Ultra-short story

Reggae Rope Monster: A True (?) Story

I had an urgent noontime appointment to keep and only just enough time to get there from work without any delays when I noticed the car ahead of me, a red hatchback. The hatch stood wide open, revealing a bewildering jumble of items crammed into the back of the vehicle. All that restrained the mess was a length of yellow nylon rope tied so slack that its middle waved as much as its loose ends did. That is so useless, I thought.

The upper end bounced and bobbed, an untidy clump of rope-ends like dreadlocks around the heavy knot that anchored them. Longer ends, maybe three or four of them, danced around the middle, flying upward with every bump in the road. Their undulations looked so free, so carefree, that I felt mesmerized.

One piece of the jumble slid toward the open hatch. I stepped on the clutch, ready to slow down and avoid the debris, but it never came. I accelerated with caution, thinking the object was just delayed in falling, but when I got nearer, I could see that everything was in place as it had been. Peculiar, I thought.

The traffic signal ahead turned red. We slowed to a halt in tandem, the hatchback and I. The dancing nylon rope sank into fitful rest, but an occasional ripple ran through it when the wind gusted. I rolled down my window to catch some of the chilly autumn breeze. From the red hatchback ahead of me, I heard strains of reggae tossed here and there by the wind.

Then the traffic signal turned green. The hatchback rolled forward, dislodging two or three objects from the jumble. This time, I was near enough to see the waving rope-ends gently tap each item back into place, always maintaining the buoyant reggae rhythm. One rope end waved at me.

The driver behind me honked irritably at me, and I remembered to drive through the intersection. My appointment took me to the next right turn, which I almost missed because my attention still clung to the strange dancing rope creature that guarded the open hatchback. I have almost no recollection of the meeting I attended that day, but every time I hear a strain of reggae or see a red hatchback on the street, I remember that curious creature, the Reggae Rope Monster.


“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. The young man raked both hands through long blood-red hair with the exclamation, “What!” The ascetic merely took in his surroundings with a cool glance, stood and dusted himself off with thin hands decorated with the distinctive blue flame markings of the king of air. “Really, Ciar,” this one said, “what are you doing? I have a full schedule today.”

“I assure you,” Ciar replied, “I do not want you here either.” He descended the steps through the gate without another word.

Halfway down the underground corridor, the young man said, “Uh-oh.”

The ascetic answered him, “Come, now– she is our mother. As such, she’s owed some measure of duty. Stop lagging behind and behave like a man.”

Ciar ignored them both as he led them into the luminous fountain cavern. There a low table, gilded and empty, was laid for a feast, lacking only the food. “Mother,” he said to the lady who occupied the foot of the table, “here they are.”

“Ciro.” Their mother reached out her hand for him to kiss. “Still only duty, as always.” Then she held out her hand commandingly toward the younger. “Caius. Here. Now.” Before he could take her hand, she lowered it to point at the place to her left. “Sit. I’m deeply displeased with you.”

Because Ciar had taken the head of the table as his rightful place, Ciro the eldest son lowered himself into the seat at the only empty side of the table, at his mother’s right hand. “What was so urgent that you had Ciar yank us out of our domains like this, Mother? It doesn’t seem to be an emergency, not if this is what we are summoned to find.” He swept his bony hand over the feast table.

“It is far more important than you think.” She did not speak further.

Caius squirmed in his place. He picked up the goblet in front of him, cast a glance inside its empty depths, sighed a dissatisfied sigh. “I’m thirsty. I was in the middle of hunting. I see the promise of a feast– where is it?”

“In good time,” said his mother.

This did not suit Caius’ nature. He rose to his feet abruptly. “Well, I’m thirsty,” he said again as he headed toward the fountain.

“I don’t recommend it.” Ciar’s deep, harsh voice was enough to stop the youngest brother in the process of lowering his empty goblet into the water.

“You are such a fool,” Ciro added with a short laugh. “You don’t recognize a fountain of dominion when you see one! It raises an interesting question, though: what would happen if the lord of one domain drank from the fountain of another domain? Would earth be subject to under earth? Would it have any effect at all?” His voice was mocking, directed at Caius as the youngest settled himself back at the table.

“I have a better question for the three of you,” said their mother, “if you wish to test your wisdoms. There once lived a child who drank of all three fountains: the first, driven by fear of another’s greed; the second, compelled by a sense of duty for the sake of another’s arrogance; and the third, led by ignorance through the compassion of another. To which domain did the child belong then?”

Caius had a ready answer. “Every race goes to the swiftest. The reason doesn’t matter; the first always wins. The child belongs to the first domain he drank of the water in.”

His eldest brother shot a contemptuous look across the table. “Fear is an illogical reason. If the water was not drunk by choice, then there can be no true loyalty. Besides, duty is a higher impetus than either fear or ignorance. Duty is the perfection of the human will. Obviously the second domain would hold sway, regardless of sequence.”

Their mother gazed from youngest to eldest with flat eyes. “Neither answer surprises me. This is what you two call wisdom– choosing whatever appeals to you most. What is your answer, Ciar? Which holds dominion over the child?”

The middle son was slow to answer his mother’s prompting. When at last he spoke, he did so slowly as well. “The child, as I see it, is in a pitiable state. He belongs to all and none at the same time. The water of dominion is absolute. It gives everyone who drinks of it the freedom of the domain. The child would be free to travel in any of the three domains, but cannot rest in any one domain, being pulled toward the other two at all times. There is no such thing as one fountain overriding or replacing another’s dominion. This means the child must serve three masters, which is impossible for anyone– let alone for someone with three such masters as we are.” He did not look at either of his brothers when he said this. “Such a child is likely to be torn to pieces instead of finding a home in any domain.”

“Then by all means,” said Caius, “tear the child in three and let’s be done with the question. A situation like that is impossible anyway.”

“As you say,” their mother replied, “a child like that must be quite impossible.” She smiled a little at Ciar across the table and repeated, “Quite impossible. Let’s eat together, before it is too late. Call them in, Ciar.”

Ciar held out his hand, palm-upward. A wisp of black smoke streaked from his hand toward the darker recesses of the cavern, where the inmost gate was concealed in a cleft of the rock. In another moment, two figures approached from the cleft. Foremost was Des, carrying the smaller of two trays laden with platters and tureens. Her gaze sought Ciar’s. Her complexion was a little gray and her posture rigid as she dropped to one knee to present the tray before him.

“When did you get yourself one of these? She doesn’t look dead.” Caius extended his left hand, tattooed all around with blood red flames, on a straight line toward Des’ backside.

Ciar’s black-flame tattooed fist shot out on an intersecting line.

The young king of earth yelped. He cradled his hand against his chest. “You! You’ve broken my fingers! I’m sure they’re broken.”

“You’ll get worse if you move in that direction again.” The king under earth shifted the tray so that it rested on the table. Then he led Des around to his other side, making room so that she had a place beside him. He went so far as to serve her from the tray first before taking any food for himself. With a fingertip, he pushed the tray toward his elder brother when he had finished helping himself to its contents.

The other server had taken his tray to the far end. No one gave him a glance until he sat down beside the kings’ mother. Even then, Ciro and Caius were too preoccupied with the scene featuring Des to do more than note the fourth man’s presence until the fourth man offered a platter of cut fruits and said, “Do you still have a taste for fruit, Ciro?”

“Yes, thank–” Ciro, king of air, opened wide his blue eyes. “Father?”

“Father!” Caius echoed in amazement.

“I was beginning to wonder if either of you would take note of me.”

“But… you… died,” said the eldest with painstaking enunciation.

“You weren’t always this slow on the uptake,” said the former king, Ciceran. “Where are we, Ciro? In which domain?”

His youngest son hooted with raucous disdain. “And you mocked me for the fountain!”

Ciceran ignored this interjection and said patiently, “Instead of holding dominion, I am now part of this domain. I asked Ciar for his consent as king under earth so that I could meet with you on this decisive day.”

“What makes today so important?” asked Ciro. “Mother said something like that when we arrived, and now you. I can’t see how today is any different from any other day.”

Ciceran and his consort shared a sidelong look. Their lack of response weighed heavily on the conversation, suppressing any other remarks. Fortunately there was food to distract the eldest and youngest, whose self-confidence and appetite was far heartier than any misgivings that their parents’ silence may have engendered. At the other end of the table, Ciar stared at his food in gloom. Des spoke softly to him, too softly for anyone to hear. Under the influence of her whispers, Ciar sampled a little food.

Food still remained, though considerably less of it, when a faraway rush of waters began to resound in the fountain cavern. Ciar heard it first and hushed Des so that he could listen. The youngest brother, Caius, was slowest to catch on that something was happening, but even he fell silent eventually. The rush became a thunder that echoed from every facet of the dome. Ciro covered his ears, wincing. Caius tried to shout over it, but no one could tell what he said over the ceaseless thunder. Des gripped the back of Ciar’s shirt as he tried to shelter her from whatever powerful force approached.

Then the waves appeared from nowhere, rising higher than the fountain itself. They seemed as though they would crash down, drowning everyone trapped in the cavern, but when they fell they engulfed only the three brothers. Ciar was torn from Des’ grip. The water lifted the three brothers from the cavern floor, swirling around them in spheres. Caius flailed uselessly against the water prison, while Ciro made arcane gestures as if attempting to summon some power with which to fight. The pressure within the cavern was immense, even for those not trapped within the living water. Ciceran was on his knees, and his consort surrounded him with her particles like a shield. Likewise, Des knelt at the far end of the table, but far from bowing beneath the pressure, she refused to tear her gaze away from Ciar’s pliant silhouette in its prison.

As fast as they had come, the strange waters receded and left the cavern perfectly dry. The only sound remaining was the dainty trickle of the fountain. The waters left all three brothers flat on the floor, panting. Caius was the first to sit up, but he was no longer the same young man who had entered the fountain cavern. His hair was a plain dun brown, and all the flame markings had disappeared from his sun-freckled skin. “I feel sick,” he groaned. “Ciro… Ciro, what’s wrong with you? You look different.”

The eldest brother rolled onto his side. His voice came raggedly. “What happened?”

Their father rose and crossed the chamber to kneel between them. He picked up two slender tapered sticks of pale wood. Each had a flame symbol engraved into the end. “When dominion is bestowed, it is conditional. One thousand days were granted you, in which you showed your quality as king of your specific domain. On the thousand and first day, you would then undergo a test. If you passed the test, your dominion would be strengthened; if not, it would be lifted from you.” He showed them the two sticks. “Don’t you recognize these?”

Ciro reached for the stick engraved with the flame of air. With a harsh cry he jerked his hand back from it as if burned.

“Do you see now? You have failed the test.” Ciceran gazed across at Ciar. “They aren’t listening, are they?” He smiled gently at the sight of the attendant Des helping her lord sit upright, steadying him until he regained his equilibrium, speaking privately in anxious tones.

“That isn’t fair,” said Caius. “You never warned us. How were we supposed to know?”

“I taught you,” his father said in a harder tone, “that dominion was a burden for you to bear. I taught you that, above all, you were never to become a burden to your domain. But you showed your quality. You showed your quality,” he repeated, deadly calm. “Your mother and I brought you all together here so that you wouldn’t display our family’s disgrace publically on such an important day, but you have displayed it for one thousand days already. There is no way to conceal your quality— a womanizer and a glutton, a despot and a murderer. And you.” He turned his attentions on his eldest. “Sanctimonious, dogmatic and cold-hearted autocrat that you are, you did no better than your littlest brother, only you forced all your executions onto the consciences of others. You worship duty while twisting your own obligations to suit yourself. Keep silent,” Ciceran commanded. “Hold your tongues, and it might be credited to you as wisdom. I am finished with you. This is beyond my control.”

“Then what are we supposed to do now?” blurted Caius.

Their mother solidified behind Ciceran, a towering figure of a woman. She grasped eldest and youngest by their collars. “We have trespassed in a sacred place too long. You are my offspring. I will deal with you now in a different place, a profane place more suited to you. Until next time, Ciar,” she said. Her voice echoed with strength. Her expression was matter-of-fact when she added, “If you cannot present me with another generation of offspring from that girl, then you’re no son of mine.” She dragged her other two sons from the cavern.

Ciar stared after her. Beneath the black flame markings of his domain, his skin burned pink. “She says whatever she pleases, as always.”

His father laughed. “And you’ve found another like her, at least in that regard. Didn’t you notice, Ciar? You’re the only one blushing.”

Ciar turned his head to stare at Des’ face, but Des was her usual bright-eyed self. “Did you think I’d turn back because of something like that, lord? It’s your mother’s wish for you. If it’s also what you wish for yourself, then I need nothing more to decide me.”

“But you– you– you don’t lo–”

Des covered his mouth with her hand. “Lord, it isn’t fitting for the king under earth to stutter like that. I couldn’t serve you as I do if I didn’t love you. Didn’t you know? If I had the honor of presenting my lord with a son or daughter, I would be more pleased than I can say. But lord, I think your father has something more to say.” She nudged Ciar to return his attention to the former king.

Ciceran held up the two domain symbols. “It’s your choice, Ciar. It’s a burden, a dreadfully heavy burden for one man to bear, but I think you can do it.”

Ciar stared at the offered sticks. He held out his hand, palm-upward. “For the next generation. I will keep them safe until then.”

His father laid the two sticks across Ciar’s palm. They vanished, and everything that marked Ciar as king under earth changed in a second: the tattoo markings and his hair turned white. His eyes turned as blue as a cloudless sky. The skin of one arm, beneath the white tattoos, turned blood red and the skin of the other, coal black.

“You remind me of myself when I was young,” said Ciceran. He bowed with his forehead touching the cavern floor. “No longer will anyone say ‘under earth’ or ‘air’ or ‘earth,’ because there is only one king and only one domain again.” Then he rose. “I’ll return now, with your consent.”

When they were alone once more, Ciar said to Des, “I can summon you to my side, no matter which part of the domain I’m in. You won’t be bound here alone.”

“Well…” With reluctance, Des said, “Technically, I think I was never bound here. I heard the question your mother asked you earlier. That child in the question… that was me. I’ve drunk from all three fountains, though that was never my ambition.”

“Why did you never say anything?”

“Because of what you said: I couldn’t serve three masters. I didn’t want to serve the other two. I wanted to belong to your domain alone, to stay at your side. I thought you knew that already, lord. How much more do I need to do to prove it to you?” She gave him a wry smile. Her eyes twinkled. “How many offspring will it take? Choose any number; I’m ready to give it my best effort.” She laughed when he coughed in embarrassment. “Whatever the need may be, I want only to remain at your side, whatever domain you visit. I know you’ll do well, and I’ll be proud to be of help to you however I can. So…” Des leaned her forehead against the side of Ciar’s head. “Your new domains await you, lord. Shall we go?”

He stood and lifted her to her feet with him. “Yes, let’s.”

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?”

“No. This is a realm between life and death. Apart from the one who holds dominion here, living humans aren’t supposed to be here. There is nothing ‘normal’ about your situation.”

Dismissing this bit of pessimism, Des took up the bowl of water that Ciar had set aside. She drained it in one long swallow. “It was such a strange dream. I thought it was my aunt Mattie I was talking to at first, but then I saw her dissolving around the edges. Even then, I thought maybe that’s normal for the spirits of the dead, but then she asked me how she died, as if she didn’t know. I thought, that can’t be right. As it happened, it didn’t matter because I started choking and woke up.”

Ciar bowed his head pensively. “It is possible,” he said after a time, “that you encountered a plathein. Your description fits.”

“What is it?”

“Platheins are a race of shapeshifters. They are particulate creatures, able to rearrange their particles so as to resemble other beings. The stronger among them can expand the range of their particles quite a distance. If any creature absorbs one of these particles, it becomes possible for the plathein to communicate with that creature. It may be that you picked up a stray particle. There are platheins nearby.”

Des gazed around at the mist. “How can you tell?”

“I can sense them. Moreover, there’s a hunt ranging near, and the platheins never can resist a hunt.”

“Hunt?” Des gazed around. “The gate is shut.”

Ciar stood so that he towered above her. “A precaution. It’s my responsibility to make sure the hunt doesn’t touch those under the mountain. I was readying myself when I found you. I can’t afford to delay any longer.”

“Yes, lord.” Des was at his side immediately, not helping him don his armor but donning her own.

“It would be better for you to stay here by the gate,” Ciar noted.

“But it isn’t about what’s better for me,” Des said. “If my lord is carrying out his duties, how can I stay idle here?” She took up one of the many broad-bladed daggers from the king’s stores. “Of course I’ll attend you, as I always do. I’m trained for this work too.” She took her stand before him, bright eyes turned upward to his face with relentless good cheer.

No one is trained for this kind of hunt.” Ciar tightened the straps that bound his shield to his forearm. “But since I’ve learned it’s useless to argue with you, then come, if you wish. You’ll need a horse.” He whistled long and loud.

The ubiquitous mists gathered and swirled into a dense mass that split in two. Each half took on the figure of a horse, one a normal size and the other nearly twice as big. Ciar caught hold of the smaller one by the mane. When he led the mist-horse to Des, however, he waited a short while for her to recall herself to the task. She was staring out over the landscape revealed by the gathering of the mist: a cinder-colored vista that sloped gently downward away from the king’s camp. Giant spikes protruded from the ground, as if iron nails with the girth of redwoods had been driven from below. Nothing grew in such a landscape, neither flora nor fauna. Ciar said softly, “Are you still determined to come with me?”

Des’ instant response was to fall onto her knees at his feet. She seized his gauntlet-clad hand and kissed it. “Over all this you hold dominion, lord? You’re greater than I first thought!” Then she regained her feet. She stroked the mist-horse’s flank. “It feels real. Will it hold me?”

“If I so desire,” replied the king. “You aren’t afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

Ciar sighed. “I don’t understand you.” He lent her his hand so that she could mount her mist-horse. Then he swung himself onto the back of the greater horse. As they rode, he spoke of what lay ahead. “The sonji are restless monsters. Now and then I must drive them back to the depths. What they want is to feed on the darkness in human souls, to cause insanity among humans and thereby cause bloodshed. If left unchecked, they would invade the city under the mountain, climb up to the domain of earth– even to the domain of air. They are entirely destructive.”

“Why do those platheins come out during the hunt?”

“I’m not sure. I can only assume it’s due to a spirit of fair play. They–” Ciar fell silent. “There’s a sonji now.” He unslung his axe.

“What is it meant to be? Apart from hideous, that is to say.” Des brandished not only the wide dagger but also a slender short sword. “Does it need quite so many arms?”

“Stay here and don’t let any that escape me get past you. Don’t let any touch you,” Ciar warned. Then he swept forward on his great warhorse and, with one swing of the axe, split the foremost monster in half.

The cloven halves continued squirming until the bubbling froth that spilled from its guts dissolved the remains. Even the hard cinders underneath warped from the acid. Des paused alongside the mess, watching with inquisitive calm until the fizzing stopped. By that point, Ciar had plunged into the next knot of sonji. Des followed him with her eyes until she noticed a line of onlookers beyond him. There was something of a genteel picnic gaiety about them, although their shapes blurred when she looked too long at any one of them. Ladies wearing frothy pale gowns and gentlemen in long cream-white tail coats, all gathered at a distance on higher ground to watch the action below. Occasionally an incongruous shape would appear among them: a sparkling catherine’s-wheel firework, a leaping rabbit five feet high at the ears, once even an empty coat tree, to name a few. These forms lasted only a few seconds before reverting to humanoid. Watching the fluctuations in shape was like listening to half a conversation, trying to guess what had caused each response.

A smattering of applause from the platheins brought Des back around to face the hunt in time to see half a sonji fly through the air, its raw end a fountain of acid. Ciar plunged boldly into the midst of the monsters. His axe flew back and forth, around and down, over and over again in mesmerizing dance of slaughter.

Being thus distracted by the hunt, Des never noticed when one of the platheins separated from its group. Her first intimation that she was not alone came in the figure of a woman, tall and curiously thin, that loomed at her left hand. This woman’s burning black eyes ensnared Des and held her in place. “You did not finish answering my question earlier.” Then the woman broke apart into a multicolored cloud of specks that swept Des skyward in a tight cyclone.

Ciar wheeled around in the midst of the hunt. He charged his great mist-horse toward the spinning cloud, but at the very moment he reached the cyclone, Des shot high through the air with a trailing cry of alarm. The king under earth slewed his mount around to chase after Des. With apparent leisure, the cyclone reformed into the lady and the lady made no hurried movement. She reached out to slip her arms around Ciar’s neck from behind, and that was all. He was forced to stop moving, though the difference in physical strength between them should have been all in his favor. “Watch,” said the lady in his ear.

“But she–!”

“Only watch,” the lady reiterated.

All Ciar could do was gesture for the smaller mist-horse to leap high beneath Des and catch her on her descent. The horse’s hooves hadn’t touched ground when Des vaulted from its back to a safe landing, a weapon gripped in each hand. Her fierce, “Ha!” rang through the deadened air as she drove her short sword through the head of a sonji, pinning it to the hard ground so that she could fillet its sides with her dagger. Acid flew in two thin streams from the tips of her blades as she turned to behead another of the monsters. Acid splashed her clothes, but the euphoria of battle raised her above pain for the moment. She slashed her way through sonji after sonji, deaf to the cheers and applause of the plathein audience.

The last sonji was the wiliest. It had enough wit to use its many limbs to scuttle away from Des no matter from which direction she launched her attack. After a few failed attempts, Des remembered to summon the mist-horse. She proved a deft rider, cutting off the sonji’s every escape. When she had the monster confused, Des hooked an arm around the mist-horse’s neck and leaned down to deliver the death-blow with her short sword. She left the frothing, dissolving carcass behind without a glance, choosing to ride at once to where Ciar waited. “That’s the last of them, lord. No need to worry about them until the next hunt. How long is it, I should ask, between one hunt and the next?”

Ciar stared at her. “I don’t understand you. Was it not you who struggled so deeply over serving as swordbearer that you shattered the sword of the air rather than commit an act of violence?”

“What– that?” Des waved her hand as if waving the question away. “That was a different matter. If it’s just hunting a monstrous pestilence like those beasts to spare you the trouble of doing it, lord, then it’s no trouble at all to me. It gives me opportunity to make good use of my training.”

The plathein lady, now fully solidified as riding side-saddle behind Ciar, laughed aloud as she watched Des from over Ciar’s shoulder. “She is a rare child. I’ve searched for one like her since your father laid aside all dominion. She has told me all I needed to know.” The lady slid off the horse’s back; her feet solidified on the ground, then her ankles, and so forth, until she stood looking up at Ciar. “Go back to the gate and prepare a feast. Summon your brothers to dine with you.” Then she dissolved into a multihued cloud of specks and swept away like a breeze.

In her wake, Des asked, “Is the lady a close friend of yours, lord?”

“Friend?” Ciar sighed. “Worse than that. She’s my mother.”

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?”


“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.

Below, the death hound was puzzled but watchful. It was far from stupid, as it proved when Des attempted the next crossing. At the most tenuous point of the crossing, the death hound threw itself at the tree toward which the swordbearer headed, nearly jarring Des out of the heights. Only Des’ hastily renewed grip pulled the moment back from catastrophe.

Two trees later, Des reached an impasse: the ground dropped into mist-veiled depths at the very roots of the tree, so that a downward glance made the swordbearer giddy for a moment. Des clung to the supporting branch until the dizziness passed. Then the tree quaked. The death hound had not only rammed its weight against the tree trunk, but had raised itself up onto its hind legs to claw higher and higher up the trunk, like some gaunt and deformed grizzly. The scraping claws gouged deep into the bark.

“Hold on,” blurted Des. “Don’t!” But the futile exclamation came too late. Between the weight of the swordbearer aloft in its branches and of the hound leaning hard against its trunk, the poorly-anchored tree gave a heart-pounding lurch toward the canyon edge– more than enough to jar Des into tumbling freefall.

“No!” Des had no time for more than that one terrified syllable before the ground appeared. The hard landing forced another cry from the swordbearer, who rolled and bounced across sand before losing momentum.

A dark shadow loomed against the mist. A callused, powerful hand grasped Des and tore away the sword, scabbard and all, from the bearer’s back as if the leather harness that bound it there meant nothing. A mere glimmer in the mist, the sword flew end-over-end through the air until the death hound dropped out of nowhere to catch it in slavering jaws. For several moments the hound worried the sword like a pup with a stick. When it tired of this, the hound carried the sword back to the solid shadow that still gripped the back of Des’ coat. “Cast away the sword,” a deep voice growled, “and escape the hound.” The hand released Des abruptly.

Facing the shadow fully for the first time, Des sucked in a long breath. A pattern like rising smoke coiled black around the man’s bare arms and chest, up his neck and into his hairline. His long black hair, tied back with a strip of rawhide, matched his flat black eyes. Des fell face-down on the ground.

“You know me, then?” That deep voice grated against the ear. “How do they tell the story these days? Speak.”

Breathless, Des spoke without stirring from that same prostrate position. “There was once only one king– that’s how the old ones begin it– whose domain encompassed air, earth, and under-earth. When he came to the end of his strength, he called his three sons to him. He held up three sticks with a different symbol carved on the broad end of each. To his first son he offered first choice, and this eldest took from him the stick bearing the symbol of air. ‘I will govern the domain of air,’ said the high-minded eldest, ‘and will not let it fall into ruin.’ To his middle son the old king held out the remaining two sticks, but the impulsive youngest grabbed first. ‘Earth for me!’ was his cry as he ran away with his spoils. The middle gazed at the remaining stick, the symbol for under-earth. ‘Always I have been beneath my brothers,’ he said, ‘so little will change.’ But the old king shook his head. ‘Between them you have been, and between them you remain.’ He would not explain his meaning, but when the middle son reached out to take the stick, the stick dissolved into black smoke that embraced him and marked him with its pattern, the symbol of under-earth. He and the old king both disappeared. No one has seen either since. To this day, only the king of under-earth knows where the old king lies buried, but his domain is not easily escaped, so none who seek him return to bear report of him.”

“Someone taught you well. But why do you lie?”

“Lord, I did not lie; that is how the story was told me!”

“Not the story.” The brawny king of under-earth waved away the words. “Your clothes, your manner, your words– you lie with each breath. Why? You are female.”

Des knelt open-mouthed with astonishment. “How did you know?”

“Death reveals many secrets. Since death has been my study, I see everything with different eyes. You are swordbearer to the domain of air, yet you would not slay the hound.”

“I couldn’t do it.” Des gazed desperately at the sheathed sword gripped in the strange king’s fist.

“You never tried– that’s what you mean, so say it clearly.”

“No, Lord, I couldn’t. The sword… I broke it.”

The under-earth king pulled the hilt free. Two inches of jagged metal remained of the blade. With an interrogative noise, the king carried the sword to an impossibly large anvil and poured all the pieces onto its flat surface. “I have never seen it in such a condition,” he said at length. “Your conflict was acute, then. How could you become swordbearer with your spirit in such a state? Ciro was never such a fool before, to choose someone so unsuited to the role.”

Des blinked in shock. “You call the king– of course,” she said, arresting her own blurted remark. “Brothers.”

“At least you didn’t complete your first statement.” The king of under-earth arranged the fragments of the sword with a fingertip. “I must begin anew. Not all the pieces are here. It will take time. Do as you please while you wait, but beware of venturing any deeper under the earth.”

This strange injunction made Des come fully upright on her knees like a sleeper awakened. She leaned forward to brace her hands against the sand and bowed more formally. “Forgive my impudence so far, Lord.” When her apology was ignored, she turned to look at her surroundings more closely. At her back, a rugged canyon wall vanished upward into the mists. The facade of a city was graven on the lower reaches of that wall, false windows carved intaglio into the stone and broad concourses standing inaccessible from within or without. Only one gate, low and wide, opened the side of the mountain. Shallow steps descended into utter darkness through that gate. Such a gaping unknown at her back made Des uneasy. She shifted her position so that she could see the gate out of the corner of her eye without turning her back on that domain’s king.

The death hound sprawled on the sand, tongue lolling. It paid Des no attention, a fact she found so unnerving that she ventured to ask the under-earth king, “Why?”

“Balance,” said the blackened monarch. He had wakened a fire behind the anvil and was preparing to begin a smith’s work. “The domain of air has the sword, which needs a bearer to be useful. Ciro can never use it, so he is made reliant on a champion. The domain of earth has the death hound, which will submit to Caius only once before it flees and must be recaptured. What neither realizes is that both belong to me. I forged the sword; I raise the hounds. Once a hound is set against the swordbearer, it will not rest until it has brought the sword back to me. Once it has done so, it is… mostly… harmless.” His was a ferocious grin, fully as alarming as the death hound’s bared teeth. “Both are naturally instruments of death, subjects of my domain.”

He ignored Des once he began working. Like something mechanical he swung his hammer, filling the air with the din of metal on metal. The mist had a strange, deadening quality that made the hammering dull, and the rhythm was as regular as a clock’s second hand. Weary already, Des fell into an almost hypnotic daze until her feet started to tingle from being knelt on for such a long time. She tipped onto her side, grimacing from the pain, only noticing after a while that the hammering had stopped. The forge’s fire had burned low. Its master, the king of under earth, reclined with his back to the anvil. He appeared to sleep soundly, with the death hound’s huge gaunt head resting on his leg.

From the mist, another death hound dropped noiselessly to the sand. This one was larger than the one sleeping alongside the king. It dragged with it the carcass of an elk. For all the attention it paid her, Des might not have existed at all. The death hound dragged the elk carcass down the shallow steps and through the gate into the darkness under the earth.

Now that the hound had drawn her attention in that direction, Des could barely look away from the gate. She wondered aloud, “Who needs a warning not to enter there?” But she walked almost on tiptoe to the gate to look within. From the depths, a curious chorus of squeaks and yips echoed back for a few moments. More distantly, a man’s voice called. It sounded miles away. Des leaned into the gateway to hear better. “Key… something,” she said. “I wonder what it means.” She glanced backward, but the king of under earth still slept. She took a step over the gate’s threshold. The rending of flesh closer at hand nearly turned her back, but as her eyesight adjusted to the darkness, she realized that the gate opened into a cavernous antechamber. Cracked and gnawed animal bones littered the stone floor. The shadowy movements beyond suggested several death hounds gathered around the carcass brought by the most recent arrival. Des trod carefully, but her passage did not distract the hounds from their meal. Tumbling and squeaking around the carcass, a handful of pups snapped at the scraps dropped by their elders.

Contrary to expectations, the tunnel under the earth grew brighter as Des proceeded deeper into it. She entered a domed chamber that felt spacious after the dark tunnel. A fountain and pool dominated the space. Thirsty all at once, Des sat on the raised lip of the pool and drank until satisfied. The fountain sparkled, although the bright chamber had no apparent light source to reflect off its cascades.

The voice Des had heard earlier called again, this time startlingly near at hand. “Key-aar!” From another arched gateway Des had not yet noticed, a man emerged into the chamber carrying a platter of food. He stopped short when he noticed Des.

Des leaped to her feet. Something in his face stopped her from blurting out whatever came first to her mind.

“Welcome,” the man said. He was older, but his exact age was difficult to ascertain: clean-shaven, tall, strongly-built and kind-eyed. “You’ve just arrived. No need to linger in here. Come deeper in.”

Des shook her head. “He warned me not to venture too deep… I shouldn’t be here.”

“He spoke to you? That’s unusual. There’s usually no reason to stop a passing spirit and converse.”

Again Des shook her head. “I’m not a spirit. I don’t think I’m a spirit,” she added, “but it has been a strange day. Maybe I am and I never noticed.”

The man studied her more closely. “No,” he said after a while, “there’s something different about you. How did you come?”

So Des recounted the chase of the death hound, her fall from the dominion of earth, and her meeting with the king of under earth. As she spoke, the man began to smile. “I forget sometimes,” he said. “Ciar has a sly streak to him. Told you not to venture too deep under earth, did he, and then fell sound asleep? Young Des, Ciar is king under earth. His dominion is death; he doesn’t need to sleep. He was offering you the choice, to see what you would do. You’re obviously not suited to be swordbearer for Ciro, but you could have chosen to attempt the climb back up. Had you chosen even to take the sword into your hands again, Ciar would have sent you back. He must have seen something in you.”

“He is king under earth,” Des said, “yet you speak of him so familiarly.”

“He’s my son.”

“Ah!” Des dropped to her knees.

The man stopped her. “Not necessary, I assure you. I have relinquished all dominion and taken my place here. King Ciceran no longer exists. Here I am only Ciceran. So, young Des, what will you do now? You came as far as this. You can come farther and see the wonders this dominion holds. It is nothing you have ever imagined,” he added. “Yet here you wait. He won’t follow you here, either to welcome or to scold you. Ciar is bound at the entrance. If he comes this far, it is only to refresh himself for a minute at the fountain and then return to his duties.”

Des said suddenly, “Is the story true? Was this all that was left for him?”

The old king nodded, a little sadly. “It was all that his brothers left him, but in all honesty only Ciar could have taken up the dominion under earth. Ciro is too self-important; Caius is too self-indulgent. Ciar alone had the character necessary to surrender every hope for himself and bind himself between the realms as he did. I had feared this, when I chose to divide the dominions between them. When I held all three, I was able to cross from one dominion to another without trouble, but for one man to hold all three at once is a terrible burden. We aren’t strong enough creatures to endure it. So while his brothers live as kings in their respective cities, Ciar stands as solitary gatekeeper to wonders he cannot share.”

“I understand that, I think.” Des bowed her head. “You called for him.”

“Yes, I was perplexed why he didn’t answer me, but you’ve answered that mystery for me. I sometimes bring him dinner. He doesn’t really need it, but it makes a change for him. I can’t venture out through the gate, being bound as a subject to this dominion now, but he can hear me calling and come as far as this to take it from me.”

The swordbearer’s features changed subtly. “I can take it to him. I haven’t gone too deep, have I? I can still go back to the gate?”

“You can,” said the old king, “but you’ve drunk from the fountain now. I doubt you can go back easily to air or earth.”

Des reached for the platter. She met the old king’s wry smile with one of her own. “Death reveals secrets, right? I expect it still does, even after you lay down the dominion of it.”

Ciceran laid a large hand on her head in blessing. “We’ll meet again.”

Carrying the platter high in front of her, Des ran along the tunnel back toward the outermost gate. She jumped over the death hound pups that tumbled across her path in a tussle over a stripped bone. When she emerged into the dull light outside, she nearly ran into the king of under earth. With a squeak not unlike the pups’, she veered to save the dinner.

“What are you…?”

Des recovered her poise. She held out the platter. “Lord,” she said.

He accepted the meal from her. After a few more seconds of staring at Des, the king under earth took his dinner to the anvil. “I sent the sword back.”

“Thank you. It’s for the best.”

He continued to glance at her from time to time while he ate, but he never spoke his thoughts until he had emptied the platter, washed it under a small cascade in an alcove beyond the forge, and set it on a shelf with another. Then he turned his full attention to tidying the forge.

Patiently Des waited and watched him.

“What do you seek of me?” the king under earth asked at last.

“Nothing, Lord.”

“Then why did you come back from the depths?”

They stood facing one another over the anvil. Des lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug. “I was born under the domain of earth, but my brothers angered our lord there. He set the death hound against us, and only I of my whole family survived. When I was recovered, I climbed the spire path to the domain of air, looking for a home and a reason. I thought protecting others from the hounds would be enough reason for me, but becoming swordbearer wasn’t at all what I expected. What was left to me? I had no place in earth or air, being too dull to amuse Lord Caius on the one hand and too queasy to serve as Lord Ciro’s glorified executioner on the other. I struggled so fiercely within myself that, the first time I drew the sword, it shattered.” She met the intensity of his stare with a wry smile like the one she had offered his father. “I have nowhere to belong to, nowhere to return to. Is there a lord better suited for such a one as I to serve?” Once again she dropped to her knees and, hands braced on the sand, bowed deeply before him.

“I don’t need a servant.”

“I will wait until you have a use for me, lord.”

“Living on a doorstep is uncomfortable.”

“If my lord can endure it, I can.”

“There is only the forge and the hounds.”

“I’m sturdy enough for the work, lord.”

“Lift your head. Stop calling me ‘lord.’ I’m Ciar.”

Des sat upright. Her gaze was bright with anticipation. “Yes, Lord Ciar.”

Ciar raised an eyebrow at her. “I said…” Then he sighed. “Never mind for now. You’re quite welcome into the dominion under earth. It should be less dull now, with someone to talk to. Why are you smiling like that?”

“I’m already useful to my lord. Why shouldn’t that make me smile?”

He sighed again. “You’re strange.” When Des laughed at that, the king under earth could not help but smile a little in response. “Very strange.”

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, 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?”


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.”