“A Question of Dominion”: Writing Challenge, Week 20

A Question of Dominion

by H. M. Snow

 

Standing at the top of the steps that led downward into the gate, Ciar held perfectly still for as long as it took for him to draw several long breaths. Then he raised his hands high, clenched them into fists and brought them swiftly down to his sides.

A soft cloud of dust rose under the impact of two bodies materializing at Ciar’s feet. To his left appeared a young man barely more than a boy still; to his right, a slender ascetic approaching middle age. Continue reading ““A Question of Dominion”: Writing Challenge, Week 20″

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Writing Challenge: Week 19

Under Earth Hunt

by H. M. Snow

 

Des rolled onto her side, facing away from Ciar, as she choked on the mouthful of water. Several seconds passed with much coughing and spitting before she could speak. “Lord?”

The king under earth patted her between the shoulder blades. “Are you all right? You lost consciousness.”

“I had a dream,” said Des. She sat up with his assistance and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “I haven’t dreamed at all since coming here. I haven’t slept either, now that I think about it. Is it normal?” Continue reading “Writing Challenge: Week 19”

Writing Challenge: Week 18

Under Earth Emissary

by H. M. Snow

 

In the luminous fountain chamber, Des stooped to splash water on her face. “So refreshing,” she declared. Then she took the bowl she had brought, swirled water in it, and filled it almost to the brim. Her tread was necessarily measured on her return to the gate that led out into the mist-swirled gray light of the domain under earth. She managed to step over a pair of tussling death hound pups without spilling her cargo, but she nearly came to grief when a colossal shadow loomed up before her in the very gateway. “Lord!” she exclaimed.

Ciar, king under earth, stared down at her with intent black eyes. His stare didn’t shift away from her face until he accepted the bowl from her. Even then, he merely took on a look of slight perplexity.

“You haven’t gone to drink at the fountain for some time,” Des explained, “so I brought water to you, lord, to refresh you.”

He drank silently.

Des waited until he had drained the bowl’s contents. Then she held out her hands to take the bowl from him. “Do you want more? I can go back for more.”

“That was enough.” After a pause, he added, “Thank you.”

“Lord,” replied Des a little reproachfully, “haven’t I said there’s no need to thank me for doing something as small as this? It isn’t as if I’ve done anything much even now.” She carried the bowl back to the niche where the king under earth kept his meager belongings. After a few moments of gratuitous tidying, she turned her attention to his pavilion, trying to rearrange it to better effect. The longer she worked, the deeper her frown grew.

Ciar returned to his foundry to build up the furnace. A crucible half-full of coinage sat to one side until the fire was sufficiently hot for Ciar to transfer the vessel into the flames. Each step of the refining process was punctuated by glances toward his self-proclaimed servant. By the time he unmolded a small, gleaming gold tablet and plunged it into the crystalline stream that flowed past his forge, Ciar radiated uneasiness. He scarcely took the time to set the cooled tablet onto the anvil before he strode across the clearing to where Des knelt with unseeing eyes outside the pavilion. Ciar pressed his hand against her forehead.

Des tipped over backward with a startled exclamation. “Lord?”

He studied her even more closely than before. “It is not possible for a living human to flourish in such an environment as this. I expected as much. You lose track of yourself often. You may be fading.”

It took Des a few seconds to absorb these words. Then she said, “Oh! I see… did you think I wasn’t feeling well?”

“You’ve grown quieter.”

Des shook her head with grave determination. “I’ve been thinking. How long have you had those trousers?”

“Trousers?”

“One like you shouldn’t wear such worn and shabby garments, lord. That’s what’s been on my mind these days. If you wear them for working at the forge, that’s one thing– but you have nothing else to change into after you bathe! It isn’t right.” Des waved her hands in an overflow of indignation, and her eyes shone. “But I don’t know how to put it right. I’m experienced with sewing and other household skills– bless my aunt Mattie for teaching me– but where am I to get the materials? And your pavilion barely merits the name! It ought to be a place where my lord can rest from his labors, but instead it’s little more than a changing-room. I want to serve, lord, but I’m afraid I’m no use to you at all.”

CIar crouched back on his heels. “Trousers. All this started from trousers?”

“I’m not a fragile creature,” said Des merrily. “Did you expect me to fade away when there’s so much to be done? But I don’t want to be useless to you. I didn’t want to trouble you with something so trivial.”

“The way you speak,” the king under earth replied, “it doesn’t sound trivial to me. If this is your will, I can send you for supplies. I’ve grown used to living simply on my own. You are right: now that you’re here, more is needed than this gray domain supplies. Here, stand up and follow me.” He brought her to the foundry, to the shelves where he stacked his work. “The hounds I can summon and send because they naturally are part of this domain. If you wear my emblem, I can do the same for you.” He girded pieces of light armor onto her as if he were the squire and she the lord. Lastly he belted a sheathed blade at her waist.

Des raised her forearm before her eyes to admire the black flames that adorned her vambrace. Then, stiffly, she bowed. “I’m honored, lord.”

“Take this with you.” From another shelf he took a canvas sack not large but very heavy for its size. “It should be enough for whatever you need to buy.”

One of the death hounds poked its head out through the gate, hearing the unwonted activity. It loped across the ground to lean against Ciar.

“He wants to go out,” said the king under earth. “He’s grown attached to you.”

Des regarded the death hound with a leery half-smile. “I shouldn’t have talked to him when he was chasing me, I suppose. Is it a good idea?”

“He can be a companion for you and protect you.” Ciar snapped his fingers.

The hound left his side and circled around Des instead.

Des gave the hound a reluctant pat. “How does this work?”

“I will send you out; where you end up depends on your own intention. You only need to think about where you wish to go. It will work the same on your return: simply focus on returning here, and the summons will activate.” Ciar rested his large hand on top of Des’ head. Phantom black fire swirled around her.

The gray domain under earth vanished, replaced by blinding sunlight and a brisk breeze. Des found herself on the road outside Aerinya, city of the domain of air. Its towering white walls made her squint after the subdued light of Ciar’s domain, but Des did not hesitate. She knew her way to the currency exchange.

As soon as the hound squeezed through the door of the exchange at her side, the money changers went into a panic. Those not near enough a window to bail out of the long chamber scrambled up onto their tables, kicking coinage to the floor in their haste. Des herself caused an additional stir by emptying the sack of small gold tablets onto one money changer’s table. “Hurry and get down here to your business,” she said. “I won’t keep my lord waiting.” She banged the flat of her hand on the tabletop and leaned.

The changer made no effort to hide his fear of the hound beside Des, but he was too old and shrewd a businessman to turn away such a rich commission. He weighed the gold pieces and quoted a price, marked up by a small percentage for fees. With Des and the death hound staring at him, he reduced the percentage without protest and measured out the local currency into the bag Des had brought. Not a breath sounded in the exchange chamber until Des and the hound departed.

A similar greeting awaited Des on the way to the drygoods store. Streets emptied of all but the echoes of shrieks ahead of the death hound, although the hound stuck close to Des’ side and paid no heed to any of the people fleeing before it. Only the storekeeper showed no such reaction, being elderly and nearly blind. She leaned heavily on her knobbed stick and peered at the death hound. “If you bring your animal in here,” she snapped, “you take responsibility for any damages, understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Des began listing off her requirements.

It was fairly amazing to watch the little shopkeeper scoot along the aisles by memory rather than sight, pulling bolts of cloth from shelves and counting out buttons and buckles by touch. In the meanwhile, the death hound sank onto its haunches and leaned its head against Des’ side, utterly relaxed. Its scanty brush of a tail made lazy sweeps along the wooden floor, flipping out of the way whenever the shopkeeper threatened to tread on it.

Des was only two-thirds through her list when the shop door burst open to admit half a dozen armed men. “You, rogue! Stand down at once–!”

Des turned and held a hand before her own mouth to shush them. Even the death hound turned its massive head to gaze at them in reproach. Its tongue lolled between the black spikes that were its teeth as it panted in contentment.

“I couldn’t hear you,” the shopkeeper said, “on account of those shouting fools. How much gold braid?”

“Four yards, please.”

The armed men stood awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot just inside the doorway, until the shopkeeper started wrapping Des’ purchases into brown paper parcels. At that point, another armed man joined them. The death hound’s ears twitched forward, because this newcomer brandished the sword of the domain of air.

When Des took all this in, she spoke hastily. “Outside,” she ordered the newcomer, “now!” just before the death hound launched itself at the man. She set the bag of coins on the counter and told the shopkeeper, “I have a little business outside. Settle the bill and I’ll be back in for my things.” Then she chased the commotion out into the street, only to find the hound playfully charging at the new swordbearer. The hound was quicker and more nimble than the man, so Des approached from behind. With swift, strong hands she wrenched the sword from the bearer’s hand. “Fetch!” she yelled as she threw the blade like a spear.

The death hound was ecstatic as it seized the sword between its jaws, did a little roundabout dance and vanished in a curl of black smoke.

“What have you–?” The new swordbearer’s verbal explosion halted when Des held up her hand to shush him. He tried again: “Who do you–!” But Des made the same gesture more emphatically. She watched the spot where the hound had disappeared.

Within moments, the hound reappeared, tail tucked low and head bowed, bringing the sword back to lay it at Des’ feet. Des took it, wiped it clean, and returned it to its new bearer. “Cast aside the sword, escape the hound: that was my lord’s first lesson to me.”

The bearer gaped at Des. “Who are you?”

Des gave him a wry smile. “My name’s Des. I was the swordbearer before you. I failed.” That made her laugh softly. “I broke the sword– no, to be honest I shattered it beyond common repair. Now I serve the king under earth. The hound and the sword alike are part of his domain. This one,” here she patted the hound’s lowered head, “is under orders to accompany me. He’s been scolded by my lord for playing around too much… haven’t you?” she addressed the death hound.

It lowered its head still farther, until it lay almost flat on its belly.

“All right. You did well to bring it straight back to us.” Des petted the hound until some of the light returned to its eyes. Then she turned her attention back to the gawking swordbearer. “My lord forged that sword. If ever you need to repair it, my lord is the only one who can. I mustn’t keep him waiting much longer, though.” She hurried back inside the shop.

The little shopkeeper handed back the coin bag, much lightened, but Des refused it. “I have no need of this in my lord’s domain. Keep it on account for me. I’ll come again.” She gave the shopkeeper her name and signed the account receipt. Some of the parcels fit in the duffle bag Des had purchased. The rest she piled high in her arms. Returning to the street, she whistled for the hound to join her. “I’ll go,” she said to the lingering swordbearer. “This one has caused enough of a commotion for one day. If you see another of these hounds, keep in mind the lesson I taught you. It may turn out to be your salvation. I wish you well.” She closed her eyes, and vanished, leaving just a curl of black smoke in her place.

Writing Challenge: Week 17

Dominion Under Earth

by H. M. Snow

 

Swordbearer and death hound eyed one another, both panting, both worn out by the chase. From up in the tree, the swordbearer addressed the hound: “Good evening to you. I’m Des– not that you’re interested, I guess.”

The hound threw its lean weight against the base of the tree’s trunk. Even the thickest tree branches trembled at the impact. Des the swordbearer clutched for a more secure handhold. “Right. Enough with pleasantries, then. So this is what they call a stalemate. I won’t come down from here, and you won’t leave from there. Now that I look at you, you’re the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. The sound of your breath when you’re chasing me is pretty scary too.” Des peered among the branches. With another glance down at the panting hound, the swordbearer inched along the sturdy branch to an intersecting branch of a neighboring tree. The ancient branches had grown against one another so as to form a bridge. Extending first a foot to test the stability of the path, then scooting forward to reach another length of branch, Des completed the journey to the next tree. Continue reading “Writing Challenge: Week 17”

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.

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.”

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.