlier. Instead I saw syringes. Each containing a dull yellow liquid.

“We inject straight into the cans, before they’re opened,” said Bollo. “Practically undetectable.”

“We do have to let you hang for a few days though,” said Lollo. “We don’t want to start poisoning ourselves, do we?”

I blacked out.

It’s easy to see why Clowns have been singled out. We’re born with the distinctive markings on our faces, but we can’t really control them until we come of age. And by that time, it’s too late. You’ve already been working for ten years or so, with other Clowns. You know your place. And believe it or not, Clown used to be prized workers. Strong, supple, practically indestructible, and our specific disposition meant that we were our own workshops. Fingers, hands, and sometimes whole arms, spontaneously transform to just the right tool for the job. Oh, there are sometimes mishaps, generally flowers and water pistols — anything for a laugh, we are Clowns after all — but, except in the case of Uncle Lucky, these are rare. So while there was work, we worked.

As things got worse and jobs dried up, this created no end of resentment — How come they’ve got work and I haven’t? Can’t even afford to support my own family… — Never mind that most of the things we did, nobody wanted to do anyway: Caring for sparrowgrass for 16 hours a day, for example, was tiring, dirty, backbreaking work. We were highly visible and an easy target.

And there was the leg-breaking, which didn’t help.

Uncle Lupo said it came from a time before. To say of a Clown, he had gold, or jewels, in his legs was just a way of describing our value and our worth. Unfortunately, as times got worse, people forgot the origins of the expression and started attacking us, expecting a hidden treasure to reveal itself. But they didn’t stop when the saw we were just flesh and blood and bone and tendons just like them. No, they supposed it was just well hidden and carried on, or looked around for another Clown and attacked him too…

But this was the first I knew of Clowns attacking other Clowns.

I woke up hanging by my feet in a cold dark place. There was a strong smell, like a metal, like copper or iron. My hands were tied behind my back, a gag or something stuffed into my mouth. I tried to look around but it was completely dark. I only succeeded in rocking myself gently from side to side.

Either I fell asleep or I blacked out again.

This time I woke to see Lupin’s face just in front of mine. A pale wedge of light lit the room. he darted back, lifting a finger to his lips. Except it wasn’t a finger. It was a long cold blade.

As my eyes darted around the room, looking for a way out, or someone to help me, I saw in the dim light, small bodies hanging from hooks in the ceiling. Under each body was a large basin full of something dark.

Lupin followed my stare.

“Black pudding,” he said, and smiled. “Waste not…”

And the smile froze as something pierced his head, straight through his forehead in a flash.

He fell backwards, upsetting a basin and splashing the contents over himself and the floor. His arms and legs jerked spasmodically, like an overturned beetle.

I looked around to try and see what had attacked him. Whatever it was must have been just behind me. I pulled and twisted myself, swinging and trying to turn. To my surprise, I saw my hands, except they were long and thin, as if each finger was made of sparrowgrass.

I looked again and the hands I held up in front of my face were normal.

I pulled at the gag and felt hot sticky blood — Lupin’s — on my face.

Still I twisted and turned until I realised that my head was now nearly touching the ground below. My legs were growing longer and thinner and…

Placing my hands on the floor to steady myself, I eased a foot from the knotted rope and, bending in two, placed it on the floor. I did the same with the other and pulled myself upright. My body automatically assumed its original shape and size.

Of course, I was a Clown. Only now, fully and truly a Clown.

I lifted my hand. Each finger transformed into a different cutting implement: knife, saw, secateurs, corkscrew…

I snapped them shut and lifted Lupin’s body up and left it hanging from the ceiling, swaying softly, while I set off to look for Bollo and Lollo.

So why am I telling you this? To pass the time, I suppose. It’s rare to get company nowadays. So don’t worry. You won’t feel anything. It’s all over real quick… And when Gripmole gives his word, he keeps it. But you’ve got to understand, it’s a Clown eat Clown world out there now.

THE END

I hope you liked it, I had fun writing this one.

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Last edited: Thursday, October 29th, 2009

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