Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The El-Ari Sun

"The El-Ari Sun" was written one week ago, just not quite in time for the Wednesday update. It was the product of two prompts, the title, and the first line. Personally, I believe it lends itself to a great deal of expansion, so who knows, perhaps there will be more following in the future.

Please feel free to comment. Enjoy!
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The El-Ari Sun

“Kings can do that, you know,” Thaen replied in that smug, matter-of-fact way he had of talking, especially when he was making a point. All it did was make Enada madder, but for once, she managed to hold her tongue. She realized quickly that that was a mistake, since her silence only allowed Thaen to continue.

“It was by the Sun that the King was chosen, by the Sun that he was crowned, and by the Sun that he has ruled for over three hundred years. It is perfectly in his right to do with it as he pleases. And if that means he wants to destroy it, he can do it.”

Enada squinted her eyes at her brother. Normally, that look made him shrink and cower, even though he was almost four years older than she was. He wasn’t cowering now. He was right. “But what are we going to do without the Sun? The crops need it, and without it, how will we see and keep warm? Does the King not think what will happen to us after he destroys it?”

Thaen shrugged. “I don’t suppose so, but that hasn’t stopped him from sending for every wizard across the Four Districts to do it. A few arrived this morning, before you were awake.”

“He can’t destroy the Sun!” Enada stormed off, away from her strangely-complacent brother, in search of someone who would agree with her.

***

Thaen watched his sister leave, shaking his head at her silliness. The King had always had his way, since long before their mothers were born. Thaen only vaguely remembered his mother; she had been dismissed from the King’s lists while Thaen was still young. It was Enada’s mother who had taken over his upbringing, and she still remained one of the King’s favorites, even after almost twenty years. That was unheard of. Of all the King’s women, three hundred and forty-one years worth of them, only Enada’s mother Lupreesa, had kept the King’s interest for more than a decade.

Thinking about his foster mother made Thaen want her comfort. He strode through the familiar, lavishly decorated hallways, his bare feet making no noise on the marble floors. More of his brothers and sisters were around, older and younger ones, almost as many as there had been mothers to bear them. He was one of the oldest who still had no duties of his own; he had yet to be singled out and set to a task for the rest of his life. Soon, he would be noticed and sent to the clerk tables or to the fields, wherever space could be found for him. That he was a Prince, the King’s own son, gave him no privileges as an adult. There were Princes by the score, and only Vesradu was exempt from a job. He was the oldest living now, and he would be the King next, whenever the King decided his time was finished. Vesradu was nearing his seventieth name day, and looked every day of it, while the King, through the grace of the Sun, looked not a day over twenty-nine. Dozens of Princes had lived their lives, waiting, and died without sitting the throne. There were still dozens to go before Thaen would hold the cushy position of King-in-Waiting.

The marble under his feet abruptly gave way to cool, soft grass, and he smiled at the familiar sight of the tanati garden, where Lupreesa and many of the other women passed their time with the smallest children. Thaen remembered his long-ago days splashing in the pools and wrestling his brothers in the grass under the watchful eye of the King’s women. He had outgrown it now.

There, sitting on a green-and-blue veined marble bench, wearing nothing but a long purple cloth that covered the King’s private parts of her, was Lupreesa. A tiny dark-haired baby, her most recent son, was in her arms and held against her, suckling. Thaen strolled to the bench and sat on the grass.

“You are troubled, Thaen-prince,” she said, adjusting her hold on the baby so she could reach out one hand to smooth his hair. Thaen closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the gentleness of her touch. “It is about the Sun,” she continued, stating it as a certainty rather than a question.

He leaned back on the grass and told her what Enada had said.

“Yes, she was already here, looking for others who shared her ideas of what should or shouldn’t be done with the Sun. It is not for you to worry, Thaen, nor for her to interfere. The King is absolute. It is by the Sun that he rules, and it is by the Sun that we submit to his will.”

“But what will happen if he destroys the Sun? Is that not what has given him his god-life? Is the Sun not what will give the god-life to the next King when he comes? How will the Four Districts keep under a King who will not live long enough to sustain the peace?”

“That is King’s business and best kept out of the minds of Princes,” Lupreesa said softly. The baby in her arms began to fidget and fuss. “And it is far more than I can hope to understand. Trust in the King and the Sun, as you always have and stop your questioning, Thaen-prince.”

***

Enada’s search was unfruitful, which was more than she could stand. Her sisters were everywhere in the palace, and none were of any help. Zual, Sayash, Ryntia, and Irquee pestered her to play at balls in the grass; Samest, Soash, Alerana, Belsale, and Uskina wanted to brush and braid her hair and paint her with skin-dye to make her beautiful like a bride; Fina and Daneldi and twenty others simply turned their backs when they realized that she had come to discuss matters of the Sun. None of them were of any use. And her brothers were worse. Of all the boys, Thaen was the only one who treated her like more than just a girl, but her conversation with him had gone terribly.

She found herself in the King’s wing, staring at the gilded carvings on the wall, a long row of golden images of the Sun. Blood was pounding in her ears, and she knew her face was deep red from frustration and anger. The carved line of Suns stared back at her, and she decided at that moment to go deeper into the King’s wing than she had ever been allowed. She crept along toward the chamber where the Sun was kept.

***

Thaen felt a shiver down his back for no reason. The temperature was warm as always, there was nothing to frighten him, he was in good shape… there was no reason for the shiver, but there it was. He almost forgot about it after a moment, but then something else came unbidden: a thought. Enada. She was in trouble. Or was going to be. But where was she, and what kind of trouble?

The Sun. Of course! It would have something to do with the El-Ari Sun, the medallion that the King wore sometimes, the emblem that gave him his god-life, that shone on him and made him King those centuries ago, the Sun he was determined to destroy. Thaen broke into a run, toward the chamber where he was certain he would either find Enada and the Sun, or he would find neither if she had already run somewhere with it.

The gilded door of the chamber where the Sun was kept was closed, but it opened smoothly and silently when Thaen pushed. He slipped soundlessly inside and eased the door closed behind him. It was dark, almost too dark to see. The El-Ari Sun was still on its pedestal, the golden disc shining, giving off its own light, but not enough to illuminate the whole chamber. It didn’t even give off enough light for him to see his own hand before his face. Except for the Sun, it was pitch black. He stepped forward warily. Had he been wrong? Was the shiver really meaningless? Where was Enada?

His feet moved, closing the distance between him and the Sun. His eyes wouldn’t leave the golden medallion, but he knew it was his sister he was really searching for. He came close enough to the Sun to feel the warmth it gave off. His hand reached out, growing visible in the disc’s faint light. He was drawn to it, almost against his will. Where was Enada? Why couldn’t he tear his hand away?

“My own children…” Thaen knew his father’s voice only a little; the King had no time for any of his dozens upon dozens of children, except for his heir, Vesradu. At first, Thaen didn’t know who it was that had spoken, but the Sun gave a great flash. Thaen was blinded for a moment, but when his eyes adjusted and came back into focus, he could see everything in the chamber. On the other side of the Sun’s pedestal was the King, looking no older than a young man in his prime, draped in rich silver and indigo cloth and ornamented with gems and gold; precious stones and small gold and silver ornaments had even been set into and pierced into his deep bronze skin. One of his gem-encrusted hands was stretched out over the El-Ari Sun; the other arm was wrapped around Enada’s neck and shoulders, holding her tightly to him.

“My own children seek to dethrone me, to steal my power and my god-life. Take him.”

Hands seized Thaen’s shoulders, arms, and legs. He was dragged past the Sun’s pedestal and held still next to the King and Enada. Only then did he notice the strangely-clothed men lining the walls of the chamber. Some wore small floppy hats, some wore tall pointed ones, and some were bareheaded. A few wore dazzling robes in colors Thaen had never seen; some were in plainly colored short tunics and breeches like common farmers. All had wizened looks on their faces, and all looked intently at either the King or the Sun. These must be the wizards the King had sent for.

“Get on with it before any more of my children come to steal the Sun from me, or anyone else. Destroy the Sun!” the King demanded. Thaen tried to break away from the men-- the King’s guards-- who were holding him. Their hold was too strong. In the King’s arm, Enada was thrashing and kicking and trying to squeal, but their father’s arm covered her mouth and stifled her pleas. Even as she kicked him, the King seemed to feel nothing. He certainly didn’t let her free.

The wizards all made different hand gestures and intoned numerous strange-sounding words. It appeared that every one of them had his own way of conjuring, but at the same moment, crackling bolts of light shot from their hands in as many different colors as there were wizards-- red, blue, yellow-gold, green-grey, indigo, silvery-white-- all aimed at the Sun. Thaen felt the crackling behind his eyes and was forced to blink. When he managed to open his eyes again and look, the sun was on the pedestal, no longer shining, broken in two large pieces and looking not at all like gold anymore.

Enada screamed. The arm around her shoulders and neck was nothing but bone; there was not a bit of flesh clinging to it. There was nothing left of the clothes the King had worn. The jewels and ornaments he’d been pierced and adorned with were scattered on the floor.

Thaen broke loose from the stunned guards and pulled at the skeletal arm that still held his sister. It came away easily-- too easily, for it broke off at the elbow, and he found himself holding a good bit of his father’s arm. He dropped it hurriedly and watched the scene in front of him.

The wizards seemed less stunned than the guards. In fact, chaos erupted as all of them suddenly dashed towards the pedestal, arms outstretched for the two fragments of the El-Ari Sun. Before Thaen and the shaking Enada could move, one of the wizards got hold of one fragment at the same time another grabbed the other half. A fight ensued, the wizards forgoing all their conjuring for punches and kicks and scratching, all trying to get hold of one or both halves of the broken medallion. Thaen and Enada could do nothing but watch, afraid to move, afraid to do anything but watch the madness in front of them.

One of the wizards finally came up victorious. Separated from the mass of arms and legs striking and pulling and grabbing, he had both halves of the medallion. With a quick glance around him, he held the two halves over his head in what Thaen supposed was meant to be a grand gesture, and pushed the two halves together again as if trying to rejoin them. There was a loud crack and the Sun fell to the floor in two pieces; nothing of the wizard remained except a small pile of bone dust.

At the sound, the other wizards abruptly froze in their fight and turned their attention to the fallen Sun. When they saw the remains of their comrade and the pieces of medallion on the floor, the fight began anew.

Twice more, there were loud cracks and sudden disappearances of wizards, until they finally appeared to get the idea that rejoining the pieces of the Sun was a bad idea. In a mass, they fled the chamber until Thaen and Enada were all that remained, them and their father’s skeleton, three mounds of dust, and the broken Sun.

Thaen finally let go of his sister and warily approached one of the pieces. Enada whimpered softly as he bent down and lifted the half. It was surprisingly light in his hand, not at all like the weight of gold. He gently pressed it into Enada’s hand. “Give this to your mother, but wait until you’re alone, and give me some time to get away.”

She stammered for words as he took up the second half and wrapped it in a strip of cloth torn from his own tunic. He was almost out the chamber door when she finally called after him, “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to bury this. Far away. Tell your mother what happened. Exactly what happened. Make sure Vesradu knows, too, and make sure he’s a good King. I love you, sister.”

***

Enada was frozen in place as Thaen disappeared out the chamber door. The piece of the Sun he had left in her hand was warm, but not hot. It was light for its size. She stood in place, her eyes wandering around the chamber, taking in all that had happened in the last hour. Clutching the fragment to her, she ran to tell her mother that the King was dead.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Drawings

"Drawings" was written in early 2007, one of the sudden burst of short stories I wrote at the turn of the year. All comments are welcome!

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Drawings

If she could imagine it, she could draw it.

That’s the way it was with Ronda Melbourne. Anything she could conceive of in her mind, she could get on paper with every detail where it was supposed to be. So great was her skill with the pencil that she had illustrated almost a dozen novels by the time she became a teenager. It didn’t take much for her to completely visualize anything, either. But getting it onto paper was a different story. Once a drawing was in her head, she would stop at nothing to get it down. Homework, tests, conversations, meals– all of that would be forgotten if a picture came to her. Her sketchbook and pencils were never far from her– in fact, they were the two things she would remember even if she forgot everything else.

She never drew her friends or family, never sketched landscapes as she looked at them, never penciled still life set up before her; everything she drew came out of her head, but there were times when someone would see a portrait she did of a character and would promptly ask how she knew so-and-so, since she had drawn him, or remark that they had seen that wooden bridge on a hike in the woods at such-and-such a location, and they would not be convinced that Ronda had made up that person or that location in her mind. But almost every picture she showed people would have a remark or two like that made by somebody.

She was gripped in the throes of a sketching in the middle of an algebra test now, her work forgotten, her teacher forgotten; only her pencil strokes meant anything to her now. It was a person– a young man– her own age: sixteen. He was a character of her own design– not belonging to any book or story in particular, but a normal young man, who could very well fit into her normal high school in her normal city. He was handsome, though not gorgeous– she doubted any of her classmates would make so much as a remark of his looks. If she showed this picture to them, that was. Even before her pencil first touched the paper to begin this portrait, Ronda had decided no one would ever see this drawing except her. Ever.

The teacher called for the tests to be turned in, but Ronda heard nothing. She didn’t even notice when the girl who sat in front of her grabbed her blank paper and turned it in for her. The bell rang a few minutes later, ending school, but Ronda didn’t move from her seat to catch the bus. His face wasn’t finished yet.

The teacher had nothing but patience for Ronda’s gift. He saw a talent in her, and he knew she was a good student who understood what it meant to work diligently, so he allowed her to remain in her seat to draw after the rest of the students were long gone. After a few minutes, he got up, left the room, and called Ronda’s parents, explaining to them why she wasn’t on the bus. He would call them again when Ronda was ready to come home, and by the way, she got an A on the test they had today. He reentered the classroom and began to grade the tests.

It got late. It got dark. Ronda finished the portrait as the sun disappeared, and she nearly jumped out of her seat when she looked out the window and saw darkness. Her algebra teacher was reading silently at his desk at the front of the room, and he looked up and smiled when he heard her move.

“Have you finished?”

Ronda blushed and nodded.

“I’ll call your parents to pick you up.”

***

Ronda didn’t sleep that night. She dug out her seldom-used colored pencils and began to add color to her portrait. The boy– she never named her characters or places– had charcoal black hair, deep grey-blue eyes, and fair skin. His hair came partway down his forehead in disheveled little locks that permanently looked wet, though the rest of his hair was well-tamed and appeared dry. His eyes were neither small nor large for his face, and though his cheekbones were a little high and his chin stuck out a bit, they suited him. He sat at a desk, his elbows rested atop it, his hands clasped at a level with this neck. His slightly-stuck-out chin rested lightly on his hands, and his face was tilted upward, his deep grey-blue eyes gazing intently at the space just over Ronda’s shoulder when she just held the paper. He was not looking at her, even when she was looking at him.

His T-shirt went from pencil grey to maroon next, and his grey pencil pants
became dark khakis as the sun began to rise. Brown shoes covered his feet, and Ronda closed her sketchbook and hurried out of the house just in time to catch the bus.

***

Ronda finished her pencil sketch of the boy and closed her sketchbook. She looked around, surprised to fins herself in a classroom again. Her algebra teacher called her parents to pick her up.

***

He was sitting at a table this time, talking to someone off the page to his left. His mouth was open partway, and he was leaning on the table, gesturing with one hand as the other sat on the table before him. He was wearing a brown leather jacket over a blue polo shirt this time, and the khakis had become blue jeans. He was wearing sneakers.

***

The school bell rang. Ronda stood, handed in her test, and left the room. Three weeks had passed since she drew the second portrait of the boy, and she had not picked up her pencils since. Her sketchbook she picked up every day– at least once every half-hour– and stared at both portraits for a few timeless minutes. She couldn’t stop looking at him.

A month passed. Two. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years... all passed slowly for Ronda, and she didn’t draw another line. Her pencils began to be left home in their case, and the case began to gather dust. Her sketchbook still went everywhere with her, but only because she didn’t dare remove the two portraits from it for fear of damaging them. She never touched them with her fingers, though she still stared at them fixedly for eternal seconds every few minutes.

***

The spring semester began. Ronda walked into her end-of-the-day algebra class and felt her heart rise to her throat. Sitting in the center row was... him.

He was wearing a maroon T-shirt, khakis, and brown shoes, but he was writing something on a spiral notebook on the desk in front of him. He suddenly looked up, resting his chin on one hand, tapping his pencil on the desk with the other, as he thought. He smiled faintly and began to write again.

Ronda managed to walk to her seat on legs that seemed made of rubber. She sank into her chair, not bothering to open her sketchbook and look at the portrait to compare. There was no reason. She knew what she had drawn. It was him. Zale Egerton, according to the teacher’s roll-call.

If he didn’t notice her staring at him, others did. Rumors began to circulate about Ronda’s crush on the new boy, but he seemed oblivious to both the rumors and her stares. And Ronda didn’t care about the rumors. She didn’t know what had made her draw him, or why she couldn’t keep her eyes from him, but as she watched him, she grew more and more attracted to him. She had never felt attracted to the figure in the portraits, but those were just pencil marks on paper. This was a real human being, her age, in her class.

And she couldn’t keep him from her thoughts.

***

Ronda drew furiously. It had been almost four months since she had picked up a pencil for the purpose of drawing, but that did nothing to curb her ability. She drew a picture of herself in a prom dress she had seen in a catalogue, and Zale was next to her in a tuxedo. His vest and tie matched the exact shade of midnight blue her dress was. In a split second, she found she had colored it, as well. She had never sketched herself before, and it frightened her. The drawing was perfect, right down to the tiny childhood scar that marked the right side of her chin. And Zale... of course he looked just like himself. She had drawn him twice before, and she knew every detail of his face from the hours staring at him.

Almost the second she finished the prom portrait, Ronda ripped it from her sketchbook and tore it to pieces.

***

“Ronda?”

The voice came from behind her, but she didn’t need to see the owner of the voice to know who it was. No one else at school had that accent.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

Zale was wearing his trademark brown leather jacket over a blue polo shirt. He set his lunch tray on the table and sat in the empty chair on Ronda’s right. There was hardly anything on his tray– just a bowl of fruit salad and a carton of orange juice. And the yellow spiral notebook he never seemed to be without.

“Ronda, I was wondering... do you have a date for prom yet?”

She had never spoken to him before.

“No...”

“Well then, I... uh...was wondering if you’d... perhaps... like to go with me?”

Ronda went pale and blushed at the same time. Her voice seemed to have disappeared for the moment, so she just nodded.

***

The rumors came true, and frightened, Ronda put away her pencils and her sketchbook. She didn’t draw a single curve or line for days, then for weeks, then months. The months became years, and Zale asked Ronda to marry him. She couldn’t refuse.

Months more passed, and Ronda was suddenly overcome with the need to draw. She spent hours searching for her sketchbook and pencils before she found them again, and she spent the rest of the day drawing a little boy with sandy blonde hair and stone-colored eyes. She drew four portraits of him before she put the pencils away again.

***

Miles was born three years after his parents were married. He had a tiny tuft of dark blonde hair in the middle of his head when he was born, and he had grey eyes that looked up intelligently, even as an infant and toddler.

Miles was never lucky enough to have a younger brother or sister. But his father read countless bedtime stories for him, most of them read out of the tattered yellow spiral notebooks he kept in a drawer with his socks. Miles loved them.

He grew to look exactly like the portraits Ronda drew, and she didn’t have to look at them to know it.

***

“Mom, what’s this?”

Miles, seventeen and handsome, was looking around in the attic, sorting through old clothes and other things to get rid of, when he uncovered an old sketchbook in a box of his baby clothes.

Before Ronda could stop him, he had opened it and was looking at the drawings.

“Wow... Mom, who did these? They’re amazing! Is that... Dad?”

Ronda’s mouth felt cemented shut and dry as the desert.

“This one... is that me? This one, too! And this one! Mom, did you draw these?”

It was all she could do to nod. His stony eyes were able to pierce through her with amazing swiftness.

“These are really good. Why did you stop drawing?” He flipped through the last half of the sketchbook– all blank pages.

A shrug was all she could manage.

“You should take it up again, Mom. You’ve got a great talent. Do you think you can still do it? I’d like to see how well you draw me now, and not as a baby.”

Ronda resisted with every ounce of strength she had. But Miles pressed the sketchbook into her hands, and it seemed immediately to fall to the next blank page. In the same box of baby clothes, Miles found a dusty pencil case and pressed it into her hands, as well.

***

Ronda drew for hours with Miles sitting, not really posing, before her. When he realized she didn’t need to look at him to draw him, he walked behind her and watched over her shoulder. She didn’t seem to mind.

In plain grey pencil, she drew Miles as he was at the moment: sweaty and covered with dust, wearing an old T-shirt that was a little too small and blue jeans with a hole in the left knee. Ratty old sneakers were on his feet. He stood with both hands slightly raised from their natural hanging positions, as if he were reaching out to touch something just before him. His mouth was slightly open, and his eyes had a hint of confusion and wonder in them.

“That’s amazing, Mom,” came a whisper from Miles’s lips.

Ronda continued to draw. A tall oval surrounded the portrait of Miles. A few reflective strokes made it glass. Petal-like protrusions came from the bottom of the glass oval, closing upward, encasing the pencil figure.

***

Miles’s vision distorted, like he was looking through a curved glass bottle, or through the hazy heat of a bonfire. Something was between him and his mother, who continued to draw like there was nothing in the world but her, the paper, and the pencil.

He no longer felt the gritty dust of the attic under his feet. He was standing on a smooth surface that curved upward slightly. His hands came up, his jaw dropped a bit, and his head turned around and upward as he looked at his glass prison. More shells of glass, each layer more opaque than the one before, closed upward, blocking his view of his mother.

Miles began to scream. He pounded on the walls of the glass prison with his fists, but the layers of glass closed on him. He was in darkness and could see and hear nothing. He felt himself fell upward and felt as though he were being ripped to pieces, though he remained whole.

***

Ronda continued to draw on the next page. It was Zale, her husband, in this one, the man she had only drawn three times as a boy, though one portrait she had torn up upon completion. He stood in the doorway of the attic room, the half-open door partially obscuring him. He was still in his work clothes, though his tie was now loosened, and the collar of his shirt was unbuttoned. The coat of his suit was draped over the top of his briefcase, which he still held in one hand.

***

Zale came home from work and called for his wife and son. He slung his recently-removed coat jacket over his briefcase and loosened his tie as he walked up the stairs to the second-floor bedroom he shared with his wife. He was turning to go to the bedroom when he saw the attic door at the top of the stairs cracked open. The sound of writing came from up there, loud in the silence of the big house.

“Ronda? Miles? What are you doing in the attic?”

He turned and began to climb the stairs.

***

Ronda was sitting, facing the door of the attic when Zale half-appeared in the door. She was bent over a thick sketchbook, drawing fiercely on a page he couldn’t see. She didn’t look up when he walked in.

“Ronda, what are you doing up...”

Something prevented him from stepping forward. His foot hit a clear barrier that sloped slightly upward. A slightly distorted Ronda sat drawing before him now, on the other side of what appeared to be glass. Zale dropped his briefcase and coat and pressed at the glass before him with both hands, but it did not give way. Segments of glass like flower petals closed in on the glass barrier surrounding him, making his small glass cell darker with each closing layer. With all his strength, Zale pushed at the darkening wall in front of him.

Darkness closed him into his prison, and Zale felt himself falling forward, backward, downward– in all directions at once. Unseen blades cut him to bits, but he remained in one piece.

***

Ronda closed her sketchbook. Her pencil fell limply from her hand and clattered to the floor, breaking at the tip. The girl who sat in front of her nicely picked up the dropped writing utensil and handed it back to her. She turned around and resumed working on her test.

Ronda put her sketchbook in her backpack and looked at the paper on her desk covered with algebra equations. She wrote her name at the top of the page without glancing at the problems. Instead, she looked down at her open backpack and the sketchbook inside.

If she could imagine it, she could draw it.

That was the way it was with Ronda Melbourne.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Mocking Glass

"The Mocking Glass" was written for a competition in which the submission had to be less than 1000 words. There were a variety of small elements to choose from, two of which had to be incorporated into the story. The two I chose were "ruby eyes" and "freefall".

I didn't win the contest, but I got some good feedback. Enjoy!
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The Mocking Glass

Quinn pushed on the door as hard as she could, but it wouldn’t give. She tried pushing from her shoulder, from her hip, from her leg, but the door didn’t move. Her cousin had told her what was in there, the looking glass that would show you something mysterious, and she wanted to see it. And now Stewart was gone, it was the perfect chance to sneak in, and she couldn’t get into his room because the door was stuck. But she wanted to see it. The glass was in there, and she wanted to, no had to see it.

She thought she heard a thump of the front door, which could mean that either Stewart or her aunt and uncle were home, but there were no other sounds that might suggest she was not alone. She pushed the door with her shoulder again. As if someone else had turned the knob and pulled, the door swung open, throwing her onto the floor just inside Stewart’s bedroom. A baseball rolled to the edge of the dresser next to her, teetered on the edge for a moment, and fell, hitting Quinn on the left eye. She let out a little squeal, but that was all. Dusting herself off, she stood and replaced the baseball on the dresser.

And there it was. It looked just like a regular mirror, more like one you would find in a girl’s room, big and framed, than you’d find in the sanctuary of a sixteen-year-old boy. Stewart said he’d gotten it at a flea market, and the lady who’d sold it to him had been a witch or a gypsy. He wasn’t sure. Quinn peered at it from an angle, not wanting to see her reflection in it; the things her cousin told her he’d seen frightened her a little. Stop acting like a little kid, she thought. Just look. She inched over, keeping her eyes on the floor, until she thought she was right in front of the looking glass. She lifted her eyes.

Her reflection stared back at her: plain, straight brown hair with no luster, boring green eyes, a few pale freckles, long nose. She wanted to hit Stewart. He’d find out about this and laugh at her. There was nothing special about this looking glass. He’d tricked her again. He was so mean.

She stuck her tongue out at her reflection. She’d get back at him. He’d tricked her too many times. The baseball on the dresser was in her hand before she realized what she was going to do with it, and a second later she had it pulled back and was throwing it at the mirror with a force she’d picked up from her softball coach.

The glass didn’t break.

She glared at her reflection in the still-flawless mirror. Her reflection stuck its tongue out at her. She blinked, not sure if she was seeing things or if she was just angry. And then her eyes turned red. In the reflection, her hair was still plain and brown, her nose too long, but her eyes had gone ruby, her eyebrows pulled down in a ferocious look.

The door slammed shut. She heard laughter that sounded like it was coming from the mirror. Or was it coming from her? Her reflection wasn’t laughing. Those crimson eyes were staring back at her, and the baseball was in its hand, tossing it up menacingly. She heard the laugh again, and this time she felt it coming from her own gut, but only her reflection was smiling. The mirror-Quinn hauled back and hurled the baseball at her. She heard the unmistakable sound of glass shattering and knew it was the mirror, but all she saw was a baseball flying at her face. It connected with her forehead before she could move.

She stumbled backward and fell. It felt like she was going in slow-motion. Laughter surrounded her and pressed in like smoke. Everywhere she looked, she saw those ruby eyes, staring at her. She should have hit the floor by now, but she knew from the laughing that there was no floor there to catch her. There never would be. She opened her eyes, not sure when she closed them. A single huge pair of ruby eyes stared back at her, their corners made into crows’ feet from the laughter of an invisible mouth. Around them was a frame like the mirror’s. It grew further away, the frame, but the eyes were always there.

And then they were gone. She was standing on solid ground. She opened her eyes, and a pair of bland green eyes stared back at her. They were part of a body that was lying on the ground by a bed, in a bedroom that no doubt belonged to a teenage boy. The eyes were unblinking, the face pale and no doubt cold, the chest failing to rise and fall with breath.

The mocking glass laughed. She laughed with it, so hard that the dresser it was on shuddered and trembled. A baseball fell off the edge and rolled to a stop next to the ear of the dead girl.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Identifying Shadows

Written this very night, here is "Identifying Shadows." At first, I wasn't sure where this was going. But I was determined to write. So I suppose you could blame this story on a need to write and a few rather unhelpful generators. I finally wound up putting a few random words together and got the title.

By the time I was past the first page, I still didn't know where the story was going. And then it ended, and I had a "huh..." moment.

I'm pleased with this story. It surprised me. Enjoy!

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Identifying Shadows

I got the point right away. She obviously didn’t want to be recognized, but I didn’t know why. But there she was, standing almost right in front of me in the crowd, wearing the stereotypical trench coat and fedora that practically screamed, “I’m incognito!” She had recognized me, of course, since I wasn’t in “disguise,” and she made a point to gesture fervently at me not to blow her cover. And, like the obedient friend I am, I kept quiet.

I wasn’t however, obedient enough to forget I’d seen her, or to keep myself from following her. It wasn’t hard to keep track of her; that silly getup she was wearing actually made her easier to track than if she’d been dressed normally. But no one else seemed to pay much attention to her. They were all too busy dealing with their own lives, their own destinations, to pay any attention to either of us.

In keeping with her silly stereotypical adventure, she ducked down a badly-lit alley, between a foul-smelling, overfilled dumpster and some half-rotted wooden crates and torn, soggy cardboard boxes. Walking into the alley was like walking into a wall; the smells of the place just suddenly began assaulting your lungs and nose hairs in a very valiant attempt to burn them out. I had to cover my nose; the alley probably ranked numbers one through four on the “Odors to Make You Vomit” list. I actually gagged a few times and once had to spit to get the taste of the foul air out of my mouth. What surprised me was that she didn’t seem to mind it. The silly, highbred, haughty girl didn’t have a problem with such a hair-raising stench as this. I’d seen her complain at a thumbnail’s amount of mud on her ankle, but she could withstand the smell of this alley better than I could. I wanted to puke. I wanted to puke badly.

And as suddenly as the stenches had hit me, they were gone. It was as if I had walked into another wall, but this one was just plain city air. The mingled aromas of oil, exhaust fumes, street trash and human sweat had never smelled so sweet.

I realized she was gone. I’d lost her. I checked my surroundings; there were over a dozen doorways, other side alleys, and a thousand nooks and crannies she could have disappeared into. Looking behind me, I decided against heading back through the Rotten Air Alley to get home. So for awhile I just stood there, with my back to Rotten Air Alley, looking disinterestedly around me and not really even thinking about what I was going to do next. I was more than a little upset about losing track of my quarry; if nothing else, it had been fun following her, and I would have liked to know why she was trying to hide.

Now this was when I sort of lose track of exactly what happened. I know at some point I heard a voice making frequent paranoid comments. For a good while I heeded it, turning and looking about, sizing up my own situation and searching for danger at every whisper. But when there was nothing, I just started to ignore it. The scientist showed up… I’m not sure if it was before or after the voice did. The scientist was one of those stereotypical old guys in the white lab coat and dark slacks and thick glasses. At first he just pointed and shouted, but then he produced a gun from somewhere and began shooting recklessly at nothing.

And of course, I got hit. It didn’t hurt, really, not that I remember. Of the actual impact I have no recollection. I know there should have been blood, but I don’t remember that either. I don’t even remember where I was hit now. My only memory of this part was being on my knees on the asphalt, and I could only see the ground beneath me. No blood, not my own hand holding me up, nothing. Just the asphalt and the shadows cast from streetlamps.

There were far too many shadows on the ground in front of me. Many of them were small. Well, smaller than a human-sized shadow, anyway. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any that were larger than the shadow cast by your average-sized full-grown man. I immediately recognized my own, bent over double in pain, and the slow steady drip drip of blood. It was bright red in my shadow, drip drip, but not dripping into any puddle.

Vaguely, I believe I remember identifying the scientist’s shadow. At least, I think it was a shadow cast by a lab coat and glasses, and holding a gun. It was difficult to pick out. There was, definitely, another man-sized one right at my shoulder. A pair of shining chocolaty-brown eyes peered out of the shadow. It was leaned in by my ear, and… maybe this was when I first heard the voice whispering paranoia at me.

One of the smaller shadows-- one the size of a small terrier dog-- hopped and jumped and dashed out of the-- as best as I can describe-- pile of shadows in front of my face. I of course watched it. And in following its path, I noticed a discarded fedora on the ground not far from me. I crawled over to it.

It was her. Well, the hat wasn’t her. The hat wasn’t even on her head anymore. But it was near her. She was unmoving, her body lying still next to the curb and obstructed from my view before by a pile of full trash bags. She was dead.

When I turned back around, I finally saw what I knew I would see: my own body.

I think I knew I was dead at the beginning. Even before then… when I first saw her and started following her, I think I knew, somewhere deep in my gut, that I was going to die. It was pretty painless, so I decided I’d keep with it. No sense trying to be one of those clich├ęd ghosts that tries to keep ties with the living world and find their way back into their own body and keep on existing that way. I was dead; might as well enjoy it.

A crowd had begun to gather. Their terrified cries and gasps at the scene before them were muffled in my ears. I watched for awhile as they poked at my body and at hers. They were kind of funny.

Then I saw her. She lifted a finger to her lips and gave me a look that said, “Don’t give me away.”
I got the point right away. She obviously didn’t want to be recognized, but I didn’t know why. But there she was, standing almost right in front of me in the crowd, wearing the stereotypical trench coat and fedora that practically screamed’ “I’m incognito!” She had recognized me, of course, since I wasn’t in “disguise,” and she made a point to gesture fervently at me not to blow her cover. And, like the obedient friend I am, I kept quiet.

I wonder… is there a death after death? Maybe I’ll just follow her and find out.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last Knight

"The Last Knight" was written either in December 2005 or January 2006. I'm not entirely certain, because at the turn of the year I wrote eleven short stories in a week. Chances have it this was actually written in December, because I believe it was one of the first to be turned out that week. Obviously, this is an earlier work of mine: nearly four years old. Read this and then read "The Hermit's Week" and compare. My style has definitely changed in the last four years!

Enjoy!

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The Last Knight

The King was dying, and with him, the Kingdom. Wifeless and heirless, the boy King was growing weaker day by day, and the Heads of the Noble Houses were already preparing for the bloody fight they knew would follow his death, each planning on grabbing hold of the Throne and as much land as they could. The King had been wasting away gradually for months now, perhaps even years, and he would probably linger for months more, but nothing was certain. Nothing, that is, except the end of the centuries-long reign of the Osmond Kings.

The five Noble Houses: Ithel, Dumaka, Dorrel, Arlen, and Volker, were already gathering force. The dozens of Lesser Houses had already been forced to pledge fealty to one Noble House or another; mercenaries had been hired at great costs to fight for one side; many of the King’s Knights were either killed or forced into service of the Houses.

The Knights’ Wing of the castle was half-emptied. Only the Knights most loyal to the Crown remained, and even their small number now dwindled day by day as Knight after Knight was unable to avoid being killed by those who didn’t want them to defend the Crown. The boy King had no living relatives, even distant ones, but he knew his end was near and had named Tavor, a most loyal Knight and advisor, as the one to succeed him. Nearly all the remaining Knights had pledged fealty to him already. The commonfolk secretly hoped Tavor would become King; he was heroic, brave, some even said wise– all they could want in the next King. But he was not of Noble blood, and the Heads of the Noble Houses refused to think a man born of a farmer– no matter how heroic, brave, or wise– could rise above one of them and become King.

Tavor refused to lower himself to the level of the Noble Houses and plan the attack to take the Kingdom. He planned a defense: he was going to assure the castle, the symbol of the Crown and the great line of Osmond Kings, would not fall. Even if he died in the battle, he would not see the reminder of almost four centuries of great reign crumble.

Weeks passed, and the King’s health deteriorated. At age ten, the last of the Osmond Kings, Prewitt, died. Almost within the hour, war broke out in the Kingdom.


House Ithel, the smallest House, was the first to strike out, sending hordes of mercenaries to the castle walls. There were only a handful of Knight archers to defend the walls, but in an inexplicable feat, they managed to bring down one man after another, until those sent by Houses Dorrel and Arlen joined the attack. The outer wall was breached. Knight met mercenary in hand-to-hand combat, and Knight and mercenary fell, littering the castle courtyard with bodies and staining the ground with blood.

Tavor fought man after man, the sole man guarding the doorway that led to the inner courtyard and eventually to the castle proper. He already has taken half a dozen stab wounds to the arms, legs, and shoulder, and an arrow was jutting uncomfortably from his hip, but he continued to bring down man after man in defense of his King’s castle.

A moment of respite came to him, and he discarded his ruined shield, pulled the arrow from his side, and looked over the battle.

The bodies were piling high, and still the fight raged on top of the piles of corpses. There were less Knights wearing the golden circle crest of the Osmond Kings now, and more former Knights and soldiers wearing the blue, red, and purple circle crests of Ithel, Arlen, and Dorrel. There was still no sign of the green or silver crests of Volker or Dumaka. Where were the other Houses?

Another man came rushing at Tavor, pushing his curved blade deep into Tavor’s chest before he could react. In a last feat of desperation, Tavor lashed out with his sword, managing to slice through the man’s throat– he wore the red of Arlen, he noticed. But in doing so, he pushed the sword in him further across his own body, cutting deeply into much of his torso.

Tavor fell to his knees and only dimly noticed the door he was guarding was open. A small but strong hand reached down, pulled him into the inner courtyard and closed the door again. The same hand removed his helmet and probed the wound made by the blade still sticking out of him.

“Sir Tavor! You’ve... you’ve been stabbed!” The voice was Kayle’s, a squire’s.

“It was meant to be...” Tavor managed.

“No, Sir! You’re supposed to be the next King! This castle cannot fall!”

“Kayle, leave me... get out... three Houses... have scattered us... we... fall...”

With a sputter or blood and a violent shudder, Tavor was dead in the squire’s arms.

Kayle bowed over Tavor’s body and shed a single tear, then looked up at the door to the outer courtyard with dark eyes full of anger. Hours passed in the blink of an eye as the squire stared at the door. Even with Tavor defeated, no one had made it to the door yet... perhaps all five Houses were fighting with each other now. Kayle thought it must be so– the sounds of battle carried well over the walls, sending a deafening ring out of the castle and probably across the countryside.

Kayle stood and exchanged Tavor’s heavy helmet for the squire’s light one and took up Tavor’s bloodstained sword. It was little protection, as a simple cloth outfit and a small shirt of chainmail were all squires wore. The heavier helmet and the sword would make little difference, probably. Kayle didn’t care.

The pitched sounds of battle slowed to a stop. A heavy bang came at the door. Another. A third. Kayle waited.


The door broke, and the Heads of the Houses themselves rushed into the inner courtyard, racing to the Throne Room, each clamoring to be the first to sit. Each had a weapon of some sort– swords, mostly– and they slashed wildly at each other as they ran, hoping to delay or better yet kill one of their opponents. Mercenaries and commonfolk raced after them, armed and ready to defend or kill whoever sat on the Throne, depending on who it was.

The doors to the Throne Room flew open and hit the walls with a heavy thud. The Heads of the Houses raced the length of the Throne Room, only to come to a sudden halt ten feet from the Throne itself. In the seat was Tavor... but he was already dead. His body had been seen in the inner courtyard when they‘d raced by. It was an imposter: someone in Tavor’s crested helmet and bearing his heavy sword.


“What petty people!” The Tavor-imposter said in a voice that was nether man’s nor boy’s. “You would destroy a great and prosperous Kingdom and kill hundreds– thousands!– of people just to further your own selves?”

The imposter stood and threw Tavor’s heavy sword to the feet of the five Heads of Houses.

“A great tragedy has happened today. Two, in fact. Good King Prewitt is dead, yes, and that is a tragedy, but it is small compared to your own small-minded actions. You have killed a great man, the man who should have been King, and you’ve probably trampled his body to pieces in your ridiculous race to the Throne. What is this Throne? A chair! Simple wood! Yes, there is gold inlay and silk cushioning, but it is a chair! You’ve been fighting over a chair!

“The other great tragedy is the massacre of so many people who want nothing but to live in peace! These people,” the imposter waved a hand over the growing crowd of commoners that were filling the great Throne Room, “are the Kingdom. The Osmond line was great because they did not rule over the people. They ruled for the people. I have lived in the castle. I am young, but I have seen how King Prewitt’s father and even King Prewitt made decisions. Everything was decided by the question, ‘Is this what’s best for the commonfolk?’ Not for the Nobles, not for the King, for the commonfolk. And here you are, killing the commonfolk over the right to sit in a chair!

“You House Heads... or should I say House Asses, since that’s what you’re acting like... seem to have forgotten what made you Nobles! But I know history, and I will remind you.

“This great Kingdom began as a simple village. It grew and grew until it became a township and then a city. It was ruled by a Village Council, even when it grew so large that the Council contained almost fifty people. And it was still reliant on the produce of the farms, as we still are now.

“A crisis came upon the city: a violent Lord from another land wanted to steal our resources and destroy us. Our humble city was becoming a threat. From somewhere in our community of farmers came boys who picked up pitchforks and hatchets, kitchen knives and hammers, and defended our homeland from the Lord. Six survived.

“Those six boys grew into men, all of them brave and smart, since they wandered away for a time to find a better way to keep our community alive. When they returned, it was with one plan: they would turn our little city into a Kingdom, a small one, and rule it together. One King, and five Houses to support him. All the people saw the wisdom of the plan and agreed to it. But who would become the King, and who would become the first Heads of the Houses?

“The six friends, all now Knights, drew straws, and the first Osmond King was crowned. His throne was a haystack, and his crown was a plain cloth hat. His robe was a farmer’s jacket, and his scepter was his sword. His name was Wheaton, for he was a the humble son of a wheat farmer, but when he became the first King, he took the name Osmond. Divine Protector.

“His five friends became the founders of the five Noble Houses, but like Wheaton, they had simple farmer’s names. To always remind themselves of their duties to the people of our Kingdom, they took on different names.”

The Tavor-imposter stepped down from the throne and approached Ingram of House Arlen.

“Ingram Arlen, your name means ‘pledge’. Your ancestor, a simple cattleherd, pledged himself to the people. What have you pledged yourself to?

“Ali Dumaka. Your miller ancestor named himself the ‘helping hand’. How many of these people have you helped? Ever?

“Haroun Volker, descendant of the ‘people’s guard’. I saw you icily kill a half-crippled old man on your way to this room. You are quite a guard.

“Camilo Dorrel. You came from a farmhand, not even a landowner! Your farmhand ancestor named himself the ‘King’s doorkeeper’. Were you not the one who broke it down?

“Mehtar Ithel, you are descended of the ‘generous lord’. Have you ever wondered why your House is so small and lacks the vast wealth of the others? Much of your family’s earnings went back to the people: those who needed it.”

The imposter returned to the Throne. “I did not deserve to sit in this chair that has seated so many great men who never lost sight of what was most important. I am nowhere near their goodness. But for any of you to sit in it would be a crime. You do not deserve to be called Noble. Now kill me if you still want this chair. It would fit in with the other wrongs you’ve been doing.”

The Throne Room was silent for a long time. In the back of the room, someone broke the silence. “What is your name?”

“I am Kayle. I was a squire to the King.”

The voice returned. “King Kayle!”

The people kneeled one by one. It rippled from the back of the Throne Room to the front along with whispers of “King Kayle” and “The new King”. When finally the Heads of the Houses were the only ones left standing, they too knelt. Camile Dorrel pressed his head to the floor, and the others followed suit. It was a shepherd who was the first to rise. He picked up the discarded sword of Tavor and presented it to Kayle.

“My King. I can only beg you will rule as the Osmond line did.”

“I cannot be your King.” The squire’s voice had been lost, but it seemed to find its way back at just that moment. Kayle removed the helmet. Walnut-colored hair tumbled down to her shoulders.

The Heads of Houses and the commonfolk remained kneeling. The shepherd was the first to find his voice. “Then be our Queen.”

“I can do that.”