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29
Apr

Writing Challenge: Week 16

The Weight of a Village

By H. M. Snow

 

Zuri pedaled his bike along the main street just before the evening shadows engulfed the eastern cliffs. The village lamplighter, Kiran, waved to him as they passed one another: Zuri toward the village square, Kiran toward the outskirts where the lamps were still dark. The flock of children who followed Kiran on his evening rounds also waved to Zuri. He checked their faces, but his sister was not among them. He was not surprised.

At the square, he found the company he sought. “Evening, Freddy. Evening, Dwyn.”

“Let’s see,” said Dwyn. Her pallid face stood out ghostly in the dusk, framed by her tangled black dreadlocks and the hood she wore regardless of the weather.

Zuri rolled up his sleeves to bare both arms.

“You’ve gotten stronger. Good.”

“You can’t see any change from one day to the next,” Zuri scoffed.

“But I can,” replied the ex-renegade. “Your right bicep is approximately one millimeter thicker in diameter than yesterday, your left half a millimeter. Moreover, you’ve lost three centimeters around the waist since I arrived. Are you eating enough?”

That made Zuri laugh. “This from the woman who hardly ever eats? How can you see these things?”

Her hollowed black eyes gazed at him with a suggestion of amusement. “I find I pay closer attention to life since I arrived here.”

“Yes,” Zuri retorted, “but do you ever plan to join it? You always sit to one side, watching. People wouldn’t be as nervous around you if they knew you better.”

“My magic is all about destruction,” Dwyn said. “If I cannot forget that, how can they?”

“That’s what you always say!”

Silent up to that point, the third member of the party cleared his throat. “I’ll be off, then.” The village peacekeeper, Freddy, rose to his feet from the stone bench where he had sat beside Dwyn the ex-renegade. He nodded to Zuri and turned to look down at Dwyn. After a lengthy wordless moment he strolled away toward the other end of the village.

“As talkative as ever,” said Dwyn wryly. She gazed after the peacekeeper. “He’s uneasy today.”

“How can you tell? He looks like he always does. No, don’t bother saying it again. ‘I pay closer attention to life,’ blah blah blah.” Zuri grinned. “You pay really close attention to Freddy, though.”

This brought a pale smile to Dwyn’s lips. “Of course I do. I wouldn’t be here but for him. I wouldn’t treasure life as I do now but for him.”

Zuri dropped down into Freddy’s abandoned spot on the bench. “You like him, right?”

“I love him… as far as one like I can.”

Her frankness took Zuri aback a little. He laughed, but his laugh faded quickly. “I don’t understand you. I know you used to be one of the renegades. I’m sure you did really terrible things for them, but you’re one of us now. Why do you hang onto what you were? You’ve got a chance at a new life here, if you’d just break free from the hold your past has on you. People would forget. They would,” he insisted. “If you gave them a chance to get to know you, they’d forget you were ever not one of us. You’re a good soul. You do everything manually, without resorting to your magic, no matter how inconvenient it is. Why does your past have to hold you back?”

Dwyn was silent after this rush of persuasion. When she spoke, it was to say, “How much can you lift now? Show me.”

Unfazed, Zuri reached out a hand toward one of the other stone benches several feet away from theirs. Without speech, he made it rise a foot above the ground, drift its full length to the left, and settle back into the grass with only a muted thud upon its landing.

“See? I told you that you’ve gotten stronger.” That same pale smile touched Dwyn’s lips again. “I asked Freddy what it was about you that makes me so glad to see you get stronger and more skilled. He said I was probably growing fond of you. You were one of the first to speak to me when I came, after all. You argue with me every day. You’re a good kid, Zuri. A very good kid. I hope I can see you come of age and do all the good things your people do. My past…” She stopped. “There are things in the world I hope you never have to face, Zuri. I’m glad to see you grow, but in a way I wish I could keep you as you are now. So pure-hearted… you have no way to know, no need to know what I have seen.” After a moment of dead silence, she said, “Your sister’s magic is developing in a strange way.”

Zuri accepted this new change of topic easily. “I’m not sure what to do about Kimi. She’s almost as bad as you are about hanging around the edges of things. A kid her age should have friends and run around and play, right?”

“Kimi is special. I didn’t mean that her magic was developing in a bad way. She passed this way not long before you came home from work.”

“Was she with Granny?”

“No,” said Dwyn, “she was alone. And she was not touching the ground.”

“At all?”

“At all. Not even a toe.”

“Everybody in our family has kinesthetic magic,” said Zuri, “but I don’t know of anybody in our family history who was able to use it to move themselves like she can.”

“It’s probable that her abilities in that area are connected to her habit of retreating into her mind the way she does. She’s lucky to have a big brother who takes such good care of her.”

Zuri shrugged off the praise. “Except for Granny and Papa, Kimi and I only have each other.”

“You should go find her and bring her home out of the night air.” Dwyn gazed at the darkening sky. “If Freddy is anxious, then it isn’t a good night to be out late.”

“Won’t you come for supper tonight?”

Dwyn declined. “Thank you, but I will stay and hear what Freddy has to tell after his rounds.”

“You can’t keep saying no forever,” said Zuri as he retrieved his bike from where he had propped it against a nearby tree trunk. “Granny and Papa would love to have you for a guest. No? Someday, Dwyn. Someday!” He swung his leg over the crossbar and pedaled out of the square in the direction the ex-renegade had indicated as his sister’s last known path.

The greengrocer Phin was taking down his awning as Zuri coasted past him. “Hold on, Zuri!”

Zuri slowed. “What is it?”

Phin picked up a lettuce. In the palm of his hand, the wilted green head firmed up into crisp freshness. “I promised your Granny salad greens, but I’ve been rushed off my feet all day. Take this to her with my compliments, will you?”

“Sure,” said Zuri. “Thanks!” He tucked the lettuce under his arm and continued on his way.

He nearly biked past his sister in the gloaming. Kimi was hardly hiding, but as she was floating at a level with the bird’s nest in the second branch of one of the birches that lined the side lane, Zuri coasted right beneath her before her presence registered in his awareness. “Kimi!”

His surprised exclamation made the eight-year-old flinch. She dropped like a rock with a shriek.

Zuri lifted a hand to slow her fall into a more controlled descent. Others from the nearby houses came running to catch her and set her on her feet. “What were you doing up so high?” Zuri asked.

She opened her hands like flower petals opening to reveal a fledgling bird nested on her palms.

“Kimi,” said her brother. He did not follow through with the rest of the rebuke in so many words, but his gaze made the little girl shrink into herself a little more.

“Now, Zuri.” This maternal tone came from An, the postmistress. “No harm done, right? We’ll call for Emlinne, and she’ll have a look at the little birdie. It’ll be all right, Kimi. She’ll see that it gets back to its nest without alarming the parents. See? There’s Emlinne now.”

Another woman from the growing crowd came forward to take the chick from Kimi’s hands. “He’s in good health,” she assured Kimi. “You picked him up before anything happened to him. I’ll put him back. Don’t worry about it.” She took from the basket carrier at her side a raccoon. Laying a fingertip atop the raccoon’s head, she said, “Jojo, you know what to do. I’ll give you other food, so leave the bird alone, right?”

The raccoon stared up at her with its bright black eyes. Then it took the chick between its clever little hands for an instant.

“Gently,” said Emlinne, “like your own babies.”

At this direction, the raccoon took the chick in delicate jaws and began the climb up the birch to the nest. Everyone watched as the omnivore deposited its natural prey safely in its nest and scampered back down to Emlinne again. She offered Jojo a treat from her hand and lifted it into the carrier. “See? I’ll wait here for the parents to come back and see they don’t reject the poor thing. It’ll be all right, Kimi.”

Zuri gave the lettuce to his little sister before lifting her onto the bike in front of him. “Time to go home for supper,” he told her. To the rest, he nodded his thanks.

Their paternal grandmother waited in the open door for them. “There you are,” she said as she took Kimi from Zuri’s hold. “I was starting to worry.”

As they sat together at the dinner table, Zuri told his grandparents the substance of his conversation with the ex-renegade Dwyn. His grandfather listened gravely. At the end of Zuri’s account, he spoke. “Her feelings toward Freddy are common knowledge. The day she came, I saw it in her face. She’s a hard woman to read, but I’ve come to trust her, regardless of her curious ways.”

“She never sets foot indoors,” offered Zuri’s granny. “Sleeps out of doors all weather, in a booth made of branches.”

“When the weather gets colder, that’ll need to change,” said Zuri.

Their conversation turned to family talk afterward, lasting longer than the food set before them. At last they cleared the table. Granny took down the tub. “It’s time for your bath, Kimi.” She shooed Papa and Zuri into the front yard. Papa settled into his customary rocking chair and took out his whittling. Zuri was restless. He looked upward at the gathering clouds that covered the stars. “Wind’s picking up,” he noted aloud after a while.

His grandfather grunted agreement.

“Tonight will be chilly for the time of year.”

The rocking chair creaked as Papa waited for Zuri to continue. Indoors, the faint splash of bathwater and muted conversation offered a comfortable homely backdrop.

“I’m going to take an extra blanket to Dwyn.”

“There’s a good one hanging on the line, fresh-washed and sun-dried today.”

Zuri took this as consent and fetched the quilt off the clothes line at the side of the house. His step was light as he strolled back toward the village square. As he had observed, the wind took on a gusty edge. It was a parched wind, despite the rain clouds overhead. Light spatters of rain blew across Zuri’s face and dried almost as suddenly as they had fallen. Dust swirled in sudden devils along the ground in and out of the light of the village lamps, casting twigs and dead leaves into the air. Trees groaned with each gust, and their lesser branches writhed.

“I told you it wasn’t a good night to be out late.” Dwyn’s voice in Zuri’s ear made the boy jump a full stride to the left.

“Where did you pop up from?” Zuri exclaimed.

“You are so trusting; you never look behind you. That is a dangerous habit in these times. Why are you out again? Is it your sister? Has she wandered again?”

“No,” said Zuri, composing himself again. “She’s home. I came out for you this time. Here.” He held out the quilt. “The wind is cold tonight.”

“I don’t feel the cold.”

“Just agree with me for once.” Zuri spread the blanket and, fighting the gusts of wind, draped it around Dwyn’s shoulders. “It’s yours, a gift from my family to you.”

“I wish you had not come out.” Dwyn drew the edges of the quilt around her. “I appreciate the gift, but I truly wish you had not come outdoors tonight. Freddy hasn’t returned.”

“Not yet? That’s strange.”

“Strange and ill-omened. Now that I have you in my sight, stay until he returns. I won’t worry as much if you’re where I can see you.” She sat down on the same stone bench as before.

Zuri sat beside her. “What makes you anxious? It’s just a storm, isn’t it?”

“Not this wind… this dry wind…” Dwyn’s hollow eyes were wide as they searched the darkness. “You know the feeling of another kinetic magic user in the neighborhood, right? In the same way, I know the feeling of a curse user when one comes near. This is a curse storm.”

Despite himself, Zuri shrank a little closer to the ex-renegade. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing good. I begin to feel the weight of this little village. You can feel the weight, if you’ve been through the training. That’s one of the first things they taught us: the weight of life. To take life, you need to know how much of its weight you can carry at one time. In the beginning, they taught us to practice curses on small lives, on insects and vermin. When you learn how to bear it, they teach you to bear heavier weights like the lives of large animals, infants and the elderly next, and then…” Dwyn uttered a soft groan. “One life, two lives, a family of lives, a village. Heavier and heavier, thicker and wetter, the smell of blood and the smell of soil… It’s too much. Freddy, come back…”

Zuri laid a shaky hand on her back. “He’ll come back. He’s been standing for ten years now as peacekeeper. He’s strong.” Though he trembled at each gust of the wind, he patted the ex-renegade’s back in awkward comfort.

“You are still so trusting,” said Dwyn. Her voice was strained. “You know enough now. Why do you stay by my side?”

“Why should I leave?” Zuri challenged her. “I never needed to know the details. What you were and what you are—those are two different things.” He had to raise his voice as the wind howled around them, but he never stopped patting her between the shoulder blades. “You’re one of the lives of the village now.”

“I can never be a life anywhere.” The wind tore Dwyn’s words away.

The ground beneath them convulsed. With a sweep of his hand, Zuri warded off a large branch that threatened to fall on them. The trees groaned and cracked as their foundations shifted. Then the ground collapsed. Zuri fell. Swallowed by darkness that seemed eternal, he fought to shift the rocks that fell with him so that he would not be crushed in the avalanche. One of the boulders rammed him from behind, knocked the breath from his lungs and bruised him all the way from skull to tailbone. He pushed away from it with all the magic he could muster, just before he hit the ground. Panting, he scrambled under the boulder’s shelter as smaller stones rained down. He shouted, but the thunder of rockfall buried his voice. All Zuri could do was to fend off the crushing rain with his magic until no more fell.

When he crawled out of his rough shelter, he rubbed his ringing ears. A white mist rose along the floor of the newly-formed ravine. “Dwyn!” he called. She was nowhere near him, so he clambered over the rubble. High overhead, the clouds dissipated with unnatural speed, allowing the moon to resume its glow. The farther he explored, the heavier his heart grew. Shattered fragments of familiar buildings lay among the rubble. A corner of the greengrocer’s awning fluttered from beneath a slab of mountainside. Nearly blinded by the mist, Zuri crawled over the corner of a house and touched warm, sticky flesh. His stomach heaved. There was hardly any light, but from the feel on his hands he knew there would be no way to identify the remains even in the broad light of noon. He retreated into another such corpse before he fought his way clear of the ruins of Phin’s place.

A long, low wail caught his attention. He turned in that direction by instinct. Even in the dim, misty depths of the massive crevice, the pallor of Dwyn’s face shone. Zuri scrambled toward her. “Dwyn!” Then he exhaled a sob, because the lower half of the ex-renegade was crushed beneath the mass of another stone slab.

She stretched out a hand. “You’re alive… alive…”

“Dwyn,” was all he could say in response.

“Don’t worry about me. I feel no pain.” Her hand was icy when it stroked his cheek. “It has been a long time since I felt cold or heat, pain or pleasure. Listen to me, Zuri. There’s no time. They won’t be far away. Do you see this mist? This is what they came to take, but I won’t let them take it. The weight of your village is in this mist. This is going to be hard for you to hear, but listen carefully. Your enemies prepare soldiers from their own numbers in order to destroy large quantities of lives and to steal the magic from their fresh bodies. There are always two of these soldiers together, one to kill and the other to steal. They will not be open to reason. They can’t reason. They can hardly think. They’re dead, reanimated by a complex curse, and only by releasing that curse on others can they themselves be released from living death. Zuri, Zuri— I am one of those soldiers. I have been dead a long time, but I can’t be free until I use the curse that’s stored inside me. No, don’t speak. I still feel the weight, but now I know what needs to be done. Stop up your ears. I won’t have you hear the words of the curse. But before that, promise me that you’ll run from here. Don’t let them catch you. If they catch you, they’ll twist your soul. They commit these atrocities because they want to create a second All-Mage, one they control. They steal the magic of innocent people and collect it inside one body. I don’t want them to take the magic of this village. It carries with it the memory of good people. It’s too good for them. I’ll give it to you instead.” Her eyes were black holes in her pallor. They never veered from Zuri’s face. “I’m sorry that my cursed magic will come with it, but if it’s you, it should do little harm. You were one of those who taught me the true weight of a life.” She took his hand and raised it to the side of his face. “Stop up your ears now. Don’t let the words inside.”

With shaking, numbed hands Zuri covered his ears. His own grip hurt the sides of his head. He watched Dwyn’s bloodless lips move. The mist began to revolve, slowly at first but gaining speed into a cyclone of white with Zuri at its center. At his knee, Dwyn’s face remained visible in the maelstrom. Her lips shaped strange syllables that Zuri did not recognize. With each syllable, her mouth moved more slowly, until Dwyn relaxed entirely. Her hand fell outstretched across Zuri’s knees.

The spinning mist contracted and encompassed Zuri like a skin. It burned as it sank deeper into his body. With it came flashes of vision, faces Zuri had known all his life connected with instincts wholly new to him. When the sizzling pain subsided, he held up his hand as if he had never seen it before that hour. He picked up a broken scrap of wood. It burst into flame. The lamplighter Kiran’s voice echoed in his memory: Time again to bring light into the dark, eh, Zuri? Zuri set the brand atop a flat rock near Dwyn’s face. The sight of her pinched bluish features brought to him an impulse to snap his fingers over her body. As soon as he did so, her body crumbled into ash.

“Cursed magic,” he breathed. A shudder ran up his back.

Stones clattered down from some height at his back. Dwyn’s warning returned to him. Extinguishing the small firebrand, Zuri made his way cautiously along the ravine. The enormity of the sinkhole struck him again and again as he climbed to level ground. Not only had his village fallen, but most of the land surrounding it was gone as well. He found no solid footing until he reached the upper road that led up the east cliff side toward the inland pass. From there he looked down at the gaping destruction of what had been his home. Night hid the worst of it from him, but in the distance the bobbing approach of lights suggested that Dwyn had been wise to warn him. Someone was coming, and Dwyn’s cursed magic told him that he was in real danger.

It wasn’t until he reached the ridge that Zuri noticed the tears streaming down his face. His shoulders bowed, as though the weight of his village had a tangible presence. He turned back one more time to look at the crevice, but he knew there was no reason. He could not return to the village of his birth, but in exchange his people would never leave him. He would carry the weight of their accumulated magic wherever he went.

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22
Apr

Writing Challenge: Week 15

Puppet Play

By H. M. Snow

 

The small army of puppets carried Dasarre into a long workshop. Their progress rattled like dry bones until they dropped him on the floor. Then they stood at attention around him.

“What are these?” Dasarre prodded one with his fingertip.

“Have you never seen a puppet before?” The puppet’s master, face hidden within the depths of a dark blue hood, followed them into the workshop. His hand was rough and knobby but steady as it pointed toward a little stage set up at the near end of the workshop. “Then you have never seen a puppet play before either. You should watch closely.” He deposited a tiny puppet on the stage and walked to the far end, as if he had nothing more to say.

Dasarre sat cross-legged before the stage. He was tall enough that he needed no chair. Like an obedient child he fixed his eyes on the delicate puppet. “Ah!” he exclaimed as the puppet stood up and dusted off its skirt.

It was a child puppet, round-faced, with long brown hair and wide brown eyes and a tiny cupids-bow mouth. It wore a traditional long dress tied with a wide sash high on the waist. The puppet raised one exquisite hand. Each finger was carved distinct from the rest, with impossibly tiny joints that allowed them to clench into a fist. The puppet knocked in midair, but the gesture created a wooden tapping noise.

“Enter.” The response came from the shadowy side of the stage. Only when it moved was the second puppet visible, though its dark blue hood kept its face concealed. “How may I help you? Is it a toy you seek?”

The girl puppet bowed her head and fidgeted. “No, sir. Are you the one who makes the puppet booths that sit on the street corners?”

“In this neighborhood, I am. Did one of them malfunction? If so, I can refund your coin.”

“No, sir.” The little girl fidgeted some more.

The puppet master paused to look properly at the girl for the first time. “Then why have you come?”

“The booths are amazing,” said the little girl. “I watch them all the time. I watched so many of them—I wanted to find out who made them.”

“And now that you have?”

The little girl bowed deeply. “Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I really want to see more of them!” Then, as if pursued, she ran offstage.

The puppet master puppet remained in place for a few seconds, hood turned in the direction of the little girl’s exit, before uttering a perplexed noise and returning to his work.

The little girl returned a few seconds later, but in a different dress and a little taller. She climbed onto a tall stool near the puppet master’s workbench and swung her feet. “What are you making today, Omar?” she asked after watching his work for a few moments.

“A new form of puppet,” replied the master.

The girl clapped her hands together in delight, but she asked no further questions. When the puppet master made his completed work stand up on the workbench, the girl clapped her hands again. “It’s good, very good! Is it for a new booth?”

The puppet master did not answer at first. He waved his hand. The new puppet clattered off the bench and tottered on three legs to a nearby shelf, returning with a hammer for the master.

“Ah! I see,” said the girl, no less delighted. “A shop assistant, right?”

“And nanny.”

The three-legged puppet used one of its four hands to pour a glass of water and carry it to the little girl. It curtsied before her in a genteel manner.

“Thank you,” said the girl to the new assistant, in all seriousness. “Omar, why don’t more people come to see your work?”

“The work I put into the street booths, they come to see. That is enough.”

“But don’t you get lonely here?”

“Quite the contrary,” said the puppet master. “Visitors use up my energies too quickly and interrupt my work. I enjoy being alone in my workshop without noisy and nosy strangers interfering.”

The little girl hopped down from her seat and set aside her glass. Sidling toward the puppet master, she asked in a timid voice, “Have I been troubling you all this time?”

“I have got used to you. You are no trouble.”

She clapped her hands. “I’m so glad. I have such fun when I visit you, Omar.” She lunged at him in an impulsive hug that only reached around his waist. “Thank you!”

This time, when the little girl left the shop, the puppet master set one of his smallest puppets on her trail. It trotted after her to a house full of children. “Mairen’s home at last!” one of the elder boys yelled.

“Good! Now we can eat our dinner.” The one adult in the house, an elderly woman, gathered the children around a long table. The little girl Mairen was smallest among them and sat at the foot of the table. The little spying puppet hid just outside the door and watched.

“Is it really tomorrow?” asked one child.

“Yes,” said the old woman. “Tomorrow is the Festival of the Authority. I hope you’ve all prepared something to impress Master Gisle.”

All together the children started to chatter about what they had prepared, all but little Mairen. She sat and listened to the rest, offering praise to anyone who shared their plans with her. When the meal was over and the dishes cleared away, however, Mairen crept out into the yard to be alone. She drew shapes on the ground with her finger. “What if I don’t have an ability?” she asked herself. “How can I impress the head?” She was so engrossed in these questions that the little tracking puppet came up to stand beside her and patted her on the head before she noticed it. “Oh!” Mairen picked it up. “Did you follow me? I hope Omar isn’t worried about you. I’m not allowed to leave the yard after supper,” she confided in the puppet, “in case the night elves attack. So I can’t take you home until tomorrow. Oh!” Mairen stood frozen for several moments with her mouth open. “That will impress Master Gisle!” She smiled and carried the puppet inside the house.

Swift darkness fell over the scene, only to lift three seconds later to reveal the children of the house lined up along the fence in order of age, Mairen the youngest bringing up the end of the line. All of them stretched forward and craned their necks to gaze intently to their left. A group of adults approached from that direction. Central among them was a man whose face had an ageless beauty almost verging on feminine. In his right hand he carried a heavy walking stick with an ornate scrolled top. His clothes were styled simply, in contrast to the sweeping blue robe he wore over them, and his long fair hair drifted behind him as he walked. At his appearance, all the children stood straight. In a chorus they declared, “Good day, Master Gisle!”

The man stopped before them. “Hello,” he greeted them. “What fine children you are! Do you have something to show to me today?”

The tallest boy among them pursed his mouth and furrowed his brow in concentration. A few seconds passed. Then a starling fluttered down to land at the boy’s feet. Another bird, this one a pigeon, alit on his shoulder. Two dogs chased one another into the yard and frolicked around the boy, startling the starling into finding a safer perch on the boy’s head. Then a cat slunk down out of the tree to join the menagerie. When the boy stopped concentrating so fiercely, he had acquired two frogs, a dragonfly, another pigeon, and a raccoon in addition.

“Good,” said the head, “quite good.” He extended his walking stick so that its scrolled knob rested against the boy’s forehead for an instant.

Child after child, the head of their people observed their skills, praised them and touched their foreheads with the end of his staff, until he came to Mairen. She clutched the puppet master’s doll to her chest and stared up at Gisle with searching eyes. “How do you do, Master Gisle?” Mairen said in a quivery voice.

“I’m very well,” said the man amiably. “How do you do?”

Mairen’s smile was still shaky, but she ran through the gate and around the fence to take the master’s hand. “Come,” she said, tugging at him.

Unbeknownst to her, the doll in her arms turned its head to stare at Gisle, and Gisle stared back in curiosity. “Where are we going?” he asked as he allowed her to lead him by the hand down the street.

“Something to impress you,” was all Mairen said. She was out of breath from nerves and exertion, but her eyes gleamed.

When they reached the puppet master’s tent, a booth stood in the doorway to block their entrance. Dozens of tiny puppets danced and twirled and played on the small stage. Mairen only released the master’s hand so that she could clap her own together. “See?” she said, laughing, “see? Isn’t it impressive?”

“I have always found Omar’s work impressive,” agreed Master Gisle. “His skills and ability increase with the years, it would seem, but his preference for hiding behind his work has not changed. Omar!” He leaned close to the side of the stage. “If you won’t let me enter, then you must come out to meet me.”

“I must come out? But you did not come to see me.” The puppet master’s voice came from just inside the doorway.

“This child,” said Gisle, “is she related to you?”

“No. She comes sometimes to watch me work. That is all.” After a pause, Omar added, “My skills are as they always have been. My ability as well. Whatever change you see is due to her ability.”

Gisle turned to Mairen. “Child, what is your ability?”

Mairen turned her blushing face from him. “I don’t have one, Master Gisle. I’ve never been able to do anything like everybody else.”

“And yet,” said Omar from the shadows, “the range and strength of my ability more than doubles when she is nearby. Strange, is it not, Master Gisle?”

Crouching down, Gisle put himself at Mairen’s eye level. “I had supposed that you were controlling that puppet,” he said, “but it was Omar all along, and from such distance!” He reached out the tip of his staff to touch the girl’s forehead.

Its scrolled knob cracked open with a startling resonance. Mairen leaped backward in alarm.

Gisle broke into a broad smile. “I have found you. What are you called, child?”

“Mairen.”

“Mairen, you are coming to live with me and be my apprentice. Does that please you?”

She blushed even more hotly. “May I still come to see Omar?”

“You may, as often as you please. Or, if it pleases you more, we can move Omar to my house so that you may see him even more often.”

Mairen shook her head vigorously. “Oh, no,” she said, “Omar wouldn’t like that. Too many people.”

“You are a considerate little friend.” Gisle picked her up in his arms. “Let’s complete our tour of the city, and then I will show you where you will live from now on.”

“Omar!” Mairen called out suddenly. “I brought you back your puppet. It followed me.”

“Keep it with you,” the unseen Omar replied. “Let it follow you.”

“Thank you!”

Master Gisle began returning in the direction of Mairen’s house. One among his entourage stopped him with a strong grip on his elbow. “Head— something is approaching the city.” This one lifted his head as if listening. “Sun elves… six… nine of them, moving at speed.”

“Another of their raids?” said Gisle. “Which direction?”

His companion pointed. “They’re scattering. Only two are coming toward us now.”

Gisle turned to another of his companions. “Sound the alarm.”

Every bird, whether at rest or in flight, began to cry out its own warning. Dogs barked; cats yowled. The head’s companions closed ranks around him. Mairen clung around Gisle’s neck.

The first assailant came like a blur, knocking the head’s companions every-which-way. A second landed in their midst. Both shared identical physical characteristics: a narrow torso, lean musculature in the arms, solid thighs, and long bare feet that gripped the ground for traction. Both were impossibly fair in complexion and hair, but one had black eyes and the other blue. The black-eyed sun elf leaped from their midst as soon as he had landed, but the blue-eyed elf locked onto Mairen. “Beautiful.” The elf’s voice was cold and thin. She reached toward Mairen.

Gisle held his cracked staff between the elf and the girl. “Leave her alone.”

“I cannot,” said the elf. “Never have I seen a child so beautiful. She must serve me.” She batted aside the first companion who regained his wits and tried to interpose himself between Gisle and the elf. The attempt did not even disturb her composure. As Gisle backed away, the elf stalked forward.

The ground clattered as wooden feet trampled it. All the puppets from Omar’s booth charged the elf, not to attack her but to interlace themselves around her feet and legs. The elf grabbed one of them, raised it before her eyes quizzically, and then crushed it in her fist.

“Don’t!” Mairen shouted. “Don’t break Omar’s puppets!” In her small earlobe, a white pearl appeared, engulfed in burning light.

With a crackling like fire, the puppets began to grow bigger. Several of them sprouted leaves according to the type of wood from which they were crafted. Double, triple, quadruple in size they grew, until Master Gisle was forced to retreat to an open space farther down the street.

The bulk of the puppets blocked the elf, but she threw them as if they weighed nothing. When she had cleared a path, she sprang forward with a hand outstretched toward Mairen. “I claim her!”

Clutched in Mairen’s arms, forgotten, the doll that Omar had given her began to move. It raised both dainty hands and launched itself from Mairen’s embrace. It landed with both arms around the elf’s long, slender neck and clung there like a strange necklace. The elf grabbed its legs and ripped them from its body, but the puppet went on tightening its hold around her neck. Its arms grew and thickened into sturdy branches that tightened and tightened still more. “What is this?” the elf gasped. She tore at the remains of the puppet, but by that point the puppet’s growth was so rapid that she could only tear off minor branches while the original limbs continued to constrict her throat.

Slow, heavy footsteps like mallet blows to the ground came from behind Gisle. The puppet master had emerged from his workshop in his oversized hood and robes. A breeze pushed his hood back to reveal a face much scarred around the nose and mouth. One eye was patched over. In his earlobe, a single pearl still glowed. He took Mairen from Gisle’s arms and held her close. “You are unhurt?”

Mairen, crying, clung to her friend. “Mm-hm,” she said, “but she broke your puppets.”

Omar patted her back awkwardly. “Those, I can fix. You, I cannot. I am glad you are unhurt.” He bowed his tousled head down to rest it against Mairen’s head.

In the meanwhile, the head’s companions were at last able to subdue the sun elf, who was half-unconscious from lack of breath. “What shall we do with this one?” one of them asked Gisle.

“She is little Mairen’s prisoner,” said Gisle. “The decision rests with you,” he said to the girl.

“Why did she say I’m beautiful?” Mairen asked. “I’m not. I’m plain; everybody says so. Master Gisle is the beautiful one.”

The head’s companions laughed amongst themselves. Gisle said, “Beings like the elves and the devourers have a different way of seeing than we do. It is said that they see souls instead of bodies. What she saw in you was the true Mairen, who is beautiful in her sight.”

Mairen gazed down at the prone elf. Then, to Omar, she said, “May I stand, please?”

Omar set her down on her own feet.

She did not move away immediately, because from that position it was possible for her to see what she had not before: Omar’s legs and feet were crafted of wood, like his puppets. She looked up at him. “What happened to your legs, Omar?”

“I lost them,” he said, “on the night I lost my mother and father. A hunting party of night elves attacked. I was left for dead. When I grew older, I made these for myself so that I could walk.”

“But sun elves are different from night elves,” said Gisle. “They mean no harm. These raids are like games to them.”

“The fright they cause is no game.” Omar’s voice turned savage.

Mairen looked up into Omar’s face. Then she went to stand beside the fallen sun elf. “You can let go now,” she said to no one in particular. She wrapped her fingers around the strangling wooden collar.

It shriveled and shrank until once again it resembled the doll Omar had given her.

Mairen took up the pieces and carried them back to Omar. “You can fix it?”

“Yes.”

She ran back to the elf. “Are you sleeping?” she asked. “Thank you for calling me beautiful. No one has ever called me that before. But I need to stay here. Master Gisle says I must be his apprentice, and that will take a long time.”

The elf opened her blue eyes. She stared at Mairen but made no move to rise. “Beautiful,” she repeated.

“Will you go home now? You’re scaring people. I don’t think you mean to scare anybody, so can’t you please go home?”

“I cannot leave.” Swiftly, the sun elf snatched Mairen into her arms.

Omar snarled. His puppets came running from all directions.

But the elf, rising to her feet with a dexterous bound, swung Mairen around in circles. “I cannot go home without this beautiful child.”

“She isn’t your servant,” Omar barked.

The elf batted away the puppets as they came, but when Omar charged forward to drag Mairen from the elf’s grasp, the elf did not resist.

“Leave her in peace!” Incensed, Omar hastened away from the impromptu battleground with Mairen secure in his protective arms. He glanced backward. “Go! She told you, go home! You will not take this one.”

But the elf followed after them, showing only an intense fascination toward Mairen. She seemed not to hear a word Omar said to dissuade her.

Gisle collected his assortment of guardians. “What a strange child. The era of the next head will most definitely be an interesting one. I only wish I could be here to see it.” He led his companions after Omar, Mairen, and the female sun elf.

The curtains fell closed on the stage, jolting Dasarre back from his entranced viewing. From behind him, clapping hands startled him a second time in quick succession. “Your work is always so clever.” The young head Mairen came forward from the shadows. “But you took a long time with your self-introduction, Omar. Did you need to tell it all?” Her face glowed a becoming rosy color.

“But that wasn’t all,” Dasarre protested. “I wanted to see more!”

“Omar’s puppet plays are always like that. That’s what makes them so good. What are you working on now, Omar? May I see it?” Mairen hurried over to the workbench. “Oh! That’s a good resemblance!” She brought a small puppet over to Dasarre. “See? It’s you! He’s adding you to his plays.”

Dasarre took the small wooden replica of himself gingerly on his palm. For a change, he seemed lost for words as he stared at it. He handed the puppet back to Mairen in the same uncharacteristic silence.

“It’s nearly dinnertime,” Mairen announced as she returned to Omar his newest creation. “Come and you can meet everyone.” She left ahead of them.

The guardian in the billowing robes drew alongside Dasarre. “I hope I can infer from your silence that you take my meaning.” Omar held up the miniature Dasarre. “I am her first guardian. If you bring her to any harm, I will know.” In his hand the head of the Dasarre puppet turned to stare at its original. “Now, let us join Mairen at the table.”

15
Apr

Holy Week Writing Challenge Hiatus

Those of you who know me personally will realize that this is not an excuse: I am involved in enough Easter season events in my local congregation that I must take a week off from my writing challenge. Regular service will resume next Tuesday. I wish for all of you a personal and vivid encounter with the one whose sacrifice and subsequent triumph makes this week holy. Blessings on each of you.

8
Apr

Writing Challenge: Week 14

The Festival Incident

by H. M. Snow

 

To say that Eila allowed her son to walk ahead would not be too great a stretch of the truth. Though Dasarre towered over her in height, no one who knew them ever had any doubt which one was in charge. In much the same way, her husband Joss remained beside and slightly behind her. “He’s adapting well,” she said to Joss.

Joss bobbed his head in agreement.

“There’s no fear of losing him in the crowd anyway,” added Eila.

A grin stretched Joss’ closed mouth.

“What has his attention now?” Eila raised herself up on tiptoe but still could not see. “What’s he after? And there he goes,” she commented.

Perhaps it was fortunate for them that Joss bore the cadaverous pallor and slope-shouldered bulk that marked him as half-blood devourer. People had already kept a secure distance from them despite the confines of the narrow lanes. Now that distance enabled the pair to chase after the blaze of shaggy red hair that was their only view of their son above the festival-goers.

He moved quickly enough that they caught up only after he had stopped a young lady and her chaperone. Dasarre gazed down at the girl with unabashed admiration. “I’m Dasarre,” he said to her, “and you are the loveliest girl I have ever seen.”

Eila moved forward immediately. To girl and chaperone alike, she said, “Please excuse my son. He has a habit of saying whatever enters his head. He means no impertinence.”

The chaperone, a stern-faced woman in her prime, seemed unconvinced, but the girl said, “I took no offense, good mother. It is gratifying to be told. I only wondered what he meant by it.”

“I meant only what I said,” Dasarre responded at once. “It would be shame to me if I didn’t praise where praise was due.”

“Yet you keep looking at me.”

“As long as you allow me to look,” he replied with a goodnatured smile. “Loveliness is meant to be seen, is it not?”

“You,” said the chaperone with an edge to her words, “show respect to the young head.”

Several things happened as aftermath to the woman’s announcement. The girl turned to look at her chaperone and said gently, “When will you begin calling me by my name as I asked you, Bryndis?” At the same time, Eila and Joss removed themselves a step backward and bowed their heads in respect. Amid all this, however, Dasarre remained as he had been, except for the astonishment that left his mouth ajar.

“You’re the young head? But you look so young!”

The girl returned her attention to Dasarre. Her lips pressed together. Her right hand grasped at the air and drew from it a heavy wooden staff with an ornate scrollwork knob on top. She lifted the staff and knocked its scrolled knob, not very hard, against Dasarre’s forehead. “I do tire of people saying that,” she explained.

Eila hastened to say, “Please excuse my son again. He is so naturally airheaded that anyone might assume we have taught him nothing. The only excuse for him in this instance is that he met the prior head once when he was a small child, and the encounter left a powerful impression in his mind.”

“Gisle was that sort,” said the young head. Her gray eyes homed in on Eila. “Are you bound any place specific, or are you free to walk with me and tell me your story?”

“We will walk with you, yes, and gladly.”

“I am Mairen.” The girl bowed her head. She released the staff into whatever airy dimension kept it for her. Then she crooked her elbow for Eila to take her arm. Thus linked, girl and matron started down the street.

The chaperone, Bryndis, gripped Dasarre by the arm when he set off after them. “Walk behind with your father.” She released him only to catch up with Mairen, leaving Joss and Dasarre to walk a few strides behind her.

At the head of this procession, Eila had begun her story. “My husband’s father was full-blood devourer of the chameleon type, born of a mother who had developed a taste for her own young. It is thought that Father Ingve survived only because he was clever enough to disguise himself as a stone, so that even with his scent and the blood of birth thick on the ground, his mother could not find him. It was as a stone that friends of my parents discovered him.”

“How did they know him from a stone, if his own mother did not?” asked Mairen.

“By that time, he was groaning with hunger. They fed him porridge from their own table, and he accepted it. Master Reiyo, my father’s friend, had an idea that a devourer might be raised to do good and not attack people. He decided to adopt the infant, and his good wife Onnika consented to be mother to Ingve.”

“So they raised him as their own, as one of guardian race?”

Eila nodded her answer. “They had a daughter, dear Mother Agneta, who was only a year older than Ingve. They grew together, and when they reached adulthood they asked for consent to marry. Joss was their only child. He and I grew up together, as his parents did, and Dasarre is our one and only. We brought him to your halls in hope of finding a place for him in your service. We had no intention of seeking you during the festival– you must be very occupied–”

“Does his early meeting with Gisle have anything to do with your decision?”

“Yes, Lady Mairen. Our people are refuge wanderers, with all that that entails.” Eila glanced at the young head to see that she understood. Assured of this, she continued, “It was the year Dasarre turned five that the party we guarded was ambushed at Vil Crossing. In the fight, Father Ingve… he accidentally tasted blood for the first time. He was never easy in his mind afterward, especially because Master Reiyo was killed during the fight. My father always said that honoring Reiyo gave Father Ingve purpose for his life. It was difficult for us all in the days afterward. Decades of instinct that Father Ingve had bound beneath love for his family awoke in him. His mind… some days he was the Father Ingve we had known. Other days he disappeared, and we all knew he was feeling the pull of his blood. It came to the point where he would gnaw his own fingers so that he would not harm anyone else. He stopped eating altogether after a while rather than risk…” Eila sighed helplessly.

“You sought Gisle’s help?” Mairen prompted her.

This returned Eila’s composure to her. She smiled. “Not us, Lady Mairen. We are wanderers. We never would have thought to inconvenience the head with our private troubles. We sought to do all we could do, and I suppose one of us must have dropped a remark in Dasarre’s hearing, something about only the strength of the head’s authority being enough for Father Ingve. He ran away, the unruly boy, thinking to fetch this strength for his grandfather. As one might expect, he got lost, since he hadn’t the first idea where to look.” She glanced fondly over her shoulder at her beloved Dasarre. “I understand that, in the dark of night, alone and frightened half to death, he sat down and started to cry out for the prior head.”

“And Gisle never overlooked such a thing,” Mairen added. “Never once. No matter how distant or how faint the cry, he would answer.”

“He did, yes. He brought Dasarre home to us. We were terribly shocked. That night was one of Father Ingve’s hardest. He was in his right mind, living alongside the instinct and horrified by it. When he saw the prior head, carrying Dasarre against his chest, Father Ingve begged him for a boon. He begged to die.”

No words passed between the two for the remaining length of the street. Mairen said, “What then? What did Gisle say?”

Eila dashed a tear from her eye with her free hand. “He was very kind. He stood for the longest time, just looking at Father Ingve. I never would have expected such kindness in the eyes of anyone looking at a… at a devourer,” she faltered. “Most fail to look beyond the blood.”

This time it was Mairen who looked back, sweeping her attendant Bryndis with a glance. “I know. It’s a pity and a disgrace in such cases, but understandable.”

“Yes, Lady. The prior head, as I was saying, was so kind. He took his staff, just as you did before us back there, and he laid it across Father Ingve’s body. He promised Father Ingve a place in the celestial halls. That meant so much to Mother Agneta and to us. We’re just wanderers, so there was no way possible for us to express what it meant to us, but Dasarre came up with the answer in his own time. He told us he wanted to serve the head, so here we came when he was ready. It need not be an important post, but it would help ease the fulness of the feelings that words can’t touch,” she ended.

“I am gratified,” the young head Mairen began to say. She was interrupted by two syllables from Joss at the back of their short procession: “Eila.” As it was the first time he had spoken since their meeting, Mairen stopped and turned toward him.

Eila’s reaction was more abrupt. She drew the young head close to herself. “What is it, Joss? Where is it?”

Bryndis bounded across the suddenly empty lane, switchblade out and open, with Joss close after her. Dasarre herded his mother and Mairen to the scant shelter of the nearest shop’s wall. There, Eila kept her arms around Mairen while Dasarre sheltered them behind his body. A faint rosy glow surrounded Mairen.

The young head whispered, “Refuge barrier in two layers?”

Eila shushed her as if Mairen were her own child.

In the middle of the lane, some paces beyond them, Bryndis and Joss had flushed out the danger: a large chameleon-type devourer that had been lying on the roof of a shop, colored to blend in with the clay roof tiles. It was bigger even than Joss, but Bryndis attacked unafraid. Her switchblade she drove straight and hard at its head, but the wily devourer blocked with one hand. The sight of its own blood pouring from the puncture only made it grin.

“Capture-type half-blood?” Joss demanded of Bryndis. “What guardian ability?”

“Healing,” Bryndis snapped back.

“Heal it, then. Blood frenzy is the last thing we need.” He took advantage of the devourer’s distraction to slip behind and restrain it in a headlock. “Capture!” he yelled at Bryndis.

The devourer stiffened in Joss’ grip. When Joss released it, the creature fell like a log onto the pavement, immobilized by Bryndis’ ability. Bryndis did not miss a beat. Driving her switchblade through the devourer’s skull, she demanded, “What do you mean, ‘blood frenzy’? A devourer doesn’t go mad over the sight of its own blood.”

“That,” Joss nudged the devourer with his foot, “isn’t alone.” He turned in place, scrutinizing his surroundings.

Another devourer, bigger than the first, lost patience with being disguised as a shop sign on the roof above the door and hurled its mass down upon Joss and Bryndis. As their two-against-one struggle roared in the street, Eila and Mairen remained motionless behind Dasarre’s sheltering back. A few grains of brick dust trickled down on them, sliding off the dual refuge barrier. Slowly Mairen raised her face. Nothing showed against the brick front of the shop, but a gouge in the bricks deepened without visible means. Dasarre leaned back, fairly crushing his mother and the young head against the wall. Another gouge appeared in the brick, and another. A tiny chunk of mortar was dislodged from between two bricks. Something was digging its claws into the surface as it made a steady descent toward them.

When the trail of gouges stopped just above Dasarre’s head, the young quarter-blood grabbed something above him. He strained all his muscles to drag the intruder from the wall and, like a wrestler, threw his enemy to the ground. His enemy was visible then for a moment, brick-colored against the gray pavement, as a sinuous devourer. Then it adapted to the changed backdrop and disappeared from sight, but Dasarre would not release it. He began adopting a variety of forms to confuse his enemy as he used his bulk to his advantage, pushing his enemy back. From time to time, parts of the enemy flashed into sight: sharpened nails at the end of grasping rawboned fingers, corpse face with gaping mouth, teeth filed to points and tipped with iron.

Dasarre fought open-handed, slapping the devourer whenever he wasn’t throwing it against the nearest immovable surface. He caught it once by the wrist. A grisly snap followed, and from that point the devourer used only its other hand. It knocked Dasarre sprawling once and made a dash at Mairen, but Dasarre caught it by the ankle, resulting in another snap.

Joss and Bryndis were getting the better of their enemy. Watching from inside the refuge barrier, Eila said, “It’s so hard to get those with devourer blood to cooperate with one another.”

Mairen answered as calmly as if watching a play. “I wondered if it was just a trait Bryndis developed. I’m somewhat glad to know that it’s something more than that.” She had already recalled her staff. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear to reveal a column of glowing earrings from upper curve to lobe. Calm though she appeared, she watched not her attendant but Dasarre in his battle. Then she turned her head, alert to the presence of another. “Lusal! Help him first.”

The new arrival to the battleground, called “Lusal” by the young head, was clearly descended from sun elfkind. She had the impossibly slender torso and smoothly-muscled limbs, as well as the bronze skin and white hair, of her people. This fierce, unnatural beauty dropped from a rooftop to land on her feet behind Dasarre just as he caught his enemy with one arm around its neck and the other pinioning its arms to its body. Lusal’s long hands closed around the devourer’s head and, without effort, wrenched it free of its neck.

Blood shot high in the air like a shower. Eila abandoned the safety of the barrier to run to her husband, while Dasarre flung the remains of his enemy away from him and fled the gory fountain. His mother stretched out an arm to her son. “Come!” she urged.

Mairen spoke sharply. “Lusal! Call the rain!”

With just as little emotion, Lusal took a vial from her belt and pitched it deep into the sky. She called out a few syllables. The sapphire earring in her earlobe shone, and a corresponding sapphire in Mairen’s earlobe burned. Black clouds rolled across the sky, billowing out of nothing. For several surreal minutes, while shafts of evening sunlight shot across the sky, a cloudburst soaked everything for blocks around the battleground and washed the blood down the gutters. By the time the downpour ceased, the street and the rooftops were lined with the young head’s guardians, a mismatched assortment of individuals united only by the pinpoint of light coming from each one’s earring.

“You called us a little late, Mairen,” said one man, swinging his feet from the rooftop.

Eila paid them no mind. She had ne hand on her husband and one on her son, wiping the last traces of blood from their faces. “Are you all right?” she asked them again and again.

Beyond them, Bryndis was wiping her switchblade on the tatters of her shirt. When she dragged off the ruined blouse, everyone could see the bandages wrapping her from bosom to waist. She had no blush to spare for her own exposure. “You!” she said to Joss. “How did you know there were three?”

“Experience,” said Joss. “Chameleon-types hunt in threes.” He too stripped off his soaked shirt to reveal a similar wrapping around his torso. He wrung out his shirt, snapped it in the air, and donned it again. To his wife he said, “All right.”

Then she turned all her attention on Dasarre. “Did you swallow any?”

Her son laughed. “No, Mums, I’m all right. I should ask… are you all right?” He turned his sunny smile toward Mairen. “That’s the real question.”

“Yes,” Mairen answered, “I was never in any danger, thanks to your family. I had no idea it was possible to raise a dual refuge barrier.”

“I can only do it with Dasarre’s help, Lady Mairen,” said Eila. “The second layer is his barrier.”

“But how can that be, when he was fighting so fiercely ten feet away?”

“We’ve taught him barriers since he was old enough to understand, Lady. He ought to know his craft that well by now.” She ruffled Dasarre’s wet tangle of hair into a semblance of order.

Mairen swept her own hair back from her face as well. “Good work,” she told Dasarre.

He uttered an involuntary, bereft yelp. In one long stride he had planted himself in front of the young head and had taken her face between his hands as he turned her face side to side. “So many!” His long face suddenly took on an expression as if he were a child and someone had snatched away his favorite toy.

Eila was almost as quick as her son. She brought her heel down hard on his toes. “What has possessed you? Release the young head at once! I’m so embarrassed, I hardly know where to turn.”

But Mairen had learned already how to take Dasarre’s personality in her stride. “What do you mean, ‘so many’?” she asked with a tiny smile.

“The earrings,” he confessed. “I know I’m not much now, but… to own up to the truth, I did dream of working my way as high as to be one of your chosen guardians one day. But you’ve got so many already…” His dark calf eyes turned toward the ground between his feet.

This brought a chuckle from several of the head’s guardians gathered around them, but even they were startled by the peal of laughter Dasarre’s statement drew from Mairen. “Bend forward,” she said, “and open your mouth.” When Dasarre obeyed, Mairen touched his tongue with one fingertip. “I disagree with you– you have no reason to say you are not much now.”

Dasarre yelped again, this time in startled pain. He grabbed the tip of his tongue with the fingers of both hands and pulled it, as if it were long enough for him to see. For a few more seconds he persisted in trying to see what he could feel: a diamond stud piercing through his tongue. Then, laughing, he ran to show his mother and father.

Eila brushed tears from her eyes. She gazed past Dasarre to the young head. “Thank you.”

“On the contrary– I owe you thanks,” Mairen answered her. Diamond glinted in the shadow of her mouth as she spoke. “You protected me, and you offered up your son to serve me though he is clearly precious to you both. He will do well, I think.” She beckoned to a shadowy form standing well back from the scene. “Would you see him settled into his new place, Omar? You can tell him all he needs to know.”

A marionette puppet lurched out of the shadows on its own. It stopped at Dasarre’s feet and beckoned to him with a jointed forefinger. Once it had his attention, it led him to the mysterious form that awaited him in the mouth of the alley.

Dasarre turned back to call out to his parents, “Goodbye! I’ll send you word when I can–” He was yanked backward into the alley before he could finish.

“Omar,” said Mairen, “is a little shy of strangers. Your son will be looked after very well.”

Eila and Joss exchanged a glance. “If you say so, Lady Mairen,” said Eila. “May we write?”

“Of course you may. When he has finished his training, you may visit him whenever you choose.”

Joss took Eila by the hand. After another long look, Eila said aloud, “It will be quiet without him. He won’t be lonely?”

Bryndis answered from where she knelt. “I can’t see that boy ever slowing down long enough to check if he’s lonely.”

“I suspect it is his parents who will feel lonely,” said Mairen. “You’re welcome to stay.”

But Eila shook her head as she blotted the last of her tears. “Our company depends on us, on Joss especially. We may only be wanderers, but we serve a purpose where we are. I thank you for the offer, though, Lady Mairen.” She tightened her grip on her husband’s hand. “Let’s go back.”

Mairen and her assembled guardians watched the couple leave. “An odd family,” said someone.

“Refuge wanderers,” said another. “A tough breed, the sort that gives up a permanent home and ofttimes their lives to care for wayfaring strangers. The wilds wouldn’t be travelable without their clan.”

“We must take equally good care of their son,” Mairen declared.

Her hand-picked guardians murmured their agreement.

1
Apr

Writing Challenge: Week 13

Devourer

by H. M. Snow

After turning the key and pushing the penthouse door open, Bryndis first noticed the subtle resonance of hot tub jets. The hum drifted into the living room from doors leading off to her right. She followed it, only to find a man in his early twenties relaxing in a huge tub. “Who are you?” Bryndis asked, “and what are you doing here?”

His eyelids flew open. “Who are you?” was his response.

“The new owner of this apartment. My question still stands: who are you?”

A door opposite the hot tub opened to emit a billow of steam and the head of a young blonde. She looked from Bryndis to the man, wide-eyed.

The man groped for the towel that lay on the floor beside the hot tub. As he climbed out and wrapped the towel around his waist, he demanded, “What do you mean, ‘new owner’? Where’s Mr. Etienne?”

Bryndis crossed the space between them so that they were eye to eye. She made use of her slightly superior height to lean in and say, “Answer my question before asking your own. I have paid for this apartment; that makes you trespassers here. If I do not get a satisfactory answer from you within the next two minutes, I will have you arrested.”

The blonde emerged from the sauna, bundled in a terrycloth bathrobe, and interposed herself between them. “We’re sorry,” she said, “we didn’t know the apartment had changed hands. Mr. Etienne always told us we could come and use his place whenever we liked. I’m Kate, and this is my boyfriend Josh.” She grabbed her boyfriend’s wrist and steadied him when he would have backed away from Bryndis in his alarm. Though he was her elder by a few years, she was better able to stand up in front of Bryndis’ searching stare.

For some seconds, Bryndis gazed unblinkingly at Kate. Then she appeared to arrive at a decision. “As for your Mr. Etienne, he has died.”

“Died!” Kate and Josh spoke the word in unison. Kate alone continued on to add, “Was he in an accident?”

“Accident?” Bryndis echoed. “I don’t know that I would call it an accident. Suicidally bad judgment, perhaps. Whatever the cause, he died in extreme debt. I offered to purchase this place. I would prefer not to see you turn up whenever you like. I prefer an orderly environment. If you care to come back, I will be available at six this evening. You might bring pizza– I eat only vegetarian,” she added. “I have cleaning to do.”

Though Bryndis did not use a threatening tone, the two young people retreated from the apartment posthaste. Bryndis followed them as far as the living room. There she took out a smartphone, searched for a locksmith, and placed the call. “I have an emergency job… how soon can you be here?” She informed them of the address and the security code for the front door to the highrise building before she hung up and made another call. “I have a report for the– oh,” she faltered, “young head, I hadn’t expected you to answer in person. Yes… yes… it’s just as we anticipated, except I can’t see him running away when he had two sheep fattening here all the while. He will come back for them.” Bryndis listened for a few moments. “Yes, that is my plan. I have arranged for them to return this evening, just after sunset. The man would not be such a great loss to the human race. He had a few unpleasant names to call me, but he lacked the courage to say them aloud, not knowing I heard his thoughts. The girl is different. No, I will attempt to save them both. I am not as contemptible as my prey.” She listened once again. “Thank you, young… Mairen. You are very kind. I will report again afterwards.” Bryndis hung up the phone with a thoughtful look in her eyes and a slight smile softening her stern features.

She shrugged out of her jacket. The kitchen was her first target. Outwardly it looked like any high-class kitchen meant more for prestige than use. The stainless steel refrigerator was full of rotting food and blackening mold, however, and the cupboards were stuffed haphazardly with random objects, many of them bearing no relation to culinary endeavors. Bryndis began filling trash bags, tying them, and setting them aside for removal. By the time she finished emptying the kitchen, she had run out of trash bags and the intercom was buzzing for the locksmith’s admittance.

Her manner changed with this oblivious bystander working there. She hovered near him while he changed the locks. She cast many wary glances down the corridor toward the elevator, and if the lighted elevator numbers showed that someone was ascending, she stood in the lobby outside the penthouse until the upward progress stopped at one of the lower floors. She was quick to pay cash to the locksmith and send him away once he finished his work. Then she locked herself inside the apartment.

With the door secured from outside interference, Bryndis launched a more earnest search through the rooms. She began in the bedroom behind the spa-like bathroom. Like the kitchen, the bedroom was presentable at first glance, only to reveal deposits of filth and mildew in closets and under the bed. Suspicious stains under the rug made Bryndis narrow her eyes. She replaced the rug and took out her smartphone to make a note about tearing out the flooring down to the subfloor. On this bout of searching, Bryndis did not bother cleaning what she found. She examined and made notes to herself and moved onward. Bedroom, office, bath, living room: all showed signs of an attempt at hiding the chaotic impulses of the prior resident. Then she noticed stairs leading upward from the kitchen area. They led her to a loft overlooking the kitchen and living room. Here too the rubbish was heaped thick on the floor, but beneath it she found what she had been searching out: sealed plastic bags containing an assortment of human bones.

Her alert senses brought her upright at the noise of a key in the lock. The lock and the knob rattled a couple times before the person on the other side knocked twice.

“We brought pizza!” said Kate, too cheerfully and quite unnecessarily. She set down the two large pizza boxes on the now-clean kitchen counter. “You’ve been busy!”

Bryndis did not answer at once. She went to the sink to wash her hands. Josh was emptying a canvas shopping bag onto the counter, item by item: a two-liter bottle of cola, two bottled waters, one pack of paper napkins and another of paper plates, and a six-pack of beer. He avoided making eye contact with Bryndis as they passed each other. Meanwhile, Kate kept chattering into the silence. “We got a margherita pizza, since you said you’re vegetarian. Is that okay? I thought about going vegetarian once, but it’s really inconvenient, isn’t it? I just couldn’t give up bacon,” she said with a light laugh. “When did you figure out you didn’t like meat?”

Bryndis took a slice of the meatless pizza. “I did not choose vegetarianism because I dislike meat. Rather, I like meat a little too much.” Her calm gaze made Kate turn away, flustered.

“You never said what your name is,” Josh said.

“I’m Bryndis. Were you well-acquainted with your Mr. Etienne?”

“Sure,” said Josh, “we hung out all the time up here. He let us watch whatever we wanted. He let us use his Jacuzzi even when he wasn’t around. It was like we lived here.”

“But do you know much about him?”

“This is his favorite pizza.” Josh held up a slice of the other pizza, overloaded with an assortment of meats. “He was a great guy, lots of fun—pretty much exactly your opposite.” His eyes challenged Bryndis.

“I am glad to hear it,” she replied. “You may go ahead and turn on the television, if you want. There might not be much time to watch anything, but you should carry on as you have done, if only for a little while.” She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with one of the napkins watching Josh hunt for the remote control.

Kate remained at the kitchen counter, torn between the offer of entertainment and some lurking sense of propriety toward the new owner. “Don’t you want to watch? Mr. Etienne gets all the best channels.”

“No, I have work to do. You may do as you like.”

Still Kate lingered. “I never noticed what a mess this kitchen was. Do you want some help?”

“If you like.”

The roar of cheering crowds erupted from the television. “Great,” said Josh loudly, “the game is only just started. Glad I didn’t miss it.”

Kate threw an impatient glance at her boyfriend. “You could offer to help.”

“This is the playoffs!” he retorted without turning away from the television.

“Men,” said Kate as she came around to the other side of the counter to help Bryndis. “Some of them just can’t think about anything but sports. Um, Bryndis… what did you mean, ‘not much time’? Are you expecting somebody else?”

“In a manner of speaking,” was all Bryndis would say.

They were still scrubbing at the mildew under the sink when the apartment door opened with a bang. Kate bumped her head on the cabinet frame, startled, but Bryndis merely sat back and listened to Josh as he exclaimed, “Etienne! You jerk, they said you were dead!” in a jovial voice.

Kate stood so that she could see over the counter. “Mr. Etienne! You’re alive?” Then she stiffened from head to foot, mouth ajar and eyes wide. Her whole body trembled, but she remained as though rooted in place. Instead of speech, she made a pitiable whimper through her nose.

A visceral squish resounded in the sudden stillness of the apartment. Bryndis stood up, wiping her hands on a towel. She faced the man who stood in front of the sofa. “Good evening.”

Disheveled hints of sophistication still lingered about the one who had called himself Etienne. He seemed unaware of the blood spatter on his creased trousers. “A guest,” he said. “Have we met before?” His dark eyes smoldered in a gaze meant to captivate.

Bryndis left Kate paralyzed in the kitchen and approached Etienne. “No, you would have remembered.” Coming around the sofa, she gazed down on Josh where he sprawled on his back, bloodied from a gaping wound across his abdomen but frozen in place just like Kate. She met his terrified gaze for a moment before addressing Etienne again. “Humanity does not become you, ettin.” She raised her hand toward him.

His dark eyes dulled for a few seconds. His disheveled appearance wavered like a mirage and then disappeared altogether. In its place stood a monstrous figure, deathly white and gaunt except for a distended belly. The skin split vertically down that belly to reveal a gaping mouth full of diseased teeth and lolling tongue. The mouth in the monster’s head said, “You smell familiar. I couldn’t quite place it while I maintained the disguise, but I’m certain I have met you before.”

“Do you have any memory of your meals after you’ve eaten? Do you remember the meals that escaped your grasp? There was one, a girl. You left her until last, and she escaped you.”

“I remember every meal,” said the ettin. “Only one has escaped me.” It drew a breath through narrow nostrils. “You smell so familiar.” Then it brayed with laughter. “You smell like me! Are you one of us? My power has no effect on you, but yours affects me a little.”

“No, I am not one of you. My mother took great pains to see that I did not become one of you.”

“The meal that escaped,” the ettin mused. “You cannot be her, so you must be her half-breed! You must be one of the wanderers, like that one. But how can your pitiful share of my blood affect me? Your people were weak. They even tasted weak.”

Bryndis tucked her hair behind her left ear. There, in the uppermost curve of her ear, an amethyst stud burned purple.

Some of the mockery faded from the ettin’s ghastly face. “You enslaved yourself to the young head.”

“The strength of my abilities comes from the authority she holds. The list of your slaughters is long. The young head has decided that your time must come to an end. She gave me the privilege of carrying out her will because of my detestable connection to you.”

“As if any half-breed controlled by a child can survive against one of the elder ettin in all his strength!”

Bryndis sighed as if bored. “You have no concept of the power of the authority Mairen wields.” Again she stretched out her hand toward the monster. While he stood rigid, fighting the paralysis she imposed on him, she took from her pocket a large switchblade. With the blade open, she hamstrung the monster so that he toppled backward, destroying the coffee table with a crash. Then she took the knife in an overhand grip, braced her other hand against the handle, and drove it between the ettin’s eyes all the way to the hilt. “For the young head and for my mother,” she said over the carcass as if in benediction.

Across the room, Kate collapsed to the floor, sobbing in terror. Hearing this, Bryndis yanked the knife from the ettin’s skull, wiped it clean on Josh’s trouser leg, and put it away. She crouched down beside Josh and pulled the wound closed between her hands. After a minute or so of steady pressure on her part, the edges of the cut remained together and were visibly knitting back together. She kept her left hand a few inches above the wound until only a faint scar was visible. Then she turned from him as if he no longer existed.

Bryndis helped Kate to sit up. “You should go home to your people,” she said. “You were raised well. This experiment in rebellion has not been successful.”

Stammering between sobs, Kate demanded, “What was that… thing?”

“Your Mr. Etienne is nothing but an ettin. It’s an old word that means ‘devourer.’ They are little but an insatiable stomach with a brain, but their abilities enable them to deceive the unwary.”

Kate drew a convulsive breath. “Then… what are you, to be strong enough to kill it?”

“Kill it? No, it isn’t dead.”

Kate stared at her in renewed fear.

“I destroyed the part of its brain that allows it to use its abilities, nothing more. Others will see to the destruction of the whole body. You have not succeeded in changing the subject, Kate. You need to go home to your people. Your judgment of character needs additional development before you try to rely on it again. That ettin would have kept you there, watching it as it dismembered and devoured your wretched boyfriend alive. Then it would have come for you. Perhaps it would have eaten you straightaway; that is the most likely scenario, since it knew we were coming after it. But perhaps not. Ettins are arrogant. It might have believed it had time enough to toy with you first, as it did to my mother.”

“Your mother?”

“Were you not listening? The same happened to her when she was young. The ettin took her whole family, paralyzed them, tore them apart while they yet lived, and ate them before her eyes. Then it grew drowsy and stupid from its feast, so it decided to molest her instead and eat her later. She escaped, badly injured, while it slept. She still suffers nightmares.”

“I’m sure I will too,” admitted Kate.

Bryndis set her right hand on Kate’s head. “No… I can prevent that. But you must go home to your people.”

“Home…” Kate dozed off against the kitchen cupboard door.

Leaving her there on the floor, Bryndis made another call on her smartphone. “It is done. The sheep survived… Yes, thank you. I’ll meet them in the lobby. Goodbye.” She hung up and walked to the door to unlock it. She waited a few seconds before opening it. “Welcome.”

In the lobby an assortment of people were appearing as if walking through a door that could not be seen. Each one wore an earring of some sort at a different position in his or her ear. “How many humans?” asked one man.

“Two. The male lives downstairs on the fifth floor; the female must go to her people in a different neighborhood.”

The man who had asked the question lifted Josh as if the young man weighed no more than a loaf of bread. A woman lifted Kate likewise. To this one Bryndis said, “I have already begun the memory alteration process. Her last conscious thought will be of an impulse to return home, nothing more. This is what her home looks like.” She touched the woman’s forehead with her right hand.

“Got it.”

The rest gathered around the ettin. “This one’s a big one,” remarked an older woman. “Elder-sized. Good job, Bryndis.”

“It was my duty,” Bryndis replied. “Thank you for disposing of it.”

“That’s my duty,” said the woman with a smile. “For the sake of the young head.”

Bryndis nodded. “Yes.” She watched them depart, bearing the ettin’s limp body between them. Then she returned to the laborious task of cleansing all traces of the monster’s destructive presence from the apartment.

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