beauty, love, short fiction, women

The Door Is Always Open

the_door_is_always_open_by_xbastex-d4bdne1.jpg

 

https://xbastex.deviantart.com/art/The-door-is-always-open-260977321

 

1.

 

Gloria had been at a book launch for one of her clients, promoting a bombastic thriller which played on modern female fears with the exacting due of a spreadsheet, when she bumped into the woman. She was ostentatious and feline in her long purple dress and headful of loose, auburn curls. The woman caught her eye, and came over to her, extended a hand heavy with rings and bracelets which Gloria took with polite care. Her hand was warm and soft in Gloria’s before she withdrew it.

 

Isabelle Durant was, she told Gloria, an author and a magician. Gloria smiled with the practiced care which came from handling authors of all stripes, from the obsessive to the flamboyant. Gloria asked what brought Durant to the launch.

 

Isabelle smiled and leaned in close.

 

‘Free food and drink, mostly, but I’ve helped Jenny out before.’ she said.

 

Gloria nodded, fighting the urge to look around for anyone she could go to, without offending the woman.

 

‘Financially?’ Gloria said.

 

Isabelle shook her head and gave an inscrutable smile.

 

‘No, not that she needs it now, of course, it will be a successful book.’ she said.

 

Gloria sipped her gin and tonic, fighting her curiosity at the enigmatic but possibly insane woman stood in front of her, another conversation which she filed for entertainment purposes in advance. She had her author stories available on a moment’s notice.

 

Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road and presented it as one length of manuscript, the individual papers taped together into a lengthy scroll of text.

 

James Joyce wrote in blue crayon, lying on his stomach and wearing a milkman’s coat to compensate for his failing eyesight.

 

Virginia Woolf wrote standing up because her sister painted in a similar position.

 

John Steinbeck insisted on twelve sharpened pencils being present on his writing desk to the extent his agent replaced the hexagonal models with round ones to alleviate the calluses on his hands.

 

Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.

 

Gloria considered a self-identifying magician as one for the anecdotal library.

 

Isabelle’s eyes narrowed as she studied Gloria.

 

‘The door is always open.’ she said.

 

Gloria’s stomach ached like the space between a thunderclap and a flash of lightning as her skin exploded with a sudden burst of gooseflesh like she had been drenched in cold static as she fought the urge to back away.

 

‘What do you mean?’ Gloria said.

 

She controlled her reaction, but Isabelle smiled and retrieved a card from her purse. Black, recycled cardboard and smooth to the touch as she pressed it into Gloria’s hand.

 

‘I think you know, Gloria, but it’s not too late’ she said.

 

Gloria’s mouth was leached of moisture and the gin stung the inside of her mouth as Isabelle demurred and walked away. Gloria tucked the card into the pocket of her jacket as she searched for the bathroom. Her glacial, bloodless expression lasted until she was in a cubicle with the door closed.

 

She sobbed with a force which frightened her. All those years and the phrase, coming up from the depths of her memory, like a shark scenting blood in the water. She put her hand over her mouth to stifle her cries as she sat on the toilet until they smoothed out into hitches of desperate respiration. The surprised barbs of agony faded and she looked at the card, just a name and an email address.

 

Gloria fixed her make up and came back to pose for a photograph with Jenny. With an arm around her waist, she asked how Jenny knew Isabelle, and watched her face glow with a burst of delight. She smiled and whispered into her ear.

 

‘She’s amazing, isn’t she? She made me promise not to share what happened, but honestly, Glo, go see her.’ she said.

 

Jenny kissed her on the cheek and Gloria flinched with bemusement before Jenny turned and waved to a man in the corner, who strode towards her with a primal confidence. Gloria slipped away as she watched Jenny bring her hands to his face and kiss him with a lover’s lack of self-consciousness.

 

They were one of ‘those couples’, Gloria thought, with a sudden and sharp twist of envy. She made her excuses and left, took a cab back to her house and did not breathe easily until she was inside with the front door closed.

 

The phrase turned in her head like a burning wire.

 

Gloria sent an email from her laptop and Isabelle replied a day later. The email consisted of an address and a time, which slotted into Gloria’s schedule with a mechanical ease.

 

Isabelle lived in a cottage on the outskirts, made from appealing but ramshackle brickwork with wooden window frames and a stout oak front door, squatting in the middle of a large flat stretch of land, some of which were turned to vegetable patches and a chicken coop. A russet coloured mongrel sauntered up and licked Gloria’s hand before Isabelle poked her head out the window and called for her to come in.

 

The thin scream of the kettle added to Gloria’s unease as she came in, looking at a cottage which appeared to be insulated with a fine layer of animal hair, but the cottage smelled of cinnamon and citrus which eased her concerns.

 

‘You said something to me, Isabelle, where did it come to you from?’ she said.

 

Isabelle took two china cups and saucers from the cupboard.

 

‘I’m sensitive to certain frequencies of being. The kind of things you can’t google. Plus I pay attention.’ she said.

 

Gloria watched her as she measured out loose leaf green tea into a pot.

 

‘None of that makes sense to me, but call me curious, and Jenny spoke well of you.’ she said.

 

Isabelle grinned and gestured towards the round oak table in the living room, draped with a purple cloth, told her to sit down which Gloria did. Isabelle put a crystal ashtray in front of her, and Gloria lit up with gratitude, eager to have something to hide the shaking in her hands. It took three attempts to light it but she managed it as Isabelle brought over tea and a small plate of candied ginger.

 

Isabelle sat down and rolled a cigarette, enhancing it with a finger pinch of green leaf from a small battered tin which sat at her right elbow like a patient dog. She lit up and sat back in the chair.

 

‘You never forgot him, did you?’ she said.

 

Gloria blinked and gritted her teeth before she shook her head.

 

‘I don’t know the details, but I see the gestalt and how it pulls at you. It’s a big part of what I do.’ she said.

 

Gloria leaned forwards.

 

‘If you’re a con artist, I’ll see to it you go to prison or I fuck your career into the ground. I would say that to anyone who claims knowledge of me they shouldn’t have.’ she said.

 

It was the tone of voice she used to push recalcitrant writers to meet deadlines and there were bestselling authors who used it to goad them on, long after the time when they had moved on to great success.

 

Isabelle shook her head and took a puff on the cigarette before she sat back and exhaled.

 

‘It comes off you in waves, Gloria. Right now, you look like a perpetual firework with all the orgone you’re generating.’ she said.

 

Gloria grimaced and sniffed her tea.

 

‘What the fuck is orgone?’ she said.

 

‘Sexual energy. A great man by the name of Wilhelm Reich believed it could be harnessed for any number of uses. He was half right before he was ruined by the authorities.’

 

Gloria shook her head and tittered as she ground out her cigarette in the ashtray. Isabelle maintained an expression of serene interest as she smoked and drank her tea.

 

‘So, you can see I’m soaked in sex juice, and you know a phrase I’ve had inside me for a few years, what does it entitle you other than my time?’ Gloria said.

 

Isabelle leaned forwards, clasped her hands together as she gave Gloria a look of frank intensity.

 

‘Tell me about him.’ she said.

 

Gloria’s indignation felt affected beneath the warm interest Isabelle showed in her, so she sat back.

 

‘You think there’s enough time.’ she said.

 

Isabelle nodded and let Gloria tell the story.

 

A chance encounter in a bookshop. His gentle but frank interest in her, packed into an idle lunchtime browsing session back when she had been a junior associate at the publishing house, and how he had recommended a few titles to her, before asking for her number. Joel.

 

She gave it to him, went back to the office with a hardback and her uneaten sandwiches, smiling to herself with a quiet delight.

 

Drinks in the evening then making out in his car by the river, his hands all over her as she fought the urge to ask him home and deciding to make him wait, fighting the fluttering uncertainty of intimacy.

 

She had pushed him away, smiling as she told him. He agreed with a quiet grace which inflamed her all the more.

 

The first night in her bed. Subsequent nights between his place and hers, adventures which made her chuckle and inventive intimacies which made her feel girlish and silly. He had not clung to her but in his arms, she felt safe and adored without questioning it. Poems written and left for her to find.

 

The last conversation as they had an exhausted breakfast before Joel left for work. She expressed her fears about where they were going, all the tiny concerns which came on the heels of a decision towards or away from intimacy. He had not said he loved her, but he showed it through his actions and a smooth, but genuine ability to share space with her as she went about her own writing.

 

He had smiled, kissed her on the cheek along with the soft rasp of his facial hair against her skin which made her sigh.

 

‘The door is always open.’ he said.

 

He had not answered his phone. She went around to his flat, found it full of red-eyed strangers as her legs went weak with the news and she fainted.

 

A drunk driver ploughed into him as he crossed the road. It tossed him into the air until he fell, broken and bleeding. It took her a long time to move past it, the senselessness and the isolation, the lack of meaningful engagement with what might have been.

 

Isabelle sat back with her hands folded over one another.

 

‘I can read it in you, Gloria. I don’t want your money, any more than I did Jenny’s but I can offer you something you’d believe impossible, if you’re interested?’ she said.

 

Gloria wiped her eyes and shook her head.

 

‘Don’t be stupid, i’d rather you throw some stupid phrases and burn shitty incense than pretend you’re doing anything other than opening old wounds.’ she said.

 

She was pleased with her eloquence but it did not upset Isabelle’s serene expression.

 

‘The flow of love, orgone, chi whatever you call it, is in and around everything. It can be channelled or harnessed, even shaped if you wish it.’ she said.

 

Gloria looked up at her, exhausted but intrigued by Isabelle’s words. She asked her to go on.

 

‘Do you know what a tulpa is?’ she said.

 

Gloria laughed and asked her to explain.

 

Isabelle went about the process in a practiced orderly manner. It was a ritual without pomp, a series of tools and readings which required Gloria’s focus and attention as well as a willingness to be open to the possibility.

 

A five point spread tarot reading which made Isabelle murmur to herself as she took out a loose leaf pad of paper and a stick of charcoal. She wrote out Gloria’s full name and some numbers then Joel’s name with further numbers and symbols underneath it.

 

She drew the figure out several times, refining it according to a set of criteria which she did not explain.

 

A tulpa, Isabelle said, was a tangible thought form. It was formed from your memories, existing in your consciousness and gaining sentience through contemplation and time. Gloria shook her head as she pointed at the sheets of paper.

 

‘I do remember him, that’s the worst part. It fades but christ, I can still feel his hands on me when I close my eyes -‘

 

She lowered her head and wept as Isabelle put her hand atop hers.

 

‘What I offer is something a little more robust than that, if you’re interested?’ she said.

 

Gloria looked up and nodded.

 

‘Is that who Jenny’s with? An imaginary boyfriend?’ she said.

 

Isabelle chuckled and shook her head.

 

‘No, but I won’t tell you. The best proof is direct experience, and if not, you’ll have something to tell people at dinner parties, won’t you?’ she said.

 

Gloria shuddered at the quiet insight, apparently snatched from the inside of her head as she stared at Isabelle. The rasp of his beard brushed against her, made her insides ache with a poignant longing, a homesickness for a person over a place.

 

‘Tell me more.’ she said.

 

4.

 

Gloria walked to the stone bench and sat down by the river as she fished in her handbag to find her phone and cigarettes. She had walked from work and the heat of the afternoon had made her skin damp underneath her arms and at the small of her back. She lit a cigarette and sat up straight to alleviate the tension in her lower back and shoulders.

 

She smoked through her nerves, looking for a portent in the silences and shadows. A faint sense of silliness permeated her thoughts as Isabelle’s instructions echoed in her head. She opened the image file on her phone and remembered her instructions as she stared at the symbol.

sigil (4).png

 

Isabelle explained it as a point of focus, a bomb sight and her will was the bomb.

 

She stubbed out her cigarette, breathed in through her nose as she felt a prickling sensation between her eyebrows. Thoughts wandered into her forebrain but she kept breathing through, letting the sensation swim through her head as the temperature rose by a few degrees.

 

Faith was difficult to maintain, so she reached inside herself, to the well of emotions which sat inside her, each drop of its water tasting of his skin, his mouth and she shifted on the bench as sense memory ran rough fingertips against her skin, through her clothes.

 

She committed the symbol to memory as she closed her eyes, reached within and drew up all the feelings she had for him, good and bad. The pressure grew between her eyes as she visualised the symbol before her, all straight lines and circles and imagined it aglow with tongues of golden flame before she felt it grow in her consciousness, expanding into the final, qlippothic thought before she felt something twist in her perceptions and she sagged forwards, feeling like she had failed at something ridiculous and impossible.

 

A child’s prayer.

 

A placebo.

 

She flinched at the warm hand on the nape of her neck, hands up ready to lash out at whoever touched her.

 

His eyes were soft and warm with surprise as he looked at her. She moved backwards as the phone dropped from her grasp, babbling and shaking her head. He bent down and picked it up, brushed off a leaf from the front and held the phone out to her.

 

‘You dropped this.’ he said.

 

She took it from him, unable to speak as she took him in. Her fingers ran over his, found he was solid, real and warm. He stepped towards her and smiled.

 

‘Hello, Glo. ‘ he said.

 

She slipped the phone into her handbag and stared at him. Her heart thumped in her ears as she stepped towards him and watched his lips part with anticipation as he moved in to close the distance.

 

People saw them together and no one asked about their history. He was flesh and blood, and Gloria helped piece together a story which no one asked to clarify, not when there was such happiness between them. He said less than her in any conversation, and at night when she was draped across him, flush with the worthwhile rush of endorphins and a sense of honourable victory snatched from chaos, she remembered the last thing he said and wondered at a world where such a door was possible, let alone able to walk through.

 

One day, she drove out to the cottage, driven by a need for explanation to make sense of the situation. The doors and windows were boarded up, and she walked around the cottage, noting the divots in the soil where the vegetables had been dug up. She stood there, placed her palm on the door and whispered her thanks before she drove home to her man. There was a halting conversation with Jenny, which devolved into more rational subjects due to a poor connection but otherwise there was no explanation beyond a simple ceremony and a belief in his actions, and the truth of his last words.

 

The door was always open.

 

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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, love, short fiction, women

An Ocean Communion

walking_on_water_by_ahermin

https://ahermin.deviantart.com/art/Walking-on-Water-53526844

Ursus looked up and  watched a lone gull battling against the wind before he brushed the sand from his robes and got to his feet. It had been a long night awake, meditating on the ocean before him and his eyes burned with fatigue. He adjusted the belt on his robe and picked up his staff, leaning on it as he walked towards the water.

 

‘Stop there.’

 

He turned and saw the three men, climbing down from their horses, the clink of chainmail coming to his ears as a crisp ringing which made him turn and face them. He smiled and opened his arms without letting go of his staff.

 

‘Can a simple pariunt not enjoy communing with nature?’ he said.

 

The soldiers looked at one another.  The Cradle had been independent of the ruling families since their inception, men and women trained in physical and mental disciplines who fought against the forces which besieged humanity and inspired a fierce goodwill in the people of the kingdom. In these times though, there were rumours spread to undermine their authority and these poison whispers gave King Patrick permission to drive any of them from his lands. Lone pariunts were easy targets for anyone with a grudge or an order.

 

Ursus Senex sighed as the soldiers came towards him.

 

One of them snarled, showing brown, uneven teeth as his moustaches dripped with saliva as he pointed at Ursus.

 

‘You’re forbidden from these lands, pariunt.’ he said.

 

The second man had his hand on the hilt of his sword and Ursus smiled at him as he glanced at the third man, who held a short bow ahead of him, an arrow cocked and ready to fire.

 

‘The ocean is the source of all life, my good man. We wander the lands and commune with life in all its forms. Let me commune here, and I shall leave no trace of my passing.’ he said.

 

Ursus had a low, soft voice. He sounded reasonable, unafraid to stand before three armed men with intentions towards him. Ursus knew a show of fear would end with a blade or an arrow in him so he affected an air of humility towards these men.

 

Behind his eyes, he gauged the possible lines of attack and how best to break them. The clarity of his thoughts were part of his Cradle training and Ursus was a pariunt of long standing. Magic would see an arrow in his throat before he uttered a word. He put his staff into the sand and drew a straight line then without taking his eyes from the men, drew lines in three directions and stamped a divot of sand into the end of each line.

 

They did not see his work as they stood there, torn between apprehension and aggression. Ursus stepped backwards and stared at each man in turn.

 

‘I point out you wanted this to happen.’ he said.

 

The archer brought up his bow and fired in one fluid motion as Ursus took his staff in both hands and pointed it towards the archer.

 

The men watched in surprise as the arrow splintered  and fell to the ground, having hit nothing but air. The two men charged Ursus, drawing their swords as they yelled their fears out of them.

 

Brown Teeth stopped as he ran over the sigil. Blood shot from his nostrils and ears as he fell over, choking on his tongue as it slipped to the back of his throat. His sword fell from his fingers as he twitched and choked out his last breath.

 

Ursus jabbed the staff into the centre of the second man’s face as he came forward. The wet crunch of his nose breaking made Ursus swallow with distaste but not so much that it stopped him from kicking the man’s legs out from under him and drive his staff into the flesh of his throat hard enough to break it.

 

The second arrow whistled past him and Ursus threw his staff at the archer as it hit the man in the cheek, upsetting his third shot. Ursus closed the distance and drove the fingers of his right hand into the soldier’s armpit and threw his palm up into the soldier’s face. He felt the cartilage shift as it drove his nose into his brain. The archer fell away and landed on his side with an ungainly thump onto the sand.

 

Ursus leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees. His throat burned with each breath and he trembled as he breathed through the nerves of combat.

 

Not combat, he thought, murder. They had acted first, but it did not lessen the impact of their deaths on his conscience.

 

He looked up at the sky, grateful to be alive.

 

If they had bested him, it might have undone everything.

 

A pariunt had gathered at each point of the compass. Ursus stood at Irident, the most southerly point in King Patrick’s domain.

 

Catherine was shivering through a vigil at Hunter’s Point in the North, waiting for the appointed time.

 

Justin stood at the most easterly point: an outcrop of sand on The Poison Shore, his face wrapped in soaked muslin as he chanted a mantra to ward off the worst of the fumes.

 

Miriam laid on the western shores of Apara and summoned the vultures above her to form his own sigil.

 

Ursus staggered to the water and traced a sign in the air.

 

Four points of will, each of them performing an act of meditation, linking their wills to one single end, and drawing sigils of their own to strengthen the power of their intention.

 

If you were to look from above, you would see the scar of their actions burned into the land like a brand.

 

Ursus breathed in, tingling with power as he stepped out onto the water. His steps held as he walked out.

 

His role was the most difficult, for he had to call upon a fifth pariunt.

 

Eleanor, lost beneath the waves, asleep and waiting to be called. She had been the most vocal of the voices within The Cradle, calling for a state of preparedness against the day when the kings saw them as a threat over an ally. Ursus, her lover and counsel, had urged her against the course and she had taken a ship to discuss alliances with The Caliphate. A storm had dashed her ship to pieces, and Ursus, asleep in the bed they shared, awoke and howled with grief.

 

Over the roar of the waves, he listened to her heartbeat. He paid attention as he stood at the point where the feelings were strongest. He looked down into the water and called her name.

 

The ocean bucked beneath him, as it gave her up.

 

She shot out of the water, waterlogged hair falling down her back in a shining curtain, festooned with seaweed and shells. A crab hung from her robes as she returned to the surface of the water and smiled at Ursus. Her skin was white and soft as he smiled at her.

 

‘If I say you were right, will it be the end of it?’ he said.

 

She chuckled and kissed him on the cheek.

 

‘Oh Ursus, you worry too much. Why did you wait to call me back?’ she said.

 

He gestured behind him.

 

‘It took four of us to summon your location. I searched for you, and found nothing but you hid yourself.’ he said.

 

She reached for him and kissed him on the lips as she shook her head.

 

‘They used a spell singer on me, lashed me to ocean’s floor with wards of great power and made me watch you grow older, made me watch the Cradle beseiged by enemies at every turn.’ she said.

 

Ursus wrapped her in his arms and kissed her over and over until she put her hands to his chest and pushed him away. For all his power and focus, he was quite the romantic when called for.

 

She took his hands and stared into his eyes.

 

‘Let us call the others and end this.’ she said.

 

They chanted together, staring into one another’s eyes as they stepped backwards, into the position where the lines of energy laid, connecting what was real with what was imagined.

 

As one, the five of them focused their energies into the single image shared amongst them creating a ward over the land.

 

King Patrick was atop his mistress, enjoying the frightened look in her eyes as he felt a small twinge in his back. He frowned and stopped fucking his mistress as a sudden pressure ballooned in his skull and his eyes rolled back in his head. He had a vision of the sigil float before his eyes before he collapsed onto the bed and let out a sonorous, single note fart.

 

His counsellor, David, clutched at his head and fell onto his knees as the council of spies and soldiers devoted to the murder of The Cradle followed suit. They were found, bloodied and lifeless, faces sculptured into final expressions of disbelief.

 

Ursus and Eleanor walked back to the shore. He took her hand in his and smiled at her with a quiet disbelief.

 

‘Is it done?’ she said.

 

Ursus looked at the sky and watched the gull flying around, cawing with the savage joy of existence before he pulled her close and brushed seaweed from his lover’s hair.

 

‘I hope so.’ he said.

 

He felt the mixture of relief and invigoration from his fellow pariunts as they left their positions. The Cradle had protected itself, and all the loss came down to a few bad men, buried in the places they had plotted murder from.

 

He nodded and gestured to the gull flying above them.

 

‘I watched him earlier, and it gave me hope.’ he said.

 

Eleanor chuckled and rested her head on his shoulder.

 

‘You’re such a romantic, trusting to fate.’ she said.

 

Ursus chuckled as they walked on the sand, leaning into one another as they carried on into the rest of their lives, holding the light of their love above them to guard the way.  

 

 

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The Oldest Story (The Wild Man, Season 2)

(Previous episodes are here)

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.

The djinn, a race of elemental beings who waged a guerilla war against the Caliphate and The Crow King, the Dwarven Realm. The elf kind, carnivorous and insane, remained in the mountains, lost to the madness of their biology.

It fell to a last alliance of men and dwarves to repel the invaders, a final assertion of order against the chaotic innocence of the djinn. Asra had lost her brother, twice in the final battle against the djinn and her mother lapsed into a terrible melancholia which caused her heart to fail. Bawwabat Jinn, where the last rift was, and the djinn sent back into their own dimension.

Mirabelle wondered if she had fled from one horror towards another, but Asra walked ahead, hands on the hilt of her twin scimitars.

‘How far down are we?’ Mirabelle said.

Her voice had a muted quality to it, which provided an answer. Asra raised her hand and stopped.

‘Far enough. If you wish to know The Dust, the djinn will know.’

Mirabelle swallowed and tasted the grit of the desert sand between her teeth. She missed Eilhu but could not allow herself to drink deep of her grief. Shallow sips to see her through the day, but part of her wanted to wail and wallow in the absence. Horror, poised to tear her world apart, and all she wanted was to see her golden-haired lover again.

She put it away. Her leadership demanded courage and she would wield it to light her way through the darkest hours.

A wave of slow warmth rushed down the tunnel and made them stop.

‘Can they get out?’ Mirabelle said.

Asra shook her head. She reached out and touched Mirabelle’s forearm.

They turned the corner to face the heart of Bawwabat Jinn.

2.

It was a scar, forever frozen in the state of febrile infection, lit between its puckered folds by a flickering flame which gave off a persistent and powerful heat. The air prickled and Mirabelle stopped.

‘Our prayers keep the rift stable. I will call one of them to speak with us.’

Asra stepped forwards and drew her scimitars in a gesture as smooth as breath. The light caught the blades, and Mirabelle shielded her eyes from the glare. Asra swung the swords forward as she lunged from her hips and slid her right leg behind for support and balance. She lowered her chin and breathed in harsh, deep lungfuls of air.

The temperature rose a few degrees and Asra sheathed her swords.

‘WHO CALLS US?’

The voice came from Asra, but it was different. A thick, clotted rumbling with a hissing undertone, huge and inhuman. Mirabelle shuddered and stepped forwards.

‘I do. I seek knowledge.’

Asra remained frozen in place. Mirabelle drew closer.

‘YOU TAUNT US WITH YOUR EXISTENCE. WE SHALL NOT SPEAK.’

Mirabelle’s heart thumped against her ribs as she clenched her hands into fists.

‘I COMMAND YOU.’ she said.

Asra shuddered and the air thickened with the rising heat before the temperature dropped into a sharp chill.

A thick chuckle arose from Asra.

‘WHAT DO YOU WANT, YOUR HIGHNESS?’

Asra turned her head, eyes twitching beneath her eyelids and her hijab soaked with sweat.

‘Tell me about The Dust.’

Asra sheathed the scimitar in her right hand with blinding speed. Mirabelle had time to cry out before Asra’s fingers closed on her throat without pressure. The contact was electric, and the edges of Mirabelle’s vision blurred as a series of images rushed into her mind.

3.

Bile-green clouds coat the sky as leprous, twisted things taste the air like maggots in dead flesh. A dying sun smears light on the earth and Mirabelle realises she is somewhere terrible. Every breath tastes of sickness and she spits onto the cracked, yellowing earth.

She sees a mountain in the distance, their outlines blurred by the thick, miasmal fog. There is a break in the cover, and she sees the mountain is moving, shifting with a relentless, orgiastic energy. A tentacle emerges from the mass, its tip blooming like a flower made of meat and a fat, pale tumour swells and bursts into the air. The mucus takes to the air in shuddering droplets which float towards her.

They move against the wind and Mirabelle reaches for the dagger on her hip.

She looks around her for shelter but there is nothing.

Something bellows behind her and she turns.

A giant, covered with dense brown fur looked at her with curiosity. She knew his name, had believed him capable of murdering her father.

The Wild Man.

‘You have no cause to be here yet, your highness.’

His voice boomed as he looked at the shimmering droplets moving towards them.

‘The Dust is the chaos of sickness, a disease with ambitions beyond the flesh. It is not a God but the sickness of Gods and it is patient beyond belief.’

Mirabelle appreciated the poetic but here it did not serve her needs.

‘Were you this obtuse with Eilhu?’ she said.

He chuckled and shook his head as he dropped to one knee, still towering over her.

‘We learn through stories and allegories, your highness. This story is the oldest of all stories.’

Mirabelle frowned and drew backwards.

‘I’ve no time for stories, people are dying.’

The Wild Man smiled with all his teeth at Mirabelle. He was the beauty of tree bark and rich, tilled earth. He smelled sweet and each breath she took in his proximity, enamoured her to him.

‘This is the story where order must confront chaos and if it wins, it will create a new world from its remains.’

Mirabelle glanced behind her.

‘Is it chaos or order?’ she said.

The Wild Man chuckled and rose to his full height.

‘I am of nature, which is outside of the games of Gods. But I will tell you what you seek.’

Mirabelle’s stomach fluttered as she glanced up at him.

‘Words, your highness. You must find the words.’

She grimaced.

‘I have words. Entire libraries of them, I came to talk to the djinn because there’s so little in the archives. Words won’t do.’

He sighed and gave her a look of concern.

‘You must travel further. When you return, look towards The Eternal City. Asra will help you.’

Her heart sunk at the thought of further travel.

‘The dagger is good, Mirabelle, but you will need more than blades to reach The Eternal City. When you get there, sit beneath the World Tree at fifth sunset and listen.’

She babbled questions, but he reached down and put the tip of his index finger between her eyebrows.

‘He fights for you still, and he loves you.’

Everything went black.

4.

Asra stood over her, wiped her forehead with a damp cloth as Mirabelle blinked and stared at the burnished stone overhead.

‘Mirabelle, I came to and found you like this. Are you sick?’

Mirabelle sat up and sighed.

‘Only of my burdens, Lady Asra. I need your help.’

 

 

 

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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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A Bleak Reassurance (The Wild Man, Season 3, Episode 4)

Once Upon a Time, Carrey stood with Liam, a reassuring hand on his shoulder as they stood before the closed door to the infirmary.  Carrey  wore black chain mail over leather since taking the throne as regent and had his familial sword Dawn sheathed on his hip. He had commanded a small group of guards to accompany him, their fear registered in the metallic tang of their sweat and the liquid, concerned eyes which met his gaze.  Carrey ordered his men to surround the door and enter, he squeezed Liam’s shoulder and pushed him forwards.

‘Whatever’s behind the door, we face it as men, understand?’ he said.

Carrey’s voice carried, lending courage to the surrounding men. The bodies at the inn had their entrails dragged and festooned over the ceiling beams and tables like pink and yellow banners of victory and the one survivor had injuries Carrey knew were common not in the heat of battle, but the aftermath.  Liam raised the guard. Carrey drew Dawn and held it to his eyes, admired the blonde–red sheen of the metal and took a deep breath. A cold, sinking dread which pulled at his insides as he ordered his men forward.

Blood welled underneath the door and the guard stepped back with his weapon drawn as another pulled the door open. They exchanged potent looks before they swept inside.

Carrey smelled the blood and shit, the stink of voided bodies and all of it packed like clay into each breath.  Liam pitched forwards and made a tight, mewling sound at the back of his throat as he held his sword ahead of him.

‘She said there was something wrong with the woman, your highness.’ Liam said.

There was no sign of Gwyneth but the walls and floor as the guards swept through, swords drawn and eyes narrowed to slits. Four men entered, ahead of Carrey. They stopped when they got to the rows of cots and Carrey heard someone gag with revulsion. He pushed past to see what had disgusted them. He regretted his decision in an instant.

It was the woman from the inn.

Most of her.

From collarbone to thighs, she was a wet, glistening ruin. The contents of her stomach shredded and pulled out, with glistening ropes of intestine dangling in all directions. Her last expression was one of  relief. Carrey peered at the remains of her pelvis and glanced in Liam’s direction. He asked him what the woman had said, and Liam repeated the words he’d heard.

There had been something inside her.

It had gotten out.

Carrey saw the horrors men inflicted on themselves and one another, it made him tactile with his children, patient with his wife and earnest with his men but this, much like the inn, showed signs of something inhuman.

The arrow fired without an archer.

Henry driven to murderous intent.

He had the men search the rest of the infirmary. They flipped cots, lit torches and moved furniture with the urgency of fear.

There was no sign of Gwyneth. Carrey strode outside, took a deep breath to fill his lungs with good, clean air instead of the miasma which clotted his sinuses and throat. A guard came to him, asked him for his orders and Carrey stared out into the night.

‘Double the patrols. Send word to the homesteads and huntsmen to report anything strange.’ He said.

The guard nodded and ran to enact the regent’s will.

Carrey wanted Eilhu, Paul or Mirabelle here. The former had a touch of wildness to him, and had manifested displays of prowess at the perfect time, Paul had tremendous wisdom and his daughter took after her father.  He sheathed Dawn, adjusted his gauntlets and walked back to the infirmary.

‘See she’s given a good burial. Find Gwyneth as soon as you can.’ He said.

The guard asked if they should wait until first light but Carrey grimaced and shook his head.

‘I doubt I’ll sleep so let’s use it for a purpose, eh?’ he said.

The guard bowed from the waist and ran to summon men and horses. Carrey waited until he was alone before emitting a slow, tight shudder.

Carrey’s education had been broad and involved. He knew the sigils of the great houses and the signs of a good steward but he also knew how to thread a fish hook and skin a deer. He knew the life cycles of insects and animals, and those lessons returned to him, taught again in the ruined bodies he came across.

Certain breeds bred by guile and force.

Some men too, he thought, but this was no man.  He recalled a species of wasp which laid its eggs in the flesh of others and waited for its young to eat their way out from the inside. His hand touched the hilt of Dawn for reassurance. Carrey had always set stock by the things he could touch or see but the fear which burned in his chest held sway over everything.

He sent a messenger to The Caliphate and another to the High Colleges before he prepared the court for what came to dog their steps. It was dawn before he slipped beneath the furs on his bed and his wife, Susannah woke up to find him staring at her, his eyes shining with tears as he pulled her close.

He pressed himself against her. Susannah knotted her fingers in his as he whispered how he loved her and wanted her. Their coupling was urgent in its passion and soon over but afterwards, he collapsed against her and fell into a deep, thick sleep. Susannah stroked his hair as she wondered what had frightened her husband.

He turned his head in sleep and muttered a phrase which made her flesh prickle with distaste.

‘There will be more.’ He said.

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The Flavour of Light (The Wild Man, Season 3, Episode 3)

Once Upon a Time, Mirabelle sat in The Grand Library of The Caliphate and stared at the growing stack of books which Asra deposited on the table in front of her.

‘Isn’t there a way you could just tell me what to do?’ Mirabelle said.

Asra beamed and shook her head. She deposited the last four volumes of Riz Al-Jabar’s diaries and stood back with her arms folded across her chest.

‘You will tell others what to do Mirabelle, but you will understand why.’ She said.

The rigours of the library were the work of The High Colleges across the water, men who sacrificed land and title to further knowledge but she noted the shimmer of headscarves as men and women acted on Asra’s will.  She reached to retrieve a book but Asra shook her head and passed over a pair of black velvet gloves to her.  Mirabelle slipped the gloves on and flexed her fingers.

‘These books must be old.’ Mirabelle said.

Asra swept to Mirabelle’s right-hand side and put her mouth to Mirabelle’s ear.

‘Poisonous too.’ She said.

Mirabelle shivered and folded her arms across her chest.

‘I’m not sure about this.’ Mirabelle said.

Asra untied the ribbon around a sheaf of papers and uncurled them onto the desk.

‘Always a good place to begin.’ She said.

Mirabelle peered at the writing, symbols arranged into groups of three or four, surrounded by ornate patterns of single slashes and dots which drew the eye with their intense detail. She looked up, feeling her cheeks flush as Asra traced along the patterns with her index finger.

‘I don’t understand it. I can read and write but this is High College work.’ She said.

Asra sighed and shook her head.

‘Knowledge is too precious.’ Asra said.

Her knowing smirk made Mirabelle’s cheeks hot. Mirabelle followed Asra’s finger as she translated the patterns.

They left the library, squinting against the light of the afternoon so Asra could partake of her prayers and then a light lunch served in the gardens. Mirabelle’s head swum with the dense, accumulated knowledge. A procession of horrors and myths which had reached out from the past to gouge their names onto the present.  Mirabelle thought the food was delicious, but it turned to ashes in her mouth as she remembered the sick, ugly light of the arrow and the afterimages of the symbols carved into it.

She remembered her father’s final expression of shock and disbelief.

Asra noted how she pushed her plate away and gestured to the food.

‘My fears used to go to my stomach too.’ She said.

Mirabelle blustered and picked up a cube of beef, dripping with a fragrant pomegranate and cumin sauce.

‘I’m sorry.’ She said.

Asra rested her hand on top of Mirabelle’s and gazed into her eyes. Mirabelle stared back, the dark, almond shaped eyes fringed with long curled lashes set into her fine, strong features were beguiling.

‘A coward and a hero have the same fear. Which are you?’ Asra said.

Mirabelle set the meat down and slipped her hand from Asra’s.

‘I’m neither.’ She said.

Asra tutted and shook her head.

‘In private yes, but before your people, you must appear to know the way of things.’ She said

Mirabelle looked away and Asra’s hand reached out to take hers again.

‘There is something else, isn’t there?’ she said.

Mirabelle swallowed and gave a small, tight nod.

She told Asra about Eilhu. To her surprise, she watched a slow wave of heat travel up her throat and into her cheeks.

Asra sat back and put her fingertips together.

‘Well that is fascinating. Did your father know?’ she said.

Mirabelle shook her head and blushed as hard as Asra. Asra leaned forwards, her full lips curved into a warm smile.

‘We go to such pains to deceive our fathers when we become women. Father had no choice to accept me as I am.’ She said.

Mirabelle agreed but her mind was awash with memories of Eilhu, whispered touches and the grand, rolling heat of desire.

His lips.

His touch.

She had known such warmth with him, and despite the distance, his attention still spoke to the hidden places within herself. Not a princess, not a queen but a woman.

She wondered if she would have his forgiveness if they survived these events.

‘Would you tell me about this man?’ Asra said.

Mirabelle’s mouth was dry and she gulped from the goblet of water to her right before she nodded.

‘Oh Asra, I’m sure your stories are more entertaining than mine.’ She said.

Asra gave a soft chuckle and leaned into Mirabelle’s space.

‘Yes, but I’ve heard all mine. Come, if we are to face darkness then we must know the flavour of light, do you agree?’ she said.

Mirabelle’s heart thumped, the internal conflict of grief, guilt and desire spun gossamer webs within her bones as she took a deep breath and spoke.

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