Shadow Heir

Josan clutched the doorframe, doubling over with a ragged cough. Smoke pricked his eyes with a hundred tiny daggers. He gagged, pressing his face into the crook of his arm.

Orange flickers laced the opposite side of the great hall, wreathing ornate tapestries in smoke. Josan’s guard gripped his shoulder from behind. As if Seris could defend against this siege.

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Rusted Notes

He’d almost forgotten what they looked like.

The old soldier gripped his rifle strap tighter as if the canvas cutting against calloused skin could hold off the dull ache in his chest.

Pianos, they used to call them.

Instrument of the gods, according to her.

He’d laughed, but she just grinned.

One day you’ll see.

He swallowed hard and stepped forward. Ash crunched beneath mud-stained boots. A cool breeze crept around his raised collar. A few bits of green crept along the forest floor. Not enough to veil what happened here. Not enough…

His hands over her eyes. Smooth hands, unstained with age and blood. He pulled them away. A simple piano stood in the center of a bare room.

She said its music could contest the gods, but at that moment her laugh put every song to shame.

It was still there.

The ache in the soldier’s throat tightened.

Overhead, branches rustled with the sighing wind.

The piano rested in the center of the clearing, stained with half a century of rain and wind. It was only the tree that kept it standing, near as he could figure—a gnarled trunk, growing through the center of the piano like a prisoner’s face stretched toward the sky.

She’d been right. Its music could rival any other. Or maybe it was simply her voice.

She made up the strangest lyrics during their long walks as the shadows closed in. She’d whispered them to drive away the rumors of war. She’d laughed them as she said ‘yes’ to the greatest question a man can ask.

They’d sat, side by side on the bench, her head on his shoulder as he carefully carved into the sleek wood.

The soldier shivered and touched the battered wood. The lines were still there. Faded, but there. He traced the heart with a trembling finger.

‘The morning sings, the evening weeps. The eagles find the dead. And watching from the eyrie, the eagle child cannot speak.’

Her voice shook that night, but she’d smiled at him.

The next day, the nations ran in blood and fire. They smelt smoke on the wind.

They said her brother died. Her father and mother. He’d held her close. But in the night she was gone. He found her in front of the piano, fingers poised over the keys. She didn’t touch them.

She never played again.

He squeezed his eyes shut, bowing his head to rest against the wood. A single tear traced his weathered cheek.

“You didn’t have to go, you know.” The words were barely a whisper. “You could have stayed…”

He tried. Forced her to eat. To rest.

They didn’t leave the city, even as battle overtook it.

She didn’t cry. He wished she would if only so he could wipe away the tears.

One morning she didn’t wake. The sedatives he’d given her were gone—a week’s worth in one night. It would have been so easy to follow. So easy…

“You thought the music of life disappeared.” He pressed trembling lips together. “What I would have given for you to understand…the music only left when you did.”

He’d taken her away from the flames and bullets. The piano too. Far away, to a secluded grove with only the trees to witness.

He’d buried her there. No stone to mark the place. Only the instrument she loved best, resting above where she lay.

“I told you’d I’d visit, Clare.” He blinked against the tears. “I’m back.” He traced a hand down the molded keys. They were chipped. Stained yellow and black. His fingers splayed over the last several. He pressed them in soft succession.

The rusted notes whispered through the grove like the weeping of a god.

One Step at a Time: a flash fiction

I remember when I was a child. Strange, the things one thinks about as they are dying.

I catch the doorframe of the castle gate with a painful gasp. Each breath burns in my chest as poison races through my veins. I clench one bloody fist against my ribs. It’s only a shallow cut, but it’s enough when poison is involved.

I was here once when I was wee thing. Little Kensen, lost in the halls. I don’t remember these halls though, only the mirrors. The whispers. My father’s voice.

The great doors hang askew. The place looks abandoned. That’s the point, I assume, though I have to wonder if the rebel leaders ever considered the possibility of the castle falling in on their own heads.

If I’ve thought of it, I’m sure they have. I’m only a messenger, after all. The second son of an unimportant cloth-trader; a fool who abandoned his trade and the possibility of his own shop to run messages that could save his people.

At least I thought they’d save people when I joined. Instead, they merely held reports of movements, food, and the half-drunk scribblings of spies. Until today.

Today, they are important. Today they could save the nation.

I stumble across the threshold.

The castle looks worse from inside, but it won’t collapse. Not today. Today I have a message.

It seemed bigger when I was here last. People lived it in then, before it burned and rebels took over what was left.

Of course, I was only waist-high then. I thought it the grandest thing in the world.

“H-hello?” My voice wakens skittering echoes and fades away. Nothing.

It was louder. More colorful. Dozens of traders streaming in for the great festival. All the laughter and music.

Where are the rebels? I grit my teeth and stagger across the courtyard. The breeze rustles in the corners, stirring dry leaves. They seem to whisper my name, calling me to sleep.

Not yet. Please, not yet.

One step at a time. Don’t worry about the end. Whatever happens, take one step at a time.

The words belong to this place, somehow. They whispered in my sleep for years. Each step has led here. Back to where it started.

Back to when I lost my way, trying to explore. The found me, asleep in the room of mirrors. I never remembered how I got there. I remembered the words though.

‘One step at a time.

Don’t worry about the end.’

I loved those words.

I didn’t… I didn’t realize I heard them first inside these walls.

I throw my shoulder against a creaking door, almost collapsing as it gives way. “H-hello. Someone?” My voice fades.

The rebels have to be here. They must. The king’s troops are finally moving. They’ll override us by dusk tomorrow if we don’t flee. Or attack.

One step at a time. One step.

They aren’t in any of the halls. There’s no sign of life in any of the smaller chambers.

“Please…” I choke on the word as I clutch the doorframe to the dusty kitchen. The room blurs through tears. The rebels were fighting since before I was born. Of course, they’re not sitting around in the broken shadows of a ruined castle. There’s probably caverns. Or something. They’re somewhere.

Shouldn’t they have sentries though? Someone to watch, or… or…

I stumble on.

One step at a time.

One step at

One step

One

The narrow passage twists away, growing darker.

I-I was here once. I know this passage. It leads

It leads to nothing. A dead-end.

It’s where they found me, asleep after I tried to go exploring. A-A cupboard or something.

One step. Keep moving.

My fingers feel for the knob of the door. There’s nothing beyond it, but I can’t stop. I have no strength to turn. It’s right, somehow. It’s where I should be.

One step at a time.

I open the door.

The air glitters with soft light and the walls…the walls are of mirrors.

I’ve been here. I saw this.

I take a trembling step into the room, one arm still wrapped against my chest. Rifts, I look horrible. Lank hair is matted to my bloodstained cheeks. Blood smears my hands and more stains my tunic. My skin is too pale, my eyes too bright. I stagger and catch myself against a smooth surface. A mirror, somehow, though the room seems to spread beyond it, vaster and deeper than anything this castle holds.

A mirror, yet slowly it clears away until I see nothing but blankness. No…not quite blankness. The light shifts. Somewhere a door sighs open. Bare feet patter along the ground, too light and quick to belong to a rebel.

I lift my head, but words die on my lips. A child steps into my line of sight. A child in the mirror.

I’d found a room of mirrors. It looked bigger than the whole world.

The child stops and lifts his head. Loose brown hair falls back to reveal large brown eyes. My eyes. I stare. In the faint reflection of the glass, I see myself as I am now. Except I look different. The blood is gone, as are the signs of battle. I can feel them still; I see them when I look at myself. But the glass wipes them away. I look…

I look like the one I’d seen.

The room of mirrors was empty. I saw myself. I’d never seen myself before. I took a step closer, but I vanished. The mirror showed nothing. Then it showed a man on one knee. He watched me. And when I looked at him, he smiled.

I barely breathe as the child takes a step nearer. Then another. He’s on the other side of the mirror now. I lift a wavering hand. Blood smears against glass, but he can’t see it. He lifts a small hand, pressing it against mine. His lips are parted, his eyes staring.

Such young eyes. They don’t know what they’ll see. Where they’ll go. They didn’t know the horrors they will take part in.

“One step at a time,” I whisper the words. “Don’t worry about the end. Whatever happens, take one step at a time, Kensen.”

My eyes start to slip. As if through a haze, I see the child—see myself smile. Slowly he slips to the ground, sound asleep. They’ll find him here in a few hours. He won’t remember. He won’t remember until he reaches these halls again.

I sag against the mirror. One step at a time.

One step.

I struggle to rise but find myself falling. The mirror gives way, crashing in splinters on all sides. As if from the bottom of a well, I hear voices. Footsteps. Men; rebels. I see their faces, hovering in and out of view. They are talking to me.

I can’t speak, I can barely breathe. With numb fingers, I pull the message from my pouch.

Someone snatches it. Others are searching out my wound, but it’s too late. Shadows close about my mind and I let out a soft sigh.

One step

I let the words fade around me.

Don’t worry about the end.

I’ll not worry about the end ever again.

I’ve reached it, now.

One step at a time.

__________

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Study of Humans

I got an idea from my best friend, awhile back. Something that helps me watch people better. Think about them. Wonder. You know, all that creepy, stalkerish stuff.

I write notes about people I see and save them.

I don’t write these all that often, but they are very fun, are good practice for me, and they give me a bank of characters to pull from if I need one sometime.

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Mite of a Hero

She was barely a mite of a thing. Standing on the edge of the torn battlefield, the child looked even smaller. Bloodstained grasses scraped her bare feet and the hem of her coarse dress.

I didn’t see her at first. I might have missed her completely but for the tawny hair that blew over her shoulder as she took the first step from the safety of the trees. It twisted like a banner in defiance against death.

Dust, ashes, and Elyon himself. What was a child doing in this mess of fragmented nations and proud lords?

I’d been sent to escort a hero from the lands of the living. Hundreds of men had died already in this battle. Thousands. I’d lost count an hour before. There’d been plenty of heroic deeds, but no soul marked as the hero I was to aid.Mite of a Hero

I wasn’t even supposed to be here. I escorted the more common, precious souls. The mothers who died in childbirth. The fathers who rushed into burning buildings to find the children I’d already whispered away.

I never asked to be on a battlefield with blood and grime and severed limbs on all sides. I wasn’t Death. I was only her assistant, comforting those who I could.

The child took another wavering step. I squeezed my eyes shut. She’d be trampled in moments. Someone, see her. Pull her back to shelter. Please, for the love of pity.

Except no one sees a child when the stakes of each action are life or death. Soldiers swept around her like a wave around stone, ebbing and surging, and somehow she still stood. She didn’t cry. Didn’t smile. Just looked, with that pale face and those wide eyes.

No, not looking. Searching. It was a wonder she even saw in the haze of smoke and dust and parched, burnt air.

That’s when I noticed the light on her fingers. It was only a flicker of silver, with a hint of green. Maybe that’s why I saw it.

Men raged and fought over money and land while a power none of them could purchase stood among them in bare feet and dusty rags. A child holding more strength than the armies combined, yet small as a star-blossom growing among the giant trampling feet of men.

She froze, one hand tangled in a strand of her hair. Her gaze locked on a single soldier who staggered back as a bolt slammed into his shield. He kept his feet easily. A simple footman. Burley and covered with leather armor. A thick shield hung from one hand, a mace from the other. He was only another man, fighting for what he couldn’t understand. Another life about to be cut short.

The child dashed toward him.

Someone, please

No one saw her. Only cowards turned from battle and today there were no cowards.

A second arrow followed the first, thudding against the man’s shield, then a third, piercing through to his arm. He swayed, like so many others had that day. I only remember because of the girl.

The fourth arrow lodged in the man’s chest. He crashed to his knee and wrenched it out with a scream.

And somehow, as he fell, the girl was there. Her tiny hand clung to his shoulder as if she could keep him upright. Light sprang from her fingers, spreading across the man.

In the light were pictures.

I could see her huddled alone in the gutter of an abandoned village a week earlier as soldiers marched past. On and on and on, until one man paused—Elyon bless you, soldier. He’d swept her into his arms. Fed her. Tended her. Left her safe at the camp when he marched out before dawn to fight.

He’d forgotten about the child he’d saved. It was one rescue of many. Another life pulled from the shadows before he met death himself.

Except she hadn’t forgotten him.

The soldier faced Death on the battlefield, face twisted in pain, but Death turned away.

The light from the child’s hand flickered out. She crumpled to her knees. Such a small thing in her rescuer’s shadow. He didn’t see her huddled behind him. All he saw was the blood on his hands. He felt the healed skin where a mortal wound should have been.

He’d heard of miracles on the battlefield, I imagine. But as the enemy charged and he stumbled to his feet, he didn’t know he left the miracle behind; a miracle drained of the power she’d used to save his life.

He never knew what he abandoned when he charged to the rescue of his own commander.

The archer who loosed another bolt as the soldier sprinted into the fray only knew he missed the man who’d survived his earlier blows. He didn’t know his bolt lodged in the stomach of a child as she crumpled soundlessly to the blood-soaked turf.

I sprang forward, barely conscious of any urging. A child. A hero.

The one I was sent to escort.

My cheeks were damp as I sank to my knees beside the crumpled form. She was the husk of a flower now, nothing more. Silver wrapped the battle, shielding it from sight until only I and the child remained.

She opened her eyes on this side of the rift. In the battlefield, the child had breathed her last.

“Hello,” I whispered.

Her small brow furrowed. “Who are you?” The voice was thin, sounding of birds and silver bells.

“A friend.” I held out one hand. “I was waiting for you.”

She wavered, then her fingers brushed mine. They were cold.

She blinked once. “Why?”

My hand closed over hers and I drew her close. “Because. Elyon remembered you.”

She crumpled into my hold. I swept her up, holding her close as I turned away from the invisible battle.

In my arms, she trembled. But when I looked down she was smiling.

Last Pages: a short story

I can’t claim full credit for this story. It was the product of a ‘what if’ conversation between a friend and I about diaries and writing and death. I knew at once I had to put it in a story at some point, and this was the result.

Coaching(6)

All they’d left were the books, dusty and stained with blood and tears.

Kyth stood among the rubble, tiny pebbles skittering around his boots in a hot wind. The sun glared from the pale, iron sky, unforgiving to any who ventured into this forgotten crevice.

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