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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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.

Continue reading

Captive Bride

The Volandums had absurd ideas about how to treat a captive princess. I mean, golden chains? Really? Were they showing me off to the people, or were they showing off their own wealth to me? I honestly wasn’t sure anymore.

My mount’s hooves clopped against the flower-strewn pavement of Dezmond’s central street and I briefly let my gaze wander, taking in the towering stone buildings, mapping out routes, exits, dead ends. They were crowded now, with cheering citizens greeting their returning king. Oh yes, and the Elentisaren princess who’d been the price of peace and would become their queen.

I gazed steadily at the faces passing by. Returning each insolent stare with defiance. Each slur with a smirk. Each fragment of pity with determination. But many of the gazes were ones of wonder. Or perhaps they were just staring at my ridiculous white fluttery dress. Loose bits of gauze flew about my waist and a heavy necklace hung about my bare neck while taches of gold fastened my sleeves. All in all, it wasn’t a dress I’d be able to slip away in without being recognized.

But, mostly, my gaze rested on the guards surrounding my mount. An especially grim soldier led my horse, but others closed in on all sides. Two before. Three on each side of me. Four more behind. Not as if they thought I could escape, but I couldn’t help relishing in their worry over the almost mystical legends surrounding the Elentisaren Phoenix, otherwise known as the most deadly woman assassin in history. They seemed to think she’d not stand for her princess being taken by Volandums. And that she’d be coming after me.

Ahead of me, the Volandum king shifted in his saddle. His gaze swept over me for the dozeneth time. And, for the dozeneth time I met his stare with a glare of my own and the slightest curl of my lips.

His own smile creased his beard as he turned away.

The Volandums respected strength. Already the king was well pleased with the spirit of his bride-to-be.

Except all the Volandums lacked one small detail.

And, as the castle of Dezmond loomed over us, I permitted my smirk to deepen. The Volandums thought they were welcoming a bride. Instead they were providing the Phoenix of Elentisa safe passage into their most guarded fortress.

They’d been right about one thing. I wasn’t about to let my cousin, the princess, surrender her freedom for peace.

I was the Phoenix. And I was here to bring Voland to her knees

 

Flames of Resistance

The moat was nearly dry, all except the pool surrounding the causeway up to the castle gate. It was deep there yet. Hopefully it was deep enough.

Fathren tried to swallow, but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth as a hot wind swept over the dry parched plains. He told himself it was from the rationing of water, but the dust raised by the invader’s armies wasn’t helping either.

“Ready?” His whispered cracked.

“Ready.” Three soft voice replied from the dry grass about him.

Fathren nodded his fingers tightened around his bow as his breath hissed rapidly though the cloth covering the lower half of his face. They had one chance, the four of them. If they failed, they’d die. If they succeeded, they would be branded destroyers. But at least the invaders would suffer a bitter blow.

Already the steady tramp of feet were echoing along the brush filled moat surrounding the castle. On the wall, the sun glinted off silent troops.

Fathren closed his eyes for a long moment, then drew an arrow. “On my mark, and may the Prince be with us all.”

“May the Prince be with us.” His companions’ voices were accompanied by the swish of arrows.

Fathren tensed, measuring the distance of the approaching soldiers. The troops in the moat. The horsemen behind his party in the tall grasses. The dryness of the grasses.

Almost…almost…

He raised one hand.

Now!

Fathren sliced his hand downward and leapt to his feet, springing to the middle of the causeway. Focusing, he breathed on the tip of his arrow and his heart leapt as it flashed into a flame.

“Draw!” His voice seemed to echo along the battlements even as startled cried from the wall reflected the shouts of derision from the invaders.

“Aim!”

He focused toward the brush just beyond the lead troop, feeling rather than seeing his friends fall in place behind him.

“Loose!”

His string sang as the arrow cut through the air. Shouts burst into a confused babble and Fathren spun, a single glimpse assuring him his companion’s arrows had found their mark while anger ripple through the walls above. But it was the only way. The lord would have surrendered if given the chance. Surrendered, and been slaughtered.

He’d not have the chance.

And, as Fathren followed his men, leaping over the causeway to the murky pool beneath, he only hoped the flames already catching hold on the plains and enveloping the invaders would be enough to save them all.

Beautiful Chains

They were beautiful. And they were deadly.

Delicate scars twisted down the right side of her face and her arm in flower-like swirls, but no matter how softly the star lamps glimmered gold against the emblazoned pattern it didn’t change their purpose. Their power. Their weight which kept her grounded on the forest floor and stilled the fluttering of her gossamer wings.

Her feet ached. Her throat and eyes burned. Her fingers itched for the bow which had vanished from them nigh a week past. But still she press on, slipping through the forest shadows, ignoring the thorns which tore at her tunic and ripped at her legs. A breeze lifted strands of auburn hair, tossing them into her eyes. She brushed them back, her breath coming in quick heaves.

She had until dawn; she had to reach the clearing. If she did; if the Witnesses were there, they’d take her in until her innocence was proven. Until the chains glinting from her skin were removed and her title of archeress of the forest was returned. Until she could return and save her people from the mysterious darkness closing them in.

Behind her, in the distance, a wolf howled. She shivered, pressing forward. Slowly the sun sank. Slowly she sensed the glimmer of the sun on the horizon.

And then she was there, the clearing opening its welcome arms about her. For a moment she swayed unsteadily, then wearily sank to the clipped turf even as a Witness fluttered into view.

“What do you wish for?” The questioning voice was high, like spring bells.

“Sanctuary.” Her voice broke and for the first time she let her gaze travel up her arm to the brand emblazoning her supposed crime of treason. Tears started to her eyes. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. But danger was upon the whole forest and she could do nothing. And it was her fault. “Sanctuary and judgment.”

Wingmaster

This story is set in Aslaria, my Legends of Light land. The wingmaster idea is based off the Song of the Sword, my current WIP, but this event took place about a hundred years before Song of the Sword.

He should have known. He should have guessed. The finding of the legendary wingmaster’s blade should have given him more than a hint that something was wrong.

But the late spring snow, the early darkness, and the encroaching mist sweeping through the Melody Realm had been enough to deal with. Even drawing on the power of the song in the Melody, it had been all I could do to beat the joy stealing fog back towards the south. It had been an everyday enough occurrence that I should have known the sword was for something else.

Something worse.

But I’d relaxed. I’d attended the celebration like a normal citizen of Aslaria instead of one of the few who knew about, much less could entered, the reflection realm of song. And I’d left the sword in my lodging.

The swift beat of Frithren’s wings during a jubilant dance was the first sign something was terribly wrong.

He’s here.

The words sent ice though my veins and I pulled away into the shadows even as the lamps flickered out. And, under the startled cries, which I knew would soon turn to pleas of fear, I could hear the heavy drumbeat of the traitor’s song.

The traitor. As I dashed into the night, snow falling gently around my, I racked my brains but could come up with no name to couple to the shadow who had been sweeping though the country. A rumor, may thought it was.

I’d thought it was.

Except he was real. And he was here.

I snatched up the wingmaster’s sword, my vision blurring then clarifying as I saw the real realm and the Melody at once. My chest tightened as I glimpsed the mist, seeping in about the castle walls. But there was no time to deal with it now. Summoning the song, I dashed back to the great hall.

Silence met my ears. Silence, mingled with the recent memory of bloodshed and weeping. And the traitor’s faint song.

I choked at the sight. The motionless bodies. The stained floor. The lifeless hall.

I staggered back outside, my sword hanging limply from my hand. Frithren’s wings beat against the air and I turned, lifting my hand for the messenger falcon.

He’s headed south. Frithren declared grimly.

I nodded and swallowed hard, then closed my eyes. The Prince forgive me. I’d been given the sword, and I’d failed before I’d even started. I’d failed, but more would die unless I could stop the shadow. Clenching the sword, I took a deep breath, then turned toward the south.

And I ran. Ran through the night. Though the snow. Though the mist. Though the song. With death behind me, danger ahead, and an oath throbbing though my blood, I ran towards the fulfillment of my doom.