Soldier’s Fall

The woods waited for her, everyday she passed the ancient sickly trunks, she felt the wind still with their bated breath. When Olivia had been younger, her mother had walked down past the trees with her, to where their long dirt road met the paved county one. The woods still waited, but her mother’s damp hand had led her resolutely past them and onto the school bus.

Now on her way to the high school, she walked alone and the trees stretched their shadows over her riding boots. The wind dropped and let the lingering summer sun warm the dirt. In the silence, Olivia could hear the whisper of leaf on leaf. She could picture the spongy earth and hidden black water pools that waited beyond the pale wood, though she had never heeded its murmur to see for herself. Sometimes they called, threatened with groaning branches, but mostly they stilled with a deep rooted patience.

Olivia’s hands gripped the straps of her backpack, a shield on the back of wearied soldier. The gate was distant, a smear on the horizon, and the woods waited beside the road as they always had.

She’d told one person of the strange trees and the way they waited for her. In the corner of their journalism class, Olivia had told Lane about the sallow woods and the shadow they’d cast over Olivia for as long as she could remember. Her friend listened with flat eyes through all of it, and then said she’d never heard of anything like that. The subject was dropped and Olivia felt stupid, until she walked home that afternoon and the trees shook softly, laughing with their papery dead autumn leaves.

It could have been weeks after that, or days. Olivia felt it settle over her, a life in terms of this watched dirt road, in the sky above reaching branches, in the distant rustling always just beyond her bedroom windows. She’d kept them waiting.

The next morning she left home for school, but midway down that road she let her backpack slide off her shoulders. She raised her face to the sickly trees, letting tears shake her body, she was tired, they waited, they waited for her. Her riding boots sunk into the mud and created prints others might follow. Olivia pushed herself towards the tree line gasping like a struggling swimmer towards a water’s surface.

The woods welcomed her.

 

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Sweet in Summer

Spiget reached her fingers past the curling sweetbriar for the blackberry. It came away ripe and easy, but before she could bring it to her lips, a soil-stained hand slapped her wrist. Spiget squeaked and the berry fell to the mud. Spiget glared at her assailant, feeling lines rise over the backs of her hands from the thorns’ cruel edges.

Lively sighed. “No black-caps after Goosefeast. The cold poisons them,” the ember-haired woman explained and picked up her spade again, bending to continue their work slicing at the bramble.

“Never heard that—it’s a weed sure tell, but the berries are sweet.” But Spiget didn’t reach her fingers into the bramble again, instead going to knees to dig at the roots with her little trowel.

“In summer. In winter, black thorn, black cap, black lips.” Lively sang softly with exhales of breath, plump arms corded with hidden muscle as she brought her spade against tangled fiber and leaf. They worked well over the hour, clearing and raking the ground for the deep roots. When they stood, breathing heavy mist into the fall air, they surveyed the little cleared patch and the still tall bushes of thorn and fruit that crept closer to the holding’s modest fields.

Lively’s shook her head, hair escaping her braids in fiery tendrils. “Who let these creepers so close? Their roots will choke anything in spring-plant.”

“The woods grow with them, grew up getting sticked by the thorns,” said Spiget, her dress was soaked up to her waist in mud and she began to shiver in the cold. She looked about for her yellow plastic coat. “Utah kept them growing tall about her station not far from here, for the rabbits that hide inside, and the thorns.” Spiget pointed to where the abandoned radio station hid behind the deep trees. The old blackberry thicket was so thick, no one could approach Utah’s but through the main path kept burned clear. It had served the diminutive radio host well in her past feuds with the holding.

“Utah?” Lively’s darkly-freckled cheeks were already red with the work, but the flush crept down her neck. She jerked off her leather gloves and spiked them onto the ground. “That poisonous – no wonder they grow so strong. Mark me, the weed’ll creep into the holding, just as she has.”

Spiget’s smile was hesitant. “Utah didn’t creep, she sickens bad in winter so she was invited to move inside the walls,” she reminded the holder’s wife gently. “Peaceful like.”

“And we’ll reap that. Same as we’ll reap this.” Lively waved a hand towards the threatened fields. She picked up her spade and gloves, face held tight, and stalked towards the primitive gate between the makeshift fence of concrete rubble.

Spiget watched the retreating muddy figure and her determined, furious pace. She went about gathering her coat and her tools, bundling them for easy transport back to Concord. The red lines across her hand still stung, and Spiget made a quiet bet on who would win out in the end, Lively or — the blackberries.

Prey Drive

For context, check out the earlier piece Half-Time.  My posting schedule has been decimated by dissertation writing, so these will be going up at best once a week in the future. 

Don’t walk too fast, Vera reminded herself as her boots hit sticky concrete. What had her brother said– teenagers have high prey drives. They see you running scared and they can’t help but lunge.

The bleachers were hard to navigate. Shambling packs of Vera’s schoolmates clogged the lower walkway that led onto the field, calling out to the players as the game started its second half and the cheerleaders brandished glittering pom-poms between them.

Vera watched between heads and shoulders as she walked, searching for a particular number to flash out on the field. He’d offered her a ride in the middle of a thunderstorm and Vera, not realizing how often the storms were in this state, had refused in favor of walking. The rumbling of the sky then had carried down into her rib cage and it’d felt momentous, elemental, enough not to be hurried though. Vera winced, it’d thundered all the next week.

She wondered who he’d told.

The stadium concession vendor was at the top of the field, equally spaced between the home and visitor bleachers. Even if she walked with bored stroll of a senior, Vera had a lot of time before her family might worry.

Fifteen minutes later she was sipping a cherry soda and meandering back, trying to ignore how everyone else walked in pairs, when the path ahead of the bleachers devolved into fight. The crowd surged too quickly for Vera to see whether drunk students or drunk parents were to blame. Vera stopped and narrowed her eyes at the circled, hooting, onlookers. Many of them were adults.

She took the path that would lead her around the back of the bleachers, dark beside the yellow lamps turning the concrete and metal various shades of yellow and shadow. Now blocked from the field and the fight, the game’s noise became a distant thrum without meaning.

Vera thought she was alone at first, until a lighter clicked alive beneath the metal risers. Little groups milled and leaned against the web of cross-beams, dodging the spilt drinks and popcorn from above. She smelled weed smoke and could make out low sniggers of laughter and hushed conversation. Her pause was noted when shadowed faces lit by cigarette ends and phone screens turned to stare her down.

With a start, Vera realized she was staring back and felt her insides wither with embarrassment. She almost bolted, heedless of the instinctual teenage hatred of weakness. A girl emerged partially from the dark to lean forearms on the crossbeam between them. Dark curly hair fell out of her hood and down over her shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face with too much eyeliner. Her smile wasn’t particularly friendly, but it didn’t have the slit-eyed glee the more popular kids had when they descended on their prey.

“How was that thunderstorm?” The girl asked.

Vera groaned audibly.

Unliving Walls

He expected to be kept up by the noise.

The city had possessed its share- clatters and cracks, shrieks of steel, human, cobblestone, and stray that blended together into a giant hum that could not out scream the rush of water and engine. And he’d found it difficult to sleep there– and more difficult to dream of anything beyond his banal days and studies.

But this was the country. It was supposed to have its own music– or so the poets and critics promised him. The howls of wind and wild things scraping across treetops and window panes.

The Court– for this place was more than a house- did not breath. His inheritance lacked the inappreciable shrinking of wood and iron that caused a house to sigh and crack at night. There was too much stone, he rationalized, great ancient stone his ancestors had built unliving walls with. The Court stood silent and stalwart.

Against his pillows, beneath the coverlet, muffled within the great house’s layers, the worry over sleep was fleeting. The shadows that pooled in the corners deadened any upsetting light, its walls kept sound and alarm from his ears. Nothing disturbed his fall into the sharp-edged dream.

Lessons Learned

I blame the storm. With great cracks of lightning cracking against the school spires and thunder rolling over us, they ushered us inside our rooms. The accommodations were generous for a boarding school, which I only learned later. Then the drably dressed beds and functional solid desks were insulting alternatives to our private rooms at townhome and estate.

Immune to our whines and protests, the staff secured us safely to watch the storm from out arched windows, curled up on the sill as best as twelve-year old legs would allow.

I had the luck of rooming with my best friend that year. Philip was a soulful-eyed boy with floppy blond hair and a meandering way of talking no one liked outside myself. He was slow, not particularly good at games but I was obsessed with the way his hair fell over his forehead and the manner in which he chewed his pencil in thought. The unkind in our class likened him to a basset hound and once I gathered the bravery to tell them off about it. I felt good about myself for a long time afterward imagining Philip’s gratitude.

I liked Philip.

Thunder rattled the glass as we peered, heads and backs bowed close to fit into the window, into the grey evening torrent. I pointed to the distant smokestacks illuminated with each electric strike with overplayed thrill, trying to make the event more momentous, more special. Philip watched the storm immune to me. Very quietly he told me he’d seen someone who’d died from lightning. A worker from one of his father’s farms, the boy had been struck and covered with branching burns.

I told him we would be safe inside, but when none of the round fear left his already sad eyes, I closed the inch between us and kissed him. It was a quick thing, slotting lip against lip, clumsy I am sure. He did nothing and I pulled away, giddy panic drowning out my excitement over the thunder and rain.

Philip got up and walked to the door, leaving before I could say anything or try again. Philip told the headmaster, or whoever eventually told the headmaster at least, because only an hour later I was called into the schools nicest thick-carpeted office and sat down in front of a looming oiled desk. The headmaster asked for my story, and even then, I knew enough to say nothing had happened. Though I did make sure to mention that I still liked Philip, just in case my words got back to my friend.

The headmaster nodded with the beady look people get when they learn my last name. Its greed, but I only learned that later. The headmaster told me he would keep the incident to himself, but that I should remember his discretion. My promise to do so was more placating than honest, I wanted to go, find Philip, and tell him how I had defended him that one time.

I didn’t get to. Philip’s things were gone when I returned to my room. His name not as old as mine, his money not so landed, his parent’s invitations not desired. Philip was gone and stayed that way.  It was a careless thing I did, yet another thing I’ve realized looking back.

Two years later I kissed a girl at a pub I never should have been at. I liked her less than Philip, and it went considerably better. I suppose lessons learned.

Rescued

Make sure to read what happened before this, HERE. 

“Orion?” Roshan gasped when the hood was removed and the gag was pulled from his mouth. He was still shivering, from the cold night, the wet dock, and his friend’s terrible words twisting the air. How had — Roshan blinked at the interior of the rocking carriage. It was just him and his sharp-faced friend. “What happened?”

“You got captured by pirates, I rescued you, you’re welcome.” Orion said, looking strange in just shirtsleeves. Roshan frowned, and then realized that was because he was wearing his friend’s fine dark coat awkwardly like a blanket.

Slowly, Roshan leaned forward and hugged his stomach, making sure the placement of the garment still preserved the little dignity to be had. This was bad, he could feel Orion’s concerned gaze. He was safe, but– “Does my family know–”

Orion shook his head. “I intercepted the ransom letter. They think you are on some surprise fieldwork.”

“Good.” Roshan jerked his head up. “Wait, do you… read my mail?”

“It was their mail, but yes. You’re welcome.” Orion said the last sentence pointedly and then waited, sighing when Roshan remained too stunned to thank him properly. Orion leaned an elbow against the carriage window’s shallow ledge, reclining back. “Your wife doesn’t know about the piratical pleasure cruise either– when did the expedition sour?”

Roshan winced. “Shortly. She was smarter than I thought.”

“That captain? Not by enough.” Orion’s grin flashed cruel in a passing light from outside the carriage, twisting the mage’s face into something that made Roshan consider decking him. The moment passed, Roshan was naked with only his friends coat and carriage to cover him, and only because Orion had–

Roshan fixed his friend with a blank stare, it was easier than dealing with what’d just happened on the dock or the smug cruelty Orion was capable of.  “You didn’t get the letter. There is no way. Who was it?”

A long pause. Orion was more tired than he let on, because after only a moment more he conceded, “Roth.”

“Roth hates you.” Roshan parried back incredulous. The light argument was helping. He could focus on that instead of the reality bending spell Orion had upended the dock with. He couldn’t have done too much damage, Roshan rationalized. Vael was probably fine, pissed as hell itself, but fine.

Orion shrugged, a slow roll of his shoulder. The gesture was needlessly dismissive — and his friends expressionless chill was too purposeful. Orion usually collected people’s loathing like a prize, and prided himself on his ability to get under other’s skin. Roshan’s comment hadn’t elicited the triumphant grin it should have.

Normally he would have pressed the point, but Orion looked drawn, and his careless lounge against the carriage side was sagging. Instead, Roshan flashed teeth. “I am sorry I worried you. I know how empty your life would be without me, truly bereft.”

The tease roused Orion, and the mage rolled his eyes animatedly. “Your cocky for someone without any pants.”

 

A Red Flag in a Black Sky

Vael sniffed and spit as she watched the carriage roll up on the distant dockside road. This business was costing her a moonless night any smuggler would sell their own mother for. Vael ran a thumb over the spiked chin hooked and looped at her hip. Behind her, as agitated as its mistress, The Scorpion creaked and refused to settle quietly at its mooring. No human eye could see the red flag snapping at the mast, it looked as black as the sky.

Her second mate, newly promoted after the last had got himself caught and hung, grumbled beside her when the carriage stopped and the silhouette of a someone stepped down. Several other, much larger, figures detached themselves from the back of the carriage. Not one among them was wearing skirts.

“Thought this sod’s family was all women,” her second mate growled as he lurched a clumsy kick at the naked and hooded man at Vael’s feet. The captive’s cry was muffled by a gag, but he curled in on himself, shaking with pain and cold.

Vael caught her mate’s arm, fingers digging hard, stopping him before he could land another kick. The others were just down the dock now.  “Fuck if I care. They have the ransom, we take their money. Don’t bruise the goods,” she grumbled, black eyes fixed on the small group approaching them. Vael stepped forward and crossed her arms in way of greeting.

The man leading the group was young, with a long straight nose that would have looked better, in Vael’s opinion, had it been broken a few times. His clothes were dark, making the silver clasps at his throat and sleeves glint all the brighter. The hired men behind him had well-made coats and boots, meaning they were well-paid muscle. That lord dipped his head, the polite gesture ruined by a critical twitch of his mouth. “Good evening.”

“Sure is.” Vael spit again and enjoyed the flash of disgust it evoked. “We sent the letter to his family. Never mentioned a brother.”

“I’m a friend.” His eyes flicked down at the captive next to Vael. “Did you have to take his clothes?” The lord asked.  The captive jerked his head up at the dry voice, gurgled surprise failing to escape the gag or the hood intelligible.

“He had some nice pants.” Vael shrugged, she and her second mate sharing a small chuckle. “Pleasant fucking evening as it is for a chat, you gonna pay?”

The lord lolled an hand, and on signal one of his own stepped forward with a chest and her crewman took it almost reverently. When another of the lord’s men bent to reach for the captive, Vael stomped a foot in his way, sliding her hip and leg to block him. “Nope. We count first.” She snapped, addressing the lord.

“Not a trusting sort?” The lord smirked.

“No one pays when they don’t have to.” Vael grinned back wide enough to show eye-teeth.

“Smart.”

It was something in his voice, the gloating tone of someone about to light a fuse. Vael tensed, hand going to the spiked chain waiting at her hip right as her mate swore and dropped the empty chest on the dock.

Vael snarled,  the lord’s men grabbed for the captive, and the young Lord stepped back mouth murmuring words that twisted the air around Vael. Discordant and impossible, the strange language made her want to claw her ears off. “Mage!” She managed to roar, summoning fury against the madness that had her second mate whimpering on his knees. Her lunge forward turned to a lurch when the dock vanished under her feet. She fell with a splash, swallowed by the water.

Wrath turned to panic as brine flooded her nose and mouth, the spiked chain she’d reached for still looped around her waist. The magicked dock– what was left of it– was so close, she could imagine the lord– the mage smirking down at the upset water and the flash of red deep below. The chain would not unclasp under her panicked fingers, and it dragged her down and down.