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. . . Alex Brightsmith

I want to tell you a story.

No, scratch that . . . I want to tell you a whole lot of stories.

I want to tell you about mistrusting, mistrusted Kathryn Blake – traceuse, pickpocket and cat-burglar – the girl who got into Kimine’s machine on the ground floor, and smashed it all to Hell.

I want to tell you about the Lady Waiting, and how a young First Rider and a cadet with her arms in minor set out to challenge a corrupt court, a mad preisthood and the gods themselves in their search for a lost princeling, and find themselves on an epoch changing journey in her name.

I want to tell you about Mirabella of the Untouched, and what happened after she failed to commit suicide-by-contact . . .

        . . . about Cal, the only survivor of the Birmingham starfire incident, who becomes mankind’s ambassador in one last, desperate effort to persuade the Qr’nt to make their stand . .

. . . why you should never shake hands with a man with a star shaped mole in the webbing of his right thumb . . .

                                        . . . and why one of the founders of Neptunian science endures such a thoroughly unsatisfactory housekeeper.

Undsciplined as I am, you may expect that this will take me quite some time.  Whilst I’m getting there, here are some short stories, teaser fragments, and random musings.

You can also find me on Goodreads, where you’ll mainly find short posts on words and writing.

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Beautiful Lies

Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars, but I managed not to meet her eye, gazing past her and starting on Galli’s Lament as if someone behind her had asked for it. The notes flowed easily – they ought to, by now – the sweet soft yearning of it matching my mood. I could let my mind drift, trusting my hands to remember the tune truly even as my thoughts turned to Marra’s choice. I remembered singing it when I was just fourteen, my voice unbroken, and all the sweet promise it seemed to hold then. What else should I ever need, but my voice and my pipe and my true love at my side?

Well what did I know, but music? And in the old songs there is no one but has a true love, and no power beneath the blue sky that can keep true lovers apart.

Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars before the last notes of Galli’s Lament had yet died, and that was reason enough to let my eye sweep past her, and let another choose. Marra’s a nice girl, and I knew she was due some indulgence, but she lost my sympathy a little with her impatience. Besides, there was a lad who wanted one of the hill dances so that he could show off to his lass, and I was lost in reminiscence enough to have more sympathy with that, even if the jaunty tune matched my mood no better than romance. At his age I’d given up believing in The Wheel and the Stars, but I’d grown to respect its usefulness in persuading a lass into a receptive frame of mind. It had even worked on Sanda once, and she’s almost as cynical as I am – you get that way growing up in a tavern.

And here I was in Sanda’s tavern again, after far too long away, and no Sanda. That wasn’t doing anything to warm me towards Marra’s plight, either.

Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars in the breathless pause between dances, and I couldn’t deny the room was ready for a change of pace, but I shrugged helplessly and told her that I needed a soprano, and plunged into The Maidens of Kirrinrise instead – all the room knew that, and it hardly mattered if my playing was a little ragged for a verse or two. And it was ragged. I wished I hadn’t mentioned the soprano. I’d teased Sanda too often about that, Sanda with her beautiful low laughter and her easy, cynical smile, who I’d told time and again that I needed a soprano to weave her voice around my flute. And I’d had sopranos, damn them. Sweet voices singing sweet love songs whilst I played mechanically beside them, the music so familiar that I was free to listen and reflect, thinking ruefully of my own shifting life and of the things that I could never claim, and learning to hate the false promise of the song I’d not yet learnt to avoid.

But here at last was Sanda, and my hands found their skill again. I hadn’t seen her slip in, caught her even now only in glimpses, mourned a little that I had not seen her expression when she found me there, but played on, heartened.

Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars, but the mood of the room was against it. They wanted dances again, and who was I to deny them, so long as it suited my need? I wasn’t sure I could play The Wheel and the Stars, anyway, it had been so long. Eventually you learn to play to your own choice, even as you seem to follow the will of the room, and if I might sometimes have to stoop to romance I’ve rarely had to stoop to that. And there was no stooping to romance here. The tavern was too busy, the pace too fast – so fast that it took me a dozen dances to realise that it was not the business of the tavern that kept Sanda from my side.

She was avoiding me. Once I realised I couldn’t miss it, but there was nothing I could do but stew on my awareness of it as the dances passed. She wasn’t that busy. She could have loitered a moment at my side, yet somehow it was always one of her servers that filled my cup. I knew I’d been a long time on the road but she knew the reason, and it had never come between us before.

Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars, and I might have said something I’d have regretted in the ugliness of my mood, but there was Sanda at my side at last. She offered the jug grudgingly, with no kiss to sweeten the cup, and for the first time in the evening I had a good reason to avoid Marra’s request. I’m not totally stupid. I might not have had any idea what I’d done to rile Sanda, but I knew enough to call a break and hustle her aside.

We’d hardly stepped into the passage before her temper flared.

“What the hell did Marra ever do to hurt you?”

“Hurt me? You know I’m fond enough of the lass.”

“Yet you won’t play for her? Won’t even meet her eye? Hadn’t you heard that she needs her friends tonight?”

Not heard? A minstrel, and gossip my life’s blood? Not heard?

“Of course I’ve heard.”

“Then why not play for her?”

“Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars.”

“And? You’ve played it for me, in the past.”

And I could remember every glance I’d stolen as she listened, and the faint blush she’d tried to mask behind amusement when she’d realized I played for her.

“I was twenty-five,” I protested, as if that explained everything, but we’re both a long way past twenty-five, and she only had to quirk one eyebrow at me to demand a better reason, “and I was showing off.”

My voice softened on the admission, and she answered with laughter in her voice.

“I’d be hurt to learn that you wooed me so cynically, but that I’ve known it these last dozen years.”

“My methods were cynical, perhaps, but my intent was earnest enough.”

“I think I’ve had long enough to work that out, Coren. But if you’d play it to charm me, why not to soothe Marra?”

“I hadn’t learnt to hate it, then. It seemed harmless enough, if not to my taste.”

“And it doesn’t now?”

“It’s a lie. As if you can earn your happy ever after, as if you’re guaranteed what you deserve. As if love is enough, no compromise, no hunger, no nights of loss or seasons of repentance. We both know better than that. And what did they give up, anyway? Either of them? With their manor and their hounds and their silken gowns. That’s supposed to be a loss?”

The brush of her lips on my cheek surprised me. She said fondly

“You know too much, that’s your problem. There’s no silken gowns in the song. No hounds, either. But that’s not the point, and you know it. No one believes the lie all their waking hours. Not even me, when I was twenty-five – though perhaps I had my moments, when I looked in one pair of blue eyes. Certainly not Marra, certainly not today, not after Kit … But no one needs to believe the lie. So we can’t be sure of earning what we think we deserve? So what? The chance is enough. Less than that. Just the thought that we’re not alone in hoping for it, that’s a reassurance in the lonely night. Marra was in pieces yesterday, and tomorrow she’ll be herself. But tonight she wants beautiful lies. Is that so much to ask?”

It wasn’t, when she put it that way, but she didn’t trust the reason behind my hesitation.

“Anything I can do to persuade you?”

I could hardly be expected to resist, if she was going to say it in that tone …

“You can find me a soprano.”

I slid all the innuendo I could manage between the words, but twenty-five was a long time ago. Long enough to armour her against my mischief, so that she could match my stare and ask blandly

“Blonde or brunette?”

“Your choice. She’ll only be singing for Marra, after all.”

“Oh? Sure of someone else to warm your bed, are you?”

“I’ve hopes. The lass I’ve got my eye on … there’s a song I know she’s fallen for before.”

Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars as we slipped back into the room, and there was a soprano sent to my side to sing it, but I hardly heard the familiar words as the notes slipped painlessly beneath my fingers. My eyes were on another lass, and her smile was just for me.

So my writing group‘s winter competition theme this year was Bad Romance. I expected Dram to have something amusing on that theme – I know there’s a good many ballads in the standard repertoire that he has issues with – but since we’re out of touch at the moment it was Coren whose story found me instead. I think some of you already know Galli’s Lament as the first song in the Lady Waiting’s cycle, and The Maidens of Kirrinrise as something suitable for taverns that Dram refuses to translate for me. The Wheel and the Stars is a song that I’m surprised any minstrel can entirely dodge – it’s pretty sappy, I admit, but it also records an important precedent in Khyran affairs in the way in which it speaks of castellany and marriage, and the efforts that Serren made to ensure that manors would never again be held lightly by absentee magnates. 

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Where Once Was a City

You will forgive me if I am a little shaken. I have had just now the last messages from the house of Cardallan, my full sib, and there was much in that, though I knew the day must come, that was a great grief to me. The loss of Cardallan, of course, who has been at my side since we were budded, the loss of a mind as close to mine as mind can be, the knowledge that I shall taste no more those messages that are shade and depth to my own thoughts, and with it the knowledge that I am now the last of my sib, and that my own time cannot be long postponed. This I have known for a long time; the narrowing of my lacuna is there to remind me should I let it slip, even for a moment, from my mind. But it is bitter, still, to taste those messages, and in them to taste the shadow of my own demise.

That blow I could have ridden, prepared for it as I have been, but the real shock, quite overmastering me, was the realisation that, Cardallan being lost to me, there is none other in this community of minds that knew the city of the plains, and knew the loss of the city of the plains. The memory of it remains, a warp in the shining skein of our consciousness, but to all these others it is only a house memory, an inherited chattel, and as a fact that has coloured their whole existence it can never have the horror for them that it holds for me. I knew the city, knew its variety, its vibrancy, its humming, thrumming presence there across the plain, frozen, frosted, perfect, a jewel and a dream. I knew the Lightening. I tasted those few shocked, fragmented thoughts, sent out whilst we could only stand amazed. I knew that shock, and I am the last of all that knew it.

Nothing remains, only the Faba Rock and the dinted plain, its ice unsullied. I’ve tried to keep the memory of it alive; I’m trying now. But I’m failing, and I understand. I’m so close to my own closing off. I’d not have listened to the ravings of the nearly dead when I was still a builder myself. I inherited house memories, knew the flavour of them in the skein, and let them fade because they did not seem to touch me. I have been guilty. Let these that stand below me not be guilty of the same.

All I can do is send out my messages, downwards, outwards, hardly hoping. There, you can mark it in the skein. Here, where it has been since before you were budded. Is it a faded thing now? Does it seem of little import? Consider then the houses of my demi-sib, here just below me, those who had the tale from those of us on whom the blow had fallen, and built circumspectly, stretching towards the plain because it is our way to reach outwards, but fearing to reach that dark field of frozen terror. A narrow band they make, a full sib, yet so narrow a band, so cramped a quarter, meanly built.

Not so my hemi-demi-sib, down there below. The city thrusts outwards once more, as it grew when I was young, as I myself helped it to grow. And down below they build as I built in my youth, expansively, greedy for new lands, greedy to reach the plains, the terrible, treacherous, deadly frozen plains. The plains they think I fear.

That’s the truth they see. Here I hunker within the walls I built myself when I was young, and the walls that were my life and purpose and are become my prison and my death. Well that’s our way, and the end comes to us all, what we build here is our only legacy. They think that I’m afraid for them, as their walls reach the ends of the rocky outcrop that was the heart of the city, and begin to spread across the ice. They laugh at me, I’m sure. Perhaps there was a city, and a great one. Well it is gone, and the ice is theirs to claim, it has been purified, in their belief, for their own special use. Perhaps they’re right. Who could guess? Who would care? Not I.

It is not their future on the plains that concerns me, short and direful though it may be. I know there was a city and I know that it is gone. So as my world closes in around me, as I prepare for my own end, my last messages are of heartbreak and despair. There once was a city, and it is no more. How can I know that this, my city, my life, my death, will endure when I am gone?

I havered for a long time about posting this (I wrote it for my writers’ group’s winter competition), because it came out so bleak. But the funny thing is it doesn’t feel bleak to me at all, only silly. There’s two tiny clues about the setting that might help explain that, but I’m not going to tell you what they are – that would only spoil it, and I only want to reassure you that I wrote it in a more cheerful spirit than you’d otherwise assume.

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Introducing Sen Foillate

It was entirely Dram’s fault. I’ll tell him so one day, if he ever comes wandering back from the plains, and he’ll deny it as soon as he decides I’m teasing, for though he’d take the blame he’ll never take the credit – but it was his fault, all the same. I’d never have had cause to be in the Tourning Yard, if I hadn’t been looking for Dram – not even a provincial’s awed curiosity. I’ve seen burgs, large burgs and fine ones, and I’m not about to let my province down by betraying the least grudging respect for the keep at Khyre, though it’s larger in its own self than the burg in which I was raised. And if I hadn’t cause to be in the Tourning Yard, saving Dram’s presence there, I certainly hadn’t cause to poke my head into the mail stables in time to see a disgusted groom turn his back on a finely dressed stripling, and the stripling draw back one arm with obvious intent.

It’s amazing what you can think in the time it takes an obnoxious eighteen-year-old to throw an ill-advised punch. I thought, I was supposed to be at liberty today. I thought, does a Runner have authority, here in the Tourning Yard? I thought, they could help him out, the bastards – for there were three others closer at hand, and I could see in their stances and their expressions that they had no intention of doing anything but enjoying the show.

One of them gave a warning, at least. I heard it just as I began to move, painfully aware that I couldn’t possibly cross the space in time but determined to make the effort, and to argue jurisdiction later. It never came to that. Before I could take two strides the groom had swung back, catching the boy’s wrist neatly and giving a slick twist and pivot that brought the boy nose first to the ground before I could blink, one arm twisted almost to his neck, and the groom’s knee planted firmly in the small of his back.

The groom glanced up casually and met my eye. I fell back, embarrassed in equal part by my willingness to intrude and the futility of my gesture, and studied him as his gaze assessed me. He had all my height, which is rare enough, and rarer when it’s matched with the black hair and lean frame of an Assani, and he was holding the boy with deceptive ease, as one might hold an injured cat, confident enough in his strength and his hold to exert no excessive force, and yet allow the boy no space to harm himself or others. He was wasted as a groom, I thought, and then, remembering where I was, and realising that he was almost certainly a Crown Rider despite the faded tunic and plain boots, that he was wasted on the mails. So I can legitimately claim that it was never my first thought that the mouth beneath that frank gaze had a generous quirk to it that was asking to be kissed, but only my third or fourth, vying with a sick realisation, based on the whining protests of his captive, that the man I had taken for a groom was Cygnus Khyran, Master of Horse, one of the dozen highest officials in all Khyre.

He watched me work it out, and then he winked, and whilst I was still trying to decide whether that meant I should or should not bow he came smoothly to his feet, passing the boy easily to a Rider I recognised from Lowmead. A word passed between them, and he turned back to me.

“So I have here a pretty problem for a Runner and – ” his gaze swept me once more from head to toe “ – it seems also that I have a Runner … ”

If you’ve been following Dram Cetus then you may have met Sen before. This comes from both their futures, I think, and since Sen seems keen to tell me about it you’ll hopefully hear more about it in due course. I’ll just leave this here for now, half tease and half promise …

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Silver and Jewels

So there was this guy in the tavern and he was talking about Sarralan and how everybody always gets it wrong. He said they see the grey sea in the winter and the flat marshes and they let the chill get in their bones because they’re not prepared for the soft, deceptive breeze that cuts like a knife. And you know what? Yeah. That’s always been enough for me. I’ve never fancied Sarralan in summer. Yet here I am.

But this guy in the tavern, he said – and he wasn’t just any guy, you know? We were inside the inner wall and he was wearing a sword by right, he wasn’t some schmuck, and he wasn’t a trader with something to sell. And he said that Sarralan knows how to meet the winter. He said you have to dress for it, of course – and he was dressed for that tavern, I’ll tell you, silk and the finest wool, with an enamel pin my fingers itched for, or I’d never have listened to the tedious old git – but he said Sarralan meets the winter easy.

The fields of Rashaf meet the winter at bay, that’s what he said. The dead arms of hedgerows and orchards reach blindly through the snow, and it takes an act of faith to believe that the blossom will come again in time. And yet Sarralan – and folk call Sarralan bleak just because the landscape pools and stretches in wide layers – Sarralan meets the winter with good grace, fading into tones of honey and copper before dressing itself in frost and surrendering gently to a down cloak of snow. If you can find a high place to stand, and there are a few, whatever folk say, and survey the sleeping land you will see it relieved, even on the greyest day, by the steely gleam of water, and by flashes and glimmers of silver and blue whenever the day is clear …

There was a fair bit more. You don’t expect me to remember it all, do you? But anyway, here I am. In the raw cold. In a ditch. In sodden clothes and ruined boots. And you know what? He’s right, there’s no bare trees reaching like dead things towards a weeping sky, and you know for why? It’s because there’s no fucking trees. And you know what else there isn’t. There’s no fucking shelter, either. Not a hillock. Not a bump. Not even a wall, but that at least makes sense, because you build walls to protect what you value and I haven’t seen one fucking thing in five fucking days that I’d value higher than the scrapings of the common pot in the meanest kitchen in all Khyre. And certainly not one thing I’d risk my neck to steal.

Yeah, in the end we get to that. My fine fellow in his fine array in that cosy tavern within the wall, looking like a man with a grand estate behind him, starting to doze a little under the influence of the extra spices I’d slipped into his mulled ale, mumbling about silver and gold, mumbling about jewels, mourning everything he’d had to leave, the riches that the whole of Khyre were naught to match. (I’m sorry, he talked that way, he really did.) So I didn’t roll him for what he carried – seriously, we were inside the wall, rolling him for what he carried was never the plan because I’m not that fond of jail – but just made sure he’d had enough extra spice to forget me, and made sure of his seal. Next day I knew who he was and where exactly he hailed from, and now here I am. Freezing. Not seeing any damn jewels.

Not hearing any hounds anymore either though, and that’s got to be good, right? Fucking hounds. As if they’ve got anything I want. Manor that you could fit complete within the Tourning Yard. Not even real thatch, some shit made of reeds. Ready enough to give me something from the common pot (thin pottage, not a shred of meat in it, but by the Gates what I’d give for that bowl now), and a bed (call that a bed!) in the common hall, and no wonder. I had myself a prowl, once the manor was sleeping. Not so much as a silver plate or a glass beaker in the whole place. One horse in … I’d say the stables, but one fucking horse. Her tack must have been worth almost as much as everything else I’d seen; leather’s not cheap in Sarralan, not the decent, beech-tanned kind. I’d have taken her. I should have taken her. I felt fucking sorry for them. And what do I get? Their hounds baying on my trail, as if there was anything I could have taken that was worth chasing down.

But it’s quiet now, and there’s light enough to think of moving. There’s a burg east of here, and even a burg-bug like me can find east when it’s blinding me. And it is. Sunrise like a sheet of fire, and a matching glare touched off every frozen pool. Give me rolling hills, give me green, give me a sun that puts a little warmth in my bones, instead of wasting its time putting a sparkle on every damn thing it touches.

Okay, I’ll quit grousing and walk. If the sun won’t warm me the walk will, and I’ve done worse than this. I’ll reach the burg and I’ll find a way home and I swear by the Gates I’ll never leave it, and I’ll never think any more of richer pickings than fat merchants. You know where you are with fat merchants, and they don’t keep fucking hounds.

But I keep thinking about that maundering old fool in the tavern within the wall.

Some folk don’t know when they’ve got it good, you know?

Not my usual kind of Khyran. I think he might have had a run-in with Kit Scurius though – & Kit Scurius is my usual kind of Khyran. You’ll like him when you finally meet, I hope.

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Grounded

Darkness. Darkness and a memory of terror, as vivid as a scar, and suddenly the terror is here and real, suffocating, and there’s nothing to reach for, nothing, only blackness and –

Reach, damn you. Reach for what you know. Five things. Five things now. Five things you can (but a protective instinct kicks in, changing the formula) five things you can feel.

My heart, pounding, hammering at the walls of my chest the way I want to hammer at the walls of darkness engulfing me, and this isn’t helping at all, is it, the darkness, my god, the darkness, and the thick terror of the night and –

– and my heart, doing its job, doing what was asked of it. Maybe ask it a little less, yes? Maybe help it out? Five things now. Five things I can feel. Second thing. Cold. That’s a thing, right, a thing I can feel? And the floor is hard, but I can move at least and – sweet Jesus that hurt! Cramp. Damned if I’m counting that. But I can move. Upright. Sitting in the dark. A wide floor, no walls I can reach, no clues, no –

No damn focus. Fix that. Focus. Five things I can feel. Fourth thing, the roughness of old boards beneath my hands, grainy wood, not smoothed use. Splintery. Cold. We’ve had cold. Fifth thing, the tingle around my mouth where they tore off the tape, thank god. Oh my terror as they slapped that on. But it’s gone now. I could scream. They don’t care if I scream. Oh god they don’t care I could scream all I liked I – don’t think about that. Think about … four things I can see? Five should have been sight. Not ready for that. Don’t even think about that. Four things I can touch? Kinda did that with feel. Four things I can hear.

Not my heart any more, not the rasping of my breath. That’s good but – four things I can hear. Right on cue, a wind-driven pelt of rain against the outer wall, flung like a fistful of gravel. And there’s the wind, lashing through the trees. I never even guessed there were trees; suddenly my world’s expanded, and I’ll take that, take it and cling to it, for all its hostility. Four though. Four things I can hear. I usually only have three to find, but let’s not think of that, not now. Stretch, listen, rise damn you. Rise and hear your own steps hollow on those rough old boards. Solid steps. Shod steps. Stamp. Shout, maybe, just for something to hear …? But maybe not. A step too far. Quiet as a mouse then, and what else is there to hear, here in the cold dark, waiting? The whisper of denim, of my legs as they chafe together. Good. Better. Three things I can … smell.

Damn, this one’s always hard. I keep peppermint oil in my bag, like they say, something to cling to. But that’s gone. Nothing to cling to here. Nothing but what I am, and what’s that? A scared little mouse, clinging to ritual. Well fine. It’s a good ritual. Deep breaths and – barn dust – that takes me back – and under it stale oil – and … hmm. Me, not to put too fine a point on it. How long have I been here? How hard did I fight? And what did that stale sweat earn me, except to be here in the –

No. Two things I can taste. Now. The gluey, unwashed staleness of my own mouth. Urgh. How long? But that way leads only to panic. A second taste. Bite to taste blood if you have to but – no. The back of my hand, salt sweat, real and vivid. And one thing I can –

No, I still can’t face that. One thing I can remember, then. Perhaps I can face that. A face, yes. One face out of that scrum, one face to fix my fury on, one face to fight against. There.

But where does that take me to? Zero. Nil. No things I can see.

But that’s not true, is it? A chink of light, a hint of grey and brown where there was only black. That’ll do. It’s not much, but it will do. It will have to do. I don’t know who they were, but they sure as hell don’t know who they’ve tried to cage, and I’ll forgive them that, if nothing else – I’d damn near forgotten myself.

A random something, just because, and no rash promises. I do wonder what the mindfulness instructor would have made of it if I’d been brave enough to share!

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Mud

Mud. An eternity of mud.

Mud and … softer mud? Something else. A forgotten thing. What?

Beyond the screaming pressure that blocks and baffles thought, out there where the blind hand gropes, sweet open air and free movement and  … shapes?

Meaningless shapes. Something round? Something cold? But thought is fading. There’s nothing …

… only one last soft sweet impression, warm and fleeting, and as the mind slides down into cold pain and silence it takes with it a savour of love and hope.

“Boy? Here boy! Good boy – whatisit? Whatisit boy?”

“Pull him off.”

“Here’s a good boy.”

“Pull him off. No. No pulse.”

“Nothing? (There’s a good boy).”

“Keep him still a moment … No. Nothing on the phones, either. Tag it.”

Offff you go boy!”

“Find us a live one this time.”

Miranda has tempted me back with her Mid-Week Flash Challenge. I knew I’d find a tale for her in the end. I didn’t expect it would be quite so bleak.

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Mist by moonlight

There are a few sights that will stay with me always.

The first time I saw, really saw, the Milky Way, and my naked horror beneath it.

The first time that I saw a landscape lit only by the full moon – but I’m lucky with that one. It was long ago, when one had to travel to find somewhere dark enough to be flooded by that silver light. The sight was a joy and a delight to me, and the ghost of that delight has been a comfort to me under crueller moons.

The first time I saw dawn across a snowfield, all golden light and lilac shadows, and that, too, was an innocent delight to me. That snow was only an oddity, an extreme of variation, a thing to find harmless joy in. And oh how the memory of that joy has tainted every such moment that I have snatched from the darkness, these last years, wondering what evil might lurk within each new ‘harmless’ circumstance.

And now, this. There is no moment of joy in this, for I am older now, and if I have not learnt wisdom – well, I have had some crammed into my resistant skull, anyhow. And so I take no artist’s delight in this, but see it plainly, and in terror. Beneath the cold moon, between banks piled deep in blue-shadowed snow, the mist is rising.

The mist is rising. I did not think it could happen so soon. They were supposed to be weak but … the mist is rising. I cram myself deeper into the inadequate cover of some dying ferns, though I know that the instinctive reaction will not save me. Their eyes don’t work that way. What will save me now is the charms, the right charms, the charms that were given to the children to remember, ages upon ages ago. But oh, it is so dangerous, because I’m thinking of the past, and of the errors that we made in our ignorance, and the ways in which we were fooled, and even to think one of the false charms now – the charms that were given to men who thought themselves wise, men who wanted to pin down magic the way their brothers pinned out butterflies, useful fools – these charms will draw on that which I must ward against, will invite the attention of That which dwells amidst the mist. Concentrate on the old charms, the true charms, let their words run through my mind as the wind runs through a prayer wheel, swear it, by the red rowan and the white, by the blood upon the thorn, by the iron when it is hot, by the iron, by the iron, by the iron …

The litany sooths me, but my fear remains. They can’t take me tonight, not me, not tonight. It is, perhaps, not so bad to be taken, for myself (by the iron, by the iron, by the IRON in the BLOOD – that’s Their thinking there, no thought of mine) but I have news tonight, news and understanding, and I must take it home. It’s the iron, the iron that is our birth right and our blood, that we must take and spread again across the lands that once were ours. It was given us once before – given us for a toy – by One who knew what men can do in idleness and jest. And we took it and we played with it, and we girdled the world with our toys, and They could do no more than sprinkle false charms in our dreams. But there, even the thought of the false charm draws Them – by the rowan and the thorn, by the blood, by the iron –

And It is gone.

There is only the deep snow and the cold moon, which is dangerous enough, and I shall go on, carefully now, I and my secret, which must be secret no more.

We grew earnest, you see, that was our error – though we had reason enough for our earnestness, I’ll grant, for we had done harm enough in our play. But we grew earnest without knowledge, without wisdom, and we no longer played with iron. We took our position seriously, and took our girdle off the earth, setting iron only where we must, stepping lightly – but if we do not girdle the earth with iron, then Others will girdle it, and in crueller bonds.

They have made their start, but we have yet time.

Another one for #MidWeekFlash. Still behind. Still catching up.

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Ankus

“Perseverance, that’s what these children lack.”

I can still hear my father saying it, and I still flinch at the bitter contempt curdled into the word children. I thought perhaps I’d have forgotten, by now, but I hear his words more and more these days, just as I see him more and more – in the so familiar pattern of creases spanning my own brow, in the grizzling of my beard and in the silver that spirals into my patriarchal mane. Yeah, me, a patriarch; I wish that he could see it, though not so earnestly as I wish he could see this community that I lead, every scavenged spar, every upcycled cable, every field claimed by hard labour from the shifting silts of the estuary.

But still, even as I curse him, sometimes I wonder: just how many times might I have given up along the road, if I had not had the memory of his contempt to goad me on?

Well, it has taken me about every trick I know to make that five sentences, as the prompt requires (this prompt, go and see), but maybe if I persevere I’ll do it cleaner, by and by?

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Frozen beauty

I wrote this for the #55wordchallenge (you should probably go and look at the prompts, and the other responses), so it’s only fair that I should start with the 55 word version, though it took a turn for the bleak when I pruned it …

A field of snow. Bare trees tracing prisoning bars against the dead white sky. I couldn’t do this anymore; loving him was not enough. I said it every day.

Against the clean lambency of the winter sky, waiting life, sleeping hope, a clean, brutal beauty. I saw it too late; our love was already dead.

 

But there’s also a rather more optimistic version. It got a bit carried away with itself, considering the terms of the prompt …

Sean didn’t stop when I stopped, didn’t even turn to ask the cause. Why would he? I was always stopping, and rarely managed any more to bite back the complaints that came so readily to my chapped lips. I’d been grumbling half aloud as I walked – what was I doing here, here on this frozen lake, here in this frozen state, here where my face hurt from the cold? I knew the reason, the reason walked buoyantly ahead of me, graceful even in snowshoes, childishly delighted in the snow and the season and even in the freezing air, puzzled and hurt by my litany of complaints. I’d thought if I followed him I could learn to love what he loved, but all I saw was a barren plain, bare trees throwing a tracery of prisoning bars against the dead white of the sky.

I looked again, no longer searching for beauty, just raising my eyes from the aching snow underfoot to prove to myself what I knew was true … and I stopped, stopped dead in my tracks. I wasn’t looking at bars, or dead tracery. Against the clean lambency of the winter sky I was looking at waiting life, sleeping hope, a clear, brutal beauty, as beautiful as an ancient face is beautiful, as beautiful as the clash of trumpets is beautiful.

Sean walked on, oblivious, and I was glad, just for now, to hug the fragile secret to myself.

Carefully, easing my aching calves, I followed, trying to step as he stepped, hampered now by the need to tear my eyes from the suddenly lovely sky. Between the snow shoes and the horizon, it was little wonder that I managed to stumble into Sean, stopped at last to wait for me.

He fielded me carefully, and my new joy ebbed away as I saw the pain in his face.

“You’ve decided, then?”

I didn’t understand, couldn’t frame a reply. He swept an arm around to indicate the lake and its amphitheatre of trees.

“Don’t think I don’t know how you hate this. I hoped, with time … I know you hoped too. But I saw your face. You couldn’t be so happy here unless you knew you were going home.”

It was a knife in my heart to have hurt him so, the same sharp pain that my first unwary lungful of winter air had been.

This is home.”

He pulled away, disbelieving.

“I never wanted a martyr at my side.”

How could I persuade him of what I had so recently learnt for myself? I couldn’t deny I’d been ready to martyr myself, hadn’t succeeded in hiding my horror at everything he loved.

“My darling, I’ve seen the light.” I pointed down, deep down, meaning the ice beneath the snow, the clutching waters beneath the ice. “I’ve always trusted you; trust me for just a while, and you’ll see it’s true.”

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Head-hopping

“It’s been too long; I’m not sure I can do this anymore.”

“So make it a pastiche. No need to scrabble around for something new, that wasn’t your brief.”

I looked at Zachary long and hard, but I couldn’t find any hint of amusement or of mischief. That almost made it worse. Bad enough that he wasn’t taking my problem seriously. Ten times worse that he should suggest a pastiche, when he knows that for all the genres I’ve tried, comedy has never been my thing. As well to ask me to write something in French – at least I’d know where to start. But my only challenge was to write something, anything, after too long away, and the blank page leered back at me unhelpfully. I stared at it a while longer as silence settled back amongst us. A pencil whispered unhesitatingly across some luckier writer’s page. Pages turned, big crinkling pages. I glanced round the table again, hoping forlornly for inspiration from those familiar faces.

Zachary’s challenge had been brevity, and he was scowling at his sixth draft, the fifth having been longer than the fourth. Alex had been given a first person brief, to break her usual reliance on omnipotence. If she was worried by the looming deadline, it didn’t show. She was flicking casually through the newspapers. Newspapers? Something new? In the back of my mind, a tendril doubtfully unfurled.

Across the desk, Alex dropped her feigned interest in yesterday’s news, and she too began to write.

The Monday Mixer is back, and for once it hasn’t brought out my evil side. Follow the link to find out what it’s all about.

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