Monday, October 26, 2009

A Leap

“They thought they were finished….” Quaos said dramatically. She was telling the story to Kayli and Edjica, the only children currently in the Magiary, but Aniya and Devrin were listening just as intently. “But then, a miracle happened. Hundreds of seahorses came up and surrounded them to protect them from--” The story was interrupted by a thunderous pounding at the door.
“No, don’t stop!” Kayli protested.
“I’ll get it,” said Devrin, already on his feet. “If you get interrupted they probably won’t get to bed till midnight. You or Aniya can tell me what happened, later.” He strode down the corridor to the front door. It was storming too hard for him to be able to see anything through the peephole, so he opened the door.
The man on the doorstep was not dressed for the weather, and his clothes were soaked and ragged; his face was dirty and sporting ragged stubble, his hair unkempt. Devrin thought he must be a beggar, until he spoke. “Is there a woman named Quaos here?” he asked. His voice had a hint of Sarcish accent, under the desperation.
“Possibly,” said Devrin with caution. “Who’s asking?”
“My name is Iaedan. Quaos is a friend of mine, and she’s in danger, though she probably doesn’t know it.”
Devrin studied the man carefully, then nodded. “All right, come in.” He led Iaedan inside.
Quaos was just finishing the story. “And she married the prince and they lived happily ever after.”
“And then she killed him,” added Iaedan.
Quaos gave a bark of a laugh that was cut off when she recognized Iaedan. She stared at him in shock. The children were not amused. “No!” cried Edjica, and Kayli also looked stricken.
“Don’t worry, he’s joking,” Aniya assured them. “They loved each other very much and lived happy and peaceful lives, and never had to kill anyone again. Now go to bed.” With only a few token protests, they went.
“Iaedan, what have you been…? what are you…? What happened to you?” Quaos asked.
“They’re after us,” he told her.
“And that explains it all!” said Devrin
“It does, actually,” Quaos told him sharply. “How close are they, how many are there, and who’s behind it?”
“Close. Lots. King Evrich, who eventually emerged as the demon’s heir.”
“Since this is you talking, by ‘lots’ and ‘close’ I assume you mean armies that are about to descend on us at any moment.”
“That’s about right,” Iaedan admitted.
“We have to go tell Malexandra.” Quaos led Iaedan toward the stairs, but stopped at their foot. “Can you wait down here… just in case?” she asked Aniya and Devrin. They’d never heard her sound scared before, and they agreed anxiously.
“Who exactly is coming?” Devrin asked.
“Armies, apparently, from Sarca, to arrest Quaos for regicide.”
“Right, of course. Well, while we wait to fight off armies by ourselves, what did I miss in the story? I don’t want to die without knowing.”
“Fine, it’s not like there’s anything better for us to do. Basically, there was an epic battle, with the girl and the seahorses and all the creatures of good on one side, and all the creatures of evil on the other side. Quaos went into great detail on the descriptions, but I don’t really remember exactly. Anyway, they were losing and then the prince rode in with an army behind him and joined the fight, and they defeated their enemies and got married and lived happily ever after. Until she killed him, if you believe Quaos’s friend,” she added with a smile.
“You have to admit, in real life it would be more likely than a happy ending.”
“Come on, Devrin, even you’re not that cynical.”
“I’m not saying that people killing each other is always more likely than them getting along, but royal marriages don’t tend to work out, if one of the people wasn’t born royal and it’s a love match rather than being political.”
“They do sometimes!” snapped Aniya.
Devrin was about to continue the debate, until he saw her expression. “I thought you and Skyler were just friends.”
“We were! And then we were practically enemies, and now that we’re friends again, well, I don’t think we are just friends.”
“I don’t even want to think about giving romantic advice, but you do need to remember that 98% of the country hates you.”
“I know! I know! I didn’t say there was any way it could possibly work out--” She froze. “He said ‘armies,’ didn’t he?”
“Yes… what’s your point?”
“Armies aren’t going to march through the capital of Majardea, right under Skyler’s nose, and knock on the front door. They’ll come across open country and arrive around back.”
They rushed through the house. Aniya reached the back door an instant before Devrin, and flung it open.
Iaedan had not been exaggerating. A full army stood facing the building. The rain and wind didn’t seem to faze them in the slightest. A single, armored man rode forward, holding up a scrap of white cloth that was nearly blown out of his grasp.
“Turn over the criminal, Quaos of Sarca, and we will leave you in peace!”
Devrin thought of trying to stall, pretending not to know who they were talking about or saying they didn’t have the authority. He glanced at Aniya. She gave the slightest shake of her head, turned to the soldier, and said, “Hell no!”
The man rode back to join the other men in front of the house. He said something, and they rushed towards the Magiary.
Before they could reach it, a shimmery, transparent wall sprung up around the building. The army hesitated. One of the soldiers touched it, tentatively, then tried to ride through it. It stopped him as surely as if it were made of stone.
“Let’s go see what the plan is,” Devrin said, and they closed the door and went upstairs.
A strong wind blew through the room when Devrin opened the door to the top of Malexandra’s tower, and he saw to his surprise that despite the weather, one of the large windows was flung open. Malexandra faced it, concentrating intently on something, and Quaos stood on the window ledge, facing outwards. Drops of rain battered her and flew past her into the room, but no one seemed to notice. Iaedan was asleep in an armchair in the corner, and they could sense the sleeping spell laid over him.
“…can’t let innocent people take the blame for what I did!” Quaos was screaming into the storm.
“No!” cried Aniya, and before Devrin even realized what was happening, Quaos leapt.
They rushed to the window. They could barely see Quaos’s crumpled figure through the storm, but it was clear that she wasn’t moving. The shimmering wall disappeared as Malexandra joined them at the window, but the army stayed where it was.
“How could you let her…?” Aniya demanded.
Oddly, Malexandra smiled. “Surely you can’t think I would have let her kill herself.”
“But… she jumped.”
“Breaking a fall is one of the easiest things to do, magically, you know that. And Quaos is a good enough actor to play dead quite convincingly. We just need to take her inside before they decide they want her drawn and quartered, or some such thing.”
Devrin began to laugh rather hysterically, and a tear rolled down his face, and he rushed to the stairs. Aniya and Malexandra hurried after them.
Malexandra stopped them at the back door. “Wait here. If either of you go outside, you might give it away.”
Devrin would have protested, if he hadn’t known she was right. Aniya took a tentative step to follow Malexandra outside, but Devrin grabbed her arm. “Do you really want to risk her life on your ability to act as though she’s dead?” His voice was not his usual sarcastic tone but something darker, and Aniya stayed inside.
They waited tensely, both aware that Malexandra was facing down an army who would quite possibly insist on taking Quaos’s “body.” She wasn’t dead, but that could only mean she wasn’t dead yet.
Finally, the door opened. A gust of wind and a shower of rain flew in their faces, and then Malexandra came in, Quaos floating at her side, looking dead.
As soon as the door closed, she popped up and jumped down to the ground. Relief flooded over Devrin and Aniya. “We thought you were dead!” Aniya said.
“I’m sor-” Quaos began, but before she could finish her sentence Devrin embraced her fiercely, and kissed her. It might not have been best of kisses, since Quaos was drenched and shivering, and her near death was on both their minds, but it lasted a long time. Aniya stared at them, then fled. Malexandra had already slipped away.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Devrin said finally. “I didn’t even know there was anything to lose, not like that.”
“That makes me even more glad that I’m not really dead.”
“Was it horrible? They could have killed you.”
Quaos nodded. “I would have jumped for real, if I’d had to. I’m just glad I didn’t.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Radachia Searveeth was the last person in the world you’d expect to have fuzzy yellow pajamas with pink roses on them. She was more the sort of person who’d as soon kill you as look at you, and even when she did just look at you, you weren’t completely sure you weren’t better off dead. It’s not that she was a bad person or anything, but seeing her running down the street in the middle of the night, strands of hair flying loose from a long braid, feet bare, clad in aforementioned pajamas, well, something was going on. Especially since she was holding her bow, and her quiver was slung over her pajamas.
Running outside to see what was going on probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do, but my curiosity tends to overrule my common sense. If I’d been woken up by the commotion, at that hour, I probably would have rolled over and went back to sleep, but since I hadn’t been able to get to sleep at all, hadn‘t even tried, I welcomed the distraction.
I was already dressed, so I grabbed my knife and ran after Radachia. “What’s going on?” I called.
“Nothing,” she snapped. “This doesn’t concern you, Kimithy.”
“So whatever’s not going on doesn’t concern me,” I said, running alongside Radachia.
She turned her full glare on me. “That’s right. Go home.”
At any other time, I would have turned tail and fled, curiosity be damned. Radachia was that intimidating. But the prospect of going home, sitting sleepless and trying to avoid thoughts that could not be avoided, was far worse than anything Radachia could do or say to me. “No.”
I’d expected her to yell or scold or glare more, but she didn’t. She stopped abruptly and scrutinized me. It was dark, and we were standing in the darkest of shadows, so I don’t know how well she could actually see me, but I felt as though she was peering into my very soul. “You’re too young to get involved in this. You’re, what, sixteen?”
I was fifteen, but I was hardly going to say so. “I’m old enough that….” I didn’t go on. My nightmares were my own. I wondered for an instant why I was volunteering for more, but didn’t rethink myself. Whatever it was couldn’t be worse than staring at the bloodstain on my floor and seeing ghosts. But I didn’t want to talk about that. “I have a knife.”
I think Radachia would have said more, but she must have heard something, for she froze, then whispered, “Run!” and we ran.
We took a crooked path, turning down side streets and between houses, and when we stopped again, it was in the darkest of alleys. “Fine,” said Radachia. “Listen, Kimi. There are… things, who will kill everyone if we don’t stop them.”
“That makes everything perfectly clear,” I said.
“This is no time for sarcasm.”
Personally, I thought it was always time for sarcasm, and never more so than then, but I swallowed my reply and asked instead, “What do you mean, things? What are they? Why will they kill everyone, what can we do, and why is it up to us to do it?”
Before Radachia could speak, at least one of my questions was answered. A group of men appeared out of the darkness and descended on us. I say men, but they weren’t, at least not completely. They had the heads of spiders. I screamed.
I could feel Radachia’s irritation, and cut off my scream abruptly. I clutched my knife in a sweaty hand. The things were advancing, making ominous noises and brandishing weapons. I raised my knife, prepared to strike. The nearest fell down dead, one of Radachia’s arrows in it’s heart. Then another was down, and then they were upon us, and all I knew was hacking and stabbing at them in fear and horror, and trying to avoid being hacked at or stabbed myself.
We were outnumbered. And they had the heads of spiders. At least maybe I’d die a hero, I thought, but it was small comfort, because I didn’t really want to die.
I’d probably killed some, though in the confusion I didn’t really know. Then a blade was coming at my face, and I was going to die. I squeezed my eyes shut and was surprised to find, several seconds later, that I was still alive. The one who’d been about to kill me was lying dead at my feet, several arrows embedded in his back.

I looked around. There were only four of the things left alive, and they were all fighting Radachia. One grabbed her bow and snapped it in half. She’d gotten one of their swords and was fighting desperately, but one against four is long odds even for Radachia. It took everything I had to run into the fray rather than away from it, but I did, knife ready. It was dripping blood, and I took a huge gasping breath and told myself to hold it together for just a few more minutes. I took them by surprise, and stabbed one of the things in the back. The others turned on me, and it was all I could do not to be killed. And then they were the ones who were dead. Radachia isn’t the best person to have behind you, if she’s your enemy.
I looked around at the bodies scattered on the ground and the puddles of blood they lay in and realized that I too was covered in blood, and not all of it was the enemy’s. I’d been stabbed in the arm, my side had been grazed, and a long but shallow cut ran along my face. I began to cry.
Radachia ignored my tears and looked at the wound on my arm. “It didn’t hit anything serious,” she said. “And it’s the worst. You’ll be fine.”
I couldn’t stop crying. I hated it, the hot tears running down my face and making my cut sting even more, the runny nose and beginnings of a headache, the embarrassment of having hysterics in front of Radachia. She bandaged my arm with a strip of cloth she’d gotten from somewhere as I sobbed on. She glanced at me side, but it had already stopped bleeding, and gave me another piece of cloth to hold to the cut on my face.
I used it to wipe my eyes first, then pressed it hard to my cheek. I took a deep, shuddering breath, and looked at the battle scene around us, and tried to decide if it was worse that what awaited me at home.
“We should go now,” said Radachia.
It was dark, and I hadn’t been paying much attention to where we’d been running earlier, but Radachia walked me home. I was glad, until I arrived. There were guards in front of my house. Were they really here already? I didn’t want anyone, especially Radachia, to see this. “I’ll be fine from here,” I said, a few doors down from my house.
“It’s on my way. You did well, Kimi. I’m sorry you had to, but you did.”
“You too.” I had to say something.
Radachia grinned. “Of course.”
With each step I took towards my home, my dread grew. I was almost to the front steps when the guards grabbed me.
“You’re under arrest, you murderous bitch,” one of them said.
“He tried to kill me,” I said feebly. I knew it was useless to protest. He’d been a guard, and if a guard tried to kill you, you were supposed to let them, or at least that’s what the guards seem to think. And in my heart I felt guilty. He’d only been one man; couldn’t I have gotten away without killing him? Or maybe I should have just let him kill me. Why should I think my life was more valuable? The guards clearly didn’t. I didn’t feel the same way about the spider-headed things. They’d had the heads of spiders, and I still couldn’t quite associate that with them being in any way human. But the man I’d killed earlier, in my own home, had been.
“What is going on?” demanded Radachia.
“This doesn’t concern you.” I echoed her words from earlier.
“Like hell it doesn’t. That didn’t even work on you, and I’m twenty times nosier than you are.” She turned to the guard. “What is going on?”
“Exactly what it looks like, ma’am. We’re arresting this girl for murder. Now, you just run along out of here before we decide to take you in as well. You’re just as covered in blood as she is.”
“You could try. We were wounded in battle against men with the head of spiders, Garry. Do you know what that means?”
“That I have my choice of sending you to jail or the madhouse?”
“Gods, doesn’t anyone know anything anymore? It means war, but I’ll deal with that later, and with more important people than you. Now, let this girl go.”
“She murdered someone.”
“Oh, well. The two of us also personally killed seventeen men this evening. They happened to have the heads of spiders, but that doesn’t make any difference in the fact that they were alive, and then we put arrows and knives through them, and then they weren’t alive anymore. They would have killed us, and the rest of the town and probably most of the rest of the country as well, and it’s quite possible that their comrades still will. They would have killed everyone. They would have killed you, Gary. You too,” she added to the other guard. “And if the man Kimithy killed was still alive, they would have killed him too. That makes it about even don’t you think?” Radachia glared at them fiercely. They seemed to wilt.
“Erm,” Gary began, “Well, that is to say, it’s not really up to us.”
Radachia raised the sword she’d taken off our foes. She smiled sweetly in a way that was somehow even more intimidating than her glares. “How about we just agree that it’s not up to you, it’s up to me. All right? Now let Kimi go. I’ll see to it that your superiors authorize the decision.”
“Can you really do that?” Garry’s partner asked.
“Yes,” Radachia said firmly
The guards looked at each other. “We’ll release her into your custody,” Gary told Radachia.
“That will be suitable.” And the guards left.
“You have to get out of here, quickly,” Radachia told me. “I lied about being able to deal with their superiors.”
“Oh.” I was surprised, and grateful, and it took a lot of effort to keep myself from crying again. “Are there really going to be more of those things?”
“I’m afraid so. And worse. I think it’s likely that once it’s widely learned that you helped fight off the first ones so that we’ll at least have a little warning, you’ll be pardoned. So all you’ll have to do is hide out for a few days. I’d offer to let you stay with me, but after that little discussion it would be obvious. Is there anywhere you can go?”
“Yes.” There was a tree I knew of, with branches that wove into a kind of basket. When I was younger, I’d slept in it just for fun, now I could sleep in it for a few nights. I’d manage. “What about you? What are you going to do now?”
“I’ll have to tell everyone what’s happening and convince them of what it means. And I’ll be sure to lobby for your pardon, as well.” Radachia smiled. “But first, I’m going to go home and change out of my pajamas.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Phantom Snakes

These were dangerous times, so we closely guarded the cave that was the only entrance to our valley. I happened to be on guard that day. I had an arrow notched and was prepared to send it through the eye of any who approached. They came more often these days, strange men who wanted to find the valley and conquer it for their own.
So I was not unduly surprised when I saw a man, dressed in armor that glittered in the sunlight, ascending the path. “Halt!” I called down.
He looked around, saw me standing on a ledge a little above the cave, and deliberately took a large step forward. “Surrender, savage!” he demanded, “And our armies will be merciful.”
I released my arrow, and the man fell down dead. But he had said “armies”; this wasn’t the end. I blew my horn and waited for our warriors to come rushing out through the cave. But before they could, a surge of men in armor swarmed up the road. My heart nearly stopped when I saw their numbers. This was no small raid but a full-scale invasion. I shot several more of the men before one managed to sneak up behind me. I heard a footfall and began to turn, and then there was blackness.
I woke up again. I was rather surprised. Everyone knows the Denzorians don’t let nonhumans live, even as captives. And yet, I was alive, my hands bound and tied to a tree. It was very dark out, so I’d been unconscious for hours, at least, and I recognized my surroundings as the base of the mountain with the cave. Around me, the army was camped. I didn’t see any other prisoners. That filled me with dread, but not surprise. I wanted to hope that we’d won, or that some of my people--my family, my friends, even strangers who were still my people--had survived, gotten away somehow, even been captured. But I was no fool. If we’d won, the men around me would be dead or far gone. So they’d won, and that meant there were no survivors.
Except me. I still didn’t understand that. I look human enough, besides for my hair, but even with my hood on, my snakes would wriggle, and they would notice. And at that thought, my blood ran cold. For I had been woozy and shocked, enough so that until that moment, I hadn’t noticed the lack of weight hanging from my head, the lack of smooth, scaly bodies moving about my shoulders, or that the pain in my head was not from being knocked out but from having my snakes cut off.
I wanted to scream and kill and gouge out eyes. This was worse than the loss of my family and friends and everyone I’d ever known, far worse than my capture. My snakes were part of me, there with me always, yet individual beings, and I loved them. Keythi, who grew from above my forehead on the far right and reached just past my chin and loved to curl around my ear and stroke her head against my cheek; Elth, the largest, who’d wound up and sat on my head and swayed with my emotion; Jinsha, who loved music; Meiltho, who was shy and hid in my clothing; Saols, who would reach out and touch anyone near me; Pli and Yithey and Srey, who would knot and braid themselves into intricate patterns around my head, and Shiiki, who liked to play tricks like covering my eyes or wrapping around trees or furniture as I walked past them. They were gone, dead, all of them. What is a gorgon without her snakes? Nothing.
I was crying, and against my will I let out a loud sob. The soldier sleeping closest to me woke. “Shush,” he said gently, coming over to me. “It will be alright. You must pretend to be human, and when you are questioned in the morning swear your loyalty to the Denzorian Empire.”
“Did you do this to me? Kill my snakes?”
“They would have killed you, otherwise. I saw your face and just couldn’t help bring about the death of such a beautiful woman. No one needs ever know you’re not human. You can wear a hat or a wig, and I will marry you and cherish you forever and never tell anyone your secret.”
“You killed my snakes!”
“Don’t you understand? I had to!”
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand. It would have been kinder to kill me.” I looked in his eyes, trying to make him see what it meant. He didn’t, but maybe he got an inkling or at least knew my words were true without quite knowing why, and I could see in his eyes that he meant what he’d said. He was fool, of course, and a selfish one, and a member of an evil people, but he was not, himself, evil. So I said, “You can take me to your home and marry me, and I will live with you in misery, and someday when I get the chance stab you in your sleep. You can tell your companions what I really am and have me killed. I don’t know if you’d be punished for hiding it in the first place; you could probably pretend not to have known. That would probably be best for me; to have the chance to rejoin my people and my snakes. Mine wouldn’t be the only blood you have on your hands, I’m sure. Or you could untie my hands and let me walk away from here, alone.”
He thought about it for a long time, then, wordlessly, drew a knife and cut the rope binding me. I was stiff and my head still swam, but I managed to lurch to my feet.
“Wait,” the soldier said softly. “At least tell me, what’s your name?”
“Anemone.” I didn’t ask him his name, and I didn’t look back. I felt nothing but sorrow, not even the thirst for vengeance.
I don’t know for how long I wandered aimlessly, foraging for food and sleeping wherever I dropped when I could walk no longer. I could feel always the absence of my snakes, and sometimes their presence as well. I would feel Elth swaying on my head, or Keythi touching my ear, or most often, Shiiki reaching out to grab a tree. I felt them as strongly as though they were really there, and I died anew inside each time I remembered they weren’t. I often cried while I walked, and while I slept.
The stumps of my snakes had healed into smooth scars by the time I found a destination to wander towards. I had lately been remembering everyone I’d once known but would never see again, and I thought of Heia, a woman who’d lived across the road from me, and was one of the best warriors I knew. We hadn’t been quite friends, but we’d enjoyed each others company, and the image of her lying dead, her sword fallen at her side, renewed my tears. Until I remembered that she hadn’t been in the valley when we’d been attacked. She’d left several months before to fight the Denzorians. “There’s a camp, where the Rondal Forest meets the Meolian Sea, and all kinds of free people who wish to remain so make their base there,” she’d told me. “I mean to go out and fight the Denzorians before they come here.”
So at least one of my people might still be alive, and in a place where I could give myself a purpose again, stop what had happened to me and mine from happening to others, where I maybe could even get some measure of revenge.
So I made my way to the Meolian Sea. It was to the west, I knew that much, and I eventually came across a road leading west, so I followed it until it ended in a small town at the edge of the sea. I was wary of people, but I at least could tell the town was not yet under the yoke of the Denzorian Empire, for while the people I saw were mostly human, I also came across a woman with the head of a blue ox and a family of Starthans. They were having a picnic on the beach, and seemed happy and carefree and innocent. The two children were playing inside a shell the size of my fist, and their parents were sitting on a small blanket nearby, watching them. At seeing them, even I could only feel nostalgia, not real sadness.
“Excuse me,” I called down to them. “Do you happen to know which way it is to the Rondal Forest?”
The woman smiled at me. “Going to fight the Denzorians, are you? My cousin’s there. It’s north of here, far north. You’d do better to catch a ship.” She turned to her husband. “Has Efril left yet?”
“I don’t think so. He lives up there,” he told me, “But comes down to trade for supplies, and he takes passengers. His ship’s the Dishonorable Confidant; it’s anchored down at the docks, you can’t miss it.”
“It’s bright pink,” his wife added. “And he won’t even charge you, if you’re against the Denzorians.”
I thanked them, and went to find the Dishonorable Confidant. It was a brigantine, and it was indeed bright pink, from the hull to the deck to the sails. “You’re just in time,” Efril told me when I asked about passage. “We’re leaving tonight.” He looked curiously at the scars from my snakes, but said nothing. During the voyage, I could often sense that he wanted to ask, but he never did. He mostly bragged about voyages and exploits, his own and others. I expected most of them were tall tales, but they were entertaining, and I was less miserable than I had been since my snakes had been killed.
The weather was fair, and the voyage lasted just over two weeks. Finally, we dropped the anchor and rowed up to the dock in a dinghy.
There were several other ships around. None was as flamboyant as the Dishonorable Confidant, but none was exactly ordinary, either. Several flew Jolly Rogers, and one seemed to be made of glass. I noticed merpeople in the water as well, and an enormous sea serpent that reminded me of how Jinsha had swam as I bathed. A human woman and a woman with rainbow skin tanned on the beach, and a group of children of several different species were racing around and giggling. A man with nine arms stood at the end of the dock, holding four fishing rods, and a griffin soared in circles overhead.
“The main camp is right up the cliff; there’s a path there,” Efril said, pointing. “I have to unload the ship, but I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
“I’ll help,” I offered, partly out of kindness and to repay him for my passage, but mainly because I didn’t want to enter the camp alone.
“No, no, you go in, my crew and I will be fine,” he insisted. “And so will you; the camp’s a little hectic but you’ll get used to it.”
“A little hectic” did not begin to cover it, I discovered when I reached the top of the cliff. It was a jumble every type of person or animal imaginable, and many that weren’t, until you saw them. I walked around in amazement, to shy to approach anyone. I saw a few other gorgons, from a distance, but I couldn’t bring myself to go nearer to any of them. Any gorgon would know what it meant, that my snakes were gone, and I couldn’t bear the pity right then, especially from people with snakes happily swinging from their heads.
I wanted to go back down to the beach and wait for Efril, but I wanted to be braver than that. So I gathered my courage and deliberately approached a group of friendly looking women about my age.
“Excuse me, I’m new here….” I began.
One of the women, a sphinx, smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Mirthidia, people call me Mirth because, you know, I’m mirthful. Are you a gorgon? I’m usually good at telling what people are. What happened to your snakes? Ouch! Elizabeth, what was that for?” The woman next to her, a human, had kicked her. “Oh, was I being rude? Sorry, I didn’t mean to be. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do anything here if you don’t want to. Isn’t this place just amazing? Are you going to fight the Denzorians? Lazulia does,” she gestured towards the third woman, “but I don’t usually, I just help her with strategy, I‘m smarter than I sound, and I watch the kids during battle, I‘m good with kids. And Elizabeth is a healer, or she‘s learning to be and her boyfriend is. She‘s even newer here than me, I came from Senthoria a few months ago.”
“Um….” I had no idea what to respond to.
“You must be overwhelmed,” said Lazulia. “I think everyone is, when they first get here.”
“I can see why.”
“I didn’t even know there were people other than humans, when I came here,” said Lazulia. “I was Denzorian, originally. Elizabeth too.”
I tried to figure out how I felt about that. “Nobody minds?”
“If anyone does, that’s their problem. Most people don’t. It’s not my fault where I was born, and I hate them as much as anyone.”
“They killed all my people,” I found myself saying. I hesitated before adding, “And they cut off my snakes.”
All three of them were horrified; they knew other gorgons and had at least some understanding of what that meant.
We talked for a while, and they showed me around the camp and helped me set up a tent. A little before sundown, a Starthan man riding a large dog pulled Lazulia away for what she said was something urgent.
Her face was grim when she returned a few hours later. “An army is approaching the camp,” she said, pulling on leather armor as she spoke. “We have to ride out at once and meet them as far from here as we can.” Horns of every tone began to trumpet.
“I want to come,” I said.
Lazulia nodded. “What weapon do you use?”
“A bow, mostly.”
“Hold on.” She rummaged around her tent and pulled out a bow and quiver of arrows. “Will this do for now? There isn’t time to find one better suited to you, now.”
I examined the bow; it was a little longer than I was used to, but it would do. I had no armor, but I wasn’t alone in that. Lazulia directed me towards a group of archers, and I joined them as we marched out.
It was night by the time we reached the Denzorian army, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. They were in their formation, rows and rows of soldiers, as neat as cross-stitch. Our army wasn’t quite as haphazard as it seemed, but it could not by any stretch of the imagination be called organized. I couldn’t see how the fighting began, but soon someone yelled to us, “Draw…and FIRE!” and I did so, and was in the thick of it.
Each time I drew my bow I could feel Shiiki wrapped around the arrow. It renewed my anger and hatred, and though my arrows flew farther than anyone else’s and buried themselves deep in my enemies' flesh, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to be able to see my targets.
The battle ended, eventually, and we’d won, or at least, we hadn’t lost. The Denzorians had retreated; they hadn’t pushed past us to devastate the camp. We hadn’t lost, but I didn't feel victoorious.
“We just haven’t lost yet, here,” I said quietly to Lazulia as we worked to bury the dead.
“That’s how I always feel too,” she admitted, “But we’ve been not losing yet, here, for five years since I’ve been here, and a lot longer than that.”
I could feel Elth raise up to his full height on my head. I put my hand to the scar where he’d been, and knew that Lazulia was right. I’d lost once, and even if we could never win, I would always keep fighting to not lose again.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


He should have gotten lost. That is the point of a labyrinth, after all. I didn’t chose to live in the center of one so people could just walk straight up to my door. Oh, sure, it’s not quite impossible to find me, and the smart or desperate or those who are simply good at mazes do find me, sometimes. But they have to look, and they get lost. This man walked through the maze as if it was any old road, never taking a wrong turn or running into a dead end. I wondered if he had a map, but as far as I knew there were no maps of my labyrinth, and even if there was one, he’d have to look at it sometimes. It’s not an easy maze. There’s no possible way he could have memorized it.
It took him less than twenty minutes from entering the maze to reach my door. I watched him through a tile on my floor, which functions as a magic mirror but is less expected. I would hardly enchant something so usual as a mirror, and the tile has the added bonus that I can stomp on it when I see something I don’t like.
I didn’t like how easily this man was navigating my maze. I stomped on him several times, and set up a few more barriers just in case he did have a map, but they didn’t stop him any. I briefly considered adding a couple extra walls so he was completely surrounded, but as annoyed as I was, my curiosity stopped me. I wanted to know how he did it.
He paused at my door. I was glad of that. My door was a mirror, and had no handle or knocker on the outside. From inside, the mirror was a window, and I turned away from the tile and watched the man through the door. He knocked, but I didn’t go to open it. I’m not in the business of making things easy for people.
He knocked again, and again, then went around the house to look for another door or perhaps a window. He found nothing. I have windows, of course. They simply can’t be seen from the outside. The man returned to the front and knocked again, harder. I began to think he’d break down the door. He stood scowling at it, until suddenly his face lit up and he reached into a pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper and some charcoal and scribbled something and held it up to the window.
It read, Please let me in.
So I did.
“You’re Kimlkal?”
“No, I’m just some peasant who happens to live in the center of a labyrinth.”
“Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting you to be a woman.”
“And I wasn’t expecting you to be an idiot.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s only, the person who told me about you referred to you as he.”
“I can take whatever shape I want, of course, but yes, I’m a woman. I didn’t call you an idiot because I was offended, but really, what kind of fool goes looking for me with excpectations?”
“You’re right. And I probably am an idiot.”
“Not really, considering how well you managed to get here. How exactly did you manage it? And who are you?”
“Sorry. My name is Steaquild, and I am a desperate man. As for the maze, I poured a puddle of paint at the entrance last night. You must not have noticed it in the dark.”
“And you followed my footprints in.” It was clever, so I decided to hear him out. “Why are you here?”
“I’m in love. She loves me as well, but... it’s rather a stupid story. The woman I love happens to be a princess. And her father happens to be an ass. So he set three tasks that must be accomplished before he will allow anyone to marry his daughter. They’re impossible tasks, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed. “What are they?”
“The first is to untie an impossible knot.” He took out of his pocket an intricate knot nearly the size of his fist. “It has no ends. I don’t just mean they’re inside it, there aren’t any at all.”
“Then how was it tied?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why should I help you?”
He looked at me, and I could see the desperation in his eyes, but he answered, “It might be amusing.”
He was right, but I almost refused anyway. People can’t expect me to solve their problems for them, especially not when they come to me and ask. But the knot was impossible! How could I resist?
“Is there a deadline?”
“Midnight tonight.”
“Come back at eleven,” I told him.
I spent the rest of the day working at the knot. It was fascinating. It was also futile. At ten thirty, a few of the coils were a little looser, but it was nowhere near being untied. So, I found a ball of string, played around with it a little to make it look, at least superficially, like the knot, and put a little magic on it to fool anyone who looked closely. I hid the real knot in my pocket; I wasn’t done with it yet.
When Steaquild returned, I showed him the ball of string. I didn’t tell him it was a ball of string. “See, you just pull this coil here,” I touched what was actually the loose end of the string, “and the whole thing will unravel. You should wait to untie it in front of the king.”
“How can I trust you? What if I pull the string and nothing happens?”
“You can’t trust me, of course, but surely you knew that when you came to me for help.”
So Steaquild took what he thought was the knot, and left, and the next day he returned. He looked grim. “I untied the knot. Thank you. But the second task really is impossible.”
“To travel backwards through time.”
“He specified backwards?”
“He said travel through time, so I waited a few seconds and said I had. He wasn’t amused, and added that it had to be backwards.”
“Do you know what to do when something’s impossible?”
“Go to you?”
“But… I can’t cheat. It wouldn’t be honorable!”
I forbore from telling him that he already had. “Steaquild, are you the only one competing for the princess’s hand?”
“No…. But I’m the only one she loves!”
As if that mattered, though I sensed it was true. “And do you really think all your rivals will act so honorably?”
“Perhaps not.”
“You came to me. If you wanted to win honestly, you should have asked someone else. Of course, anyone you asked would tell you it's impossible. How much do you love this woman?”
“How do I cheat?”
“How are you supposed to prove you’ve traveled backwards through time?”
“He didn’t specify. He knows it’s impossible. I’d have to have serious proof, for him to believe me. For anyone to believe it, really.”
I thought for a few minutes. “Did I mention I can take whatever form I want?”
“You’re thinking of pretending to be some historical figure I brought back from the past.”
“Not a historical figure, you could have just gotten an impersonator.” I led Steaquild outside, and turned into a brontosaurus.
Steaquild gaped at me. “That should do it.”

He led me back to the castle. In my dinosaur form, I was to big to get inside, but of course, everyone rushed out.
“I have traveled back through time,” Steaquild announced. “I was not able to stay long, but I brought this creature as proof. It will most likely not be able to remain in this time for long, but you can see that I have been in the distant past.”
Everyone gawked at me, of course. I let them, until I got bored. Then I disappeared, and was back at home.
Steaquild returned the next day. He was grinning. “It worked, of course. And I don’t even need to cheat on the next task.”
“So you don’t need my help?”
“Only as proof. The task is to talk to a god.”
He had accomplished that, all right, but I almost refused to give proof, just because it would be funny if the task he’d actually accomplished was the only one he couldn’t prove. But I decided it would be even more amusing to go along with it. So I went back to the castle with Steaquild, in my own guise this time, or at least the one I was currently using. I put a little glow around myself, just to be obvious.
The king received us in his great hall. “I am honored to present Kimlkal, the Trickster god.”
The king’s jaw dropped, and a great cry of excitement came up from behind me. I glanced over; it was the princess. I turned her into an okapi, and her father into a donkey, and Steaquild into a platypus, and the rest of the audience into crows, because I like crows. Well, I had to prove I was a god, didn’t I? And it was only temporary, they’d regain their normal shapes in a few hours.
I went home and fiddled with the impossible knot.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Promise

“Please don’t kill me!” the girl begged. “I don’t want to die! Please! I promise that if you let me live, I’ll save your life someday!”

I laughed at the kid. She was in her twenties, not really a kid, but she was. “Even if my life needed saving, what makes you think you could do it?” I don’t know why I even bothered to ask. Just for the fun of it, I guess.

“C’mon, you don’t have any enemies? And I’ll save your life because I promised, and I keep my promises!”

I didn’t care about her damn promise, but she amused me, so I took my knife from her neck and used it to cut the ropes I’d tied her with. “Fine, go on, get out of here,” I told her.

She jumped up, happy to be free, and I thought she was about to run away, okay, actually I kinda thought she was about to skip away. But she just stood there.

“What’re you sticking around for? Get out of here!”

“No. I have to save your life.”

“It’s okay, I’m not holding you to that. Go home!”

“No. I keep my promises.”

“Think of it as you’ll be saving my life by not telling anyone about this.”

“No, you wouldn’t hang just for scaring me a bit.”

“No, I’d hang for the gold.”

She was standing right next to a pile of the coins, and she picked one up and ran it through her fingers. “What gold?”

“Exactly. If you told anyone I was making money, I would hang. So you’re saving my life by not telling anyone. Now go!”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

If I’d really wanted her gone, I could have driven her away at knifepoint. Maybe. Or I could’ve just killed her. But by that point I didn’t figure she was any danger to me, so I didn’t care that much.

So the girl--her name was Ellie, she told me--stuck around. She didn’t quite become part off my crew, since she didn’t do any of the stealing or killing or even working the coin press-- but she was as good as. I introduced her to Fape, my second in command, as my bodyguard.

“What the hell?” he asked. “Her? Really, man, if you need a bodyguard, you can do better.”

“She wants to save my life.”

He guffawed. “Well, I guess it’s better than if she wanted to save your immortal soul.”

We all pretty much just got used to having Ellie around. Nobody ever took the idea that she’d save my life seriously. Until she saved my life, of course.

It happened just about like you’d expect, if you expected it. I was meeting an, erm, client, unarmed, because that’s how that kind of thing goes and they patted me down to make sure. Ellie tagged along. She was also unarmed, of course, I don’t think I ever saw her touch a weapon. I turned over the goods to the man I was meeting. Rather than turning over the money, he pulled a knife.

Before I could even react, Ellie jumped in front of me and punched the man in the nose. He was even more surprised at I was, so Ellie was able to grab the knife easy, and we got out of there.

“I told you I keep my promises,” Ellie told me, and was gone.

That night, our hideout was raided, and we were all arrested. They said they’d been tipped off by a young woman.

Ellie never did promise not to rat us out. I’ll be out in a few months, and I’m still alive. So I don’t hold any grudges.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A More Subtle Conquest

The man opened his eyes, realized that someone was standing over him, and squeezed them shut again. “Please don’t kill me!”
“I hadn’t planned on it.” The voice was calm and sensible, low pitched but definitely female. He didn’t recognize it, but then, if she had been someone he knew, her answer would have been different.
“Heh. That’s a nice change.”
“Who wants to kill you?”
“Everyone. Do you know who I am?”
“My name is Eemtir. They call me Eemtir the Evil. Cute alliteration, huh? Are you surprised that you’re harboring the most dangerous villain ever to set foot in Claurd, much less be a hair away from conquering it?”
“No. I knew.”
“Why did you ask, then?”
“I wanted to see what you’d say,” she said, as if the answer was obvious. “I’m Xahare.”
“Why don’t you want to kill me?”
“You lost, you know.”
“Oh, really? I thought my army was destroyed and I was lying half dead in some stranger’s hovel because I’d won.”
“What do you mean to do now?”
“I doubt I’ll have much choice in the matter,” said Eemtir.
“So you’re just going to wait for your death to find you? Give up?”
Eemtir was silent for a while. “I don’t give up. All I ever wanted was not to be powerless. I was nobody, and I raised an army and stormed the castle and conquered most of the country, and even when my army had been defeated I raised another, a…less human army, and when they were defeated in the end, and I was captured and tortured and about to be executed I managed to escape. Even when I was attacked by people who are no different than I once was except that they seized their power by becoming a mob, I survived. So, no, I’m not going to just lie down and die. But that probably only means I’ll die standing up.”
“But what will you do while you’re standing there waiting to be killed? Run away, or run back towards it?”
“I’m not suicidal. If there was any chance at all that I could still win, I’d take it, but….”
There was silence. Eemtir began to feel tired, but just before he began to drift off, Xahare said, “There is a chance.”
Eemtir would have sat bolt upright at the words, if he hadn’t known the movement would make him sit. But his eyes widened. “No, there’s not.”
“There is.” Her voice held no doubt.
“What? How?”

Xahare shook her head. “I’m not going to tell you that easily. Nothing’s free.”
“What’s your price?”
“You said that all of this was because you didn’t want to be powerless. My price is that you swear that you won’t force that on everyone else.”
“Is that all? I promise.”
“If you don’t keep that promise, you’ll regret it. But yes, that’s all.”
“How, then?”
“What you did was overkill. The whole army of demons and all.”
“That was my last resort. It wasn’t overkill, it wasn’t even enough.”
“You didn’t need all that. There are easier ways to power than conquering a country. If you can summon an army of demons--”
“I didn’t summon them. Everyone talks about the demons, but my first army, the ones that fought most of the war, was human. Most of them were as desperate as I was. They died. All of them. The last man summoned the demons in his dying breath.”
“That explains why you didn’t know how to use them better. You should have used them more subtly, for manipulation rather than battle. Doesn’t matter, though. There are other ways to manipulate.”
“Manipulate who, to do what?”
“The king, of course. He’s old, and he doesn’t have any children; he’ll have to name an heir. A little subtlety and patience is all you’d need.”
Eemtir’s renewed hope fled. “That might have worked once, but not now. He’d never do it, and nobody would accept it if he did.”
“That’s where the manipulation comes in, of course.” Xahare smiled. “I’ll take care of that part.”
“Your soldier wasn’t the only person in the world who could summon. I’m thinking… demons attack the capital, and you rescue it? That should be enough for the general population, if it’s quite clear you had nothing to do with it. You can even make it seem as if your previous… actions weren’t actually your doing.”
So the capital city was besieged by evil spirits, and the king sent a letter demanding that Eemtir the Evil be captured and killed. The king would have met the demand happily, if he could have. The siege lasted four days, and the people, their king among them, cowered in terror. Then a hero marched into the city and drove away the demons. He bowed humbly before the king and apologized profusely for the grave misunderstandings that had caused him to be labeled evil. He asked only to be allowed to serve the king.
The king, and his people, believed it just a bit more easily than they normally would have. Eemtir served faithfully for nearly a year, until the death of the king. At that point, no one was surprised to learn that he’d been named the heir.
And after he’d been ruling Claurd for a few years, it was generally agreed that he was a far better king than his predecessor ever had been, and it was a shame that he’d been misjudged for a while, but it’d turned out all right in the end, hadn’t it?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dream Come True

It may or may not have been the middle of the night. It felt like four in the morning, but my cell in the dungeon was deep underground and let in no light, so I couldn’t have known for sure. I was asleep when the door swung open and two guards grabbed me. I screamed, startled. For a moment I had no idea where I was or what was happening, and when I remembered where I was a second later, it was no comfort. I still had no idea what was going on.
Being dragged out of your bed--even if it's a mat in a cell--in what’s probably the middle of the night is terrifying, and I don’t remember clearly where they brought me, until I was dragged through two great doors, into the throne room.
Not the middle of the night, then, my muddled brain told me. The king wouldn’t be here in the middle of the night, would he? And he was there, sitting on his throne on a platform at the end of the hall, looking down at the room. The guards dragged me towards him, and stopped before the throne. “Here’s the prisoner,” one of the guards said, unnecessarily.
“Unhand her,” the king ordered.
“Your majesty, she’s a thief, she’ll just run.”
The king’s voice went cold. “Unhand her,” he ordered. He said to me, in a softer but no less commanding tone, “Don’t try to run.”
“No, majesty.” My voice trembled, and my knees trembled more. It was a miracle I didn’t collapse to the ground when the guards released me.
“Are you Arlica?”
“Y-yes, majesty.”
“I’m King Torenth, I’m sure you know. Arlica, have you heard the rumor that I’m mad?”
“No, sir. Majesty, I mean. I don’t hear much, locked up and all.”
“It’s an old rumor. The truth behind it is that the kings of Durthia are guided by the gods. They send us dreams, and if we are wise, we act on them.”
I wondered whether he was crazy after all, but of course I didn’t say anything.
“You must be wondering what any of this has to do with you. I just had one of the dreams.” He paused. “The gods want me to marry you.”
“What the hell?” I demanded. Of course I knew better than to speak to the king like that, but I was utterly shocked.
“That was my first reaction as well,” King Torenth admitted. “But I’ve never been misguided before, and the dream was… emphatic, and urgent. I would never force you to marry me, but if you agree you’ll be doing a great service to your country, and to me.”
And to myself, I thought. The king didn’t seem like a bad person, whether or not he was crazy, and being a queen would beat being stuck in a prison cell by far. “Yes.”
“We should be married as soon as possible. I think I mentioned the dream seemed urgent. That’s why I had you brought here at this hour, as soon as I woke up from the dream.”
“So it is the middle of the night!” I couldn’t help but say.
Torenth looked at me, probably wondering about my intelligence as much as I was worrying about his sanity. “That’s why it’s dark out.” And there were windows in this room, and it was dark outside, the room only dimly lit by torches.
“I’m used to it; I didn’t notice. When are we going to be married?”
“Is next Tuesday too soon for you? Some of the court ladies will help you arrange for your dress and… I don’t know, whatever else, and my staff will arrange the ceremony.”
“I don’t have any plans.”
Torenth had the guards escort me to an empty suite in the castle, where despite everything I slept soundly. The next week was nonstop preparations.
The wedding was larger than I expected, though I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course people wanted to see their king get married and get a glimpse of the mysterious bride. It was outdoors, so there was plenty of room, and apparently Torenth, or more likely, his staff, had expected such crowds, because there was more than enough food. I didn’t trip as I walked down the aisle, I didn’t fumble over my vows, and the kiss was breathtaking.
I was surprised at how well things were turning out. My only expectations had been that this would be better than the dungeon, but now I began to think that I could actually be happy. I still wasn’t quite sure about a man who would get married based on a dream, but everyone has their quirks.
Nothing in the next few months spoiled my happiness. Though my new position took a lot of getting used to, I liked being queen. Not just being free and having everything I could want, but helping rule a kingdom as well. I liked judging problems and making political decisions. I liked my husband as well. My life was a dream come true, and not just literally.
Torenth and I had been married for three months when I found out for sure that he wasn’t crazy, or even, as I’d thought was probably the case, seeing his inner self in the dreams.
I’d gone to sleep, and then there was a light, very bright but not at all blinding. Everything was very clear, not only clearer than dreams usually are, but clearer than life, even. I sensed a presence, and after trying to observe whatever it was, sensed it pushing me towards something, so I allowed it to. I looked where I was guided, and saw my bedroom. Torenth was asleep. The door swung open and two men came in, then three more, guards who had been stationed outside our room, but I couldn’t see their faces. They were all armed, and very quickly they went to the bed and killed Torenth. And then I could see outside, a dark swirl of fighting and blood and destruction and death. “No!” I screamed.
“No!” I woke screaming, repeating, “No!” But Torenth was next to me, alive, wakened by my screams. “It can’t happen!” Torenth tried to comfort me, but all I could see was the dream. I knew in my mind and my heart that it was no ordinary dream, that it was true, or would be, or maybe, hopefully, would be only if I couldn’t prevent it.
I wondered if you’d have them,” Torenth said after a while.
“The dreams. They’re not hereditary, they come to the ruler of Durthia.”
“Can they… be stopped?”
I told him what I saw. We stayed up the rest of the night, discussing how to prevent what I’d seen. Have only the most trusted guards, keep weapons at our bedside…. The best thing, we agreed, would be to find and stop the plot before it got that far.
We kept our eyes peeled for an hint of anything, and we found it. Nothing solid, but there was an ominous undercurrent to the normal rumors and gossip. The chaos I’d seen at the end of the dream would come, if Torenth and I couldn’t prevent it. And we’d have to be alive to prevent it.
We did everything we could, but there really wasn’t much we could do. And then, one night, the dream came again, or rather, the dream light came, and a voice saying urgently, “Go! Now!” and then I was awake.
Though everything seemed as normal, I knew that they were coming, would burst into the room with swords at any moment. Torenth must have had the same dream, because he was also awake and looking around frantically. I grabbed a knife, jumped out of bed, and ran to the darkest corner of the room. Torenth started to do the same, but just as he’d stood up the door burst open and they came in, just as in my dream. Except that in the dream he’d been laying down, so at least something had changed.
Queens don’t usually act as bodyguards for their husbands, but then, most queens don’t grow up fighting in the streets. I pounced, stabbing the man closest to Torenth in the back. Torenth grabbed a weapon and was fighting one, one was still in the doorway, blocked by the others, and the other two went for me. I tried to fight them with my knife, but they both had swords. Desperately, I grabbed for any thing, and came up with a vase that had been on the nightstand. I swung it over the guard’s head. He hadn’t been expecting it and fell to the ground covered in shards of broken pottery. Torenth stabbed at the other one, who spun around, giving me the chance to stab him in the back as well. And that was all of them; Torenth had gotten two while I was busy. We weren’t dead. I couldn’t muster up much more feeling than mild surprise.
“That’s not the end, you know,” I told Torenth.
“You think there’ll be more of them?”
I shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. But that wasn’t… the main point, I guess. I’m not sure how to say it, but our lives are just… incidental. Not to me, I mean, but… you know what I mean. The whole country’s going to go up in flames, metaphorically and quite possibly physically, unless we can stop it.”
“Then we’ll stop it.”