A Last Time For Everything

“Who goes there?” he heard, the words sounding as muffled as the form in the dense fog, but he could make out the spot of light from the lantern.

He stopped and hesitated before he answered.  When he did so, his voice broke with fear and exhaustion.  “I know not if I have stumbled upon friend or foe, and if I tell you who I am you may run me through!”

“I am a guard of Qurn,” the guard replied.  “Now speak if you are friend or foe!”

“Praise the goddess,” he cried, stumbling forward.  “I am Nebosa, a recruit with the Night Patrol’s second squad.”

The guard saw as he came closer the gash on his head, bound haphazardly with some strips of cloth.  “Second squad?  We’ve heard no word on them for three nights now,” she said.  “We thought them all dead.”

“Three nights?” he repeated, astonished.  “Then I must have been unconscious for an entire day.  I was injured, the Hets must have left me for dead, though I fear the others were killed.”  He threw back his cloak to reveal his uniform, recruit stripes on his shoulder indicating the lowest rank of the army.

“Then welcome back from the dead, brother.  We are glad to have you.”  The guard called for a medic to help him to the infirmary, but he shook his head.

“No,” Nebosa insisted, holding out a satchel.  “I must deliver this!  Our squad captured a messenger, and Captain Dayio believed they carried information on the Hettani’s army.  I must give this to the general, not a moment can be lost, for I’ve already lost a day!”

“Of course.  Yes, you will be taken there at once!”

Two guards were dispatched to escort Nebosa.  The general’s own doctor looked after him while the general looked through the satchel, drawing out various documents, a Hettanian army captain’s emblem, and what appeared to be a map, though Nebosa only caught a glance as the general looked through the items.

“This may well turn the tide of this war,” the general said at last, looking over at him.

“Sir,” Nebosa mumbled.  His head ached, his mouth was parched, and had he not felt compelled to deliver his burden, he would have gladly taken a sip of water and a bed and slept for as long as he might be allowed.

The general, however, was very much interested in one thing.  “Tell me, how did a mere recruit come to be the lone survivor of your squad and return with such a prize?”

Nebosa’s gaze fell and he stared at his hands.  He felt at a loss to explain.  “I do not know, Sir.”  He felt the tension creep up on him, like water filling the tent, threatening to drown him.

“Do you have any idea what it is you brought back?”

“No, Sir?”  He looked up at the general.  “That is- I knew it was important.  Captain Dayio said we needed to deliver it, but I had no need of knowing the particulars.  She would have… she would have given it to you herself, but we were ambushed on our way back.”

The general put a hand on his shoulder and nodded.  “You’ve done well, and you’ll be rewarded for this.”

“Thank you, Sir,” he said, though his voice betrayed that reward was not what he had been after.  Or if it was, a soft bed was the one he’d be most looking forward to.  “I was just doing my duty.”

“We could use more recruits like you, then,” the general said.

***

Three days earlier:

Nebosa stared down at the body; the lifeless face stared back at him.   Something inside him was not quite able to accept the reality of the moment.   He barely registered the pats on his back and shoulder as his companions praised him with ‘well done, lad’ and ‘we’ll make a proper warrior of you yet.’  All he could see was the blood on his knife and hands.

He pulled the war-mask from his face, feeling suffocated by it.  He wanted to protest he hadn’t meant it.  He had turned to see the figure looming over him and instinct took over, his knife finding its target before he had even really seen what it was.  But he hadn’t meant it.  He wanted to scream it at them, at the sky, at his god.  He hadn’t meant it!  But words refused to come to his mouth.

Later, as the other four of his squad gathered around the fire to warm themselves and their food, Nebosa sat hunched beneath the crumbled remains of a rock wall a short distance away. He drew his blanket tight around his shoulders but even so it could not keep out the chill of night that pierced him to the soul.

After finishing off the wine found among their enemies things, three had bedded down, but Captain Daiyo had been keeping her eye on Nebosa ever since the battle.  Now she approached him quietly, her imposing frame seeming even larger silhouetted by the remains of the fire.  Without a word, she found his hands, pressing a cup into them.

He wanted to protest, but the warmth was a welcome change.  He mumbled out a half-hearted, “Thank you.”

She gave a little hum of acknowledgement as she settled in beside him, looking up at where the moon and stars played hide-and-seek with breaks in the clouds.  The silent companionship she offered, the intimacy of darkness, gave him that impression of safety to find his words.

“I can’t stop seeing it,” he said after some time, eyes fixed on the cup.

“You’ve never killed before, have you…”  He remained silent, but she already knew the answer.  “Maybe you thought killing would bear no consequences if it was an enemy.  But you can’t get their blood on your hands without seeing it is the same color as yours.”

The image of it flashed in his mind again and he set the cup aside to cover his face with his hands, hiding the tears he refused to let fall.  She stroked his hair gently, as a mother might.

“I don’t understand,” he said after a while.  “Why did he have to die?  Why did…”

“Wars are not about the people who must fight them, Nebosa.  The man you killed, I doubt he was evil.  But there exists an idea,” she said. “An idea that says their ways are better than our ways, and their gods are better than our goddess.  Swords cannot kill that, nor arrows pierce it.”  She rested her cheek against his head and sighed.  “We fight the Hettani and they fight us, not because Hettani are evil, but because they think we are.”

“I don’t understand,” Nebosa repeated in a whisper.

Daiyo took a long breath and stared back at the sky.  “Neither do I,” she confessed.

They sat in silence for a long time after that.  When Daiyo did speak again, she sounded strained, her breath heavy.

“I’m going to turn in.”

Nebosa pulled away at that.  “Is something wrong?”

“I don’t-” she shook her head, “I’ll be fine.  It was a long day today.”  She stood, holding her hands out as if for balance.  “You should get some sleep,” Daiyo added as she walked away.  “And make sure you eat.”

“I will,” he said, picking up the cup she had brought earlier, but it was cold now.  He waited until she settled in some distance away to keep watch before he discretely poured the contents out onto the ground.  Then he let his tears fall in silence, holding the symbol of his faith so tight it cut into his palms.  He prayed for atonement, for some penance that might undo what had been done.

The light of morning roused him from the sleep that had eventually claimed him.  He stood, still numb with grief, and walked over to where his companions lay.  He nudged Daiyo, then rolled her to her back.  Her lifeless body offered no resistance.  He checked through her pockets and bags until he found the orders she carried.

There was not much to take from the other three, nothing he wanted, anyway.  He left even their money – it could never pay the debt he carried now.  He dragged their bodies into a dense patch of brush, then gathered his things.  Taking his bearings, he set off north to find the Hettanian camp, arriving just after mid-day.

As he approached, the guards raised their weapons, calling at him to halt.  He continued to walk forward.  As he got closer, he pulled a faded emblem from his bag and held it up.  The guards, who at first seemed confused, stood back and saluted.  Without a word, or glance to either side, he went straight to the commander’s tent, pushing open the flap and throwing the pouch with the orders in it at her.

The commander nodded for the guards to step outside.  When they were alone, she stood up from her desk and took a step toward him.  “I heard.  I am sorry-”

“Don’t.”

“Krayle-”

“You knew I was with them,” Nebosa screamed.  “You knew!  How could you let him go on that patrol!”

“It’s war.  I have five thousand soldiers to think about,” she said, keeping her own voice calm.  “Do you think I personally know where every one of them is?  What every order given by a sergeant might be?”

“His blood is on my hands!”  He held them up as if in proof.  Though they had been washed clean, Nebosa could not but see it still, accusing him.  “And it will be on your head!”

The commander came over and took his hands in hers, pressing them together as if in prayer.  “And I am truly sorry, Krayle.  I am.  There’s nothing can change what has happened.  But I need you to go back.  I need you to finish your mission.”

“There is no mission anymore!  I killed them!”

“No, Krayle.  There is still a mission.  Now, as the lone survivor of your squad, you may be in an even better position.  Go back, and you may yet win this war for us.”

“For you?”  Nebosa jerked his hands away, tears of grief and anger obscuring his vision.  “I killed my own husband for you, was that not sacrifice enough?”

She bowed her head.  “Then don’t let his death be meaningless.”

“His death was meaningless!” he cried, his whole chest filled with rage..  “It accomplished nothing!  His blood flowed on these hands, sworn ever to honor and adore him, and you let him be sent when you knew – you knew – it was my squad that was out there!”

“Would you have chosen to kill someone else in his place?  Deprive someone else of their love so that yours might have been spared?  What of the others in his squad, did you spare even a single thought to them?”

His hand twitched toward his knife, imagining for a moment how much pleasure he might take in depriving her of her own life, but he also recognized the truth in her words.  If it had not been Saru it would have been someone else, some other eager  young warrior who would have spilled their blood on his hands.  That did little to ease his pain but it did at least still his rage for a moment.

“We will give him a hero’s funeral,” she said softly.  “And if the gods will, his spirit will stay with you, protect you.”

If there was any justice in the universe, Saru’s spirit would kill him instead, that they might be at least united again in death if not in life.

“Now, Krayle,” the commander continued, “you must return, to finish your mission.”

“I want to see him first,” Nebosa said after a moment.

The commander sighed, then nodded and called her guards back in, sending one to escort Nebosa to where Saru’s body was laid out for funeral.  Almost overcome, his knees went weak as he walked into the tent, a lump forming in his throat that refused to be swallowed away.

Saru looked almost peaceful laying there, as if he merely slept.  He was arrayed in white and red with his weapons situated around him.  On his chest was the pendant Nebosa had given him at their wedding.  Though it seemed someone had tried to clean it, it still held the stain of blood.  Shaking, Nebosa reached out and placed a hand on Saru’s cheek, tears dripping on his robes.

“Forgive me, my love.”  He pressed a kiss to Saru’s cold lips, then laid his head on his chest.  Part of him wished he would have died at Saru’s hand, and part of him would not have wished this grief on him for the world.  “You will be with me always, and I pray I will be with you again, soon.  This life holds nothing for me now that you are gone from it.”

He slipped the pendant from over Saru’s head and put it around his own neck, and there he stayed beside Saru’s body, refusing food or drink.

When night had fallen, a pyre was made ready.  Nebosa carried the torch but remained silent as those around him recited the prayers to take Saru’s soul to the halls of the gods.  When it was time, he thrust the torch in, and as the flames engulfed the pyre he briefly entertained the idea of throwing himself onto it as well, but even as the thought crossed his mind, he could almost hear Saru chiding him for being such a romantic fool.

“I know,” he whispered in answer to his thoughts.  “I’m sorry.”

After the rituals had finished, the commander came to stand beside him.  “You’ll have to leave before dawn.”

He nodded in reply.

“I’ve had some fake documents drawn up for you to take with you – including a false cypher that we can use to deliver misinformation.”

He nodded again, not really wanting to discuss this right now, but his fight from earlier had died out.

“You’re a hero, Krayle.”

“I’m a risan bastard,” Nebosa corrected her.

The commander’s lips curled up slightly.  “Heroes generally are, Captain.”

Nebosa looked at her.  “I will curse your name until the day I die.”

She didn’t seem surprised by the sentiment.  He turned away.  He would do his duty and complete the mission.  He would infiltrate the intelligence of the enemy.  And, gods willing, after he had died, he would haunt her.

It was an hour before dawn when he stopped, about two miles gone from the encampment.  He took his knife and cut a deep gash in his head, then bound it hastily with some scraps of cloth before too much blood was lost.  He sat down to wait for the light-headed feeling to pass, thumbing through the documents intended for the Qurn general.

The cypher caught his eye and he took it out, looking at it – staring right through it.  Unbidden, the kind words that Daiyo had spoken to him that night came to mind.  Though in his grief he had killed them all for simply being there at Saru’s death, thinking back on it now, she had been genuine in the comfort she had offered him.  Though she could not hope to fathom what his pain had been, she had allowed him to grieve, and for a moment he wished he had not poisoned them.

His eyes refocused on the cypher.  Setting it down for a moment, he struck a spark with his flint, then lit it on fire.  The orange glow reflected in his eyes and little sparks fancied themselves stars, rising into the still-dark sky.  He held it until only the edge beneath his fingers remained, then let it fall to the ground, crushing the blackened parchment under his heel.

He took from among his things a true cypher and his Captain’s badge and tucked them both into the satchel.  He wouldn’t be needing them again.

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Announcement

So I’ve been very quiet here, but that’s not because I don’t have stuff to share.  Instead, it’s because I’ve started on a new project.  Or rather, finally started on an old project that has been bumping around in my brain for quite some time but I couldn’t quite manage to put it all together until just recently when the last piece of my creativity puzzle fell into place!

A big project.  Well, a big-for-me project.  I’ve been putting off saying anything because I didn’t want to jinx myself or something or make promises and not deliver.  But I am going to tease you mercilessly now.  I have begun writing a book in earnest.  Well, a book-sized collection of stories.  I have no date of completion yet, for now I’m just going to say it’ll be done when it gets done.  But I will give you a hint as to what lies inside:

Disguised gods, warrior maidens, magical items, kidnapped princes, lost children, tricksy gentlemen, binding vows, dark forests, enchanted creatures, powerful witches, cruelty, greed, bravery, love – and yes, even some happily ever afters, but mostly not in the way you expect them.

I am writing what I hope will be fairy tales with heroes and heroines for our modern age while maintaining the essence of classic tales.  Though I say ‘essence’ I don’t mean that I will simply be retelling existing stories in a new way, but rather I will be completely deconstructing the very building blocks of these tales and rebuilding them in a new way.  I want to create stories that feel familiar and yet are refreshingly new and different in how they play out.

I don’t have a title for the collection yet, though I’ve jotted down a number of ideas.  “Once and Ever After” is currently the best, but I’m still looking for something that just says “ah, yes, that’s it!  That’s the title!”  And I don’t have that quite yet.

I do have at least working titles for most of the individual stories, and you may think you will recognize a few of them, but I promise you won’t know the ending until you’ve turned that last page.

Some of the stories already in work include

Skin of Ash
The Snow Raven
The Two Kings
Xiao Dan
The Wise Queen
The Woodcutter’s Children
A House in the Woods
Seven of Hearts
A Bird May Love A Fish
The Empty Cradle

There are more that don’t yet have titles, also.  Some of these titles might change, and some of the stories might go in a way I didn’t expect and end up changing the title that way… but I have a pretty good start on most of these and a clear end in mind for most of them, too.

I’ll leave you to (hopefully?) be excited for this!  I know I am 😀

8 Times More Awesome?

So I’ve been sewing lately, got on a sewing kick and did a few dolls.   Which of course means I had to spin a bunch of yarn to make doll hair.  But then sort of unexpectedly… this happened: OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYep, it’s an octo-mermaid!  Or… something.  I don’t even know what inspired me, I just got the sudden urge to make an octopus-mermaid hybrid and… did! 😀  Made the ‘necklace’ with shells and beads strung onto wire.

octopusmermaidSpun the hair, almost didn’t have enough.  That’s all the gold wool I had on hand, but I’m really happy with how the style turned out!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASee, all 8 legs are there, honest. 😉

Of course, then my uncle had to do this…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Side Quest

The sun had crested the mountains to the east.  An eagle circled overhead, searching for prey in the tall grasses that grew along the road through the forest.  A rabbit hopped onto the path, then froze when it saw the group before darting back into the undergrowth.

The group had been walking for hours.  Yolo67 kept complaining his feet hurt, and finally xSlayerx agreed it might be better to stop and have a rest and some food when Carwen spotted an old man in a hood step out from the woods and block their path.

“Welcome, travelers, to my forest,” he said, voice raspy from too many tobacco pipes.

Yolo67 drew his sword and held it up menacingly.  “Who are you?” he demanded.

“My name is not important,” the old man said, “but what I have to offer you may be.”

“You speak in riddles?” xSlayerx asked, one eyebrow raised.

“That wasn’t a riddle,” Carwen said.  “That wasn’t even vague.”

xSlayerx dismissed her impudence with a wave of his hand and turned his attention back to the old man.

“Tell us what you have, old man, and what we can to do obtain it.”

The old man pulled back his hood to reveal that he was, indeed, very old.  His hair was stark white and his face deeply lined.  He leered at Carwen, which made her skin crawl.

“I have within my possession, passed down to me by the great Sage Dunhard, translated at great pains into the common tongue…” He looked around conspiratorially and partially drew forth a bit of folded parchment from beneath his cloak.  Two leaned forward expectantly, Carwen rolled her eyes.

“This is a map of the Dark Lord’s fortress that lies at the end of this road.  It will help you get inside.”

“You mean a schematic,” Carwen said.

The old man eyed her with displeasure.  “What?”

“Schematic.  Or layout.  Or floor plan.  It doesn’t make sense to say it’s map of the fortress.  Maps are used for areas of land.”

“What difference does it make?” he snapped, “I’m offering to give it to you!”

“Okay, so what do you want in return?” xSlayerx asked.

“Winter is approaching,” he said, “and I have not finished stocking my house for the snows to come.  If you will go into the woods and bring me back the thick hides of ten brown bears, and the rich flesh of ten hill bucks, and the tough sinew of ten wild boars, then you may have this map.”

xSlayerx tugged the other two back several paces so they could talk amongst themselves.

“That sounds fair.”

“You can’t be serious,” Carwen said.

“If we each take one part of his request, I’m sure we can be done in no time,” Yolo67 ventured, despite Carwen’s gaze piercing his soul with promises of pain later.

“He gives us a map, but only if we spend the next three weeks helping him get ready for winter?  I’m pretty sure my mom told me a story about this when I was a kid,” Carwen said.

Ignoring her, xSlayerx went right on ahead making the plans.  “Right.  I’ll take the deer.  Yolo, you kill the boar, and Carwen, you can off the bears.”

She folded her arms, her eyes narrowing.  “I have a better idea.”

“Sorry, but I’m allergic to bears,” xSlayerx said.

She sighed and turned, nocked an arrow, and let it fly.  The old man let out a cry of pain as he clutched at the shaft jutting from his chest.  A moment later he fell over dead.   Carwen walked over and relieved him of the map.

“Carwen, what are you doing?” Yolo67 cried.  “He was going to help us!”

“I’m not on this quest to run errands for lazy, creepy old men who can’t be arsed to prepare for their own needs,” she said, handing the map to xSlayerx.  “What would he have done first if we hadn’t come along, starved or frozen?”

xSlayerx opened his mouth, then shut it again.

“He probably had plenty and just wanted to get rid of us.”

Yolo67 couldn’t come up with a counter-argument to that.  Now that she mentioned it, it did seem a bit fishy.

“And you have to admit,” xSlayerx said at last, “it is quicker this way.”

Carwen rifled through his belongings to see if there was anything else of value to take while xSlayerx examined the map.

Yolo67 looked at the old man dead on the ground, at xSlayerx, then to Carwen.  “Yeah, I wasn’t really looking forward to hunting boar, anyway.  They’re nasty suckers.”

Carwen divided the dried meats she found into three portions and handed Yolo67 and xSlayerx their share.  “Come on, we can probably make the fortress by nightfall now.”

Yolo67 and xSlayerx looked at one another and nodded.

“Yep, good point.”

“Alright, let’s keep going.”

 

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Prophecies Are Funny Things

The hem of her dress hung in shreds around her bloodied legs where the thorns had grabbed and ripped.  Though she could not yet see them through the dense forest, the howl of the dogs grew closer; they would overtake her at any moment.  She could not outrun them; her only concern now was securing her child before it was too late.

A strength found only in the need of a mother to protect her daughter propelled her up the tree to where the trunk split three ways, forming a natural cradle where she tucked the babe and then covered her with moss for warmth.  Without time to give even a last kiss, she dropped back to the ground and ran down toward the river.

She knew they would not find the child on her body and would hunt for it, so she had kept the blanket, wrapped now around a stone and clutched tight to her breast.  The turbulent waters would carry her away and the sharp rocks would do the work of the dogs.  She had wanted this to be a last act of defiance: let them find her body and be denied their blood-lust, but it was too late.  Even as she plunged into the water, the arrow found her back.

When they approached the river, they found the blanket caught on a snag just down stream.  Her body came to rest a mile down on the riverbank.  They dragged her from the water and turned her over on the grass.

The leader, Brugar, a bear of a man, stepped forward and drew his axe, lining up his blow before taking off her head with a single stroke.  When he lifted it by the hair and held it up, the other hunters erupted into wild shouts of victory.

“Let it be known,” Brugar cried, “Sigrithr the witch is dead; her demon-child drowned.  The prophecy is  powerless!”

Brugar stuck her head on a pole, holding it aloft as the troupe marched back to the village, making such a sound they did not even notice the child, nor the male figure crouched over her, in the tree above their heads.  When the hunters were far past, the figure lifted the child into his arms, finding a scroll tucked in with her.  He put the scroll into his pouch and held the child up to see her.

“Ah, there went your mother, little one,” he cooed, bouncing her gently in his arms.  “A sad day.  Now you are an orphan, but don’t fret.  I will take care of you.”

She yawned and made some little whimpers.  He cradled her in two arms and she settled back into sleep, closing a hand around one of his fingers on his third hand.  He took his mantle off to wrap around her, for though she was covered with a rich, brown fur starting at her waist and down her hind’s legs, the top half was still bare human skin and no doubt cold.

A woman appeared out of the forest and came to stand at the base of the tree, her wolf looking up, ears perked in curiosity.  “What have you found, Renir?”

He stepped off the edge of the tree, floating easily to the ground on leathery wings.

“The witch’s child,” he said.  “Hidden here with-”

“Enri’s child?” she said, peering at the bundle in Renir’s arms.  “Give her to me.”

“Meet your aunt, Inanna,” Renir whispered as he eased the babe into her arms.   He gave her cheek a little caress and grinned as she fussed and gurgled, eyes closed.  “We will have to name her.”

Inanna nodded.  “I will return and seek the council’s advice.”

“You could take council with me,” Renir said, his smile fading.  He had been reaching into his pouch to take out the scroll he had found with the child, but now he paused.  “Or am I not to be the child’s adopted father?  It was I who found her.”

“She is Enri’s heir, and my kin,” Inanna reminded him, not liking what Renir was implying.  “You may have been the one to fetch her, but that hardly entitles you to further claims.”

“I can be her adopted father without being your consort,” Renir snapped, then softened his voice when the child sounded as though she might cry.  “She will need a father.”

“Enri is her father,” Inanna said between clenched teeth.  Her wolf growled and took a step forward.

“And he is dead by the same hands as those who slew her mother,” he said, trying to temper his anger.  “I offer only to stand in his place in the care and guardianship of her, not claim her away from him.  Or you.”  He let that final phrase ambiguous, letting her draw from it whatever interpretation she wished, whether he was speaking of the child or of herself.

Inanna looked at the child in her arms, caressing her palm over the girl’s head barely covered with hair but already showing her two tiny horns.  “I will seek the council’s advice,” she repeated at last.  “If they agree with you, I will not stand in your way.  But if they side with me, do not think to interfere.”

“As my Lady wishes.”  Renir gave a mock bow and disappeared, deciding to keep the scroll secret for now.

Inanna stood in the growing gloom of the forest and gazed down at her niece and daughter.  “We will destroy them, you and I.  We will squeeze every last drop of blood from them for what they have done.”

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We Drink Because We’re Poets, Thursday Poetry Prompt #9

Once again I’ve been inspired by we drink because we’re poets and have written a poem for their Thursday Poetry Prompt #9

Guess what today’s prompt is, people? Today, and for the next few days, your task is to create a “magical recipe” that has unintended consequences…in the form of a poem! There are no constraints on this piece as far as form, so go with a form of your choosing!

And may I *highly* recommend you visit the original entry and read the first submission.  It’s a scream!  (You especially, Evan, will appreciate its… ehem… imagery.)

Watch That Last Step

Boil a pail of rabbit’s blood,
Mix with earth to form a mud,
Then crush and add a nightshade bud
When Autumn’s moon is whole.

Scale of dragon, dried and cured,
A phoenix feather, deftly procured,
One poppy bloom, fully matured,
Ground in a mortar bowl.

The mingled juice of lovers’ play,
Three reddish toadstools, picked today,
One token from a werewolf’s prey,
And one from a fallen soul.

Hair from a satyr’s cloven feet,
A pint of milk from Hathor’s teat,
Tears from a dryad, bottled neat,
One last step to the goal –

All these items must combine,
Then mix it into some sweet wine.
All your wishes can be thine,
But you must pay the toll.

You drink and wait, but are you sure
You gathered only the most pure
To act the part of fortune’s lure?
Read the fine print on the scroll:

The last ingredient, you’ve guessed,
It was the heart within your chest –
As black as pitch, you failed the test –
Weep now, your fate to thole.