A THOUSAND HEARTS
A SHORT STORY & POEM ANTHOLOGY
By J.M. Robison
Author Copyright 2017 J.M. Robison
Cover Art: By J.M. Robison
Editor: J.M. Robison
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This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Under no circumstances may any part of this book be photocopied for resale.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters and situations within its pages and places or persons, living or dead, is unintentional and co-incidental.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
ABOUT THIS ANTHOLOGY
This is a collection of short stories and poems by J.M. Robison. They include the genres of horror, fantasy, contemporary, religious, and humor.
CONNECT WITH J.M. ROBISON
Email: [email protected]
, first chapter
This short story was written with the intent to follow the writing prompt given which was: A happy horror story with a wooden shoe. Plot being a fight between two people for one open job position.
I chew the back of the pen. A bad habit, I’m aware, because this pen is used by everyone and I know at least one other person in this department shares my habit. With the same pen. I feel remarkably detached from the possibility that I might catch something, and it has nothing to do with the reassurance that I’ve had my flu shot this year.
Andre Fearonce walks into my office. He leans against the doorframe and sips on his coffee loud enough I hear it burble over his tongue. I breath in. Out. In. Chew on the back of my pen.
“How go the reports?” he asks.
I hunch my shoulders to stifle the wave of cringes popping up and down my back. “Fine.” Single word responses are best. Any more than that and too many words will link together to form phrases that will make his French ancestors spring to life just to wave the white flag of retreat.
“Need some help? I’ve already turned mine in.”
It’s not Christian to hate Andre just because we’re both up for manager position that holds only one of us. Phillip pitting us together for the “may the best man win” battle royal, and my only weapons are office politics and breakroom bravado. Thrown in a Gladiator ring against Andre with nothing but my boxer shorts and sword would have been easier.
More manly too, with my wife watching on and ogling at my naked arms that haven’t seen the gym in two years. What happened to those days where your worth was proven by the strength of your arm and not by the inner office dramatics of whose turn it was to brew the coffee?
“I’ve got it. Thanks.” Too many words together.
My brusque responses where I didn’t turn around once clearly alerted Andre that I don’t want to talk to him. He leaves without another word. He’s smart, Andre. But he stands in my way for an extra thirty thousand a year. I wish Andre showed hostility toward me. I can deal with open hostility far easier than silent plotting.
I wrap up my report and dump it in Phillip’s box on my way out of the office.
Andre has me riled, though his greatest offense was stand in the doorway with his atrocious coffee imported from France. The man’s never been to Europe. His ancestors came to America two hundred years ago yet he seems to still have some affiliation with France despite he doesn’t even speak the language.
Enough about Andre. No need to bring him home with me. My heavy diesel chugs to life. I’m determined to leave work at work. I need to change my focus. My wife. Her smile always brightens my day. I need that right now.
I pull into Aromatics & Antiques. The truck shudders as I kill the engine. I jam the keys in my pocket and walk inside under the dingle of a bell. Ancient relics from other parts of the known world vie for attention to my left and right. It smells of wood and ancient things. Amber’s big into collecting such things not relevant to America. The further away and deeper underground it was found, the better.
Nobody else is in the store. Not even the store owner, apparently, as he is not at his counter.
I’ve no idea what to look for. I’ve come in with Amber who’s browsed the shelves as if looking for something specific, though ends up walking out with an African flute or an arrow head claimed to have come from the Middle Ages. If she has a method to what she buys, I can’t see it.
The floor creaks and I turn to see the store manager coming out of his office on crutches. He’s missing his right foot. Has he always been missing his right foot? He’s always been sitting when me and Amber have come it.
He hurries up his pace to get behind his counter.
“He-hello.” He smiles. Sweat beads on his forehead. “Can I help you find something?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Just a surprise for my wife.”
“Oh, she’ll love this.” He grabs a wooden shoe and sets it on the glass table top with a concerning thwack. “From Denmark. Got it three days ago.”
“Just the one? Don’t shoes come in two’s?”
“Just the one. It’s a very old shoe. Dug up when they were plowing a field, so they told me. Anyway, it’s a beauty, isn’t it?”
“Sure.” I take it from him. It’s small, likely for a child. Completely made of wood. Remnants of a blue paint cling in the dry cracks. I’m not sure what Amber will think of it as-is, but she could re-paint it herself if she feels so inclined. Wanting to get home and relax before I battle with Andre tomorrow, I pull out my wallet. “How much?”
The man releases a breath I didn’t realize he was holding. “Two-two dollars.”
He seems more jittery than I remember. But then I’ve never spoken to him before. Amber’s always been the one to exchange money with him. The owner thrusts my change at me. I take it and he grins wildly. “All sales are finale.”
“K.” I scoop the shoe off the counter and walk out, certain his gaze follows me.
I breathe easier back in my truck. I’ll pick Amber up a rose next time. This store made me more nervous than walking into Victorian Secrets.
I’ve forgotten about Andre by the time I pull into my drive, thinking of Amber’s bright smile when I hand her the wooden shoe, which she graciously rewards me with a perfumed hug.
“I’ll add it to my collection.” She sets the shoe on the book case by the door and spins toward me. “I was just about ready to get the lasagna in the oven.”
“I’ll put something in your oven,” I say, not sure why, except Amber has a way of loosening me up no matter how much I’m irritated with…what was his name again?
She slides her arms around me. “Before or after dinner?”
I wake up because I hear crying. I pull the covers over my head and blame the cat. The crying continues. And then the cat speaks. It’s coming from the living room.
“Jeg leder, far, jeg søger.” It cries harder.
It’s just the cat. It’s just the cat. It’s just the cat.
My body temperature rises with my pulse, though I won’t stick my leg out of the blanket to cool down. The cat might grab it.
“Jeg leder, far, jeg søger…” The voice has moved from the living room to my wife’s side of the bed.
Honor as a man and husband, I dare a look from under the blankets. It’s not the cat. It’s a transparent little boy missing both arms, staring at my wife. Crying. All thoughts of Gladiatoring from earlier shrink and I cling to the top sheet in a white-knuckled grip, too frozen to even do the sign of the cross, all the while thinking, how the hell does Amber sleep through this?
“JEG LEDER, FAR, JEG SØGER!” It shrieks. And vanishes.
I don’t blink for a full minute, heart thudding. Amber snorts and rolls over, pulling my half of the blankets onto her side. I panic and yank them back. If that boy comes back, I want more than just my boxer shorts on.
I lay awake the rest of the night; pee, shave, dress, and drink my coffee without ever thinking about the looming question: What the hell was that? I keep hoping I dreamed it, or imagined it, except I can’t place what language it was speaking. In all my twenty-seven years of living, I’ve never dreamed or imagined another language.
I go to work like it’s a normal day in my normal truck, talk to normal people, and do my normal job.
Like a ritual, Andre leans into the doorway of my office, the smell of his European coffee reminding me of the foreign language I heard the ghost boy speak.
“Phillip looked at our reports,” he says, holding longer onto the s then needed.
“Huh.” I chew on the end of my pen. Same pen from yesterday. It stinks.
“There are some things I can show you, to keep your numbers organized. It makes a huge difference. I’m willing to show you, if you like.”
“No thank you.” I hunch over my paperwork so Andre won’t see my disorganized columns and feel compelled to champion me to greatness with a method apparently desired by Phillip, from the tone of his voice.
I can’t stop hating Andre. The smell of his coffee, the shine of his shoes, his willingness to help me even though we are competing for the same position all combine into a single, unfounded force. It equals hating someone because they wear their watch on their right hand instead of their left. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s massively irritating.
Andre takes his cue–another irritation, since he’s not giving me solid reason to hate him–and leaves. Willing to help me even though I constantly give him the cold shoulder and he knows it. Thoughts of standing in a Gladiator ring in my boxer shorts with Andre warms me again.
Barbie Girl chimes from my cell phone. I answer it. “Hello Amber.”
“Bryant…” She’s sobbing. “Something’s wrong with my ankle.”
“I don’t know…it hurts really bad.” She sniffles. “I felt it shortly after I got dressed. It feels like something is chewing on it. It looks like something’s chewing on it. I literally see teeth marks.”
“Are you able to drive?”
“Go to the doctor. I’ll meet you there.”
“K. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
I hang up and rush to Phillip’s office. Andre is in there. Sharing his expensive European coffee with him. I have this anxious feeling to go back to Antiques & Aromatics and pick up some European trinket to give to Phillip just to rival with Andre, creepy shop owner or no.
“Yes, Bryant?” Phillip looks up. Andre makes an exaggerated swing of his body to face me.
“I’m meeting my wife at the doctor’s office. I shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes.”
I make it to the doctor’s before Amber. She parks and steps out of the care, limping. I rush to her side. She’s still crying. I look at her ankle and blanch. Chewing is right. Looks like something took a chunk out of her skin.
“It’s getting worse!” she wails.
I scoop her into my arms and rush her inside, worried I should have told her to go to the ER.
I explain to the receptionist what’s going on, the urgency amplified by my wife’s tears. The doctor comes out within minutes.
I support Amber under my arm who leans heavily into me. I sit her down on the bed in the exam room.
“What’s going on today?” the doctor asks.
Amber shows him her ankle. It looks worse then it did in the parking lot. The doctor leans closer. As we all watch, the flesh on her ankle vanishes and a slightly deeper depression appears. Amber screams.
“It feels like something is chewing on it!”
You know you’re in trouble when the doctor panics. He slaps his clipboard on the counter and rips a box of gauze out of the drawer. He stuffs the cotton into the wound; Amber doesn’t flinch it must hurt so bad.
“Lay her down,” he directs me.
I do as commanded, spinning Amber around to lay her legs lengthwise across the bed. For good measure, I remove her shoes so there is no obstruction getting in the doctor’s way.
Amber covers her eyes with an arm, whimpering. The doctor secures the gauze with tape, looking at me.
“When did this start?”
“She said just after she got dressed for the day.”
“Has she been overseas recently?”
Between the Danish wooden shoe and Andre, I’m about tired of hearing about anything outside America. “Never.”
“Does she have any diseases that you know of?”
“Any idea at all that can help me identify this?”
“How you feeling?” Doc asks Amber. She’s stopped crying as hard now, and hasn’t screamed so I hope that’s a sign the Doc’s magic bandage worked.
“I still hurt…but I don’t feel the chewing anymore. I think the bandage helped.”
The doc picks up his clipboard again and makes notes. He hands me a slip of paper. “Prescription for anti-biotic and pain. I want to see her tomorrow. Come back sooner if it worsens.”
I give the doctor a big roger and assist Amber with putting her shoes back on. No sooner had I done so then she screams again. I take the shoe off so the doctor can resume his magic unobstructed. Amber relaxes.
“I felt it again. The chewing.”
“You feel fine now?”
“Yes…” She looks dangerously at her sandal in my hand. “I wonder if it’s my shoe?”
“Worth an experiment at this point. Stand up.”
Amber does so, putting tentative pressure on her right foot. “Nothing.”
“Hand me the shoe,” he tells me.
I do so. The doctor slaps two pairs of gloves on each hand before taking it from me, like it’s a major biohazard that’s now all over my hand. I rush to the bottle of hand sanitizer on the counter, praying it’s 99.9% positive it will kill whatever funk was on my wife’s shoe that transferred to my hand.
I turn around to find the doctor sealing the sandal in a bag labeled “biohazard”.
“Where did you buy these sandals?” he asks.
“…Four months ago?”
He asks her a bunch of other shoe questions I don’t see are relevant, since the act of wearing a shoe should not promote a chewing sensation on the ankle. In any case, Doc biohazards her other shoe as well. He shuts the exam room behind us at the conclusion of our visit. I pretend I don’t see him making the sign of the cross over him.
“You okay?” I ask Amber.
She’s teary-eyed, but more stable than when she arrived. “Yes.”
“Do you want me to drive you home?”
“No…I’ll be alright. Thanks. I love you.”
I don’t leave the parking lot until she does. I watch her drive out of sight.
I walk back into work. Andre still in Phillip’s office. Phillip laughs at something Andre told him. It’s infuriating that brown-nosing is a sure shot to success, but I could never bring myself that low to try it. And because of that, Andre’s going to pass me by on that promotion. Because I prefer to secure my goals the right way.
The scare with my wife, Andre, and my lack of sleep last night has me gnawing on my pen again until the hour hand slaps the five o’clock position. I scoop my cellphone off the desk and leave.
Amber smiles when I walk in, though I’ve known her long enough it’s just a mask to cover up something else that’s bothering her.
“You feeling okay?”
“I picked up the medication. The pain pill is helping.” She looks mournfully at her bandaged ankle. She’s barefoot. Not even socks.
I don’t understand it either. I’m glad she falls asleep before I do. Though I’m exhausted from lack of sleep last night, I want to catch the ghost boy if he returns, because I’m certain now that somehow he and my wife’s feet are all connected.
I’ve got my cellphone in both hands, finger hovering over the Google Translate app I installed today.
I fall asleep. I wake up instantly when I hear crying–a repeat of last night. Heart thudding, I wait.
“Jeg leder, far, jeg søger.”
Sweaty fingertips slap the app. It takes me 3 tries to finally get it pulled up on my screen. The microphone center of it pulses, waiting. Please be an exact repeat of last night.
Google Translate is going to get bored and shut me out.
“Jeg leder, far, jeg søger.” The armless boy appears on my wife’s side of the bed, crying.
I tear my gaze off him and back to my phone to see Google Translate thinking about whether or not it’s a real language. English words spread across the screen. I hold my breath: I’m looking, father, I’m looking. Auto-detect says it’s Danish. Like the wooden shoe.
“JEG LEDER, FAR, JEG SØGER!”
Amber jerks and sits up, screaming as she backs away from the apparition on her side of the bed. The ghost vanishes.
I hold her. “It’s okay. It’s gone.”
Her whole body shakes. “You saw it too?”
“What was that?”
“I don’t know.” I don’t tell her it was in here last night.
She leaps across her side of the bed to the lamp on her bedside table, flicking the bulb on and blinding me. “I want to sleep in the living room.”
“But I’m right here,” I protest. “I don’t think he’s coming back.”
“I’m scared. I don’t want to be in here anymore tonight.” She scoots to my side of the bed, crawls over me, to get to the door. She’s parked her slippers beside the door. Stuffing both feet in them, she flips the light on and shuffles out.
Now that I’ve seen the boy once already, and know he won’t come back, I could sleep. But I’m the attentive husband, so I slide my legs out from under the sheets–
I run for the door so hard I crash into the wall, spinning about awkwardly to get my damned body through it. I find her on the kitchen floor, clutching her leg with the bandaged ankle. Both slippers have been kicked off. I kneel next to her, noticing that a fresh chunk of her leg has disappeared at the ankle, a spot not covered by the bandage. Red muscle flexes beneath, blood dripping onto the linoleum.
Is it the act of wearing shoes that makes this happen?
Amber doesn’t protest when I take her to the ER. When admitted I tell them it was a dog bite. I ask if they can hold her so I can go home and take care of our rogue “dog”. They clean the fresh wound, shoot her up with pain pills and a muscle relaxer. She falls asleep.
I drive home in a fury. I stomp into the living room and snatch the wooden shoe off its shelf. I get back in the car. Drive to the river with a gallon of gasoline.
Headlights blare across the tree line. I park next to the campsite and dump the shoe in the cold fire pit. I haul the gasoline out of the bed and set it down, patting my coat pocket for the lighter. I panic. The lighter must’ve fallen out. Maybe it’s between the seats. I’m in just the right mood to rub two sticks together to burn the haunted Danish shoe to damnation.
I kneel on the seat and dive my hand between it and the center consol. Maybe it fell under. I get out to squat and look and feel a sharp pinching sensation on my right ankle. I leap back and shake my foot, thinking something crawled out of the forest. It’s dark and hard to see.
The pinching sensation begins again, more intense, and I brace against the truck, shaking my foot and screaming but it continues. I limp to my headlights and pull my pant leg up. A thick chunk has been removed from flesh and muscle. Blood streaks down my skin.
Trusting my theory that wearing shoes are what causes this, I kick both of them off and stand on the river bank barefoot, gritting my teeth, sweating with panic and pain.
The ghost boy appears in front of me. He’s shrieking, in more of a panic than I am. “Jeg har næsten fået skoen, far.”
My phone in my pocket makes the tell-tale beep as Google Translate, still working in the background, catches the phrase. I yank it out and stare at the screen. The English translation reads, “I’ve almost got the shoe, father.”
For a brief moment I don’t feel the pain. The boy stands so I can see him and the wooden shoe together. I notice for the first time his missing left foot. I look at my shoe, recall the doctor’s office where Amber’s wounds seemed to be activated when she wore shoes. She was fine all night long until she put on the slippers. Why was Amber effected? Why am I being effected now? Does it matter who touched the wooden shoe last?
The greasy smile of the antique store owner, his crutches, missing foot, add up. The ghost boy is looking for his other shoe. Missing arms, he’d have nothing but his teeth. Why he doesn’t take my shoes on the ground in front of me, why he waits until someone puts the shoes on to then attempt to chew off their leg, why whoever touches it last gets bitten, or why he only appears at night and not during the day, I’ve no idea. I don’t know why ghosts do the things they do.
I pick my shoe up and throw it at him. “Take it!”
My shoe passed through the boy. He stands there, catatonic.
I can’t find my lighter. I’m the last person who touched the wooden shoe so I can’t wear shoes, otherwise the chewing will continue. I’m hesitant to wear socks. I can’t go shopping (because of that “no shoe, not shirt” crap). I can’t do anything.
If I were an American Indian riding horseback in a loincloth and barefoot, you know, two hundred years ago, that would be normal. I can’t show up to work tomorrow barefoot. Phillip’s already comparing everything about me to Andre, everything from which way I comb my hair to if I sniff my coffee before I take the first sip.
Andre. Andre is proud of his European heritage. I’d bet he’d love a relic from Denmark. I could go so far as to claim it French. Andre won’t show up to work shoeless, and he can’t afford to not show up at all.
The devil slides an arm across my shoulder. “It’s okay, Bryant, you’re only human. It’s okay to be weak, it’s okay to revert back to your basic survival instincts and conquer those who stand in your way to greatness.
No one is perfect. God doesn’t expect you to be perfect. If you are willing to challenge Andre to a Gladiator fight, isn’t giving him a wooden shoe a more gentle gesture? It’s not you going to be chewing off his foot. Andre doesn’t have to wear shoes, and he doesn’t have to show up for work. All you do is give him the shoe. You are not responsible for what Andre does afterward.”
Oooooh, the Devil’s good.
I scoop the wooden shoe out of the fire pit, grab both of my shoes and the gasoline, and slump back in my truck. Pain throbs in the aching hole in my ankle. The ghost boy is gone.
I arrive at the hospital barefoot. They patch my ankle up and buy my story about our rogue dog who took a bite out of me before I got a bite out on him.
Amber is drowsy and sleeps all the way home, wakes up long enough to protest she won’t sleep in the bedroom, and falls asleep on the couch with all the lights in the house on.
I sleep in the bed with my eyes covered. My alarm dings two hours later. I’m vibrant with scheming so I don’t feel the fatigue of last night.
I kiss Amber awake. She rubs at her eyes. “You’re up early.”
“Want to get to work so I can finish up the reports. Trying hard to get ahead of Andre for that promotion.”
“I left my shoes outside last night. Air them out.”
“I’m scared of that ghost boy.”
“I think I know what’s going on and I’ve got a plan to fix it.”
I see the hope in her eyes that that will fix all her worries. I’m not about to tell her I gave her a haunted European relic in a gesture of love, which then summoned a ghost to chew on her ankles. “Yes.”
She nods in relief and I kiss her before I leave.
I stop by the gift shop and buy a box, wrapping, and ribbons. My black socks match my pants so at first glance it’s not obvious I’m not wearing shoes. I make it out of there without detection. I pull in to work with ten minutes to spare and wrap up the cursed shoe in the box with the ribbon. I hand-jam a, good luck on the promotion, Andre, on the note.
I walk to the front door with shoes in hand, avoid the elevator and take the stairs since modern convenience has everyone else waiting thirty seconds for the elevator when you can walk two floors up in fifteen.
I hustle into the office and hide my feet and shoes under my desk. Guilt for what I’m about to do hasn’t hit me yet. Terror overrules it for what will happen to my life if I can’t wear shoes.
Why didn’t you burn the shoe instead of giving it to Andre? A reasonable voice asks.
Maybe it can’t be burned. I’ve seen the horror shows. I’m certain the shop owner would have tried to burn it too, once he figured out what it was doing to his ankle.
Fine. It can’t be burned. Why not get a priest to perform an exorcism on it?
I shut the reasonable voice down and wait anxiously for Andre to walk into the doorway, lean against the frame, and sip his coffee.
“Hey, Andre. I was hoping you’d stop in. Come here.”
His eyebrows raise in hesitation, sort of like an opponent might do when asked to make the first move. He comes in and stands beside my desk.
I push the beribboned box toward him with a smile, like what the store owner did to me. “You will make a fine manager, Andre. I want you to know that if you get the position, I support you a hundred percent. I found this at the antique store on fifth street and thought of you.”
I shrug. “Not sure what you’d think of it, but I know you are a fan of everything European, and the store owner said it was dug up in a French field, so…” I trail off as he lifts the lid to the box, heart thudding so hard in my throat I swallow. He lifts the shoe out of the box. I breathe easy. That is, pending my theory is correct.
“Oh?” He turns it around in his hand and dons an expression we all fake at Christmas that says, thanks for the gesture, but the gift sucks. And just like Christmas, you take the gift anyway.
He nods once. “You are a great man, Bryant. Thank you for your gift and your support.” He places the shoe back in the box and smiles at me. “Good luck to you too.” He tucks the box under the arm not holding his coffee and leaves my office.
I put one shoe on. Wait a minute. Put the other shoe on. Nothing. I stand up as if I’m walking barefoot on glass. I walk by Phillip’s office, pretending to mess with the copy machine while casting glances at Andre whose telling Phillip about the new sushi he tried last night and providing his recommendations.
I don’t rightly know when the ghost boy decides to start biting. He didn’t bite me all the way home from the antique store and didn’t bite Amber until around noon the day after she touched it. Maybe it takes a day. Maybe I’m wrong about all of this.
Amber and I get a full night’s rest. Her on the couch and me on the bed. The ghost doesn’t appear and I feel safe to wear shoes again. Amber won’t wear shoes yet, not until the priest arrives in three days. So I’m in charge of bringing home the groceries after work.
I arrive to work with fingers crossed, shoving aside my Christian inhibitions which attempts to warn this is a malicious thing to do to another Christian. But thirty thousand extra dollars a year if I get promoted…
Sitting at my desk, clicking away at the computer, thirty minutes lapse before I realize Andre hasn’t made his usual appearance to harangue me over XYZ. I perk. Maybe he didn’t show up to work today…?
I scuttle to Phillip’s office. Andre’s not there.
I knock on the doorframe. “Phillip, did Andre not show up today?”
“He’s going to be late. You need something?”
“No. Thank you.”
Bunkered back at my desk, I wait. I’d pray, except God’s not going to answer a prayer that wishes harm on another person.
Andre arrives and I’m far too obvious in watching as he comes through the door. He’s limping. And yellow.
“Morning Andre,” I say with a grin, chasing the guilt in circles with a barking hound of thirty thousand dollars. Thirty thousand dollars.
He nods feebly, brews his coffee, checks his box, and grimaces all the way into Phillip’s office like he’s trying to act normal. I balm my guilt with reassurances that I didn’t make Andre come to work today. I didn’t make him put on shoes.
My fingers are edgy so I turn back to my report, thwacking at the keys in the same rapid succession as my heart. Across the sea of cubicals, I hear, “Andre!” and a scream.
I sprint across the way, beating everyone else to Phillip’s office. Andre’s on the floor, coffee splashed over his blue shirt and Phillip’s red carpet. Andre’s hands aren’t sure whether to grab his ankle or cover his mouth. He kicks around instead.
Phillip speed-dials the phone. “This is Phillip Rosenaur at Cisco. One of my employees is having convulsions on the floor, I do not know what…”
Phillip’s voice is drowned out by Andre’s screams. All his frantic kicking has pulled his pant leg up, showing where a hole has been cut out of his tall black sock and flesh. Like teeth digging into a tomato, the flesh peels away and vanishes as if going into an invisible mouth.
I watch in morbid fascination. He’s kicking around so hard I can’t see the progress. An especially high crescendo of screams and Andre passes out. Phillip hangs up with 9-1-1.
“What on earth is wrong with him?” someone behind me asks.
His ankle lays exposed where I can see it. No one else is probably looking at his ankle. Bite by bite, his ankle vanishes, the black sock and red carpet make it hard for anyone to see the blood. There’s a hard grating noise, and a thick snap. Blood bursts out of his ankle, splattering Phillip’s face.
Three women scream and run. Everyone blanches. Someone throws up, followed by a vomiting sympathizer.
The ankle snapped in half, the rest of the meat and skin wither into nothing, until the entire left foot is severed from his leg. Me and Phillip are the only ones left standing in his office.
Ambulance personal rush into the office main. I melt away out of the scene.
I enter Phillip’s office as I’m walking out for the day. “Any news on Andre?”
“That it’s damn strange what happened. Doctor at the hospital thinks it’s some rare, flesh-eating fungus.” He drops his pen and digs both hands into his hair. “Doctor says they need to keep Andre quarantined for up to three months to make sure this fungus isn’t contagious.”
“Sorry to hear that. I’ll stop by the hospital and see him.”
“No…no don’t do that. I…don’t want you giving him the bad news. I can’t wait three months, Bryant. I’m retiring next week. Have big plans with the wife. Cruise? You and Andre are both very good and very trained. I was lucky to have two people to choose from. But, circumstances chose for me, so I’m giving you the promotion.”
The guilt that’d been gnawing at my edges dies under my thunderous cheer I punch into the air.
“Sorry, Phillip. I…you won’t regret–”
“Ya, ya, and all that junk. See you tomorrow, manager.” He turns abruptly back to his computer. Everything in his posture says I was not going to be his first choice. I don’t care. Because thirty thousand dollars.
Amber rewards me for my promotion in the bedroom. Once we both stopped breathing so heavy, we talk about what we’re going to do with the money. Trade in my Ford for a Power Wagon. Buy her Lasik.
Dinner ends with a kiss and Amber decides to sleep in the bed with me tonight. Apparently the good news of my promotion was a good replacement until the priest could make it on Wednesday.
I’m just drifting off to sleep when I hear sobbing in the living room.
I snap awake.
“Jeg har fået af sko, far. Vil du endelig elsker mig hvis jeg får en fod, også?”
No. No. I’m dreaming. I fixed this problem. I FIXED THIS!
Google Translate beeps to let me know it’s got a translation for me: “I’ve got the shoe, father. Will you finally love me if I get a foot, too?”
Teeth bite into my ankle.
A THOUSAND HEARTS
It splattered on the back of his neck in a coil of shivers sliding down his skin. Drip. Drip. Drip. It slithered into his shirt; a snaking river of soulless hunger, chomping at his flesh to feed their endless bellies.
He couldn’t fathom why hostages fought to remove blind folds in all the stories he heard. He would count it a small mercy for him to shut his eyes against all the mechanical teeth and claws dangling in slashes of silver above him, panting in hunger as the draft touched them, water sluicing off the fine edges like drool, splattering on the back of his neck.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
A monster with an endless hunger. But he was going to feed it anyway, like feeding leaves into the wind. Sucking, tossing, whirling in oblivion to circle the world and return for more.
He didn’t think it was possible to finally reach a point where his heart stopped racing and his lungs stopped obeying his screams, screams he was certain were pushed into the future with his volume and fervency.
In these last three hours he had done things and said things and agreed to things he wouldn’t have ever done even in an audience of his friends with pretty Miala watching with a kiss for his reward.
But here water drooled on him. He could move away from it if he wanted. They had removed his chains already. But he remained, soaking his shirt, trying to figure out if his unwillingness to move was powered from a defiance that he would no longer fight his end or to prove he was no longer afraid of it.
The door in front of him opened so soundlessly, it was a moment before he noticed the slice of blackness gaping and ready to swallow him.
Time to feed the monster. Drip. Drip. Drip.
His masked escort beckoned him, curling fingers like claws. But it wasn’t Miala with his kiss of a reward. She had screamed with him as he was dragged backward with a sack over his head.
The beckoning became more fervent. The monster of knives and fire is hungry, it seemed to say. Its heart beat thrummed in his ears already; a drip drip dripping on the back of his neck.
His masked escort removed the hood and the mask. A spill of liquid night slipped over her shoulders, framing the jewels of her eyes and innocent little pout of her lips. Miala didn’t have lips like that. A goddess maybe, but not Miala. Miala didn’t even have the velvety warmth of skin this woman had used to brush away his fears, used to caress acceptance into the cracks of his anguish.
Her eyes bore into him, and he was ashamed he fought her when she brought him here. His heart begged for forgiveness.
Reminded of his acceptance, he remained undecided whether to stay and stare at her eyes for the rest of eternity, or to leap into her embrace which would carry him to an endless pool of hunger.
A promised kiss for his reward.
The drip drip drip was no longer the drooling of knives above his head, no longer the heartbeat of the monster of death he was going to feed. It was a word. Go. Go. Go swiftly into her warmth where she would whisper promises of touches and reassure him that death was just one more step, one more blink of an eye.
A reanimated heart pulsed blood back into his limbs and he dashed into her embrace.
“My kiss?” A question. A plea.
“Too soon.” A breath like a star’s sigh passed over his face. “Are you ready to come with me?”
He clung onto her cloak like a child to its mother, begging as he trailed her through the throat of the monster, deeper and deeper into its entrails. The thwarm of his own heart in his neck, in his brain, counting down the clock his moment of life and passion would end in the same breath. What a clashing to herald him into a death throbbing with his own endless hunger, searching for a way back into his life to do it all again. The knife, the blood will bow against her lips, her warmth.
Upon the crimson table he laid himself, already aching from the absence of her skin.
She leaned over him, her lips hushing words against his closed eyes. “The gods must have a willing sacrifice.”
“Please.” It was the only word he could choke out. He reached for her. She let him touch her this time, slide his hands across her skin, pulling her down so he could drink of her breath to give him life again in the eternity she was sending him to.
The hungry monster didn’t growl or hiss. It simply slipped into his view above him with a daggered flash. He watched it arrive because he would not blink against the eternal depth of her jeweled eyes. He wished he had two hearts to offer…a thousand hearts to beat and pulse in his body in time with the dip and draw of her lips against his and remain alive long enough so she could cut out each one.
But he only had one heart to offer. The hungry monster dipped a fang into his chest; a cold, sharp bite that seized his breath and arched his back. Her kisses deepened and he softened. Another bit. Another flinch of his mortal carcass.
“Weak…” she murmured against his mouth.
He wasn’t weak. He couldn’t be. If he died too soon he would be robbed of her fire moaning against his lips. He wished he had more hearts.
The monster chomped and gnawed with ancient practice, his chest heaving up and down with every stroke. Sawing bone rumbled a hallow echo in his body as if counting down to the last sever. The pain of knowing her kiss would end outweighed any other trivial mortal ailments.
His heart throbbed in her fingers as she lifted it above him, pulsing blood down her throat and chest, making him wish he had more blood to wash over her luscious skin. Crimson looked so pretty against her skin of star dust.
Her jewels held his gaze until the dark wash of her hair swirled around him in a cocoon of dark eternity.
My mother owned a mirror she said was magic, but she would never let me look at it. I was very young…six I think, when I stole into her bedroom and pulled the shoe box out from under her bed where she kept the mirror. Mother caught me before I could lift the lid. With a firm scolding, she sent me to my room crying.
Shortly after the traumatizing incident, she came into my room and sat beside me. Taking my hand, she said, “I know you want to look into my mirror, but you can’t. Because once you look, you can never un-look and you will be stuck with what you saw forever. You will have to learn to deal with it, how to accept it.”
Through sniffles, I said, “But you look at it!”
She nodded gravely. “I look at it because when I was much older than you, I decided I was finally ready to see and accept what the mirror had to show me. But I waited until I was absolutely ready, because it would have damaged me had I looked into it and not been.”
Curiousness erased my sadness. “What does the mirror show you?”
Mother squeezed my hand tighter. “My mirror shows you who you are; no masks. It shows you all your weaknesses, all your strengths, your truths, your fears, and your lies. Everything, both the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful all in a single glance. You have to be ready to accept a thing like that. And do you think you are ready?”
I shook my head vigorously. I was not ready. But someday I wanted to be.
So the mirror remained the apex of mysticism in my growing mind. Scared of all the ugly, bad, and weak things it would show me, I concentrated all my teenage years on being kind and honest, participated in sports to be strong, became a public speaker to conquer my fears.
I wanted the mirror to find little wrong with me.
I donated to charities, attained higher education, became a full time volunteer at my church and still I did not think I was ready to look in my mother’s mirror, because where I excelled at all of those, my inability to budget my finances, my less-than-organized-mess of an apartment, and my impatience forced it all a step back. But I married a man who overlooked my short comings and gave me a rosy pink-cheeked gem of a baby.
My mother aged and I worried that she would die before I was ready to look in her mirror, because I needed her to hold my hand when all the naked truths glared back at me.
It was time. It had to be time. Though I still did not feel ready, I decided I would accept everything the mirror would show in favor of having my mother hold my hand while I cried at all the things the mirror found wrong with me.
I knocked on her door. Even though I’d knocked on her door a hundred times already, she knew why I stood on her doorstep today. My fear must have shown on my face. A fear the mirror would reflect back at me.
“So you think you’re ready?”
Trepidation curled in my gut. I nodded.
She sat me beside her on the bed. Pulled the shoe box onto her lap. The white handle of the mirror disappeared beneath a towel when she lifted the lid.
“When you are ready,” she said.
I took in a deep, shuddering breath. Clasping my mother’s fingers like she had done to mine that far away day when she first explained the mirror, I lifted the mirror out of the box. The towel fell away.
And I stared at a reflection of myself.
The same face from my own mirror where I battled paltry attempts at trying to fashion my face and hair into a masterpiece looked back at me in shock, likely surprised to see me just as I was to see it.
“Now you know,” my mother said. “And now you have to accept yourself. There is no going back. The good, the bad…you own it all. Forever.”
“Mom,” I said, disappointed and angry. “It’s the same mirror I used this morning. It’s the same mirror I’ve been using my whole life.”
“That’s the magic with all mirrors,” she said. “They show you who you are. Every day. And every day you have to accept who you are; the good, the bad, the ugly. So it’s up to you to decide what kind of life you want to look back at you forever. So…do you accept what you see?”
Was I? I looked more closely at my reflection as if seeing it for the first time. I noticed all my smile wrinkles, all my stress wrinkles, the scar above my left eye, the glow in my cheeks, and the energized shimmer in my hazel eyes. I scrutinized all my weaknesses, all my strengths, my sins, and repentance, and in that moment I was proud of all I had failed at because the good and the bad were equal parts of human growth.
“I accept what I see,” I said.
My reward for my answer was the mirror. Hidden in my sock drawer, I pull it out to make sure my son catches me looking at it every once in a while. Maybe it will cue his curiosity. Maybe he will try to sneak a peek.
A LAWYERED MERCENARY
Sycain peeled the branches away, exposing to his view a tall lady completely enshrouded with a heavy wool cloak. She pulled it tighter against the biting snow and wind, looking in through the window to Baterman’s General Merchandise shop. He shivered too, though not from the cold. Raw anticipation thundered in his heart as he caught sight of the woman’s velvet purse hanging by a thread from her belt. He could see each coin pressing at the sides, guessing it weighed two pounds.
He pulled two small stones out of his pocket and placed them inside his own velvet bag, weighing it with a gentle up and down motion while eying her purse. He calculated the distance from his spot to hers. Two other women in identical cloaks stood with her, all waiting for the shop to open.
Here comes the old vulture now. Sycain quietly closed his foliage and stood, straightening his coat and pulling his hat over his eyes. Timing was crucial.
Counting his steps in tune with Mr. Baterman’s, Sycain reached the cluster of ladies just as Baterman reached into his coat pocket to extract his keys. Brushing up against his victim, Sycain hooked his rock-loaded purse onto the lady’s belt at the same time he sliced the string of her own purse with a razor blade. He walked passed without missing a beat. All that deftness one handed.
Having been at practice for two years, he’d purloined a healthy stash of gold which he was saving to buy a horse. He could get even more gold–from other towns, even–if he had a quicker mode of transportation. His wife worked 5 hours a day and only so many pockets could be picked in that amount of time on foot.
He checked his victim but she made no motion as to discover that her purse had been replaced as she moved into the store. His celebration for his catch would be short lived since his wife would return home soon. He should wait, but he wasn’t the towns most prestigious mercenary for nothing. A cheer would be made in his honor this very moment.
He reached his favored tavern and was greeted by raised glasses with a cheer. Perhaps overzealous, Sycain bought drinks for every man present and before Sycain knew it, he was drunk off his stool (literally) and quite out of gold. He didn’t know how it happened. That lady’s purse was stuffed.
But upon looking about the room and seeing the tower of beer glasses stacked into a pyramid and abandoned food on every available surface, it all made sense. A small pinch of worry crowded inside his heart suggesting that he should have saved it for his horse, but he chased it away with a healthy belch. It was his birthday after all. Checking the time, he sang his departure in a raucous voice out the door onto the cold street, wondering briefly where he lived.
He reached his house. Paused before the door. The chimney smoked and the lamp blazed through the window. His wife had returned early. Mildly worried, he’d hoped to have arrived before her so he could hide any signs of his secret profession and put on the tailored coat of a lawyered man he pretended to be for his wife.
Excuses brewing, he stepped proudly through the door and was immediately swarmed by his wife’s arms and an inundation of tears.
“Love, what ever is wrong?”
She pulled away. Eyes red. “Oh darling, it’s so tragic! I knew you were saving up to buy that horse so you wouldn’t have to walk ten blocks to work everyday, so I’ve been saving up, too. Three days ago I counted my money, and saw that I’d finally saved up enough to buy you a horse if we combined our savings. So I took both our savings and went out today to buy that horse for your birthday. On the way, I stopped at Baterman’s General Merchandise to pick up soap, and when I approached the counter to pay…” she shuddered, “…honey, my purse had been replaced with a bag of rocks!” She fell into a solid fit of tears. “I tore this house apart thinking I’d lost it but I never found it. We’ve been robbed!”
He suppressed a burp creeping up his throat. It tasted like a gold coin.
He consoled his wife and reassured her that the thought was nice and they would save it all again. He laid her down to sleep. The next morning, he put on his tailored suit and prepared to walk those ten blocks for the first time to apply to become a lawyer.
The only question his wife had was why his tailored suit still looked so new after two years.
I hear it again. Every time we walk this way. That…calling it music would finally define the status of my mental health. Jason has already threatened to admit me into the mental hospital if he hears any more “proof” of my deteriorating reality.
So I don’t tell him.
“Earth to Jane! Did you hear anything I said?”
And because I was trying so hard to ignore the…music…drifting over the cemetery wall we’re walking next to, I missed everything Jason said.
“Of course I was listening,” I defend. “And no, I don’t want to see that movie.”
“That conversation was totally five minutes ago. You weren’t paying attention.”
Jason stops walking and leans his shoulder against the brick wall separating us from the music on the other side. He pulls a half-smoked cigarette out of the breast pocket of his worn leather jacket and flips the lighter on. Orange light blossoms against the hallows of his cheek bones as he takes a puff.
Can’t you hear it? I want to beg. The slow cry of the single violin is so clear that I desperately want someone else to hear it too.
“Do you…?” I start, but Jason will deny it. Worse, we’ll get back in his car and he’ll drive me to Morgan St. Johns instead of my house.
“Do I what, Jane? Think you’re crazy? Why, yes.” He exhales a plume of smoke on me. He chuckles dryly as I fan the offense away and grit my teeth so I won’t call him a jerk. “Oh, I’m the jerk?” he would say. “Of course let’s not talk about the time you took my eight-track player and (insert imaginative argument here).”
I’m usually not this irritated with my boyfriend, but that violin cry just over the freaking wall has my nerves stretched as if the violin bow is sliding over them like strings.
“I’m…I’m ready to go home.” I jam my hands into the pockets of my tight jeans he insists I wear. “I’m not feeling good.”
“Is it your monthly? Gees, no wonder you’re in a bad mood tonight.”
“Just take me home,” I snap.
He exhales the last of his cigarette and pushes off the wall. “I’m not ready. I’m going to the arcade.”
“I want to go home!” I can’t stop the desperation now. That violin is screaming in sync with the irritating spark firing along my nerves. I’m close to tears and I don’t know why and it’s not because I’m on my monthly. Jason is a jerk and he’s got me believing no one else will be attracted to me and so I’m scared to let go and see if he is right, despite another boy had dated me two years ago. Senior prom night. Michael died before we even made it to our first dance. He used to play the violin.
“Damn, Jane, you crying right now?”
“Take me home.”
“Hey!” he shouts and I flinch. “You remember that time you walked home after we left the bar?”
“Because you wouldn’t let me drive, you jerk!” I am crying. “You were drunk and you wouldn’t let me drive!”
“Did you pay for my car?”
I look at my sneakers shuffling on the bubble-gum spotted cement.
“No.” My voice has dropped to a whisper.
“Of course you didn’t. It’s my car. And if you want to flake out on me, fine. You can pretend I’m drunk and wait until I feel sober enough to drive you home after I’m done at the arcade.” He flicks the cigarette butt onto the pavement, crushing it with the heel of his cowboy boot before storming down the sidewalk with his hands jammed into his pockets.
“I’m breaking up with you!” I shout at his back, and the divorce of that statement is so liberating I stop crying.
Jason whirls around. “No you ain’t.”
What does a newly broke up girl do? I think she turns and walks away.
So I do.
Cowboy boots pound up the walk behind me and I tear into a sprint, knowing he’s going to catch up real quick despite my shoes are the ones meant for running.
My house is twenty miles out of town. I can’t run all that way. I don’t even have time to shove coins into the phone booth to call my dad for a ride. It’s after nine and there is no one else walking along this street to come to my rescue. It’s just me, the cemetery wall to my left, and Jason on the hunt for the only girl foolish enough to stick with him.
I don’t know what Jason will do if he catches me, but I don’t want to find out. The violin music is like a hand beckoning me.
I reach the cemetery gate. It’s locked but my adrenaline aides in throwing me up the iron bars. I pull my feet up just as Jason slams into the gate, shaking me.
Long legs and sneakers help in scurrying over the other side. I drop to the dirt and land on my hands. I run forward, hearing Jason swear as he navigates his footwear over the gate.
I pass weepy-looking headstones, looking all around for somewhere to hide my bright red sweater and blue jeans.
The violin music is all around me but I cannot see its source. I am crazy.
It’s dark. I ram my leg into headstone décor and tumble headfirst into a half-dug grave. My gasp is shortened when I land on my hands. I don’t move, arms shaking, my heart echoing off the dirt walls on all sides of me.
“You’ve only got me!” echoes Jason’s voice. “No one else will tolerate you like I can–Aaaaa!”
Did he just scream? I try holding my breath to listen but I’m unsuccessful. I creep to a stand and hook my elbows over the side of the grave.
Jason is backing away, just down the hill from me. The violin has changed its tune. Jason spins around and runs back toward the gate. He’s screaming.
“Jason?” Fear causes his name to shake out of me. I look to either side but don’t see anything. I just hear that violin. “Jason?”
I shriek and leap back, pressing my back against the dirt wall. Out of the darkness above me coalesces a black mass in the size and shape of a man. The mass focuses enough so I see eyes, a mouth, and a violin.
“Are you okay, Jane?” the ghost asks.
“Y–yes.” I don’t know how I’m still breathing. Or even alive. “Who are you?”
Its face comes into clearer focus and I see…“Michael?” Still in his prom tuxedo–the front of it ripped where the paramedic tried chest compressions to bring him back to life–my first love of my life stands before me.
“You heard my violin!” He smiles. “I’ve been trying so hard to call you in here.”
“What?” Have my restless nightmares of that day finally materialized? “Why?”
Michael–the ghost of Michael–holds his hand down to me. “I promised you a dance.”
I don’t care if I am crazy. Be it ghost or the solid fabrications of my final insanity, I take his hand. And we dance to the sound of his violin and Jason’s fading screams.
THE NIGHT BEFORE EASTER
‘Twas the night before Easter when all through the tomb,
Not a thing was stirring, not even doom.
The blankets were laid out with love and care,
In hopes that Mary Magdalene soon would be there.
Peter and James all stayed a while,
And upon Christ’s face a thin, weary smile.
Later that night all snug in their beds,
The thought of the crucifixion danced in their heads.
Come that morning the mothers went out,
They went to the tomb and let out a shout!
The stone had been rolled away and the body was gone,
The blankets were folded on the bed they lay upon.
A light from behind all made ‘em shudder,
But an angel stood there and these words he mutter;
“He is not here, but is risen,
Remember his words which he spake in prison:
The son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men,
And be crucified,
And the third day rise again.”
Mary ran back to the other eleven,
And told them of the angel sent from heaven.
To the tomb Peter went just in a flash,
He tore through the doorway and threw up the sash.
Christ was gone and Peter didn’t see,
How Christ died for you and me.
Later that night all back at home,
They huddled together and voiced a moan.
When, what to their wondering eyes should appear,
But Jesus Christ with the Holy Ghost near.
They were frightened at first but suddenly knew,
As Jesus spake unto them: “Peace be unto you.”
She stands upon the hill,
Her sword upon her side,
Helm upon her head,
As the enemy draws nigh.
This evil army of immorality,
Spits upon her feet.
With a quick jerk of her sword,
They’re the ones in defeat.
This evil reins but cannot die,
Because it lives in everyone.
She’s the only one left to fight
Because the others have fallen.
She will continue to stand upon the hill,
Upon this holy sod,
Through broken bones and bloody hands
She bears the armor of God.
The evil proceeds to ascend,
And her heart sinks in despair.
It’s so hard now to resist
Because they are everywhere.
But she will continue to fight,
Through clenched and grinding teeth,
And though she’s the only one left to fight,
She will stand firm on her feet.
She will continue to stand upon the hill,
Upon this holy sod,
Through broken bones and bloody hands,
She bears the armor of God.
You are God’s warriors sent to fight,
And wherever you may roam,
Stand up, oh blessed children,
Even if you’re standing alone.
DON’T PICK YOUR NOSE
Your nostrils may be stuffy,
And your stomach may be growling,
Your fingers may be twitching,
To do a little prowling.
If everyone would just turn away,
For a short moment at least,
I would enjoy myself to the fullest,
Just to eat a little piece.
My mother tells me not to,
My sister thinks me a pest,
But I sit here and say,
“The crusty ones are best.”
No one is looking,
As I peer around the room,
And I hunch down in my seat,
To give my nose a prune.
Many get offended,
Others just gross out,
That’s why I eat in private,
So no one knows what I’m about.
They always say to share,
And I try to do my part,
But many just don’t accept,
My kind and loving heart.
A MOTHER’S LULLABY
If ever you come into a weary way,
That saddens and pains you with grief,
I’ll be the shoulder you can lean on,
And fill your heart with relief.
If ever you stumble,
And fall heavily to the ground,
I’ll be the hand to help you up,
And make you safe and sound.
If there be dark times,
That steal your breath and light,
I’ll be your eyes to help you see,
And chase away your strife.
If your heart is heavy with grief,
And think you’re close to perish,
I’ll be the heart to bear your burdens,
Because you are mine to cherish.
If you are sad and pained with grief,
And know not where you roam,
Or your light is dim and your heart is lost,
I’ll be the mother to carry you home.
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
I am a message in a bottle,
My journey was long and hard,
But I have finally reached you,
My glass case as my guard.
Under it’s protection,
It has brought me to you,
I have no lengthy message,
Just a word or two.
I am no treasure map,
I do not bear that strife,
I do not hold the secret,
To the final test of life.
But I do bring with me,
On this final resting day,
A word of peace and strength,
If you will let me say:
As I have traveled to reach you,
So must you also fight,
This life on earth is hard,
Like the river’s strength and might.
Fight to be yourself.
Relax. Breathe. Be sure to dance.
Believe in a power higher than you,
And don’t leave your dreams to chance.
Now that I’ve made you wiser,
And you’re ready to seize the day,
Put me back in my bottle,
And pass me on my way.
OUR HUMBLE BATHROOM
*A tribute to our old house
I know what you were thinking,
When you stepped into the room,
You probably hesitated before entrance,
Because it looked of doom.
The floor is splotchy and torn,
And the ceiling is spotted,
The spiders have webbed on the left,
And the walls are dotted.
You may complain about the missing tiles,
Or the eerie closet to your right,
Maybe even the mushrooms beneath the tub,
Which are harvested from sight.
The shower looks iffy,
The paint is peeling off,
There’s a deep hole in the floor,
Oh heavens, what is that stuff?
But the shower has water,
And the bathtub drains,
And the ceiling only leaks when it rains…
So as you leave this room,
Running…like a hunted foxhound,
Just remember you had a choice,
Between this and a hole in the ground.
SANTA’S GIVING LIST
I’ll tell you a tale of a man,
Who lives at the Northern Pole,
He delivers to all!
Didn’t you know?
Every year on December twenty-fourth,
He flies around the world,
On his sleigh of eight reindeer…
The story you’ve been told.
Yes…he’s the one who gives.
He gives gifts to all.
To every human:
Broad, skinny, big, or small.
And he’s always happy.
That is…he was before,
But I’ve seen him standing there,
In his shop with toys ‘a store.
Lately he’s worn a frown,
And his shoulders sag in gloom.
Tears glisten in his eyes,
As he looks across the room.
He’s been sorrowful as of late,
Ever since…I shake my head.
Instead of words of comfort,
I just…walked away instead.
His sadness is justified,
Because we, too, all know it,
His elves, his helpers,
Work without spirit.
There’s a legend about Santa’s “good” list.
I’ve seen him write it, never a name he missed.
But such a surprise I did receive,
When at the top, it said instead, “Santa’s giving list.”
Yes…Santa’s giving list,
That’s what I saw, it’s no joke,
And to him, I implored to know,
So Santa sorrowfully spoke:
“My dear elf,” he said,
“I know you are confused,
Because the tale about my list,
Has been changed and abused.
The legend exists, that to be on Santa’s good list,
Meant presents under the tree,
But to be on the bad list…
That was unpleasant to see.
My list was “giving”,
Just like it is for being good,
That if you gave to someone else,
Then you were given back what you would.
But if you gave not, you got not,
And so it was till said,
A selfish man stood up and spoke,
‘Let’s make it Santa’s good list instead.
If we just have to be good,
That should be okay,
So we don’t have to work as hard,
To get presents and eat gourmet.’
They say, ‘It’s too hard to give,
I just want my stuff,
So instead of giving to others,
Can’t just being good be enough?’
Yes, my friend,
That is the tale,
Man has changed the goodness of Christmas,
The feeling, meaning…has turned stale.
I said, ‘Be giving!
And I’ll give to you.
Impart of yourselves,
And I’ll impart too.
Do as Jesus did,
He gave his All, so that we might learn,
He simply asked for your service to others,
Is that too much to return?’
But man is selfish,
And have changed my list I’ve stood,
So that now, instead to give,
You just have to be good.
I love all men freely,
That is clear to see,
And I still give to them,
But no one gives to me.”
“What does Christmas mean?”
He turned and asked of me,
“If giving is no longer required,
To get a gift for free?
But I can change nothing,”
he murmured to the earth.
He rolled up Santa’s List of Giving,
And threw it in the hearth.
That was many years ago,
But I still remember the ire
The day when the true meaning of Christmas,
Burned in Santa’s fire.
If death is like the dark,
Then life must be like the light.
But some people die in the light,
And others live in the dark.
If love is like being happy,
Then hate is like being sad.
But some people love being sad,
And others hate to be happy.
If the beginning is like the start,
Then the end is like the finish.
But some people start at the end,
And end before it has begun.
So last night as I was going to sleep,
I laid in bed and thought…
I thought of all the troubles you’ve had,
With that old achy body you’ve got.
And I says, “That ain’t fair!
Grandma’s still got lots of gusto to go,
So why shouldn’t her body feel the same,
To put on at leas one more show?”
So I got on my knees and prayed.
I said, “God, my grandma’s joints…they all feel like frost,
And I would like to do something real special for her so,
How much would a new body cost?”
“Well,” God mused, “I ain’t got none left.
You were still very young, not even into bibs,
When a boy asked me the same exact thing.
I had only one to spare, and I gave it to Adam for one of his ribs.”
“Hmmm,” I mused, “I don’t have any ribs to spare.
And I need all my elbows and knees,
So…uh…God? If I counted everything I have,
What can I afford with ten dollars and six pennies?”
“Come to think of it,” God said,
“Man makes plenty of bodies, plenty to spare!”
And he told me what to do next.
So, thanking, I closed my prayer.
And today, I remember my prayer,
And went to the local shopping mall.
So here you are, Grandma.
A sexy Barbie doll.
TO FLY TO TIME BEYOND YOUR REACH
To fly to time beyond your reach
And stand with stillness upon the beach.
You fight this life to win or die
And never fall prey to another lie.
Grasp and receive but never bring to
The place and time you once knew.
Gone in place of loved memory
Is the lock but not the key.
Find again what you have lost
Give your life if that’s the cost.
Hold again dear what was taken
And never again be mistaken.
Fight to live but fear not to die
Don’t forget the gift to cry.
Dream to live and cause for truth
And fight this life to save our youth.
Give what you know is best
And pass even if you fail the test.
The Past is gone and Present has bled
Don’t let the Future follow the dead.
So dream away from this life,
Away from reality, away from strife.
And when you wake upon the dawn
All your troubles will be gone.
Sleep now darling, and embrace the dark
Let your eyes shut and never see the mark.
Of the pain and agony you have now
And the sweet dreams you will allow.
THE FIDDLE AND THE BOAR
I, an animal, found a fiddle one day
And asked if with it we both could play,
For it needed a player and I, a song, so a door…
Opened for… the fiddle and the boar.
My healed heart rejoiced as I played with fervent vim,
From the light of the morning to the night’s quick dim,
And the people clapped and the people danced and the people wanted more…
So played on… the fiddle and the boar.
I found a new hope, a new road, a life,
And vanished out my aching strife,
And sang and danced with the fiddle till sore…
And happy still… the fiddle and the boar.
But my music stung his fancy ears
And he came to me with a distasteful sneer.
And clawed, scrapped, ripped down my safe door…
And suddenly stopped… the fiddle and the boar.
I closed my wet eyes upon my killer,
The fiddle fell yet stiller,
And my dying soul forevermore…
No more sang… the fiddle and the boar.
THE HERO STORY
Setting: Inn, evening time. Don’t imagine this as any unique inn. It’s very typical, like, an identical copy to every inn in every fantasy. The bartender is likely holding a towel, drying a mug, and wearing a stained apron.
AUTHOR: I’ve been traveling all day, so I’m going to stop at this inn called The Beginning. I come inside and, “Oh, hello.” Inside the inn are a few guests talking leisurely around a fire. The man I said hello to is one of these guests. He is wearing a casual traveler’s cloak, hooded for the moment, but when he hears my voice he pulls it off and smiles at me, revealing thick hair that’s just now turning gray. His smile is kind and vibrant. He stands to greet me. He is tall, lanky, but with a firm build. I would like to introduce you to him.
NARRATOR: Hello Author. (shakes hand)
AUTHOR: Hello, Narrator. I trust you have a reason for being here?
NARRATOR: Indeed. I’m on a quest, a quest to find someone as surely as they are trying to find themselves.
AUTHOR: Tell, tell! It’s nice once in a while to have your own characters tell the story, isn’t it?
NARRATOR: Sit back, Author, put in what you will, but this is my story… (Narrator turns to audience). Hello, people. This is a story about heroes–like every story–heroes that conquer and triumph. But what if that hero failed like a normal mortal would? What if he was just a second too late? What if he wasn’t a hero at all, but a fool with extremely good luck? This is that story, the truth behind heroes and their greatness. We see sexy heroes and ugly heroes. We have heroes that fail, we have a group of heroes that aren’t even heroes at all but are just pretending to be so they can see themselves in this script. Heroes that come but don’t do anything, heroes with luck, heroes with no luck…but to save my hand from cramping, I’ll just put it straight…this is the Hero Story. We see first ridding toward the inn our First Best Hero…
FIRST BEST: (Ridding his white stallion, his composure is exaggerated. He smiles, his teeth so white they flash the camera. A voice hollers, “Ah! My eyes!” The hero’s sidekick is ridding furiously beside him on his pony)
NARRATOR: And his sidekick…
FIRST BEST: (Him and sidekick come into inn, First Best marching with a type of beefy-chest-thrust-out warble. He’s got the curly hair and blue eyes that every princess fantasizes as the man to rescue her.)
NARRATOR: Now comes our Second Best Hero…oh my golly! (Second Best comes in.) He looks like Quasimodo!
SECOND BEST: (He drags his limbs to a table and sits. Everyone makes an unpleasant face and gets up to another table.)
NARRATOR: (Getting over the shock of this hero) This is the Ugly Hero. If you look this way, you’ll see Third Best Hero.
THIRD BEST: (Comes in and sits at the bar.)
BARTENDER: What drink do you want?
THIRD BEST: I don’t want the rum.
BARTENDER: Well then, what will you have?
THIRD BEST: I don’t want the rum!
BARTENDER: Well what in the abyss do you want?
THIRD BEST: I want the mead, brandy, and beer.
NARRATOR: And…the Hero That Can Only Tell Lies.
BARTENDER: All at once?
NARRATOR: We’ll leave this hero to his squabble with the bartender and look at our Fourth Best Hero, the Bad Luck Hero…I said the Bad Luck Hero…Hellooooooo?
VOICE FROM ABOVE: Excuse me Narrator, but he’s just got run over by a cart and is having a bit of a problem getting back up.
NARRATOR: Well, we’ll continue on. Finally, our last hero, Fifth Best, the Hero That Cannot Die.
FIFTH BEST: (A normal-looking man comes in. Just as he is walking under the chandelier, Bad Luck Hero bursts into room, slamming the door open so the chandelier falls on Fifth Best Hero. The Hero That Cannot Die gets up, dusts broken glass off his cloak and proceeds to a table.)
NARRATOR: All five heroes gather around the inn, ordering drinks and the like. As the hours trespass, the sedated silence is disrupted by a pompous man who rises out of his seat and in a raucous voice projects:
POMP HERO: I could do that! That’s easy stuff for men like me.
BAD LUCK HERO: What kind of a man are you to say something like that?
POMP HERO: I’m the hero.
NARRATOR: Another man comes out of his seat.
IMMORTAL HERO: Hold on…I’m the hero.
POMP HERO: What?
IMMORTAL HERO: You heard me.
POMP HERO: I think not my confused man–
UGLY HERO: I was told I was the hero.
POMP HERO: Shut up. You’re too ugly to be the hero.
LYING HERO: I’m not a hero!
AUTHOR: The tavern goes up in flames, fueled by the fists and words each of these men throw at each other. I would stop it, but seeing as it is not my story, I’ll wait for my Narrator to continue. Ah! I see him. Amidst the chaos, he steps forward.
NARRATOR: Hold on!
AUTHOR: Everyone stops.
NARRATOR: I have a plan as to prove who the true hero is.
AUTHOR: Everybody cries, “Tell us!” and sit, inclined to listen.
NARRATOR: It’ll start here…now…at this very place at this very hour. Take each of you away from here to find a quest of impending doom. A year later on this day at this time, whoever comes back with their reward showing they have conquered their doom, will be the true hero. After all, this is the Hero Story.
AUTHOR: Everyone agrees and so, finishing their meals, to each his own, cooking in his mind his own triumphs and victories and making out his planes as to where to go to find the most dangerous of impending dooms, soon stands and walks out the door, leaving only myself and the Narrator.
NARRATOR: Now, let us follow them to see how they fair, shall we? You coming, Author?
AUTHOR: I’ll follow at my leisure.
NARRATOR: Great. Hey Sound Effect Guys, start the music!
AUTHOR: Background-filler music starts behind the narrator as he shuts the door of the inn behind him.
POMP HERO: Ho, Ho, my trustee sidekick. Where shall we find impending doom enough to claim me–I mean us–as hero!
SIDEKICK: But if you’re First Best Hero, and I’m the sidekick…would that make me First and a Half Best Hero?
POMP HERO: (Shrugs) Sure.
SIDEKICK: First Best, do you really think I’m a hero too?
POMP HERO: Of course you are.
SIDEKICK: Oh good. I heard of a sword that has God-like powers.
POMP HERO: Really? What is it called?
SIDEKICK: The sword of Abèy Náril.
POMP HERO: Cool name. What does it do?
SIDEKICK: Absolutely nothing. But all you need is a cool name anyway. People will cower before it nonetheless.
POMP HERO: Where is it?
SIDEKICK: I heard a dragon swallowed it.
POMP HERO: Dang! A dragon always swallows things.
SIDEKICK: No wait, my correction. The last I heard the dragon was slain by the Bad Guy and he took the sword for himself.
POMP HERO: Hmmmm…We’ll have to defeat the Bad Guy and take the sword for ourselves. Where does he live?
SIDEKICK: A man from the village said he lives to the east, but a man in the next village says he lives to the west.
POMP HERO: Ohh…what shall we do?
SIDEKICK: I’ll go to the east and you’ll go to the west.
NARRATOR: The Pomp Hero and his trusted sidekick part their opposite ways. We’ll follow Pomp Hero first, to the dark looking structure of crude rock on top of that mountain where the bad guy actually lives. I’ll pardon myself to not torture you with the long, drawn-out procedure that always accompanies a hero on the way to his goal. Instead, I’ll narrow it down to that after a good three months he arrives broken, tired, and bloody at the doorstep to the castle where the Bad Guy lives. It is raining…and lightning flashes in the background…and there is thunder…
AUTHOR: Thanks, Narrator.
NARRATOR: The Pomp Hero knocks.
VOICE FROM ABOVE (The Sound Effect Guys): Boom! Boom!
NARRATOR: The door creaks open and a little head pops out.
LITTLE HEAD: Hello.
POMP HERO: Hello. I’m looking for the Bad Guy.
LITTLE HEAD: Oh good. He’s been waiting for you.
POMP HERO: Waiting…
LITTLE HEAD: Come in, come in.
NARRATOR: The Pomp Hero follows Little Head through the door. I follow them, curious how our first episode is going to end. The inside of the castle is dark and evil-looking–you know the kind. We enter a room with books and tables in what appears to be a study.
LITTLE HEAD: Tea?
POMP HERO: Tea? I’ve come to conquer the Bad Guy, not to have tea with him.
LITTLE HEAD: He needs time to get ready.
POMP HERO: Get ready!?
LITTLE HEAD: You know…put on his ominous black cloak, paint his eyes darker…the make-up crew have been working on him since it started raining.
POMP HERO: It’s been raining for three months.
LITTLE HEAD: Is that how long it took you to get here? You don’t look wet.
POMP HERO: I’m the First Best Hero. Those three months were but a trifle, and look, not a scratch on me except this one on my cheek to make me look sexy.
LITTLE HEAD: Ah! Bad Guy is ready.
NARRATOR: Upon looking down the corridor, a man dressed in all black is seen approaching us. The Voices From Above queue impending music. They also turn the thunder up louder so you can hear it roar from inside. Suddenly, there is a screeching noise and the music stops.
BAD GUY: What? You ruined my impending evil entry into the scene!
VOICE FROM ABOVE: Sorry. Sound system went faulty. You’ll have to go on in silence.
BAD GUY: But it’s not the same. Can’t it be fixed?
VOICE FROM ABOVE: It’ll take a couple of scenes. It appears the hero in the next scene won’t have any either. I guess we’ll have to sing for you.
BAD GUY: No…don’t worry about it. Hey you!
NARRATOR: Bad Guy points at Pomp Hero.
BAD GUY: You want my sword, the sword of Abèy Náril, but you will not get it.
POMP HERO: Why?
BAD GUY: Because I left it…
VOICE FROM ABOVE: Dun, dun, dun…
BAD GUY: In the east!
POMP HERO: No!
BAD GUY: Yes! It appears now that your sidekick is going to be more of a hero than you are.
POMP HERO: Wait, how did you know about that?
BAD GUY: I’ve been reading the script. Had to know when you were coming so I could start getting ready. So, are you ready to duel me now?
POMP HERO: Duel you? You’ve got nothing to give me for my rewards when I win. You said yourself your sword is in the east.
BAD GUY: Ah, but I have a ditzy damsel you can rescue when you vanquish me.
POMP HERO: Hmmmmm…okay.
NARRATOR: So Pomp Hero and Bad Guy begin duel. Don’t try imagining this duel being like normal duels, where there’s this way-cool thriller music and pumped-up stunts. This duel is boring. The sound system is broken and neither of the two know how to do anything cool. This duel is so lame, that Little Head falls asleep and even I’m wishing to leave to see how sidekick is fairing. So I’m going to ask Author to pick me up and put me in the east.
AUTHOR: It is done, Narrator.
NARRATOR: Thanks. You put me in a prime spot, too, because there is Sidekick emerging over the top of the hill. He is holding a sword.
VOICE FROM ABOVE: (Singing) La! Le! Looooo! Luuuuuu! Liiiiiiiii–
NARRATOR: Stop it. You’re pitch is off.
VOICE FROM ABOVE: System is still broken.
SIDEKICK: Behold! The sword of Abèy Náril.
NARRATOR: The villagers are wild!
WILD VILLAGERS: Aaaaa! The sword of Abèy Náril!
SOMEONE: But what does the sword do?
WILD VILLAGER: Absolutely nothing! Aaaaaa!
NARRATOR: Wow. Now only if Sidekick can make it back to the inn with that thing…
SIDEKICK: I am a true hero now! I’ve got a cool sword! I’ll make my way back to the inn. I’ll be the first Sidekick Hero!
AUTHOR: Hold on, Sidekick, I can’t let you go yet. Pomp Hero is in eminent danger. He is engaged in a duel with the Bad Guy. In just a minute, Bad Guy is going to pin him down and raise his sword over Pomp Hero’s head. There, Bad Guy will wait for your last second rescue.
SIDEKICK: But I have no means to get there.
AUTHOR: Then you must run.
NARRATOR: Author has put me back in the west with Pomp Hero. As I watch, Bad Guy knocks Pomp Hero down and holds his sword over his head, ready to bring it down.
BAD GUY: I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you!
NARRATOR: Looking to the east, five hundred miles away…
SIDEKICK: I’m coming!
NARRATOR: Five months pass, sidekick still running, Bad Guy still ready to bring death upon Pomp Hero. At the conclusion of five months, Sidekick lunges at Pomp Hero for the last second rescue, but is just a second too late. Bad Guy, his arms weighed down by his sword, accidently drops it, severing off Pomp Hero’s head.
BAD GUY: Ah, man, I’m sorry. Tried to hold it. You took forever.
SIDEKICK: It’s alright. I’m sure he fought the duel valiantly.
NARRATOR: Bad Guy and Sidekick bow their heads in a moment of silence.
SIDEKICK: So, I guess that means I claim Pomp Hero’s reward for dueling you.
BAD GUY: Problem though, he didn’t vanquish me. I was going to offer my ditzy damsel. But seeing as she’s really annoying, you can take her anyway.
SIDEKICK: Great. Thanks.
BAD GUY: She’s upstairs in the highest room in the tallest tower.
SIDEKICK: Why so high up?
BAD GUY: I told you. She’s annoying. Hey, ditzy damsel!
DITZY DAMSEL: Yes?
BAD GUY: You’ve been rescued. Scram!
DITZY DAMSEL: Oh goody! Are you my hero?
SIDEKICK: Well…I guess I am. I have a cool sword and a ditzy damsel. I’m a hero stud!
DITZY DAMSEL: Where do we go from here?
HERO STUD: Back to the inn!
DITZY DAMSEL: Oh how romantic! Bye Bad Guy!
NARRATOR: The two go off together out of the castle. We’ll come back to them later. For now, we’re going to concentrate our time on Second Best Hero, Quasimodo–I mean Ugly Hero. Author, take us there.
QUASIMODO–I MEAN UGLY HERO: I am the hero!
NARRATOR: People are throwing garbage at him.
PEOPLE: You are too ugly to be the hero.
UGLY HERO: I mean it. I am the hero. Direct me to the nearest Bad Guy so that I may vanquish him and rescue yonder maiden and prove to you that I’m the hero.
PEOPLE: But heroes are supposed to be sexy. You’re not!
UGLY HERO: I’ll prove to you it’s not a requirement!
NARRATOR: Quasi storms off to yonder castle and knocks on the door. But instead of a servant or the Bad Guy opening it, a beautiful damsel does.
UGLY HERO: Uh…who are you?
BEAUTIFUL DAMSEL: Ick! You’re ugly. I’m the beautiful damsel.
UGLY HERO: But aren’t you supposed to be rescued?
BEAUTIFUL DAMSEL: A while ago, yes. But you took so long to rescue me that I married the Bad Guy. Good thing, too, because you are uuuuugly.
UGLY HERO: But the Bad Guy is supposed to be uglier than the hero. I should be handsome compared to him!
BEAUTIFUL DAMSEL: Not this one. He’s sexy.
UGLY HERO: Let me talk to him.
BEAUTIFUL DAMSEL: I don’t see why you need too…alright, at least it’ll spare me the sight of looking at you.
NARRATOR: The chic goes to get her hubby.
HUBBY: Eh! You’re ugly.
UGLY HERO: Wow, you really are sexy.
HUBBY: What do you want?
UGLY HERO: I need to prove that I’m the hero. Will you duel me?
HUBBY: Ah…sure, come in and I’ll explain my plans to you.
UGLY HERO: Plans?
HUBBY: Ya. All bad guys have plans. First, I’m going to kill your father, and then your uncle, and then your wife and child and finally, your dog.
UGLY HERO: I don’t have a dog.
HUBBY: And then I’ll make you watch as I conquer the world. And you know why I can’t lose? Cause you don’t know my weak spot. The only way to kill me is to poke my left eye.
UGLY HERO: Why did you tell me all this?
HUBBY: Isn’t that what bad guys do? Explain their plans to the hero before he kills him? How else are you supposed to know what my weak spot is?
UGLY HERO: I guess so. I’m still getting used to this whole hero verses bad guy thing. You sound like you’ve been at it for years.
HUBBY: Not really. I just act like every other bad guy. Capture the damsel, wait for the hero, explain my plan to him, and attempt to kill him.
UGLY HERO: So how must I act like every other hero?
HUBBY: Save the damsel, find the bad guy, listen to his plans, and kill him.
UGLY HERO: Gee, thanks. Can I duel you now?
HUBBY: I’ve got nothing to give you. I’ve married the beautiful damsel.
UGLY HERO: Then give me your sword.
HUBBY: It doesn’t have a cool name. It wouldn’t work.
UGLY HERO: What did you name it?
UGLY HERO: Ya, that is pretty lame. Where then can you refer me to?
HUBBY: Talk has it that there is a sick boy in the village. He needs medicine or he will die.
UGLY HERO: Is he rich?
UGLY HERO: Famous?
UGLY HERO: Then what’s the point in saving him?
HUBBY: The greatest treasure in the world is bringing satisfaction to someone who needs it.
UGLY HERO: Whatever. Where can I find him?
HUBBY: His family lives in a shame shack without a door, in the little village beneath my big evil-looking castle.
NARRATOR: So the Author kindly skips a few paragraphs and lands us at the door-less shack of the sick boy’s family.
VOICE FROM ABOVE: Knock! Knock!
NARRATOR: Our sound effect guys’ system is still down, but it still proves effective because in a moment, a big rotund lady comes to the doorway.
BIG ROTUND LADY: Hello? Ah! You’re a monster! Who are you?
UGLY HERO: I am the hero!
BIG ROTUND LADY: But you’re hideous!
UGLY HERO: If I saved your boy from death would you think me ugly then?
BIG ROTUND LADY: Oh, can you?
UGLY HERO: Of course I can. I am the hero. Let me see him.
NARRATOR: The boy is pale and deathly looking.
UGLY HERO: Alright, easy task. Where is the medicine to heal this lad?
BIG ROTUND LADY: There is only one thing that can heal him. It is a rare flower in the valley of the dragons.
UGLY HERO: Valley of the dragons?
BIG ROTUND LADY: But that is after you go through the mouth of a belching volcano and pass through the caves of death. You will come to a river that the devil ferry’s and you must sell your soul to him so he will give you a boat to cross the river–the river is really acid and you must cross it in five seconds or it will dissolve the boat–and then you come to the valley of the dragons. The flower is there somewhere.
UGLY HERO: What! Burned by a volcano, sell my soul to the devil, and ripped apart by dragons, all for a stupid flower?
BIG ROTUND LADY: To save his life.
UGLY HERO: Screw it. He can die!
NARRATOR: I follow Quasi outside where, a few paces down the path, he trips on a rock and breaks his neck. So by trying to escape death, he found it inevitably. We go now to our Third Best Hero, the Hero That Can Only Tell Lies. There he is, knocking on the bad guy’s door. The door opens. Someone’s head sticks out.
SOMEONE’S HEAD: What?
LYING HERO: I don’t want to go in!
SOMEONE’S HEAD: Then why did you knock, dingbat?
LYING HERO: I didn’t knock.
SOMEONE’S HEAD: Yes you did. Don’t be an idiot.
LYING HERO: I’m an idiot.
SOMEONE’S HEAD: Yes, that’s what I said. Why don’t you come in? I’ll get the bad guy for you.
LYING HERO: I won’t kill the bad guy.
SOMEONE’S HEAD: What! But the hero always kills the bad guy. Here he is now. He, dude, hero here says he won’t kill you.
DUDE: That’s good. Tie him up. We’ll put him to questioning.
NARRATOR: Lying Hero is tied up.
DUDE: Tell me, hero, were do you live?
LYING HERO: I live on the moon.
DUDE: Gast! He’s an alien! Next question, do you know where the magical stone of Nashiyis is?
LYING HERO: Yes.
DUDE: Ah! Where is it then?
LYING HERO: I know where it is.
DUDE: That’s what I’m asking. Where is it?
LYING HERO: I know where it is!
DUDE: Stop playing games. Tell me where it or I’ll kill you.
LYING HERO: I want to die!
DUDE: Really? Okay then…
NARRATOR: His story, though short and fatal, left a moral for the children–kids, this is what happens when you lie. Now, I believe we left Hero 1 1/2 with his Ditzy Damsel. Let’s see how they are doing. Hold on! It looks like our sidekick may make it back to the inn. They have stopped at a cave, however.
DITZY DAMSEL: Hero? Look at all those foot prints going into the cave. They all go in, but none ever come out again.
HERO 1 1/2: Step aside, Ditzy Damsel. I am the hero, and heroes always come back out.
NARRATOR: And we watch the hero tromp into the cave.
DITZY DAMSEL: Hurray! My hero!
NARRATOR: Oh, it seems Fourth Best Hero has just made his first move. As it seems Hero 1 1/2 will be a while in that cave, we’ll go check up on our Bad Luck Hero. Hey, Voice From Above!
VOICE FROM ABOVE: Ya?
NARRATOR: We’ve been going along in silence for quite a while. Have you got it fixed yet?
VOICE FROM ABOVE: In time, in time…
NARRATOR: So Bad Luck Hero knocks on bad guy’s door. The door opens and a man’s head pops out.
MAN’S HEAD: Yes?
BAD LUCK HERO: I’m looking for a bad guy.
MAN’S HEAD: Sorry, I’ve retired.
BAD LUCK HERO: Just my luck. The only bad guy in the world to retire and I got him.
MAN’S HEAD: Well, gee, man, whatever are you looking for a bad guy for?
BAD LUCK HERO: I’m trying to prove that I’m the real hero.
BAD GUY: Well, sorry, I can’t help.
BAD LUCK HERO: Well can’t you pretend you’re a bad guy for a while?
MAN’S HEAD: What do I have in it for me, anymore? All my job was good for was to let the good guys vanquish me, run off with my damsel, and get all the glory to themselves. I couldn’t handle the stress anymore. Plus, I sold my ominous black cloak to a bad guy that really needed it.
BAD LUCK HERO: Well…you can keep the girl. I just need her as proof that I ‘rescued’ her. And I won’t really vanquish you.
MAN’S HEAD: I still don’t have an ominous black cloak.
BAD LUCK HERO: Some bad guys don’t have them. You can be the original one…the new trend to bad-guyism!
MAN’S HEAD: Hmmm…I still get the girl?…Alright. Come inside. We’ll think of an evil plot together.
BAD LUCK HERO: Evil plot?
MAN’S HEAD: All bad guys have evil plots still, don’t they?
BAD LUCK HERO: Oh, yes, of course, of course…
MAN’S HEAD: I may be retired but I still remember having an evil plot.
NARRATOR: So the both of them sit down and think of an evil plot. The bad guy’s girl (we’ll call her BGG just to make it sound cute) was actually an old hag. That is, she appeared as an old hag to everybody but the bad guy. To him, she was her cliché, stereotypical damsel. Beautiful, graceful, whatever. The bad guy put this spell on her so no one else would fall in love with her. For the Bad Luck Hero, however, he made an exception.
MAN’S HEAD: The old hag up in the tower will turn into the BGG at 11:59. You will have exactly one minute to get her out of the tower before she turns back into a hag and she is lost to you forever……….. am I supposed to laugh evilly at this part? I forgot.
BAD LUCK HERO: No, no. You’re doing good.
MAN’S HEAD: How’s my voice? Does it sound dark enough? And where’s Author? I know I’m retired but I don’t think ‘Man’s Head’ is a foreboding enough name for a bad guy. Put some X’s and V’s and W’s in it or something.
MAUVNŚ HELAXED: That’s good. You like the plot?
BAD LUCK HERO: It’s good.
MAUVNŚ HELAXED: Don’t forget. Me and my men are going to be chasing you. Eventually we’ll come to a close-quarters attack and duel each other. I’ll wound you and you’ll run.
BAD LUCK HERO: Why must I run?
MAUŃVXS HEXLIOD: I want some glory. You can tell your people back at the inn you ran to save BGG. It’ll make you sound even more of a stud because you resisted half the battle.
BAD LUCK HERO: You’re good, bad guy. You should consider taking up this profession again.
MÁXIM EXLAX: I am warming back to it quite well. It is 11:59 now. BGG’s room is the last one up the stairs. I’ll turn my back. I won’t know what you are doing until right at 12:00.
BAD LUCK HERO: I’m gone!
NARRATOR: So the Bad Luck Hero chases up the stairs and bursts into BGG’s room.
BGG: My hero! That is my line, isn’t it?
NARRATOR: With thirty seconds left, our hero scoops BGG in his arms and throws her out the window.
NARRATOR: Hero runs downstairs, outside, finds his horse, finds the girl, and gallops away. The Bad Guy must be coming now because the sound system is playing hard rock music. Is that appropriate for a bad guy in these times?
VOICE FROM ABOVE: We modernized it.
NARRATOR: The bad guy and his men pursue Bad Luck Hero.
MEXICEWALOICVXXXŜ: Shoot him down!
NARRATOR: It must have been the luck of our hero, because our retired bad guy suddenly liked his job again and was pursuing our hero with the intent to really conquer him. Well, the only horse in the world that was born without eyes, ran into the only tree in the kingdom, throwing our hero off and into the only pond in a three hundred mile radius. BGG, however, stays on. Well the bad guy’s men circle the pond and shoot arrows into the exact spot where the hero sunk under. They only stop when they run out of arrows.
BAD GUY MAN: Is he dead yet?
ANOTHER BAD GUY MAN: No, no. You have to see his hat float to the top.
BAD GUY MAN: He wasn’t wearing a hat.
ANOTHER BAD GUY MAN: Look, all I know is to watch for the hat.
NARRATOR: So they watch. Eventually, something floats to the top. But it was the hero’s shirt, bloody and full of holes.
BAD GUY MAN: Is he dead now?
ANOTHER BAD GUY MAN: Not yet.
NARRATOR: The hero’s boots gurgle to the top…socks…and cloak.
BAD GUY MAN: Now?
ANOTHER BAD GUY MAN: No!
NARRATOR: They wait a while, until the sun sets. Finally, a hat floats to the top.
ANOTHER BAD GUY MAN: He’s dead!
NARRATOR: Sad. It also turns out that, glorified by his victory, our retired bad guy becomes the most tyrannical of all bad guys to have ever lived, killing half the population of the world before he finally dies over his dinner plate choking on a chicken bone. But, oh well. Let’s see how our sidekick hero is doing. Still in the cave I see…
DITZY DAMSEL: Hunny, you’re coming back out soon, right?
NARRATOR: And our last hero, Fifth Best Hero…the Hero Who Cannot Die. Looks like he’s started his own war. He’s done a lot while I’ve been away. He’s quite the ladies man, too. Look at that hot chick he’s got with him!
IMMORTAL HERO: Prepare men. This is the day we win. They’re charging. Ready, and…fire at will!
SOME GUY: Who’s Will?
IMMORTAL HERO: He’s that fat, short guy in the front.
VOICE FROM ABOVE: Shoot…twang. Aaaaaa!
OTHER GUY: Will’s dead, sir. Who do we kill now?
IMMORTAL HERO: Oh, I don’t know. All they told me to do was ‘Fire at will’.
BAD MAN: You may have killed our Will, but you have not killed our Victor E.!
VICTOR E.: Die, Scum!
NARRATOR: With a great swing of his sword, bad man knocks our undying hero off his horse. His chick screams and throws herself at his body, sobbing.
NARRATOR: Still sobbing.
CHICK: My tears are supposed to bring you back to life, but they aren’t working!
UNDYING HERO: Darling, I can’t die.
BAD MAN: What? He can’t die? Let’s bury him alive!
NARRATOR: So our hero meets his end, after all. Take me to the inn, Author. Thanks. The time and date come again and we look back here at the inn and into every face but yet, where are our heroes that sought out to find themselves? This same inn, date, and time and the only one to return is…me. So, I suppose I’ll just sit down, drink a cold glass of water, with the Sword of Abèy Náril on my belt, the Stone of Nashiyis around my neck, and the BGG on my lap, and soak in the adulation from those assembled to congratulate me on being the One. True. Hero.
AUTHOR: You’re welcome.
DITZY DAMSEL: Hunny, you’re still coming back out right? Hunny…
THE WAR QUEEN
(New Adult Fantasy)
By J.M. Robison
Published by Tirgearr Publishing
A Pail of White Paint
Thundering hooves on cobblestone rattled vibrations up her body. She hunched over the animal’s neck, cloak tugging against her throat as it swirled behind her.
The stable boy sprinted across the lawn up ahead, dodging potted plants and manicured bushes. She yanked back on the reins and the horse stuttered to an abrupt halt in the dirt just as he reached her. The horse snorted, sides pumping as it sucked in more air and flung foam off its lips. The boy looked in much the same state.
She dismounted, throwing the reins to the panting boy who inhaled to control his breathing, lowering his head, and intoned a polite, “Lady Altarn.”
She swooshed by without a glance.
She entered the manor, the harsh click of her boot heels against the wood floor echoing in the empty hallway. The armorer waited at the counter, a pair of wing-shaped blades at his elbow and a lackluster glaze across his eyes as if to create a wall against the bad mood that followed the lady in.
“Would you like a musician?” he started to ask, but she whisked the winged blades off the counter and continued down the hallway.
Altarn threw open the door into the training yard. Dropping her cloak on the ground, she stomped across the yard to the target constructed out of wooden logs to resemble a person—resemble a man. A small pail of white paint and a brush next to the target claimed her attention. She stared at the pail, disbelief somehow wedging room between her clashing war with anger and hurt.
Do they know me that well? She couldn’t decide if she should be offended or grateful by the gesture.
She decided gratitude.
She dipped the brush in the paint and slashed it across the chest of the target to spell the name, Jessom.
Gathering a winged shorn in each hand, she stepped toward the target and sliced into it with an angry wildness she would disapprove of in her troops. Every strike became harsher, her angry grunts louder. She targeted the chest over and over so the still-wet name there became daggered smears of white paint.
“A shame our enemies don’t actually die that way.” The voice reached her from behind, across the yard, so she wondered how she even heard it at all through her numbness.
She halted, the winged blades clanging as she dumped them at her feet. “Japheron, does my whole manor know of my business?”
The Dethroner leaning against the back wall of the training court came forward and stood next to the molested wood. He must have been doing target practice of his own because he wore a leather vest and matching pants. His brown, military-cut hair splattered against his sweat glistened forehead and dust speckled his goatee.
“Can we get away from it?” He paused, as if expecting her to defend herself. She didn’t. “What has this man done to you?” He indicated the target, pointing at the damaged name.
“Man is the answer to that question.” She turned a shoulder on him. “Something I should have realized three men ago.”
Japheron opened his mouth to say more but she whisked passed him and marched to her room.
Inside, her court dress had been spread across the bed and a bath warmed in the next room. She looked about for Ratavia, who was so astute at having such things ready for her.
Sure enough, she emerged out of the bathing room, red hair slaved into a bun.
On paper, Ratavia hired into the manor as a laundress. From there, Altarn hoodwinked her into the position as her personal maidservant. She had known her from the time they had tinkered in law school. She had been married at the time and had dropped out during her first pregnancy.
After Altarn had secured the State Head, Ratavia had voiced her financial concerns and had wondered what a mother with a new baby could do about it. On paper, she was a laundress. In reality, she was Altarn’s anchor when the stormy seas of politics threw her about.
Her expression asked more than her actual question. “How did your morning go?”
Altarn rested both palms on her hips, staring at the dress on the bed. “Fine.”
Ratavia looked askance at her and slipped thick, rubber-studded gloves over her hands. She then pulled a ceramic bowl filled with short metal cylinders out of the embers of the fire and brought it to the vanity while Altarn relocated to the bathing room.
She undressed, tying her hair up before sinking into the tub, careless of the rose water she splashed over the side.
“I don’t know why I bother with men anymore,” Altarn directed at Ratavia, who entered with an arm load of towels. “I’m certain you nabbed the last good one.”
Ratavia sighed with a gentleness Altarn had not known herself to use in a long time, and stretched up to put towels in the cupboard. “No man is perfect. Neither are women.”
Is she implying I’m to blame? Her nostrils flared, but she caught herself and released her irritation with a pinched sigh. No. No, that is not what she said. Stop looking for reasons to feed your contempt.
“Jessom washed out, then?”
“He asked when we could finally secure our relationship in bed.” She dunked her ears back in the water, trying not to listen to Jessom’s awful words coming out of her own mouth. “When I told him I wanted to wait until marriage, that bastard had the audacity to tell me, ‘you have to ride the horse before you buy it. Because if you buy it first, you may find out later it limps.’”
She glanced at Ratavia and wished she had a painter in the room to capture her expression, for it might start her bath to boil in a minute.
“Where did you find Jessom, again?”
Altarn pinched the top of her nose, trying unsuccessfully to smother a headache. “My last state party.”
“Oh. I thought you were going to say a stable, because my next question was going to be whether he was a stud horse or a gelding.”
“I don’t understand your reference.”
Ratavia smiled. “Either Jessom thinks it’s his job to populate the earth or he’s lost his manhood to a pair of shears.”
“He didn’t want children. He just wanted a herd of mares to flock to him because he believed he served some vital purpose to them.”
“Oh. Then he’s not a horse. He is, in fact, a feminine monthly bleed-rag.”
Altarn laughed, the innocent sound easing her despite her fear of relaxing too much. If there wasn’t always something clenched inside her, she’d fall apart.
She vacated the tub and dried, reinforcing her mental fortitude like a soldier before a promotion board as Ratavia assisted her into the cumbersome court gown. She didn’t know why her tailor recommended she wear this atrocious tent, despite the reassurance it would make her look the part, and thus necessary.
But that still did not stop her from complaining about the bulbous hips and the excessive layers of lace representing a fragility not suited for a woman in charge of Blindvar’s army.
The color mix of white and cream mimicked a bridal gown she doubted she would ever wear, and opening the doors into the courtroom felt too much like opening the doors into a church. Except minus a husband, which made her feel weirdly sad and joyous at the same time.
She sat at the vanity and Ratavia again placed the gloves over her hands. She pulled the still-hot cylinders out of the ceramic bowl and curled Altarn’s hair around them each in turn. She didn’t find the heated curlers necessary. Enough heat emanated from her own scalp that the curlers simply aided in forming her internal turmoil into something pretty.
“Do you think your court will agree with your call for war on the State of Ruidenthall?” Ratavia asked, as if war were a regular pastime for her and the real issue was her need for teammates to participate.
Altarn flicked a glance into the mirror as Ratavia pulled the first curler out. The hot curl bumped against her throat. She never lied if it could be avoided, but if she told the truth then there would be no reason to even show up to court today. “Yes.”
“Even though they didn’t agree last time? Do you have anything more to convince them?”
She loved Ratavia’s blunt honesty. But Altarn withdrew into survival mode and stopped answering any more of her questions.
Ratavia must have seen Altarn’s subtle withdrawal because she finished curling and pinning her hair without another word. Altarn stood and, avoiding her reflection in the mirror, trudged the downhill journey into the courtroom.
All seven members were already seated, one baron for each major city in Blindvar. There were actually six cities, but there could not be an even number on the court.. The seventh was a random member qualified to be a court official, currently held by a female named Brigot. The idea of females serving in positions of authority was not settling easy.
Altarn walked to the head of the table, sitting in her large, leather chair which felt awkwardly like a throne, reminding her of the last king the Blindvarn citizens had dethroned more than three hundred years ago.
Her seven members waited for her to speak. Perseth pushed his glasses higher up his sweaty nose. Leodin coughed into his sleeve.
Females were not discouraged from positions in politics, but the concept still troubled many. It had been a traditionally male position to hold both the state’s title and to fill the positions in court, but Altarn had been in a particular mood eleven years ago and had broken it. She became the first female State Head and had already served one year out of the three-year session.
Two men had competed for the State Head with her. The background check on one revealed he had a criminal record. The second was leading the election by a large margin until authorities discovered he was born in Luthsinia.
“The minutes will reflect the presence of all representatives from their respective cities,” Altarn began. “On seven Midar, year three twenty-four After the Reign of Kings.” She paused to let the court scribe catch up. “So being, I am unaware as to the nature of the request for court so I will let another member proceed from here.”
Perseth stood from his chair and straightened his buttoned waistcoat over his round belly. “Baron Perseth of the City of Fellsbarren requested this session due to concerns with the present dealings with the State of Ruidenthall.”
His nasally voice made Altarn want to hand him a tissue. She drummed her fingers on the armrests. She had suspected as much.
“May I speak freely, Lady?”
Perseth pushed his glasses higher up his nose. “We all think it is impulsive of you to threaten Ruidenthall with war.”
His eyes, too round and too close to his nose, swept over the other members of the room, who all nodded.
“They have been our friends and allies since the war to dethrone our king. If Luthsinia didn’t cut straight between our two states, we might even be one. A lot of us have family who either came from Ruidenthall or who live there now.”
“Is it so easily forgotten the Lord of Ruidenthall is trying to steal Blindvar from us?”
The members at the table moaned.
“Please reflect on my use of the word ‘impulsive.’”
It pushed on the edges of her serenity to listen to Perseth’s boldness and not respond to it. But she’d been called to court to listen to a problem, not create one.
“Scribe, will you please read us the letter from the Lord of Ruidenthall concerning the matter our lady has just mentioned?”
The scribe pulled a book off the shelf at his desk and thumbed through it, pages snapping crisply. “Seventeenth of Kaidar,” the scribe read. “Year three twenty-four After the Reign of Kings. Addressed to Lady Altarn Shadheing from Lord Kaelin-drath Morrendrake. It reads:
“Greetings, Lady of Blindvar.
“It is fortunate our two states are such great friends. It has come to my recent attention that a number of Ruidenthall citizens have taken a fancy to your small town of Heathe. So much so, that there are more Ruids than Blindvarns. I’ll have to visit to see what the attraction is. After all, who would sacrifice great Ruid food to live in a small Blindvarn town where the closest city is thirty miles out?
“Of course, having this offset of Blindvarns to Ruids must make it a tad more difficult for the yearly census for you, which gave me an idea. Since our states are such good allies, I propose—just as a speculative thought—that Heathe be merged into the State of Ruidenthall in exchange for a small bit of land out of my own good state, if you like.
“Maybe this small exchange can start something bigger, and maybe someday Endendre will eventually be one state instead of divided into three. Of course, it is just an idea, and something like this has never been done before between our two states. Please reply with your thoughts. If it is disagreeable, I’ll digress. Signed, Lord Kaelin-drath Morrendrake of Ruidenthall.”
The members at the table watched Altarn like ghosts waiting for the moment they could pounce on the living and suck out their souls.
They’d all heard the letter before. They required the State Head to submit every missive sent and received from a government official to the court’s scribe. She’d just procrastinated submitting the last three letters from Lord Kaelin written in a scathingly personal manner which she didn’t feel should be shared with the court.
“To which our lady replied that Lord Kaelin was soliciting war between the two states, calling him a…” Perseth looked at the scribe. “Would you open Lady Altarn’s reply to that letter?”
The scribe did so. Perseth relocated to the desk, bending over the book, his glasses slipping to the tip and pinching an already stuffy nose. “…Calling him a, ‘land thief in the most honest of ways.’”
“Baron Perseth, you’ll do better not to sound as if you are convicting me of crimes.”
“My apologies, Lady.” Perseth hunkered down back at his seat, straightening his glasses. “But those are direct quotes from both letters.”
“My question to you gentlemen…and lady.” Altarn threw a glance at Brigot, who shrugged. Suppose there was no easy way to integrate females into political positions and still make them feel equal. “Is…why was Kaelin watching the Blindvarn census to know that Ruids over-populated Heathe?”
“It is a small town,” stated Brigot. “Just big enough to have a small church. In towns like that, everyone knows everyone, and it would be easy to tell who was Blindvarn and Ruid. It’s as simple as writing or visiting Ruidenthall and letting them know that.”
“Heathe is in the middle of Blindvar.” Altarn held her ground. She’d thought long about this, had even known about the odd number of Ruids in Heathe. It had been like that before her election. Why, then, was this proposition to merge Heathe into Ruidenthall brought to the first female to ever hold the State’s Head?
She had been in session only for a year, long enough to know Ruidenthall on a friendly level, enough so its lord would feel comfortable asking for such a thing. Lord Kaelin wasn’t as new to his session as she was to hers. He’d been lord for seven years already. Why hadn’t he asked the lord before her for Heathe?
“That matters, how?” someone asked.
Altarn didn’t know who had spoken, didn’t care. They were different limbs on the same monster.
She took a deep breath to calm her nerves. She’d left the terrible incident from this morning at the door before she had come into the courtroom, but the more unpleasant this session became, the harder it was to avoid thoughts of Jessom. She touched both hands to her eyebrows to reset her fleeing calm.
“Heathe is in the middle of Blindvar,” she repeated. “It’s a tactically located town and at times it was thought to relocate the State Manor there for equal control on Blindvar. To give it to another state would give them an advantage if they were seeking to eventually take all of Blindvar, and the fact that Lord Kaelin offered to give us a small piece of land in Ruidenthall is a moot point.
“It would be so easy to gradually push the borders on Heathe and filter more Ruids in so soon there would be a huge hole in the center of our formation. We would be too spread out to do anything about it, too easy to cut us off. Had it been a similarly small town on the border, not in the middle of Blindvar, I would have spent longer considering it.”
“Lord Kaelin is not taking Blindvar from us!” This comment earned the speaker muffled chuckles. “We’ve been friends and allies with them for three hundred twenty-four years.”
“So why are there so many Ruids in Heathe?” she challenged.
Perseth shrugged for all of them. “Same reason as Blindvarn-born live in Greatmar?”
“Not to the amount that they supersede the number of Ruids there.”
“Such a trivial matter, Lady. All we’re saying is that it’s a little rash of you to jump to such conclusions so violently. Of course we won’t bother re-reading the letter from him apologizing for the upset. But instead of leaving the matter alone, you pursued it and told him to prepare for war.”
“Not in those exact words.”
“Does it make a difference what words you used if the understanding is still the same?”
Altarn looked at each of them in a slow, personalized manner. The stares back at her resembled what they might express for a convict in front of a jury of peers. Lord Kaelin only backed down because she discovered his play at conquest. The scathing letters he’d sent to her afterward proved he was upset about it.
Upset enough to say things like, Wars and melting alliances only follow the tempest of a woman’s menstrual cycle. That was the last letter, still on her desk, melting a hole in it.
“And Ruidenthall has a larger army than Blindvar,” Perseth continued in Altarn’s silence. “So challenging them to war is a terrible idea on several levels.”
That was Altarn’s only hesitation. It would be like a litter of kittens against a hive of bees. Blindvar had a unique weapon system proven effective in the King Wars, but Ruidenthall still had more soldiers. That was why she’d sent a private bird to their sister state Luthsinia to ask for aid. Why she’d sent five birds. The last bird had gone out three weeks ago, and she had yet to hear a response from any of them.
Altarn straightened her shoulders and stood, clasping her hands in front of her. “Does anyone here agree with my call for war?”
No one made any indication of approval.
A hard knot welled below her ribcage. “Is there anything more this court wishes to address?”
A brief, quiet scan around the room by Perseth ended with a, “No, Lady.”
“I will take your concerns into account. We will convene again in three weeks and I will make my final decision at that time. This session is concluded.” Altarn left the room while her court members grumbled and pushed chairs away from the table to stand.
Tears whirled against the back of her eyes. She’d hoped for reprieve today. Where Jessom had left an aching void in her chest, the men of her court had filled it with accusations that she overreacted, reminding her yet again why the men of Blindvar had not encouraged women to hold such positions.
She’d been losing the election until both men she had been up against had fallen out. She did all the things required of her. She looked the part, had all the right schooling, spent taxes where needed, made sure no power-hungry tyrant learned from the kings before him on how to acquire land…
She made it to her room, closing the door and pausing with her back against it to straighten out her frazzled composure.
Ratavia was laying fresh linens on the bed. “A bird arrived while you were in court.”
Ratavia looked up. Her eyes offered bandages. “From Kaelin.”
The rest of Altarn’s thin emotional binding snapped. Tears burned her eyes and she fought to keep them from ruining her makeup. Was being the State Head this brutal for everyone who held the position? It was a requirement to serve in the army for two years to qualify to run for the State Head. She could handle the stress of sleepless nights and physical training far easier than bearing the discontent of a court who hadn’t voted for her.
Like a prisoner before the judge, she walked to the sealed missive on her desk. Stiff fingers broke the seal.
The introduction lacking her title spoke a complete letter by itself about what he thought of her.
Your dramatic reaction over my suggestion of making Heathe part of my estate has reminded everyone why females have been discouraged from positions of power. Our people have been friends since before the King Wars, and you’ve threatened that. I’ve told you I don’t want your land, and I have rescinded anything to do with my offer. But your continuing threats of war are pushing my own hand to act first.
Though I do not want to fight my allied Blindvarns, I will do so to maintain the security of my own state. Any more threats and you will find my army marching to your manor in a fortnight.
Lord Kaelin-drath Morrendrake of—
She threw the paper on the desk. It floated over the side and onto the floor.
Altarn sat on the bed, slumping forward. Ratavia rushed over and braced an arm around her.
“My lady, Kaelin is a tyrant. Anyone who is shallow enough to use vulgarity to make one feel weak is a bully and not a leader.”
“You haven’t read the letter.”
“I don’t have to. Every word is on your face.”
Altarn sobbed and Ratavia comforted her like she had done so many times before. An anchor in a sea of political storms.
“I shouldn’t cry.” Altarn sat up, nudging Ratavia away, refusing to wipe the tears off so they would dry on her cheeks like battle scars. “He wants me to look weak. I’m certain he’s after Blindvar, but no one believes me.”
“You might consider revealing these letters to the court. His vulgarity and threats might convince them he’s only angry he got caught.”
“Nothing will sway them save Kaelin marching upon us. Even then they will believe his army has come for dinner.” Altarn shrugged out of the dress. It collapsed on the floor, where she left it. “He’s doing it so cleverly. Steal Blindvar over time under friendly pretenses, or threaten to remove the State Head because of her threats that she caught on to his intentions. I need Luthsinia’s aid. We’re losers either way without a larger army.”
“Maybe Luthsinia hasn’t responded because they’ve already declared they will remain neutral in your war.”
“So it’s my war now?”
“Oh, ah…I mean––”
“Never mind,” Altarn amended. “I could say demeaning things to a priest at this point and not feel hell open to swallow me.” She dropped, exhausted, onto the couch, still in her undergarments, and considered—not for the first time—abandoning her post and relinquishing her duties as State Head.
It really was just that easy. Just like the citizens chose whom they wanted to hold the position, the State Head could resign and leave. All it took was a formal letter to the court and in ten minutes the State Head could go back to washing dishes at the roadhouse. But Altarn would never do it because that would show the men in her court they were right all along about her, and she would not give them that satisfaction.
It would also make the Baron of Fellsbarren State Head by default until the next elections. Perseth. She shuddered.
“It’s just so easy to see how innocent this thing is,” Altarn bemoaned. “So well done I am almost convinced.”
“Have you thought that maybe it is innocent? You know I agree with you, but you have to hold both stones to know which one is heavier.”
Altarn loosened her hair, dropping the pins on the floral cushion beside her. “You should’ve finished law school. You’d make a better lady. But yes, I have. The small things bother me. Why are there so many more Ruids in Heathe than Blindvarns? Why was Kaelin looking at the Blindvarn census? Why did he wait until I—a female—came into the State Head to make such a request?”
“That is why I believe you.” Like a mother cleaning up after her child, Ratavia gathered up the pins Altarn had piled beside her. “You’re not biased against façades of friendship when it comes to protecting anything of value.”
Altarn nestled back against the couch. “I’m glad I have your company. I might have already fled this manor if it wasn’t for your calm reasoning.”
Ratavia’s cheeks reddened in a nervous smile. She poured them both a cup of tea, tossing a mint leaf into each. Handing one to Altarn, she sat on the couch opposite. “When is your next court?”
“In three weeks. I told them I will make my final call then. If I can’t get Luthsinia’s aid, I will have to call off my declaration. People may think me bold for giving it life in the first place, but I’m not so bold as to face an army bigger than my own.”
“Three weeks gives you enough time to ride to Luthsinia and ask for aid in person.”
Altarn’s eyes narrowed on Ratavia, whose gaze was fixed on the inside of her cup. She sipped.
“You can’t be ignored if you’re there in person,” she continued when Altarn failed to respond. “They’d be forced to hear your plea. They could still say no, of course, but then you can tell your court you did everything you could to prevent a war if Kaelin truly intends to take Blindvar. And who knows? Maybe Kaelin is intercepting the birds and Luthsinia hasn’t received any of the ones asking for aid.”
Altarn shuffled to sit straighter. “But Luthsinia has barred Kaelin and me from crossing their borders. They will detain us if we do. They say they will not allow warlords to incite their neutral state.”
“Can they do that?”
Altarn rubbed her temples, trying to chase away a headache. Jessom held the nail to her brain, her court of men offered the hammer, and Kaelin pounded it in. “Because they retained their king, yes. Just another reason why we dethroned ours.”
“How are they to know you’ve entered their borders?”
“They’ve started checking everyone’s tags on the roads.” Altarn picked up a forgotten pin and flicked it at the back of Ratavia’s couch. Her problems did not go with it. “And they patrol the borders to make sure no one sneaks in.”
Ratavia’s fingers drummed the side of her cup. Lifting a chain off her neck, she tossed it at Altarn. “Then go as me. You don’t leave the manor enough for people to know what the Lady of Blindvar looks like. Farther away from the manor, there are smaller towns than Heathe who think we are still ruled by a man. No one will recognize you.”
Altarn’s fingers dangled the identification tag on the chain, wondering at the possibilities. “Will anyone notice if we switch places?”
“Well, I’m not going to be lady while you are gone.”
“You could. My best advice comes from right here on the couch, speaking with you and drinking tea. I’m starting to wonder why I even bothered to run for session in the first place.”
“Then you have forgotten that the King Wars…” Ratavia paused, smiling over the edge of her cup, “were won by a female.”
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“I enjoyed reading. love the writing style. The story came to life for me and I could also feel the character’s emotions. I recommend this to everyone. Especially a producer or film maker. Now off I go…Impatiently waiting for the movie.” ~ AA Wilson
“This book has a nice balance of dialog, action, and head time. The author does a very good job of avoiding head hopping, something I appreciate a great deal. Having to stop and figure out who is saying what, really spoils the mood and flow. There was only a couple of moments like that in the entire book. I liked the length of the book also, it offered plenty of time to develop characters and scenes. The action sequences were quite memorable and well displayed. The alternate weapons and use of music to communicate on the battlefield was fascinating. The sub-plots provided a depth that you don’t always find.” – Mark Shultz
“First off, I’m hardly a reader, let alone a fantasy reader. Even less, I’d say, a fantasy romance reader. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed The War Queen!”–K. Hetrick
“A beautiful story”–James
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J.M. Robison is a fantasy author who chronicles the events which force heroes to reveal their mistakes, lead rebellions to dethrone tyranny, and unearth ancient secrets to free the oppressed. The War Queen is her first debut novel traditionally published with Tirgearr Publishing. She’s quested over lands with the U.S. Army and now works for the king under the honorable title of Deputy Sheriff. She makes her own shampoo, lotions, laundry soap, face wash, and toothpaste. Someday she’ll pack the wagon and roam the mountains in search of dragons.
QUEST FOR DRAGONS WITH HER: www.jmrobison.com
SPY INTO HER SECRETS ON FACEBOOK: @RobisonAuthor
STALK HER ON TWITTER: @JMRobison
*If only he had one more heart to give... *What happened to those days where your worth was proven by the strength of your arm and not by the inner office dramatics of whose turn it was to brew the coffee?... *I’m usually not this irritated with my boyfriend, but that violin cry just over the freaking wall has my nerves stretched as if the violin bow is sliding over them like strings... This is a short story and poem anthology encompassing the genres of fantasy, horror, humor, contemporary, and religious. Discover more about me as an author at jmrobison.com.