Prophecy

When blood sun sets,
And full moon rises,
Look east to the weeping maiden.

When nightingale sings,
And nighthawk cries,
Look west as the lost sun rises.

Two figures disturbed the evening stillness of the valley. They moved through the brittle grass and bare trees, grabbing for handholds to climb the slope, and a sweet voice drifted on the wind.

          “Stop the infernal humming,” the boy said, yanking his shirt away from a thorn bush.

          Ahead of him, the girl reached the top of the slope. Beyond lay rolling hills, muted gray in the dimming light.

          “Look,” she said, pointing. “The weeping maiden.”

          A thin tree stood alone, a veil of curling leaves brushing the grass. In the dying light, it seemed a weeping woman, head bent, and the wind stirring her hair. The first sliver of a white moon lifted above the horizon, and behind them, the red disk of the sun cast a glow over the forest.

          A bird burst out of the underbrush, calling, before circling and flying toward the distant mountains.

          “Now what?” the boy asked, panting.

          “Now we wait.”

          They sat with their backs to the valley, watching the colors dance on the clouds.

          “How will we see the star if the sun is in the way?” the boy asked, and the girl grinned.

          “Gran says it’s not at a star. Gran says it’s an evil spirit.”

          The moon glistened, spinning silver mists over the grass, and the girl turned to watch it, the light glowing on her upturned face.

          “What kind of evil spirit?” the boy asked.

          “The bad kind, I suppose.” She leaned her head back against his neck. “Why? Are you frightened?”

          He snorted. “It’s only an ancient song. All that’s going to happen is we’ll get wet from this dew.”

          The golden edge of the sun touched the horizon like a brand, scattering red sparks over the forest.

            “Nita,” the boy whispered, but the girl sat, eyes wide and unblinking, staring at the cold moon. Her lips moved with silent song.

          The boy struggled to his knees. The red light ran over his skin and clothing, dripping into the grass. He tried uselessly to wipe it away. The sun flared, spears of light piercing him; he screamed a long, wavering cry.

          The girl leapt to her feet, her face pale with silver light. “Astor?”

          But she didn’t turn. Her arms hung at her sides though she struggled. “Let me go, Astor. You’re hurting me! Let me go!”

            Behind her, empty grass whispered. The sun sank below the horizon, leaving a red glow like embers on the dark clouds. The girl stood frozen, bound by the moon’s silver chains. She hid her face and wept.

          Somewhere in the growing twilight, a nightingale sang.


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To Slay A Dragon

No sword or arrow or poison could slay the dragon. It came like a storm from the north, rushing on the wind and raining fire. The land turned to ash under its breath, and when the village had emptied, the dragon dug out a nest with razor claws and draped its scaly coils over the charred remains.

A field of crude tents now spread along the edge of the nearest city, and from that city, perched between the forest and sea, men waged war with the dragon.

The sun was spreading a dark shadow at the forest’s feet when soldiers and archers came through the trees, bloodied and blackened, hauling carts of the dead behind them. Ahna stood among the tents, a hand resting on her swelling stomach, watching them come.

Roderick, a tall man with a sword and an army and a hall of stone, led them. He stopped in the rutted lane between the tents. The villagers’ haggard faces turned to him, hopeful, but Ahna looked away to the twin tongues of smoke over the trees, curling into the sky. She had lived in that village, farmed the land now fallow and burnt under the fiery belly.

“We’ll waste no more men,” Roderick said, resting his palm on his hilt.

“Some of us had homes there!” a voice cried. “What are we supposed to do?”

Roderick towered over them. “That’s no concern of mine. Be grateful the city has allowed you to remain here this long.”

More voices rang out, but Ahna turned and walked to her tent, leaving behind the bark of angry men. When her husband came trudging back from working another’s fields, she handed him a bowl of thin soup. “I think I’ll go fishing tomorrow,” she said, and kissed his cheek.

He looked up with tired eyes before he nodded, drank his soup, and fell asleep with his hand on her stomach. Ahna covered him with a worn blanket, then sat outside the tent, her quick fingers freeing peas from their pods. She watched the two streams of smoke rising in puffs to the north until the night hid them.

At dawn, she passed through the city to the docks, a coil of rope on her shoulder. “I would like to come aboard,” she said to the captain of a small boat, dropping a precious gold coin into his tan palm.

She stood in the bow, wiping salt spray from her cheeks, as the ship jumped over the waves. When they cast anchor, the men dropped nets for little silver fish, but she ran a single line, deeper and baited with pungent, rotting meat. Then she sat and waited.

The little boat swayed when a fish finally swallowed the hook, and it took three men to haul it up into the sunlight. It twitched and gulped on the bottom of the boat until the scales dried in the sun and the lidless eyes paled.

When the fishing boat had docked, Ahna took the stinking fish by the tail and heaved it onto her back. Eyes and laughter followed her as she slowly made her way through the city to the field of tents. With a dull knife, she split open the belly, then she roasted the fish over a fire until the skin crackled and turned black. When it had cooled to the touch, she hoisted it onto her back and walked through the field of tents into the forest, toward the village.

The dragon watched her with baleful eyes as she approached. Ahna stopped and looked at the stretches of gleaming coils. “I brought you dinner,” she said, heaving the fish off her shoulder into the dust.

Then she turned and began the long walk back. Behind her, the dragon greedily devoured the fish, swallowing it whole.

A horrible screeching echoed through the forest that night when the moon rose. Ahna woke, smiled, and nestled against her husband.

She was washing her feet the next morning when a scout came running through the trees. The dragon was dead. It lay twisted in the dirt, its claws furrowing the ground. A pale forked tongue hung from its mouth, and blood dripped from its fangs.

Voices murmured of who could have slain the beast when men of might and cunning had failed. When they cut the dragon apart to haul it away, they found a thin, silver fish bone piercing its throat.

At a Local Inn

Coals whizzed out of the fireplace in orange arcs, pattering with sharp hisses around the room.

                “That’s cheating!” Vanka wailed and dove behind an overturned table.

                “That’s magic, my dear.” I fell back against the wall for a breath. “What would you do with thirty golden varnums anyway? Gamble it away?”

                Vanka let out a guttural shriek. A dagger buried itself in the wooden beam inches from my head. It was my turn to dive for cover.

                The golem was crouched at the edge of the room, draped in chains, watching us with baleful eyes.

                The inn had been a lively, cheerful place when we’d arrive as the sun set, first Vanka and the prisoner, me close behind. When she’d seen me, cursing turned to threats and threats to shoving, mostly on Vanka’s part. That was when the general populace decided to clear out. Now it seemed the bar was partially in flames, though I didn’t take time to look.

                A bit of Vanka’s cloak stuck out from behind the overturned table. The coals flared under my command, igniting the fabric. I grinned as she leapt around the room, cursing and batting at herself.

                “You dance beautifully,” I called.

                She snatched a chair and sent it arcing toward me. I ducked, and it splintered against the wall. The room suddenly went quiet.

                “Rolf,” Vanka said.

                “Yeeeees?” I stayed huddled on the floor. I wasn’t about to fall for that.

                “Where is he?”

                “Where is who?”

                “You know who,” she snarled.

                “Ooh, this is a fun game. Do you mean the King of Avary? I believe he’s in his castle.”

                “He’s gone, Rolf.”

                I popped my head over the pile of crates I’d been hiding behind. The golem had vanished. A few drops of molten metal were cooling on the floor, and a black hole had burned into the wooden planks from a red-hot lump of coal.

                “Rather clever for a golem, isn’t he?” I remarked and jumped as Vanka let out a deafening shriek.

                “You mud-humping, slug slime!” She charged at me, but I cowered, holding up my hand placatingly.

                “Now, hold on, Vanka, my dear. Staying here and beating each other into a bloody pulp isn’t going to do either of us any good.”

                Her nostrils flared, eyes blazing like an angry bull.

                “We could work together,” I coaxed. “Split the reward.”

                “Split it?” She spat on the floor. “After I caught him and you let him escape? You’re lucky I don’t skin you alive and wear you for boots!”

                “Fair. I’ll admit you’ve earned perhaps a bit more for getting us this far. How about, and it hurts me to say this, I take a mere a third of the reward, plus”—I rubbed my chin thoughtfully—“a pittance, only half of another third? All the rest will belong to you.”

                Vanka frowned, considering this, before she snorted. “As it should be.”

                I grinned like a cat. “Shall we be off then?”

                “Fine.” She yanked her dagger from the wall and shoved it into her belt. “But stay where I can see you.”

                “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

                The inn collapsed in a shower of red sparks, but we sped on, following the trail of molten metal and heavy stone tracks, into the night, after our prey.

Rsska

The scent of blood drew her. She had been sitting on a tussock surrounded by the buzz and chirp of evening swamp-song, watching the mottled reds and oranges of sunset, when a hint of iron floated by on the cooling breeze. Curious, she slid into the water and followed.

                A small island of land was hidden away among the reeds, and to it clung a tree, half-dead and sun-bleached. The massive roots burrowed like splayed fingers into the mud, and a dark ring stained the brittle wood where the stale water touched it. Through the screen of reeds, she saw him huddled against the trunk. A man. She thought he might already be dead, but he curled up tighter, ribs heaving. Mud and algae had soiled his clothing, and his arms cradled his chest and soft vitals. He must be bleeding there.

                There were snakes in the swamp, longer than five men were tall. When they slithered across the waters, it looked like wind playing in the reeds. But if a snake had caught him, he would be dead, wrapped in scaly coils and dragged into the water to drown, disappearing into the chasm of an unhinged, scarlet mouth.

                She cut through the dark water to the shore, silently and leaving no ripples in her wake. The water tasted of his blood.

                The greatest danger of the swamp was a mere buzz in the air. Tiny flies crawling into eyes and ears, or gnats with venomous bites, and the bloated bodies of their victims floated through the reeds until the fish and birds picked them away to nothing, and the bones sank into the muck. The man’s skin was dark, but it wasn’t veined black or red. It wasn’t the swamp that had harmed him.

                When the man looked up, he scrambled back. A useless gesture of fear. The tree was at his back, and she now blocked his path into the water. His arms shifted, and she caught a glimpse of crimson on his shirt.

                “Let me see,” she said.

                His drawn face smoothed in shock. He hadn’t expected her to speak.

                “Your wound,” she said, nodding to it. “Let me see.”

                He cautiously drew his arms away to reveal torn fabric and a red slash of open flesh. It was the mark of a weapon, a wound by men. Their bodies came into the swamps sometimes, already dead and cut apart by their own kind. They floated, eyes wide to the sky, until the mud and water mercifully embraced them. The people of the swamp kept away.

                “You fled here,” she said, and he nodded. “From whom?”

                “Thieves.” His head sagged back against the whitened bark.

                It was curiosity that drew her out of the murky waters onto his small island. Curiosity and the assurance he couldn’t harm her. He was in her territory, weak and wounded, and he shrank away from her. Even great bears were powerless and terrified in the deep waters and maze of reeds. The strongest predators on dry land were helpless here. The swamp ate them and swallowed their bones.

                “What did they want?” she asked.

                “Anything. Everything,” he said with a hollow laugh. “I was traveling. They took my supplies, but it wasn’t enough. They were angry I didn’t have more and tried to kill me. So, I ran.”

                She watched him with unblinking eyes. “If it’s valuables you’re worried about, you’re safe here. The swamp wants only your life.”

                He pulled his knees to his chest and hugged himself again. His gaze kept flickering to her, trying to watch her, trying not to stare, and he finally asked the question she had felt him holding back. “What are you? I mean, who. Who are you?”

                “Rsska,” she said, and he winced slightly at her hiss. “That is the who. As for the what, we are the people of the swamp, just as you are the people of the land.”

                He examined her openly now, her stringy hair and webbed hands, her thick skin and bare body.

                “I didn’t know there were people in the swamps,” he said at last.

                The darkness of night had fallen. Frogs creaked and groaned in the reeds. Rsska pointed to scattered flames dotted the swamp, flickering behind the tall reeds. “Those are our fires,” she said. “Have people on land not seen them?”

                His face twisted into a crooked smile. “We have, but we call them marsh lights. And legend says they are fires set by false spirits to lure us to our deaths.”

                She laughed, a short barking laugh. “Land people are smarter than they look.”

                His mouth stayed curled into a smile. “Have you seen land people before?”

                “Yes. Sometimes.” She looked away. Never alive, but she stayed silent.

                “It might amuse you then to know that we also have names. And mine is Erkin.”

                “Your kind are killers,” she said calmly.

                His dark eyes met her yellow ones in silence.

                “Yes,” he said finally. “Some of us are. And some of us are killed.”

                Rsska examined him before she reached into the water and scooped up a dripping mass of black mud with one webbed hand. She had thought she might let him die, there on the small island. There had been a strange thrill in the way he cowered in the shadow she cast in the last red rays of the setting sun.

                “It will seal the wound,” she said as he tried to pull away from her.

                He let her fill the gash with the black muck, groaning through gritted teeth. It took three more handfuls before she was satisfied. The mud would dry, solid and hard as rock.

                “Thank you,” Erkin said softly when she had retreated to the water’s edge.

                “Will you go back?”

                “I have to. I’m not…” He looked out at the murmuring swamp, dim in the moonlight, and wrapped his arms around himself. “I’m not like you. I can’t live here.”

                Rsska nodded. His skin was soft and thin, his eyes clear. He was made for open air and long distances, not murky waters. “In the morning, I will take you to the shores where it is safe.”

                His dark eyes were almost black in the starlight. “Why are you helping me?”

                To the south, the swamp joined the forest. The trees stood in silent rows over a floor of plant-coated water. Eventually it turned to mud, the reeds to open fields, and the water to clear rivers. Rsska longed to explore the lands beyond the boundary of the swamp, but her skin dried and cracked without water. She was naked without reeds to hide her, and terror and hunger drove her back to the mud. Erkin covered his nakedness with clothing, but the swamps would rot any coverings she wore. The waters were her garments.

                “Will you tell me of your life?” she asked. “Of the places on dry land?”

                They lay under the flickering stars, he tucked between the tree roots, she submerged in the water with only her face showing. He told her of grassy plains stretching beyond the horizon, of forests towering into the clouds, of rushing rivers and great oceans with waters that tasted of salt. He told her of the vessels of hewn trees that sailed the open waters, and she thought with coldness of when they might do the same with her waters. He told her of wars and devastation and the divisions of men. His voice lulled her into bizarre, half-waking dreams until he fell silent, and she realized he was asleep. Around them, frogs chirped, and the wind whispered through the reeds.

                Rsska woke once when the moon had arced through the sky to the horizon. Silver light glinted on the rippling water. A blunt head had appeared at the edge of the reeds, quiet and still. Its tongue flickered out, tasting the water. Her fingers dug a sharp rock out of the mud and clutched it, knowing the snake would taste her willingness to fight. Her skin was harder to pierce.

                She could maneuver faster, drag it to the depths, bloodying it with her crude weapon. After a moment, the snake turned and slithered into the night. She let the rock slip from her fingers. Erkin was snoring, an arm across his wounded waist, and she fell into an uneasy sleep.

                The sun had crept into the sky when she woke to Erkin splashing, washing the dried and cracking mud from his waist. The wound had closed into a jagged red line. Rsska dove into the waters to pull up roots and showed him how to strip the tender core from the sinewy reeds with his teeth. From his expression, he found them tough and distasteful, but he didn’t complain.

                “I came from that way,” he told her, pointing toward a patch of bent and broken reeds. His path had been forceful and clumsy. It was a wonder she had been the first to find him.

                “Then we will go that way,” Rsska said, looking in the opposite direction. “But they will smell you in the waters. We must move quickly.”

                He swam awkwardly, laboriously, his limbs tangling in the plants. Rsska slowed her pace to his. It was impossible to see through his clumsy splashing and jerking. She took mouthfuls of water, running it over her tongue to taste for snakes and other creatures that might harm him, but his scent was overpowering, his presence and noise oppressive. Their journey followed a meandering path between the small oases, submerged trees or clumps of land, where he could rest.

                It was with relief that she emerged from the reeds. Open water, the beginnings of a river, stretched between them and the bank. The forest lay beyond, green and vibrant in the sunlight. Rsska had brought him where the water ran deep to the shore and he wouldn’t have to struggle through mud. They were halfway across the open water when Erkin lunged at her.

                She barely had time for a gasping breath before he shoved her head beneath the water and pushed her down toward the black sediment. She writhed against his hard grip, panicked. He was trying to drag her farther down. She twisted away, but his hand closed around her wrist, yanking her to him. He was shaking his head, his eyes open and blind in the dark water. His clenched mouth opened, and bubbles flooded out. Through their rush, she heard the word that made her blood run cold.

                “Men.”

                The surface of the water glimmered faintly above her. Her eyes were not made for open spaces, and if men had been on the bank, she would not have been able to see them. Erkin was struggling to stay below, his head bent and arms working against the water that tried to shove him upward. His stomach spasmed, and in horror, Rsska realized he was running out of air. In his struggle to keep out of sight, he had spent too much.

                The people of dry land killed each other without hesitation; she didn’t doubt they would do worse to her. She hesitated a moment between the safety of the tangled reeds and the open water. If they surfaced, they would be seen. She could evade them, disappear into the swamp, but Erkin was slow and clumsy and wounded.

                She grabbed his shirt and pulled him toward the reeds. His body jerked with a strange guttural sound in his throat. Any moment, his urge to take a breath would overtake his will to hold it. She glanced toward the dark wall of safety before she turned back to him, gripping him by the back of the neck and pressing her mouth to his. He gasped against her, his chest swelling with air. She felt the draw from her supply, but it would be enough. His hand touched her cheek. She pulled away, leading him through the darkness back to safety.

                He burst out of the water, gasping and puffing like a bear. Rsska parted the reeds and peered toward the shore, blinking and squinting. There were vague blurs on the swathe of green. They might be trees, or they might be men.

                Erkin was grinning beside her. “Do people of the swamp kiss?”

                She hissed disgustedly. Her heart was pounding in fear, her ears ringing. “You will need to lead,” she said. “I cannot see.”

                They stayed behind the veil of the reeds, following the curve of the shore until Erkin said the banks were clear, and they again crossed the open waters. The sun had passed its peak in the sky, and Erkin dragged himself, exhausted, onto the grassy bank. Water ran red from his wound.

                “You need more mud,” Rsska said, reaching for him, but he caught her hand.

                “I know the forest. There are herbs here that will do just as well.”

                Reluctantly, she pulled back and sank into the water. He sat on the bank and looked down at her. “You could come with me. See the places I told you of.”

                She reached out and touched his arm. His skin was streaked black and green, his palms wrinkled. “The water eats away at you. The air does the same to me.”

                She watched him expectantly. The world beyond her shores was his, its ways, abilities, and mysteries his domain. He stood and shook her waters from himself, standing comfortably on the shore and looking out over the vast swamp. “I’ll come see you then. But how will I find you?”

                “You only have to get into the water. I’ll hear your crashing a league away.”

                He laughed and bent down to take her hand, hard and scaly in his soft dark one. “Until we meet again then, Rsska.”

                With a final look at her, he limped across the bank into the trees, leaving her alone in the water at the edge of her world. She watched him go with one hand, fingers aching, clutching the tender, green grass.

Gille, The Bard of Falutia

Between the treacherous forest where only foul spirits dared to tread and the wide waters of the Alamanthanine Sea, there stood the small kingdom of Falutia. And in Falutia, there lived a bard of such renown that his name was spoken in hushed whispers from the sandy shores to the peaks of the snowy mountains. The mere mention of his arts upon the lute strings sent a shiver through even the most brutal mercenary, for he was, without a doubt, the worst singer ever heard in those fair lands.

                His name was Gille.

                His singing brought to mind the scratch of dead branches against gravestones, and his lute playing stirred even the most war-hardened soldier to tears of despair. Wherever he went, always in cheerful song, the road cleared before him. Thief, trader, brave wanderer, or stalwart servant of the king, it made no difference. All fled at the first echo of his strains through the trees, and the birds migrated south no matter the season.

                In the spring of that year, the king’s daughter and only child was to have her twenty-third birthday, and as tradition dictated, it would be the year she chose a suitor to take up residence with her in the stately castle of Falutia. Lords, ladies, dukes, duchesses, knights and squires, minstrels and dancers, and most importantly, eligible princes came from all reaches of the land. Tents and pavilions sprang up. Sweet strains of music and the mouth-watering scent of delicious treats filled the air. Jesters jested, knights jousted, and wild celebration ensued, all to culminate in the day when the princess would choose her prince.

Continue reading “Gille, The Bard of Falutia”

The Mirrors of Kathos

The mirrors of Kathos do not show us as we are. They may show who we were or who we will be, glimpses of the future or visions of the past, or maybe nothing at all. Today I was a young boy, peering curiously through the glass. I had come hoping to see into my future, to say what lay beyond the immutable veil of time, but the tall mirror, stretching from the bare stone floor up to the vaulted ceiling, showed only what I had been years ago.

                The noise of the bustling streets, crowded and vibrant, hot under the glaring sun, was muffled by the many steps and heavy wooden doors that led into the Hall of Mirrors. It was cool within. An occasional shout from a street vendor floated through, rendered soft and wordless by the placid stone.

                “Do you remember what you saw?” a voice asked, and I turned to see Aybar, keeper of the mirrors, watching me.

                “I don’t know what you mean.”

                “On that day, when you came to look,” he said.

                I turned back to the mirror and now saw that Aybar stood in the room behind the young boy. A lean figure in dark robes, only his pointed chin and thin-lipped mouth showed beneath his hood. Gaunt hands emerged white from the black folds, clasped in front of him.

                “Is this a specific day?” I asked, watching myself with renewed fascination. “I have no memory of it. What did I see?”

                Aybar sighed. “You were such a lonely child, Kalem. Always looking, always yearning.”

               He took a gauzy white cloth from his robes and knelt by the mirror. When I stepped aside, the young boy vanished. There was only Aybar, and in the mirror, he also knelt. Two dark figures, palms moving in perfect unison across the glass with the cloth between.

                “Look,” I said in wonder. “It shows you as you are.”

                Aybar’s hand paused, and his reflection’s did the same. “Does it? I’ve never looked into the mirror.”

                “Never?” I was astounded. This hall was as good as his home; he was here each day tending to the mirrors. His presence filled every memory I had of the place, since I first came here as a child, running up the steps to stare with awe at the mysteries contained within. “Why have you never looked?”

                He straightened up and moved to the next mirror in the row lining the hall. When he began his washing again, his reflection followed. “Make the choice because you see it in the mirror or make the choice and it will appear. It makes no difference. I’ve never looked, so there is nothing to see.”

                As if in reflex, he reached up and tugged the dark hood further over his eyes. He may have meant to dissuade me, but he had told me the secret of the Hall. I wasn’t just seeing visions of my future but my own face looking back at me. If I came here, as I knew I would, in ten, twenty, fifty years, then I could find myself and see what lay before me. There were more mirrors beyond this hall, twisting hallways and echoing chambers.

                “Maybe another,” I said, turning away.

                Aybar’s hand reached out to grab me, tendons straining against his papery skin. “Leave it, Kalem. You will only leave more of yourself behind.”

                I shrugged him off and crossed the hall to where it narrowed to a thin hallway. Aybar was watching me, for once the dark hood lifted, and his eyes, still in shadow, were sorrowful. Other halls branched out, stairs climbing up or spiraling down, doorways opening into great rooms, every surface lined with mirrors. Some had sharp, naked edges; others were fitted in elaborate gilt or wooden frames. I went to the heart of the place, further than I had ever gone before, straight onward until I came to a heavy wooden door. It creaked open to reveal a dingier chamber. Dust slithered across the floor, disturbed by my entry; the light was thin and still. I slid inside.

                Mirrors crowded the walls and crept onto the ceiling. I walked through a crystal. The edges of the world distorted, repeated, stretched and diminished, disorienting in its constant repetitions. The motes in the air stirred by my feet were multiplied infinitely, like dull stars. My steps echoed against the glass. I was there in each mirror that I looked to. Endless variations of myself flitted before my eyes, but none showed what I searched for.

                Something flickered at the edge of my sight. When I turned, it vanished. When I began to walk, it was there again. A shimmer in my peripheries, darting away and dancing between the mirrors as I tried to catch a glimpse of it.

                “Aybar?” My voice shuddered through the chamber.

                There was no answer. I walked on, thinking myself disoriented. What light there was danced and leapt wildly, and I ignored the sensation of something there, behind me, shifting from mirror to mirror. I walked, and it walked with me.

                At the far end of the chamber, there was a wall of mirror; the end of the place. A single mirror stood in a solid frame, not mounted on the wall but sitting in a stand, infinite wooden legs spreading out from where it touched the mirrored floor.

                I turned to look back at the hall, vast in its endless reflections. Infinite, yet empty. Full of only itself, reflection upon reflection of nothingness. But when I turned back, the mirror in front of me on its stand was not empty. It had shattered, black veins running away from a pitted wound. It was bleeding drops of scarlet. A dark figure was crumpled on the floor, motionless.

                I reached a hand to touch the shards. They were warm, and though I hadn’t been cut, I drew my fingertips away bloody. Through the broken glass, I saw now that my own face stared up at me from within, pale and lifeless, eyes wide. The figure twitched, a violent spasm, and gathered itself. A hand, fingertips bloodied, surged through the mirror.

                My hand.

Tiny Tales Podcast Ep. 39: Rosemary

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

Rosemary, a little old lady with a dark secret, decides to get a pet cat. Her attempt to get one goes spectacularly awry.

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~ R. E. Rule

The Faces of Ardune

The mountains of Ardune have faces carved upon them.

                Three faces. One turned up to the heavens, eyes wide in wonder. Another looking down to the plains below. And the last with eyes closed and mouth open, green forest flowing like hair from the snowy peak.

                The faces sit, still and silent, on the mountainsides. In the dusk, the cavernous mouths spit black swarms of bats, and the rains of spring fall like rivers of tears from the pitted eyes.

                If a mortal hand carved them, it was long before ships came into the bay of Ardune. When Ardun the Mariner first sailed into the bay, the great faces glared out over the forests, and the sailors cowered in fear, thinking they had strayed to the land of the old gods. And the eldest of Ardune still speak in their thin voices of the siege, when the black ships of Korthyk covered the water, bringing steel and fire and death. A tempest rose that night, and when dawn came, the waters were clear and blue again. They say the mountains drew in the breath of the wind and blew them from the bay.

                But of all the legends of Ardune and the faces set there, none is more well-known than that of Selkan. Selkan the Heretic some call him, and they say that the eyes of the mountains glowed red in the setting sun on the day he stepped off the great ship Riverwrath onto the teeming docks of Ardune.

                When he came ashore, he asked one of the sailors who had been on the Riverwrath with him where he could see these faces he heard so much about.

                “There,” the sailor said, pointing over the uneven roofs of Ardune to the looming mountains.

                Selkan studied them a moment, turning his head first one way then another. “An interesting trick of the light,” he said at last. “Though from the tales, I had expected more.”

                And he set off into the narrow and winding streets of Ardune. He was a traveler and spoke with pride of his knowledge of the dry expanses of Erid and the tall forests of Arbur, though he never spoke of his home. Whatever his origin, he was the kind of man who, seeing a great mountain, saw not a shadow to be lived in but a thing to be scaled.

                “Why do you not mine the mountains?” he asked the folk of Ardune, and the tavern where he had come to spend the night fell silent.

                Farmers and sailors, those who knew to fear the land’s fury, turned their shoulders to him, staring into their beer. When Selkan was told the mountains were held in reverence, that none took even a pebble, he laughed.

                “Rock and boulder!” he cried. “You freeze in houses of lumber when you could have stone.”

                Others had tried. But none who had set out to cross the mountains and see what lay beyond had returned. A light came into Selkan’s eyes when he heard this, and he took up a challenge that hadn’t been given him.

                “I will go,” he said. “I will stand in its mouth and take a stone from its belly. Then you will see that you’ve been afraid of nothing more than a shadow.”

                The next day at dawn, he set out across the open plains, down the thin lanes between the fields, and into the deep forests, toward the great peak of Ardune where the black mouth stood open. And those who watched him go shook their heads.

                In the dead of night, two weeks after Selkan’s departure, the ground began to shake, throwing dishes from the shelves and stirring the waters in the bay so that the ships swayed. A great roar rose from the mountains then was still.

                In the morning, the people of Ardune saw that the stony mouth had shut. The mountain was sealed. And if Selkan yet lives, no soul in Ardune has seen him, but if asked, they will say that it was the mountain that swallowed him.


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X Marks the Spot

                There’s nothing left of our village but a big charred spot and a few blackened logs still valiantly standing upright. It was razed to the ground, and seeing that we were a small coastal community located next to pirate-infested seas, you’d think it was them that did it.

                In a way, it was the pirates that set the whole thing off. They were always coming in and pillaging and being a general all-around nuisance until some clever person years back decided the best way to fend them off was to beat them at their own game. If we buried all our valuables and made out to be nothing but a poor sea village, they’d have no warrant to come and bother us. It wasn’t long before the citizens rivaled the squirrels for nesting away their goods in the forest, and you could hardly stick a spade in the ground without hitting someone’s forgotten chest or sack of gold.

                Eventually the pillagers, being a naturally lazy lot, showed up less often until they stopped coming together. Unfortunately by the time it was safe to retrieve our valuables, everyone had forgotten where they’d buried what. It wasn’t for lack of looking, but inevitably you found something that belonged to somebody else.

                At first, the finders generously took a finder’s fee, pocketing a portion of the re-discovered goods in return for the hassle of finding the owner, which was all well and good until it came to paying for your own valuables when the whole deal suddenly seemed a lot less fair. Fed up with that, we decided to forget the whole system and the finders could just keep whatever they found. The forest soon turned into a field of pits and exposed roots surrounded by a ring of growing dirt mounds you had to clamber over as everyone frantically tried to dig up whatever they could. This system certainly motivated, but it crumbled when the blacksmith, a seven-foot man with arms the size of barrels dug up a chest full of silk dresses and decided he neither wanted nor needed them. And the previous owner of the dresses, who had unearthed his broadsword beneath a copse of oaks, decided she’d much rather keep the weapon.

                As chaotic as this sounds, it would have settled itself in the end. The real problems began when we unearthed the journal. The original owner declined to reveal themselves (which was a wise choice as it turns out), and the finder delved into the brittle pages to see if they could puzzle out who it was. What they found was a collection of gossip so vile, so despicable, that they promptly shared it with everyone in the immediate vicinity.

               Once we started reading it, we obviously couldn’t stop. Whoever wasn’t mentioned within the pages must be the author, so it had to be carefully read from cover to cover and the vicious gossip identified. But nobody trusted anybody else to do the reading, in case they were the one who had penned it, and it became a public event which any and all could attend (and they did). And as there were quite a few names to be checked off before we got to the end, wild suspicions and accusations were flying before we’d even gotten ten pages in.

                On page three, the tavern keeper, a large and balding man, was described as “a lump of rancid lard” who smelled about as bad, and his ale was only slightly preferable to drinking the seawater that dripped from dead fish as they hung in the sun to dry. The outraged tavern keeper was convinced that the fisherman had done it, having always harbored a deep dislike for the man despite their feigned friendship, and sliced all his nets in the night. Again, it might have blown over except he just couldn’t hold back from telling the fisherman that maybe he should worry about his own smell. The fisherman, who had genuinely believed they were friends up until that moment and just now realizing the truth of the matter, poked holes in all the barrels of ale, flooding the tavern, and left behind a very generous and very fishy gift. (The tavern keeper opened his door the next morning to find a collection of very drunk eels.)

                After that, the entire village dissolved into chaos. Every secretly remembered insult and offense came barreling back into the light of day until people barricaded themselves in their homes at night and refused to speak to each other in the streets.

                The last straw (or the first spark) was the lengthy section describing the ineptitude, inability, and complete lack of imagination the town builder displayed in whatever project she touched. This was crowned by an assertion that the inhabitants would probably prefer to live in piles of cow dung over the buildings she created which so closely resembled them. She, the victim of a failed romance with the farrier, focused all her rage on him, and that night set fire to the stable she had so lovingly built, rather stupidly forgetting that all the houses were made of wood and built rather close together, and it wasn’t long before the whole thing went up like a great big hunk of dried dung.

                So now the village is nothing but a smoking black spot on the coast. The citizens cleared out shortly afterward, preferring to take their chances sailing with the pirates than staying one more moment with their loving neighbors. The journal disappeared in the fire, and the author, whoever it was, was never revealed. I have to imagine they were just expressing well-deserved and rather artfully described grievances. But it was rather disconcerting to watch a group of seemingly civil people descend into a pitchfork-wielding mob over a few innocent observations.

                In my defense, when I buried the thing, I didn’t think anyone would find it.


Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus
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The Honest Half

The door was set into the smoke-stained stone wall and locked with a heavy black padlock. When she had been brought to the kitchens, as payment for her father’s debt to the crown, she had been told the door was to stay locked at all times. When she’d been caught with an ear pressed against the rough wood, she had been told it wasn’t to be touched, and when she’d stared at it too long, brow furrowed thoughtfully, she had been told it wasn’t even to be looked at. This was punctuated with a hand across her jaw, but it only fueled her curiosity.

All she’d heard through the wood was a faint drip. And sometimes, when she was sweeping the floors, she saw what looked like scuff marks, like something heavy had been dragged, trailing across the floor and disappearing beneath the sealed door. And as the stiff straw bristles slowly erased them, she would try to puzzle out what could be behind it.

                “Vari!” The cook’s snarl yanked her from her thoughts.

                She set the broom back in the corner and picked up the tray of food from the table. If she pretended to forget, to be busy doing other things, she hoped the cook would let her be and take the tray himself, but he never did.

               When she entered the great hall, the prince stared at her, one arm thrown over the back of his chair. “You’re late,” he said, as she set the tray on the table.

                It was a lie. Vari said nothing, serving the king first, who ignored her, then the bejeweled queen, and finally, the sneering prince. He grabbed her wrist and yanked her closer. “I said, you’re late,” he snarled.

                “Forgive me, Your Majesty. It won’t happen again,” she said, her eyes fixed on the poached egg sitting on his plate.

                His other hand grabbed her jaw, his fingers digging into her already bruised cheek as he forced her to look at him. Dishes clinked behind her. “Pass the butter, would you?” said the queen to the king, and the king did.

                “See that it doesn’t,” the prince hissed before shoving her.

                Vari tumbled to the floor. A half-eaten crust landed next to her. She snatched it and fled, wishing her hunger wasn’t greater than her pride.

                The cook was snoring in the kitchen, his feet thrown up on the hearth, the chair sagging under his enormous, greasy weight. A key ring hung from his straining belt. Almost before she knew what she was doing, Vari was sliding it free, taking the heavy black key and putting it in her pocket. She looked defiantly at the door.

                It stood still and silent, as it continued to stand later that night when she returned to the empty kitchen, barefoot, a candle in her hand.

                The padlock opened with a click, and a rush of dank air fluttered her skirts as the door creaked open. Behind it, stairs spiraled into darkness. Holding her flickering candle aloft, she descended. The drip of water, far below, grew louder, and the air became stifling, as she spun downward.

                She was dizzy when she reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled through a black doorway. Putrid water coated the floor. She held up the candle and snorted. The light flickered off bare stone walls. The room was empty.

                “So, this is what all the fuss is about,” she said, glancing around the small chamber.

                “Depressing, isn’t it?” said a voice behind her.

                She whirled. A familiar figure stood before the stairs. With a gasp, Vari fell to her knees, hitting her forehead on the stones. The candle skittered across the water, sputtered, and went out.

                There had been no mistaking him, even wreathed in shadow. The prince.

                “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she said. “I know I’m not supposed to be here. Please…”

                She would be lucky to get away with only a lashing. Men were killed for less.

                “Why are you here?” he asked after a moment. “You’re not the usual fare.”

                “I was curious, Your Majesty.”

                “Curious?” He laughed softly, then sniffed. “Is that… fresh air? Did you unlock the door?”

                She took the key from her pocket and extended it into the darkness. A cold hand took it. Water dripped steadily behind her.

                “You can get up,” he said.

                She pulled herself to her feet and wiped her dirty, trembling hands on soiled skirts. Something shifted in the darkness, and the candle flared to life in front of her, illuminating the prince’s grotesquely pale face inches from her own. But… he wasn’t quite the prince. Shaggy hair hung over sunken cheekbones, cheeks that just that morning had been full.

                “You’re frightened,” he said, looking down at her shaking hands. “Why? Afraid I’ll eat you?”

                He grinned with a mouth full of pointed, white teeth. She scrambled back, slipping on the wet stones, and he laughed.

                “What are you?” she gasped.

                “The prince,” he said. “Or the honest half of him, at least.”

                She backed against the far wall, pressing herself against the damp stone. “Honest half? What does that mean?”

                He sighed. “I suppose we have time for a story, but just one.” He lounged against the wall, absently running one sharp nail over the stone. “When the prince was born, the entire kingdom rejoiced. And why wouldn’t they? Another century of subjugation assured. The king and queen on the other hand were dismayed to find that another babe had appeared in the cradle beside their precious son. An exact copy. Well… almost.” His pointed grin glimmered in the candlelight. “There were certain differences. The affinity for human flesh, for one, but whenever they tried to kill the child, this abomination as they called it, the same torments were inflicted on their little prince. So, they locked me up. Fed me on beggars and desperate thieves.” He spat disgustedly. “Enough to keep me alive, to keep him alive, to keep him hungry.”

                “You… you eat people?” she stammered.

                The insolent grin returned. “We’re royalty. It’s what we do. But now…” He tossed the key into the air, snatched it, and shoved it into a tattered pocket. “He’s lived off of me long enough. It’s time to return the favor, don’t you think?”

                “Return it? What does that mean?”

                The prince but not quite the prince cocked his head. “I’m going to eat him.”

                “Won’t that kill you?” she whispered, frozen in fear.

                “Oh, I imagine it’ll hurt,” he said. “But then I’ll be free. Two made one again, and the likeness is startling, as you’ve proven. No one will know a thing has happened.”

                With a burst of courage that could only come from looking day after day into the face she feared most, Vari stepped forward. “I won’t let you,” she said, her voice shaking, her fists clenched. “I won’t let you hurt anyone.”

                The man who looked like the prince, but most certainly was not, raised an eyebrow before he sighed. “Fine.” The key clattered at her feet. “I’ll let you lock me up again, if you really want to, but I don’t think you will.”

                She fumbled with the key, her gaze fixed on the man in his circle of candlelight. “Why?”

                “You groveled like a frightened animal when you saw me, scared for your life.” He drew closer and tilted her chin up with a pointed nail. “Believe me, I know the look. You thought there was a monster in the darkness with you, but it wasn’t me you were afraid of. They locked me up, took my life to serve them, and left me so starved, I’d eat whatever scraps they gave me. Sound familiar?”

                She lifted a hand to her bruised cheek. “But you’re a monster.”

               “Am I?” he asked with a frown. “I devour to survive. What’s his excuse?”

               His face was so like the prince’s, except for the pointed teeth in his slightly open mouth. And his eyes. They looked more… human, less hungry. “If I let you out,” she said finally, quietly. “Promise me you won’t eat anyone else. Only him.”

                “I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, but I will tell you this.” He bent closer, his breath cold on her ear. “I won’t eat you. Besides,” he added when he’d straightened up. “I’m in the mood for something more”—he licked his lips—”royal.”

                His footsteps were almost silent as he followed her up the stairs, and she shivered, imagining she could feel his icy breath on her neck. When they reached the kitchen and stepped out of the dark doorway, he inhaled deeply and sighed before turning to her. “Stay here,” he said and disappeared into the hallway.

                He returned a few moments later with a thrashing bundle over his shoulder. It was mumbling frantically. The man who looked like the prince tossed it into the darkness. “Shut the door behind me,” he said and padded down the stairs.

                She shoved the heavy door closed. She could lock it, turn the key in the padlock, and they’d both be trapped forever, but eventually, someone would notice the prince was missing. Questions would be asked. Answers would be taken, willingly or not. She stood, indecisive, twisting the key in her hands until there was a soft knock on the door. She pulled it open a crack.

                The prince, or maybe not the prince, stood at the top of the stairs.

                “Smile,” she said warily.

                His teeth glistened, all pointed and white. “Worried about me?”

                She yanked the door open then slammed it behind him, locking it tight.

                “He isn’t going anywhere,” the not quite prince said, picking at his teeth with a sharp nail.

                “What happens now?” she asked.

                He took a deep breath. “I think I’ll take a bath.” And he padded out of the kitchen.

                The door in the kitchen, set into the smoke-stained stone walls, was locked with a heavy black padlock. It was not to be opened, not to be touched, not even to be looked at. The heavy black key hung on a cord around Vari’s neck. Each morning she carried a tray of food to the great hall. She served the prince first, who thanked her graciously, then the pale queen, and finally, the nervous king. The prince never smiled, but when she left the hall, looking back over her shoulder at him, the corner of his mouth would twitch up, just for a moment.


Picture Credit: Joseph Mallord William Turner
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