Burning

Prompt: Never trust the sun. It will always burn you written 7 February 2021

He approached the gleaming palace slowly, squinting as the setting sun reflected on its golden roof. He loathed having to return here. The place held memories of nothing but shame.

To his great humiliation, the guards recognized him and let him in without a word. Head lowered, he made his way down the halls, passing first the throne room, then the dining room, then the library, until he reached the study.

He did not knock as he entered the private study of Theros, King of Sun. And Theros, clever as he was, showed no surprise at the arrival.

The deity merely lifted his head and smiled. “Martell, what a pleasant surprise! Welcome home!” Theros exclaimed, spreading his arms wide. “Shall I have your chambers made ready?”

“I will not spend a moment here that I don’t have to.” he replied softly.

The king’s arms fell. His smile remained, though his eyes blazed with heat. “I see. No need for a bed, then. But surely you would not deny yourself a meal, or at least something to drink?”

“No.”

“I am not an ungracious host, Martell. You must know this. Is there any way for me to make you feel welcome?”

Tear it down, he thought. Reduce this place to rubble and then curl up and die with it. He’d told them, insisted that no meaningful treaty could be made with Theros. The King of Sunlight knew nothing but how to burn.

Martell swallowed his rage and looked the tyrant in the eyes. “I come on behalf of the people of Kavan. We wish to bargain for your alliance.”

“You come as an emissary, then.” The king replied.

“Not an emissary.” he corrected. “A messenger. If you would be so gracious as to send a delegation to the outskirts of Kavan, we would be honored to meet with you and discuss your terms.”

Theros stood and crossed the room to stand before Martell. He was just close enough that he could feel the heat radiating from him. “And if I ask for my dignitary’s return, will it be granted?”

The heat was clouding his thoughts. He was sweating. He was shaking. The question held a threat that none in Kavan would see. He took a steadying breath and replied, “Such terms would be discussed between delegations. I do not have the authority to agree to anything.”

Theros grabbed his arm, the smell of burning flesh released at the same time as a cry of pain. There was no humor left in his eyes, only a white-hot rage. Martell tried and failed to break his grip. “Remember your place, whelp. You are mine to command, and you will return to me.” When he let go, a blackened handprint wrapped around his wrist. At the sight of this his good mood returned. “Tell the people of Kavan that I will meet with them personally, but only if you are a member of their delegation.” Theros returned to his seat and paused a moment before adding, “You may go.”

Birthright

Prompt: They painted her in shades of crimson for the ceremony, until every inch of skin blazed like a dying ember written 25 January 2021

She didn’t understand why they painted her skin with such tenderness. She was about to burn, and the paint would neither protect her nor survive the flame. One look from her mother kept the thought to herself. It was an honor, they said. Her birthright. She believed it, but she couldn’t get past the idea of so much pain.

Her family paraded her to the temple, singing prayers for her future and praise for the bravery she had not yet accomplished. The priestess spoke no spells over her, only more prayers, and led the procession to the courtyard, covered in snow but glowing orange from the line of torches surrounding it.

Dressed in a single layer of coal-black linen, she fought down a shiver and shouted her lines at the sky, calling down the dragon she had never seen.

Her birthright, they called it. A wish granted by some godlike thing claiming to be her ancestor. A wish, in exchange for burning.

Her doubt held only until the dragon appeared in the sky, floating weightless despite his great size. She was on her knees even before he landed, blocking her view of all else and revealing the cold earth below the snow.

“Great One.” she recited. “I call you here to claim my birthright.”

“What is your name, girl?” his breath felt hot against her back.

“Jyn, daughter of Roshani, Great One.” she replied.

“And what birthright do you claim, Jyn, cowering in the snow before your pyre? My wealth? My domain? My claws?”

A strange anger ignited in her. This dragon who claimed familial ties, who scarred each member of her family for a single wish, dared to call her a coward. And not only that, he sounded bored. She stood up in a jerky motion, raising her head to meet his golden gaze.

“It is customary, Great One, to introduce oneself before raising judgement.” she spat, hands curled into fists at her sides. She heard her mother gasp in horror. Jyn braced herself to be bitten in half, or burned to ash, but as the dragon opened his mouth it was not a growl that rung through the air.

It was laughter. Identifiable, human laughter. “Finally!” the dragon cried. “Progeny who has inherited my spine!”

“Jyn’s anger died in the wake of her confusion. She stared, open mouthed at the grinning beast before her.

“Did you all think I hated my human spawn so much that I would insult them as they burned? Did you think I reveled in your pain?” he asked, and as he spoke, his form shrank, until he was just a man, in robes no finer than Jyn’s simple linen. His eyes sparkled, still golden, but his grin now showed teeth no sharper than her own. He held out his arms wide, as if inviting them all for a hug. No one moved.

He returned his attention to the girl in front of him. “I will make you a deal, Jyn. If you can make a wish I have not yet bestowed upon your family, I will spare you the pain of the flame.”

Jyn lifted her chin stubbornly. “Your name.” she replied, then added sweetly, “Great One.”

He grinned, and bowed with a flourish. “I am Rion, son of Ach. How do you claim your birthright?”

Finally, she smiled back at him. “I ask for neither your gold nor land nor even your great wisdom. The only thing I desire, great Rion, is your scales.” she announced.

His expression became harder to read as his grin faded. “I will grant your wish, and hold my bargain that you will not burn on the pyre. But I am afraid it will spare you no pain.” he warned. “If you scream, you will be consumed by far more than flame. Do you accept this?”

She nodded, jaw set. He held out his hand and she stepped forward. In two fluid movements, he clasped one hand around her wrist, and cupped the other on her cheek. Where he touched, lightning followed, and scales bloomed from her skin.

And when Jyn opened her mouth, it was not to scream. It was to sing.

Fallen Stars

Prompt: the old man stares hard at you, seeming to see into your soul. “I will tell you your future.” he says, “but first you must tell me mine.” written 7 January 2021

The night market was alive with music and magic. Dancers in silk skirts twirled between stalls selling amulets, potions, and all manner of enchanted objects. Among the bright colors and bouncing music, a small, hooded figure maneuvered clumsily through the crowd.

Pulling her hood farther down, she searched the stalls until she found the one draped in purple gauze and advertising a fortune teller. Stepping through the curtain, the noise of the night market was dulled to a murmur. The tent was lit by a single oil lamp hanging in the far corner. Sitting on a cushion was a frail looking man swathed in as many layers of gauze as his stall. A short table sat between them, scattered with a variety of items she knew he would not need. For the first time that night, she put her hood down, revealing eyes the silver of pure moonlight. Eyes that matched his exactly.

The man smiled, and said in a language no one else in the market would understand, “I will tell you your future, but first you must tell me mine.”

She sat cross-legged on the empty cushion and replied, “Do you want pretty lies or vague truths?”

He laughed. “How did you find yourself in the land of mortals?”

“Same as you. I fell.” she shifted uncomfortably. “How do I go back?”

“It’s not that simple, child. You have to live out a full human lifetime and make human connections.” he said.

She scoffed. “And you make human connections by conning them?”

“I have loved and lost already.” he spat. “Now I wait for my body to fail me so I can return to the sky.”

Her face twisted in anger and disdain. “Why should I lower myself to such a pitiful existence? Why would I make connections only to lose them?”

The old man smiled sadly at her. “To remember to be human, child. Without it, our light fades.”

He was right, she knew, and she slumped, her energy gone. “It’s not an easy thing to do on purpose.” she complained. He reached over and gently took her hand.

“I know, child. You must do your best to live without focusing on the weight of your past. Humanity is not easy, and neither is love. Such is our curse.”

The girl hung her head, despaired. As tears fell, she felt his arms wrap around her and she began to sob. He held her as she cried, mourning her fall, her curse, and her own humanity. When she was done, he quietly helped her clean her face and gather herself. They embraced, and she pulled her hood back over her eyes before returning to the bustle of the night market.

The Witch’s River

Prompt: I should have drowned, but the river took pity on me and carried me home written 4 January 2020

I don’t remember what I’d been running from. All I remember is that I didn’t hesitate to fling myself off that cliff to get away from it.

I should have drowned. More than that, I should have crashed into the rocks and been crushed below the waves. This I remember clearly. The river rose up to meet me as I fell, slowing my descent and carrying me safely downstream.

I don’t know how long it carried me, but when it set me down I was in a forest I didn’t recognize. At first, I was hesitant to stray too far from the banks, but something in the trees beckoned me further. I had never before felt so safe, surrounded by trees, the ground covered in moss that was soft on my bare feet.

I hadn’t walked far when I found a stone path curving through the trees. The same thing that called me into the forest drew me onto the path, and soon I was approaching a cottage that sat in front of an immense weeping willow. I walked to the door cautiously. After a moment’s hesitation, I knocked.

The door was answered by an unkempt man with a cane. He gave me a warm smile when he saw me. “Ah. From the river, I see. Please, come in. I was just about to eat.”

The inside of the cottage was lined with bookshelves that spilled over with books and journals. There was a table by the fireplace that was just as cluttered, and a set of four plush chairs on the far side of the room.

“How did you know the river brought me here?” I asked as he closed the door behind me.

He smiled. “The river is an old friend. It brought me here, too. Every few years it finds a lost soul and brings it here. Not everyone stays, of course, but some of us find ourselves more at home here than anywhere else.” As he spoke, he spooned stew from a pot on the stove. He passed me a bowl and sat down in one of the chairs, gesturing for me to sit. I picked the softest looking chair and took a spoonful of the stew. It warmed me from the inside out and I sighed, trying not to down the whole thing at once.

“It’s delicious.” I said.

“Thank you. I’m afraid I can’t take credit for the recipe. I found it in one of the journals of the previous residents.” he said. “You can read any of them, if you’d like.”

I thanked him, and we ate in comfortable silence before the crackling fire. He refilled my bowl twice before he offered me a fresh set of clothes and pointed me towards a spare bedroom.

The days that followed were the most peaceful days of my life. The man’s name was Kalon, and he taught me all about the forest and the spirits in it. Eventually he told me about the cottage, and the witch who had built it. The oldest of the journals were her notes, and everyone who stayed took up her work, helping anyone who came to the cottage for spells or shelter.

Then, late one night as we set out bowls to collect rainwater, he asked me if I would stay.

“If I do, what happens to you?” I asked. He smiled.

“I will stay to teach you until you’re ready. Then I will leave.” he answered, setting out the next bowl.

“You told me this place was your home.” I reminded him. “Why would you leave it?”

“There is an entire world beyond this forest. I made two copies of all my notes so I could take them with me. I want to share the knowledge I found in my time here.” he helped me stand once I set out the last bowl. “I’ll be fine.”

I pulled Kalon into a tight hug. “I’ll miss you.” I said. “Come visit if you’re ever in the area, ok?”

He laughed as he returned the embrace. “I’m not leaving yet, my dear.” he rest his chin on my shoulder and whispered, “I’ll miss you too.”

Gemini Dance

No prompt. Written 27 December 2020

She walked the edge of the ballroom, watching as the glittering skirts twirled a mesmerizing swirl. As the music sped up, it became more and more difficult to see the dancer’s faces, and panic rose in her throat. She cursed herself for ever letting her sister come with her, and worse, for losing her in the crowd. She tried screaming her name, but the magic of the place strangled the sound. To find her sister, she had to follow the rules of the place. So she pulled the mask down on her face and stepped into the crowd.

A partner found her not two steps into the dance. She let him lead her around the dance floor, all the while stretching an arm out in an effort to reach her sister. She raised her voice again, this time in song, matching the music, melding with it. Her heart leaps as she hears the voice of her sister join the song. The man dancing with her pulled her closer, and she tried her best to steer him in the direction of her sister’s voice.

They kept singing, even as the music sped up. When their hands finally met, her arm was nearly pulled from its socket as her dancing partner tried to lead her away. She spun out of his arms and grabbed hold of her sister, who adopted the man’s position in the dance. As she did so, her skirt pulled in to form trousers, and soon she wore a midnight blue suit in place of her gown. The two looked at each other and smiled. They had been dancing together all their lives, and together they cut through the crowd with ease.

Old Magic (part 2)

Written 8 October 2020

She never asked his name, only called him “boy” or sometimes simply shouted insults or swears to get his attention. He took no offense from this, and only retaliated by calling her “hag”, a name that merely made her laugh. They were immune to each other’s venom, and fell into an easy routine. The people in the nearby town called him Stehell, stranger. His name was Orea.

He had taken on the responsibility of maintaining her home, and in turn she taught him every bit of magic she knew. She did not tell him how she had learned, and in fact ignored his every attempt at learning of her past.

He only got an answer once, and it had done nothing to sate his curiosity.

“Why the hearts?” he had asked late one night as they fed her garden.

She was silent for so long he thought she would simply ignore him as she always did. Finally, she straightened and cast her eyes to the stars, as if they watched her and knew of all she had done, all she had never told.

“Some magicks are old.” she began softly. “Far older than civilization. Maybe older than men.” He stopped his work and sat down cross-legged in the dirt, giving her his full attention. “Old magic is bloody, Boy.” she growled. “Nature will only give you its power if you give something else in exchange. Something of yourself, usually. But the old ways were not particular. The price was blood, and it cared nothing of whose.” he dared not fill the silence, knowing she wasn’t done.

“If blood is the power, hearts are their source. More than that, hearts hold the magic that keeps us alive, keeps us feeling. The only way to truly kill something is to destroy its heart.” Vines curled around her ankles, not daring to touch her. In the moonlight, she looked ancient, and he could believe that she was as old as the magic she spoke of. “Destroying a heart normally meant throwing it into the fire. Doing so returned the magic to its source.

The silence that followed lasted long enough for his legs to grow numb, but he did not dare make a sound.

“Eating the hearts gave that magic to you. The blood price was paid and the power was incredible. I had many enemies, and I killed all of them. Then I took their power for my own.” Her head sunk back to focus on the garden, and there was a finality in her posture that told him she would say no more tonight, of this or any other topic.

He pushed his questions down and finished his task, silently offering his arm when she struggled up the steps of the garden.

“Impetuous boy.” she grumbled, taking his arm.

“Stubborn hag.” he retorted with a smile, and some of her strange mood lifted.

He refused her help as he went about his nightly chores, and waited until she was fast asleep before creeping out the back of the house and into the forest beyond.

Old Magic (Part 1)

Prompt: she had quit eating hearts a long time ago Written 30 July 2020

The townspeople stayed away from the cottage covered in vines. Erected long before the town, it sat half a mile away from any other building. Many rumors flew about her and her garden. Every plant was poison of some kind, every trespasser killed and their heart eaten.

In truth, she had stopped eating hearts a long time ago, and her garden supplied her with most of her meals. This did not make her safe, however. The vines that sprawled over her land were alive, and hungry, and she kept them that way. Her reputation was earned, and it fueled her peace in her old age. Those heroes who wished to defeat her had died off generations ago, and none had risked her wrath to earn her knowledge.

Until a tall, scrawny, slip of a boy arrived on her doorstep, unarmed and untouched by any of her charms. She stands in her doorway, eyeing the newcomer warily. She notes the point of his ears, counts the bony joints, and watches as his hair floats along a wind she cannot feel.

“What is your business, changeling?” she croaks, her voice dry and soft from underuse.

He smiles, a bit too wide, and a bit too sharp to be human. “Surely your Sight is not so limited that you do not know the answer.”

“My eyes are old.” she snaps. “I do not See as far as I used to.”

“I hoe my journey is not in vain.” he replies. “I would hate to find you are no use to me.”

“We will see, boy.” she turned around and left to her kitchen, not glancing back as he followed, two steps behind. She returned to the herbs she had been grinding, shoving a prickly specimen into his arms. “Separate the spines from the twigs. The rest are on the table. Grind them when that’s done.”

He obeyed without a word. When that task was finished, she directed him in what to combine the herb with, and how to contain them. After that, he cleaned her kitchen as she bustled around it, deftly stepping out of her way as he worked. When she moved her work outside, he took the opportunity to prepare their evening meal.

He was sitting patiently at her table when she came back inside after nightfall. His legs were crossed under him, and he was reading a small book she hadn’t seen with him when he arrived.

“Stew is on the stove. It’s still warm.” he said, setting his book down and moving to serve them both a bowl.

“You have not eaten yet?” she croaked suspiciously.

“It is your home.” he said in answer.

She took the proffered bowl as he returned to his seat. “You are after a mentor.” It was not a question.

“If you wish, I will go hunting tomorrow. Get some meat for supper.” he said.

She examined him again. His hair still floated in a gravity-defying mess, and his clothes were torn and dirty. He held himself with a subtle confidence she didn’t usually see in any his age.

“Easier to run to the market in town. I need eggs and flower, as well.” she said, confirming his unspoken request. “There’s a bed in the attic. Can’t promise it’s clean.” she added.

He rose, offering to take her empty bowl. She passed it to him and stood. She could make use of his strength and youth, she thought. And it had been a long while since she’d seen her kitchen clean, or had meat and bread on her table. For these things, she could teach him her tricks. And if he ate her heart once he surpassed her, then so be it. She had lived long enough already.

The Queen’s Spellcaster

Prompt: When she arrived, all conversation ceased Written 7 October 2020

He had heard so many tales about the Queen’s royal spellcaster that he no longer knew what to expect. The only thing that stayed consistent was her mask, said to be made of bone. It covered her entire face, with two holes for the eyes and a swirling script burned into it in a spiral. Some said the mask covered burns or other scars, others said it was enchanted to detect lies or simply for the mystery of it all. It did not hide her identity, though, because her name was known across the continent and probably farther. He wondered if it was merely to make disguising herself easier. No one remembered her face, so if she simply took the mask off she could easily blend in with the rest of the court, or indeed any other group.

This theory proved false at his first sight of her. She strode into the hall with the confidence of one who had no equal, despite being a mere slip of a girl in a muddied cloak. He forced himself to close his mouth as she strode down the aisle to the throne. She executed a perfect curtsy that somehow held no particular deference to the monarch in front of her.

“Your esteemed Majesty,” the girl said as she rose. “I return to you with urgent news from the border of Elphane.” The courtiers rustled uncomfortably at the mention of the Folk.

The Queen raised a hand to quiet the room, but kept her eyes on the girl before her. “You may speak.”

“The Seelie are discussing pulling their support.” Gasps went up, but when the girl lifted her head towards them, silence returned before the queen could lift her hand. “They saw our work at the Hills as dishonorable. In their eyes, we broke our word.”

“That’s ridiculous!” cried a general. “The deal was struck under false pretenses!”

“Hold your tongue, general.” the queen said firmly. “The Folk are our allies, and we must respect their customs.” she turned back to the spellcaster. “What do you suggest we do?”

“We must propose a treaty to end this war.” More than whispers erupted at this declaration. Many army officials were outraged at the idea. But her majesty did not argue. She waited for silence and then bid the girl continue. “I am not suggesting we surrender. Merely extend an offer in good faith to prove to the Folk that our interest is not in continuing a senseless war.”

“And the Folk?” the queen asked. “Their outrage must be addressed. We must make amends.”

“With all due respect, majesty, we mustn’t.” He stopped trying not to stare. Until this point, the girl had shown the minimum respect to the queen, waiting for her permission to speak and for her majesty to ask for her advice. Now she contradicted the queen directly.

The queen herself, however, didn’t react. Again, she gestured for the girl to continue.

“Any direct effort to appease the Folk will be seen as a shallow attempt to soothe their pride. We did not directly offend them, and as such they are not with whom we must reconcile.”

The queen nodded. “I see. Our enemies will not take the treaty, but it will show the Folk that we are trying to write a wrong. They will be appeased without a formal apology.” He couldn’t help but think that the girl had allowed the queen to finish her explanation in an effort to maintain order. “If that is all, Aminta, you are dismissed. We welcome you home.” the queen said.

Aminta gave a more reverent curtsy and replied, “May your hospitality never run dry.”

It took all of his willpower not to run after her as she left.

Autumn’s King

No prompt. Written 25 December 2020

On the first true day of fall, when the leaves have turned but not yet fallen to the forest floor, the King begins his search. He is unmistakable, shrouded in a cloak and carrying an oak staff. His antlers curl around his head to form a crown that cannot be removed, and his eyes hold the mysteries of what sleeps beneath the earth.

Tonight, when the moon is high and bright in the sky but not yet full, the King will take his staff, march into the center of the forest, and strike it against the seven trees that stand in a circle around him. From these trees will emerge seven maidens. He will ask just one question.

The maidens will join hands and dance a reel around the king, singing of his past journeys and his future demise. The king will ask his question again. The maidens will raise their voices until none else can be heard, and then they will drop to just one voice, the voice of the oldest maiden. As they finished the reel, she will tell the king the first of his clues, the first step he needs to find what he seeks. He will swiftly commit this clue to memory as she sits down and the second maiden reveals the second clue. They do this in turn until the seven maidens are sat in a ring on the forest floor. They will say no more, whether he rails or begs or cries or does none of these. The king will thank them, and they will return to their trees without a glance at him.

As he leaves, their spell will take hold and the king will be left with only the first of the clues in his memory.

It will be well into the season before he leaves the forest, glamoured in the guise of a common traveler. He will move from town to town, searching first for a boy who Sees, then a woman who Makes, and hopefully, finally, the woman he seeks. He will reach the uppermost corner of the land and he will sail into the horizon until the sun sets and rises again.

Now a king outside his kingdom, he will reach an island no other can sail to, and here his trials truly begin.

Armed with only his staff, he will next face a many-limbed goblin, who holds a different item in each hand. The items vary from a sewing thimble to a soldier’s blade to a crown. The king has one chance.

He will not remember his past decisions. He will not remember the right choice. But he will examine the hands and the items they hold, and he will see which items the goblin seems to hide, the ones he stretches out, and he will find the one that the goblin will not look at. He will take the flute, carved from the heartwood of an ancient and magical tree. The goblin will speak his spell and the next clue will be returned to his memory.

He will make his way further inland and reach a place where the path splits. Two of the paths look identical, leading into the woods. One follows a stream that becomes a roaring river, and the last leads up a hill and vanishes into the distance.

He does not remember that the woods are home to vines that would drag him beneath the earth he elsewhere would find his home. He does not see the creatures lurking beneath the water, waiting to drag him under. He knows only the clue, and it is this which he follows.

As winter falls and his yearly journey comes to a close, he will be greeted at last by the one he has searched for this and every autumn.

She runs to him, gossamer skirt billowing, and he catches her in his arms with a gleeful cry.

It is at this very moment that the first winter snow will start to fall, and the couple will make their home for the coming season, until spring ends and they are separated once more.

Musings 3: Message and Escapism

Some stories have a message, a lesson to teach. Some do not, and they are equally important. These stories provide entertainment, and escape from a world that needs lessons taught and morals shouted from pages.

Of these two brands, I am afraid I only ever write the one. My stories hold no grand truth or important message. If those are things you search for, I must recommend you go elsewhere. My words are not so profound. I write to go on adventures, and to allow people to join me on them.

I am not here to argue that escapism is dying, or that it is more important than writing with a message in mind. I don’t believe either of those things are true. Both styles of writing are equally important.

Maybe I sound pretentious, claiming that escapism is as important as having a message. But humans need mindless fun, things that make them happy, with no other purpose. That’s why I read, and it’s why I write.