Hallow the Ground

He pivoted left letting the blade pass harmlessly a breath from his ribs and felt their rage and terror pour into him. Tass peeled his lips back from his teeth. “Storms take the dead,” He hissed.  The knife blade came again and Tass parried it away with his own, grinning at the scarred monk desperately trying to stop him.

Their feet slid on the blood-soaked grass as they fought. The scarred man was the first to stand against him. The devotees, weaponless and resting within the sacred grove, had not suspected the danger. Now, their corpses floated in the grove’s sparkling pools.

The monk charged him.

Tass scored a deep cut to the monk’s side as the scarred man rushed forward but was knocked to the ground under the charge. Tass struggled beneath the monk’s weight, his sword arm pinned between them. Around them, a few remaining devotees shivered at the violence, so common outside, but unheard of under the sacred grove’s fiery autumn leaves. They didn’t know what to do. Tass grunted, and then wheezed a laugh, “As useless as the dead you worship, I’ll send you to them!”

Their glaring fear and offense were worth withstanding the solemn still air of the place. Worth the scarred monk’s snarl an inch from his face as they stared at each other across knife blades.  Worth the growing murmurs of power around him–

Tass shoved the bleeding monk off and sprung to his feet, flipping the knife in his hands. Someone had joined the devotees ringing the clearing, a girl dressed in muddy yellow. She faced him with firmly-planted bare feet on the bloody ground, a shallow vessel of clean water cradled in her arms. The air did not feel still anymore.

Around her, the devotees had stopped quavering. They stared at Tass, calm hate grounding their stance. Tass felt his glee wash away like summer dust in the season’s first rainfall.

“What are you doing?” Tass demanded of the girl, advancing. “Stop it.”

The girl met his eyes and raised the cistern to her lips. He stalked forward, intending to knock the water away and slip the knife deep into her unprotected side. Unshaken by his sudden threat, she didn’t move. The air thickened and the smell of a storm grew.

Tass hesitated at the sudden change. The moment cost him. A scarred arm wrapped around his throat, a callused hand caught his wrist, a knife pressed itself to his kidney. The scarred monk dragged Tass back and the girl’s devotees surged forward to help.

Through all this, she drank from the vessel, eyes locked on his and pure water dribbling down her chin. Tass tried to struggle, to scream, but he could not find the sound or the rage to fuel it. The sun above the crimson leaves was warm, the smell of a brewing rainstorm lay heavy in the air, the afternoon bells from the distant market chimed with a sweet harmony. He felt–calm.

He met the girl’s eyes, pleading, as they pulled him away. She did not relent and the  sudden peace smothered him.

I stole this line from The Gate in the Wood as part of the Legal Theft Project. See the original here, and the rest here. A thief is rarely content with condoned thievery and so I have borrowed the scarred monk from More than 1/2 Mad as well. 

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Smoke and Stock

“So, after all that, you don’t care?” Calico dabbed at the gooey blood matting his boss’s mangled eyebrow. The eyesocket, red and swollen now, would be an ugly purple tomorrow. Laid out on the floor, Proper’s messy hair fanned around his face in a dark halo. He stared dully at the sagging ceiling beams and Calico shifted nervously next to him, glass crunching under his knees.

“Not very much, no,” Proper said after a minute of numb silence.

Calico breathed out in relief as Proper pushed himself up from the floor. A fresh rush of bright red dribbled out of Proper’s crookedly broken nose. He snatched the dingy rag from Calico and pressed it to his face.

“Someone’ll have take stock.” Proper mumbled through the rag. He looked around and realized he and Calico were the only people left to do so. Proper stood, swaying when his vision narrowed.

The air was smoky, but the haze carried the earthy smell of campfire instead of the sweet caustic scents that normally filled his establishment. Even his regulars, usually deadened to most in the world, had bolted when the windows shattered, kicked in by boots and guns. A week of profits, as well as the powders, herbs, and thick syrups the den plied were long gone, vanished with the roar of motorcycles.

“You seemed to care a lot, talking back to Blues like that.” Calico ducked behind their makeshift, and now splintered bar. “Storms, she took everything, even the hooch. Proper?”

His boss, half up the narrow stairs, had stopped on a charred step. The top level of the gambling den, which housed Proper’s quarters and personal collections, was a blackened mess. From his vantage point below, he could make out the destroyed bookshelves. Not all the volumes had been lost to flame, others had been shredded by hand. Proper bent to pick up a singed page.  The downstairs hadn’t been burned, only looted.

Calico looked up at Proper from the bottom of the stairs. “Blues might have left all that alone if you hadn’t given the lip.”

Proper turned slowly, staring down his last remaining employee. “Get out Calico.”

“What? Proper, I’m the one that stayed to make sure you didn’t choke on your own blood.” Calico protested.

“I don’t care, get out,” Proper said and continued up the landing. Calico swore at the now empty stairs, grabbed a half-crushed twist of herb from the carpet, and stalked out of the ruined den.

This week’s first line has been stolen from Bek as part of the Legal Theft Project. 

Gargoyles and Gunmetal

He capered across the wall, and those rising to start their tasks looked away from him. The new morning sun shone off the buckles and rings that adorned his chest, flashing as he moved from foot to foot and then hand to hand, untroubled by the reluctant audience below.

One particular spectator kept the glinting metal cornered in her vision. His bright display was unusual within the bleak walls and thick stone buildings she’d slowly come to call her home. He was manic as the sun in summer, piercing the cold and burning up the clouds. Still, she refused to stare, lest he thought his stalking presence cowed her like the common laborers.

She did stiffen when he stopped his odd patrol to neatly perch over one of the settlement gates. There, he tilted his head down so his diamond-patterned mask grinned at those who sought to pass through the arch into or out of the holding. She pulled up the tattered swath of gray cloth already looped around her shoulders, covering her head and casting her own mask in shadow. Only then did she approach the gate.

On the heels of a departing merchant wagon, she took cover behind the shoulders of those anxious for an early start. Layers of mottled black and charcoal cloth blended her adolescent frame into the cold stone and drab crowd. She did not know if above the gargoyle of a man noticed her passing, but she took note of the shudder that passed through her fellow travelers.

Beneath her own gunmetal mask, pale lips twitched. She didn’t shiver with the herd around her, but could appreciate the effect.

A thief always, but a thief in good company now. Having stolen a first line from More than 1/2 Mad‘s post, I’ve written my own with it. Perhaps others have as well. See them at the Legal Theft Project

The Right Machinery

He’d gotten the idea staring into the pod’s green glass. Its exterior was only mildly reflective; his dark image on its surface seemed to stare out from within like a ghost trapped inside. The plan had formed from there, changing from hope to scheme to design. Until it had become an untested prototype in the corner of his workshop.

Taller than himself, wrapped in burlap and protective plastic, the pod was ready for the next fog. His fingers ached any time he walked past.

It’d taken the better part of a year to find the materials in decent condition, months after that to trace the scintillating wires and their arcane purposes, more time still to turn the emerging machine it to his own purposes. Created long ago to hold people and keep them alive, most of the pods had broken at the end of the golden age and failed their occupants, turning them wraiths. Now lashed to the world only by memory, these ghosts emerged from the fog that formed them, inscrutable, untouchable, and miserable.

He’d seen a potential in his reflection on the glass. Containment was the answer. If he could hold the wraiths, study their memories, question their seemingly ceaseless mourning, then maybe he could understand how they’d come to be. It was not their deaths that intrigued him. Death was easy to explain. Bodies broke, insides malfunctioned, only so many things could be replaced.

Death didn’t interest him, it was final. But suffering? Suffering he could work with, suffering could be tinkered with, inspected, and potentially fixed with the right machinery.

In his experience, you learned things from pain.

He intended to learn from theirs.

Reflecting Flame

Some folk turn savage. The world steps on them enough and their eyes get weird, dull or too bright. Others though, they come out crying and bloody that way. Whatever the thing was that kept most souls from swearing, stealing, and killing whenever the mood struck,  these people were not blessed or cursed with it. Everyone knew early, she was one of those that was missing it.

Not even four years alive, finally sure-footed on dirt scuffed legs, she pushed over a barrel of fish and stomped until guts squelched between her toes.  She wailed when they grabbed her away from the stinking carnage. Her village went hungry that night.

In her seventh year, she destroyed a fishing boat as it bobbed on the dock. After tossing a pilfered gas can and a smidge of burning peat into an unattended vessel, fire filled the hull and the little boat bobbed helplessly in the river. When they caught her in silhouette before the flames, she could not wrench her eyes away from the slowly drowning fire.

A decade on the earth, she was set to tasks of cleaning the catch and repairing nets with the other children. She was lazier than some, less than others, but the fishers never scolded her when she snuck away to stomp ant hills or throw rocks at trees. Better the ants and the squirrels than their nets, fish, or own little ones.

Fourteen brought curves to her hips and lit sparks in her eyes. The men of the village took note, and the boys stopped thinking in straight lines around her.  Eventually, one of them tried to force a particular crooked thought. They found him with caved in skull and her with bloody boots. She laughed at their open mouths and offered them the lit twist of herb she’d taken from his pocket.

Those with tastes for flame, bloody boots, and whatever they felt like taking in the moment are welcome in few places. Somewhere around her sixteenth year when the hooch went missing and the village elder’s eye was purple from her fist, everyone with a say convened to discuss what was to be done. They could run her out and risk a flame-filled return. They could apologize to her mum and poison her fish. They could hand her a spear and point upriver at the holder they suspected of cutting their nets. Savagery had its place and its uses.

Little was decided and few left the discussion pleased. The elders needn’t have worried. They wouldn’t have to contend with her budding brutality long.

Had the fishers been out on the river, the sound would have scattered the fish. As it was, everyone woke from their mats as the roar of machines and gleeful bedlam filled the village.

The bandits’ bikes belched exhaust and rolls of smokey fire stretching from the shack roofs into the sky. With little to loot besides reeking fish, the bandits sated themselves with destruction and the few people they could grab. The unlucky were slung over the backs of their bikes.

She was one of them, carried off into the night in a chorus of obscene cheers and guttural engine roaring. As quickly as they’d descended, they left to the next hapless place that had things to take and people to brutalize. Back at the riverside, the survivors picked themselves up and began the slow process of burying the dead and naming the gone. Her mother whispered her name into the wet river sand.

Only later, once the fish returned and the boats bobbed in the water again, people began to talk. Speaking behind their hands, they whispered that she’d not been taken. Instead, she had climbed willingly on to one of the terrible machines with the light of the burning village in her eyes.  Most did not believe it, but everyone remembered the way her eyes reflected flame so well.

It was my turn to pick the music for this week’s challenge, and I chose Franz Ferdinand’s The Fallen. Check out what Raw Rambles wrote with this song in mind. I started with the song and ended up far away. 

Flash Fiction: Pear Blossom and Ash

The bonfire cast the town square in crimson, stretching the dancers’ shadows over the ring of cabins. They looked like demons, black against red, prancing at their master’s feet. Rhyme turned away from the fire.

No one called him to dance or drink with them, and he did not think he would accept if any had. The morning would come soon, and their sweet apple wines and honey brews promised a sour stomach. The road back to home was a long one.

They did not want him, unsmiling and silent, to sit beside them while they drank the day’s labor away. Better to sing and dance with the others, the outsiders who brought sleek gifts and light stories. Rhyme had no such stories. He contented himself, and them, by finding a space outside the circle.

Though Rhyme, with his back to a tree and now free of the fire’s throbbing heat, admitted the place had its charms. If he closed his eyes he could better pick out the scents of pear blossom and overturned dirt from the smell of ash. It was like home, he thought. Not the one he would travel towards in the morning, but the one he could only remember when he closed his eyes.

Rhyme had not been there when that home had been overtaken by the stink of fire and ash. But with the bonfire so close, he could imagine.

Something Blue

“Something old, something new,” Lively intoned, letting her fingers complete the work while she hummed the rhyme. She folded up her spare shirt and tucked it into her rucksack. A frayed scarf and copper necklace followed it as Lively mouthed the spell’s words, “something borrowed, something blue.”

Lively twirled a coil of her hair around her finger as she eyed the bag. It was barely half-full, sagging on the straw cot Lively shared with her sister. There was nothing else to pack. Everything else Lively owned, she wore now. Her canvas work pants and thick-soled shoes would do well on the road, the warm flannel shirt would hold off the chill when she wasn’t with her new husband.

They were set to leave this morning, before the sun could rise behind the clouds and turn the black night into another grey day. The harvest would continue then, after she left the neat rows of pear trees and near-wild blackberry patches behind for others to work. Lively’s betrothed was anxious to get back to his home.

“A sixpence in your shoe.” She finished the rhyme with a small huff of breath. The spell was supposed to bring a bride luck, a silly assortment of words to protect Lively as she left her fields for his chugging factories and ruins of the old world. Lively pursed her lips and grabbed the strap of her rucksack. It was light. There was room for more.

Whatever a sixpence was, Lively wanted more assurance than a whispered rhyme to an empty cot and a near-empty rucksack. She took the pack with her and left the cabin. The new morning air tasted wet and the path was dark, but Lively knew the way to Ozair’s workshop well.