love, romance, short fiction, women

To Reach

islam_4_peace_02_by_larage4peace

 

https://larage4peace.deviantart.com/art/islam-4-peace-02-96804342

 

How long had I been in this tower?

 

Enough to know I will die here. All they had to do is not bring me food, or I fell ill. Sometimes I thought about throwing myself down there. If there was no hope of rescue, then I faced death, whether it was slow or fast.

 

It was a long way down. I think it would have been the quickest option. Starvation is death by a thousand bites.

 

Henrietta, my sister’s fairy godmother at my sister Catherine’s bidding slipped a pinch of Slumber into my wine and I collapsed into the arms of a guardsman.

 

The former story is so much more enjoyable to tell. It also absolves me of blame which is a handier skill to have than you might think up here. There’s no sense in anger up here where the winds howl and the birds fly around me, waiting for me to die or give up as they float on the thermals.

 

I knew she would marry me off to some ailing duke to cement an alliance. Have children and hold his withered, limp hand in public.

 

I wanted children but with someone I loved. There had been such a man, a troubadour who attended court at the height of spring who enacted complex verses of poetry and played a lute with such skill my eyes watered at the sound of it. Mathuin.

 

There were private performances for my pleasure where I was the instrument through which his talent flowed. Catherine had other ideas and had him banished. She waited a year before she whispered how she had his hands broken and his tongue removed. He did not get the mercy of death.

 

Her eyes gleamed with an emptiness I recoiled from. What had happened to my sweet and wise elder sister?

 

‘What do you gain from my misery, your highness?’

 

She drew her lips back from her teeth and hissed at me. I stepped back. I was more frightened of how everyone around the table ignored it. I wondered if it was even real.

 

‘Two things, dear sister. One, he was a commoner and your cunt is too precious to be wasted on a piece of rough, silver-tongued or not and the other thing, well it seems almost silly, but I spoke to Henrietta and she said I should at least tell you.’

 

I gave a slow nod, looked for a knife on the table whilst she spoke.

 

‘When you were eight and I was six, you broke my cup and ball. It was the last thing Mother gave to me and you couldn’t even let me have it. I hated you for that and I still do, so when I got the chance to hurt you in a way which would still allow me to sell you off then I took it. ‘

 

I blinked with surprise and a sinking horror she meant what she said. Mother had died birthing a son, and he did not last an hour before he died. Father had the two of us, and he never took another wife. He died in his bed and part of me died with him. I looked at my goblet of wine and drank it down.

 

I got up and left the hall. It was no more than a few steps when my head swam with an overwhelming exhaustion and I was caught by a prepared guardsman and winched up here.

 

It’s quite an interesting bit of history but the tower was built to honour Peregrin, the great archer and it was rumoured whoever could slay the four great birds of death, who were doomed to wander the skies without tasting flesh again, would get their fondest wish.

 

Catherine never came to see me. Henrietta came in her stead, watched me as her insect wings fluttered as she floated up to see I was still alive.

 

‘Between you and me, she’s not handling things well.’ she said.

 

I got up and strode over to me, brought my hand up to slap her before she buzzed away, her wand pointed at me, the gem at the end trailing off sparks of energy.

 

‘Neither are you.’

 

‘You’re supposed to be her godmother, you have an obligation to look after her.’ she said.

 

Henrietta frowned and shook her head.

 

‘I do, but you can’t save someone from themselves, can you?’

 

She reassured me I would come down in time when she felt I’d suffered enough and she made a table heaving from food appear. My stomach had shrunk and the rest of it rotted away to the point I had to toss it over the side, without anywhere to store it.

 

The birds float on the thermals and I went over to the side, ready to join them at last.

 

I looked down, so high up clouds thronged around the bricks of the tower below. I made out a shape against the wall and hear the faint slam of something heavy being smacked against the wall. I tilted my head to listen.

 

It saw another day before I saw something which convinced me my mind has broken.

 

Someone was climbing the tower.

 

Starved of stimulation, I watched and listened. Each thud had a ringing metallic tone. Like swords at tourney but slower and more certain.

 

The figure was cloaked and hooded and they climbed the tower, hand over hand.

 

I called to them but they did not look up. There was too much sky to look upon. They kept coming towards me and I wondered if this was my sister playing a cruel prank on me.

 

I wept and screamed at them to go away.

 

I pleaded for them to hurry.

 

I swore they would die in trying to kill me.

 

I asked what their name was, and why they were coming.’

 

The figure climbed without stopping and as they drew closer, I heard the harsh panting of their breath.  

 

After three days I watched the gleam of sunlight on his brass fingers where they bit into the bricks of the tower.

 

The hood fell back and I looked into the eyes of a man I believed dead or broken. The lower half of his face was wrapped in a length of black cloth but his eyes bore into mine with a purpose as hard as steel.

 

Mathuin.

 

It was sunset when he stood in front of me, his chest heaving and I looked at his hands.

 

They were made from brass and iron, small rods leading to perfect spheres at either end, pistoning to allow him a full range of motion. He followed my gaze and lifted them up, looked at them as though it were the first time. He reached into his tunic and retrieved a scroll.

 

There was a sigil set into wax. It represented one of the guilds in the North, men who had learned the work of the dwarves and plied a trade in weapons and armour.

sigil (7)

They left me for dead.

Broke my hands and took my tongue,

I wandered in the north and took work

With a caravan back to the guild

I swept floors

Slept in ashes

But I waited and earned

Favours

I wrote down my story

Asked what I needed

I told them

Two things

.

 

He drew down the cloth from his face and smiled at me. His tongue gleamed white between his teeth.

 

‘The hands count as one item.’ he said.

 

I screamed as I ran towards him.

 

‘You stupid man.’

 

I touched his face and kissed him. His tongue stole between my lips and it was soft and agile without the taint of metals. His hands went to the small of my back and drew me closer to him. I put my hands to his chest and push him backwards.

 

‘Had you thought of how we are going to get down?’

 

He straightened his tunic and adjusted his belt. He reached for a pouch and pulled it away from his belt.

 

‘It’s a mix of djinn ash, powdered silver and aether. The dwarves used it to make their armour lighter but when you sprinkle it on flesh, it produces an interesting effect.’  he said.

 

A screech drew our attention as the birds descended upon us. Their beaks were sharp and hooked as they raised their claws to attack him.

 

He tossed the pouch to me and turned on his heels to face them. He raised his brass hands above his head, clenching them into fists which shone in the dusk.

 

The first of them was clubbed to the ground with a wet crack and he caught the second by its beak, splintering it into shards of bone and splinters of keratin before he pulled back and straightened his fingers to slap the third’s head across the neck. I had caught the pouch by the time he had grabbed the claw of a fourth and twisted it off with a wrench like a starving man tearing into a capon. He took a claw across his tunic but he kept moving and hammered into the fourth bird until it lay still as he got up from his knees.Blood stained the front of his tunic but he walked towards me and looked at the pouch in my hand.

 

He shuddered and reached out his hand to brush the hair from my face.

 

‘I want to take you away from here.’ he said.

 

The air shimmered around us and it grew too bright to see as I reached for his cold hands and felt soft earth beneath my feet. I blinked away spots from my eyes and looked around us.

 

We were at the foot of the tower. I put my hands to my face and sobbed with relief as he looked up with wonder.

 

‘Peregrin’s challenge wasn’t a myth.’ he said.

 

The wish could have granted him eternal life, the power of a god but he had chosen to speak from his heart and take me from my prison.

 

He came to me and took me in his arms as the years spent at such a height robbed the breath from me as a wave of vertigo overwhelmed me. We walked to the horse tethered to an old oak a few yards from the tower.

 

I held his hand and caressed the pistons, wondering if he felt it when he looked at me.

 

‘What about the queen?’ I said.

 

He adjusted the saddle and fed the horse from a bag of oats as he stroked its mane.

 

‘During the years I could not speak or use my hands, I thought of her less than you, but those thoughts weighed me down so I let them go. People see a poet or a musician and think their work a thing of lightness. They forget the patience and the determination it takes to make art with feeling and craft.’

 

I put my hand against his cheek.

 

‘So when you couldn’t speak or play, what did you do?’

 

He flexed his brass hands and smiled at me.

 

‘I listened and paid attention. Those were the first things I learned as a man. We can go and take revenge if it pleases you, but we had best dig our own graves before we go.’

 

I lowered my head and closed my eyes as another wave of dizziness overcame me.

‘I’ve no desire to see my own grave for a while.’ I said.

 

He put the tip of his finger under my chin and lifted my face to his.

 

‘Neither have I. Now we shall ride to a better place than this.’

 

He assisted me onto the saddle and climbed up with an exhausted grunt as he took the reins.

 

We settled on a stretch of land on the borders of the Crow King’s demesne and he built us a home with animals and we grew food to sustain ourselves. It was three months when the soldiers arrived. I called out and he came over to me, a sheathed sword in his hand but the soldiers stopped and dismounted as soon as they saw me.

 

They kneeled and the captain came to me with a scroll in his hands.

 

‘Your sister has died and with her went the wicked sylph Henrietta. We have searched for you as the sole heir and we beseech you to return and claim your throne.’

 

I looked over my shoulder at Mathtuin and with a smile, he bent the knee.

 

‘How did my sister die?’

 

She took up arms against Henrietta and dealt her a mortal blow with a knife she kept in her sleeve. Henrietta cast a final ball of fire which engulfed Catherine and sent her running into the courtyard where she collapsed and died.

 

Henrietta’s last words came back to me and I felt the weight of the lesson.

 

Mathuin came to my side and put his arm around me as I wept for my sister. The captain passed me the scroll and I took it as I nodded through my tears.

 

We went home, Mathuin and I, but by his side, I knew it was something I carried with me. It took his patience and determination when he could not speak or touch me to find me and carry me down to the earth. Fate had raised us up again but as I saw my family’s castle, I knew I would be capable of the task with this man by my side.

 

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beauty, love, short fiction, women

Memories of Summer

memory_of_summer_by_raphaellem-dbqs6e8.jpg

https://raphaellem.deviantart.com/art/Memory-of-Summer-710112608

 

Olivia parked the car on the grass verge. Paul was off work although he negotiated a conciliatory concession to buy the latest edition of the sports game he played on console rather than running around a field aggravating the knee injury which stymied his ambitions. She locked the car and slipped the keys into her pocket, throwing away the unkind observations about him like so much picnic litter.

 

She took a deep breath, inhaled the faint scent of blossoms and let the warm breeze caress her skin as she walked off the road, looking for the opening through the trees which led to her place.

 

Their place, she told herself.

 

Olivia wore her hair down, brushed out until it fell down to her shoulders in a shimmering golden wave. The hints of grey at her temples had never bothered her, although Paul made wobbling asides about trading her in for a younger model, which she ignored with a smile. She smiled at most things Paul said, but he had never figured out there was a lexicon of smiles, each one chosen to reflect her feelings on a particular situation or type of comment. He loved her, needed her but sometimes she wondered if there was any resentment at the need swimming in the depths and whether it would rise to the surface, its eyes bleak with hunger and take her soul between its teeth.

 

She had to push branches out of the way to make it down the path. It was smooth from countless footsteps, and she knew the way from memory. These little sojourns were small sips from the cup of herself, necessary for her ongoing sanity. Olivia and Paul worked at their marriage, aspiring to the conscientiousness of doctors but neither of them admitting the patient had been brought in on the verge of death, and the heroic measures they deployed were all in vain.

 

She wiped tears away as she walked, her anxieties hastening her pace in order to be relieved of them.

 

Paul never asked where she went on her drives. He had been prone to spasms of suspicion, when he was not absent whilst still being in the house, checking her phone to find nothing to warrant his suspicions. She had forgiven him, but not forgotten and it made her drives all the more essential.

 

Paul’s social anxiety was part of their dynamic. Olivia was the ambassador, and Paul the commander in chief, but over the years she had found managing his moods and other people’s expectations difficult to manage. His arc from brash confidence to wounded reluctance had deepened into a sucking, petulant melancholy and it weighed on her. He promised he would make an effort but after a few times of seeing his pensiveness emerge to sour pleasant occasions, she stopped accepting invitations. They would have friends over, where Paul would hold court with intermittent bursts of gregariousness, but even then, Olivia would see the smeared glass architecture of glasses and plates at the end of the night and fight the urge to swipe it all to the kitchen floor and scream until her throat gave out.

 

She shook the ugly thoughts out of her head, leaving them clinging to the trees like spider webs as the scent of blossoms grew intoxicating with each step. Olivia pushed through the undergrowth and looked up. Her heart leapt in her chest as she looked up at the overhanging branches, tangled and woven into a perfect canopy, streams of sunlight falling like ribbons onto the soft grass below.

 

Olivia looked at the world behind her and stepped through, giddy with anticipation. She knew all women entertained fantasy lives richer and more compelling than most men could imagine, sometimes they maintained them with the attention and privacy of an obsessed bibliophile, restricting access even to themselves.

 

Some women took lovers.

 

Olivia’s arrangement was somewhere between the two.

 

She checked her watch, switched her phone off and walked into the clearing, looking at the trees ahead of her, how the branches had curved into an doorway, teeming with leaves and flowers as she stared into the darkness and waited for the feeling to come.

 

It was a prickling at the nape of her neck, a fluttering in her stomach which danced up her spine and burst in her head like fireworks as she stepped through.

 

Olivia turned.

 

When she emerged, her jeans and hooded sweater had transformed into a gown of silk and cambric, a girdle embroidered with patterns of silver and gold, studded with gems down each side. Her boots had turned into silk slippers which made each footstep feel like a massage from strong, knowing hands. She adjusted the coronal atop her head as Serena, her lady in waiting smiled at her appearance.

 

‘Your highness, what a pleasure it is to see you.’ Serena said.

 

Olivia watched her curtsey and fought the discomfort which ran through her but made no comment to avoid offending Serena.

 

‘Is my king here?’ she said.

 

Serena blushed and nodded.

 

‘He is finishing with the petitions for the day. I will send him word of your arrival.’ she said.

 

Olivia looked past Serena at the four-poster bed, festooned with the furs of beasts he had hunted for her. The memory of how they felt against her bare skin sent blood to her cheeks and throat as she nodded her agreement. Serena hurried away to tell the king his queen had returned.

 

She walked around the bedchamber, a room as large as the ground floor of her house with Paul. Olivia stared at the trophies on the wall, won by her king in his ascent to the throne.

 

He was not a king as such, his official title was Prince Consort. He ruled in her stead, with her permission on the matters of court and kingdom. Queen Olivia was beloved, and so her consort, worked to maintain her reputation in her absences, even as his reputation preceded him at each turn.

 

She looked at the Moon Sword, a weapon forged from metals which had fallen from the sky and beaten into shape by the dwarves, one of their last treasures before their permanent recession from the world into their underground kingdoms. Its blade refracted the light, revealing a tableaux of images, some of her, some of him and the jagged looming shapes of the Elfkind, showing the story of its last usage and how the elves had been driven back by his courage. It hung on the wall and she brushed the hilt with her fingertips, recalling how he had wielded it in her honour as a burst of yearning awoke within her.

 

‘From such things, memories are made.’

 

His voice was soft with delight, but he never relinquished his poetic sensibilities. She turned and looked at him in the hallway. There was more silver than brown in his beard, but his eyes were bright and his smile unabashed as he undid the clasps of his feathered cloak.

 

The Crow King, borne from need, the first thief and warrior to steal the secrets of flight and theft from the birds, now a king.

 

No, Olivia thought, not just a king.

 

A man.

 

He let the cloak fall as he moved towards her, taking in her arms, kissing her with a frankness and hunger which overwhelmed her nerves as he rubbed himself against her. The soft scratch of his beard against her skin made her tongue swell in her mouth as she surrendered to his embrace. He lifted her as she wrapped her legs around him, letting him take her to the bed.

 

To take her as she yearned to be taken.

 

He grunted as he pushed her gown up her thighs, his hands were rough and strong as he tore her undergarments away, and massaged her with a greed which made her breathless. She never assumed his loyalty through words, for his tongue was glib and knowing but by his actions. His touch never wavered as he stroked her until she was boiling with desire as he kissed along the line of her throat. She came twice against his fingers before she pushed him back to shove his leggings down his thick, furred thighs and then pull him on top of her. She reached between his thighs and guided him where she needed him.

 

She shut her eyes as she lifted her legs to allow him deep.

 

Afterwards, she laid across him, stroking his beard as he stared at her with wonder.

 

‘You cannot stay?’ he said

 

His confidence verged on arrogance but it was a necessity to navigate statecraft. Even a thief and a killer could be undone by a poor choice of words and confidence gave him the courage to challenge the rivalries and defuse the tensions within the court.

 

She shook her head as she fought her tears.

 

He sighed and raised himself up on his elbow. He stroked her cheek with his fingers and kissed her again. They were well met in such matters, and his mouth said things too large for words.

 

‘I still work to undo the -‘ She put her finger to his lips and shook her head.

 

He sighed and gritted his teeth.

 

‘You’re my queen. I want you here with me.’ he said.

 

She kissed him, small desperate stabs of comfort as she sought to reassure him.

 

‘And I want to be here with you, my love, but we know what hangs above us, don’t we?’ she said.

 

He lowered his chin to his broad chest and closed his eyes before he pulled her  into his arms. When conversation failed them, he knew what she needed.

 

Possession. Touch. Contact.

 

The curse had been a wedding gift. Lady MIngrid had designs on the Crow King since adolescence, seeing a value in the young twitching nerve of a man with quick hands and mind, before he grew bulk and fur. When he had met Olivia, she had proven to be a better thief and so Ingrid had travelled the kingdoms for the perfect gift.

 

It was set in  a scroll, a sigil drawn in blood which was a mockery of the Cradle’s works, purchased from the Dark Markets for unimaginable coin. Ingrid had arranged it to be presented in a case of burnished copper, and had positioned herself to watch Olivia’s face as she unrolled it. She stared into it as it washed over her. 

sigil (2)

 

The court had watched her fade from view.  Ingrid’s triumph lasted just long enough to feel the soldiers at her side before she was escorted to the dungeons underneath the castle.

 

He oversaw the interrogation himself. What surprised most people was that she emerged alive.

 

Not unscathed, judging by the limp she walked with and the layers of cloth bandaging her hands and mouth as she was helped into her carriage. She died on the journey home.

 

Olivia emerged at a kitchen table, an open book before her. She checked the cover, rubbing her gritted eyes as she brushed the sleeplocks from her face and looked around her. The book was called To Love A King, and it had the much loved signs of wear a book should. She did not awaken confused or frightened. She held her life in her head, but she knew the names of things around her and their uses. She knew the boundaries of her life here, measured out in tea and task and she lowered her head to her chest and wept.

 

It took the combined efforts of the Caliphate and the Cradle to work around the problem and even then, it took months of dreams sent into the gaps between worlds, a major revision of their theologies just to get Olivia to the meadow where she could return to her world.

 

A day at a time, here.

 

An hour there.

 

Olivia had asked her lover what would happen if she stayed and he turned pale with concern, shaking his head as he held her in his arms. She would not exist in either world, left between the two to exist in perpetual torment. Her sobs subsided and he looked her in the eyes, told her he would die trying to bring her home.

 

There was time enough for a meal, a bath, to make love again and to walk the gardens which he had maintained to her standard before she felt the familiar, awful tingle of impending departure. He walked with her to the portal in their chamber and kissed her until her lips were raw.

 

‘I will see you soon.’ she said.

 

He nodded as he brushed her hair from her face. In the most intimate moments, he was silent and spoke through his touch, his actions towards her stayed with her as she slipped into shadow.

 

Back into summer.

 

Beneath the sun, with the smell of blossoms in her nostrils, she wept for what might have been.

 

What might come to them.

 

She wiped her eyes and followed the path back to the car.  

 

She got in, found the wipes in the glove compartment and cleaned her face before she saw the battered paperback and pulled it out. Olivia turned to the page she had left it on, where the magicians had gathered to widen the bridge between worlds and undo the curse. It was the ending of the book, and there had been an announcement of a sequel on her Amazon wish list pop up but it had no date forthcoming.

 

There was hope of the story continuing, and she would return to her kingdom and remain there. For now though, there was her other home to return to and the memories of summer would perfume her thoughts on the drive home.

 

She promised herself to pop into the mall on the way back and see if Paul’s game was in stock. With each mile, she found resolve to bear through this time with the grace and strength, she believed was part of her, now and forever.

 

She ached for her king.

 

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beauty, fairy stories, love, short fiction, women

A Bottle of Soul Fire

The floor was hard against my bare knees. My hands were cracked and reddened from the lye Mrs Peters insisted on using. My shoulders and back ached from scrubbing the same spot over and over, creating thick plumes of suds and fumes to make my eyes water.

I had been tasked with the cleaning of the kitchen. It was another of Mrs Peter’s polite cruelties disguised as request. The kitchen collected grease and dust the way a miser hoarded pennies. She took great pleasure in giving me the responsibility of bringing it to a standard since Nan took a turn and had to go back to Warwick.

Her disdain, dressed in decorum had made my month in service feel like an eternity. My references were sound. Mr Lewis was not an effusive man, but he had listed my qualities with clarity.

Mrs Geraldine Peters had set herself to the task of instructing me in misery. She had gone over to Reverend Granger’s house, such was her confidence in my obedience.

Arthur the stable hand had gone with Mr Peters to purchase a colt from auction. So I did not even have him to keep me company. The sun had risen to a great, furious height already when I heard the sound of footsteps.

‘Hello, Miss.’

I glanced upwards. I met his warm, brown eyes. Over the lye-infused steam, I caught the scent of him, his musk, leathery and with hints of sandalwood. He wore a suit of faded velvet, with a silver watch chain dangling from his waistcoat. His shirt was silken, faded to shades of autumn that changed wherever the light struck them. He had mismatched buttons of pearl that were sewn on with practiced care.

‘How may I help you, sir?’

He chuckled and scratched the stubble on his chin.

‘Oh no, Miss, it is a matter of how I may help you. I have useful wares to sell if you’ve a mind to look.’

I stopped scrubbing and sat up, rubbed the small of my back with my palms to alleviate the ache.

‘A mind to look is all the currency I have, Sir.’

He smiled and gestured outside.

‘The finest coin of all, some would say.’

I sighed with amused impatience. He had an easy smile and large, muscular hands. The thought came to me of being caught with him and it made my stomach churn.

‘You should go, sir. My mistress doesn’t take to peddlers.’

He frowned and leaned forward.

‘And you’d rather be here on your knees when you could come outside for a few minutes, find something you’d like.’

He gestured to the warm, bright day behind him. It was his accomplice.

I had worked since breakfast. A moment with him if only to see him off the grounds would be a small reward for her efforts.

I got to my feet. He flashed a grin at me over his shoulder and I followed him outside.

His pack was by the gate, awash with scarves and trinkets tied on. He reached inside and retrieved a bolt of silken material with a theatrical flourish and laid it at my feet.

‘A little theatre brings fire to the soul.’

He moved between the pack and decanted the contents onto the silk.

A handful of button that made wondrous play of the sunlight where each one caught it.

Reels of coloured cotton and needles of various sizes and configurations, gleaming steel and glistening bone.

Silk shirts with monograms stitched into the breast.

A thick shawl woven with rainbow colours and patches of different pieces of fur.

Skirts and bonnets, good but worn from previous use.

If his wares had been too fine, my suspicions would have drawn me away. Yet their quality had weathered a few seasons.

He had one more item to offer. A long necked bottle stoppered with a wax seal. An amber fluid sat at the base, heavy and thick.

‘Trust a tinker to sell a potion.’

He shrugged his shoulders.

‘Regardless of whether I am a tinker or a pedler, I offer wares of import and import. Things that a cunning woman might use.’

I pointed at the bottle.

”What might a cunning woman use that for?’

He picked it up and handed it to me. The liquid was warm through the thick glass of the bottle.

‘The buyer decides before the seller has cause to speak.’

I tilted the bottle, watched the liquid play within it.

‘Unless it’s a salve for my hands, it’s pretty but useless.’

 

He curved his silken lips into a smile.

‘For a bit of bread and a cup of water, it’s yours.’

Mrs Peters brooked no tradespeople or unannounced visitors, so I was already at risk so bread and water made no difference. I glanced at the bottle, wondering how the seal of wax would crack beneath my fingers.

‘What’s it called?’

Soul Fire.

I blanched and started to back away.He shook his head.

‘It’s no poison. It thwarts despondence and lends adventure.’

I blushed and looked away.

‘Do I look like I need those?’

‘Every woman does.’ he said.

‘A few glasses of ale does that, I find.’

He laughed and closed my fingers over the curve of the bottle.

‘A drop between your eyebrows before bed and you’ll be preaching its virtues.’

The silver watch chain on his waistcoat caught the sun in a sharp flash of light.

‘Or decrying its vices.’

He smiled and took a step backwards.

‘The difference between the two is a matter of opinion, Miss.’

My heart thumped a little faster at the slow curl of his voice.

‘Come, I’ll feed and water you, sir, but not more.’

He bowed from the waist and grinned at me.

‘I like your spirit, Miss, it’s a true beguilement.’

I cut him two thick slices of coarse bread, buttered it in thick layers and drew up cool water from the well. Despite his fancy words, he ate with a primal lack of self-consciousness.

Sharing this simple meal with him put me between duty and pleasure. Duty wore the grim face of Mrs Peters, smeared with dust and kitchen grease.

Pleasure sat across from me. He had a smear of butter on the cleft of his chin. The bottle sat on the table and I kept glancing at it when the caramel pools of his eyes grew too enticing.

‘Try a drop.’ he said

My hands shook at his directness.

‘What if it should render me insensible?’

He laughed and finished the last piece of bread.

‘A drop on the forehead would lend you the vigour to get this kitchen finished.’

His challenge was indirect but implicit. He held no judgements to thwart me and I cracked the seal with a thrill of greed. I decanted a single drop onto my fingertip.

I dabbed it between my eyebrows. The skin tingled and grew warm. The warmth moved downwards, gaining power on its descent. A giddiness enveloped me and the muscles in my body relaxed into a state of utter bliss.

I awoke to the sound of amused consternation. Mrs Peters stared at me in disbelief. I was still at the stool and flinched, preparing to apologise for my slovenly ways.

Until I looked around at the kitchen.

Every visible surface was scrubbed, swept and polished. A pot of stew bubbled happily on the stove and gave off a meaty aroma that made our stomachs yawn with hunger.

‘You’ve outdone yourself.’

The lack of effusiveness did not make her compliment any less surprising. The tinker had gone along with the bottle, but I was too stunned by the state of the kitchen to notice it then.

He had placed it in my effects, with a sheaf of paper wrapped around it.

You did not ask, you simply trusted to your instincts. Consider this a gift, and I give those without expectation of reward or acknowledgement. I will walk in this part of the world again soon and I will call on you.

I hid the bottle. Something of me hid alongside it, flushed and covetous by what had happened.

Three nights later, he returned.

Three nights after that, I left with him.

Mrs Peters would have offered references worthy of being mounted in a frame or adapted to the stage but I had no need of them.

He did not need a maid. Not in the places he took me to.

 

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beauty, fairy stories, women

House Of The Jinn (The Wild Man Season 3)

 

Once upon a time, Ahmed came back to the fire with a brace of birds, their plucked corpses swinging from his clenched fist as he grinned through a mouthful of broken, yellowing teeth and uneven beard. He tossed them to the dirt and turned his head to spit. The scimitar hung from his left hip was scarred from years of use, spilling the blood of the Caliphate’s enemies.

 

‘Allah has blessed my aim.’

 

Rashid stuck his dagger into the breast of a bird and lifted it from the sand, swiped the sand with a lazy swipe of his fingers.

 

‘It makes up for having to come to this place but only just.’

 

He glanced over the flames at where the Lady Asra sat with the queen from across the water. She wore the traditional hijab but her pale hands and red hair were visible. The sight of her aroused his flesh, but he held his faith in good standing. He imagined the curves

 

Asra could also kill him without breaking a sweat, which made his adherence to chastity easier to bear.

 

They had ridden out before dawn, accompanying the women on a ride out to Bawwabat Jinn. Asra wore a scarlet silk hijab and long skirts. She mounted a brown stallion. Mirabelle wore a hijab in white and had a small dagger sheathed on her hip. Rashid enjoyed how she mounted the horse, lowering her eyes to avoid tempting the men but with a sympathetic light in her eyes which inflamed him all the more.

 

Asra led them at a charge beyond the high white walls, out into the desert where the blank majestic scale made Mirabelle gasp with wonder. A clear, blue sky hung above them, bright and sharp as a blade and it hurt Mirabelle’s mind to see it.

 

‘It’s difficult to imagine anything lives out here.’ Mirabelle said.

 

Her voice was soft, assuaging the headache from too much time squinting beneath the harsh sunshine. Asra grinned as she sat upright in her saddle.

 

‘The desert is a test for the faithful. His designs are everywhere.’ She said.

 

Asra pointed out a crepuscular fox, its wide eyes staring at the group with temerity as its tall, wide ears twitched against the desert wind. Mirabelle cooed with delight but the fox wrinkled it’s muzzle and dashed away from them.

 

‘Have you been tested by the desert, Lady Asra?’ Mirabelle said.

 

Asra raised her fingers to her forehead and gave a deep nod in the saddle.

 

‘Many times, which is part of why I’m taking you out here.’

 

Mirabelle frowned and fought the bubbling unease in her stomach.

 

‘You said there’s knowledge out here.’ Mirabelle said. ‘Didn’t we leave behind an entire library?’

 

Asra adjusted her hijab and pointed across the desert.

 

‘There will be answers at Bawwabat Jinn.’

 

Mirabelle’s hand went to the hilt of her dagger. Asra had presented it, telling her it was part of her personal armoury. The blade was volcanic glass, its edges honed to a gleam and the blade etched with symbols. The hilt was a single piece of black bone, hard and pitted like iron with leather wrapped around it. Mirabelle curtsied and blushed as she took the gift and placed it in the sheath. Asra did not point out the cultural prohibition within the Caliphate at arming a woman to her, having won the argument through force of arms a long time ago.

 

They rode through the morning. Mirabelle saw the shimmering sheets of black glass which scarred the sand in jagged patterns and Asra slowed her horse to a trot alongside her.

 

‘There were battles fought here against the djinn.’

 

Mirabelle frowned and Asra flung out her hands as though flicking something unpleasant from her fingers.

 

‘They wielded elemental forces the way we wield swords. We suffered for it.’

 

Mirabelle wanted to ask more, but Asra’s expression, melancholic and aggrieved, stopped her.

 

Bawwabat Jinn was over the next bank of dunes. It was the remains of a rift torn between the dimension of the djinn and the human world, held open by powerful, ancient magic and kept as a fortress from which the djinn waged their war.

 

‘What will we find there?’ Mirabelle said.

 

Asra smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.

 

2.

 

Bawwabat Jinn was a structure made of black glass, a permanent wound in the world and left abandoned.

 

It resembled the intestines of some massive creature, spilling out onto the sand from a wound in the earth, a slick tunnel which went deep into the earth. Ahmed and Rashid guarded the entrance, which pleased both men. Ahmed stood the bow at his feet whilst Rashid wielded a dual-bladed pole arm. The black glass twisted and looped, frozen tongues of fire arranged around the entrance. Mirabelle noted how the soldiers hid their relief at being made to stand outside. Asra adjusted her scimitars on her hips and walked down the tunnel. Mirabelle walked after her.

 

‘In answer to your question, the Djinn feared The Dust and fought against them.’ Asra said. ‘It means they had weapons, strategies and the will to defeat them.’

 

Mirabelle frowned and touched the hilt of her dagger for reassurance.

 

‘We have none of those expect perhaps the latter.’ She said.

 

Asra glanced over her shoulder and smirked.

 

‘Then we should get going.’ She said.

 

Mirabelle gazed into the darkness, her heart racing in her chest before she followed Asra into the Bawwabat Jinn.

 

Mirabelle had faced darkness and all its nuances but this represented a new stage in her journey. She shuddered but kept on walking down into the bowels of the earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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beauty, fairy stories, fiction, short fiction, women

A New Reign (The Wild Man, Season 3)

(Previous seasons are here and here. If you have liked this series, please share it because obscurity is overrated)

 

Eilhu,

I write this without expectation you will read it. The control I have is slipping away as my body is changing and along with it, my thoughts are rebellious and demonic creatures now.

Paul’s forearm spasmed and the quill fall from his fingers. He turned his palm outwards, examined the small dark spots underneath his nails and the root-like pattern of infection which blazed underneath the pale, soft skin of his hands. Women endured labour in agonies which lasted days, screaming and hollering until the child was spat out into the air, squalling and bloodied and sometimes died in the aftermath. Paul was subject to an inverted perversion of this, being both infant, vessel and midwife to his own transformation. He crawled from the cell, violated and nauseous as his thoughts clawed at the inside of his skull.

A sick king was a thing of derision, better to die in battle than bed. He laid down and closed his eyes.

The Dust was inside him, mounting an inexorable, silent assault and taking him by inches, merging itself in blood and bone as it altered him whilst maintaining his privilege and position. It had learned a measure of subtlety since transforming Ernst, realising the potential of harnessing a human viewpoint. It had shouted with Ernst, but in its possession of Paul, it had remembered the power of a whisper. By day, it sickened him and at night; it pinned him to the dirt of his soul and showed him the horrors of its world.

Paul awoke to a sky the colour of infected flesh, a liquid, rippling dance of green and yellow, clouds of bruised plum and necrotic black huddled around a malignant, poisoned sun. In the distance, a slick yellow fog blurred the outlines of mountains on the horizon. Beneath his bare feet, damp black sand scratched between his toes and stung the tender webs of flesh. The air stunk of decay, making each breath an insult and recalling long withheld memories of wars he had fought in.

‘Where am I?’ he said.

His voice faltered before the miasmal landscape around him. The air shimmered with heat as he looked around him.

YOU ARE WITHIN ME, AS I AM WITHIN YOU, PAUL.

He narrowed his eyes as he looked at the horizon.

The mountains in the distance shifted. Their outlines expanded, broke apart and reformed like ink in water, stirred by a mighty hand before they elongated into things which reached into the sky and extended barbed, slick tentacles. They danced and wavered in delirious triumph before they walked towards him.

I AM NOT ONE BUT MANY.

Paul turned and fled as the things moved towards him. They did not walk.

Some strode like proud potentates.

Others slid on chains of pendulous teats which oozed black ichor before them, staining and corrupting the sand to ease their passage.

A pair of creatures extended ragged wings and took to the air, spinning and diving with a carnal delight as they grew new limbs and curved claws with which to rend their prey into pieces. They screamed and it made the space behind Paul’s eyes hot with a grotesque pressure. Their throats swelled with a fair of grotesqueries and their new anatomies gave voice to songs which made Paul anxious and prickling with tears. The noise poked dirty fingers beneath his clothes, inside him and tested his wounds, old and new. Paul ran until his legs gave out and rolled onto his back with his hands raised to defend himself but it was too late.

They fell upon him.

Paul recalled rusted blades and the sharp crack of his own bones being reset, the sizzle of cauterised flesh and the dumb tugging of flesh to close his wounds. He tried to scream but a black, dripping tentacle slid between his lips and pumped a thick wad of something wet and wriggling down his throat. Claws tore away his clothes and he enjoyed the brief respite of warm air against bare skin before another chorus of horror fell upon him. His last memory was a blast of fetid breath against his cheek and the drilling sensation of a needle tipped claw spinning against the top of his skull.

He awoke and called for a servant to bring him fresh parchment and ink, water to bathe with and food. The servant remarked at the turn in Paul’s countenance, and how a new zeal had renewed their king.

Paul looked at the incomplete letter and read it as though for the first time.  He chuckled and tossed the scroll to the flames. Love was a useful tactic to draw upon and Paul had returned with a grand and awful vision for the world.

Paul returned to the throne anew.

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Have You Seen Your Heart (The Wild Man Season 3)

Once upon a time, Eilhu awoke from a thin, restless sleep. Beloved had pointed to a stack of cushions and told him he could sleep there. Her tone was light, but authoritative as she peered through the open door, cautious of more visitors. Her braids fell from her skull like vines as she shook her head and shut the door to the caravan.

‘He sends his troubles as single spies, but they arrive as battalions.’ She said.

Eilhu stooped within the caravan but Beloved negotiated the small space with a graceful ease, aware and cogent as she took a stoppered bottle and offered it to him. He took it and uncorked the bottle. It smelled of liniment and honeycomb, turning his stomach as he shook his head and passed it back. Beloved took a deep draught and swallowed with a deep grunt before she shivered with the bitterness.

‘Breakfast.’ She said.

Eilhu glanced around the caravan, hopeful she would produce a good haunch of meat or a crust of bread as a punch line to the general strangeness of the situation.

‘I’ve drunk my share of breakfasts but it smells potent.’

She smirked and shook her head.

‘It speaks to the second heart within you. We drink it every day.’ She said.

He took the bottle back and poured it into his mouth. It was thick, fermented with the pang of brine underneath the herbs and honey, coating the roof of his mouth as he swallowed it. He bent forward at the waist, struggled not to gag and kept it down. He shuddered before the warmth in his stomach smoothed out, turned the churning affront into a smooth, slow balm which made him glow from within. He stood up, banged the crown of his head against the roof of the caravan and winced. Beloved chuckled and opened the door, letting in the harsh curtain of sunshine as she stepped outside.

Eilhu followed her. The air hung with the matted warmth of worked horses, the smell of campfires and cooking meat but the sun hung high overhead and Eilhu appreciated the clean beauty of the morning as Beloved performed a series of stretches as other travellers and merchants acknowledged her with greetings in a variety of languages. Eilhu took a deep breath and glanced up at the mountains shrouded in mist.

‘We travelled far last night.’ He said.

Beloved kept her back to him as she dropped into a horse stance and sucked in the clear air, raising her chin to the sky and extended her arms to either side.

‘There’s no money in resting out here, Eilhu. The Wild Man has no use for commerce but us humans need a coin kept aside for food and shelter.’ She said.

Eilhu recalled the pale, fanged children who chased him through the woods. They had no use for commerce either. Beloved turned her shoulders and looked at him.

‘He sent you. I will train you and offer safe passage until we reach the harbour, but there are things you must offer.’ She said.

‘Such as?’

Beloved’s smile fell away.

‘Your truth. If you are to develop, then I must insist on your truth. Much of our training starts from here.’

She tapped her index finger over her breastbone with a controlled expression.

‘My breath?’ Eilhu said.

‘Your heart.’

Eilhu glanced away and made fists of his hands.

‘There’s no point.’ He said.

Beloved laughed and shook  her head.

‘Have you seen a heart?’ she said.

Eilhu recalled Paul’s knife, flashing in the afternoon light as it hacked into the Wild Man’s chest, how he had plunged his hands into the wet cavern of his open anatomy and pulled out a thick knot of muscle, dripping with blood. He grimaced and Beloved closed the distance between them and struck him. The blow was too fast to avoid and he staggered back, his sinuses sung with pain as he cried out.

‘What are you doing?’ he said.

She stood and appraised him with care, her hands by her sides.

‘Have you seen a heart?’ she said.

He nodded.

‘Can it break?’ she said.

Eilhu fought the threatened thump of his heart, the urge to retaliate charging through his muscles, compelling him to action.

‘You have faced greater odds than grief, Eilhu. The Wild Man raises no fools and I recognise my kin in you.’ She said.

Eilhu frowned as he rubbed his cheek.

‘And hitting me helps?’ he said.

She chuckled.

‘Would she want you to devolve into a mewling worm in her absence?’ she said.

He shook his head as an enormous grief weighed on his insides, like a slab dropped onto him from a great height.

‘ You slapping me changes nothing.’ He said.

She raised an eyebrow and stepped backwards.

‘Unless you try hitting me back?’ she said.

He shifted, uncomfortable with the invitation and appraised her with concern.  He sighed and brought his left hand up, jabbing at her with a speed which surprised him.

Her hands clamped on either side of his wrist and her fingertips found channels of agony which blazed down his arm. His head filled up with white agony and he fought the urge to cry out as he collapsed onto his knees. His left arm flopped down as Beloved relinquished her grip and stepped back.

‘Did you grieve in the moment, Eilhu?’ she said.

He grunted no and massaged his arm as he struggled to his feet.

‘No, can’t say I did. You said we were kin, what do you mean?’

Beloved smiled.

‘The Wild Man does not restrict his rescue efforts to princes, Eilhu.’

Eilhu flexed his left hand and put his hands up to defend himself.

‘Then show me what you’ve learned.’ He said.

She smiled and began his training.

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THE WEIGHT OF EVERYTHING (THE WILD MAN SEASON 3)

(Previous episodes are here and here. Please read and share)

 

THE WEIGHT OF EVERYTHING.

Once upon a time the call to prayer awoke Mirabelle. The clean certainty of faith rang out, the notes rising into the sky like morning birds. Shimmering sheets of heat crashed against her skin like waves on the shore, and she reached to the wide flat bowl of water on the pedestal to her left, scooped up cool water and doused her face and neck with it. She threw on the scarf to cover her head and went to find Asra.

Mirabelle had been privy to state visits which were indolent affairs, fat slabs of indulgence and pomp wrapped around a single conversation which could mean shifts in power or deaths on the battlefield. She was not here as a queen, but a student and Asra’s lessons took different shapes. They would meet in the library in the morning and the garden in the afternoon, their routine broken by the regular adherence to prayer. Mirabelle would bow her head and fall silent, whilst people knelt down and prayed to Allah. She strode to the library. Asra was not there, but a servant passed on an instruction to meet her in the second garden.

Asra had buckled her sword belt, the twin scimitars rested on each hip and she grinned at Mirabelle’s confused frown as she wished her good morning. She had high, fine cheekbones and almond shaped eyes, dark with a self-knowledge, the eyebrows shaped to perfect crescents and her skin held a sleek, dusky gleam where the light fell upon it.

‘I’m not a warrior, Asra.’ She said.

She saw a rack of weapons set against the far wall. A bill, the heavy pole arm favoured by the common man  rested next to a spear and a rapier with a carved hand guard. A wooden shield, bound with lengths of dark iron leaned at an angle alongside a short sword with a thin double edged blade.

‘You killed a man, Mirabelle to save your own life. What’s the difference?’ Asra said.

Mirabelle wandered over to the rack and picked up the short sword. What sword play she knew came from observation over experience, but the weapon felt good in her hand.

‘Wouldn’t blunt blades be safer?’ Mirabelle said.

Asra smirked and raised an eyebrow.

‘Yes, but who comes at you with a blunt blade?’ she said.

Mirabelle turned to face her, pointed the sword at Asra and fell into a competent stance.

Asra pointed to her shoulders and knees, barked out to relax the former and bend the latter before she slapped Mirabelle in the small of her back to correct her posture. She told Mirabelle to move the blade slow and watched her in silence. Her hands, warm and strong adjusted her arm and wrist which made the blade feel more natural in her grip.

‘You have knowledge, Mirabelle, but it is useless without intention and will. A sword focuses a mind as a book does.’

Mirabelle kept the point of the blade up as she sighed and swung the sword ahead of her in a slow arc.

‘We’ve the knowledge to know it won’t die by a blade, Asra.’ She said.

Asra told her to aim for the largest part of an opponent. The sword was thin and light, designed to stab and slash in quick flurries of skill.

‘A sword is a tool, the killing comes from the heart and mind.’ She said.

Mirabelle’s reserves of strength and stamina waned with the practice. Her arm ached, but, but the tension pooled in her hips and back as Asra checked her posture and moved her into place.

‘I’m not a swordsman. This insults the men who’ve sworn fealty doesn’t it?’ she said.

Asra looked around her.

‘When night fell, and your guards were outside whilst a man came to murder you, where were they?’

Mirabelle grunted and continued to swing.

‘Where was Eilhu?’

Mirabelle stopped and stared at her.

‘Hunting.’ She said.

‘Where was he?’ Asra said.

Mirabelle’s eyes prickled with unshed tears.

‘I sent him out. Away.’

‘Why?’

Mirabelle swallowed, her tongue was fat and thick in her mouth.

‘He knew the woods and he was looking for his mentor.’ She said.

‘Why?’

Mirabelle thrust the sword ahead of her, the motion came up from her hips and knees and concluded in a strike which had the flowing snap of competence.

‘I suspected him. I didn’t say but Eilhu knew my concerns.’ She said.

‘You abandoned him? Or did he abandon you?’ Asra said.

Mirabelle shook her head with passion.

‘It wasn’t a matter of abandonment. I wanted the assassin found. I never had to ask Eilhu.’ She said.

‘Ask him what?’

Mirabelle repeated the strike with good form but the transition to a parry proved awkward.

‘To act in my interest.’ She said.

‘Even if it meant capture or death?’

Mirabelle swallowed and lowered the blade. Asra’s hand came up and slapped her across the cheek. Mirabelle flinched from the blow, scuttling away from Asra but she followed her. Mirabelle swung the sword in her direction but Asra ducked beneath it and slapped her again. The blows were light but stinging as Asra’s hand circled around the bones of her right wrist and squeezed, which made the sword fall from Mirabelle’s hand.

Mirabelle bit back her cries of pain and reached for the sword but Asra put her hand on her throat, the fingers biting into the arteries on either side.

‘If you love him despite circumstances, if you believe he lives, then you owe it to him to fight, don’t you?’ she said.

Mirabelle pushed back but Asra slipped from her reach and slapped her again. She cried out and held her hands in front of her face.

‘I can’t. I’m bearing the weight of everything–‘

Asra sighed with disdain and went to grab Mirabelle.

They had been in the garden one afternoon, infected with a wriggling restlessness and drunk on the sight and touch of one another. They fought like cubs, and he had let her exhaust herself against him before Eilhu took her to the grass with a liquid ease, one arm beneath her to cushion her fall as he landed with her. The memory inflamed her and she turned her upper body to one side, grabbed Asra and tossed her to the ground. Asra grunted and rolled onto her side, but her eyes glowed with good humour.

‘See. Heart and mind.’ Asra said.

Mirabelle enjoyed learning, but this was a cruel lesson. Her heart sung with loss but she reached and helped Asra to her feet.

‘You made me act upon a cruel memory Asra.’ Mirabelle said.

Asra bowed from the waist and picked up the sword.

‘If it saves your life, then it is not so cruel.’

Mirabelle ran her tongue over her lips and tasted the fading copper of anguish and violence. She took the sword from Asra.

‘Teach me again?’ she said.

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