Unrequited

It was the man on the far end of the street who had her heart spun into a blue ribbon. Strung between his fingers, it lay docile and quiet, though each day she urged it to flee.

Elle shut her eyes to him, but he was always there, in the red of the ribbons her sisters wore strung in their bodices, their hair, and about their necks.

Elle shut her ears to him, but he was always there, in the clack of his boots against the cobblestones when he passed their window each Winter morning.

In the Summer, he left, taking her heart with him, and for a while she might taste the flicker of hope, she might seek to fill the empty box inside her chest. Then, all at once, that hope would be blown from her lips, and he would return, just as Autumn slipped into the grasp of Winter.

“Tis’ natural for a girl to have a brief infatuation with a distant relative, a boy at school, mayhap a stranger on the street.”

That was what her Aunt had always said, peering sagely over her rounded glasses and looking superior. Natural indeed, but not so much for all these years to have passed, and for her lips to still part around his name with a gasp that never quite ended. She never told anyone, not her aunt, not her mother, and certainly not her sisters.

Elle kept her secrets sewn to her skin, and gods it hurt, feeling the words fill up with blood, feeling her flesh tear under the weight. Still, it hurt less than it would have had she let them loose, only for them to turn straight back and tear her to pieces, as wild dogs do when loosed by their handler.

It’s Winter again, and she’s making her way downtown. The first light of dawn, laying bared in the snow, her midnight hair just covering her golden nakedness. Elle tells herself that she’s going to feed the ducks, she even has a pocketful of breadcrumbs. But the secrets know, and they write themselves down on her skin in crisscrossed patterns. Really she wants to see, has he set up his stall yet? Has he returned from wherever he goes in the Summer? Has he lain out his ribbons in all their vibrant colors? Most importantly, does he still have the blue one strung through his fingers? The ribbon that he will never sell. The ribbon that never fades, never grows threadbare, though the years have ground all the hours between to dust.

Elle stops, deliberately. She turns just enough to catch the side of the street in the corner of her eye, and that’s when all the hope that has accumulated over the Summer months catches in her throat and crumbles. There’s the silhouette of his stall, shimmering between the doorway of day and the hall of night. There he is, bent over his stand, laying out ribbons in careful precision. His long fingers have always been deft, but he still loses a ribbon in the snow, and cursing, he has to bend to pick it up. But she’s already there, holding it out for him, and the shimmer in her eyes are unmistakably tears.

“Oh,” he starts, surprised. “Thank you.”

Elle doesn’t even know how she came to be standing by his stall, his lost ribbon in her outstretched hand. Now she doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to utter the right words, the casual voice she needs to cover the foolishness, the impulsivity of her act.

“My sister, Anne-“ she begins, and when the words stick, she starts all over again. “My sister. She- uh- she forgot her purse here the other day. I was trying to find it.” She hates the defensiveness in her tone, the stutter, the shimmer in her eyes that she can’t seem to blink away.

He raises his eyebrows, calmly, and smiles as adults do when they’re indulging a child they know is lying. “So early?”

“It has some of her valuables in it, she’s been fretting over it ever since.” Of course Anne has done no such thing, and Elle knows she’s lying through her teeth. Knows it must be obvious, the way she’s fumbling with her words like a drunk man trying to find his balance.

His eyes meet hers for a flash second, and there’s laughter in them. “Best of luck to you then, it’s nearly pitch black out here.”

Her cheeks feel as they’ve been lit on fire, and shame turns her stomach sour. All she can do is nod demurely and back away. All she can do is hold snow to her wounds, and pray that the blood doesn’t show.

She’d almost forgotten his features, his high cheekbones and deep-set eyes, the way the corners of his mouth quirk up as if he’s perpetually amused by the world. His lazy smile, his loping gait, and the way he always smells like persimmon and orange peels. She’d almost forgotten the way he binds back his long black hair with leather, or the way his green waistcoat is always trimmed with velvet.

Now each of these details are emblazoned in her mind with a burning brand, and the wounds are torn open afresh, red soaking through her fingers, even as she tries to stem the gaping chasm in her chest.

“Tis’ natural enough for a young girl to have a brief infatuation with a stranger down the street.”

This isn’t brief, and this isn’t natural.

It’s been nine years now, and sometimes she wonders if he’s a sorcerer. Maybe he has ensorcelled her heart to forever betray her. Maybe he’s one of the fae from elfhame, and he has her elf-shot and dependent on the sight of him.

No. Stop.

Elle’s not a child, she knows better, she knows that this illness is of her own doing. The man down the street is no more than a simple merchant from Denmark. He sells ribbons at his stall in Drawton, and in the Summer he returns to his homeland to help bring in the harvest and sell his wares on the ocean. Mortality already weighs heavy on his shoulders. He can claim no more than thirty eight winters, but here and there streaks of grey climb from his temples, and there is a weariness in his eyes that grows by the year. He likely has children or a wife back home. Or maybe he’s a widower, and that’s why his smile falters sometimes, revealing the fractures underneath. She doesn’t know, and she likely never will. He has no possible reason to share such information with her. She’s a rare customer at best, a perfect stranger more likely. Too many people come to his stall for him to remember each doe-eyed adolescent girl individually.

She hates how even the briefest of moments with him sets her heart racing. She hates how the lightest brush of his hand, like when he took the ribbon, ignites her skin. She hates how he makes her feel she’s dehydrated, starving. When she’s near him, the feeling of wanting is so intense that she no longer knows what she wanted in the first place, just that she has become the wanting, and now that’s all she can think, all she can see, and all she can breathe.

She hates how he makes her weak.

On the way home, Elle reflects that she ought to fall in love with the butcher boy across the street from their own stall. It would be the practical choice. He could make her family rich in meat, and it would please her mother. It would bring no scandal, and the old women would keep their mouths shut. At almost eighteen, she knows that it won’t be long before the gossipers are dithering about her being a spinster. Marrying the butcher boy will give them no fodder for their gaping and yapping.

It’s expected of her. It’s what anyone else would do.

After all, one doesn’t really need a heart to fall in love. Not if it’s just in pretend.

6EE26B7E-1354-47ED-BD6B-415520E0E338

 

 

Advertisements

Little Sins

They say that those who covet power are wicked. That all dreams of scepters and crowns are selfish. Little sins, that you must keep in your pocket, you must hold them behind the flesh of your skin, and mustn’t voice them, not ever. If you have ever seen yourself standing atop the world, with the bones of the dead crunching beneath you. If your mouth was full of thorns, and you smiled, because you came, you saw, and you conquered. If you have done these things, if you have even imagined them, you are tainted. You must wash yourself clean. You can think cruel things, but you must atone for them, and you must never say them out loud.

Don’t we all want to be cruel, just a little? Just like when you stand at the edge of a cliff, and some small part of you cries that you should jump, that you should fling yourself from the precipice, just to see what it’s like to fall.

If it is a sin to be the predator, to be the lion and not the lamb, to be dangerous, to slither in the dark with markings upon our backs, then let us be sinful. Let us be wicked. Let us never atone.

You don’t understand, do you, child? I can see in your eyes that you despise me, that you are frightened. All you have ever known is the frosting of a cake, the patterns of fallen flowers, and the light of the sun. You are soft inside, molded by the hands of those who held you, those who cherished you, and built you as you are now. That won’t last, it never does, I can already see the claws bristling in your spine. I have a knife, I can cut them out, I can free them for you.

Now you must listen. You must hear my words, and let them engrave themselves within you. You must remember these words, let them haunt you. Because one day, you’re going to be strong enough to kill me, just as I have killed those laying before you. These forms that you have shed needless tears over. Why waste grief on corpses? They can’t hear you anymore. Yes, child, I know. You weep not for them, but for yourself.

Like you, I was a weak-willed child, and in the window of the past, you can see me crouching, afraid. You see that, yes?

 

It begins with Mislav, of course, all good stories do.

“Don’t waste your time on her. She’s one of those Shacktown brats. Your time would be better spent stepping on cockroaches.”

It is a rule of nature that those who are weak must be eliminated. They slow down the others, they spread diseases, and they breed more weak offspring. Did the Danes not leave deformed children out in the snow to die of exposure? Wolves understand this too, it is not unheard of them to eat their young, or to simply shun a weakling from the pack.

Not that I was any sort of wolf. I was just a stupid child, too slow to dodge kicks, and too weak to kick back.

Mislav seemed to ignore Dmitrei at first, but he left me alone after a while, though not before he made sure to level another kick in my direction.

Once I was sure Mislav was gone, I lifted myself up and brushed the dirt from my clothes, not that it did much good, my clothes were already threadbare and stained. Dmitrei hung back, and the look he gave me was pitying.

“You’d do well to stay out of our way.”

“Don’t I know it,” I glared at him, and scrubbed the blood from my face with the back of my hand. Mislav usually avoided my face, but sometimes a stray kick landed on my jaw anyway.

Dmitrei shrugged. I knew he felt bad for me, but not enough that he’d sacrifice his place at Mislav’s side. I think Dmitrei was a little in love with Mislav even then, and who can blame him? Mislav was beautiful, in a way that made others breathless and their sentences waver uncertainly, and it seems likely that he had some Other-folk blood running through his veins. Not only that, but he was talented, intelligent, and clever with instruments. The fact that he’d taken up kicking strays as a hobby wasn’t going to cancel out the rest.

You may think that Mislav came from some prestigious family, but the fact is, no one in this school could claim to be wealthy. When you live in Vinter, everyone is deep in debt to someone, and even the constables are catering to the sharks. They say the sharks eat their own children, and while this is likely untrue, I’ve never seen any of their offspring in school. As for who the sharks cater to, no one knows. It wasn’t something I thought about much, being a ragged starveling, whose first thought was always how to get food or to steal some shoes that didn’t make my feet hurt.

It may surprise you to know that I didn’t resent Mislav. I had been brought up to understand that hierarchy is natural, that if you don’t struggle to the top, you’ll be crushed heedlessly. Mislav was simply doing what he had to do to survive, and when you live among the wolves, showing kindness is only giving them a place to sink in their teeth. I respected Mislav, and thought Dmitrei was a little stupid, for showing me any kindness at all.

I shed no tears when I limped back to my classes. I felt no pity for myself, perhaps I even felt a little proud. The worst thing Mislav could’ve done was ignored me, but instead he had beat me down, and in doing so, he’d shown that I was a part of the pack, scruffy underdog that I was. And when you’re a part of the pack, you have a chance to climb the ranks.

Child, I see that you still don’t understand. You think the world should be just and fair. That those who are unkind to others should get their due, and that those who are beaten down should rise up as heroes. There is no fairness, pup, there is rarely even justice. There is only the surviving, the fighting, and the thrill of the hunt. If you want something, you have to take it for yourself, and those who get beaten down, will only rise up crueler than those who beat them in the first place, or they won’t rise at all. You are confused, still…ah, no matter. You will understand, one day, wether you want to or not.

I was almost ten, that first time, and it was a full year before Mislav kicked me down again.

I fell hard, and when the gravel bit into my palms, I couldn’t help but cry out. Then Mislav had me by the collar, and he was flinging me against the wall, and that is when I noticed that we were alone. He looked at me, really looked at me, and I held my breath, waiting for the kick. Waiting for the pain.

“Do you know why I do this?”

His question caught me off-guard, so I didn’t say anything. I just stared up at him through my lank hair.

“To give you a chance.” He whispered. “Because otherwise they’re going to kill you, they’re going to snuff out your life like a flame, and then you won’t be anything anymore. You don’t want that, do you? So you’re going to learn. I’m going to make your skin leather, and one day you’ll be strong enough to kill me.”

“Why do you care? Why don’t you just ignore me, like the rest?”

“Because I know potential when I see it.”

Mislav let me go, and I slid painfully to the ground. I could feel his gaze pinning me, daring me to give up, and daring me to fight back. This time, I rolled out of the way when he moved in to kick me. This time I bashed his knee with a rock when he reached for my hair. And when he limped away, bleeding from the gouge in his kneecap, he was laughing. I think that’s when I realized that Mislav was a little mad.

I did grow stronger, I stopped waiting for them to hurt me, and I learned how to hurt them back. Still, it was at least four years before Mislav would accept me into the ranks. It was worth it though, they were so proud of me. Mislav even insisted on an official initiation, he made me a crown of thorns and let me drink expensive vodka.

“I told you, Elena, I know potential when I see it.”

It was the first time Mislav had used my real name, and I flushed with pleasure.

The other girls gave me their kohl to use, and we held a party that didn’t end until the dawn. Dmitrei was jealous, but I could’ve told him he’d have no competition from me. To Mislav I was a protégée, a foundling, and he never looked at me the way the other boys did once I started looking less like a child and more like a woman. Mislav was in love with Dmitrei anyway, and sometimes it exasperated me, the way they danced blind circles around each other.

Dmitrei and Mislav were three years older than me, and they were to graduate that Winter. So I dropped out. I didn’t care about the schooling. They never taught me anything I really needed to know, and I had no patience for my textbooks, as was evident by the numerous torn out pages and unintelligible scribbles. I was a part of the pack now, and nothing else really mattered.

“You’re throwing your life away,” that’s what my mother told me when she found out. She was originally from Drevach, which meant that she was still stupid enough to believe that life could be lived virtuously.

“I’m saving my life before it’s too late. Before I become a bitter husk, like you.”
She just looked at me like I’d hit her. While my father, who was born and raised in Vinter, appeared resigned. I knew he wasn’t pleased, but my father was never really pleased about anything. He was in debt to everyone, and still couldn’t make ends meet. This was all because of my mother, of course. Had she understood the ways of Vinter, had she let my father do what needed to be done, we might’ve had something to eat besides gruel and scavenged food.

I left the next morning, packed my bags and went out the door. I did it in broad daylight, it wasn’t like my parents could do anything. My mother might call the constables, but they wouldn’t waste their precious time tracking down some runaway. Runaways in Vinter were as common as pebbles on the beach. It was a fact of life, and while my mother might harass the constables into half-heartedly searching, they wouldn’t try all that hard. They might even tell her I was dead, just to make her leave them alone.

My father stopped me at the door, and I actually thought he might try to stop me. Instead, he wrapped my fingers around the hilt of his best hunting knife.

“You’re a true daughter of Vinter, Elena.” he said, and I could see the pain in his eyes. I didn’t know what to say, I’ve never been good at goodbyes. I couldn’t tell him I loved him, because that would be a lie. I couldn’t say I’d miss him, because that wasn’t strictly true either.

“Thank you,” I said it quietly, while looking him in the eye, so he knew I meant it.

I met Mislav and the others at the abandoned building that we always hung out at. Autumn was coming on, and I was cold. Shivering in my old army coat, with the knife still clutched in my hand. Mislav wasn’t there, but his sister was, along with Dmitrei and a few others. Mislav’s sister must’ve missed out on that other-folk blood Mislav had running through his veins. Milista was pretty, but that was it. It was a flat kind of prettiness. It didn’t stop people in the streets or make them shiver at the marrow of their bones. She had his dark hair, his golden eyes, those sharp cheekbones and thin lips, but none of the glow, none of the charisma.

“Isn’t it late for you to be out, pup?” Her voice was raspy, like she’d smoked a lot of cigarettes within a very short period of time.

“I left home.”

I don’t think Milista believed me, she just raised her eyebrows.

“Go fetch me some vodka from the backroom, pup. I’m thirsty.”

I may have had Mislav’s respect at that point, but the others didn’t care. I was the new initiate. The youngster who didn’t really know which was up. I could have gone along with Milista’s orders, but I hadn’t been accepted into the pack just to be pushed around. I moved swiftly, enough so that she didn’t see me coming. Years of being beaten by her brother had taught me how important it is to never hesitate, how vital it is, to be faster than your opponent, to catch them by surprise. Then my blade was biting her throat, and she was trying to scramble away from me, her golden eyes wide and terrified.

“Don’t think you can order me about, little girl. I’m no pup, my name is Elena, and I can kill you, I can end you so fast that you’ll forget you ever knew how to breathe.”

I called her little, though in reality, she was a year my senior, but to me she was, at least in that moment. She was at my mercy, and I could see her pulse beating frantically against her skin. I left her there for a while, long enough for her to bleed, long enough for her to think I wouldn’t let her go. Maybe I should’ve killed her, but I didn’t see the point of killing Mislav’s sister, and I could feel Dmitrei’s eyes boring into the back of my neck, though he made no move to interfere. He hated Milista.

I may have been Mislav’s protégée, but there was no doubt in my mind that he would have to avenge her, whether he wanted to or not, and I wasn’t ready to kill him. Wasn’t sure if I’d ever be. Or if I even wanted to. Perhaps I did once, when I was a scruffy nine year old with his boot in my ribs, but that was before I knew. Before I knew that he was saving my life.

So I let her go, and now she at least knew the risk of double-crossing me. Milista had a lot of things I didn’t, including being pretty. I had never been pretty. I was scowl-faced and lean, and I had been mistaken for a boy enough times for me to know that I wasn’t desirable in the way that most of the curvy Vinter girls were. Milista had influence, a beautiful brother who would always protect her, she had enough food to fill out her cheeks, and enough money to buy herself new shoes. But none of that mattered, because I had the treasures that are the most important of all; ruthlessness, the ability to think on my feet, speed, a meanness that ran far beneath the surface until I was more that than blood or bone.

The years, how they dance past us, child. How they swirl and shimmer, blinding us with their colors, until we open our eyes to find how much time has passed us by. Time is the one thing I’ve never been able to catch. So it was that I found myself at twenty two, and by that time, my name carried weight in Vinter. It carried enough weight to outdo a pouch of gold coin. My parents were dead by that time. Oh yes, child, just like yours are now. Someone came in the night, just as I did. Unlike you, I was not there to witness the crime, and only heard about it after the constables did their investigation and evacuated the house.

I went there, and padded through the house on silent feet. I know from the look in your eyes that you expect to hear that I felt nothing at all. I wept, my child, I wept until there wasn’t much else I could do but make raw gasping noises, until my eyes were dry, and still the spasms came. I can’t give you a reason for why I wept. No good reason at all. But I buried my father’s hunting knife in some forgotten copse and said a silent prayer for them both. I had nothing of my mother’s, not even her love, but I wished her peace in the next life. I buried my hate with the knife, I let all of that go. They were now nothing more than corpses moldering in the soil, and there was no reason for hate to live on when there was nothing to direct it towards.

You think me cruel and merciless. You think that perhaps I have no heart at all. I will tell you this, child. I am far kinder than most mortals you will know in your lifetime. Perhaps I am not always kind, but I am never cruel without reason. I give death quickly, and never has a victim suffered at my hands. I don’t do things out of the malevolence of my heart, I do them because they must be done. I do not allow anger to guide my actions. I am simply surviving, just as the wolf does when he makes his kill. Should the lion not devour his prey? Should the fox not outwit the hare? Is nature itself cruel? Surely no more than I. We survive because we must, because that is the way of things. Life and death are two halves of the one, and death is the kinder of the two.

Not to say that I have never acted on my emotions, otherwise I would not have wept so at the death of my parents. Even the wolf must mourn the loss of his kin. It was afterwards that I returned to my pack, where Dmitrei and Mislav embraced me. They knew I was in pain, and they did their best to soothe it. Dmitrei had long since given up any jealousy he harbored towards me. He and Mislav were a happy couple, and they were better parents to me than my family ever was.

It was that very same night, that I awoke in a cold sweat, and I knew, immediately, that something, or someone, was coming for me. I dressed, shaking, and I left the place the gang and I were currently staying at. I walked the streets restlessly, and though I hesitated when I came to the edge of the wood, the pull was too strong to resist. Every instinct within me was telling me to turn back, and to turn back now, but my body wouldn’t listen to me. For once, my instincts refused to align with my actions, and I was filled with an overwhelming sense of dread.

He was waiting for me in the very same copse of trees that I had buried my father’s knife in. He had his back to me, and I swear, it was as if his cloak was made of mist, and it was impossible to know where his cloak ended and where the ground began. I just stood there and shivered. I had my derringer, my knife in my boot, and all my powdered poisons. I had my army coat and my big thick boots. I’d put some considerable weight on in these past years, and was no longer such a ragged little pup. I knew I could pack a punch if deprived of my weapons. But still I shivered, because I knew, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do if this thing decided to hurt me.

“Hello, Elena.” Said the man in the cloak of mist, and when he turned to face me, my blood turned to ice in my veins.

For his face was my face, and my mind had lost all ability to draw the lines between real and not-real. His eyes reflected my own, that same hazel, that same brown edged by green. His brown hair was mine, and not a shade darker. His face, so hard-edged and untouched by softness, with that ridged nose and those lips that you know weren’t made for kissing, but for saying cutting things. He was taller than I, his face paler, and the wide-brimmed hat he wore cast dark shadows over his face. Still, the resemblance was uncanny, and that was just it, he was uncanny.

I knew he was one of the other-folk, and that shouldn’t have unsettled me as much as it did. I had had dealings with them in the past, after all. Perhaps it was how alike we looked, and how I suddenly felt uncomfortable in my own skin. Something I’d never felt before.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed it, child, perhaps I don’t even need to say the words. I will say them anyway, because they must be said.

He was my father, just as I am your mother. No, don’t run from me, not just yet. I have done much to find you, and I would have you listen.

Once, there was an angry and jealous Queen, and who can blame her for being jealous, or angry? For her husband had slept with another, though he claimed to be only faithful to the Queen. This woman he had slept with, this mortal, she bore a child. And so the Queen cursed her husband, declaring that he would lose his child at the time of its birth, that it would be whisked away to some unknown place, where it would be raised by mortals. That he could only retrieve his child as his own once he had tracked it down, and killed the mortals who had fostered it. Likely, the child would then despise him, and perhaps he should’ve left the child to live in ignorance, in peace.

Of course he did not, the other-folk are drawn by impulse to fulfill their own self-imposed prophecies, no matter how tragic they may be, and what parent can deny the desire to hold their own child?

Not only did she curse him, she cursed all future generations, and here we are, my child. Here we are. I have killed those who fostered you, just as my father did before, and his ancestors before him. Now my task is done, and you may choose to stay, or you may come with me, and which case I will teach you all there is to know.

I will be honest, because I cannot do otherwise. I am not a good person, I have committed many little sins, all building up over one another. All tumbling forth, creating something tall and dark and terrible. I will not apologize for being terrible, for that is who I am, and there is something glorious in being so terrible that all must shield their eyes when they see your silhouette on the horizon.

I never wished to have a child, and I am no mother, I have no patience for the squalling of babies or the complaints of children. Yet here you are, and I have found you much quicker than my father ever did me. I am very good at finding things, at catching them and sometimes even keeping them.

Save, perhaps, time. I have never been fast enough to catch time.

But thanks to my speediness in finding you, perhaps we will have some time left after all. Perhaps one day I will tell you the tale of how you came to be, perhaps I will tell you of what I said to my father that night, and all the other pockets of this tale that I have left empty. For the time being, you have a choice to make, and best make haste, for the winds are coming, the ship has unfurled its sails, and I must be off. My crew is not known for their patience, not even for their own Captain.

The girl stood up, and she looked at all the sticky blood coating her hands. At the dust, covering her gown. She looked at the corpses on the floor. At this woman whose face was her own, whose skin was her own, whose blood was her own, and who, at the marrow of her bones, she knew to be just like her. Had she not dreamt of scepters and crowns, of blood and shadow? Had she not thought herself sinful? How many times had she felt like a viper in a nest of rabbits?

“Teach me how to hunt,” she said to the woman kneeling before her, “and I will go with you.”

Elena laughed. “That, I can do.”

697EE719-21FE-4BE0-9519-39CB715D73F3

Decisions of a Lifetime

875 A.D – Wessex

It was on yellowed parchment and the scrawl of the written word that Brother Edgar found meaning. It was in the smooth halls of the scriptorium, the sound of quill scratching against paper, that Brother Edgar found solace.

Though Edgar stood between the four walls of the monastery, though his fingers dutifully strung wooden beads between them, and his lips moved in prayer, he was not, ultimately, a religious man. He thought of God as a beautiful masterpiece, his face illuminated in the motifs of the stain-glass windows. Yet in his heart of hearts, the old gods still made their shrine, and in the deafening thunder of a winter storm, he could see the outline of Thor treading across the expanses of the sky. In the blood of the fallen, he could see the reflection of Valkyries, the forms of the fallen enfolded in their armored embrace.

He spoke nothing of this, it was already well enough known who Edgar had been raised by. Harald, his father, was an honest man who made an honest living, and his weather-worn hands plied the trade of shipbuilding. Yet he was also a man of Danish blood, a proud man, and the runes about his neck spoke of heathen beliefs.

The monks whispered, and he would do well not to give them reason to whisper more. Edgar kept his lips sealed, and spoke no words of religion, save those he murmured in harmony with others, when the monks took up the great chant.

The truth remained, and a dangerous truth too, that Edgar doubted both forms of religion. That this doubt plagued him, body and soul, leaving him shaking in the small hours of the night. It was in times like this that he felt as if the sky had fallen, or that the skin of the world had been drawn back, to reveal raw muscle beneath. Was Jesus not a man himself, when he died upon the cross for the sins of all? Did his people not teach, that Odhin was a man once, as any other, and he was the ancestor of all true warriors? Perhaps all Gods were men, just as any other farmer breaking his back in the fields, just as any other scribe slaving away with parchment and quill, just as any other fighter undertaking the gruesome trade of dealing death to those who stood against him.

Edgar’s true belief lay in the power of the written word, in the curves of a story, rising and falling just as the waves of the ocean do. In the memory of ancient battle and untold history. That was something he could content himself with, for that was his life’s work, and it was before the pages of an ancient tome that he could bow his head and show true dedication.

“You have leave to visit your family today.” Brother Cynric’s voice startled Edgar from his revere, and his hand trembled, nearly ruining the manuscript he was so painstakingly copying. The breath he drew in was ragged, as he collected his thoughts and held together his frayed strands of patience.

“Thank you, brother. I shall visit them presently.”

He knew he should be overjoyed, to have a day in which he could wander the green hillsides and look up at the blazing sun, to have his hands free of cramped work and smearing ink. To speak with his family, to see his sister and how she had grown. Yet it saddened him, to leave this manuscript, unfinished. To break this shell of contentment and quiet that he had crafted about himself. So it was with great reluctance that he lay down his quill and stood back from his chair.

Edgar’s family lived on the far edges of Wessex, where it kissed the border of Mercia, and all that lay beyond. His mother was a Saxon woman, devout in the ways of the Christian god. She stood in stark contrast to his father, and he knew that their marriage had not been one of love, but of convenience. It was common in those days, and Edgar harbored no idealism of his own future, certainly not now that he had taken the cloth. He had yet to be fully initiated, but it wouldn’t be long now, and perhaps Edgar would spend his days married to his work, and think no thoughts of pretty girls in their blue dresses.

Aisley was already promised to some lesser lord residing in Mercia, and it sorrowed Edgar to see her, barely twelve summers, still so young and carefree, her life sold to a man she had never known.

“Little sister,” he said, wrapping her in his arms and lifting her above the turf. “Have you been good whilst I was gone?”

“I’ve been very good,” responded Aisley solemnly. “Have you?”

He laughed, and set her back down, kissing her forehead fondly. “As good as I can be. Where is mother?”

“She’s feeding the chickens. Father wants to see you.”

Edgar drew his hands back and shuttered his face. “Can’t it wait?”

“He told me to bring you to him right away. Please come. You know it’s never good to make father angry.”

So Edgar followed after his sister, marveling at how lightly and nimbly her feet danced upon the dewy grass. How young she still was, how young he once was himself. Though Edgar could barely boast two and twenty summers, he could already feel age wearing upon him. In the creak of his shoulders and ache of his back, in the burn of his eyes and the lines creasing his forehead. He knew the writing of manuscripts stole his youth from him as surely as the life of a farmhand.

At the stables, where his father stood brushing down their draft-horse, Aisley left him. He shuddered involuntarily, it seemed that always, a breath of cold air rose off his father, as if he carried winter itself within him.

“I wanted more for you, you know. For you and your sister both. But your mother, fool woman that she is, taught you such soft and yielding things. While fool that I am, taught you the heft of a sword and joy of battle too late. Too late, my son, far too late.”

Startled, he at first said nothing. His father so rarely spoke to him, let alone such speeches as this, and Edgar felt pained at the depth of regret in his father’s voice.

“You speak as if I am broken,” Edgar whispered. “As if by dedicating my life to manuscript, I have become a corpse in the grave.”

Harald turned to him, and his piercing eyes were bright with unshed tears. “It is not only that you slave over pieces of parchment scrawled with meaningless scribbles, Edgar. You will kneel before their Christian god. You will turn your back on the old gods, and they will die with me.”

Hands trembling, Edgar drew an amulet from beneath the folds of his cloak, and his father, seeing it, drew in a sharp breath.

“You still wear the Mjolnir I gave you.”

“I have not forgotten, father. You do not understand this, but I will try to explain. It was because of you that I slave over these pieces of parchment and their ‘meaningless scribbles.’ You taught me the value of story. You haunted me with your tales of Beowulf and Odin. Those great legends, legends that will be forgotten if they are not recorded.”

“I told you those tales so that you could take inspiration from them, so that you could become as great a man as Beowulf himself! Not…this.” Harald came forward, and though he was not a big man, Edgar had to resist the urge to step back. His father was ever intimidating, and he walked with a commanding power that shook the very earth about him.

“How will we remember those tales, you ask? We tell them to our children. We pass on our history, so that it is not forgotten, and so that they in turn, will become those legends. So that they aspire to be legends. To fight in the midst of the battle, to cry out for glory in the tongues of their people, and offer sacrifice to Frey. You must understand, my son, these legends have already been forgotten. They die a little more each day, and in the reign of King Alfred the Great, they will sink beneath the waters of memory, and be no more.”

“King Alfred is a great man,” declared Edgar. “He knows the value of records, of education, and the preservation of our ancient tomes and manuscripts. He offers our children a chance to be learnt in the ways of reading and writing. He brings growth, change. A civilization that has not been seen since the ancient Romans.”

“King Alfred is a religious man, and like all Saxon monarchs, he will crush all who oppose him. There is nothing he will not do for the love of his Christian god. Look at how he bows and scrapes in his grand pilgrimages to Rome. Look at how he funds the growth of monasteries and looks not to the starvation of his people. Look at how he sends his troops to Northumbria to root out the last heathens, to bend them to the will of Wessex and Mercia both. Look how he encourages the conversion of the Welsh and the last proud Jarls of Northumbria. He is the end of us all, Edgar, and fool you are not to see it.”

Edgar spread his arms wide, palms outstretched, reminiscent of Jesus nailed to the cross, and he felt the weight of iron thorns upon his brow as he spoke, knowing as he did, that his words were futile. “How different, truly, is our gods from theirs? Did Odin not hang from the world tree so that he could learn the runes, just as Jesus hung, to absolve our sins? Did they not both pay the ultimate price for the good of their people? Why do you shun all that is Christian?”

“Because,” Harald’s voice shook with passion. “They kneel before their nailed god, while we stand, we hold our heads proud and unbent. We bow to no God, and no man. We prove ourselves to our ancestors, so that we may join them in Valhalla when our time has come. What glory is there to be had in the bent knees and frantic muttering of monks in their stone churches? What honor is there in these rich clergy men, growing fat from meat they will never have to butcher themselves? I watch as my wife hands over her last savings to the grasping and greedy hands of her priest, all to ensure the purity of her soul, all so that she may be promised a seat in their heaven.

So don’t tell me, son, that our Gods and theirs are not so different, for theirs is a jealous God who demands complete fidelity from all his worshippers. What God is selfish enough to believe he is the only one, save Loki himself? Their God will drown our own in the blood of our people before he will raise his lordly finger and declare himself satisfied. There is no world in which both our Gods and theirs can reign in peace, and I say the three winters of Fimbulvetr will take us by storm before that day comes.”

There was no more to be said, no more words that could bring his father to understand. Edgar saw the truth in his father’s words, just as he saw the folly in them. What was there to be done, but to finalize the initiation, and in doing so, lose all favor in his father’s eyes. For Edgar, there was no sleep to be had, not for many long nights. His manuscripts blurred before his eyes, and the Mjolnir lay lifeless and cold on the thong about his neck. In the voice of the wind he could no longer hear the whisper of the old Gods, and in the baleful eyes of their Christian God he could see no mercy.

He found himself questioning both the words of the Havamal and that of the holy bible. The chant sung in the walls of the monastery rang hollow, and Edgar felt as if madness had touched him in the night. For what was a godless man, if not mad?

“Perhaps there is nothing,” he told the silent twilight. “Nothing but the wide open sky and the fatality of humankind. What fools we are, spilling the blood of our own brethren in the name of Gods that have no love for us.”

Yet it was the very next morning, as the sun mounted the blue stairway above, that Edgar lay out his unfinished manuscript and found meaning in the words. In the careful curves of the letters, the sounds they made in his mind, and the images they created when lain next to one another, he knew peace.

“What is there, but this?” He asked himself, scraping at the parchment with his quill.

“What are our lives but stories, stories that we will one day tell our children? And when our children cease to remember those stories, what is to be done but to chronicle those same stories, so that they may never be forgotten?

And who shall record those stories, if not I?

I have no wish to wield my sword in the name of country, God, and sovereign lord. I have no desire to marry, to father children, as so many others have. I have no illusion of a life in which I could be dedicated to field and farm and still find happiness. It is in written word that God is found. Perhaps the death of the old Gods has indeed come, perhaps my father’s legacy will indeed be crushed under the seat of the empire. Though death may come for us all, never will those stories be forgotten, not while I draw breath.

It is here that I shall ensure the immortality of all mankind.”

015D5880-4A47-43AF-A4F6-8AFA5E9F16CD

Tick Tock

It was no life to be living, and the walls around her were the color of judgement. Each day monotonous, always dressed in the same clothes when it rose up to greet her, always wearing the same face. Each year, she lost a little more, her childhood slipping from between her fingers in trails of sand. All she could desire was to remain a child, to remain far from the world in which her parents resided. She clung, with desperation, to that temporary world in which children live. She sought magic, and she cared not if it split her down the middle, or if it dug its teeth into her spine. She was no longer such a child to think that magic was kind. She knew magic is merciless, that it eats away at you, eats away, until there is nothing left to eat.

Magic is meant to be tasted, once, perhaps even twice, but never three times. It is meant to be spied in the dressing room, an ankle peeking out from behind the curtain, the chaste curve of a leg, no more. Magic should never be seen in its naked glory, undressed before you. It is the monster in the dark, the monster that you know is there, the monster you know you must never reveal. Never turn on the lights when you are alone and the room is not empty. For magic is a predator, and once it scents your curiosity, you become its prey.

He came to her after the clock struck midnight, and when he told her that they could be young forever, she believed him. Even when he bled from the jagged edges of his shadow, and she had to stitch his wounds shut. Even as he took in the dust, injecting it in the hollowed crevice of his arm, where the veins were pale and bruised. She believed in him, because she was still a child, and children want the world to be beautiful, they want it to glitter, even if it is with the false sheen of pixie dust. Even if that dust is made from the ground wings of pixies, and even if those pixies scream when their wings are ripped from them, pixies that are now no more than flightless birds, their cheeks hollow and wasting.

Children are selfish, they want what they want, and they close their ears to the cost. Which is why Wendy let him fill her with dust too, let him lift her from her bed and fly her to the faraway land from which he came. A place where children have no parents, and the lost boys wander the Hollow, waiting for another shot of dust. They need that dust running through their veins, keeping them young, preserving them in a cocoon that feeds off of them, off their desperation, their dreams, their desires. It feeds, a parasite on their flesh, just as the magic does, and they don’t know how to stop asking for more.

There’s a Captain too. He deals in pixie dust, and he has a crocodile chasing him, a crocodile that knows his real name. He’s the best, the very best, at capturing pixies. He’s an expert at infusing their souls and rendering their wings from their bodies. Peter used to work for him, used to be his best customer, but Peter is irresponsible, he doesn’t pay his debts. Now he is deep in debt to the Captain, deep in debt indeed, and the Captain has come to collect. War is declared. The streets run with dusty blood. The crocodile bides his time, and the gold wristwatch ticks away in his throat.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Wendy doesn’t know why she can’t stop injecting the dust, doesn’t know why she lets Peter kiss her, again and again, even though she wishes he wouldn’t. She lays in the Hollow with the others, and she watches them cry and laugh and cry again. She watches them writhing in their sleep, dreaming the dreams of those who can never get enough. Wendy wonders, is this the world in which children stay? Is this what happiness is? This wanting, and not wanting. This taking, and never getting enough.

“You don’t want to go home, Wendy. Home is so dull. This is where we can be young forever, this is where we begin and the magic never ends. Let go, Wendy, let go. There will always be dust, and we will never stop flying.”

Wendy believes Peter when he tells her these things, because she’s still just a child, and children want the world to be magical and never-ending. Even when the sting of the needle hurts almost as much as the memory of home. Even when his wandering hands bruise her, and the feel of his lips against her own is the wrongest thing she has ever felt. This is what she wanted, this is what she wants. This is magic, and it’s not real unless it hurts.

Then the Captain comes knocking, and Peter arms up his lost boys. He has enough gunpowder to blow the London bridge to smithereens, and the air always smells like saltpeter. The worst of the fighting is taken to the Captain’s ship, because Peter knows that’s where he keeps his most sizable stores of dust. There’s pistol shots and the flashing of rapiers, there’s silver hooks and crocodile teeth.

Peter tells Wendy that the captain is trying to steal the magic, that the captain is selfish, and keeping all the dust to himself. So Wendy fights, in the name of magic, because what else is there to fight for? Mostly she fights because she needs the dust. Because without the dust, her veins go dry and her mouth goes numb. The pistol in her hand is the sweetest thing there is, and when the man she shot bleeds out before her, she tells herself that it’s not real. This is all just a dream, and nothing that happens in Neverland actually happened at all.

It’s below decks, where Peter told her not to go, that she finds the secret. In a thousand pad-locked cages, there’s a million naked bodies. Limbs twisted and faces gaunt. Some have died, some have fallen, their hearts silent in their chests. Others have survived, but there is no hope left in their eyes, their backs are bleeding, and they scrabble at the cage doors with tiny fingers. The sound is endless, piteous, and Wendy can’t breathe for the tears choking her.

She opens all the doors, one by one. They crowd around her, their bodies pressing against her, one by one. They tell her their secrets, they tell her that some of them were caught by Peter, when he still worked for the captain. That those very same hands that touched her in the dark, tore their wings from their backs. She can feel the dust in her veins, and she’s retching in the dark, wondering how many pixies died so that she could fly. One after the other, their bodies go limp, in her hands, in her lap, draped over her arms, all around her, so many pulseless bodies going cold against her skin.

Above decks, Peter is jubilant. He tells her that the Captain is dead, eaten by his own crocodile. That the magic is theirs again, that they will never stop flying, and the dust will never run out.

That is when Wendy knows she is no longer a child, because she doesn’t believe in Peter anymore.

Without her belief to feed it, the cocoon shatters, and the dust turns to blood in her veins. When she awakens, she lays in the shadowed interior of her room, all that is left of the magic in tatters around her.

It is then that she hears something faint, a sound that grows nearer until it seems just outside her window.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

96D89CCA-C804-4B9F-A413-C7B499EB3622

The Mountain

I was born the day the waves touched the shore. I was born as the light fell from the bridge. I was born the day the wind rose up from the neath and turned the mountaintops to glass. On that day, my father’s footsteps lay with the snow, and his shadow struggled behind him. He knew he would die, but the summit was just ahead, and his flag would stand with the others. He would be the man who had climbed a mountain, like so many. It meant something, though he no longer knew what, or why, only that nothing mattered more than this.

My father embarked on a quest, for the mountain. He loved the mountain, he wanted to win her favor, and once he had won it, she killed him with her embrace. They called him, on the radio, how their voices must have sounded, in the crackling cold. Lost voices, on a silent mountain, where a dead man’s bones must surely join the rest. They tried, they told us, they sent in a helicopter, but it could not land. They sent a team, but they could not find him.

My mother would have cried then, she would have fallen, as he had. She would have held her face and screamed that wretched scream. She would have hated him, for loving the mountain more than her, more than the child she had birthed. I lay there, and I laughed, for I found the color of joy in the canvas of sorrow everyone painted across their eyes.

When I grew up, I found all the memories of him laying wasted in the corner, and I watched the memories of another man try to take his place. They could not, he could not. The space my father took up was vast as the mountain itself, it encompassed us all, and we all stood small in contrast. Because of this, I knew what I wanted from a very young age. I wanted the mountain, and I wanted it to love me as it had loved him.

I’m just the carving of a cold stone, and I can’t hold the warmth inside me. I can’t be what they ask me to be. I am not like them, I am not like anyone else but myself. I know my mom hates me for it. She wanted me to be her bitterness, she wanted me to hold her anger towards him in the pocket of my hand, and reflect it back to her in all my faces. My mom hates me because I am the mountain. I am what she lost her husband to, and every day she must remember, because I know all his secrets.

At school, I study, like all the others, and when they ask me what I want to be, I tell them I want to be an explorer. Not like a profession, not like an impersonal thing you place in a suit and write schedules on, not like a piece of exhaustion that feeds you dollars.

I want to leash the wind, and I want to be the snow, I want to place all of my pieces on a crystal throne and watch them glow. I want to be the words inside my head, I want to be the rising tempest and the dying storm. I want to be the waves touching the shore, I want to be the light falling from the bridge, and I want to be my father, reaching up towards the summit. I want to meet death.

I don’t tell them these things, I don’t tell them. I just say I want to be an explorer, and they smile and nod, because they know that no one ever becomes what they say they want to be. We all write down our desires on a piece of paper, then we throw it into the fire, because life isn’t about desire, it’s about duty, and doing things you don’t want to so you can become what everyone says you should be.

The only person I tell is Erin, and he listens, because he’s Erin.

“The tallest mountain in the world is Mount Everest,” I tell him. “It’s 8,850 meters above sea level. More than four thousand people have reached the summit, and one day I’m going to be one of them.”

He’s patient with me, he knows I like to repeat facts. That facts comfort me, that facts are what I string my thoughts on, like pearls on strands of silver. “And what will you do then?”

“Then I’ll know.”

Erin says nothing, but I can feel his silence filling up with sadness. He thinks I’m going to die, likely I will, but what matters is that he believes that I’ll actually do it. Everyone else I’ve told has laughed, but they don’t know who my father was, who I am, and who I will eventually become.

It’s here on the bridge that Erin and I can find a little peace. The only sounds are the rushing of the wind in the tunnel below us, the hum of engines on the road. It’s the rise of the silence meeting the explosion of sound, and making a pocket of quiet, like the eye of a hurricane. Below us I can see people on the sidewalk, but they aren’t anymore real than pictures on a page. When I look at the people around me, I cannot see their faces, they are mirages in a heatwave, shimmering and ever disparate. Erin is different, I look at him and I see his solid form, his sharp features and his long fingers. I look at him and I know that he’s real, which reminds me that I’m real too, that I’m not just a piece of forgetting.

I know that we met when we were very young, but I can no longer remember when that was. Erin has been a presence in my life for forever, he has been as unchanging and constant as the memories of my father. I wonder why he stands with me on this bridge, why he watches as I drift towards the silhouette of the mountain and let my thoughts carry me further beyond.

“I’ll come with you, when you go.”

His words catch me, pull me back, and my eyes are wide open, the breeze cutting my skin. “If you want to.”

“I know you don’t believe me,” he says, looking down at me. “You should. I keep my promises.”

“I believe you,” but I don’t. Not truly.

Erin isn’t hungry like I am, he is quieter inside, he has a contentment that could stretch to encompass the safety of a home. I’m not like that, where he has a garden, in which things could grow, I have a yawning pit inside. This ravenous hunger, that churns and froths, roiling as the ocean does when stirred by the storm. It makes me angry, makes me reckless, makes me exhausted and breathless. I have all these twisting knives beneath my skin, all of these maps written on the fabric behind my eyes, and I want something so much that the air tightens around me like a drum when I try to find that wanting, when I try to transcribe it, when I try to explain it.

Is this how the astronomer feels when he looks up at the stars? Is this how the sailor feels when he faces the open sea? Is this how the writer feels when he touches the edge of a story? This desire, that leaves one feeling so incomplete. I wonder if this is the track that madness runs on, because I can understand now, how one might go mad. How one might wish to scream and scream until there is no voice left, to light fires all around, until the world turns red and yellow and green, to tear and break and throw, to turn on oneself and rend the flesh, as the wolf does when he is captured within the cage. Powerless, yearning, pacing, waiting.

That is me, this is me, and all I want is to lose myself to all that is insanity, so that I don’t have to put anything into words anymore.

“I know you don’t believe me,” Erin says again, “but I’d do anything if it meant I was by your side, and I think that’s what love is.” His hands are on my shoulders, turning me to look at him, and there is nothing I can say, because my words are bleeding, my words are turning the sea black with ink. “I’m right here with you, I’m real, and whatever happens, we’ll be together. I know you want to find what it is that you’re looking for, but you don’t have to do it alone.”

“Am I real?” I ask him, and I am afraid, because sometimes, I’m not sure if my flesh is my own, if I have ever lived. Maybe I am just the whisper of the mountain, the memory of my father’s shadow, the sorrow that he died and that he loved something so strongly he let everything go in his pursuit of it.

Erin laughs, and leans down, he kisses me, softly, his mouth brushing against my own. His touch lights my skin on fire, and everything else falls away, everything but this moment.

“You tell me.”

00D38531-2884-43EC-81F2-99343554D98B


 

No Thornless Blossom

This is a madness that walks end to end and then circles back to the beginning again. It doesn’t stop, it doesn’t start, it just encircles its own bloodied corpse in an increasing frenzy. That is the chorus of the song that is sung in my bones, a symphony of voices that rises by the day, echoing against walls of marrow.

I’ve seen the moss growing thick upon the wall, I’ve seen the fall of old kingdoms and the rise of the new. I’ve tasted soil beneath my tongue, and I’ve felt the light shining through the leaves of the forest like sun-glow through the windows of a cathedral.

From the day I was born I have walked with a hunger inside me. I have done things numerous and many to sate that starvation that sits cold beneath the leaf of my heart. There is no relief, there is no salvation. I have delved in the leaves of the wood for secrets as dwarves do for treasure, I have found lost and hidden things that were meant to be forgotten, I have sought solace in the blood of the moon. It seemed that nothing and no one could grant me what I asked for.

So it was with a sense of near relief, that I witnessed the fire. It came on the wind and overwhelmed everything I had loved. Red flames came relentlessly, and they licked petals from the flesh of my brethren, they took the trees and made them tinder, they turned the ground to hot soil and turned salamanders to fleshless husks, they bled away all that I once was.

How I escaped. How. There’s no memory of this. Not in my mind, not in my heart, not even the hunger knows. There was the sensation of grit beneath my palms, and between the blurred lines of my eyesight there was brackish water lapping up over limbs I could no longer connect as my own. All was numb, all was painless, and that was good, for a time.

It never lasts, and when the pain exploded inside me like a flower bursting into bloom, it was fiery and scorching. I could have screamed until my throat was raw, but I had no voice, and all melded into blackness around me.

This is the first story I wrote, sheltered within the walls of the wizard’s laboratory. I wrote it on old parchment, with black ink that bled from a bottle. All that is power must be paid for in blood, and without that, my words lay cold and lifeless against the open page. Still, it was a chronicling of sorts, and it would have to suffice.

It was the wizard who found me, spread on the shore like a broken egg, the blossoms in my hair torn and bleeding, my skin turning grey with rot. It is a blessing, I suppose, that he had studied my kind, and knew not to touch me. He knew to have me wrapped in silk and carried to the window-seat in his laboratory, to lay violet petals across my cheeks and rose buds in my mouth. I have thought, perhaps it would’ve been better, had some hapless farmer stumbled upon me. Unknowing of my kind and the death that comes upon us when our skin makes contact with that of a mortal, he would’ve laid his hand on me, thinking to aid me, or to at least understand what manner of being I was.

At his touch, I would have faded to nothing, until there was nothing left but soil fragments and stray blossoms floating in the surf. He would have crossed himself and moved on. A grand tale to tell his fellows at the tavern, nothing more.

But that is not what happened. Call me touched by fate, the divine will of the five winds, perhaps under the protection of Modir herself, say what you will. I know it for what it was, mere coincidence, and no act of divine will. It just so happens that a scholarly sort of man was wandering the shoreside for his evening walk, he stumbled upon me, which was easy enough to do, spread-eagled as I was, and because he knew ancient lore and forbidden enchantments, he knew how to preserve my life force.

I have lost much of myself. The blossoms have fallen from my hair, as petals fall from a wilted flower. My skin has lost its grey pallor, but where once it was vermillion, bright as a dragon’s egg, it is now faint green, a mere pastel on the palette of colors. There are no mirrors in the forest, but oft I caught my reflection as I bent over a pool of still water, and when I peer into the wizard’s looking glass, I know it is not my reflection I see.

Once, in a world carved like a pearl from an oyster shell, the sun walked among mortals. They say he fell in love with the south wind’s daughter. That his very touch bled the life from her skin, and she fell upon the field of her mother’s sorrow. She fell in fragments from his reaching arms, and she turned to ashes, leaving only the offspring of their adjoined affection. My people, the flower children, or as some call us, ‘les délicats.’ Our blood burns with the light of the sun, our hair is sprung with flowers, and our skin is stained with green. We cannot withstand the touch of a mortal, and we fade as quickly as we flourish.

I am a blossom in a death trap, held within the jaws of a bustling city, rank with the scent of mortals. Were I to step beyond the walls of this laboratory, all it would take is the single brush of an unwitting passerby, suicide has never been easier. I sleep beneath a bower of thorns the wizard has crafted me. My only form of sustenance is the weak rays of light streaming through the window and the stale water he brings me. I harden, my fingers knotted as taproots. I can survive, I am no wilting violet.

Germain, the wizard, is no more than a scholar with an intimate understanding of arcane arts. Despite the distrust Midlanders hold for magic, he makes no secret of his abilities. He is mortal, he has studied at all the universities and has twenty gold stamped letters verifying his credibility. He is respectable, and for this reason, he is often out rendering his services to the mortal that flock to his doorstep. He is kind to me, in a distracted way. I know he sees me as an injured bird he found and nursed back to health. As far as he is concerned, I can go or I can stay, I owe him nothing.

Still, it seems ungrateful to ask him favors, not after all he has done for me, no questions asked. Most Midlanders would’ve had me scorched and experimented upon, they would’ve preserved me in a crystal bottle and picked apart augments of my soul. This man has been kind, mortal though may he be, and I feel guilt pricking my conscience when I beg him for an enchantment.

“I have no means to wander the wide world. As you well know, I will lose all solidity and form on contact with mortal flesh.” I lower my head so he can see my shame. “I have no coin to pay you with.”

Germain looks at me appraisingly. The injured songbird now wishes to fly free and she asks for protection from the shadow of raptors. He is pleased. Germain likes to help others, it is his life’s work. He thinks nothing of payment. He is, as I said, a better man than most.

“I’ve no need of coin, child. It is my pleasure to help you, poor lost thing that you are. I can form you an enchantment. It will be as a forcefield, warning mortals from touching you, just as the forest frog warns with bright markings upon its back. If they should think to lay a hand on you despite the warnings reflecting from your skin, it will glow bright and burn them, as fire does.”

So Germain weaves me an enchantment, he weaves it from the heat of my blood and the prickle of my thorns. He makes me a sheath of poison, in which I will sit like a lily in the water. It glows over the surface of my flesh, a network of gold.

“This will mark you out, regrettably.” Germain says, adding the final touches, his fingers dancing mere centimeters above my skin, but never making contact. “You must be careful, child. The constables see such markings as certainty that you are criminal, and these, when finished, will mark you from head to toe.”

I peer into his looking glass when he is finished. “Beautiful,” I breathe, tracing the patterns with my eyes. I am new, reborn. My flesh hardened, my skin protected, I am no thornless blossom. I am poisonous and terrible, I am a monster, painted with molten gold and deadly secrets. It is as if the fire that struck my homeland has taken root beneath my skin, laced me up tighter than a corset, and now I have become unstoppable.

Germain’s eyes catch mine in the mirror. “Be careful, my girl,” he whispers. “Tell no one that it was I that gifted you with this. I have committed a grave crime, and the penalty would be death.”

I turn and kiss him on his brow, making great pains to not touch him, of course. He visibly flinches from the strength of my enchantment, but I can see in his eyes that he is grateful for the sentiment.

“I give you my solemn promise that I will tell no one it was you who created this enchantment.” As I speak, tendrils of vines encase my throat, binding me in my words. Germain appears startled by my sincerity, by the oath staining my throat with vermillion. I know that mortals have no such way of making promises. They create promises, like clay cups, and break them against the wall just as easily.

“I am moved,” he says, tears glittering in his eyes. I resist the urge to drink them. “Thank you, child. Go in peace, Malmur bless you and Modir hold you in her embrace.”

I leave the laboratory, and I know I am a true child of the sun, that I have deviated far from the path that my grandmother, Modir, set for me. The blossoms have fallen from my hair, my skin. My hair has turned white as the petals of a datura, my mouth is green as the ivy upon the wall, or perhaps… as poison. My eyes are blacker than soil, pit-less pits, and I wear my blood on my skin. There is no longer any place for me in Summerland, I am now the daughter of the winter sun.

Where I walk, whither I wander, I leave a path of dead leaves, and they call me Bramble.

D5AC047C-082B-42D4-8A0C-F20D8C219D58

The Seedling

There’s a black place beneath the cold, somewhere that the sun never shines. A man sits alone in a carven stone chair, no fire to warm his hands, no candle to cast light upon his dreary world. How many years has he been sitting down here in the dark and cold? He doesn’t remember. It has all become the same to him, time blurring into time. His life is an endless roll of colorless paper, folding in front of and around his inert form. Sometimes he thinks about what it would be like, to pick up a pen and write something on that expanse of white. Then he remembers, and he knows that he cannot.

This silent man sits deep within the embrace of the darkness, beyond the far reaches of the human mind. He can see a colorful future in his mind’s eye, golden horizons he could ride over, a blinding blue sky that he could conquer under. But he also sees an inevitable sorrow haunting him, he doesn’t know what it is, but he feels it, like icy hands on his neck. And though his fingers itch for it – to reach for that pen is to seal his fate.

The earth gave birth to him, suffering in the darkness. She fed him roots and forgotten dreams. She told him that his story would be a conquerer’s story, but that there would be a price, for there is always heartbreak growing deep within any tale worth telling. The earth is both jealous and loving, mothers generally are. She seeks not only to protect him, but to keep him for herself, but the earth often underestimates her children, for he is a seedling, and though he may happily sleep in the arms of his mother for a time, he will eventually want to spring up through the ground, bare his face to the sun.

One day, he hears the stones cracking apart above him, and he looks up. He tastes sunlight in his mouth, like syrup and orange blossoms. The earth clenches her fingers around him, she reminds him of the doom that awaits him, but he’s no longer listening. He stretches up, towards the light, already longing for another taste. His arms stretch forward, and his long fingers twine into the crevices of the rocks above him. For a while he simply grows, and he’s starving, endlessly hungry, always wanting more. This man, he can’t be any less than a century old, and yet he is like a newborn. Up and up he grows, man, stone and tree, all twined into one.

The earth digs her fingers into his ankles, desperate. She hopes that she can at least keep him there, rooted just above her. He can drink in the sun, taste the wind, go no further, and stay just within her grasp. As time passes, she relaxes. She deceives herself into thinking that he will stay, and she’s wrong, so terribly wrong. Seeing the sky only makes him want to see more. His keen eyes have already made out the border of the forest. What lies beyond?

He kisses his mother’s stony eyelids, he strokes her mossy hair. He lies to himself, says that he’ll come back. A common assurance that runaway children often comfort themselves with. He clambers out of the wood and stone, he is a nestling leaving the nest, he is a chick breaking open the egg. Barefoot and half guilty, he flees through the forest, waiting for his life to begin, not realizing that it already has.

Imagine how she feels the next morning, waking to find her son gone, that dear child she hoarded so jealously. She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t weep and wail and rend her breast, for what difference would it make? She simply stares into the infinity of time with eyes the color of fallen leaves, waiting. Doing what she can to protect him from the sharp edges of the world, even though she already knows what the outcome will be.

He doesn’t stop running for a long time, he has never ran before, and he can’t seem to stop. He sees young women, bright ribbons coiled into their hair. He feels no desire for them, only curiosity. This doesn’t mean that he will never fall in love, there is, after all, many kinds of love. Everyone falls in love, it’s inevitable, like death.

There will be a world of wonders to explore, he will drink in the secrets of mankind like wine, and he will grow drunk on it. His eyes will become so keen that he will be able to pick out even the tiniest of the many patterns embroidered in the fabric of the world. Yet at the end of it all, he will wish that he could pluck his own eyes out, and become a sightless creature groping in the darkness once more.

There is no escape from his fate.

FBD346A4-6818-4FAA-8C57-D061FD62E90B