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.

                Gille had been staying in a small fishing village, gracing them with his song, but the place seemed to be getting smaller and quieter each day. Men who spent their days on ships came to the inn at night and told stories of the exciting travelers and exotic wonders gathered at the palace. That was the place for a bard to be, Gille decided and left the next day. The villagers gathered to see him off with grateful and teary cheers.

                When he arrived at the palace and saw the wonderful scene before him, swirling dancers, leaping acrobats, nobles in elegant dress, and troupes of singers and players, Gille was awed and filled with inspiration. Upon seeing the beauty of the princess, he leapt onto a nearby crate and broke out in jubilant song.

                The palace fell silent. Every eye turned to stare at the singing bard. One of the knight’s horses, a noble and war-hardened steed, spooked and trampled a squire in a wild dash to get away from Gille’s voice. The princess clamped her hands over her ears and begged him to stop.

                “Enough!” cried the king, and Gille fell silent. “What is that ungodly caterwauling?!”

                “I only wish to take part in this wonderful occasion,” Gille said.

                “Then do it far away and where none of us can hear you!”            

                Gille stared at the angry and horrified faces around him. “Do you truly all wish me to leave?”

                A cry of assent rose around him, and one ill-mannered jester threw an apple at him. Gille slid off the crate and left, dragging his lute behind him. As he walked, turning his feet toward the north and the towering mountains, he strummed half-heartedly on the strings. “Maybe I was not meant to be a bard,” he said sadly. “But I love it! And this heartbreak only makes me want to sing more.”

                He lifted his voice and did just that. As he walked through the forest at the base of the mountains, the woodland creatures, stag and hare, lifted their heads, swiveled their velvet ears, turned, and darted away with flicks of their snowy tails. For weeks after he had passed, the hunters returned to their homes empty-handed, and their children went to bed with rumbling stomachs.

                But Gille passed on into the mountains, his voice growing louder and more triumphant with every step. As he sang, the stone walls caught his song and threw it back and forth until it had magnified a hundred times a hundred.

                “This is a place I can be!” he said happily. “The world sings along with me.”

Deep in the heart of the mountains, there lay a beast, a wyrm of fyre that had slumbered there long ere the cornerstone of the palace of Falutia had been laid. When Gille’s strained strains shuddered through the mountains, a golden eye opened. Lifting its great and terrible head, and opening its terrible mouth, the wyrm spoke:

                Ňŧůšţэ пфзж гбЮ Ẅǽ ƒƒƒƒƒƒ ŧŹłώ

                (As everyone knows, dragons only speak dragon-speak, which is too old and terrible for mortal ears to understand – or perhaps dragons don’t have the patience to translate – but roughly translated what the wyrm said was this: “GREAT DRAGON LORDS OF VARKNETH, WHAT IS THAT AWFUL *%#^ING NOISE?”)

                With a shriek of rage, the dragon rose from the mountains and plummeted like a red arrow toward the celebrating kingdom of Falutia. The cries of revelry turned to screams of horror, and the tents blazed with the wyrm’s fire. The nobles fled into the palace, locking themselves away, while the citizens of Falutia scattered in every direction.

                A few of them ran into the safety of the mountains, and there they found Gille (who was oblivious to the terror he’d unleashed). When he learned that the kingdom was under attack, he was dismayed. Picking up his lute, he resolved to return, hoping that he could offer some small help.

He found the charred remains of the beautiful tents and saw that the palace had become an island in a sea of fire. The wyrm was tearing at the walls, scratching at the stones with razor claws and scorching them with plumes of fire. A few survivors, who had been unable to flee, huddled in the ashy remains of what had once been a great and beautiful city.

                Gille, horrified by what he saw, could only do what he always did. He picked up his lute and began to sing, a heartbroken and mournful song. The dragon, who had been trying to extract a particularly plump soldier from a tower, turned its terrible head toward him.

                БЎ ωϊψбёљ Ъσςξ λκκ θЖ, it roared.

                (Which translates to: “UGH! NOT THIS GUY AGAIN.”)

                With a furious screech that shook the mountains, the dragon rose into the sky and fled across the seas.

                When the king emerged from the palace and saw that Gille stood untouched amid the destruction and heard the tale of how his voice had chased away the vile wyrm, he immediately went to his daughter, the princess, and begged her to marry him. “Who else but this humble bard could have ended the threat of the wyrm? His action deserves some reward, and what else is left?”

                The princess considered this in silence before she spoke. “Fine. But only if he puts that damn lute away. And we tell him that kings aren’t allowed to sing.”

The king eagerly agreed, and Gille was bathed in the warmest waters and dressed in the finest silks before he was brought before them in what remained of what had once been the great hall. When he learned of the princess’s offer and what all it entailed, he knelt and took her hand.

                “Good lady. Fine lady. Lady of unmatched beauty. It’s a very fine offer, but are you sure about the singing part?”

                “Very sure,” she said, extracting her hand from his.

                Gille considered before he rose. “Then I must decline. For the music of my heart will not, cannot be silenced. I pray you find it in your gracious heart to forgive me and that I have not caused you too much pain. I would never forgive myself if a single tear fell from your beautiful eye. Just the thought makes me want to sin—”

                “Whatever. It’s fine,” the princess said. “None of this was my idea anyway.”

                In gratitude for what he had done, the princess gifted Gille a lute of ebony and ivory and a ship manned with the most hard-of-hearing sailors she could find (after all, she wasn’t cruel). And Gille left Falutia behind for the open seas, singing the songs of his heart to the waves. Legend says he sails still and that even the sirens flee when they see his ship on the horizon.

Grufta

Sunlight filtered through the dusty display window, glinting off seamless polished metal. A silver oblong nestled in sun-faded velvet. The brilliance of the original crimson could still be seen on the back of the curtains framing the glass and in the grooves of the wrinkled fabric. There were indents where other shapes had sat, but all that remained was the elongated metal egg.

                “What is it?” A young face was pressed against the glass, fog gathering around her partially open mouth.

                There was no one to answer. She stood in a dingy street surrounded by faded, peeling paint and warped wood. Her clothing was just as shabby: patched knits with gaping holes clumsily knotted shut and boots too big for her feet. A few figures passed by, but none spared her a glance.

                She left the glass and pulled open the shop door. A bell above her gave a half-hearted jingle. Inside, the shelves were bare and dusty. The place seemed empty, and after a glance around, she moved to the window. She had to stand on tiptoe to see into the slanted, velvet-lined case. An inquisitive hand strayed over the edge, fingers straining toward the silver.

                “Don’t touch the merchandise.”

                She yanked her hand back and whirled. An elderly man wearing a stained leather apron stood in the shadow of the nearest row of shelves.

                “What is it?” she asked, tucking her curious hands behind her back.

                “Grufta.”

                “What?”

                “It’s a grufta,” he said, nodding toward the window.

                “Oh.” She rocked in her worn boots. A voice rang out in the street outside, then faded. “What’s a grufta?”

                The man rubbed his chin with a grimy hand. “Never heard of a grufta?”

                She shook her head. He looked her over with an appraising eye before he bent down to her level, knees creaking, dirty hands planted on his thighs. “There used to be powers in this world, or so they say. Powers that could kill a man—ten men—in an instant, or flatten a city, or carry you through the sky like a bird, or tell your future. Powers you could hold in the palm of your hand.”

                Her mouth hung open as she listened, one finger lifting to scratch her nose.

                The man in the apron straightened up. “That’s what a grufta is. A bit of that power left over.”

                She turned and lifted up on tiptoe, levering herself with her arms to peer over the edge at it. The silver on its bed of velvet glowed slightly golden in the light of the setting sun.

                “How’s it work?” she asked.

                “It doesn’t. It just sits there.”

                Her fingers twitched, reaching for it again.

                “No money, no grufta,” he growled behind her.

                She shrank against the display case, nudging the floor with the toe of her boot. The man in the apron watched her trudge toward the door before he turned and disappeared into the murk of the shop.

                She pulled the door open. The bell jingled above her then the door begrudgingly closed again, but she hadn’t moved. Instead, she crept behind the dusty velvet curtains, biting her lip and wrinkling her nose to hold back a sneeze.

                She peeped out from behind the red drapes. The shop was empty. The silver grufta lay just within her reach. A single, dirty finger reached out, brushing against the seamless metal.

                A brilliant light flashed, faded, and erupted again. Searing white rays flooded the shop. The man in the apron stumbled out of the back, hands raised to shield his eyes. A figure hovered a moment in the window, white and flickering against the brightness. The door flew open; the light flashed outside, darted down the street and disappeared in a rainbow streak behind a dilapidated building.

                The door drifted shut with a soft jingle.

                In its bed of velvet, a dark crack had opened in the seamless metal side.  

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.

June 23rd, 2006

The following was transcribed from an audio file discovered by the Tucumcari Highway Patrol on June 23rd, 2006.

Unknown Speaker, female (US):

It’s a long drive back, so I thought I’d get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind. Honestly, it was a huge waste of time. What is it with whackos and trailer parks?

[sighs]

Alright, I’ll try to keep this official for the archives. The date is, uh, June 16th, 2003. We received a call three days ago on the hotline about some unusual activity in New Mexico. The caller wouldn’t go into specifics, one of those “won’t talk on the phone, you never know who might be listening” types. So, I drove down from Chicago.

Turns out the town was a dustbowl: trailer park, convenience store with a fifty-year-old gas pump, and one stop sign which was apparently optional.

I met the caller at the address they left with the hotline… umm…

Papers rustle in the background

US:

It’s in my files somewhere. The caller was male, 5’6” maybe, about… Oh, I’m not good at descriptions. He was old and bald and completely out of his gourd. I mean, I’ve heard some crazy theories, everything from little green men to government conspiracies, but this was a new one even for me. I drove 1,200 miles to be told that Earth is being invaded by, wait for it, space wizards. That’s right, folks. You heard it here first. Wizards from space come down to recharge their cosmic mana.

[laughing]

I don’t know who this guy thought I was. He kept rattling off acronyms, some I’ve never even heard of: CIA, NSA, FBI, PTA, WTF. I tried to explain an organization funded by UFO fanatics and museums didn’t have that kind of pull, but he kept saying we had to alert NASA. He had this whole theory worked out that they’re here to siphon energy from our nuclear power. Blah, blah, blah, something about temporal inconsistencies, time jumps, metaphysical phenomena, blah, blah, blah.

[sighs]

There’s not enough tinfoil in the world. The data he pulled looked real though, so that’s worth checking out. Anomalies over Japan, Russia, and the lower United States. Don’t ask me where he got that information. Seriously… don’t ask me. Anyway, that’s worth looking into. Probably nothing more than…

The ambient sound of the vehicle softens, suggesting it slowed.

US:

Uh… I seem to have driven into the middle of some kind of historical re-enactment.

Cattle mooing can be faintly heard in the background.

US:

Wow. These people are really committed. That’s a lot of cows. They even have—

There’s a dull thud.

US:

Hey! What the hell?!

A window rolls down.

US:

You! Yeah, you! On the horse! I saw you throw that! You’re going to pay to get that dent fixed! Oh, what’re you going to do? That gun’s like two hundred years old.

Yelling can be heard faintly. There’s a loud bang that seems to be a gunshot.

US:

He shot at me! Oh my god, these people are insane! They’ve all got guns. They’re… I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Just get these cows out of my way! I’ll just go if you—

There’s more gunfire, the sound of a vehicle revving, and angry voices. It eventually fades into the background.

US:

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ! [omitted expletives]. I’m reporting these people to the police.

He could’ve killed me! Stupid cowboys! There has to be a town nearby. I’m going to… [static] …when I… [static] …to…. [static] ….wait…. [static]

Is this thi— working? [static]

…what… [static] … can’t be… [static]

…help!… [static] …no!

The audio goes dead for several minutes.

US:

I, um… managed to get this working again. My car’s dead and I… I have no phone signal. I can’t…

[crying]

I think we’re under attack. There was a huge cloud to the… I think it was the west. Everything went dead. I couldn’t get the radio to work and… I tried to call the police. Anybody. But there’s no signal. The cloud was so huge… It…

[crying]

I’ve been walking. There’s nothing out here, and it’s dark now. There’s no way it’s nighttime, but I can’t see the sun. It’s just… it’s just dark. I don’t know what to do, and…

A low whining becomes audible and gradually grows louder.

US:

[whispering] There’s lights in the sky. Everywhere. Oh my god… They must be bringing more bombs. Who is doing this? I have to try to tell someone, but my signal is gone. I—

[static]

Those… those aren’t planes. It’s just light. So bright. It’s… I can’t see anything. Wait, something’s moving. I can’t quite…

A low voice speaks, gibberish.

US:

Is someone there?!

Gibberish. There seem to be multiple voices speaking.

US:

Who’s there?! I can see you moving!

Running footsteps and heavy breathing. The low voices grow louder, overlapping.

US:

[yelling] What are you?! What are you doing?! No, I—

A loud rumbling grows until the audio cuts out. Several hours of blank audio follow.

Neither the speaker or her car have been recovered. No missing person has been reported in Chicago or the surrounding area. No UFO investigatory organizations are missing personnel.

The phone was at 25% battery when it was discovered. It was connected to an unlisted number, and no record of purchase exists.

No record of historical re-enactments taking place within the area have been found, and no nuclear activity has been reported. There was a single report of lights in the sky observed by a Tucumcari mailman on November 13th, 2004.

An investigation is ongoing.

Hunger

A vast feast lay upon the table. Baskets and fine pottery laden with tender cuts of meat, succulent fruits, and rich pastries, all untouched, all long since cold. Around the table, a stone hall, pillars cold and bare reaching to a distant arched ceiling. A room as cold as the feast.

           From a distant door, a figure entered, bare feet silent under long robes. She set a pitcher of wine on the table and stood a moment, listening. The clamor of the city had faded behind her as she climbed the hill to the temple. The wind slid against the stone walls.

           “Hunger.”

           The word she spoke died in the silence.

           “We call you, Hunger.” She stretched out her hands to the table. “We summon you that you may be appeased.” Her arms lifted to the ceiling, beseeching the stone. “Come and be satisfied.”

           She bent her head and prayed, certain that what she called would never come.

           The evening bells chimed in the distant city. Her arms fell to her sides. The table sat unchanged, the rich food tempting her empty stomach. In the morning, it would be tossed away and the feast re-laid.

           She turned back to the distant door, padding across the cold floor, but a faint whisper stopped her. A figure sat in shadow at the far corner of the table, a bent torso hunched between long, bony knees.

           “You cannot be here,” she said, stepping forward. “Leave. Now.”

           The hanging head turned. A yellow eye stared up at her. “Did you not call me?” a thin voice rasped.

           With quick steps, she returned to the table. “Only those of the temple may enter. Leave.”

           The figure rose, bent and twisted, impossibly tall, impossibly thin. It flexed gaunt hands, watching them curiously. “Why have you called me here?”

           “I… I did not call you,” she whispered.

           The yellow eyes turned back to her. “You spoke my name, and I answered,” it said with pointed teeth.

           Hunger stood before her, immense and wasted. In fear, she sank to her knees. “Eat,” she said timidly, extending her hands to the table. “This is what we have set for you.”

           A skeletal hand touched one of the bowls. Meat fell like dust from the bone. The apples shriveled to their cores. Hunger plucked one up before tossing it disdainfully away. The bony head lifted, listening. “I hear the cries of my followers in the streets, in the forgotten houses.”

           “But you cannot!” she cried. “We gave from our tables to appease you.”

           It stared at her with sunken eyes, and her stomach twisted, empty. Bones rattled against the stone floor as it walked past her. The shadow it cast was immense, blotting out the table.

           Like a wraith, the figure passed from the temple and down the hill to the quiet city. In the silent temple, the food had rotted, and the smell of vinegar wafted from the pitchers of wine.

Sparks

                Two fish swimming circles, an endless dance around the tank. One red, one yellow, darting sparks in a watery sky. A single plastic stalk waved lazily. Bubbles shuddered to the surface, breaking with a soft gasp, and the infinite spiral continued.

                Put a finger to the glass, and they swam faster. Never touching the walls that contained them, always surrendering to its shape. If placed in the openness of the sea, would they know? Or would they only swim and swim, unseeing, looking for invisible borders?

                A delicate layer between them and the vacuum, destruction. Inside, a haven, but so fragile. And they swam as if it were their only purpose. Swam with nowhere to go. Swam to swim, leaving no ripples behind.

                Until they stopped. Until they turned inward, vanished. Became nothing.

                The plastic plant waved alone. Bubbles trembled through empty water. Green fuzz dimmed the glass. In the blackness of night, a pair of stars, red and yellow, streaked across the sky.


Photo Credit: Image by 성혁 이 from Pixabay 

Unintended Consequences

                I took my morning coffee to the balcony and looked out over the swaying trees as I sat and sipped. Living in the forest was as pleasant as I had always thought it would be. Peaceful. Calming. Once you got past the fact that just last week my apartment had been in the center of an urban tangle of cement and metal.

                A shiver ran through the red leaves. It wasn’t autumn. They were just angry. A lamppost on the street corner sparked and collapsed with a creak of rending metal.

                The best and the brightest had put their heads together, deciding that what we needed in the age of deforestation and ozone-shrinkage was the fastest-growing, strongest, tallest, most oxygen-rich tree ever, and they were going to make it. They’d succeeded.

               Sentience had been an unintended side effect.

                It had been on the news as the greatest discovery of our generation. And then there hadn’t been any news.

               The rain forests were gone. Only bare dirt and a few fallen branches and confused jaguars remained. It wasn’t our doing this time. They’d come north to return the favor.

               I’m sure it was horrifying to wake in a world ruled by fleshy predators who stacked up the skeletal remains of your kin to live and park their fume-spitting metal carriages inside, carrying bits of your skin around inside their pockets and bags and burning your remains for fun on a cool summer evening.

                The ground was a writhing mass of shattered concrete, dark earth, and twitching roots. If you were fool enough to go outside, and there wasn’t much inside left to speak of, it wasn’t long before the ground swallowed you up and the new, hungry trees turned you into a human juice box.

                Still, of all the ways to go, in the peace and quiet of nature, enveloped into the welcoming, dark softness of the earth, wasn’t the worst. The roar of the city had stilled. Birds flitted in the leaves, bursting out in laughing flocks as the trees irritably shook their heads. A soft breeze floated by carrying the scent of fresh blossoms.

                The foundation of my building creaked. A long crack lanced up the wall next to me. I took another sip of my coffee. It wouldn’t be long now.

PUBLISHED: Toward Light

My short story “Toward Light” was recently published in the inaugural issue of DreamForge Anvil by DreamForge Magazine.

For something to thrive, something else must be consumed. Or is it possible to circumvent the cycle wherein the energy to sustain life is taken from a living thing? What would such a world be like?

~ DreamForge Anvil introduction to “Toward Light”

Read the story by clicking here.

Access the entire issue by clicking here. You’ll find some wonderful fiction stories and articles about writing and story craft.


Photo Credit: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Nisus III

               Nisus III looked like a marble from orbit, a swirl of purple and black beneath fraying sheets of white cloud. As the shuttle hurtled toward the surface, shaking and rattling in the thickening atmosphere, curls of gold began to streak across the mauve soil, growing to thick patches, the first sign of human settlement and habitation.

               The wheat had sprung up faster than we could have hoped. The rest of the grains languished, if they sprouted at all, but the wheat had lifted its golden head and spread like a weed. It grew faster than any crop at home, even without water or rain, coming to harvest in merely a few weeks. When we flew across it, making the fields ripple and bend in our wake, it looked like home.

                The shuttle came to rest on the bank of the black river where we made our camp. It was only a few portable buildings, a lavatory, and a water purifier chugging softly. Mona stood at the edge of the field, a broad-brimmed hat hiding her face. A few grains of wheat sat in her tan, wrinkled palm, and she poked at them, inspecting. “I think it’s ready,” she said.

                She pushed up the brim of her hat to gaze out over the fields. “From sprout to harvest in less time than even the fastest syntheticrops. Every agricultural unit in this sector is going to be dropping into orbit here.”

                “Are there more than yesterday?” I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun and peering toward the edge of the field.

                Mona shrugged and scattered the wheat kernels over the mauve soil. “They’ve been showing up off and on the past few days. Curious, I think.”

                They stood as dumb and still as trees, great bulbous lumpy things, watching us with black eyes. Their skin was knobbly and rough, like lichen-covered rocks. Someone had called them Ents, and the name stuck. Sometimes they bent down to the soil, spreading their elephant-like hands against the earth and humming, or waded into the black water to stand there quietly. Mona had scanned them. Brain waves indicated they were somewhere been dolphins and octopuses, too intelligent to become farm animals but not intelligent enough to understand resource management. They never touched the wheat fields, never came near them, but they watched.

                The scythe glimmered in the sun, and the wheat fanned out over the soil. It could stay there to dry, in the eternally temperate weather, but we filled our arms with stalks, impatient for a taste of our labors. We shook the tiny kernels from their papery skins until only the small oval grains remained.

                “What are they doing?” I asked, looking up to see that more of the Ents had gathered, standing mutely between us and the field.

                Mona glanced up from the small engine unit she’d been rewiring into a grinder. She snorted. “They’re getting comfortable. Likely to be a nuisance soon. Jorn will have to put up that electric fence.”

                We, five lone researchers in a strange purple land, gathered reverently around the small cookstove as Mona mixed the fresh ground grain with water and a sprinkle of salt, the only piece of home we could bring with us across the expanse. The sticky mass of dough clung to her fingers as she shaped it into an uneven round.

               The smell of baking bread filled my nose, and my mouth watered. The intensity of the sensation after weeks, months, (had it been years?) was almost overwhelming.

                The warm, flat cake was pulled from the burner and broken between us, the jagged pieces held like precious stones in our palms.

                “To human advancement,” Mona said and bit into her piece.

                The brown surface crackled against my teeth. It was dry and had the bland, dehydrating taste of under-seasoned grain. It was the best thing I could remember tasting since I’d left home. But something was wrong.

                A strange sensation burned in my chest. Mona collapsed running to the portable buildings for med supplies, one hand outstretched, fingers digging into the soil. Jorn was on his knees next to me, retching. Through bleary eyes, I saw another one of us fall into the river, trying to drink the black water. Bubbles gurgled then nothing broke the dark surface.

                I collapsed backward. Figures appeared above me, lumpy and solid against the pale sky, staring down at me with black eyes. A murmuring filled the air, a stirring whisper like wind through the trees. In the last struggling gasp of breath, I realized they were laughing.

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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